Presenting Aikido on the Global Stage: The World Martial Arts Masterships in Korea

In our fast-paced, highly connected era, many sports have to deal with an increasingly stiff competition for the time and attention of the Homo technologicus from less physical kinds of activities. Perhaps due to its philosophy and particular nature of its practice, Aikido occupies a rather special place within the range of those physical activities, and it has been reported on a number of occasions that it is one of the disciplines that is struggling the most to stay relevant in today’s society, especially when it comes to its attractiveness towards the youths. Indeed, Aikido being a mostly non-competitive, individual sport that targets a very wide range of population in terms of age and physical aptitude, it may well suffer from the very shortcomings of its virtues.

Why Represent Aikido in a Sports Environment?

Christian Tissier told me once that people who chose to practice “traditional” disciplines like budo, and perhaps Aikido in particular, tend to display degrees of conservatism. I certainly fall within that category and my decision to relocate to Japan in order to study budo in its native environment is a likely indicator of that, and perhaps even more the fact that I still live and train there ten years later, having effectively acclimated to the rigid nature of Japanese society. Unsurprisingly, for a long time, I have held rather strict beliefs as to what “traditional” Aikido was supposed to be. For instance, the sheer idea of incorporating Aikido within a sports federation, like they do it in France, or the fact that Aikido could take part in events such as the very awkwardly coined “World Combat Games” really rubbed me the wrong way. I lamented the “sportification” of Aikido away from its “true” budo roots.

“One of the defining characteristics of budo is precisely their ability to morph and fit the times and contexts in which they are practiced.”

As I learned about Japanese language and culture on the one hand, and about Aikido history on the other hand, I became familiar with the concept of “invented tradition” and more importantly, I understood that one of the defining characteristics of budo (new and old) is precisely their ability to morph and fit the times and contexts in which they are practiced. It is perhaps even more true for Aikido, since it can be argued that its founder, Ueshiba Morihei, was all but a traditionalist. The same can probably be said of Ueshiba’s own teacher, Takeda Sokaku, since both Aikido and Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu function in ways that are pretty distinct from that of more “traditional” schools. While both Daito-ryu and Aikido aim for the betterment of human beings1 and the promotion of harmonious relationships2, I have recently concluded that Aikido’s specificity resides in its attempt to make this message universal3, when Daito-ryu’s considerations remain largely ethnocentric.

Aikido was formulated by Morihei and his son Kisshomaru to be spread worldwide, and for this to effectively happen, it would have to be actively promoted. Just think of the outrage that the first public Aikido demonstrations in 1956 — in a shopping center of all places — might have caused among the more traditionalists of Morihei’s students! Moreover, to some extent, Aikido would have to be adapted to the needs of the different societies in which it would be implanted. The result is perhaps no more visible than in the very wide range of interpretations that we have of the discipline nowadays. More than a negative byproduct (or a devolution) though, I believe that the Japanese headquarters expected that this would have to occur, and they anticipated it. Therefore, all that the teachers they dispatched had to do was to carefully walk the fine line of flexibility while making sure not to abandon any of Aikido’s core principles and message.

Based on this understanding, I started to look a little more closely at the current efforts that were being made to promote Aikido on a global scale, and especially the initiatives undertaken by the International Aikido Federation (IAF), which is basically the international arm of the Aikikai Foundation. I had numerous discussions with the IAF’s former and present chairman, Peter Goldsbury and Kei Izawa, respectively, who are both prominent specialists of Aikido history, as well as with Christian Tissier Shihan, who has been extremely successful in spreading Aikikai Aikido within France and beyond. For some time, I just could not fathom why people of such status and experience, all having spent substantial periods of time in Japan, would compromise themselves and Aikido within sporting entities, let alone with the benediction of the successive generations of Doshu. In time though, I started to come to terms with the fact that if the goal was to spread what we consider a wonderful discipline, some coordinated efforts and a collaboration on a larger scale would be necessary.

Through my various collaborations with the IAF, I saw how Aikido was offered the opportunity to be represented on the world stage during major sporting events. While Aikido is definitely a physical activity, a number of people have expressed reservations in seeing it featured in events that contained elements of competition, and I can certainly understand that. The important point though is precisely that sport, though often competitive, does not by definition have to rely on competition. In that sense, I feel that Aikido has a role to play in maintaining that diversity in people’s mind.

“Just think of the outrage that the first public Aikido demonstrations in 1956 — in a shopping center of all places — might have caused among the more traditionalists of Morihei’s students!”

I also think that we must be realistic; if we aim to make the general population aware of Aikido’s existence and spread its ideals, I do not think that we can afford the empty-chair policy. Koryu have gone down that route and we can all see what is happening in terms of interest, but sadly also quality4. But what about participating in events, cultural or otherwise, that would be more in line with Aikido’s ideals? If such a thing existed and if it held as far reaching a potential as that of sporting events, then there wouldn’t be a need for consciousness-raising about what makes Aikido special, would there? Consequently, due to its specificity, Aikido is probably bound to remain a square peg in a round hole for some time.

A Report on the 2019 Chungju World Martial Arts Masterships

I was recently asked by the IAF if I would be willing to join its team of experts to present Aikido in Korea during the 2019 World Martial Arts Masterships. Upon reflecting on the points mentioned above, I decided to accept, and arrangements were soon made for my participation, though I must confess that I did not know much about the event itself before I became involved. I was told that it was to be the second event of its kind, the first one having been held in 2016. It would host tournaments, international conferences and symposiums, and cultural performances, and it was meant to be one of the most important martial arts gathering in the world, its organizers going as far as coining it a “mega event”. Perhaps to further reinforce its international ambitions, the person who was appointed as Honorary President of the 2019 event was Ban Ki-moon, the former General Secretary of the United Nation, who is also happened to be a native of Chungju.

Ban Ki-Moon giving a welcome speech as the Honorary President of the 2019 Chungju World Martial Art Masterships [photo by Kei Izawa].
Looking into the documentation I received, I found out that this particular edition was to welcome 4,000 athletes from 100 countries in order to represent 20 disciplines. As a member of the Global Association of International Sports Federations, the IAF was invited to send some of its representatives to perform demonstrations and take part in a special seminar placed under the direction of one of the IAF senior council members, Christian Tissier Shihan from France. The rest of the delegation would be composed of 35 males and females from 16 countries, ranked from 2nd to 7th Dan, and selected by their respective federations.

The IAF officials and technicians participating in the event [photo by Irina Gaspar].
So just a few days after returning from an extensive teaching tour of Europe, I was in the plane once again. I was greeted at Gimpo International Airport by one of the officials from the World Martial Arts Masterships Committee, which is the governing body of the event. He told me he was here to pick up two people from Japan, myself and an Indonesian lady who is a very active promoter of Penchak Silat in Tokyo. Needless to say that she was as surprised as I was when she realized that the Aikido expert who also flew from Japan was indeed not a Japanese, but a Frenchman! We took a picture with our host in front of the event’s banner and joked that the two of us already constituted a pretty representative sample of cross-cultural relations being established through martial arts!

Bohun Recreation Center, our accommodation for the weekend.

I was driven to the Bohun Recreation Center, where the group of Aikidoka would share the facilities over the weekend with practitioners of Yongmudo, which is a mixed martial arts system formulated in the late 90’s by a group of Korean academics. Rooms were allocated on the spot and the afternoon was the opportunity to reunite with old friends, as well as making new ones. For the evening, the Korea Aikido Federation had organized a welcome party at a nearby hotel. The officers of the Korean federation would actually interface between us and the organizers throughout the weekend and they spared no effort to make us feel at ease in spite of the language barrier. I must take a moment to particularly thank Nak Joon Yoon, the director of the Korea Aikido Federation, who was there pretty much full time to support us, as well as Sung Juhwan, who did most of the translation into English.

Sung Juhwan translating for Christian Tissier [photo by Sorin Toma].
For me, the event carried deeper meaning because as a resident of Japan, I had recently witnessed the relations between Japan and Korea deteriorate at a rather concerning pace. Yet, I was there to represent a Japanese cultural tradition, in a country that is historically extremely reluctant towards anything Japanese. On that subject, the words of IAF Chairman Kei Izawa during the welcome party speech hit a chord when he said the following to the assembly:

You are going to be representing Aikido during demonstrations and a seminar. Please also take this opportunity to support and offer guidance to fellow Korean practitioners, for their position as enthusiasts of a Japanese tradition is not an easy one to uphold right now.
Kei Izawa – International Aikido Chairman, opening party speech.

This reminded me of the event’s official slogan that I had read earlier on a pamphlet, and which roughly translates as “Connecting the World beyond the times”. How incredibly relevant! I do not think that anyone can argue that and art like Aikido does not have its place in such a context.

Kei Izawa giving his welcome speech [photo by Irina Gaspar].
The next day, we all woke up early in order to start rehearsing for the demonstration in the recreation center’s dojo. We were joined by the team of officials from the IAF, led by Kei Izawa, general secretary Wilko Vriesman, and directing committee member Dorin Marchis. Christian Tissier was also present to provide guidance and feedback on technical matters. The demonstration program would be articulated into six parts: the opening demonstration would be ensured by a large number of practitioners from the Korea Aikido Federation under the direction of its president, Daehyun Yoon, and then, representatives of the IAF would demonstrate basic, advanced, and weapons techniques, followed by individual demonstrations by experts, and finally, Christian Tissier.

Daehyun Yoon, the technical director of the Korean federation, demonstrating with his students [photo by Irina Gaspar].
The first thing we needed to work out was: who would demonstrate what, and with which uke. It was decided that I would take ukemi in two sessions, and demonstrate both within the advanced techniques and expert panels. Interestingly, some of Aikido’s principles were to be found in a rather unexpected place when the question of selecting uke arose. Many of us had no idea who we would end up being paired with!

Working out the demonstration teams with Christian Tissier and Dorin Marchis [photo by Irina Gaspar].
Though I knew one of my uke, I was also asked to work with Anne-Claire Versailles from Belgium, Iulian Perpelici from Romania, with whom I had never practiced before. Given the extensiveness of the program and the little time we had to prepare, we actually got very limited opportunity to get to practice with each other. This would turn out to make each of those demonstrations particularly stressful but also poignant moments of cooperation and discovery of each other. Aikido is precisely about establishing communication and mutual understanding, and that is what we did.

Korean representatives SiYeon Kim and Dahui Jeong rehearsing their demonstration [photo by Irina Gaspar].
With the session over, we would get very little rest since in the afternoon, we were scheduled to head to the Konkuk University Gymnasium for a two-hour class with Christian Tissier Shihan, as well as some additional rehearsals in terms of etiquette and entry on / exit from the tatami. This gave us the opportunity to practice together with the Korean Aikidoka and I was really impressed by the general level and engagement in practice that they displayed. This was for sure one of the best seminars I had attended in a long while. Perhaps it is I who was in a particularly receptive state of mind thanks to Izawa’s reminder the night before, but I felt that something had happened on the tatami that day. This feeling would be confirmed the following day by the multitude of friend requests I received on Facebook from people I practiced with the day before. After the class, we promptly returned to the recreation center to make it on time for dinner and everyone went to bed quite early in order to recuperate before the next morning.

Christian Tissier teaching on Saturday afternoon [photo by Sorin Toma].
After a quick but solid breakfast courtesy by the recreation center, we headed once again for Konkuk University Gymnasium. The Aikido demonstrations were scheduled to last the whole morning morning and the Ju-jutsu tournament would follow soon afterwards. Dorin Marchis had worked out a tight schedule, but keeping in mind that some of us would be stepping on the tatami on several occasions, and every demonstration went smoothly. I remember feeling rather nervous when my name was called as a representative of France, especially for my expert performance, since I was scheduled to be the last person to go before Christian Tissier’s final demonstration… Talk about feeling the pressure of comparison!

My final demonstration with fellow Hombu Dojo practitioner Mihaly Dobroka, and Iulian Perpelici [photo by Sorin Toma].
While performing, it hit me that I had so far only considered Aikido practice as a self-centered path to personal development, but there I was today as a part of a team, representing a country I had not lived in for the past 15 years. The word “team” especially, resounded in me and I realized that beyond the personal motivations that lead us to the practice of a budo like Aikido, there could be a sense of group work, and a striving for something that is ultimately larger than us. After the demonstrations we were all offered commemorative medals for our participation in the event. Since Aikido has no competition  everyone could be a winner! More seriously, I must confess that this memorabilia now sits on my shelf as a sweet reminder of a fantastic weekend.

We didn’t leave Korea emtpy-handed. A sample of the memorabilia given to each participant.

Back in my room for my last night in Korea, I reflected upon the event and my participation. While I feel that my performances were far from perfect, I really enjoyed those instants with tori and/or uke, and I hope to have been worthy of having been selected to take part in this event. Past the undeniable satisfaction associated with this peer-recognition, it has been a wonderful opportunity to reflect about the meaning of practice, and the place of Aikido on the global stage. We were just a small group of men and women with various degrees of experience and from very diverse stylistic backgrounds, but we all offered a snapshot of what we consider to be honest Aikido practice, and in some cases, we had to work through some differences to show something coherent to the uninitiated. Competition, though not systematized in Aikido practice, is often pervasive within the interactions between its practitioners (for grades, recognition, etc.), but I am proud to report that over those four days, there was absolutely none of that. Now more than ever, I feel that Aikido has something to offer to society, and to sport in particular, as long as it is done in its own terms, and while keeping true to the core principles that underlie it.

Forging cross-cultural bonds through practice.

Interestingly, on the way back to the airport, I shared the ride with a young female Muay Thai champion from Canada and we spent a great deal of the journey asking each other about our respective disciplines and how the past few days in Korea went. Admittedly, practically speaking, she and I experienced the event in very different ways, but we both had the same sense of having been part of something much larger. Incidentally, I also found out that like me, she happened to be a Biologist! Building bridges from beginning to end!

Many thanks to the International Aikido Federation for allowing me to participate in this event, and to all officials and practitioners that made it a true learning experience.

  1. This is what the Japanese refer to as ningen keisei no michi. You can read a more extensive discussion on how it relates to Daito-ryu and Aikido here.
  2. For a disambiguation on the term “harmony”, I encourage the reader to refer to my discussion with Josh Gold on the subject.
  3. This objective of universality is very likely one of Deguchi Onisaburo’s most notable influences, watch my discussion with Jordy Delage for more details about that.
  4. For a more extensive analysis, watch Prof. Alexander Bennett’s lecture on this subject.

Guillaume Erard

Guillaume Erard is a permanent resident of Japan. He trains at the Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Guillaume regularly gives Aikido seminars throughout Europe as well as lectures on its history. He studied with some of the world's leading Aikido instructors, including several direct students of O Sensei, and has produced a number of well regarded video interviews with them. Guillaume also holds the title of Kyoshi in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and serves as Deputy Secretary for International Affairs of the Shikoku Headquarters. He is passionate about science and education, and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.

12 comments

  • Despite the assertions that Aikido has no competition, in fact there has been competition in Aikido for more than 50 years.

    Four major lines of Aikido – Shodokan, Yoshinkan, Ki Society and Yoseikan (and some minor ones) include some form of competition.

    It would be more accurate to state “there is no competition in the Aikikai”.

    Many people don’t realize that Morihei Ueshiba’s thinking on competition was fairly mainstream for his period, rather than being unique to Aikido. Competitive kendo as a sport pre-dated Ueshiba just slightly, and was something of a radical innovation. Both Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi were opposed to sporting competition.

    But both Karate and Judo are Olympic sports today – times change.

    There’s nothing wrong with being opposed to competition or sports. The answer to that is simple – don’t compete.

    On the other hand,there are people who are interested in competition, and that ought to be fine as well.

    Perhaps the Aikikai could encourage those forms of Aikido that actually participate in competition rather than pre-empting their involvement in this type of venue. Wouldn’t that be an interesting solution?

    Best,

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,
      I am aware of this, as you know. I have actually practiced in some of those lines you mention.
      Note that I made sure to formulate this as “Aikido being a mostly non-competitive, individual sport…” in the introduction of the article precisely to acknowledge that fact. Past that point, and given that I had stated specifically that the framework of my article was an Aikikai Aikido endeavor, I felt that it would be reasonable to assume that I was speaking for that particular school henceforth.
      Regarding your last sentence, I think you might have missed my point. I stated that competition was not a prerequisite to something being considered a sport. Also, as far as I know, introducing an element of competition has never been a condition for participation in those Sport Accord/GAISF/WMC events. As a consequence, I do not see a contradiction with the fact that it is the IAF that represents Aikido in such context, quite the opposite, actually, for this adds diversity to the picture.
      G

  • I think that’s a little too nuanced for most folks, especially since the great majority of Aikikai practitioners are not even aware of those other approaches, in my experience, or of the existence of competition in Aikido. As you say, this is clearly an Aikikai event and Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu has stated flatly in print that styles that include competition cannot be called Aikido.

    Of course, a physical activity without a form of competition can still be considered a sport – hiking, for example.

    My point was that there are forms of Aikido that actively include competition and are really very well suited to this type of venue. The simple fact of the matter is that, intentions aside, those forms are blocked from possible present or future participation by the current participation of the Aikikai. Wouldn’t it be interesting to be inclusive and encouraging to those groups and approaches? To broaden the definition of Aikido rather than narrow it?

    Best,

    Chris

    • I’d argue that these days, nuance is something that we need more of, rather than less! 🙂
      Like you, I have a dream of an Aikido that could truly be universal and inclusive of all forms and interpretations. However, we both know that its various factions have complex dynamics that are far beyond our understanding (well, mine at least). I cannot see any of those faction yield any of its spheres of influence for the benefit of another faction, or a hypothetical greater good. It’s not specific to the Aikikai, nor to Aikido, it’s politics, and frankly, I have no interest in it. What matters to me is what I can do at my own level, on the tatami.

      • I think that no change comes without public pressure (which is why I mentioned it here). It may well be that the answer to factionalism will be for folks to vote with their feet and exit existing organizations that, really, have limited usefulness these days in terms of every day practice. At the very least, it would be a pressure for change that they would understand.

        Best,

        Chris

        • OK, that’s fair enough. If we are going to look into this topic, I must confess that I often feel that there is a disconnect between your comments above (which, with many other things you have written, I largely agree with), and the quite dismissive nature of the comments emanating from the leader of your own organisation when he refers to other teachers/schools. It seems like a missed opportunity of leading by example.

          • You mean Doshu? Because I’ve been a member of the Aikikai for almost 40 years. If you mean Dan – his position and goals are very different from the Aikikai, and the Sangenkai is a very different kind of organization, I’m not sure that you can compare them. Certainly, I’m not sure how that is relevant to the discussion here. In any case, you’d have to be more specific before I can address any of that – or you could speak to him directly, which is always best.

            Best,

            Chris

          • I meant Dan. My point was merely that picturing one organisation (i.e. the Aikikai), as large as it may be relative to others, as solely responsible for the current divide might be a bit unfair. I brought up the Aikido Sangenkai for the sake of clarity. It’s your organisation, so it’s easier than talking about a third party, and Dan has widely and explicitly stated what he thought about a number of people, so I feel there is less risk for misinterpretation. I have nothing against him or what he does, but just as you brought up Doshu when commenting on my article, I feel it’s only natural to inquire about the stance of your own leadership on those issues. I am happy to leave it there because frankly, it’s quite far off the initial topic and I have no legitimacy discussing about the Aikikai’s stance on this or any other subject. Thanks as always for your work and willingness to discuss.

  • Very interesting article, as is the spin off conversation about competition. First I will confess to my own doubts, confusion and ignorance, then ask the question. Are we understanding what we mean by competition? I have seen some brilliant aikido that embraced the principle of seeing the attack as a gift, the attacker as a friend and their energy someting not to oppose but guide. The competition seems to be within self to find the benefits of these principles and is not in the vein of competing at a coarse level with the attacker who is beaten by superior strength and skill. I suspect it is all too easy to slip into the base human reaction when in the competitive frame of mind. Much of aikido seems counter intuitive in its principles and therein actually lies its greatest power. To achieve without effort leaving the attacker wondering how it could have happened.
    You only have to observe the muscle on muscle struggles that occur in competitions between two people who both want to assert their power and win. Seen in tai chi push hands at times and also in some aikido forms. None of it in accordance with any of their founder’s teachings. We face a dilema. I don’t have any answers. I just enjoy writing.

    • Certainly, Morihei Ueshiba was opposed to competition. Whether or not that should limit training methods in perpetuity is another question. Nobody today trains exactly the way that Morihei Ueshiba did, competition or not. The most common form of training today spread from Tokyo’s training – training that Morihei Ueshiba himself criticized loudly and vociferously. So it’s not a simple question to determine whether or not competition as a form of training actually “violates” Morihei Ueshiba’s teaching or not. I will say that competition, like all training methods, has its weaknesses, but it also has its strengths.

      Best,

      Chris

      • Further, I’d note that Morihei Ueshiba was extremely dominating – he was all about asserting his power over the other person, just done in a particular and skillful manner.

        It seems to me that Morihei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba usually explained their opposition to competition on technical grounds rather than the moral grounds that are used more commonly these days.

        Best,

        Chris

        • Possibly. It really depends how you’d set it up I guess. For instance, I’m always impressed with how Kendo has made zanshin such a strict criteria within its competition. It stands as a counter-example against the assumption that competition necessarily undermines budo values.