The “Greats” of Aikido and the “Padre Pio Syndrome”

I already know that I am going to make a lot of people mad at me, nevertheless today we are going to talk about the “Great” personalities of Aikido and the neverending merry-go-round around their name. We are going to reflect on that sort of possessed and blind love that many show for their holy-sensei and their blessed teachings. We are also going to try to understand what is behind the relative almost religious fury that blinds many when discussing, examining, interpreting and sometimes criticizing the work of the aforementioned Aikido sacred monsters


There is no need to waste too much time to reaffirm things that are obvious to anyone who has received a minimum of education from their parents: adequate respect is due to all those who follow the established ways of urbanity, starting with those who made history in their field, up to the last of our colleagues in the workplace or the dojo next door. However, this almost trite platitude often materialises in attitudes that might be useful scrutinise a little closer if we are to understand the reason for so many words spent about the “Greats” of Aikido – and about the myriad photos posted on social networks and the continual red-hot and rude discussions on martial arts forums of any style.

Provoke them all in every sort of way, scratch their new car, steal their girlfriend, hit them, but do not tell the respective fans that Saito (Tohei, Shioda, Tada, Yamaguchi… O’Senseiiiiii!) are not necessarily those statuesque figures – crystallised in a divine technical, moral and human perfection – which the adoring aforementioned Aikido students have created in their subconscious and which makes their teachers comparable in the devotion they receive to the Catholic saints of past times. Just like in the old days, daring to say that they were (are) only human beings, with their greatness and many weaknesses, just like all of us, may cause to be inscribed into the Index, receive the Aiki excommunication, or even be burnt at the stake…

Many are offended to death if there even is a discussion, for example, about the genesis of Iwama’s bukiwaza, on what Morihiro Saito’s role had been – whether a brilliant synthesizer or slavish collector of the Founder’s work – or about the origins of Aikido itself – whether the Founder cloned Daito, as it has always been claimed on that side of the fence, or he reinterpreted it in a completely original sense, as we Aikido people have been taught to say – and so on. Lined up in often opposing teams, armed to the teeth with the books and DVDs of their beloved sensei, they fiercely hate those of the opposite crew who dare to speak without appropriately worshipping their youthful loves in hakama (even though most of these guys have grey hair by now). All of them often bunch together in a pedantic choir aimed at the Aikido thinkers for being “irreverent and lazy”. Why? Because they are not busy only sweating on the mat and striking with a bokken at the ghosts 300 hours a day: they also use their brains and the available paper and video resources to try and better understand what they are doing, because of whom they are doing it and why they are doing it.

Is it not time to forget the duels in the name of the “Greats” of Aikido?

Nowadays, thanks to social networks, it is possible to exchange opinions on what one might have learned along the way. It is manifest that sometimes there are also graduated suckers who open their mouths and talk about everything without having a clue about. When I make these unfortunate encounters on social media, I just don’t pay attention. We don’t stop going to the cinema for having watched an awful movie: we simply make sure of remembering the name of the director and avoid him in the future…

I think it is never worth it to have an argument with anyone to defend the “good name” of Morihiro Saito, Jigoro Kano, Plato or Osho – first of all because they do not need our petty support. Secondly, it is better to be and stay friends with someone who perhaps does not love John Doe sensei but is a very good person, than to argue with them in the name of a pseudo-fidelity to the “Family”, family (pronounce with a Sicilian accent) which – mind you – doesn’t give a damn about you…

All the above said, every now and then someone pops up, undeterred, to lecture us, to spray poison and sometimes to insult us personally because we would be slacker talkers. They lecture us, however, on social networks, on which they too are the whole time – otherwise, how would they continually meddle with things they say not interest them, but of which they are perfectly aware? Above all, this sort of people would love to distribute gags left and right, to silence those who, according to them, offend the “good name” of the “Greats”, who, yes, really practised Aikido, not like us, contemporary pip-squeaks.

In my opinion, my colleague Aikido teacher and blogger Fabio Branno hits the target when he says that the above way of thinking “(…) hides the seeds of indoctrination, obscurantism and of the limits identified in advance“. He also compares the aforementioned “Hymn to Silence and Practice” [1], so often howled on social media, to the poison in Snow White’s apple. On the one hand, this motto might sound both wonderful and full of wisdom (and so it may be). On the other, any attitude of reverential subjection towards those who preceded us in our steps – which we may reproduce in our own way, as nature dictates – is at the same time the chicken and the egg of the birth and proliferation of all pyramid managed Aikido organisations. This type of culture results in clipping the wings of any keen Aikido student, dampening his capacity for (constructive) criticism and therefore his possibility of growing. Anyone capable of free-thinking can easily see that the above culture works according to the Neanderthal principle of “I have the highest grade and I command, you have the lowest and shut up”.

And since we don’t like these Aikido organisations and we abhor prehistoric social management disguised as democracy, we are not going to shut up at all and we are ALSO going to talk about Aikido’s sacred monsters. Why shouldn’t we talk, far and wide, of the Aikido greats? What’s the problem? Full libraries have been written about each of the famous characters in history, art, music and literature. I see no-one being scandalised about that. Should we be restricted to consulting the glossy biographies of the Aikido great teachers compiled by the PR offices of the various bodies that refer to them? Those things which often have the sincerity and spontaneity of a funeral eulogy? To say that we cannot examine the great teachers’ works because we are not as good as they are – and therefore we are not worthy of uttering comments – would equate to saying that any form of literary, artistic or musical analysis does not make sense, because those who scrutinise Picasso’s work are not as good as Picasso…

Ognuno si informa come crede…

Requesting an Aikido student to simply practice, instead of studying and reasoning – as well as practising – is like asking believers who attend Religious Studies and History in college to leave their studies and relegate themselves in a church to pray. Knowledge is power! Knowing confirms and comforts your choices, if right, or helps you move in a different direction if necessary. Those who get annoyed by the curiosity of others are simply afraid of discovering that their twirling a jo in this or that direction – in imitation of X or Y – one day could turn out to be a total waste of time… I always believed that it is better to do a few hundred bokken strikes less, to spend some more family quality time and have a real or virtual chat with my Aiki friends about what we share.

Another topic that needs to be addressed is that of our beloved freedom of speech (and consequently of criticism), one of the few distinguished achievements of the modern era. For example, I don’t like Mozart, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the musical genius, so what? I cannot say it? I don’t believe one iota of what concerns Padre Pio‘s sanctity, what do you want to do about it? Can’t I discuss this on social media? In my opinion, the contemporary policies of most governments can be traced back to some kind of technocratic fascism, so what? Do you want me to take away my freedom of affirming it on social media and lock me in solitary confinement?

Even though we all periodically speak our share of nonsense, no one would dream of self-denying the faculty to express themselves: because we all care about our own freedom of speech, and a lot, although often enough we want to take it away from others. If some have reservations about the work of this or that sensei (and perhaps they are seldom right), what should we be going to do? Like in the old days of the Holy Inquisition? Those who dare to step out of the official line have to be obliterated?

Personally, I don’t especially like the professional hyper-critic type, but I can still argue with them. Those who want to shut me up and neutralise me, however, give me the shivers, because they remind me that our common past history included exiles, Gulags and forced labour camps. We crucified Jesus, burned Jean d’Arc, imprisoned Galileo Galilei…

On a lighter note, it should be composedly accepted that it is part of the human soul to discuss the “Greats”, exactly since they are more visible. The same goes with finding their “little weaknesses”, with which they are sometimes well endowed. The gurus of Aikido, ALL included, are no exception. They are humans!

Pope Francis kissing Padre Pio’s body

And here we come, finally, to what I have christened as the “Padre Pio Syndrome”: the unconscious Aikido community collective relationship with the figure of the Aikido Founder as represented after his death: a cross between a cartoon character and Merlin the Mage (“The stories have gotten rather incredible since Ueshiba Sensei passed away, and now people are having him moving instantaneously or reappearing suddenly from a kilometer away and other nonsense. I was with Ueshiba Sensei for a long time and can tell you that he possessed no supernatural powers”- Koichi Tohei [2]). The man Ueshiba was reserved, hated honours, noise, organisations. If he had wanted to be in the middle of some kind of carousel, why would have he left the glory and money he had in Tokyo for his little piece of land and the hardship in Ibaraki Prefecture – which, at the time, was like moving to Here be Dragons?

If absurdly he came back to life today and saw his statues an all those photos hanging left and right, if he read everything that is ascribed to his name (most of the time without any documentary support) and, above all, if he saw all that many manage to do after having learnedly mentioned his doka (and I’m not talking about techniques), I doubt he would be happy. Probably we would witness one of those famous outbursts of anger that characterized him and which are instead well documented, but hidden by the official hagiography.

Then, like a good old sly, he would resort to facial plastics, change his name and hide in some other Iwama lost god knows where, well away from the said noise and junk and the hysterical love of too many little people hungry for personal endorsement and backing for their actions.


[1] Comment to a Facebook post

[2] Pranin Stanley, Interview with Koichi Tohei, Aikido Journal, 1995

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2012
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