The Phenomenologist – Interview with Ellis Amdur

Ellis Amdur is a renowned martial arts researcher and a teacher in two different surviving Koryu. His books on Aikido and Budo are considered unique in that he uses his own experiences, often hair-raising or outrageous, as illustrations of the principles about which he writes, but it is also backed by solid research and boots-on-the-ground experience. This interview, part of The Aiki Healing Sessions, is no exception to that


Welcome, everyone. This is Simone Chierchini and you’re on Aikido Italian Network. Happy Sunday to everybody, nice to meet you again for the fifth session of “The Aiki Healings“. We have a special guest today, a celebrated budoka and writer of Aikido things and not only. Welcome to Ellis Amdur.Hi Ellis, how are you doing today?

I’m good thank you, I hope everybody’s good too.

How have you been doing with your Covid-19 days?

It’s hard to say. I’ve had almost no work but that enabled me to publish three books last year because I had the time. I’ve had the vaccination so, in theory, at least I’m relatively safe.
It’s like every other country. America’s going through not only the problems it has with the virus but with the stupidity of all the politicians and all of that. So there’s a lot of people managing to make it worse than it otherwise would be.

I actually keep tabs on both Italy and Ireland and I have to say I can only agree with you. Besides all the problems that we have, well there’s people and politicians, that’s the way it is. Anyway, let’s hope that soon enough we’ll see some end to this or anyway a few steps back towards some kind of normality because I think most of us are really looking forward to go back there.
You were mentioning the work you’ve been you’ve been doing on your books. If there’s one good thing about this time is that one has plenty of time to think or rethink, study, produce. We’ve all been busy doing that.
Talking about your books, you produced a few seminal books on Aikido, works like “Dueling with O’Sensei” and “Hidden in Plain Sight”. There’s no doubt that these books have greatly contributed to bringing Morihei Ueshiba sensei and his legacy back among us humans. To me it’s quite obvious that that was your plan from the onset and I think it somewhat worked. Can you explain to us what motivated you to explore this avenue?

Full Video-Interview with captions

The very first thing I wrote was an initial version of what later became “Old School“, my book on koryu.
I started that back in 1980 and I had a very different focus at the time. Then I laid it aside, I was co-writing it at the time.
I came back to the States in 1988 and I hadn’t done Aikido in ages. I’d discontinued Aikido in the late 70s and focused on other martial arts. I had reconnected with my first serious Aikido teacher, who was Terry Dobson. Terry Dobson was only the second non-Japanese to be in the rather debatable term of uchi-deshi in the Honbu Dojo. I discoursed with Terry, and I ended up writing a small article for a now-defunct magazine. It was on ukemi. I’d never published anything before. The day before the article was due to be published, I got this note: “We made a bunch of editorial changes. Please let us know by tomorrow”.
Knowing nothing about publishing, I thought: “Oh, maybe that’s normal, although that’s really odd”.
And there were some things I didn’t like, but okay… Then I wrote another article – the original version is now in the book “Dueling with O’Sensei” and it was called “Aiki – The State of the Union” – and the same thing happened. That essay is kind of colourful, if you will, it’s kind of rough spoken… And again, literally, the night before it’s to be published I get contacted: “Please send your editorial comments…”
and I was so upset with the changes they made, because they stole my voice: this was no longer my article. They still had telegrams in those days, there wasn’t much going on the internet. I drove well above the speed limit – because I took it very personally – to a telegraph office and sent a telegram “Withdraw permission for publication – Do not publish this”. It got there in time and they respected that.

I was having a conversation with Diane Skoss – Diane Skoss is a very well-known Budo practitioner. She’s currently, among other things, menkyo kaiden of Shindo Muso-ryu jo and she was the editor of Aikido Journal, Stanley Pranin’s magazine. I told her the story and she said: “Well, why didn’t you send it to me”, and I said, “Well, I thought you only published historical stuff” and she said, “No, we want a column from you”.
So I now had a deadline and realized I had a lot going on in my head and started writing a bi-monthly column of essays about Aikido, which is kind of odd because I wasn’t practicing it at the time. Aikido always remained this puzzle to me. One way I put it is Aikido is the martial art of the grey areas. It’s a martial art that truly is a 20th/21st-century martial art suited for civilized people. We start with that, and it’s a puzzle then. It’s a puzzle that the allegedly most moral martial art has so many less than moral people in it, all the way back to Ueshiba Morihei. Very complex, big figures who were getting deified. In sense Aikido for me became a microcosm of a lot of issues that I was considering concerning the acquisition of power.
Then this got even more accentuated. I was borrowing a friend’s dojo and teaching small classes of Araki-ryu and Toda-ha Buko-ryu, the two koryu bujutsu that I do. He had a dojo with three other Aikido teachers and himself. He said: “I’m going on a six-week trip. Would you take my Aikido classes?” and I said, “I don’t do Aikido”. He expressed some concern that one of the other teachers, who was quite charismatic, would steal all his students while he was gone. So I said “Yeah but I just don’t Aikido any more” and he said, “Well, you owe me”, because he’d lent me the dojo. I always pay my debts. So I started teaching.
I started with an idea which I call, “Respect the house”. If I’m a guest in someone else’s house, I’m certainly going to be myself but I’m also going to respect the rules of the house where I’m a guest.
If I’m a visitor in your house and you say “No shoes, please”, I’m not going to insist on wearing shoes.
If you say “We don’t smoke here”, I’m not going to smoke a cigar. That’s common courtesy. Similarly, if I’m teaching Aikido, I’m not going to say: “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. If you were doing Muay Thai, you’d do it this way”. I think it’s not only disrespectful. It takes a very complex art form and reduces it to a very narrow perspective.
What seemed more interesting to me was to take the Aikido form unquestioningly as it is and see what from my then 40 years of training I could offer to contribute to enhancing that Aikido form, without doing violation to it. Similar to if I’m a guest in your home and you have a gutter falling down, if you ask me, I’ll help attach the gutter to the wall but I’m not going to remodel your house. That then provoked the questions I had that much more, I started writing that much more and then I ended up with “Dueling with O’Sensei”.

Front row, left to right, Tada Hiroshi, Okumura Shigenobu, Osawa Kisaburo, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Tohei Koichi, Arikawa Sadateru, unknown. Second row, left to right, unknown, Sugano Seiichi, Sunadomari Fukiko, Tamura Nobuyoshi, Noro Masamichi, Kobayashi Yasuo, Chiba Kazuo, Kanai Mitsunari. Photo taken at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo around 1961

In this very same book, in a couple of chapters, you described the golden age of the Aikikai Honbu Dojo. You have also portrayed the Greats of Aikido, those whose efforts produced the art of Aikido as we have it today. As a reader, I got the impression that the spectrum in both the teaching style and the material was unmatched. When I compare it with today’s situation at the Honbu, where Aikido is now better known for its conformity to certain standards, I find that the clash pretty significant. Is this a good thing, this conformity we have now at the central school, or should we look back with longing to the good old days?

If you had the opportunity to walk in successively to Osawa sensei, Yamaguchi sensei, Arikawa sensei, just to mention three classes and then have the dilemma of trying to make sense of that, why would you want conformity? From a koryu perspective, however, this is an interesting question.
In Araki-ryu, I’m the gold standard of Araki. There are other factions but within my faction, I’m the gold standard of that. In Toda-ha Buko-ryu we have seven shihan but in my own group I’m the gold standard and I expect my students to follow what I do because there is this explicit rich curriculum that one has to absorb all the way down to the bone marrow. Now, what I’m actually doing in Buko-ryu, I’m at a point where I’m going to have my students invite every one of the other shihan of my generation, one by one, to teach… and without me present! I’m gonna ask those shihan “Don’t try to change everything but if you see something that isn’t congruent with what you think is right, tell them and for that week or so they’re gonna live according to your lights”. Later, I’ll come back and we’ll see if there’s anything we need to change. But that’s at a high level. In koryu, there’s a particular way to do things and there are good reasons for it.
That’s one of the reasons I find Aikido puzzling, it’s kind of different. You start with the fact that Takeda Sokaku taught different versions of Daito-ryu to different people – really different versions. If you compare for example the Kodokai and the Takumakai, the only way someone would know seriously that they were the same “martial art” is if someone told you, “Well, they have the same name”. It’s like visiting Debussy for a week and then visiting Schubert. They’re so different!
Now, an informed person in Daito-ryu could say “Well, here’s all the similarities. Here’s where they link up”, but they really have a big difference. Takeda Sokaku apparently decided for each person or group from whatever he knew. He said: “This is what’s good for you, I’m going to emphasize that”. The teaching was apparently much more inchoate, there wasn’t this specific number of steps, “We’re going to teach you this first and everybody goes to this next…” It was sort of like, you were always walking into the middle of class with him, apparently.

Sokaku Takeda at the Osaka Asahi Shinbun around 1937

It wasn’t organised.

That’s everything I hear. The interesting thing is – from again all accounts – there was another level that was organized around the principle of Aiki, but since he didn’t teach that explicitly and almost would get mad if you figured it out, even the students who figured it out had to hide that they understood it from him, which has a lot to do with the very odd psychology of that teacher.
Then you get to Ueshiba Morihei.
From everything I’ve read, from my understanding, the only person that he explicitly taught: “Do this, do this, follow this…”, you know, step by step by step, was Yukawa Tsutomu. Yukawa was his nephew by marriage who was probably going to be his successor. He was titanically strong. I remember an account of Shirata Rinjiro, who’s one of the greats, right? And Shirata sensei said that when they didn’t understand something, they would go to Yukawa to find out what O’Sensei explained to him.
So, even in the early years of the Kobukan, you already saw individuals who were really different. I think this was less of a concern for Ueshiba because of his spiritual goals. He states and I have this in an essay, it’s a quote from my essay “Aikido is Three Peaches” in “Hidden in Plain Sight”, he states that the purpose of Aikido (speaking in O’Sensei’s voice) “It’s for you to generate the energy – for me to put the world in order. Honestly, it’s an image very similar to “The Matrix”. You are plugged into doing shihonage and ikkyo, and you try practicing in dedicated fashion, and Tomiki does it one way and Mochizuki does it another and whoever does another… It doesn’t matter because it’s creating spiritual energy for me”.

Morihei Ueshiba in a famous scroll by Eiji Tamura

One of the things that I like about Ueshiba is that he made a place for other people to be avatars just like himself. He accepted that. He had people like Mochizuki or Tomiki who the main line would say: “Oh, they deviated. They betrayed O’Sensei”. O’Sensei called for Tomiki on his deathbed! There was a place in his world for all these deviants. You have a combination of not learning with explicit instruction: you try to absorb what you can, which means, since you might be a very different man than I, you’re going to absorb different things, you’ll notice different details. And then in Ueshiba’s model, it seems like he didn’t much care.
Taken one step further, the Aikikai, the Tokyo dojo is a special thing but when you go to the rural dojos like Iwama or Shingu, up Shirata sensei’s place, if you consider Yoshinkan as a faction, I believe that Ueshiba treated each of those groups like “crash test dummies”. He would pick out certain aspects of his interests and he would emphasize certain interests for Iwama. He would emphasize certain interests in Shingu, in Tanaka Bansen Osaka as opposed to Kobayashi – I can’t remember his name but also in Osaka. I think he deliberately taught each of these people differently so he could say “OK, if I really pushed this as far as it would go, what kind of practitioner would I come up with?”. That’s why you go to Iwama, people move a certain way, you go to Shingu, they tend to move another way, etc. I think that was deliberate on his part.
After World War II, here you have Ueshiba Kisshomaru, whom I consider such a great man. I admire Kisshomaru sensei so much. He had a task after World War II of surviving. He took this concept of harmony that his father had, which was combining the different realms of the Cosmos – Heaven, Earth, Man – with Man being an ordinal nexus, an ordinal point to order the universe. Ueshiba [Kisshomaru] said: “Oh well, all along we meant social harmony”, which was not only “He did that just to market it”. It was exactly what Japan needed after World War II. You have a post-war country in a state of utter chaos.
Kisshomaru sensei had all these incredible alpha teachers, many of whom maybe you could say were better than him, I don’t know. He had to have a place for them: so is he going to challenge them and say “You do it all the same way?”. He managed to take a provincial art which would have been utterly insignificant and he made it something of worldwide influence.
Now, I believe there were things that were lost in the process, which happens to be my interest, but I think that Kisshomaru sensei was far more important to the world than Morihei sensei. More people’s lives have been affected positively by what Kisshomaru sensei did in his making a big tent.
Now you get to the next generation, where I trained some with the next generation. You know, I trained with Yokota-san when he was 19 years old and was in Kuroiwa sensei’s dojo, way back in the day. I trained with the current Doshu and one time we finished practice and the two of us are standing, we’d just taken off our hakama. He looked at me – I’m a lot taller than him, I’m two meters tall – so he says: “How old are you?”. I said “24”. He said: “I’m 24 too”. I said: “When’s your birthday?” and his birthday happens to be after mine. I took my hakama and I threw it at him and I said: “Fold this. I’m older than you!”. He’s the crown prince, and he looked at me for 20 seconds with his eyes like this and then it sank in I was joking because I just hid the expression on my face and he sort of punched me… [laughter]
So that was my kind of relationship with these people – not that I’m that important because i was out of Aikido well before I could have possibly become an important person – but I was training with the current generation. What it seems to me now is there’s been a decision that to effectively manage this organization homogenization is the way to go. There’s a concern, in my opinion, this is just my opinion, that individual expression by younger shihan would call into question the leadership at the top. I think that’s a mistake but this is just me sitting on the outside. That’s the way it looks to me.

Yoshio Kuroiwa, Aikido Shihan and Boxer (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

Let’s continue with “Dueling with O’Sensei”. I found another interesting point, one of many. Kuroiwa sensei and Yamaguchi sensei: two teachers under the same roof. Two completely different ways ahead for Aikido’s future development. Am I wrong to say that Yamaguchi sensei’s concept, as it stands, is the one that took over mainstream Aikido?

I think so.
First of all, Kuroiwa sensei, for those of you who don’t know, in my view he’s such a tragic man. Let’s just say he was a very good boxer, as far as I can tell. He was a middleweight, he was built like Marvin Hagler. He joined Aikido, as I described in the chapter, because he had beaten so many people up in street fights he had no idea of their faces. A guy one time walked up and said: “You don’t remember me. You left me in a pile of garbage in an alleyway a couple of years ago”.
Kuroiwa sensei was terrified because he realized he had shamed literally hundreds of people and he didn’t even know what they looked like. Anybody seeking revenge could just walk up to him and stab him, he wouldn’t even know it was coming.
He saw this article about Ueshiba and all he knew was maybe this man could help him in some way change his life. That was as best he could explain it. This is a man who went into fights without meanness.
He was a young, tough, very poor kid from Asakusabashi. He didn’t like all these rich bourgeois university kids walking around, you know, thinking they were special. For him, a fight was just men bumping together fist to fist and one guy lost and one guy won and as long as it’s fair who cares, right?
It wasn’t even violent to him in a way. It didn’t resonate with him like that. These things sort of just occurred without malice.
He joined the Aikikai. He actually got his arm broken on his very first day by Kato Hiroshi. Kuroiwa said that Kato, who was still a teenager, his mother dragged Kato by the ear to Kuroiwa sensei’s mother and made him apologize. They’re just kids, right? Anyway, Kuroiwa sensei began training and he’s one of those people who has an eye that he could pick up a technique just like that [fingers snap]. After the regular training – he’d sort of quickly became like a kind of soto-deshi – they had what the other uchi-deshi and soto-deshi jokingly called the “Kuroiwa gakko”, where they would hang out off-hours and try to figure out what all the various teachers were teaching, O’Sensei and otherwise. He did that for about six months, even though he was a beginner, he was like kind of the alpha kid in the group.
Then his brother got in trouble with the yakuza and he had to quit coming to morning practice because he was working off his brother’s debt. He loved Aikido at that point and he had only six months of training, so he would practice in his room alone, patterning Aikido technique on uppercuts and hooks. All the aikido movements were this way, were this way [showing figure eight movements patterned on hooks and uppercuts]. Everything was very close in. There was no extended arm. He was brilliant.

Seigo Yamaguchi early in his Aikido career (Copyright Aikido Journal)

He considered Yamaguchi sensei to be his senior, of course, but also his friend. What he saw Yamaguchi sensei is doing, is what I refer to in my book as “suburi with people”: that the uke’s responsibility was to organize himself or herself to conform to the training agenda of tori. This is really, shall I say, this is aberrant from a Japanese Budo historical standpoint. Classically speaking, the senior took the ukemi because you had to be good enough to know what the junior needed to know in that particular technique, counter him when necessary, or let the throw or the sword technique go through, being just one step ahead of the junior.
Now the genius of Aikido on a social perspective is the reciprocal practice. No doubt about it because one of the things that’s glorious about Aikido is the housewife or elderly retiree who practices once or twice a week, on the mat is equal to the shihan who is taking class, right? So the 6th dan who says “OK, I’m going to take so-and-so’s class and is working out with the retiree, there should be absolute equality in practice”. The more skillful person takes the classical uke role in the service of the other person.
It’s a brilliant innovation that’s regrettably violated all the time by the senior person saying “You can’t throw me. I get to throw you”, all that kind of stuff.
From Kuroiwa sensei’s perspective… let me start by saying that there was this juxtaposition of a tendency in Aikido from its very beginning that the senior throws because Takeda would never let anybody throw him. He was too paranoid. Ueshiba would never let throw him, I think because he was too narcissistic. You know, maybe I’m being a little bit too blunt, or direct but that’s the way honestly I see it.
What happened was there was a culture already in Aikido that the teacher is magical and the teacher can throw. The irony is if the teacher’s not explicitly teaching something – let’s say I am three levels above you and I can throw you whether you like it or not, so well that you go flying away and if I’m not explaining how I’m doing it, with special physical training and all that, the students watching say: “Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen when people do Aikido technique”. And so people start “taking” ukemi. What an odd term! Ukemi means to receive: how do you take ukemi? If you take ukemi, I know what you want, I’ll be there anticipating your desires, right? So you look good.
From Kuroiwa sensei’s perspective, as brilliant as Yamaguchi sensei was, and he truly was brilliant, he set up, he accentuated a movement in Aikido which is solipsistic: the thrower throws and uke’s responsibility is to conform to that desire.

And this is where we are today, basically.

May I intervene?


Image of Ueshiba’s Jo Kagura Mai from the Shingu Dojo

OK. A question about the definition of Aikido. There’s a very strong link to what you said just said. Aikido is misogi. This is a very difficult point of view to understand the correct approach to. Is this a kind of state of mind that you enter when you practice, or you have to have this state of mind, this manner all around, also out of the dojo, or is it something that you have only during practice?
Is it something about polishing your ego from “I win, you lose. You lose, I win”? Taking ukemi, is it sort of misogi?

I think there’s a lot of terms sort of mushed together there.
Misogi is a Shinto term which is a particular kind of purification of self but not in the sense of enlightenment or anything like that.
Shinto is concerned with ritual purity and ritual pollution and so misogi is austerities to clean yourself up, to align yourself with the desires of kami. There’s nothing moral about it. There’s nothing salvationist about it and there is nothing, shall I say, enlightenment in a Buddhist sense about it. If we use the term misogi in its pure form, Aikido is like a kind of a Kagura Mai. Kagura Mai is a ritual dance in a Shinto shrine – in fact, I have an article about this recently. There’s always been a puzzle where Ueshiba got his solo jo form and I happened to see a ritual, some Shinto priests doing a Kagura Mai in the bay of Kamakura. They were doing some of the same movements that Ueshiba was doing. I realized that what he had done is he’d taken Kagura Mai and then “re-martialized” it. This is a sort of a side to your question. So, on the one hand, you can do misogi and it cleans you up and you’re now a cleaned up person, go out in the world a little bit more powerful.
The other thing about misogi is that, classically speaking, misogi is specific procedures: everything from standing under a waterfall or, and this is really important, things like Funakogu Undo. Those things that people think are basic warm-up exercises were, in fact, ritual misogi exercises. Then you have to complicate it with another issue: Ueshiba used those exercises as internal strength training exercises, which is separate from misogi, but to develop the Aiki body you use those exercises and in fact, his last iteration of that he borrowed from the Misogi Kai. There was several exercises which were Neo-Shinto exercises – among them, Funakogu Undo, Ikkyo Undo and stuff. When I did Aikido, those were just warm-up exercises. I didn’t realize those were the key to Ueshiba’s power.
Ok, sorry for the long preface but I’m trying to answer your question.
If one regards taking ukemi or doing ukemi as a purification of ego and you say for example I am at the service of the person throwing me and I will not have an egotistic resistance to them and basically, “You can do with me what you will for your benefit”, almost like a Bodhisattva ideal, that’s one way to live and one way to practice. You could easily carry that outside of the dojo too. You have a human being who is truly living for others, what they perceive others’ benefit all the time. I don’t think that was the original intent of ukemi. It’s one way you could choose to do ukemi that could be your practice that could be one avenue of study and I’m not going to argue but it’s not something I would want to do.
I’ve seen something that I made a joking term: I call it “Aiki accommodation syndrome”, which is when a person touches, you put kuzushi on yourself so they can throw you easier. I’d done enough Aikido I hadn’t even realized I was doing this too, until I started doing Judo and then later Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’d start getting pressure and I would open up for the ukemi and then I’d get tapped out and get choked out or whatever.
The way I see ukemi is you receive the other person’s power and use it in Kaeshi-waza, in returning it back to them, encountering their attempt to master you. Of course, you can do that with a humble spirit, you can do that with a gracious spirit. You don’t have to be violent in spirit but the training I try to do in any of my martial arts is not to be defeated and yet, in the real world, not use my power, whatever I’ve acquired, for ill toward any other human being. That’s the best answer I can give. I think a receptive spirit is one way to go, but I don’t even think Yamaguchi sensei would have said that because I never heard Yamaguchi take a spiritual approach to this.

First and second from the right: Yoshio Kuroiwa and Seigo Yamaguchi

Thank you.

It’s not too far from where we are, I think, it’s connected. In the last decade, we have seen the coming of what I dubbed as “harmony light”, sugar-free, in Aikido. What do you make of the simplistic concept of harmony, based on dubious Ueshiba quotes and post-modern hippy ideology that has become dear to mainstream and politically correct Aikido today?

I can’t stand it. It’s a debasement of something that could be very interesting. It’s like, instead of having a grand affair, you go to a strip joint. It’s not challenging intellectually. It’s not challenging psychologically. It’s not challenging spiritually.
It goes right along with the so-called woke ideology. People are tender as opposed to, you know, part of aikido should be ferocity. Part of Aikido should be virility – and that’s for men or women – thinking of the term in the old Latin sense: it’s both virtue and it’s viril, it’s powerful. The people that one respects most are peaceful people who don’t have to be peaceful. This “Aikido light” you’re talking about, it’s almost like I have to be a pacifist because I’m certainly not able to do anything else! And more than just physically but intellectually as well.
I know certainly a lot less about Europe but America is being just swept by all these concepts like being triggered: “You’ve offended me”, and all this stuff. People are defining themselves as so fragile. Once upon a time humanity had to worry that when you went to the waterhole that a sabre-toothed tiger was going to pounce on you and kill you. Human history through hunter-gatherer times was a chain of many genocides of one tribe killing another. We human beings are glorious for all that we survive and the strength we have. Yeah, sure, we’ve done evil and all the rest, but all the glory of humanity comes from strength and the ability to withstand things.
If Aikido frames itself as some tender blending with things, where we both are are smiling on the mat, we never experience any fear, we never experience any power… It’s a waste of time in my view.

And by the way, what are we gonna do with our dark side if we simply deny it and we proceed to avoid consider it in our Aikido training? What happens then?

Well, I think you see that if you deny it, a dark side denied creeps up on you. The way to eliminate shadow is to shine a totally bright light and the other side is totally black. It’s the absence of light. And then what occurs you can have is something like the sanctimoniousness of so many Aikido people. There’s not only the sneering at other martial arts as being violent but the sneering of other Aikido factions as being wrong. This sanctimony doesn’t come from power. Why is it that within the realm of Aikido, there’s a good chance in many dojo you get in – even some of the so to speak “bliss-ninny” dojo – you could get hurt? Or there’s all kinds of social ostracism and those kinds of consequences?
I definitely don’t want to say that’s all of Aikido because it’s not. Before I came here I just spent two hours working with Bruce Bookman sensei, who’s one of my closest friends and we were doing an Aikido weapons Zoom seminar. He has a dojo of fine human beings who work for strength. I don’t want anybody listening to have an impression that the previous thing I said is all Aikido is. That would be insulting and wrong.
But there is this strain you’re talking about and I don’t see any real good benefit coming from denying that part of Aikido is the study of violence and that’s really what it comes down to.

Last week I had an interesting conversation with Rionne McAvoy, I don’t know if you know him.

I’ve corresponded with him, sure.

All right. Among other things, we talked about the challenge he’s facing in person and anyone that has a similar interest to him, when proposing a type of Aikido in which cardio, physical development, muscular strengthening are an integral part of Aikido training every day. Why is it that in Aikido today we’re in a situation where you almost have to justify yourself or trying to improve your physical power. How did we come to that?

I don’t know. In the 1950s, the young deshi were very preoccupied with the thought of Dojo Yaburi – somebody busting the dojo. Kuroiwa sensei had developed a koshinage, which was based on a wrestling single leg, that would dump the person on top of their head. Noro sensei – who people because he was later Kinomichi don’t really understand how incredibly good he was and powerful – he used to do 300 push-ups on his wrists every day to strengthen his forearms. All those guys were training for fights.
After practice, the uchideshi used to always do two things, sumo and they’d do sparring knife – a wooden tanto – against empty hand. People say: “Oh, Tomiki sensei style”. No, sort of at random, it was like: “Can I stab you?”, and they’d try to defend against that, and sumo. That was in the 50s and there was a lot of that.
People think of Endo sensei and they think, you know, real soft Aikido. I don’t know what he’s like now, because he’s you know up in years, but if you ever saw that guy with his shirt off… My god! He was built like a god. Tada sensei, you know, he’s skinny but the man would do suburi for half a day. Iwama: everybody there is a brute and that’s good [laughing].
Osawa Kisaburo sensei asked me to take his son, Hayato, to the Korakuen Gym to teach him something about weight-lifting. He asked me in the hall of the dojo, looked around, winked, and said to me, “He’s too skinny.”
Somehow, when this got translated to the West, some things got poorly translated intellectually, like the idea of going with an opponent’s force. “Oh, I don’t need any power to do that”. What really it means you have an efficient use of power, so you don’t add extraneous things which actually would make you weaker. It’s like if I’m cutting with a sword and I cut, and I say, “I want to be stronger.” and I do this with my shoulders to tighten up my shoulders, I’m now weaker, because now the shoulders are a leverage point to be deflected. I feel stronger but I’m weaker.
The concept of softness, really what we’re talking about is a tensile relaxation. The softness we’re looking for is the kind of softness you see in a snake coiling around a tree. From that coil, at its will, it can tighten or loosen. It doesn’t clench and then opens. It flows and that flow is a tensile relaxation of a trained body. These things were not taught, they were not translated well and so people say: “Oh, softness!”. Then they see Ueshiba who was in his elder years, had his own agenda and so he’d wave his arms and people would fall. And then people start talking about: “Oh, that’s due to his energy”.

Morihei Ueshiba in his later years

In the same Aiki Healing Session, last Sunday, we discussed with Rionne the crystallization of the Aikido curriculum and the consequent suspect, reluctance and denial shown by many Aikido yudansha when presented with anything that doesn’t look like standardized Aikido. Those who engage in cross-training are often seen as heretics or people that want to disrespect the Founder, in a few words. Is it true that Ueshiba Morihei was the cross trainer and contaminator par excellence amongst us?

Well, the funny thing is that Ueshiba himself really was a dilettante in other things and mostly did Daito-ryu, truthfully, right? In terms of his actual study, it’s mostly Daito-ryu but he certainly visited other things, observed other things, but I think more to your point is this:
Ueshiba, at least as later years, was not concerned about cross-training.
There’s an infamous story, Shioda said how after hours they would try Judo because a lot of the guys were judoka. Ueshiba didn’t like that. He comes running and he says: “Stop doing that Shina martial art”. It’s “chink”, a racist term for Chinese. That’s really going back, because basically what he meant is Judo is derived from Yoshin-ryu and Kito-ryu, both of which have 400-year origin stories of having started from some elements of Chinese martial arts. So Ueshiba was saying 400 years ago their roots were in China, so you’re contaminating my dojo.
I don’t know if he was just being racist, if that was his neo-religious stuff about nativist Japanese religion, Omoto-kyo or he was just jealous of the students were doing something else. It doesn’t speak well of him.
On the other hand, Terry Dobson, I’ve mentioned him already, began training with Wang Shu Chin. Wang Shu Chin was a Chinese man who moved to Taiwan after World War II. He was about 165 centimetres (I’m calculating in my head because I use the other system) 165 centimetres and probably 130 Kg. He was like a human bowling ball. He did Xingyi and Bagua and Terry started training with him. He told me how the uchideshi were saying: “You’re betraying O’Sensei”, and he said: “I don’t want to be O’Sensei’s student, I want to be O’Sensei”. So they more or less dragged him to O’Sensei and they said:
“He’s doing this with this Chinese guy. What do you think of that?”. “I don’t care”.
The story goes that Terry and Donn Draeger, a well-known fellow authority of martial arts, took Tamura, Saotome and Chiba to visit Wang Shu Chin. I’ve heard this from Terry, I heard it separately from Saotome, I heard it from Draeger. There’s another story out there but here’s the eyewitness story by three different people. Wang took one look at Chiba and said: “Come here kid”. He knew what Aikido was and he said: “Go ahead and try it out. Punch me in the stomach”, because he was famous that nobody could hit him and punch him in his stomach. Basically, Chiba punched him twice.

Robert W. Smith punching Wang Shu Chin – 1960 (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

There was nothing, no effect. Chiba sort of shrugged, pretended to give up and then suddenly punched him again trying to startle him. This time Wang did this thing that he was kind of famous for, that he would absorb the punch and then, with his abdominal muscles, punch you back with his belly and almost dislocated Chiba’s arm. Chiba got upset and tried to do some sort of wrist lock on him and Wang just laughed, countered him and had him down on the ground screaming in pain. As I say, Mr Chiba had a different story about this, it’s online, but I have three eyewitnesses who told me about this. I studied with Wang myself, I trained in Chiba sensei’s class, he threw me… the difference between these two human beings was huge . [hand gesture of separation]. Wang Shu Chin was definitely on a superlative level.
I tell a lot of stories but the point I’m making is Ueshiba didn’t care. Again, I think he didn’t care because he saw in the students who went outside, be it Tada sensei going to Shinshin Toitsu, be it Kuroiwa sensei being a boxer and sort of integrating that – the list goes on and on and on – he saw those people as somebody like himself who were willing to break the bonds of what he had and make something on his own. Interestingly he wasn’t threatened by it. I think that’s a mark that powerful people are not threatened of other people getting powerful.
I don’t think that Ueshiba Morihei would have told Rionne to stop doing weightlifting. I don’t think he would have said: “Well, you’re doing this Pro Wrestling, that’s going to affect your Aikido”. It’s an adult issue. An adult doesn’t talk to another adult like they’re a child. If that’s what Rionne chooses to do with his life, fine. If O’Sensei says: “Well, because of that I’m not going to teach him this, this and this”, that’s on Rionne. This is all hypothetical, right? But let’s say Ueshiba said: “You know, this guy’s doing too many leglocks. I was going to teach him the secret of internal strength. I’m not going to teach him because he’s into his own thing”. That’s adult to adult, also, but this idea that you shouldn’t cross-train because it’s an insult to the teacher, the only way that’s a problem is if the cross-training interferes with the teacher’s ability to teach.
From my perspective teaching koryu: I’ll take Toda-ha Buko-ryu, when we cut with the sword, you never let the tip of the sword go past 10 degrees vertical, OK? When you cut, you drop from a nearly vertical high jodan. You don’t cut hinging from the shoulders.
Now, I have some students who also do modern Iaido, it’s either Muso Shinden-ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin, I don’t remember what, but they have a habit of that hinging shoulder cutting with the arms pretty straight and that has interfered with their ability to advance. They finally got a hold of it but honestly, if I couldn’t teach them because their body kept doing these other things, at a certain point I might say: “Look, you’re going to have to choose because I can’t teach you anymore. The information I want to teach you cannot get through to you as long as you’re using your body that way”. That is a legitimate complaint on the part of a teacher with a student with whom they’re intimate.
Another issue with Aikido is because it’s a big tent and you have big classes, how many students are really your students and how many are attending your class? Just hypothetically – and again I don’t mean any disrespect to Rionne, he’s a generation younger than me, I’m just using him on that – so let’s say Rionne is my student and he’s just in my class. Frankly, I wouldn’t care what he’s doing outside the dojo, as long as he doesn’t disrupt my class. Whatever he’s bringing be it good or bad, well that’s just more energy for the class. If I say to Rionne: “You know, I really want to teach you everything I know”, and he’s like “Great, I want to learn everything you know” and we start working together and something he’s doing in training, some reflex he’s created, is interfering with my ability to impart physical information, I’m going to let him know. If he doesn’t get better at that point I’m saying: “Hey, you’re going to have to choose. I’m not saying I’m better than what everybody else is doing but you’re not going to learn more what I’m doing if this is in the way”.
Now, honestly, I’ve watched a couple film clips that are around of Rionne, there’s nothing, in my view, that he’s doing that should be problematic in terms of Aikido. I’m saying that there is a legitimate question if the teacher is not able to teach due to somebody’s cross-training but other than that…
Sorry, I’m babbling away. The other question is and that goes back to this “respect the house” question…
Bruce Bookman who is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and with BJJ that’s still a legitimate rank, which means you legitimately have achieved a lot of skill, he does something he calls Aiki Extensions, where he has blended BJJ within Aikido and there’s some very good videotapes of that on Aikido Journal.
He also teaches classical Aikido as classical Aikido not just because it’s an art form that needs to be preserved but it has merits that can only be achieved if you do it in the classical form. The same way you will never be a great boxer unless you concentrate on boxing.
I think what Bruce does is the best way I’ve seen to do it, which is you have your classic form and then you have your extensions where you begin to blend your cross-training within it while still trying to maintain Aikido principles.

Earlier you mentioned Morihei Ueshiba sensei and is time in Daito-ryu. Has he cloned Daito-ryu, as they always maintained on that side of the fence or as he completely reshaped it and transcended its original meaning, as they told us, Aikido students, to say?

Neither. [Laughs]
OK. So, first of all, Stanley Pranin showed Takeda Tokimune the 1936 film of Ueshiba and Tokimune sensei’s response was: “Yappari sore wa Daito ryu [Wow! He was doing Daito-ryu after all!]”. Consider it: the oldest film of Daito-ryu we have is Ueshiba Morihei. Actually, there’s an older one that’s just come out – you may have seen it – there’s a film of the Omoto-kyo headquarters, where you have Ueshiba in 1934, 1935.

I’ve seen it, yeah.

There’s a mythic film, allegedly, that may possibly exist of Takeda Sokaku, taken without his knowledge – so I have been told- that it may exist. Allegedly, it was taken at the Asahi Shinbun, but it’s never [resurfaced]. I don’t know, that may be true, maybe not, but some people have alleged that. Otherwise, the oldest Daito-ryu film is Ueshiba Morihei’s. The oldest Daito-ryu text beyond the hiden scrolls is the Takeshita Diary. Admiral Takeshita took a diary of his training with Ueshiba. There may be one other notebook somewhere but it’s pretty cryptic. I can’t remember, maybe from Yoshida Kotaro… I don’t remember… anyway.

The other thing is if you really look at Ueshiba and don’t look at his uke, you look at his gestures, you look at the things he did, he was still doing a lot of Daito-ryu as Daito-ryu – to his dying day.
He would always finish a form where he would do this double thing with the hands [showing a Ten Chi hand gesture]. Basically, he’s balancing his energy and I’m not talking about mystical energy, I’m talking about as a balancing of forces in the body in a symbolic level, so it’s not just a dramatic pose. That’s pure Daito-ryu. Now what’s not fair to Ueshiba is this. Traditionally speaking, in Japanese martial arts, if you for whatever reason have chosen to do things significantly different from your teacher not only in technique but in thinking, in attitude, then it’s more respectful to change the name.
It’s not respectful to say Ueshiba took very little from Daito-ryu, he did all these other martial arts and combined them. That’s not respectful and I don’t know that he ever said that himself but other people said that. Sometimes you hear judoka saying “Oh BJJ is just Judo”. No, it’s not, it’s become something different. Just like Judo is not Tenjin Shinyo-ryu, just like Sambo is not Judo.
I had a senior student in Araki-ryu and I gave him permission to start his own group. I went and looked at it and he was doing some things really different from me. I’m not saying bad but I’m saying different enough that I say that can’t be identified with me. We had a discussion about this and so it’s now called Araki Shin-ryu. If somebody says: “But he’s doing the same kata that Ellis Amdur is doing, it’s different as far as both of us are concerned”.
John Driscoll did a study, it’s on my website. He found that the only technique in the entire Aikido corpus that you don’t find in Daito-ryu is Ueshiba’s way of doing Koshinage, the perpendicular body Koshinage. Basically, he was not able to find that in any Daito-ryu curriculum and you do find that in Yagyu Shingan-ryu, which is an art that Ueshiba studied for a few years previous.
So that one technique is different.
In terms of his sword and staff, I did a lot of trying to trace these things down. In some places, he taught a sword where the movements were based on Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, three kata. In Iwama, he based movements on Kashima Shinto-ryu but no Kashima Shinto-ryu person would claim those forms, the ma-ai is different, the usage of the weapon is different – the same thing with Yagyu. He would take different forms, get inspired by them and put his art in them: so they’re Aiki-ken, they aren’t Yagyu Shinkage-ryu.
That’s my answer. I think that Ueshiba deserves the respect to say he did things so differently in terms of mind that he was using Aikido as a kind of misogi, to go back to something that Carlo said – that he had different objectives. Call it his moral objective, whatever, he projected people out from the throw as opposed to folding them inward. Whereas Daito-ryu classically is going to put you in a space that you can’t escape from, whereas in Ueshiba’s art, generally speaking, he gets you to place a vulnerability and then sorts of opens up a space for you to fall. That’s a different interpretation of the same waza.
There was a fellow in the Takuma-kai who then moved, he started training with Tokimune sensei – there’s all sorts of politics – and so instead of calling what he did Daito-ryu, he called it another name which I’ve now forgotten. He’s in the Osaka area so he had his own organization. Then there is Okamoto Seigo, the Roppokai. There are these different organizations, where they’re basically saying for political reasons, for respect, or I believe “I’ve made enough change, I’m going to change the name”.
I think that’s fair for Ueshiba but it’s not fair to say it’s totally an invention of this genius and has nothing to do with Daito-ryu. That’s a misrepresentation.

The 1935 Asahi Shinbun Movie

OK, let’s stay with Daito-ryu. Almost every day, there’s new videos popping up in which without any filter or explanation the most subtle, advanced, esoteric aspects of Daito-ryu and Aikido are shown.
Do you think it makes sense to present to the public, to inexperienced students or unaware strangers the real or presumed phenomena of Aiki? Is there any point in showing people being knocked down with a gesture, electrified by contact alone? These things once were reserved for the chosen ones and jealousy guarded, no? What is it with all this Aiki marketing that we’re seeing lately?

Well, look, there’s a couple of problems. The first thing is: one, can I see that and do that? So in one sense, it’s irrelevant. I can look at it and I can slow it down frame by frame. I can’t reproduce it.
Number two: is it really happening? In other words, is there an Aiki accommodation going on that the person puts kuzushi on themselves and then this action occurs? Or does it happen to somebody who is not coached into a particular position? DK Yoo is a pretty popular neo-systema guy out of Korea and he does a one-inch punch kind of thing or a shoulder strike. People say: “Well, how should I stand?”. He makes sure they’re standing with their feet lined up. If you line up your feet this way, you can just pop somebody in the shoulder and they fall back. So there’s no proof, it’s set up. The person doesn’t think so, they don’t know so but they’re really set up. Similarly, that second question is regarding the Daito-ryu you’re seeing, is that dependent on the response?
Honestly, I’d love to feel it myself. I’d love it if it’s real, I’d love it. I’m willing to believe conditionally that it’s real because so many Daito-ryu practitioners, Ueshiba among them, in his young days, he was respected by so many powerful martial artists. Maybe they’re all self-congratulatory fools and none of them could do anything; or he really had something.
The final question for me is why people choose to demonstrate their gokui publicly? I don’t know, it’s not to my taste in my own art, the things that I study.
I’m sure there’s a lot of motivations for it but the end result I don’t think it’ll hurt anything or help anything. I really don’t think that you would watch that and say: “Oh my gosh, I got to try that”. I guess the worst thing that happened is you spent the next 50 years trying to learn it from a film instead of just going over to the guy and asked him to teach you.

Well, it may hurt the art publicly because people that are from outside of this community, they haven’t a clue, they only see people falling for no reason.

Rinjiro Shirata as a young man

Honestly, is that not an endemic problem with Aikido as a whole, right? You see that young man, Rokas, who has made quite a fortune for himself, I suppose… I’ll be blunt, if I lost a fight I wouldn’t publicize it and I wouldn’t make a business out over the fact that I lost the fight. I’d keep it to myself.
A real question there, if you view your Aikido as a martial art and you spar with somebody and what you do doesn’t work, well you’re faced with a couple questions, a couple choices.
The one choice is “OK, I quit I’ll do something else and I’m not going to tell anybody because I don’t want people to know I lost. Since at least on record there are people who were very powerful in Aikido – Shirata Rinjiro, for example, who took lots of challenges and there’s sort of an underground story that he beat Hisa Takuma in a sparring match as well… what were the rules, I don’t know but there were these very strong guys who took on all comers – [the second thing to] say is: “Well, gee, there’s something missing in my Aikido and I love Aikido. I’m going to recover it. What is it that’s missing?
And if it was that important I would find that out. If atemi is 90% of Aikido, why does my atemi not work? Because you can’t say that atemi is just sort of swinging your arm up in the middle of the technique and bopping somebody.
Atemi is a hitting body and it means that whenever you make contact with somebody at any range you should be able to shake them, which requires a particular kind of training which most people don’t do.
So either you love your Aikido and find out what’s been missing now or you do quit.
Because of that people look at Aikido enbu on the web and Aikido is a joke to a lot of people. Some aikidoka gets real mad about that. I’m a guest in Aikido, that’s the way I regard myself, but were I a full-time aikidoka I would be mad at the people making me look stupid and making my art look stupid.

I can only agree there.
A couple of months ago I interviewed John Bailey. He’s a student of Tony Graziano and Tom Walker. John has an extensive background in security and a career built on hands-on work with violent people, so he’s has been on the field.

I think I read that interview, yeah yeah.

OK. Now, in John’s opinion, Aikido suffers from performance problems and, among other things, this has a lot to do with what he calls the level of contrivance within our practice. Obviously, all kinds of training have contrivance, even randori or competitions, the MMA… You have rules and do nots. It’s not a real fight. John’s point was that Aikido is mostly done at a very high level of contrivance – basically kata with a partner – and it stays a kata with a partner. So he was suggesting that maybe what is missing is a method for bridging from a high to a lower level of contrivance. What are your views on this? Is it possible? Is it doable or that the way it’s done doesn’t allow that anymore?

It’s who’s doing the teaching. Certain teachers, of course, it’s not going to change, but if you’re in a position to teach, either you know how to do that or you have the humility to learn how to do it, if you see it’s a flaw.
On the one level, one does like what Bookman sensei is doing, which is basically he does a lot of entries with a cover [showing a Boxing double-fist protection] and he might lead with a little foot jab, like the BJJ guys do, getting close. And then, if you find yourself in a tackle, you tackle, you find yourself in an Aiki move, you do an Aiki move. It’s a phase shifting, he’s shifting from one to the other and getting closer to that live kind of training. That’s the one thing.
The second thing is I see Aikido waza from a kind of a different perspective. If you bear with me for a second. Once upon a time, there was solo training which was done for a specific purpose. Suburi could be part of that, different exercises, the misogi exercises, they weren’t just exercises to make yourself holy or purify yourself. They were exercises to train the body in a particular way, very specialized way. The Aiki body is the body of like a python, an anaconda, somebody powerful and flexible at the same time. When you do suburi, we taught shibori, right, so when you cut, people say: “Wring the sword like you’re wringing a rag”. That’s incorrect: you wring your body, the sword you hold. The wringing goes on here [touching his arms, indicating it coils through the entire body], you’re training the connective tissue to stretch and coil at the same time, not lock down the sword. Suburi done that way teaches you how to grab hold of another human being with a startling level of control and power because you’re sensitive.

Now, I’ll show you a device that I used to train with. This is a piece of hard rubber and this isn’t original to me, I learned from a man named Mike Sigman. I twist it – it wants to twist back. It’s pretty stiff I’ll now move and I want to be using no more force than is necessary to maintain the twist it is now.
I won’t let it twist out of my hand, but I’m not going to clamp it down but I maintain through the entire movement this smooth circle, using no more strength, working like a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee swings to a tree, it grips but the rest of its body is relaxed.
I believe that one of the sort of secrets of Aikido is when I attack you and we make contact, you, the tori, are actually the uke. What you’ve done is you’ve received power and you are going to efficiently use your whole body with joints open and connected to begin to move me against my resistance.
The easiest is when the person just clamps down, then you slip and you punch him.
If the person has a martial body and is giving you true resistance looking for the counter as you move the person through whatever the technique is, as you move you make adjustments in your body to maintain that dominance over them physically. I call it tensile relaxation, so, in a sense, both people are training the Aiki body through the Aikido waza. On that level of training, the fact that we’re striking this way as opposed to that way [showing yokomenuchi and a boxing-style punch] for that training is less relevant.

Ueshiba sensei smiling while doing Funakogu Undo

If you regard the basics of Aikido as a physical training to create a body able to function as a unified connected entity, rather than sticking my arms out and then trying to push them, my whole body weight comes in the whole move: so funakogu. When we’re doing funakogu, it’s the whole, it’s not ei/ya [showing funakogu done with the body still and arms moving]. That’s nonsense. Use the whole body forward, the whole body back. I one time saw a guy who was a bouncer describe how he would win his fights with funakogu: yeah, he’d shove the guy back and brought him forward… bang! hit! headbutt… There’s the one level that classical Aikido conceivably can create somebody who is, should I say, remarkably strong for their size, creating, an easy way to put it rather than the term internal strength, creating a chimpanzee body in human flesh. Techniques like shihonage, all those techniques, they’re perfect for that.
Then, from a fighting standpoint, which is different from a strength standpoint, you consider something John Bailey’s talking about is whatever strength you’ve developed you have to be able to apply it in the circumstances you’re in. These days people don’t tend to attack this way [shomenuchi], well they do with a knife, but you know empty hand, you don’t attack like that. Since they’re different attacks, can you apply those principles in those attacks? That you have to explicitly put in your Aikido practice. Do you remember that movie “Field of Dreams”? It’s a baseball movie with Kevin Costner.
If you build it they will come right, if you build the baseball field. Aikido ain’t like that, no martial arts are like that. You can’t practice divorced from combat and build up strength and expect you can apply it.
There’s a perfect example of that. There’s a Chinese martial art called I ch’uan. I ch’uan mostly practices post standing. I ch’uan guys are remarkably strong for their size. It was developed by a guy who distilled I ch’uan down from Xing Yi, he was like the Morihei Ueshiba to the Xing Yi guys.
He distilled out what he needed and he was pretty well known, they say he was a great fighter.
Now, a couple generations, I ch’uan guy’s doing the same training, they spar with the Kyoshinkai guys and always lose, always, because their bodies are remarkably developed in very specific ways, but they don’t practice fighting.
Again, I know that some people who do Aikido say: “Wait, all this talk about fighting: that isn’t what I’m doing Aikido for”. I get that but at the same time since we’re practising force on force, body on body, if I know I’m too weak to handle force, then I lack integrity in my Aikido. I’ll always be doubting myself.
If I have enough power to exert force, I have enough power to withhold force. It seems like it’s that way for any martial art. We used to do a lot of sparring in Araki-ryu and my teacher used to always beat me. I was training Muay Thai and when I got him in a clinch and I just hit him with some roundhouse knees. I pulled them at the last minute but I pummeled him and it felt wonderful to beat my teacher. Next week we’re sparring and I went to do the same thing. That whole week he’d been brooding about how he got beat and just when I started the knee, he did a semi-foot sweep, I staggered and he took me over in a hip throw and then punched me in the head. He said: “Never twice, never twice”. For him and then, as best I can, for myself, power has got to be part of the art and that includes Aikido, whatever are you doing.

Steve Bowman and Ellis Amdur performing ai-naginata Toda-ha Buko-ryu (Copyright ©Mark Raugas)

Carlo, is there anything else you wanted to ask?

Something about extending Ki because Aikido develops in different forms during the practice, so what’s the aim of extending your Ki beyond and maybe outside the body?

Ki is one of these incredibly big words, is it not? In both Chinese chi and in Japanese Ki. It means so many things. If we are talking about Ki as a kind of telekinesis, where, for example, there you are sitting, wherever you are, and I go like this and you fall back, I wish I could do that. I wish to god I could do it because I would be pushing so many people around… I’d be looking at the TV and I’d be knocking people off their chairs!
If we regard Ki as in the sense of the word charisma, which is actually similar, it comes with a similar idea that you have this intangible energy, can I affect somebody with my will? There’s an agency in America called DARPA that’s part of the Pentagon (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) and they’re usually studying things like laser guns and new cannons and high technology. They did a study, it was called The Good Stranger Study and the question was how can we teach American warfighters, soldiers how to communicate with our enemies. There’s a battlefield then you occupy an enemy territory you are now maybe there for many years, like the Americans haven’t left Afghanistan in 22 years. You’re going to be communicating with people who are your enemies. They had a bunch of research scientists and what DARPA usually does is they bring in the top research scientists and then they bring some people, some crazy people from outside and I was the crazy person. What I presented was the psychology of human relationship with people who are in conflict because the koryu studies I did had a very deep psychology of Ki, extending Ki into another human being.

“Kiai is anything that I do to organize myself to have an effect on the world”

The better term for Ki in this case would be Kiai. Usually, we think of Kiai as a shout: “EEIIII”, like that, but Kiai is anything that causes another person to act differently than they would have if you had not been there. Kiai is anything that I do to organize myself to have an effect on the world.
Right now, as I’m speaking, I’m using certain gestures, not only because they help me shape my thoughts but to get your attention. I wasn’t thinking this consciously but when I do this [extending thumb and index finger while other fingers are in a fist] it means small point, pay attention.
That’s kiai. The tone of voice I take, the way I talk to people, I’m trying to establish a particular relationship with you as far away as you all are that I have respectful influence with you, OK?
So, it is not my belief, it is my experience that Budo training can enable you to develop charisma, to get people to pay attention to you when you have something to say, to maintain your calm when not.
For those interested, I wrote two books on this subject. One was co-written. One’s called “The Coordinator” and that’s for police and warfighters. Another is called “The Accord Agent” and it was applying these principles to business but it’s basically daily life. It’s how do you communicate with people who are in an adversarial relationship to you?
Now, if you think about it, is that not Aikido in day-to-day action? We’re not touching and yet my goal is to ascertain a way that I can move you in a way that either is best just for me or is really best for the situation, let’s think of it in selfless terms. In that sense of extending Ki, I think that any martial art, Aikido being one of them, really has a potential for teaching people that. And again, one of the best ways to know how to get people to treat you seriously is to physically require that they treat you seriously. For example, if you and I are practising Aikido and you do an attack and I know if I let that hit me I am going to be hurt, then I have to pay attention to you. Now I have the added task of remaining within Aikido, I can’t just counter-attack and try to stab you in the eye with my fingers. I’m now bound by using Aikido technique to neutralize your attack.
This is what happens in social situations all the day, you know, your boss comes in and expresses some unhappiness: you don’t want to crawl; you don’t want to lose your job by yelling at your boss; if your boss is wrong, you want to maintain your integrity and keep your dignity: irimi, right?
You are going to be a person better prepared for that if you have taken strong attacks in the dojo, where there’s a chance it’s not going to work out. You’re talking about ukemi, taking ukemi in whatever way we take it and realizing: “if I don’t do this just right, I’m gonna get hurt”. And I learnt courage, I learnt adaptability, I learnt to bounce back.

The infamous Ki Master vs MMA challenge

To me, these are all a real extension of Ki, separate from the sort of martial art thing that, you know, from a distance, I hold up my hand and you begin to fall or something like that. I think there’s a possibility that that way of doing Ki can create a kind of overconfidence or grandiosity in somebody.
There’s that infamous tape of the Aikijutsu Ki master who had the fight with the young MMA guy.
He really thought he had all these people, he’d wave his arms and they’d fall. On that level, I don’t assume that you’re making that question but that kind of extension of Ki I’m not interested in.
The ability that from a powerful position of integrity I can influence other human beings to the good, that’s something that for me was created in martial arts. In my book “Dueling with O’Sensei” there’s several chapters about my work as a crisis intervention specialist and how I faced people who either meant me harm or meant somebody else harm. Definitely, I was to use that terminology “extending Ki” to move the situation and the person in the direction that was ultimately for peace.


Yeah, sure.

Change of subject.
Since I started training as a child, back at the beginning of the 70s, I always felt that Aikido was a safe environment, a place culturally free from the divisive arguments that poison society. I heard many times been said from my teachers that Aikido was The Big Equaliser, you know, everyone’s on the mats, we don’t care who they are, where they come from… we’re only students walking the path.
This had been said many many times. In the meantime, things seem to have changed because the current political correctness that pervades contemporary society is bringing the discourse on gender equality, LGTB, racism et cetera et cetera into Aikido. So, instead of bringing Aikido values into society, we’re letting people with an agenda to politicise our practice. What is your opinion on this?

Well, two. There’s a dojo, that’s one of my dojos close to my heart, it’s Aikido of Aetna, it’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Those guys and women, they’ve been brothers and sisters for like 30-40 years. One guy, I think of him as a very strong Trump supporter. And here’s something interesting: if I say that, some people I bet you’re gonna wince: “Oh, my God!”, right? Why? Other people are very much on the liberal side and all that. They love each other and they realize that ideas are ideas.
We can learn from other people’s ideas, so that’s number one.
Number two.
This isn’t Aikido but Araki-ryu. I teach in Greece and some of my students are pretty far left. I’m pretty conservative politically. One time asked my senior student: “You know my political beliefs aren’t the same as yours. I really disagree with you. Does that bother you?” And he said: “No”, he said, “I respect you so I’m always going to listen to you and when I disagree with you, I figure that’s just good ukemi practice”. How do I roll with it? How do I maintain a relationship when I really disagree with somebody?
And then there’s a third sort of example of this, which actually goes directly to your question. Many years ago, I was teaching a small group of people sword. It just so happened it was eight men and one woman. Just so happened the woman was a fairly high rank in Aikido but that just so happened.
We would practice at the top of this old priory – there’s a Catholic priory and had been turned into something else. There was an attic with 40-foot high ceilings and wooden floors, a wonderful place to practice. Then we take a freight elevator down, so all 10 of us could fit in the freight elevator. We’re going down and the woman all of a sudden looks around and goes: “You know, what this dojo needs? This dojo needs more feminine energy”. I looked and I said: “I don’t give a shit about that”, and she sort of started and I said “Really I don’t give a fuck about that. That has nothing to do with what we’re doing here”. So we lost the little bit of feminine energy we had because she didn’t come back.
The thing is: if I had only women, I don’t care about that either. If I had only gay practitioners and no straight practitioners, I don’t care about that either. All I care about is are you going to train with heart and integrity? To me, it’s an obscenity to bring those kinds of issues when we’re studying how to be graceful powerful people. Graceful powerful people don’t gain power by playing the victim, by scolding other people, using the upper hand of whatever political idea du jour there is. That’s such a craven, ugly way to take power away from other people and you know one gets intimidated. Literally, if I expressed some of my political opinions in certain circles, I wouldn’t get work, literally. I don’t suppress them, I don’t unsuppress them but, for example, I’ll be teaching a group of social service folks, therapists, who in seattle are almost all far on the left, and I ask a question, I say: “Let’s say you have a client who comes in. His marriage is breaking up, his kid is suicidal and he’s wearing a Make America Great hat and he has a Donald Trump sticker on his car, could you do therapy with them?”
And I see a lot of people get uncomfortable and I say: “If you are uncomfortable, then you have just said you’re not a therapist”.

Yeah, they should change job.

Right! Because the word therapist comes from a Greek word which is θεραπς (theraps), and θεραπς means to attend to. Attend to means to take ukemi. When you attend to another person you’re taking their ukemi. So my answer to that is it’s an obscenity to bring that kind of stuff into the dojo.
Now, if somebody does something that is genuinely ugly, if I go into your dojo and I sexually harass one of your students, I should be thrown out. That’s not a matter of politics, that’s a matter of conduct. But if I express an opinion that – take your pick – for example “if I were French I’d vote for Le Pen”… If I say that, whether I believe it or not, that’s not an issue, but if I say that and that causes me any problems in your dojo, there’s something wrong with your dojo culture. Sure, if somebody says “Joseph Stalin is my hero and I can’t wait for the next gulag”, you know, there are extremes beyond extremes, but that’s not what we’re talking about most of the time.
My Araki-ryu teacher was one of the last of the men in Japan who belonged in Pre-War Japan, that particular messianic right-wing perspective. He hated Americans. I was his last student. Because he felt an obligation to teach me because of my sincerity to learn, because of my intent, because somebody had taught him out of the same motivation.
In my world, you don’t teach because: “Oh, that’s my job and I love it! I love to help people”. If somebody gave you something wonderful and the only way you can repay that is to pass it on, you have to, you’re obligated to. So to then pick and choose in terms of politics… No.

I think we’re at the end of this truly engaging and insightful conversation. Thanks a million, Ellis, thanks for this.

You’re welcome.

Certainly, there’s some reflections to be done, to be had and I hope that the guys that have been connected are happy to have been here. We’re gonna prepare, as usual, an article for Aikido Italian Network with a transcript of the interview and obviously we’re gonna publish the full video as well. So, any questions, just use the Facebook page and we’ll take it from there.
Thanks a million, Ellis, I hope that soon enough – wishful thinking at the moment – well, soon enough we will be able to bring you to Europe and bring this conversation into something a bit more practical but that for now is just a plan, yeah?

I’d love to. I’ve been to Ireland once. I want to come back. Yeah.

Thank you, everybody, see you soon.
Next Sunday we have another session: we’re gonna talk about Hideki Hosokawa sensei. He used to be one of my teachers and unfortunately an ailment has sidelined him for many years now, way too early in his life. I’ll be joined by some other of Hosokawa sensei’s senior teachers and we’ll try and tell you a few stories about him, about his life and deeds in Aikido.
Finally, please, if you can give us a contribution to keep this work going. Donate buttons are available on our homepage and at the bottom of each article that we publish. Thanks for your generosity.
Ellis, thank you very much. Thank you, everybody. Arrivederci.


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Un pensiero riguardo “The Phenomenologist – Interview with Ellis Amdur”

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