The Surprising Origins of Budo: An Interview with Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard (born April 13, 1981) is a French biologist and budo instructor living and working in Tokyo, Japan. He began practicing judo at the age of six, then started aikido at fifteen in the group of André Nocquet, who was the first non-Japanese uchideshi [live-in student] of O-Sensei. He has attained the rank of 5th dan in aikido at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and 3rd dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. He is a well-known historian and researcher of budo and served as the Director of Information for the International Aikido Federation from 2015-2018. He travels frequently to teach, research, and practice all over the world, and he has been featured on television, in various podcasts, and in online/print stories about martial arts. He also publishes informational videos about aikido on YouTube. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Let’s talk a little bit about the idea of budo in Japanese culture. This is a topic where Westerners sometimes have a slightly different view than you’ll find in Japan; since you’re a Westerner living in Japan who is a budo practitioner and researcher, I think you can help us find perspective on it.

Guillaume Erard: Budo is a term that everybody knows about, but I feel that there are some elements of it which are, perhaps, a little bit misunderstood. Note that my opinion in this area is very much based on that of the prominent researchers on the topic. The high-level concept around this is budo as a ningen keisei no michi, which roughly means “the way of human development.” In Japan, this connection is quite obvious, and many people study budo, and perhaps even more so aikido to become better human beings. Perhaps many Westerners decide to study martial arts to become better at physical self-defense, but the desire to study budo for self-defense purposes is not as widespread in Japan. Because Japan is such a safe country, having to defend oneself is probably a lesser consideration.

Yes, I can see how that would be a much lower priority in Japan.

To clarify, I will never judge somebody who goes into martial arts to learn how to defend themselves because they’ve had bad experiences or because they live in places of the world which are not as safe as Japan. I don’t want others to think that I’m judgmental of those people or that I feel that motivation is beneath me — I’m just not in that situation. I would say, however, that the budo arts were not primarily intended for combat, and there is plenty of evidence for this when looking at their origins.

Let me first address the elephant in the room. People who are really into martial arts for self-defense purposes are very critical of what they call traditional arts. I think there is good reason for this, technically speaking, as many traditional techniques are either obsolete or not optimized for this purpose. On the other hand, and in the case of aikido especially, I think the argument is fallacious because a great many aikidoka never make such a claim. The official definition of aikido, as formulated by aikido’s own World headquarters, does not even mention efficacy. The burden of proof therefore does not lie on the entire aikido community, but only on those who claim that aikido is adequate as a street fighting system. It’s not one or zero though, and some things in aikido may be applicable, but it’s undeniable that there are far superior and more up-to-date systems that exist for that purpose.

More generally, and without going too much into the origin of the term, budo implies first and foremost an idea of a lifelong journey. Therefore, it’s just not a rational choice for someone looking for immediate efficacy. Budo arts were created as educational systems. This did not always serve very noble causes though. For instance, budo were at a time instrumental to getting the Japanese population to support Japan’s efforts during World War II. The idea was to foster a sense of nationalism and to forge a strong group dynamic, and it played on the sense of pride of the Japanese because it felt like part of their unique culturen. At that time, kendo and judo were used not so much for teaching martial techniques, but almost as a sort of brainwashing system.

People who are really into martial arts for self-defense purposes are very critical of what they call traditional arts. I think there is good reason for this, technically speaking, as many traditional techniques are either obsolete or not optimized for this purpose.

Additionally, when budo arts were utilized as educational systems for the greater Japanese population, the techniques were modified across the board to be safer because they had to be taught in schools. Of course, you couldn’t include lethal techniques or those designed to cause serious injury in that context. If you start modifying techniques to make them safer so they can be taught in schools, you’re no longer teaching battlefield technique. Budo are also anachronisms; if one looks at kendo or jukendo for instance, the techniques contained in their respective formal curricula are completely out-of-date. Nobody nowadays walks around with a sword or a rifle mounted with a bayonet. To a large extent, this remark applies to the curricula of many other empty-handed budo, including aikido.

Even looking further in history, before budo were budo, some researchers such as Dr. Karl Friday have actually argued that the old koryu [pre-Meiji martial arts] schools also taught some techniques that were actually no more aimed to be used on the battlefield than today’s budo. He also analyzed historical evidence, particularly the remains of people who died in battles and found that, for example, the sword was actually rarely used in battle. People died from being hit by stones, stabbed with spears, pierced by arrows or bullets later on, but sword wounds were relatively rarely found, especially lethal sword wounds. So when you think about the fact that the sword is so central within the technical curricula of many old schools of martial arts and how little it seems to have been used on the battlefield, you’ve got something to explain here.

Right. So not only were budo arts modified and popularized for non-combat purposes in the 20th century, but this was a trend in Japanese martial arts even before that?

These older koryu martial arts were probably, to a large extent, educational systems and social organizations where practitioners studied very refined techniques, outside of the framework of the battlefield. It’s also worth noting that many of these older schools were founded after the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868 C.E.) when, basically, most large-scale wars were over. And those schools, of course, were small. They couldn’t possibly have had the capacity to instruct large numbers of soldiers. The guys on the ground who were in actual combat would have been taught very differently, very different material.

Today’s budo is a product of that, and if you realize that, you can find some fascinating aspects and benefits of budo which go beyond just fighting wars, and that’s quite interesting.

And in addition to the idea that budo is perceived very different inside and outside of Japan, there’s also a similar difference in perspective on aikido’s philosophy of harmony, right?

Yes. I don’t think you necessarily have to understand the Japanese take on this to be a great aikido practitioner, but if you want to understand the motivation of the founder and the reason for the art’s existence, I think it’s important. The idea of harmony in aikido is very important, but it is also such a can of worms in the Western context because we are using our own Judeo-Christian perception of what harmony is, and Japan has a different philosophical tradition.

In Japanese, this sense of harmony is known as wa [kanji: 和]. We talk about wa no budo [“the harmony of budo“] but the actual meaning of wa is not really harmony in a sort of tree-hugging way. Harmony in this sense is more related to group cohesion and functionality. It’s about accepting a set of social rules within a group so that relationships can flow and be simple. So for example, I don’t have to like you and you don’t even have to be a particularly good person, but if you and I accept the same set of rules we’re going to get along just fine. We’re going to be in harmony.

And I think, to a great extent, that’s the way Japanese think about wa. So wa no budo is about a way of having, in my view, a common practice, a set of techniques, terminology, and protocols, like wearing a hakama and so on. Budo arts provide methods for training together in the same place so that people can actually interact in a productive way, with people they might not have communicated with otherwise.

The idea of harmony in aikido is very important, but it is also such a can of worms in the Western context because we are using our own Judeo-Christian perception of what harmony is, and Japan has a different philosophical tradition.

Based on my research, it’s probable that the founder of aikido had this concept of wa no budo in mind when he was active before the war and in close contact with prominent members of the government and of the military. This interpretation of harmony is quite compatible with the nationalistic expansionist policy Japan was pursuing in WWII, in a way that was similar to the ancient Roman Empire. You could get on very well with the Romans even if they invaded your country as long as you became a Roman and followed Roman rules. In Ueshiba’s time, the Japanese idea was something like, “Let’s let us all be in harmony the Japanese way, and I’m going to beat you over the head to make you understand that, and once you’ve understood it, we’ll be in harmony.”

So it’s less about an individual’s internal peace and harmony and more about social order and cohesion?

That’s my understanding of it. There are certainly negative sides to this approach, like how it was used to justify fighting during WWII, but there are also many positive ways to build on this concept. For example, on a day-to-day basis in Japan, it is very, very pleasant to live here. Why? Because everybody follows the same set of rules. Most people here know where to go, how to behave, and what to do. For example, they know they should not be talking when riding the train because some people want to sleep. There is a whole set of social rules that make life in Japan very comfortable and very easy once you understand them.

Now, some people may think it’s very conformist, idiosyncratic, and they imagine that you lose your sense of identity in this system. What if someone really wants to talk loudly on the train? Yes, you can of course, but then the day you really want to sleep on the train because you’re tired on your way to work, you will appreciate people not talking loudly on the train. It takes awareness,  attention, and respect for others. That’s Japanese harmony, at a high level.

To clarify again, I don’t necessarily think that other interpretations in other contexts are inferior or wrong, but I do think it’s useful to understand this paradigm since it’s so core to the foundation of the place and time where aikido and Japanese budo were born. I don’t want to undermine the value behind what the Western civilization has created in terms of a philosophy of individualism and personal freedom. I think those contributions and perspectives are phenomenal. We have democracy, we’ve had great creativity and innovation, and we’ve had huge advancements in gender equality, for instance. It can be better, of course, but we are working towards that. So, of course, I don’t want to sound like somebody who says, “Oh, we all have to become Japanese and do everything like the Japanese,” because there has been a lot of progress in the world that doesn’t rely on this approach.

The bottom line is that in studying aikido or other budo you don’t have to discard your own identity or principles, but I think it’s valuable to understand the underlying intent, concepts, and systems of other cultures, societies, and ways of thinking when participating in their practices.

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.

10 comments

  • Very interesting light on aikido. I’m practicing it as personnal development as well as very effective defense technique. It has already been very useful for me.
    What I appreciate is to be able to defend myself without injuring the attaquant, because I don’t like violence at all.
    Actually I’m practicing Iwama style.

    • I agree, and that’s what make Aikido a great endeavor, i.e. trying to make some degree of efficacy cohabit with genuine concern for other. It’s a very tall order indeed, and perhaps the very thing that makes Aikido so special.

  • The dark side of a nationalistic use of budo in World War II is laid out in detail by Iris Chang in her book, “The Rape of Nanking.” Thanks for distinguishing the Japanese idea of harmony or “wa” from the Western, “tree-hugging” notion of harmony. Thank you for sharing the historic background underlying aikido. I think it’s great that aikido allows us to not discard our own identities or principles, as you’ve said. I’ve only been training for about 1 1/2 years but it seems to me that, to one person, aikido can be expressed as a brutal form of hand to hand combat while, to another, it can be expressed as a way of harmonizing.

    • Indeed, and the study of the life of its founder serves as a wonderful example that one can evolve and grow, not only physically, but also morally throughout life. He was not born a saint, far from it, but worked very hard at improving himself until the end. To me, that’s the essence of his Aikido.

  • I think this is not only true from a historical point of view, but it’s the best defence against criticisms of Aikido being not effective in a real fight. I can only admire Guillaume Erard to try to teach the true history of budo.

    My only criticisms would be that the idea that martial arts can make “better people” should also be problematized. It is not obvious. For example, you take a teenager and you have the choice between: a. having him do some budo or b. having him doing volunteer work at a charity, like helping homeless people. Which activity will, at the end, produce the “better people”? I don’t think the former. Why would train someone against violence (even against “fake violence” in aikido) would make that person “better” at the en of the process? It’s very unclear for me…

    • I would even argue that I know plenty of rather unpleasant very high-ranking Aikidoka. So while I consider Aikido a great medium through which to develop human qualities, it also has a number of pitfalls that make it prone to failure in that respect (e.g. the Dan grades race, misunderstandings of how far to push the collaboration, misplaced/abusive sense of hierarchy, to name but a few). Still, it is by design an evolving art, and one that leaves room for interpretation, self-introspection and self-change, mostly through non-verbal communication with others on the tatami. In that sense, it is pretty interesting.
      There is also the fact that Aikido has at its core the idea that you get to decide where to place the cursor between focusing on efficacy and self-development. This is actually why so many Aikidoka can’t agree on what Aikido is supposed to be, but it’s the very nature of the beast.
      In the end, you get out of it what you put in it. No easy answer. No one-size-fits-all methodology. No bumper sticker nuggets of wisdom.
      All in all, all those elements and seemingly intrinsic contradictions are what make it worth investing a lifetime of study.

  • The idea of harmony as an inward, tree hugging concept in the western mindset being judeo-christian is faulty. The author may see that type of thinking in Western culture, but it doesn’t necessarily come from its Judeo-Christian background. That notion in our culture stems more from the impact eastern budhist/zen philosophies. The Japanese notion of harmony as basically “getting along” with one another is very Judeo-Christian and Western. If that notion of harmony in Aikido the author distinguishes as Western exists, might it actually stem from within Aikido itself through the work of Ki-Society style of Aikido with it’s emphasis on Zen Buddhism?

    • I take your point and perhaps my wording was indeed awkward. I actually also regret using the term “tree-hugging”, as it reduces the argument to a new age interpretation of the term.
      I would still argue that we (I) are (am) subject to our (my) Judeo-Christian upbringings because of the fact that for instance, honesty seems to be more consubstantial to the notion of harmony in the West, while in Japan, social order precedes over honesty (it comes most vividly when one has to come to terms with the notions of honne and tatemae).
      Thanks for your feedback!

  • As an individual, being able to choose where to focus one’s development between physical health, moral character, social interactions or self defense, I believe is one of the great advantages of Aikido (or any Budo for the first three or any combat art for the part of self defense.)

    Why choose Aikido over other arts will depend on the individual’s own characteristics, goals and personality.

    Good read, its very informative to have the perspective of someone that has experience with both cultures, thanks for sharing.