Ellis Amdur: On Aikido

Ellis Amdur has been training in aikido and other martial arts for close to 50 years. In addition to practicing traditional arts like koryu bujutsu, he has also worked on projects to apply principles derives from classical martial arts traditions to modern law enforcement. A prolific writer, his nonfiction works span topics including tactical de-escalation of dangerous interpersonal situations as well as histories and analyses of Japanese martial arts; his latest work in this field is a new edition of Hidden in Plain Sight, which is about esoteric power development techniques in Japanese martial combatives. His fictional works include historical fiction set in the Japanese Meiji period and a graphic novel co-written with speculative fiction authors Neal Stephenson and Mark Teppo, and historian Charles Mann. Ellis sat down with Aikido Journal to discuss the evolution of Japanese martial arts, their role in the present and future, and his insights into aikido’s past. This portion of the interview is the third in a three-part series, and has been edited for length and clarity. Part one is here, and part two can be found here


Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Tell me your thoughts on aikido. You’ve known and trained with many of the greats in the aikido world, but you have a very broad martial arts background outside of aikido. So what’s your current perspective?

Ellis Amdur: I don’t consider myself an aikido guy. But aikido brought me into my adult world. It brought me to Japan. It brought me to the arts that I most love, and I feel a debt to aikido that I have to somehow give back that I haven’t felt from other martial arts I’ve done. I practiced aikido intensively for  a period of about five years during which I was training probably six hours a day. Just very intense for that period of time, and many years later, actually after I wrote Dueling with O-Sensei, some people asked me to come to their aikido dojo and teach. It felt like, “I’ve not done this in forever,” but I started coming almost as like a guest, it was rewarding for both sides. For the members of the aikido schools, I offered a unique perspective that they were immediately able to integrate into what they were doing. I wasn’t trying to change them in the least – rather, to offer them information they could use. For me, I began to discover merit in aikido that I hadn’t seen before. Among that was the idea that aikido was, beyond all else, a method of the development of a fluid, connected body, a concept often referred to as ‘internal strength.’

Through this return as a visitor to aikido, I’ve gotten so much. I’ve been able to meet a lot of dedicated, very fine people. Through some of these contacts and through my own work, aikido once again became a gateway for me—this time in researching the foundation of internal strength training as something that once was prevalent throughout Japanese martial arts. And finally, I have been able to engage in one of the best experiences of my martial arts life, a collaboration with Bruce Bookman. Bruce and I started cross-training together: he was teaching me some BJJ and I was teaching him some Araki-ryu. One day, we started exploring the possibilities of the jo, and from that we initiated a project, using five foot long staves. We wanted to develop five two-person forms that have the following qualities:

  • They have martial virtue. We used elements from everything both of us have trained to encase within these forms.
  • Each of the five forms concentrates on different principles: They work at different ma-ai, and they are meant to emphasize, and therefore develop, different skills.
  • They are reversible. At the end of each form, you find yourself continuing with uke and tori reversing roles. Each form is an ‘endless loop.’
  • They contribute to the development of Bruce’s aikido and that of his aikido students. This is kind of like a ‘frame’ around the picture. It’s not enough that the techniques are good. They have to enhance the skills of the Tenzan Dojo students.
  • They are ‘open-source.’ They can be adapted to other systems and still be viable. For example, by changing certain parameters, I am able to make them pure Araki-ryu and we are using them within several of my Taikyoku Araki-ryu groups.

Some might have found my statement at the beginning of this a little effusive, but I cannot begin to say how valuable an experience this has been. If you think about it, the origin story of most martial arts is of a solitary master creating something. Sometimes you have a story of a collaboration, like Tomiki Kenji and Ohba Hideo, but even there, Tomiki sensei was definitely the elder, the teacher, and Ohba sensei the student. Bruce and I, on the other hand, are absolutely eye-to-eye, and we each bring different skills and perspective. It is such a wonderful experience to work through things together, to be proven wrong in my assumptions by someone who is, in many areas, more knowledgeable than I, to work this out, to be able at the end of each day to say, “We did this.”

As for aikido itself, as Winston Churchill said in a completely different context, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The first thing is, we’ve got this guy, Ueshiba Morihei (the founder of aikido), who practiced a rather mystifyingly elaborate martial art, Daito-ryu, which has got more hand-to-hand techniques in its curriculum than any jujutsu school in Japan. I mean, every possible elaboration became another technique. Plus this aspect of internal strength training, which were teachings that were confined to a very few, either because very few people were paying attention, or it was taught to very few. Then you get Ueshiba, who’s got this overlay of a neo-Shinto ideology.

Araki-ryu bakken

Morihei Ueshiba saw himself as an avatar, a redemptive avatar for the world, and his message confused and continues to confuse a lot of people, because people hear “harmony,” and a lot of people get kind of a sappy expression on their face and say, “I’m all for harmony,” but what Ueshiba was talking about was not at all what they imagine.

He took an old formulation, which was “heaven/earth, man.” It’s a Chinese formulation. It goes back forever, and it’s got multiple meanings. On a cosmological level, it’s the universe being divided into heaven and earth, the forces of yin, the forces of yang, and man is a microcosm which embodies the universe. That was the original concept on that level.

Yes, I’ve recently become slightly more educated in my understanding of the subtle complexities of this through my discussions with people like yourself, Peter Goldsbury, Christoper Li, and others. 

Another concept of “heaven/earth, man,” is using that as a map to describe how to best and most effectively use the forces of the human body, where the forces of earth are basically gravity and ground — what drops down to the ground, what pushes into the ground, therefore upwards. The force of heaven, the qi of heaven, is kokyu, and that’s all the training associated with breath, with developing intrinsic, connected strength. The force of man is dantian or tanden (the body’s energy centers). There’s so many ideas about what that is, but one way to think of it is a differential gear which helps you most efficiently direct those forces in the body in a coordinated fashion.

Ueshiba subscribed to both of those, but then he added a third idea, which was that the forces of heaven and the forces of earth–the forces of the universe itself– are out of balance, and what can rectify this, what can harmonize these disordered forces of the universe, is the enlightened man. In particular, himself, but not exclusively so. Others, through training, through which we build up our spiritual force can rectify heaven and earth. It’s a pretty grandiose vision.

Araki-ryu bakken

He explicitly would say at times, “I’m not concerned about morality,” and his own life story has a lot of examples of that. This did not change after World War II. He remained a Messianic right-wing spiritual ideologue until his death. This is another myth, that he went to Iwama, became spiritually enlightened and then embraced pacifism.

At any rate, Morihei Ueshiba was a remarkable guy. He was a force for good, but this simplistic idea that aikido was created to create peace on earth is just not fully informed. Back in the early eighties, a number of us, under the direction of Phil Relnick, created an organization called the Japan Martial Arts Society (JMAS).  Four times a year, we’d have great martial artists come and present to non-Japanese living in Japan. Doshu Kisshomaru, O-Sensei’s son, did a presentation, and one very sincere guy raises his hand and through translation says, “When did your father become a pacifist?” Someone translates this to Doshu, and he sort of looks like, “What?” The guy translates it again, and he just cracked up. I mean, there were tears in his eyes, and he said, “My father was never a pacifist.” 

As Doshu said, he was out of that whole paradigm. He was talking about something else, which is the puzzle that everybody tries to piece together. Post-war aikido basically was originally an attempt to survive occupation by an enemy force, the Allies, who had no comprehension, for better and for worse, of what Japanese martial arts were about.

I’d never heard that story about the Q&A with Doshu Kisshomaru at that event. 

Kisshomaru Sensei reworked that neo-Shinto ideology into a more pro-social framework, using aikido as a means of harmonizing between cultures, between individuals, etc. I don’t fault him for that, because essentially what Ueshiba Morihei created was a little sect … In a sense, it’s the same criticism that could easily be applied to any koryu. Aikido was an attempt to derive something very good from a niche practice and make it accessible to a wider population.

Araki-ryu bakken

The problems that can come up, though, is, if we’re doing a martial art and it loses too much martial virtue, it just becomes a form of contact improvisation, which is a cool dance form, but for somebody who’s looking for a martial art, that can be rather frustrating. So many people were drawn to aikido through stories about a person of superhuman ability, a superhuman strength perhaps, who could manage people, very powerful people. Haga Junichi, the great kendo iai sensei said, “Ueshiba was the best swordsman in Japan.” There are these stories of really remarkable martial artists that said, “Yeah, Ueshiba’s the best guy I ever saw.”

You don’t hear people today saying, “I walked into an aikido dojo, and that was the best martial art, the most powerful martial art I ever saw,” so something must be missing. When you look at every film, however, Ueshiba is doing the same techniques we do today. You even look back at Daito-ryu, it’s more elaborate, but it’s the same stuff; if we lose the special abilities that Ueshiba and a few of his successors had, which as a shorthand we call internal strength, that’s very unfortunate. I see the techniques, as aikido, as a means of helping people organize in just about every parameter in three-dimensional space to manage force exerted on your body.

The role of uke has to really be changed. For most aikido dojos now, the uke‘s role is, “I do an attack, and then I go passive. I go ragdoll on a certain level to take the ukemi.” I honestly believe that in aikido in its pure form, the uke should be the one being trained. Somebody exerts force on a limb, and what I have to be able to do is neutralize and counter that force. That’s real aikido. I think we’ve got it backwards. You’ve got a nikyo on me. My wrist is in pain. How do I redirect that to my body so you no longer have caught me? Then the next step is, how can I use the fact that you chose to put two hands on my one, and now you put yourself in my control as you try to grab my wrist? On a technical level, that’s where I think aikido should go, and it would be a very fascinating study.

Araki-ryu bakken

Interesting stuff. You outlined your thoughts in some detail in your book Hidden in Plain Sight.

Yes, I think I wrote it about eight years ago. It started, actually, through Aikido Journal, when I started getting interesting in this concept of internal strength. I started writing some columns, and there was a tremendous dialogue with some people that some of your readers may be familiar with writing in response to my columns: Mike Sigman, Dan Harden, and Yazawa Tomo come immediately to mind, but a lot of other folks as well. Through writing, I got to meet folks like Rob John and then Akuzawa Minoru, people who were studying these ideas in various aspects, and wonderful dialogue happened, and so I had a new group of essays.

I started working those essays and came up with Hidden in Plain Sight. The thesis of Hidden in Plain Sight is that, although it’s largely lost, there were particular types of physical training which imbued Japanese martial arts, a lot of it derived from Chinese sources. If they’re lost, then the best martial artist is going to be in his late twenties, and then there’s a gradual decline. Is there some way to continue to improve not just in the abstract, but in technique, in power? By the way, there’s not just one type of specialized power training. There are quite a few types, each with their own merits. Among them is a type often referred to as “Six Harmonies,” which is classical internal strength training, based on the same paradigm as Heaven-Earth-Man.

I wrote the original version of Hidden in Plain Sight some years ago. I decided to revisit it after talking with and learning from a lot of people, as well as training in these methodologies myself. I’ve learned a lot more, and so, I have a new book, many sections revised, and with many new chapters. It’s about 60,000 words bigger. Besides the section on internal strength, I believe I’ve been able to determine with a lot more accuracy the roots of Takeda Sokaku’s Daito-ryu (and thus, Ueshiba Morihei’s aikido). I attempt to trace the roots of physical culture as it applies to martial skill, and beyond that, to the development of a connected body, where every movement most efficiently involves the entire body. The latter part of the book expands and develops what was in the first edition, integrating all the new information I have acquired and applying it to the subjects of Daito-ryu and aikido.

Araki-ryu bakken

When is the new version going to be released?

April. Hidden in Plain Sight is currently on pre-sale. It and my other martial arts books can be acquired from my publisher, Freelance Academy Press. If people are interested in my other writing, they can do so at Edgeworkbooks.com. Another website some people might find of interest is called kogenbudo.org. It’s a play on words: “ko” is old, “gen” is modern, and this website has some of my shorter essays and interviews, but also what I’ve been doing is inviting people whom I respect to write an essay about the subject they’re concerned with in the field of budo. For example, John Driscoll is a judo aikido man, did a complete comparison study of how many aikido techniques are actually in Daito-ryu, and he got a 70+ percent correspondence. He also just looked at every aikido technique to see if any technique was derived from a non-Daito-ryu source. He has a very well-researched essay on aikido’s koshinage related to Yagyu Shingan-ryu, the school that Ueshiba trained at in his youth. I’ve got Dave Lowry talking about Japanese martial culture. Anyway, just a lot of stuff like that. The most recent author is a career police officer in Australia, and I gave him a task to write accounts of every time he used a classic traditional martial art technique in police work.

This was a great discussion. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and perspective with Aikido Journal.

Josh, thank you very much for this opportunity, not only to talk with you, but also to  meet Matsuoka Haruo sensei. We’ve known each other from a distance before, but through doing this interview, it has given me an opportunity to meet—and hopefully collaborate with–another kindred spirit, another person who is searching for some of the same knowledge that I’m looking for in my practice. It’s an interesting thing about aikido that it is an activity that presents a kind of physical riddle — there are more arguments about and within aikido than almost any martial art I’ve ever dealt with. On the one hand, some of these disputes can be a waste of people’s time (no doubt, they often are), but on the other hand, when we have a number of intelligent very dedicated people trying to figure out a very complex puzzle, one that offers enormous rewards not only at the end of the process, but through the struggle itself.
Ellis Amdur and Haruo Matsuoka

Josh Gold

I am Executive Editor of Aikido Journal and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo. I began my aikido journey in 1991 under Haruo Matsuoka and am honored to have been his direct disciple for the last 27 years.

4 comments

  • Wonderful interview. Another lesson in how we tend to mythologize our teachers and mentors on our path. Ellis’ thoughts put an added mandate of continual, progressive learning in understanding aikido – or anything.

  • Wonderful interview. Curious if you plan to do any research or share information on one of the co founders of Yoshinkan Aikido Kiyoyuki Terada Hanshi. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times and trained for several years under his Senior Student Amos Parker Shihan. I have a hard time finding info on him and looks like very few are practicing his style of Aikido.

    • Hi Larry! No immediate plans for new research on him. However, we do hope to share more soon about Yoshinkan Aikido and hopefully have a top Yoshinkan instructor share his experience and ideas with the AJ community.

  • Ellis Amdur is illuminating the ‘unknown’ aspect of Morehi Ueshiba when he explains Ueshiba’s discovery of a
    3rd force beyond gravity and ‘Heaven’. This ‘harmony’, misconstrued as merely a social concept due to mistranslation and the West’s philosophical presumption, is now shown to be a new physical dynamic distinct from the social concept of pacifism.

    But this recognition of the imbalance in nature and thus in us could only have come from a mystic insight. He then formulated a concept and a practice to integrate it, thus inventing Akido as a successor to his former training.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but this propounds that Akido is also a form of Yoga, allowing the individual to ‘harmonize’ himself in accordance with the fundamental elements in nature and thus to correct the imbalance in nature itself as an integer.

    This corresponds to Gnostism and Taoism as Man being the end product of Cosmological evolution and thus responsible for comprehending the disparate elements of fractured nature and harmonizing them.

    Is this then, the harmony that Ueshiba spoke of and not mere political or personal pacifism?

    And, if I may be so bold, it also alludes to a new understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as a healer of the world, so often misconstrued as merely the redemption for sin.

    Not to be impertinent, but its as if Jack LaLanne were the amanuensis for Rudolf Steiner!

    For if Morehei Ueshiba developed forms of physical exercise that also prompts ‘Enlightenment’ while avoiding specific reference to moral norms or religious ideas that might spark disputation, how could he be anything less than an Avatar?

    Thank-you Ellis Amdur!