Ellis Amdur: The Role of Martial Arts in Modern Society

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 second in a three-part series, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Now that we have some understanding of the rise of traditional martial arts and their historical place in society, we have some context for discussing the value and relevance of traditional martial arts today. What’s your perspective on this, and moving into the future, what roles should traditional martial arts play in our society?

Ellis Amdur with Josh Gold

Ellis Amdur: Before I go too far, I’d first like to lay a foundation for the discussion. I’m going to get a little pedantic for a moment. For this discussion, let’s define a traditional martial art as a Japanese martial art that was developed before the inception of the Meiji period (1868-1912). There’s a little wiggle room for an art that formed after Meiji but branched off from one of the older arts, but generally speaking, that’s the cut-off point.

The reason for being clear about our definition is that these arts carry a bunch of social and cultural assumptions into modern times. Among those assumptions is that if your teacher doesn’t know your name, you’re not really practicing the art. There must be a kind of intimacy — it’s a one-on-one teaching method. This is in contrast to some “still-calling-themselves-koryu”, some with famous names, where the students in other countries might study under a student of the student of the student of the shihan or soke of the ryu, and then once a year, they go to some big seminar in a gymnasium, and there might be 50, 100, even 500 people there, and they just run through kata with that master instructor guarded from direct questioning by his or her senior students. Frankly, that is no longer a traditional martial art. It may look right, the students may be able to run through all the kata, but it’s no longer taught in the traditional way. There is a particular kind of experience… I suppose the best way to put it is that you become ‘infected’ by your teacher: for better and for worse. Without that intimacy, you cannot learn the essence of what these arts always were. Modern folks may object to that because they don’t like the power hierarchy and all of that, but there are certain things that can only be learned when your teacher’s influence becomes pervasive in your life. Otherwise, there’s too many other things to be distracted by. You don’t get that depth of knowledge, which is far more than the sequence of a few kata. It doesn’t sink into your bones.

Another thing that concerns me is despite there being kind of a boom right now in koryu over the last, say, 20 years, I think the disciplines are being watered down for a lot of people. People, be they Japanese or non-Japanese, are training as if it’s one among a number of interesting activities in their  life. It is not a pervasive influence.

If somebody wants to train with me, my first question is, “Do you want to become (for lack of a better word) a ‘master’ of this art? Do you want to completely learn it, or is this something that’s just interesting to you?” If it’s just interesting, I won’t teach them. I have no interest in teaching somebody who doesn’t want to surpass not only me, but every person who’s ever done it before. For a lot of people it’s like, “Wow, this would be really cool to learn this, and what a wonderful teacher I have.” I’m not interested in that kind of person.

Ellis and Josh in conversation

Something else that is problematic is the phenomenon of the mukei bunkazai, which means intangible cultural treasure. In 1935, an organization was started called the Kobudo Shinkokai, which meant the kobudo, or koryu, preservation society, and it was really the first time that these arts all started to bundle together. In earlier times, each art was adversarial, in mindset at least, towards other arts: Yagyu Shinkage-ryu vis-à-vis Itto-ryu vis-à-vis whatever. Now, they were all together in a ‘club.’ What that meant was that, even as early as 1935, these arts had really fallen on such hard times that they needed each other to survive. The idea of a mukei bunkazai is a living antique. I understand the intent! I get how important it is to try to preserve these old things, but you run the danger of well-intentioned paralysis; basically, it’s like you find an animal encased in amber, and it looks just like a real animal, but it doesn’t move. Right?


It doesn’t have a life to it anymore. My mental model for my own role with koryu goes back to 1,000 years ago, when the kentoushi, Japanese priests were taking what at that time was a very dangerous passage across the Sea of Japan to China to study Buddhism. They would then return, and they brought back these sects of Buddhism. Zen (which was Chan in China), Shingon, Tendai — these sects, really changed when they came to Japan. If you’ve ever heard a Chinese Buddhist priest chanting sutras, it’s a high, singsong, lilting kind of tone, and then you hear Japanese, and it’s this deep, guttural sound. Just the fact that they’re using their voice and body differently when they pray means the practice has become something different.

For me, after leaving my home and living 13 years in a foreign country, if all I did was go there to come back and replicate what I learned over there, as if I had not returned to a very different world, I believe that I would be failing one of the functions of what koryu was, namely, to influence society. I don’t mean something simplistic like, “Well, I’ll modernize it, and I’ll use a baseball bat instead of a sword,” but it has to somehow fit and contribute to my society as opposed to being just an antique that people visit. 

For myself, this concept has gone in a couple directions. First of all, aside from having some groups that I train very intensely with in Araki-ryu torite-kogusoku and Toda-ha Buko-ryu, I’ve recently started working with various groups in different parts of the USA, and what we’re doing is a kind of modular training, which I refer to as Taikyoku Araki-ryu. Each has their own established group, training mixed martial arts, and they were interested in some aspects of Araki-ryu, which is, at core, a really rough-edged system with grappling, with weapons, and things like that. I’m teaching them portions of the school: completely, holding nothing back. Now, some may find this contradictory to what I said above, where I expressed my concern regarding spreading things too thin, popularizing a koryu as if it’s a modern martial art. The difference is that I am circumscribing what I teach, but teaching it completely, directly (one-to-one) with all of the associated psychophysical components. The techniques of a true koryu are actually a kind of hologram: one portion contains the entire system. For what it’s worth, this was very common in the past. You can look at various makimono, menkyo-kaiden, given by the same teacher in the same ryuha, and they have different numbers of techniques enumerated. Teachers would individualize their training, without violating the core of the ryuha.

In any event, these new students of mine are applying what they’re learning to their own training. For example, if you grapple freestyle and there’s no weapon involved, you have the luxury of just going for the neck to choke the person out, but if somewhere on the person’s body they have a knife, the knife is more important than the neck.


What we have in the Araki-ryu torite kata is grappling against an armed opponent. We start out just doing the kata, but then we break the kata. Rather than just bowing or touching hands and starting to roll, we’ll start with a kick to the guy’s head, and instead of him being knocked into the next move, which is the kata, we suppress the kick, and start grappling from that position of disadvantage. Or slip the choke, shrimp into the pin, neutralize the join lock. Each kata has innumerable break points, where things don’t go as plannedAt a certain point, the person who has the weapon draws it and tries to stab the other person. We’re making live training emanate from the kata. That’s really exciting. Now, if these guys continue and they say, “We’d like another module, and then another, and then another,” it could conceivably lead, over time, to learning the entire school, but maybe not. Perhaps we will stop with only a portion, but that portion will be learned completely. Actually, in the Middle Ages, a lot of ryu worked that way. Instructors would meet people they found worthwhile and teach them a portion of what they knew, which the student may combine with other information to make their own martial practice. Several of my students among these groups are police officers, who are very focused on training to survive blade attacks at close range, and they find this style of practice better suits their training needs than the kind of dueling style of knife usage that is so prevalent in many martial systems.

Showing the possibility of applying ‘short power’ to the elbow within classical aikido

Are there any other aspects to this idea that koryu, as old as it may be, must still be relevant to modern times?

Koryu is not only the actual martial techniques, but also the principles that underpin them, and, surprisingly many of these principles are absolutely relevant to modern times. One of my books, The Coordinator: Managing High-Risk High-Consequence Social Interactions in an Unfamiliar Environment, co-written by cognitive scientist Robert Hubal, directly addresses this issue. This was actually part of a project with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) trying to understand how you should best organize yourself, particularly as a war fighter or law enforcement, when you’re dealing with individuals or populations who will never trust you, never be your allies, and yet you have to interact with them. Several of my associates on this project (Brian Lande and Jonathan Wender of Polis Solutions) use the phrase “tact, tactics, and trust.” That’s their locution for it, but the idea is, you maintain tactical advantage. You are tactful, which in Japanese is termed reigi, and you try to establish as much trust as you can under the circumstances.

In my portion of this work, I particularly focused upon kiaijutsu. When we hear the term kiaijutsu, we usually think of somebody yelling, but kiai is the manipulation of your own psychological and physical organization, and, in interaction with another person, manipulating them as well, hopefully for positive tactical outcomes, whatever that may be. These principles can be directly applied to any communication, be it hostage negotiation or an interaction on the street with individuals.

I took those principles and we put them in modern scenarios. For example, one scenario was two war fighters looking for an insurgent. They were in a home, and one guy, casual and stupid while he’s interviewing a family member, picks up a piece of bread off the table and takes a bite out of it. It’s not his home, but he forgets himself. How do you rectify things when, all of a sudden, the situation blows up? The woman who owns the house, she starts yelling, and the guy reaches out to mollify her, and now she thinks she’s being assaulted! Then we branch out with a number of alternative strategies. “Okay, if you try this strategy, what’s going to happen? If you try that strategy, what’s going to happen?” A lot of the outcomes end in failure, which in this case means a riot, people being killed or at minimum, creating further alienation and hatred. The task is to be able, in an instant, to recognize all the components of this developing kinetic situation, which in Japanese is called zanshin, and use the best kiai (in this case, organization of yourselves to organize others around you) to find a line that leads to resolution.

Fascinating. I imagine just a regular citizen, too, can use these principles as well in daily interactions.

Absolutely.  In fact one of my students, who is an IT manager of a company with a similar model to Uber in Europe, has used The Coordinator to work with staff from several countries and has found it invaluable. He is Greek and he has found the principles very useful in discussions with employees in Peru, over Skype.

In any event, to finish up talking about koryu specifically, most practitioners practice—and fully intend to practice—a historically and culturally situated—-combative art. That is as it should be. Nonetheless, for it to be more than a living antique, modern practitioners, both in Japan and abroad, must consider how that art can contribute to the world within which they live. As koryu throughout their history made such contributions, why should it be any different now? For some arts, this can include technical knowledge that can actually aid people in surviving today. But even in arts far divorced from modern hand-to-hand combat, be it yabusame (mounted archery) or shurikenjutsu (throwing spike technique), there are essential components concerning how to organize your mind in the face of hostile intent that have never been surpassed. They are still relevant today.

The only reason that we think of these arts as ‘frozen in time,’ as koryu, is because of historical circumstances. As I referred to earlier, Japan began to amalgamate and homogenize its various martial arts, resulting, eventually in judo, kendo, and other modern standardized forms. As this was occurring a lot of koryu, so-called archaic arts, developed modern adjuncts of various kinds as Japan modernized. You look at a lot of jujutsu schools, and they had new sections of modernized applications. The same thing occurred with various kenjutsu ryu, various methods of sparring. If judo and kendo hadn’t developed, a lot of these koryu would have continued to progress, saying, “How can we apply these principles in modern times?” However, because of the development of the modern standardized forms, these consolidated arts, such judo, aikido, kendo, and naginatado, etc., this sort of froze the koryu back in the day. But they still possess an incredible repository of knowledge that wasn’t carried over into the modern standardized forms, and much of that information is still invaluable today, some of it unique to one or another ryu.

Tenzan Jo, two person kata developed by Bruce Bookman and Ellis Amdur

Returning to more direct concerns of self-protection and martial arts, my personal perspective is that if one is ever in a situation that escalates to the point where physical self-defense is necessary- to the point of a physical engagement, that becomes unpredictable and extremely high-risk, no matter how skilled you are.  So the idea of a martial artist being able to defuse or deal with a situation before it actually gets to some kind of a physical engagement seems like it would be an extremely high priority.

Yes, I agree. And this is a far bigger discussion now than koryu. So if you don’t mind, let’s shift from a discussion of koryu to a more general discussion of martial arts, self-defense and the like.

Agreed. This question of if we are training in a way that actually will help us be safe, particularly when it concerns de-escalation of aggression, is something that I think many dojos don’t focus on enough. Including my own.

Martial arts systems often have a very irrational idea of aggression and how to manage it in a 21st century modern society. For example, in some of the styles where blades are involved, including koryu, you are taught to do things without any caution about potentially going to prison for doing them. Just for example, let’s say that in your kata, you stab the opponent behind the ear to finish them off. If you repeat that thousands of times, and God forbid you’re in that situation, there is a good chance that you will ‘automatically’ enact that, because that’s what you’ve trained to do. And now the question will come up: if you had the opponent under complete control — why did you just kill them?

In martial arts, it’s easy to to have the experience, “Wow, this is really cool. Look how powerful I’ve become.” and there’s no consideration of whether this is actual self-defense in a modern context. Now, I get that if your life is on the line, you have to worry about saving your life before anything else. Beyond that, part of training is A) training to actually defend yourself while conforming to the laws, and B) focusing on how to stay out of trouble. If you neglect either of these things in the martial arts,  you can have people get into terribly unfortunate situations.

Right. At our dojo, we run self-defense workshops where we’ll talk about high-level legal parameters and how to de-escalate situations. I know Bruce Bookman Sensei leads women’s self-defense intensive courses that are seven hours long, and a lot of that is about de-escalation, trying to understand what’s happening with a potential threat. Others in the community do similar things with various levels of success and sophistication but I’ve not really seen many dojos that have woven this approach into regular training programs in a meaningful way. Do you think it should be? How should these elements get woven into the development of a modern martial artist?

Tenzan Jo

For modern times, an adjunct of training must be to weave in ‘modern kiaijutsu’ – in this case, verbal de-escalation. To give an example of what I mean, I teach a lot of verbal de-escalation in law enforcement context, and I believe that I do a very good job. Nonetheless, I’m teaching mostly in a classroom. Trainees can consider it at leisure, they can agree with what I say, but then when they’re in a shoot/no-shoot situation, verbal skill is the first thing to go if it hasn’t been drilled in the proper context. Don Gulla, of Arrestling, and I have developed a training program to this end, and we cover verbal de-escalation, weapon retention, gun fighting, taser, all-in-one training, and so each time we practice a verbal skill, it’s in the context that the other person may suddenly reach under their waistband and pull something. If it’s a gun, you better shoot them first, but what happens if it’s a cell phone? I’ve ‘killed’ a lot of people with cell phones in practice, and it’s humbling, because it’s happening so fast. I have actually, visually seen the gun when it’s actually an iPhone. You need to drill in a way that makes your training realistic. In a war zone, a mistake like that is ‘collateral damage,’ but we do not live in a war zone and we are bound by very different rules. The same thing that has to apply to the verbal stuff. Let’s take aikido, for example. Why not make a class where, before you do shomenuchi or whatever, you’re having a conversation. How about a simulation of an argument? Can you make a distinction between somebody who is like, “Man, that was my parking space,” and they push you — how do manage that person, as opposed to somebody, who instead of pushing, reaches out and snags your face and they’re trying to gouge your eye? The technique you use has to have a different level of authority, a different level of control, because this person’s actually trying to maim you as opposed to just push you out of the way. Why not weave that into practice?

Right. It’s a totally different threat level.

Right, so why not contextualize that in training, and add verbal interaction? If we’re suddenly dropped into anything we haven’t experienced in high-intensity circumstances, we will freeze. We will be at a loss, or we will fall back on what we know best. If I’ve been training a perfect punch and you’re berating me, and I get to an emotionally flooded place, I can’t think what to say. Everything I say seems to make the situation worse, and I may just hit you to make you stop assaulting me, because if I feel helpless, I feel assaulted. And because I’ve been practicing that one thing so obsessively and gotten so good at it, I terribly damage you because I don’t have any other tools than destruction. That’s all I’ve been training for. 

One good thing about, for example, you mentioned Bruce Bookman’s self-defense and the training he’s associated with, they have some very hardcore verbal interactions in the middle of their scenario training, because so often victims of assault will say, “What destroyed my composure was what he was saying. The vile things that he’s spitting in my face, it just caused me to freeze,” and so one has to include that. I don’t see why we, as traditional practitioners, don’t incorporate this. To me, this is a form of kiai jutsu.

This is the second part of a three-part interview with Ellis Amdur. The first part can be found here.

Aikido Journal TV subscribers can download a free chapter from Dueling with O-Sensei, by Ellis Amdur. Dueling with O-Sensei provides a fascinating and important perspective on aikido and the martial arts. This chapter, “Kamae: Taking a Stand,” is an entertaining and insightful short story that recounts one of Ellis’ experiences using martial arts principles outside the dojo.

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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.


  • What a bundle of fascinating ideas! Breaking the kata with an unexpected move, insult as kiai, and more. I feel as though I have to live for a couple of centuries to give each of these ideas as much training time as they deserve.

  • Great installment, Sensei! I have trained in CPI recently and also 4 1/2 years ago for public school work and I’ve noticed some changes that seem to hinder it’s potential effectiveness all surround dialing back its instructor-class model and replacing it with more slide presentations on a personal computer. Before, CPI was challenged with instructors who hadn’t trained in the physical exercises long enough to pass on the techniques properly (understandable, frankly). NOW students are able to miss (or dismiss) the core effectiveness of the excellent verbal techniques entirely. My recent instructor uses the physical techniques in a K-12 Special Ed school several times a week, but the verbal play got lost in booklets and videos.

    Can verbal de-escalation be taught in a day without instructor-student relationship building and intense, creative practicing? If so, how?

    • It can – if people want to learn. I present in what could be termed an 8 hour TED talk – lots of stories, humor, examples – based on the idea – – –the fact – that people already know a lot; they often, however, don’t know what they know. We often do the right thing, but it seems like luck or an accident. What I provide is a kind of a map/matrix that explains what tactic to use when. A lot of what I do is inspiration (which, looking at the word, is kokyu). People are inspired to use the techniques because of the way they are presented.
      There is no doubt, however, that a one-and-done training, with little shugyo will amount to little. In an adrenaline-dump situation, we lose what we intellectually know. That is why my books (what an archaic concept – books, not powerpoint!) are essential. The books flesh out what I teach, and for anyone committed, provide an ongoing continuing education for learning the material. One of the most important points is that everyday life provides innumerable opportunities to practice tactical communication, in a low-key way – we are, however, not conscious of the fact that our ordinary communication bears within it most of the tactics we use in crises. For example, a tactic with psychotic individuals I call ‘the island of sanity’ entails shifting the conversation to areas of the individuals psyche least affected by their delusions (they are delusional about someone implanting fascist ideology within the high school curriculum, but when they talk about Murano glass, they stabilize). We do the exact same thing with our family when we don’t want to engage in a political dispute, as in: “enough about politics, how is your grandson doing?” The missing piece is conscious awareness of the overlap. Similarly, in martial arts, you may do a pattern drill that, by itself, is little use in combat, but it patterns a set of reflexes that, if trained properly, is eminently useful. (P.S. The logic of how I use my books to flesh out my training seminars is here – https://edgeworkbooks.com/creating-a-culture-of-safety/

      • At a glance, clearly you are demonstrating that all training is training and knowing that tools exist is not the same as having them. I compliment you on thinking of a way to make sure that your lesson plan is taken up by your respective audiences by giving them assignments–and subtly acknowledging that there will unfortunately be some people who won’t comply. This, in turn, might generate some peer pressure to get on board before you or your staff finally arrive for the seminar!

        And get on board they need to! The breadth and the depth that you are taking “muteiko” and “aiki” concepts with your books are amazing, Sensei!

        • I think that we must be setting length records for replies on this blog-site! I hope that Pranin-sensei is somewhere smiling about that!! 🙂 🙂

  • Hi Ellis,

    I like this discussion just because it makes your position clearer even if I am not sure I fully agree with it viz. aikido. I know that’s not what you’re necessarily recommending but I suppose the suggestions you make follow if aikido is defined as a “martial art” where the emphasis is placed on the implications of the word “martial”. I tend to consider the aesthetic aspects first and then look at the practical applications later. I think there is something to be said for the principle that aesthetically pleasing movement is pleasing precisely because it uses the principle of “economy of movement” (as seen in Judo too). That aside, if I may, just a small gripe from me. In a previous article I think, you mentioned the possibility of aikido becoming “just” another dance akin to “contact improvisation. (CI)” Well, I don’t know if you’ve tried CI but I have and, speaking as an experienced aikidoka / martial artist, it is way harder in practice than it looks. You may already know this but it was founded by a team of people spearheaded by Steve Paxton (in 1972), who was primarily inspired by aikido to create a uniquely American form of improvisational dance, using the principles of catching weight, redirecting it, leading it, following it, etc. I mean, apart from the huge impact aikido has had in the aikido world, very few people appear to know its historical effects on the wider world where most of humanity lives. My point is that many of the best fighters I’ve known also know how to dance {“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”} . And by the same token, dancers often make up our best students because their kinesthetic sense is not as abused as those of most aikido-couch-potatoes, keyboard (ki-bored?) warriors, and Emo MMA enthusiasts. Having a fluid, flexible and agile body is at least half of what it means to becoming a ‘good’ martial artist, IMHO. Aikido as dance then is at least half-kool and should not be dismissed as completely useless training, especially if, as you say, ‘everyday movements already contain conflict resolution potential”…! Often the most effective movements are simple and CI can teach us aikidoka to loosen our tight grip on what we think is supposed to be ‘good’ movement. And this loosening is one way of developing, since we discover ourselves, as much as our bodies, anew.

    • Keni – I never said that Contact Imrpov is not difficult or wonderful – but it’s not martial arts. And yes, many dancers have considerable potential as martial artists, if nothing else because of their wonderfully developed bodies (See my chapter in Dueling with O-sensei, of the ballet dancer doing dojo yaburi in a taekwondo academy).
      At any rate, I can gesture beautifully with a gun, but I cannot yet be depended on to hit a target (it’s a new study). Iaido is beautiful, and yes, anyone who does it can use people with the skills they are learning, but if one cares (and one doesn’t have to, to be sure) about martial integrity, iaido deviates from combative principles with a sword in numerous ways.
      And for me, aikido without a study of internal strength principles, is not of interest to me (and internal strength, is WHY Ueshiba and his close followers (and the top individuals within Daito-ryu) were so formidable, Others may not care about this, nor have any interest either. And not having a messianic bone in my body, I’m not concerned about what others do. I am just speaking for a particular perspective. . . . . .and i may note, finally, that any martial art imbued with internal strength principles, properly understood and expressed, can be incredibly aesthetically beautiful – and in a way different from that same martial art without. As an example, I would put up films of very athletic, wonderful ‘taiji wushu dancers,’ and next to them, a video of some of the true top taiji quan practitioners who hew to Six Connection principles, and there is a qualitative different. Martial integrity also leads to a particular aesthetic beauty. For a final example, I’d rather what a Cat than Broadway’s “Cats.”