There is a great deal of confusion around the basic pedagogy of the interactive relationship between tori and uke in Aikido. Everyone in their dojo is free to teach and practice the way they like, however, we find that one thing is misleading: to justify one’s pedagogical choices with the words of the Founder and of his direct disciples, especially when it would appear that none of them has ever pronounced them
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
I have just finished re-reading an interview with one of the most famous Shihans of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo nouvelle vague, Yoshiaki Yokota, an interview which Yokota sensei gave following a seminar in Rome. This interview contains many interesting and fully agreeable insights, although my eyes got stuck on a sentence that doesn’t sit well with me. Read it yourself:
“Aikido is the Budo of love, it is not true that only those who throw are good or beautiful, also those who are been thrown can be very beautiful and elegant. Harmony. At the beginning, setting, position, movement, the basis of the technique is important, but even more important is to make people understand what is behind this practice: peace, love, harmony that make it not look like a fight. In fact Aikido is not fighting, but it is Budo. Budo of love. Uke and Tori both help each other otherwise there is no harmony.” 
Reading the words above brought back to memory very similar ones heard from one of my instructors, Yoji Fujimoto sensei, someone I loved very much during the time spent by his side at the Milan Aikikai. Fujimoto sensei left them to posterity, set in a 2009 video interview. Between minutes 1’19 and 2’20 of that interview, asked by the interviewer to explain what he believes to be the essence of Aikido, Fujimoto sensei replies:
“O’Sensei left an Aikido system where you always have tori and uke. This is a fact full of meaning, first of all because through uke it allows us to learn how to do the techniques, and second because by taking ukemi you have to accept what who is doing the technique does. O’Sensei has left this Aikido system to completely remove selfishness, which is very difficult: to eliminate Ego. In my opinion this is the most important and most difficult thing about Aikido, to remove selfishness, to accept the partner“.
Everything is a question of objectives and obviously everyone is free to teach and practice in the way they prefer. In a dojo, the sensei is king; students choose their teacher with equal freedom and responsibility, so what is practiced during class and how it is practiced remains exclusively part of the unwritten contract between teacher and student. However, choosing to follow a certain pedagogy and do it by virtue of adherence to a certain didactic idea, and then attributing that didactic idea to third parties is a source of suspicion for me, especially when that does not seem to be corroborated by the sources. And the attribution of the equation tori-uke to O’Sensei is misleading to say the least, if not false altogether.
Let’s go read the sources then, as we are supposed to do in any historical research, otherwise we might discuss everything and its opposite without even knowing what we are talking about. As much as I searched the paper material available to me, or went through an exhaustive web research, I could not manage to find one single direct quote that authorizes me to say that O’Sensei has left us an Aikido system where tori and uke work together to fight selfishness, and that harmony is achieved through uke’s acceptance of what tori does.
I am obviously standing by to correct my shot and make amends if I am offered sources that prove the opposite, but – as it stands – it seems to me that there is no doubt that neither Morihei Ueshiba, nor his direct students in his name have left behind the written teaching that Aikido is a form of collaboration between tori and uke, in which the second accepts what the former does.
A few significant examples of the opposite.
“Aiki is the expression of Truth itself. It is the way of calling people together and reconciling them with love whenever they may attack us. Whenever they angrily attack, smilingly reconcile them. That is the true way of Aiki.” – Morihei Ueshiba 
According to the Founder, harmony and reconciliation must be found with those who want to attack us, attacking us in anger. We must respond to them with love and smilingly, BUT they are not the ones who love us and smile! This is how the world of human relationships works, that’s also the way of nature that surrounds us and we experience daily. It is a difficult, hostile world, where if you want a smile, you must conquer it by smiling first, as long as it works.
What does the second Doshu say, often accused of having watered down the roots of Aikido? More or less the same things as his father:
“It is necessary to be strong: whatever evil comes, we must be strong enough to wipe it out and protect justice.” – Kisshomaru Ueshiba 
Regardless of what happens to us, it doesn’t matter how bad it hits us, we must not only endure it, but eliminate it. It seems difficult to learn to endure any level of annoyance, even the minor, by training in a discipline in which our partner lets us do whatever we want, actively collaborating with our proposal, even striving to accept it. How should Aikido strengthen character and give us the strength to stand up to the misfortunes of life and sweep them away?
A different observation point:
“I practice Soto Zen (…). Soto Zen does not pursue the goal of Satori, of self-enlightenment… it is simply about sitting (…). It is to be clear and limpid like a mirror that reflects all aspects of the world without trying to hold onto anything, or trying to see them different from what they are. The purer the mirror, the less attachment there is (…). When the mirror is not perfectly clear, it transforms the world that it reflects. Just the same, in our spirit the slightest trace of Ego attaches itself to the world and tries to seize it and render it fixed. I endeavour to practice Aikido without attachment, like a mirror (…). Of course if there is a mirror to clean, we must practice Aikido in this sense, helping each other with this goal.” – Kisaburo Osawa 
When I attack, just like when I receive, I do not collaborate or hinder, I simply am: in this sense in Aikido we help each other with a common goal, sincerely attacking as uke, and acting sincerely in relation to that sincere attack in the function of tori. Thinking of having to accept what someone else is doing and striving to amalgamate are forms of attachment and, we add, of the worst kind: when practiced for long enough, they cause more serious inner issues than being individualistic or even selfish. We believe that this attitude creates and feeds an evident complex of inferiority and the relative psychological subjection. Therefore, it produces a very fertile culture medium for the formation and development of pyramidal organizations, based on the uncritical acceptance of the dictation of the seniors (who when training always and only play the role of tori).
An insight from Morihiro Saito, who spent 26 years living and training with the founder.
“Many Aikido schools teach primarily “ki no nagare,” or ki flow techniques. In this kind of training, techniques are executed from a moving start dispensing altogether with basic practice where you allow yourself to be grabbed firmly. This sort of prearranged practice is successful only when both partners cooperate fully. Problems occur, however, when students accustomed only to this kind of training are confronted with a strong, non-cooperative opponent. Training in only ki no nagare leaves one totally unprepared for the power and ferocity of a real attack. The weak, undirected attacks characteristic of this kind of training are common in modern Aikido, yet this way of training runs directly counter to the martial principles taught by the founder.” – Morihiro Saito 
If this were not a problem – and perhaps for some it is not, because it is enough to train always and only in an environment where everyone follows the same Aikido system in ki-no-nagare with collaborative uke – how does this relate to the supposed objective of our art to create harmony? The logical hole is sensational: harmonizing with those who are already striving to harmonize with us does not seem to be a particularly glorious achievement. If this is the philosopher’s stone of Aikido, it is very clear why in its few decades of existence the discipline has produced tons of lead and very little gold: if Aikido is the way of harmony, in fact, it should be it by teaching how to harmonize with those who are disharmonious, with those who are not interested in harmony at all, people that the world is full of. Or should we instead interpret the message of Aikido in the sense that we must spread Aikido and force all world inhabitants to train in it, whether they like it or not, as to make all the “bad guys” become harmonious thanks to the collaborative tori-uke practice ? I don’t think the Founder had this in mind when he talked about transforming the world into a big family… Also, what do we do with those who don’t want to “convert” and take part in this world of universal peace based on doing Aikido? Do we exterminate them because they are not harmonious?
Some more food for thought.
“The heart of spiritual mastery is this: the ego self becoming the ego-less self. In every martial and cultural art free expression of self is blocked by one’s own ego. In the Way of swordsmanship the student’s mastery of stance and form must be so total that there is no opening (suki) for the opponent to enter. If an opening does occur, it is created by one’s ego. One becomes vulnerable when one stops to think about winning, losing, taking advantage, impressing or disregarding the opponent. When the mind stops, even for a single instant, the body freezes, and free, fluid movement is lost.” – Taitetsu Unno 
How can anyone reach a perfect mastery of any form without the contradictory debate between the father/uke showing where the suki are in the movements of the son/tori? How will we ever come to a state of control of our emotions and of free expression of the self by practicing in a controlled environment, with a blind and benevolent partner? What is going to become of that group-induced fluid imperturbability, resulting from a practice based on remote controlled back and forth movements, once a partner doesn’t want to play according to the said remote controlled settings AND does not love us? This kind of Aikido in which one becomes an expert in a series of pseudo-martial routines, in which the opponent always answers us “Yes, Sir!” whatever we do, it is just the ultimate illusion. It may also induce a few related psychosis, including delusion of omnipotence, sense of reality loss, and often even sadistic attitudes towards the unwarlike training companion.
Insights from the “Eagle of Aikido”, Tamura sensei, universally known as the founder’s uke.
“It is certain that the direct relationship of the master with his disciple – which is the traditional relationship, identical in its essence to the relation of parents with their children – it is the best possible. Unfortunately, in the modern world such a relationship has become virtually impossible. (…) Let’s not forget that the real transmission is by direct relationship and that we therefore strive not to break this link and to respect its spirit!”.
“It is necessary to correct the technical and spiritual defects of one’s pupils as if they were your children, as if they were yourself, to help them to move in the right direction and to dedicate themselves body and soul to them.” – Nobuyoshi Tamura (7)
In a time when the relationship between parents and their children has become similar to the one existing between mere peers, with all the devastating consequences of the case, this is probably the reason why the “father on the tatami” – that is uke – feels the need of having to fondle his son, making him do what he wants, without ever saying NO! when he is wrong. On the other hand, in a society like ours, in which the boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong have become so clouded that there is an entirely individual ethical vision of what is moral and what is not, only a few dare to really take responsibility for educating their natural children according to their family values. Imagine educating their tatami’s children… The postulate of this attitude, of course, is that nobody should dare to correct anyone, and bye-bye to any ascetic path of individual enlightenment and to any true search for universal harmony based on individual inner work. It all ends up becoming completely relative to what suits the individual, which is the exact antithesis of the alchemical purification process that Aikido is supposed to be. Aikido eventually turned into Zumba, only without music and with pseudo-martial mechanics. Zumba, however, is better fun: you can freely dance your body and mind away and the instructor doesn’t bother you with cheap self improvement philosophy – proof of this being that Zumba is followed by millions of enthusiasts, while Aikido by a handful.
Another way of approaching all of the above: what Morihei Ueshiba and his most direct students have said might not matter at all. Everyone is free to use what they discover in whichever way they like: it is the scientific postulate of experimentation and discovery, utilised in the first place by Morihei Ueshiba himself when reinventing what he learned training in Daito Ryu and following Omoto Kyo religion. However, there is no mention of Daito Ryu or Omoto Kyo, or of the name of Takeda Sokaku, or of Deguchi Onisaburo in any of the founder’s philosophical or technical writings. What he says he intends to do, he says it in his own name, he attributes it to himself and his responsibility, he doesn’t cower himself behind the name of his predecessors, even though they are characters of the highest caliber in their field.
Once one decides to practice Aikido away from the fundamental postulates of his creator – which, I repeat, is fair and acceptable – perhaps it would be more coherent to avoid citing them in vain, this being a widespread habit. Is it not time to stop using Morihei’s large hakama skirt to give a coat of officialdom and prestige to what we do? Should we not personally assume merits and responsibilities for it?
Do you want to transform Aikido into a relational art, into a pseudo-martial psychomotricity? Very well, go ahead, however, kindly leave the founder alone, because it was his son Kisshomaru who said:
“Aikido seeks to maintain the integrity of budo and to transmit the spirit of traditional martial arts, remaining true to the first principle of budo, as enunciated by Master Ueshiba: the constant training of mind and body as the basic discipline for human beings walking the spiritual path. In the tradition of budo strict adherence to the Founder’s ideals and commitment to the Way take precedence over all other considerations.” 
 Yoshiaki Yokota, Intervista con Yokota Yoshiaki Sensei 7th Dan Aikikai, interview carried out during Y. Yokota 2013 Seminar in Rome and published on Aiko website (Retrieved 29/10/2013)
 Morihei Ueshiba, in Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Aikido – La Pratica, 1990, Edizioni Mediterranee, pag. 15
 Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Aikido – La Pratica, 1990, Edizioni Mediterranee, pag. 15
 Kisaburo Osawa, in Nobuyoshi Tamura, Aikido Etiquette et Transmission, 1989, Les Edition du Sol Levante, pag. 7
 Morihiro Saito, in Takemusu Aikido Vol. I, 1994, Aiki News, pag. 71
 Taitetsu Unno, in Kisshomaru Ueshiba, The Spirit of Aikido, 1984, Kodansha International, pag. 8
 Nobuyoshi Tamura, Aikido Etiquette et Transmission, 1989, Les Edition du Sol Levante, pagg. 24-25 & pag.14
 Kisshomaru Ueshiba, The Spirit of Aikido, 1984, Kodansha International, pag. 16
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