Aikido: A Message and Mission for Our Times

On November 10 and 11, I had the opportunity to share the art of aikido at Summit LA, one of the world’s preeminent idea festivals. The Summit community is comprised of global leaders across a range of disciplines, as well as up and coming influencers, innovators, and thinkers. Having a clear and compelling “big idea” to share with this group was essential.

A great work of literature or a great painting can be interpreted in many ways. Sometimes vastly different, but equally valid interpretations are developed by experts. The interpretation of aikido I shared at Summit LA is certainly not the only valid way to look at aikido. Some may argue that it may not be exactly what the founder had in mind. However, I feel it is an authentic, focused, and internally-consistent take on the art.

Throughout the weekend of Summit LA, I shared this interpretation of aikido with people privately, in small group discussions, and on a broader stage in the form of large group sessions on aikido movement and philosophy. This story of aikido was compelling and engaging to the Summit community. It appealed to Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and the Baby Boomer generation. It resonated with CEOs of major corporations, people who held senior level White House positions, world renowned entertainers, and leading scientists.

Here’s the story of aikido I shared at the event.

Introduction

Josh Gold. Photos by Anne Lee

Welcome to the Aikido experience at Summit LA. Over the next hour, we’ll explore the art of aikido, a unique and profound, but often misunderstood, martial system. Aikido was developed in Japan in the first part of 20th century as a form of Budo, a category of martial arts designed as educational systems as opposed to hand-to-hand combat systems.

So what kind of educational system is it? And what’s it teaching? We believe Aikido contributes something unique in the martial arts, and even the broader educational world —  something that can make a real impact on how our global society faces the great challenges of our time, including a polarized political climate, growing inequality, and an existential environmental crisis.  

Aikido is not an “application level” training system. We’re not teaching self-defense or discipline. Instead, Aikido can be thought of as an operating system level upgrade for humans. One that encodes us with the disposition and capacity to create collaborative, non-zero sum relationships in every interaction in our lives — with ourselves, another person, an organization, or even an idea. In this worldview, these relationships center persuasion and freedom of choice and displace coercion as a mode of engagement. 

Aikido gives you power over someone, but trains you to transform “power over” into “power with.”

Coercive relationships, those that achieve an outcome by force or threat, are used far too often. They’re easy to wield if you have power, but they leave wreckage in their wake — both for the person being coerced, as well as for the one who uses coercion to win or dominate. For most circumstances in our world, it’s far better to create collaborative relationships that generate value in every interaction.

Aikido is a powerful training ground that forges the disposition and capacity to create non-zero sum outcomes in every encounter — powered by persuasion and freedom of choice. Aikido is brilliant in its design — in the way it’s fully optimized for this purpose.   

The Roles We Play

Setsuko Okumura with Summiters

Before we get started, we’ll need to define two terms. Over the course of our practice together, we’ll take turns in the roles of uke and nage. While the true nature of these roles is deep and profound, we’ll describe them as simply as we can while providing you enough context to start training. We’ll consider the uke as the partner who’s providing an attack. But we won’t think of the nage as the defender.

By defending, we are not only propagating an attack/defend/counterattack paradigm, we are limiting our own freedom of choice. To defend, we must react to an attack, which collapses our full spectrum of options into a narrow band of responses. Instead, we will think of the nage as the one who transforms the attack into something else.

The Attack

Francisco de los Cobos, training with a focused partner.

Quite often in life, when we encounter an obstacle or an attack, we perceive the entire relationship as an attack. The aikido worldview tells us that the relationship is not reducible to an attack, but instead that there is an attack within the relationship. By reorganizing the relationship, we can transform the attack into something else — leaving us a new relationship with mutually viable pathways forward.

Technical Architecture: Exit Pathways

Hui Reccow and Nastia Shuba

The techniques in aikido never “finish the opponent” or terminate the relationship, but instead protect our own interests while establishing the conditions for our opponent to choose a viable path forward. The technical architecture of the aikido system is built on the premise that we must always provide our partner with a way out, a way forward. This is a critical part of the training system.

As we train in the role of uke, we are conditioned to always find a way out — to unlock a deadlock — even in the face of a powerful and sometimes unexpected threat. We have to find creative solutions under pressure. In the real world, there may not always a way out, but far too often, we give up or don’t look hard enough. Aikido rewrites your operating system to assume by default that there is always a way out, a way forward. 

Karen Kim, instructing and taking ukemi. Stephen learns fast.

And from the perspective of the nage — we  train ourselves to respect our partner for taking an out.  By choosing an “out,” our partner has saved us from needing to do something worse to protect our own interests: something that would change who we are; something that would create negative consequences that radiate out to touch the lives of many. 

More specifically, the technical architecture of aikido is aligned to protect the nage from the uke’s (actual) aggression and simultaneously protect both the uke and the nage from the nage’s (potential) aggression. 

“Aikido displaces the dynamics that produce winners and losers in the first place. It attempts to transform the conditions that would allow us to become enemies to one another — past, present and future.”

Martial Integrity

Josh Gold (uke) and Nastia Shuba

Some ask why such a training system should be embodied in the form of a martial art. And this is what I find to be the true genius of the system design. To face a high-stakes challenge in life, to truly embrace and attune to hostile people and circumstances, to see without bias, to trust in a creative process of collaboration with shared vulnerability instead of forcing an outcome, can be absolutely terrifying. 

The martial techniques in aikido can break bones and kill. They wield real power. And it’s these very martial techniques that turn aikido into a “terror simulator” — one that trains us at a fundamental level to have the courage and faith to pursue collaborative outcomes in the face of real anxiety and fear. Humans have not evolved much in the last 100,000 years. We can learn a lot about purely intellectual pursuits by exchanging ideas with each other, or through individual contemplation and reflection. But to change our disposition — to upgrade our operating system instead of just adding a new skill, we have to access and forge our primal selves. We need another human being interacting with us physically, emotionally, and psychologically, at a visceral level — both pushing us and caring for us in a process of creative tension. 

Aikido gives you power over someone, but trains you to transform “power over” into “power with.” If aikido loses its martial integrity, it cannot achieve this function. 

Closing

Today, you were introduced to a few techniques and training exercises from the aikido system. Aikido does not preserve and reverse the aggression of an attack by channeling back the same aggression in the form of a counter-attack. It is not, therefore, primarily a martial art of attack and counter-attack, at least not in the sense of a contest where one wins and one loses. 

In creating something more like a non-zero sum situation, aikido displaces the dynamics that produce winners and losers in the first place. It attempts to transform the conditions that would allow us to become enemies to one another — past, present and future. It insists that if you engage me, it will not be an episode in which one of us secures victory and walks away; it will constitute the beginning of a relationship that will change you from a competitor into a collaborator. 

Madison Fukushima and Ben Cave with the Summit crowd.

I’d like to close with a story told to me by one of my friends and mentors. She’s now a 7th degree black belt in aikido. Many years ago, after returning from a grueling training regimen in Japan, she was practicing at her home dojo in the Bay Area, when one night, a homeless man walked in. He was visibility agitated and walked right onto the tatami mats with his shoes on in the middle of class. She took initiative and escorted the man out of the dojo very respectfully. His anger swelled and he pulled a knife on her.

This is the part of the story where most people expect me to say that she disarmed him, threw him on the ground, and immobilized him until the cops showed up. But that’s not what happened. Something very different unfolded. She looked at him and said, “I’m sure you don’t want to hurt me, and I don’t want to hurt you either. Let’s go for a walk together.”

This gentleman was in his 30s and had been homeless since he was six years old. This young, attractive woman took him by the arm and started walking down the street with him, together. He was so disoriented, he put the knife back in his pocket. She asked him about his life story and she listened.

When they’d made their way around the block, she told him, “You’re better than this. You’re better than the kind of person who walk into somebody’s community and frightens people.” He nodded his head, and walked away in peace.

“The aikido worldview tells us that the relationship is not reducible to an attack, but instead that there is an attack within the relationship. By reorganizing the relationship, we can transform the attack into something else — leaving us a new relationship with mutually viable pathways forward.”

Later that evening, he returned to the dojo and asked for her by name. When she came out to see him, he told her, “I wanted to thank you for what you said to me.” He pulled out the knife and said, “I want you to have this.” He went down on one knee, like a European knight, and with both hands raised, presented her with the weapon.

Not only did this approach avoid a high-risk physical altercation where injury of some form would be inevitable; but the man became a hero- in his own mind, and in reality. It wasn’t even that this aikido teacher turned him into a hero. Instead, she created the conditions that allowed the man to transform himself into a hero.

This is aikido. Thank you.


Questions and Answers

Chris Jones, answering questions and sharing his love of aikido.

Aikido, Judo, and Jujutsu: I hear the terms “verbal judo,” “verbal aikido,” or “verbal jiujitsu.” Does it all mean the same thing? What’s the difference between the approach of these arts?

These are all sister arts with common roots, yet they are distinct, as well. Let’s use a relationship with an asymmetric power dynamic as an example to explore the differences.  We can make it very simple and look at a scenario where a physically stronger opponent attacks a physically weaker person. Of course all of this can apply to any type of relationship — physical, emotional, legal, economic, and so on.

When faced with a stronger opponent, jiujitsu uses leverage to allow a weaker person to prevail.  Judo harnesses an opponent’s power and redirects it to turn it back against them. In contrast, aikido, when a practitioner is faced with a powerful aggressor, transforms the conditions of the relationship so the attacker chooses not to wield their their power against us in the first place.

Summiters at LA19

Aikido vs. MMA: Does aikido work in an MMA ring?

No, it doesn’t. MMA is predicated on a coercion-based interaction model — using force to submit an opponent in a win/lose paradigm. Aikido practice is predicated on a cooperative training model. Aikido is optimized specifically to avoid, and provide alternatives to, interactions that use force to create a zero-sum win/lose outcome.

People can easily misunderstand aikido because some of the same techniques seen in MMA also appear in aikido. Aikido is a legitimate martial art that uses authentic and powerful techniques that can, and have been used effectively in hand-to-hand combat. However, they are curated into the aikido system to achieve a completely different purpose. So no, aikido does not work in an MMA ring, but it does do something else. Something that many people find to be profound and transformative.

Of course, many aikido practitioners train in other arts or training modalities that are optimized for hand-to-hand combat against a resisting opponent. We want and need martial artists like this in the aikido community — as students and teachers. Not everyone needs to do to this, but it keeps us grounded and reminds us of the purpose and focus of what we do, while teaching us to respect our sister arts and appreciate them for what they are.

Conclusions

Summit LA Aikido Team

The weekend at Summit LA was filled with fascinating conversations about aikido. Almost everyone left our discussions inspired and reflective. Many asked me for referrals to aikido dojos in their cities. Everyone from CEOs in major metropolitan areas to young up-and-coming musicians from the rural South.

This story of aikido resonates with many. It also solves a lot of problems and contractions we’ve faced when communicating about our art. And finally, it gives us a focused purpose and a role to play in forging a better global society.

With this as inspiration, I’ve formed a new aikido-based nonprofit, Budo Accelerator, with Mark Tercek, a friend, fellow aikido practitioner, and titan in the nonprofit sector, who for a decade served as CEO of the world’s largest environmental nonprofit. We took the opportunity to announce this exciting news at Summit LA.

We have big plans for Budo Accelerator and we’ll need your help to bring them to life. We’ll share more news on this new initiative soon.

Josh Gold and Mark Tercek

I’d like to extend a special, heartfelt thanks to the aikido community for their support and insights, to the Summit team for allowing us to present aikido to their community, to the Ikazuchi Dojo team who brought the event to life, and to the important behind the scenes collaborators without whom this would not have been possible. With our combined efforts, I see a bright future for the art of aikido.

Photo journal: Summit LA19

Josh Gold

Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, CEO of Budo Accelerator, and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo.

38 comments

  • Wow – that was the best description of Aikido that I’ve ever heard. Thank you for your contribution to the world Aikido with your thoughtful and eloquent description of our very special art.

    • You are most welcome. And thanks to you and the rest of the aikido community for providing the support and insights that were instrumental in the creation of this narrative.

  • Love this, Josh. Well done. No “eye for an eye” but a path to peaceful resolution. When we “do” Aikido with our thoughtful, mindful purpose in the world, it is indeed powerful for all involved. Aikido out of the box. Best wishes on your new venture.

  • Well done Josh. That was an awesome thing to do. More teachers and thought leaders need to come out and explain the essence of the founder’s aikido to the world.

    I have linked to this page from my blog post on “Why does aikido use conflict to teach peace?” Thank you.

    • Thank you for the feedback and support – both in this endeavor and with Budo Accelerator. Looking forward to seeing you again soon!

  • Josh this was an astonishing presentation of how the fundamental concepts which embody Aikido can us navigate in a polarized world. This sense of polarization and subsequent separation stems I believe for our very brains, which by design are polarized. So in a very real sense we need to transcend a key part of our own biology to embrace ideals which may not immediately come naturally.

    This is part of O’Sensei’s gift to humanity and one you so eloquently modeled at this Summit. Bravo for a magnificent job Weldon’s. Thank for this very thought provoking and paradigm shifting presentation. I deeply appreciate it.
    Dr. Carl Totton
    Director, Taoist Institute
    North Hollywood, CA

  • Absolutely the best! Your description of Aikido hits the nail squarely on the head. I am going to share this with my dojo members as a way to help them understand the real purpose of training. Thanks for taking the lead on such an important presentation of our art!

    • Thank you, my friend. So glad the interpretation resonates with you. And thank you for sharing with your students. I’m very much looking forward to spending time with you on the mat sometime again soon.

  • Josh,

    This is one of the best presentations I’ve ever read. It’s very well written and organized, it’s logical and it does not rely on ‘argument from authority’ or similar biases.
    This attempt at being objective, positive and productive with Aikido is definitely what we, Aikidoka of the 21st century, need the most.

    Let’s continue working on this path together.

    • Jordy, thank you so much for the feedback. It was really important for me not to rely on “argument from authority” or any kind of fantastical lore. I also specifically stayed away from expected vocabulary like “peace and harmony”, etc. The interpretation we used really connected with the Summit community – which is a very diverse and progressive group. I very much look forward to working with you on this path together. It will be an honor, my friend!

  • I am indeed grateful to you for representing the Aikido community in this important event. Your presentation has covered many of the value propositions that Aikido can offer to the modern society. I am sure that there will be some people that may disagree with your assumptions but I personally feel that you have managed to compile the key elements of the Japanese Aikido philosophy in ways that not many Japanese would have been able to articulate.

    • Thank you Sensei! The positive feedback means a lot, especially coming from you. I’m sure that some will disagree with this interpretation and that’s fine. There certainly is more than one valid interpretation of a great work of art, literature, etc. I think it is the same for the art of aikido. But I can state with confidence now, that this is a narrative that resonates well with thoughtful and inquisitive non-practitioners who span multiple generations, cultures, and professional paths. I’m so glad you feel I was able to successfully compile the key elements of the Japanese Aikido philosophy within this narrative. Our discussions and your perspective really played a role in pulling this all together.

      • Aikido is truly a treasure to modern society and your interpretation makes Aikido even more valuable and applicable. The narrative is very important and you have done a great job. We will continue the journey together.

  • Josh,
    I love what you have been doing to help promote and re-position Aikido for the 21st century. It’s in great need and part of the evolution!

    Looking forward to hearing more about Budo Accelerator.

    Francisco

  • Thank you, Josh. I really appreciate your explanation of the “architecture of aikido:” spelling out what it means to blend with the attack or attacker. It is encouraging to hear your talk resonated with younger generations.

  • Josh’s explanation is history in the making! While note a poem his prose dance on the page as strong and beautiful as his personal Aikido way. A way learned from our Sensei Matsuoka. This journal article is the product of Sensei Haruo Matsuoka number one student finding his way as a real aikidoka. Sensei Matsuoka and the entire Ikazuchi dojo should be proud of Josh, instructors and kohai who participated in the event and the everlasting words that should be read by all in the aikido community.

  • Very interesting reading, really. I have been into various martial arts for about 25 years now and Aikido is my primary art. Aikido people are my second family. But I must say I don´t really think that Aikido is something unique in the world of martial arts. Technically, of course, it´s very distinctive, but what I´ve learned from other styles, they teach the same idea. They never say “an eye for an eye”, or “if you slap me, I´ll kill you because I am trained”. It´s like we said that if you train shooting at a shooting range, you shoot people on the street. People training other styles are not killers and they never show their skills as a sign of their dominance or their desire to win over somebody. I don´t understand where this idea came from – movies, maybe? If you train hard and practical combat in your dojo, gym or whatever we call it, it doesn´t mean you walk down the street and beat people, but Aikido people don´t do it just because Aikido is different. All other martial arts I know provide the same ideas and thoughts as Aikido, but the training methods are just more realistic in case of need. But it´s usually “the more you know, the less you show”.
    As for the story about a homeless man with a knife and a woman in a dojo. This is exactly the same advice given by every smart self-defence instructor – never fight against the knife, because it´s one of the most dangerous weapons. If you can and if there´s no other option like running away, try to communicate as the first step. And I have a bit different story. A friend of mine was asked on the street by a homeless man for some money at midday some years ago. She refused and walked away, because this happens on a daily basis in big cities. When she turned around, the homeless man stabbed her so she ended up in the hospital.
    This all really depends on every single situation. What might work for somebody might not work for somebody else. Maybe if there had been really a drugged insane determined to kill somebody, the story might have been completely different.
    Almost every martial art, as you progress in your physical training, opens up a lot of philosophical questions about life, humanity, offers you some kind of spiritual guide, provides you with mental development. I can´t agree that Aikido is kind of unigue in this sense. All martial arts (I´m talking about arts, not sports) provide the same oportunities, but using just different methods of the physical training.
    Isn´t there a saying: “We all climb up the same mountain but use different paths”?
    I just think all martial arts are great and we can find the same message in all of them. I am sometimes a bit sad to hear almost in every seminar that Aikidokas say:”We are better than other styles because we don´t fight, we don´t punch, we never kick, we have something better and more peaceful”. This is really a sad truth that you can hear this from many teachers and then from students. What we can benefit from martial arts generally is that we train our body and mind to keep ourselves fit physically and mentally, try to become a better person than the one who we were yesterday, try to help people in our close area and just be a nice and kind human being. And this can be gained from every martial art. But we must also face the reality. Not everybody is going to train in any arts and there will always be nice and clever people as well as evil, stupid and dangerous people in the world. This is never going to change.
    It makes me sad that Aikido is losing its popularity. But the question is “why?”. I´m afraid that if people take up any martial art, they get the same mental development as human beings as with Aikido, BUT PLUS practical skills. Which, as it was mentioned, is not the goal of Aikido. I personally believe that technically and its effectivness is absolutely equal to other combat styles and you can find its application against every style of attacking.
    Maybe the reason of the decline is that there´s huge confusion what Aikido is, what is not, if it works or not, if I can use it as self-defence or not, if not, why not when it´s a martial art, or if it is only some kind of meditation like Tai-ji…
    I am very sorry for such a long article.

  • Hi Josh. My feedback FWIW is that this is spot on! I have come to think more this way as well over the years, but you have managed to expressed these ideas far more effectively and succinctly than I could have ever done! I can only imagine how long it took you guys to write and refine this presentation!

    I particularly appreciated seeing you using a word I too have been kicking around lately – genius. I have come to the opinion that O’Sensei was in fact a true genius of his time. He took took the function of traditional Japanese Budo – Self improvement and development through practice of the combat arts – and expanded even further to include positive development of both the Uke and Nage, and the relationship between the two – and by extension all of humanity. Thus, his saying that “Aikido is the way to reconcile the world” is not just some vague, general, philosophical expression, but actually a very concrete, specific description of how he designed the art from the beginning. I also liked your analogy to “re-writing the operating system” as it explains how Aikido accomplishes these goals even if the practitioners are unaware they exist, or even choose to believe them or not.

    Again, Well done! I’m looking forward to hearing more of the next project you mention. As though it’s not like you don’t already have enough on your plate. Where do you find the time?!

  • Josh – I’ve trained in Aikido for more than 42 years and, three years ago, I retired after 43+ years in human/social services. As I often tell my students, if you’re only trying to learn how to put on a “killer” nikkyo, you’re missing the point. In my professional career, I tried to use Aikido principles in my daily dealings with others. I strongly encourage my students to “take your Aikido off the mat.” Your explanation/exploration of Aikido above is clear and insightful and fully describes the art I love. I plan to share this with my dojo and, with your kind permission, share it on my Facebook page. Thank you for this and, please, thank the members of your dojo who assisted you in presenting Aikido to Summit L.A. Best regards.

    • Chuck-great to hear from you. Glad this interpretation of aikido resonates with you. It’s been really clarifying for me too and the process of formulating it was both challenging and rewarding. Please do share as widely as you like (on FB, etc). I’ll be sure to pass along your thanks to the aikido team that was at Summit LA. Hope to meet you in person and have the opportunity to train with you at some point in the not too distant future.

  • Josh:

    Superb lay-out. Informed. Thoughtful. Heartfelt.

    I began my Aikido training in 1971 in the SF Bay Area. Consequently, I got exposed to a broad spectrum of various “interpretations” Aikido … technically, philosophically, and spiritually.

    A kind od smorgasbord … in a way. What do ya like? What do ya want? “We got it, right here!”

    There is a saying in Kyudo (Japanese Archery) that the ‘true shot’ is released between Yin and Yang. The sum of all my experience has me in complete agreement with this POV.

    The incredibly difficult challenge here … in grasping the dimensions of Aikido … is like one of the Flying Wallendas walking on a tightrope over a Grand Canyon gorge. It requires not only extraordinary balance and physical skill, but also a centeredness, clarity, and equanimity that is “off the scale” for most of us.

    Most of us “fall off” into one side or the other. Aikido as Jitstu. Aikido as a Steven Segal movie. Aikido as a Do. Aikido as socio-psychology. Aikido as New Age progressive idealism. Aikido as an anime comic strip. Aikido as mystical Shinto. Aikido as Zen.

    I choose to interpret the life Path of O ‘Sensei as one which brought him to that “space” between yin and yang. A very rarified space. It borders on that sentiment of, “If you don’t get it, then no words will suffice”. It must be grocked, not merely understood.

    We need, imho, to be very wary of putting our current 2019 ‘social meme’ understanding and interpretation on Aikido and … feeling smug about it.

    I would suggest that the alchemy of Ueshiba’s method, his melding of the material and the spiritual dimensions, and the resulting shift of his overall POV as to the meaning and purpose of life … is not reducible to a “fortune cookie platitude”.

    It challenges our usual thinking, feeling, perceptions, evaluations, and conclusions.

    Perhaps, in the end, what matters most is that we commit and align ourselves to walk together on the “Makoto no Michi” … the Path of Sincerity.

    In a parallel way, Sifu Peter Ralston describes his art of Cheng Hsin this way:

    The Way ofThe “No Way” …

    Initial encounters with the Cheng Hsin communication often create a sense of frustration, for its fundamental nature is ungraspable by the mind. Cheng Hsin does not lay out a path of moral righteousness nor does it define a set of concrete beliefs. It doesn’t lay out precise dogma or a set of rules to follow, and so demands patience and commitment to comprehend. It is not immediately intelligible.

    “You can’t fix Cheng Hsin on the wall with a pin because, as you try, you realize that Cheng Hsin is the wall, and the pin, and the action, and the intent.”

    Respectfully,

    David Brown
    Hombu Aikido
    Sandan

  • The Summit sounded amazing. Sorry to miss it. Great thoughtful piece here and appreciate your continued work and dedication to Aikido. Proud to have you as a Senpai and thanks for the inspiration!

  • Josh, what a wonderful interpretation of Aikido! I especially liked the way you related it to an upgrade in the human “software”; that is a metaphor that young people especially will understand. And I agree with your earlier statement that Aikido — like many other communal activities — has a recruitment problem. Your presentation will have a positive impact in drawing attention to Aikido, which should help independent dojos like mine attract new practitioners. With your permission, I would like to disseminate your message widely so that we can bring more people into the Aikido world.

    • Mike, Glad the narrative resonated with you. Yes, feel free to share the message as widely as you feel appropriate. Nice to connect with you here!