The Translator – Interview with Christopher Li


Christopher Li calls himself a “hobbyist with a specialty”, however, thanks to his research and writing he has given an important contribution to the understanding of modern Aikido. His views on Aikido, its history and future developments are unconventional and often “politically incorrect” but he’s not afraid to share them. This is not an interview for those unwilling to discuss the official narrative of our art and its people…

di SIMONE CHIERCHINI

CHIERCHINI
Hello everyone you’re watching “The Aikido Healings” and you’re on Aikido Italia Network with Simone Chierchini. Today my guest for this session is Christopher Li. Welcome to you, Chris. How are you doing?

LI
Good, thank you. Thank you for having me. 

CHIERCHINI
It’s a pleasure. Chris, just to start, to warm up the atmosphere, could you kindly give us an overview of your experiences in Aikido and Budo so far?

LI
OK. I started Aikido in 1981, so I’m old, right, not as old as some people but pretty old. I trained first on the US mainland. I started with a student of Mitsugi Saotome and all my first ranks came from Saotome sensei. Then, in ’82 I went to Japan for a short time after I first started Aikido – I think I was 5th – and I went with Yamada sensei, which is another story because Yamada and Saotome at the time were not very friendly. They’re probably not very friendly now either but I’m kind of apart from that now. That was just for a short time for about three months and I trained at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo knowing nothing at all, thrown into the mix, which was fun but in retrospect, I’m not sure I’d do it again. 
Then, in 1989 I moved back to Japan after college and I ended up staying for a long time, all together maybe about 15 years. Then eventually I came back to Hawaii. During that time, I practised mostly Aikido Aikikai, also in Japan I experimented a lot: Yoshinkan, Iwama, I did a couple of different forms of Daito-ryu. I saw koryu, bujutsu…

The full video-interview on YouTube


Coming back to Hawaii, I studied some Chinese Arts as well and then since about 2010 I’ve been training with Dan Harden if anybody knows who Dan Harden is. Some people are in if they’re on the internet, some people if they’re off the internet maybe have no idea. In 2011 we started our own group, Aikido Sangenkai. We’ve been training since then, it’s an Aikido group where we focus mostly on Dan Harden’s method of training. It’s maybe a little bit unorthodox but we enjoy it. 
And that takes up to the present. I think if you’re on social media you’ve probably seen me posting around. I have an interest in Japanese history, especially the history of Aikido. I kind of fell into that through online discussions, in part. If anybody remembers Aikido-L, it was an old mailing list on a listserve for Aikido people, if people remember when people use listservs, and we would talk about whatever – bullshit, mostly, and argue a lot. 

CHIERCHINI
It really interests me because I followed more or less the same footsteps: the Aikido-L list etc. And the funny thing is that today there’s a lot of people out there that refer to us bloggers as historians of Aikido and that always makes me laugh because we’re like some kind of Stanley Pranin. Maybe it’d be more appropriate to call us Aikido communicators or something like that. This passion of yours for researching, where does come from?

LI
Oh, where does it come from? I don’t know! I  mean, we started discussing things and then… When I started, we didn’t know anything. Nobody knew nothing about nothing. I think Stan Pranin had a couple of those Aiki News magazines out and they looked like they were from a copy machine – that was before he had the nice print edition – and there was some information coming out. There were a couple of books that weren’t very good, John Stevens came out with his book about Shirata sensei and they had a short biography of Morihei Ueshiba in the beginning. At that time we called it “The Biography of Morihei Ueshiba”, even though what you see in that book it’s mostly just pictures of Shirata showing techniques, because there really were no good biographies, no detailed biographies. 
Of course, we’d talk on the internet and then we’d talk and I’d read more, I’d read more about Stan Pranin and then I really started getting into it more heavily when my Japanese got better. So when we moved to Japan the second time, when my wife’s mother became ill and we went back to Japan, and my Japanese was getting better, I read more Japanese, I started reading a lot of things. I was able to read a lot of original sources and books on Aikido and other things that I hadn’t been able to read before. In combination with online discussions, I guess that really got moving. Also Stan Pranin, of course, was providing a huge wealth of material by that point, so there was just more information, more things to dig into. 

Stanley Pranin, founder of Aiki News (then Aikido Journal) in a 1970’s image (Copyright Aikido Journal)

When I started, we didn’t know anything about Daito-ryu. It was one of those many things that Morihei Ueshiba studied before he created his own original art in 1925 like Kisshomaru used to say, that he created the art in 1925 and then things started to change. As you dig into these things, you develop a specialty. I’m kind of a hobbyist with a specialty – if you want to call me a communicator or whatever – that means I’m not a historian, as some people call us, historians. I’m a hobbyist but I do have a very specialized hobby. Hobbyists can all often have very detailed knowledge. It’s just it’s not formal knowledge.
There really are no historians in Aikido, even Stan Pranin went to it because he went to Japan and started talking to people. He wasn’t a trained historian, he was sort of more of a reader of history. He recorded all these interviews, he dug into these things… The closest we have to a historian is maybe Peter Goldsbury because he actually has some academic training. Or maybe Fumiaki Shishida, who’s in  Shodokan Aikido, who’s actually a professor that studies Budo. Other than that, there really isn’t anybody and nobody who really does it full time or for a living. There are no scholarly works on Aikido except for maybe Peter Goldsbury’s essays and a couple of things in Japanese from Shishida translated into English. One of his students, Kudo, published a book that’s quite good on Aiki and Aikido and that’s really about it. There’s a whole lot more information now than we had before, and I think that’s what we get into trouble because we get on the internet and you still see some of the things that were brought 40 years ago and then people become very emotionally invested in these things.

CHIERCHINI
In a way, it was easier in the past because we knew nothing and we did what we were told.

LI
We knew nothing, right. 

CHIERCHINI
You mentioned your command of the Japanese language and this brings on the idea of an old movie, Lost in Translation. A lot of your work has actually helped in clarifying how much of what is attributed to Ueshiba Morihei has very little to do with O-Sensei’s true thinking. 

Morihei Ueshiba walking with Fukiko and Kansho Sunadomari

LI
That’s right.

CHIERCHINI
It’s not hard to find quotes from Morihei that could be used to support both sides of an argument. Could you elaborate a little on this and explain what has been done with Ueshiba sensei’s legacy? 

LI
Morihei Ueshiba’s speeches were very difficult even in Japanese. If you look at what most of his students said, at the difficulty of understanding him – and this was in Japanese when they were sitting maybe right in front of him, listening to him directly, right into their ears… and they said they had difficulty understanding him. Part of that is because, apparently, he had a very strong country accent, a Wakayama accent. There was one of his students, I think Suganuma sensei, said at one point that he couldn’t understand half of what Morihei Ueshiba was saying because the accent was so strong. 
Well, that causes problems, and then the material is very difficult. He came out of a very complex background of esoteric Buddhism and kototama and Omoto-kyo and he really didn’t believe in explaining things clearly for his audience. He spoke the way he was thinking of it. When he spoke that way, if you didn’t have the correct background to understand what he was saying, it was virtually impossible to understand what he was saying. And that’s what most of these direct students said because they were mostly young people and they would listen to him. Either they weren’t interested – and most of them weren’t interested – or they didn’t have the background and they had difficulty in understanding him. 
He actually wrote very little. He wrote a few articles before the war for Budo magazines and for the newsletter published by the Budo Senyokai, which is the Omoto-kyo Budo organization – I think he actually wrote those directly – but wrote very little else. Even the text that we have in “Budo”, the 1938 manual or the 1933 “Budo Renshu“, apparently those texts were compiled by students. Probably Kenji Tomiki composed these texts.
After the war, we have quite a lot of his speeches on record. There’s one collection that’s collected in Aiki Shinsui, that’s mostly articles from the Aikido Shinbun, the newsletter that was published by Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Those were mostly recordings done by Fujita sensei and Arikawa sensei. Morihei Ueshiba hated to be recorded, so they kind of had to record him in secret and hide the microphone if they were recording him. That caused difficulties with the quality of the recording. Once they recorded them, most of the transcriptions were done by Arikawa sensei and Fujita sensei and they both said how difficult it was because of the quality of the recording and the material. 

The founder engrossed in his studies in Iwama

CHIERCHINI
Were the transcriptions edited, as far as you know, or just given the way they were? 

LI
Arikawa sensei and Fujita sensei I believe transcribed them as faithfully as they could. I believe that, after that, Stan Pranin always maintained that the transcriptions were edited for publication in the Aikido Shimbun, the Aikido Newsletter. From reading them, I believe that to be the case. They eliminated a lot of the religious language, a lot of the Omoto-kyo language, a lot of the names of the gods and so forth. That’s often the way that he described things, so that’s a difficulty. Also, I think they eliminated things that were not politically correct to be published in the Aikido newspaper. You see some of those things in other speeches that were reported, outside of that.
You have these sources which are edited, so they’re not 100% reliable and even if they were reliable, you’d have difficulty understanding these sources – but they are edited. There’s a teacher in Japan, Inoue sensei, he’s also studied O’Sensei words quite a lot and he has a long list of errors in transcriptions found in Aiki Shinsui. Some of them are minor, some of them maybe not so minor. 
The other source that we have for Morihei Ueshiba is a book, “Takemusu Aiki” that was published by the Byakko Shinkokai. It’s actually a sort of set of lectures that Morihei Ueshiba gave specifically for publication, so he knew this was going to be published. They were published in the Byakko Shinkokai newsletter, originally. They were transcribed by Hideo Takahashi and those I believe are much more accurate, first of all, because he specifically dictated those for publication and also because Hideo Takahashi went back to O-Sensei and he’d consult with him, which I believe didn’t happen with the other transcriptions that appeared in the Aikido newspaper. He’d go over various things to make sure that they were as accurate as they could be.
Those are probably the most accurate transcriptions we have. Those don’t exist in English, except in a very heavily edited fashion. There is a translation into French. I’m not sure how good it is because I studied French in high school but it’s all gone – that’s 40  years ago. The English translation: there’s one, it’s by John Stevens and when I talked to him about it, he called it “Takemusu Aikido-light”, because he edited it heavily. He said he removed lines…

CHIERCHINI
That’s the other problem: a text that is already extremely complex by nature has been transcripted by other people from other sources in Japanese and then being given to other people to translate into  their own languages, with the relative filters, and this is where I wanted to go. Now the Westerners can read all about the philosophy of the Founder, but how much of what we’re reading is actually the philosophy of the Founder?

John Stevens with Rinjiro Shirata at the time of Aikido: The Way of Harmony (1984)

LI
That’s right. It’s very difficult to tell because any translation is never going to be accurate 100%. It’s never like reading the original. If you’re looking at the Bible, I can go out and I can pick up 30 different translations of the Bible. It’s possible for me to compare. I can look at the different translations. I can pick up the original Greek or the Hebrew, if I speak Greek or Hebrew, it’s all publicly available. There are scholarly books and articles about the translations and about the text of the Bible, so it’s possible for me to evaluate it. I can look at any given passage from the Bible and see what I think might be the most accurate translation.  
But that’s not possible with Morihei Ueshiba: there’s one translation by John Stevens and that’s not saying that those are bad necessarily, but if you have one translation and no reference, you have no idea whether it’s accurate or not, especially if it’s out of context. 

CHIERCHINI
Nothing to compare it to.

LI
That’s right and the most popular translation, generally, in the West, for English speakers, is “The Art of Peace” from John Stevens, which is a selection of out-of-context quotations from various sources. Some of the sources are reliable, some of them aren’t. Nobody really knows because the sources aren’t cited. There’s no context given. It is like Bible-quote-a-day calendar that they have in the US and that you can put on your desk. It has one quotation from the Bible for you for each day.

CHIERCHINI
They’re perfect for social media now. You can stick a photo of the founder with them and whoever has put the post out looks good. That’s really it. No more than that.  

LI
It’s a very complicated issue. What should be a very complex discussion: “What did he say?”, “What did it mean?”, becomes a meme on the internet. Then a lot of people believe that quote is accurate, so you get into problems with people that become very heavily invested in that particular quotation.

CHIERCHINI
There’s people that get very angry. You get insulted by people on social media if you dare to say: “Look, maybe the story is not exactly as clear as you think”.

There’s a Ueshiba quote ready for any topic!

LI
People love their teachers, which I understand, everybody loves their teacher.  Their teacher said something, they saw something on the internet where they’re very emotionally involved…  I understand that but it’s not necessarily the truth. If you’re interested in it, it may not be. I’ve had people say to me: “Well, I don’t if it’s true or not.  I like the idea behind the quote”. I was like: “OK, I mean, that’s fine”.
There are really two discussions or there should be two discussions: one is history, which should be as objective as possible, as true as possible: that’s what actually happened, what someone said, what they did, where they went… That’s one. And then there’s what we do for our training, our practice. Where the two mixed together, sometimes there are a lot of problems.

CHIERCHINI
Yeah, they should be very well separated, that’s the fact.

LI
They should be separated because people can do whatever they want, I don’t care, I mean, I do whatever I want in my training. People like it, they don’t like it, I don’t care. It’s what I enjoy and people can do of course what they like, they’re free to do it. That’s fine.
Get mixed together, basically, I find three things happen: history is used for authenticity, which is a big thing in all traditional martial arts. In Asian martial arts is very common that people want to be authentic, so they use history to justify their particular lineage, their teachers’ credentials. Part of that’s because there’s no competition in Aikido. A boxer doesn’t have to defend his authenticity because he gets up and he boxes, and it’s his authenticity. He doesn’t say: “My boxing is the original boxing from coach Bob who taught me and I was his student for 10 years. It’s totally irrelevant.
The second thing that happens is justification,  the justification for what you’re doing and that’s also partially because there’s no competition. “I do this because my teacher said so”. Or, “History says O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba believed this, therefore I believe this, therefore what I’m doing is good”, it’s my justification.

And then the third thing that happens is authority. People exert their authority by appeal to the past and usually, that’s cherry-picked part of the past.  They picked some part of something that some teacher said and now that’s the rule forever, maybe for all eternity. If you remember, not last year, it was pre-covid, two years ago, maybe? There were some Russian Aikikai groups that were practising a very light form of competition, not really direct head-on, sparring but I think they were doing forms with prizes. The Aikikai sent out a letter, Mitsuteru Ueshiba sent out a letter under the heading of the Aikikai and one of the things they said was that competition is forbidden in Aikido. “It is the immutable will of the founder”. It’s immutable, right? It can never be changed.

CHIERCHINI
By the way, forgetting that there’s plenty of competitions in Aikido. Not in Aikikai Aikido but in other styles there’s plenty of it, under different forms and it’s not a sin. As you said earlier, I train the way I like.

LI
That’s right but people want to exert their authority. This is a big thing for the Aikikai, this particular issue, because they chose it early on as a way of differentiating Aikido from perhaps other arts in the post-war era – even though, originally, not competing was the standard in Morihei Ueshiba’s time. Of course, there’s no competition in Daito-ryu. Gichin Funakoshi was opposed to sporting competition in the beginning. Of course, they had a form of sparring, randori, in Judo, but he was initially opposed to sporting competition.  Gichin Funakoshi was always against competition. Even competition in Kendo was kind of a new thing.  It came about in the Meiji period with Gekiken and then involved into Kendo but it was a kind of a new idea, this sporting competition in a Japanese sword. It used to be that everybody thought that way and then but after the war, I guess the sporting aspect was the most common and the Aikikai grabbed it as a marketing point: we are the martial art without competition. What an unusual idea… Except that it didn’t use to be unusual. It’s only unusual now. And, of course, now they can’t back down from that, unfortunately.

CHIERCHINI
The Aikido mats are packed with people that are busy looking wise with someone else’s book in their hand. We’ve seen it for years… It shouldn’t be that a teacher should teach something that makes sense in itself, without having to refer to an external authority to justify it? How did we get there?  

LI
It’s very common in all traditional martial arts.

CHIERCHINI
Well, it’s a sign of weakness, though. And by the way, our beloved Morihei Ueshiba – as far as I know – never quoted Sokaku Takeda, never.

LI
Never, not as far as I know. I don’t think he ever quoted Deguchi, when he was talking that language.

CHIERCHINI
It’s funny enough because we always refer to the founder but often enough we forget to follow what he was doing… He was doing his thing, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. As you said: “It’s my thing. You like it, don’t like, it’s your decision”.  But I don’t need to do it and then say: “Oh no, that’s fine because” for example, “I am a student of Tada, Fujimoto and Hosokawa sensei and I do this because my sensei had done it”. I do it because I do it. Of course, I learnt from them and one has to be honest and recognize our teachers their due, but that said we shouldn’t use it to justify, as we often see, things that our teachers never said and never did.

LI
That’s true, it’s very tempting to use because it’s hard to contradict an authority, especially Morihei Ueshiba. If the Aikikai says: “This was the will of Morihei Ueshiba”, well, you can’t contradict that because he’s dead.  You can’t go back to him and say: “Sensei, did you really say that?”. It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve seen dojos where students try to invoke the authority of the teacher and then another student would go back to the teacher and say: “Well, is this what you want us doing?” and the teacher would say: “No, what are you talking about?”. But in this case, you can never go back to Morihei Ueshiba because he’s passed away and he lived in a different time,  a different context, different culture…  
He didn’t believe in competition. He said that pretty clearly which is fair enough. Some people don’t like competition, some people do, that’s fine, and in his time it was very common but of course times change. Because he did one thing it’s not necessarily true that we should be doing that forever and, of course, nobody trains like Morihei Ueshiba anyway, although some people believe that they may be.  

CHIERCHINI
Also, I think we’re doing lots of things that Morihei Ueshiba wouldn’t like to see done, so it’s a very weak point. Staying with this argument, over the years I heard it said several times that O-Sensei would have left an Aikido system where you always have tori and uke and when taking ukemi you would have to accept what who is doing the technique does. O-Sensei would have left this Aikido system to remove selfishness, to eliminate the Ego, but in my research, I could never find anywhere where that is actually being said by Morihei Ueshiba. Have you ever come across any documental proof of this or is it another modern interpretation of Aikido that has little to do with the founder and his legacy?  

LI
I have never found any support for that directly. I know a couple of Morihei Ueshiba’s students have said things like that. I’m suspicious of those kinds of statements.
In Japan often things are not spoken about, they’re not discussed. You never ask the teacher why he’s doing that. They’re sensitive. “What’s the deal?”, “Why are you doing that?”, “Why would you do that?”: nobody says that. The teacher does it and then you follow, you imitate. So there’s a tendency in Japan to invent a reason after the fact for many things and you see it not just in Budo but in many different facets of Japanese life. They have some kind of practice and then, after the path, they invent some kind of reasoning around it: “Oh, well, we do that because whatever-whatever-whatever”. But what really happened, maybe someone just did it for some reason or some other reason completely and nobody really knows but they made this up.
That uke-nage thing is the standard way of training in Daito-ryu. They train exactly the same way.  Morihei Ueshiba used it. Daito-ryu used it. Most classical Japanese martial arts, most ju-jitsu… Look at things like Katori Shinto, which is maybe the oldest martial tradition: it’s still uke and nage. They have it, it’s still that same exact role play. Someone takes a turn in this role and then, in turn, they turn in the other role. There’s no reason for me to believe that it’s specially created for that purpose. It’s just the standard way of training that exists in all these martial arts that had no form of training through sparring, through randori training which really came about more in the modern era. It existed somewhere in arts – like Jigoro Kano brought in randori, Kendo brought in randori and became more common. 

75 years old Jigoro Kano (in normal clothing) and his opponent on the ground (Photo by Lothar Ruebelt – Copyright Getty Images)

I think people who are trying to rationalize it that way, are trying to contrast it to things like Judo and Kendo, really just modern systems. Judo and Kendo really have the most modern kind of training system. Aikido is just using the same old system that Morihei Ueshiba got from Daito-ryu. It seems to me that it’s exactly the same. I don’t want to say this teacher is lying…

CHIERCHINI
We won’t get there. Let’s now consider how the western way of thinking has caused a dichotomy in the way we think about power: we always refer to internal and external power, almost as separate entities with separate methods also to attain them. Is it true, first of all, that these two things are separate? By any chance, is this the origin of all the foggy exoteric theories on how to achieve mastery in Aikido? As far as I remember, Aikido is just one, that’s what we maintained the whole time. So how come that there are different ways, you know, external, internal… I know that you dedicated a lot of time to this research and I’d love to get your opinion on this.

LI
The internal-external dichotomy really comes from China, from Chinese martial arts, mainly. I think it was primarily used there. Chinese martial artists argue about this all the time, so I’m not going to say there’s only one standard definition of external and internal. My view on it is – for looking at Chinese martial arts and then carrying that over to Japan – that internal and external divisions were largely artificial. We’re talking about different ways of classifying training methodologies that are generally different, two generally different kinds of training methodologies: an external kind and an internal kind but other than that, the division itself is artificial. If we cut through the classical – we’re talking about Ki and all that kind of stuff – basically, everything has to be biomechanical, physical. Everything has to be biological, there’s really no way of getting around that.
For external arts, generally, you’re talking about an art that’s training in relation to another person.  So you’re talking about leverage. You’re talking about speed, time and strength… If you’re talking about an internal martial art, you’re talking about some kind of training that is happening relative to oneself. You’re talking about how you handle your body, how you manage incoming force, how you generate outcoming force. That’s all relative to you rather than the relationship between you and the other person.

Taiso Horikawa, Sokaku Takeda, Kodo Horikawa

If you look at Daito-ryu, for example, some schools of Daito-ryu have divided the curriculum into three: ju-jutsu, aiki-jujutsu, aiki no jutsu. Ju-jutsu would be the external components: that’s the leverage, wrist locks, timing, angles, speed… all those things that happen in a relationship with another person. The expression Aiki no jutsu gets a little fuzzy because there’s also a set of techniques that are called Aiki-no-jutsu. The Aiki no jutsu we’re talking about here is more about internal training, training that’s happening relative to yourself: how you’re managing your body, how you’re managing force incoming with your body, how you’re managing to generate outgoing force. And then Aiki-jujutsu would be somewhere in the middle, a combination of when you’re doing ju-jutsu with an Aiki body, where you’re using Aiki in your body to power your ju-jutsu. They would divide it roughly into three pillars.
O-Sensei, later in Iwama, tried to divide things differently into hard training, Kotai training, Jutai training, Ryutai training, Ekitai training, Kitai training, somewhere along the similar line of kin but it was more also more related to the character of the training that was occurring.
You can get into a lot of very funny areas when people are talking about internal energy, Ki… And I think it’s important if you get into that kind of a conversation, just trying to find what you’re talking about, I think a lot of these conversations just go downhill because people aren’t defining their terms. People say Aiki is this or is this and the other person says no Aiki isn’t that, or Ki isn’t that… but nobody says right up at the head of the conversation what they’re talking about, what they mean by Aiki or what they mean by Ki or you know how we’re going to drill down into that term. If we’re going to have those conversations while we get into a more esoteric manner, then it’s important to define what we’re talking about.

CHIERCHINI
Let’s stay with this. It’s kind of a trendy topic, lately. There’s a hyper exposure of Aiki on contemporary social media. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but not a day goes by without a new video being published with people showing real or presumed Aiki powers. What is going on? Has everyone figured out the Aiki faculty all at once or what is it? Is it a fashion now?

Roy Goldberg teaches Tenchi waza

LI
Perhaps there’s more video around of people who did things and used to not release video, like Kodo Horikawa. When I was starting, there was no video of Kodo Horikawa or the Kodokai. Seigo Okamoto put out some videos. When did I go see him in Japan? I think it was 1989, it must have been around that time, I guess, the 80s when they started to come out with some videos of that, maybe the late 80s.
There were a lot of discussions on Aikiweb and on Aikido-L surrounding internal power with Dan Harden and Mike Sigman and a lot of other people. That’s really how I got thrown into it… I wanted to say drawn into this because, when Dan Harden and Sigman first came on, there was an Aikido-L that first started talking about it but I thought they were all full of crap. Dan would come on and say whatever and he very rarely edited whatever he posted on the mailing list and he still doesn’t edit what he says. He’s much more coherent in person if you’ve met him. And then Mike Sigman would come on and say: “Well everything comes from China”. Mike Sigman’s mainly a Chinese martial artist. So we would say: “Well, of course, it doesn’t. There’s no connection to China”. Of course, when you start digging into Japanese culture and history, it all comes from China, so the references back to China are absolutely present if you start digging into Japanese martial traditions, the relevance back to Chinese classical martial texts they’re all apparent. But at the time we just didn’t believe them.
And then around 2010,  those people started teaching more publicly. They started holding seminars – we had some out here – and then that content became more widespread. Some people are teaching more openly. Roy Goldberg from Daito-ryu is teaching more openly. Maybe that encourages both real and perhaps imagined to come forward and try and jump on the bandwagon.
I’m not sure that it’s entire entirely that profitable to do that kind of thing. Dan and Mike, I don’t think they’ve really made anything serious out of this. I don’t know anyone is really making money out of traditional martial arts these days and things, except for maybe some of the big dogs. I’m sure that Doshu makes money. Doshu, Waka Sensei, they make money, but outside of that, I think very few people are really making a profit. Even some of the big organizations, like Yamada sensei, like the USAF, people like that, I’m sure they make a living, but it’s not profitable as for them either as it was back in the 1980s when things were really booming.

CHIERCHINI
It’s not only money, I suppose. A lot of it has to do with status.  

LI
Yes, that’s true.

Soshi Okamoto Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu Roppokai techniques

CHIERCHINI
People want a certain status. So the guy next door can prove that he has the Aiki faculty and you don’t! That’s something that always irritates me. It’s not the fact that one has it or hasn’t. It’s the fact that they immediately start to ask others: “Do you have it?” like you’re the silly one that cannot do this. 
Let’s stay with this for another little while. In your opinion, in contemporary society, is it more useful to study Aiki-do, basically where the final objective is to control and apply the Aiki faculty or to study Ai-Ki-Do, in a few words the way traced by Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru that has moved the art of Aikido within the realm of the psychodynamics and the relational practices? What’s more useful these days?

LI
Useful is a tricky word because it depends on what’s useful for that individual person. If someone comes to me and they say I want to study self-defence, I would tell them not to study any traditional martial arts. I don’t think it’s worth the time for most people in the United States. Some countries are more dangerous, or some people have professions where it’s required, but for most people in the US, the chances that they’ll die in the next year from injuries inflected by somebody else are about half of the chances that the from injuries inflicted by themselves that they’ll commit suicide or hurt themselves in some way. If you think it that way, rather than studying martial arts you should go out and go to a psychologist. That’s a better use of your money and your time.  
For me, training for martial purposes, unless that’s your profession or you live in a more dangerous area than I do, it’s not really worth your time. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. People surf: there’s absolutely no usefulness to surfing but people do it every day. People do pottery… I guess there’s some usefulness about pottery. 

CHIERCHINI
Chris, surfers will tell you that it’s a way of life.  

LI
It’s a way of life, that’s right. People love it. They surf their entire lives, they surf every day and that’s fine. They find it useful but other people say: “Well, what good is surfing going to do for me?”.
Whatever is useful, I think, is what you enjoy, what makes your life better. As I said, we focus on the internal power training method that it’s being taught by Dan Harden and I focus on that because it’s interesting, it’s more interesting than other things. I’m not saying it’s better than any other approach or more useful. It’s more interesting for me and I enjoy it.

Dan Harden in action

Some people may enjoy competing. They go into BJJ and they enter tournaments and maybe that’s useful and enjoyable for them. A lot of people do BJJ and never compete. A lot of people do regular good old Aikikai Aikido, which is kind of a group social activity these days for most people. You go out and you have some exercise, you meet your friends and you enjoy yourself and I think that’s great too, it’s useful for them.
So again, if we go back, there’s a different conversation. One conversation we had was about history. Then another conversation is what we do maybe, a third conversation is how useful something is and why it’s useful. I don’t think it’s something that necessarily has to be in order to be worth training, unless you’re doing it for your profession, if I’m a military or I’m a law enforcement officer or I’m working in a mental hospital, someplace where I have to deal with violent people. Then it becomes a question of perhaps of which approach is going to be most useful to me. Other than that, I don’t think it really applies.
We can talk technically and I think that’s a valid way to have discussions too. If you’re talking about a certain situation, in this situation maybe it’s tactically, strategically, more advantageous to go to the ground, or to use this technique, or to use that tactic. I think those are all great discussions, but then those also technical discussions become mixed in with other discussions: “Is it authentic?” or “Better than this is what we’re doing”. People often criticize Aikido because they say it’s not effective or it’s not useful. Or someone brags about their Aikido because “Our Aikido is more useful than your Aikido because it’s real Aikido”. Actually, there is a style called Real Aikido. Those are all technical discussions that are fine but they don’t necessarily translate between people, depending upon their particular goals.

CHIERCHINI
Chris, I’m gonna ask you something that I asked Ellis Amdur in our interview two weeks ago. The question is: has Morihei Ueshiba cloned Daito-ryu, as they always maintained on that side of the fence? Or has he completely reshaped it and transcended its original meaning as they told us, Aikido people, to say?

Morihei Ueshiba and Hisa Takuma – Kagami Biraki 1936

LI
Not the second one and not really the first one either, although that would be much closer. When I started, the conversation was, basically, that Morihei Ueshiba studied all of these different arts, of which Daito-ryu was maybe one, if you heard about it, and then started his own art about 1925. Kisshomaru Ueshiba used to say that Aikido started around 1925. I think the Aikikai still maintains that, more or less. Because primarily of what Stan Pranin brought up, all the information about Daito-ryu, it turned out that before the war, the pre-war students said: “Well, yeah we were doing Daito-ryu”. Kenji Tomiki said: “Yeah, I studied Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu”. Minoru Mochizuki said: “Look, I have a Daito-ryu scroll”. Isamu Takeshita had a Daito-ryu scroll.
Stan Pranin brought up all this information and then now when I talk to people today, it seems that the talking point is: “OK, he called it Daito-ryu before the war but after the war he transformed it into something completely different”. I don’t really buy that argument either, because technically what he was doing before the war and after the war were not so different. That was something that Morihiro Saito used to always stress, when he walked around in his seminars carrying that damn book, walking with “Budo” in his hand he’d say:” Look! Look! Look! Here’s what the founder taught me in Iwama and here he is, in 1938, doing the same thing”, to prove that he was doing the same thing as Morihei Ueshiba. In 1938, of course, it was Daito-ryu. If it’s Daito-ryu in 1938 then when Morihei Ueshiba is teaching it in Iwama in 1968 that is still technically Daito-ryu.
Even in Daito-ryu there’s a lot of variation. Kodo Horikawa and Takuma Hisa were very very different. Yukiyoshi Sagawa was very different. You had all these people doing different things and taking things into different areas. Morihei Ueshiba was one of those Daito-ryu students. He certainly had his own spin on, he certainly changed things, but then the question you have to ask is – and this is where it gets difficult: “Where does one thing become another thing?”. He was certainly a Daito-ryu teacher. Did he change? Certain some things changed but did he ever change it into something completely different? Like today I’m doing Boxing but then 20 years from now you see me and I’m doing Yoga. We could say maybe those are completely different things. But if today I’m doing Boxing and 20 years from now you come to see me and I’m doing something that I’m not calling Boxing but it looks very very identical, well then is that something completely different, it would be difficult to say that.

One of Ueshiba’s images from the Noma Dojo series (1936)

I think there was no clear line where we could say that Morihei Ueshiba taught something from it. Technically, of course, things were very similar. We can now compare on video and film that what he was doing in 1935 was almost identical to what he was doing in 1965. And even after the war, in 1957, he himself said that he was heir to the art of the Takeda family. He said there were 2664 techniques in Aikido in 1957, this was years after he told Morihiro Saito that he had perfected Aikido in Iwama. Most people say that there are 2884 in Daito-ryu but it really varies depending on who you’re talking to.
He never himself really distinguished, I think. We know that in 1960 he was still giving out Daito-ryu certificates. Both Gozo Shioda and Kenji Tomiki gave demonstrations in the 1950s, where they called what they were demonstrating Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. It’s all mixed together there really is no clear dividing line to say that he created something new and different. Of course, he had his own take on it. If you look at what he did, it’s different from what Kodo Horikawa was doing. I’m sure it’s different from the other people but not so different you could call it something new. After the war, he invited Yukiyoshi Sagawa to teach at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, for example, who was a famous Daito-ryu instructor. He thought it was close enough to what was happening at the Hombu, or maybe what should have been happening at the Hombu, to have Sagawa teach there. Of course, it fell through, it never happened. It could have happened and things might have been very interesting, very different.
I think that if you’re trying to postulate that he created something completely different it’s extremely cynical. He never said that.

CHIERCHINI
Other people have been saying it and someone is actually still going around with this kind of spin. Maybe the real innovator, if we want to find an innovator here, it was his son.

Morihei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba together in front of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo

LI
Yes, I think that Kisshomaru Ueshiba is really responsible for Aikikai Aikido today, which is most of the Aikido and that’s a great achievement. He really created something. He said in the interviews that were done with him, he said it himself that it was intended to be a more modern version, that people couldn’t train the way his father did anymore. He created an art that’s enjoyed by millions of people. It’s kind of a group social activity, which people hate to hear me say sometimes. It’s a great thing. Sometimes I’ve compared modern Aikido and Morihei Ueshiba’s Aikido to Ballet and Zumba, which I know people get angry about sometimes because they think I’m trying to criticize modern Aikido. But if you look at Zumba, Zumba is about a hundred thousand, a million times more popular than Ballet. Nobody wants to do Ballet for normal people. Ballet is extremely difficult, it hurts, it requires a lot of dedication and training… Nobody wants to do it, you don’t see people flocking to Ballet classes, except for little kids, parents send their kids to Ballet classes. Zumba is popular. It’s fun. There are Zumba classes everywhere. Or things like Zumba, maybe Zumba is out of fashion now, I don’t know, I’m older, so I’d have to ask younger people. The kind of exercise classes, Zumba or spinning or whatever it is, it’s fun, you get to go with your friends and meet people and have a good experience, and it’s about a million times more popular than Aikido. 
That’s something like what Kisshomaru Ueshiba created. He reworked the philosophy a little bit, as much as there was a philosophy, now it’s a more modern conflict resolution, getting along with other people, creating communities, the kind of philosophy which sold very well to the 70s and in the early 80s. I don’t know how well it sells these days, but I guess it’s still popular with a large segment of the population. I think it’s a great thing, people like it, they enjoy it and that’s great.

CHIERCHINI
We were talking about translating earlier on: that’s what he has done. We’re not here to judge, right or wrong, but he has translated something that was – in your own words – extremely complicated to figure out even for the students of his father. He translated it into something – right or wrong – that actually managed to be within the reach of millions of people. There’s no discussion that he was a genius in his own way.

Nidai Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba

LI
A lot of it was unintended, I think. He changed a little bit at a time and things, as they change, they take on their own life, they change in unexpected ways. Kisshomaru was always very clear that Aikido was Budo. He was clear that it was a martial art, it was a martial sai. He himself was more skilled than people often give him credit for, although, in comparison to other people, perhaps not so skilled. Things shifted away from that as he changed. He was flying by the seat of his pants – so to speak – he changed things without really knowing what was going to happen.

CHIERCHINI
Let’s change subjects now. That’s one of my favourites: are gradings and rank a necessary evil in Aikido? It’s obvious that it is necessary to have some kind of system to acknowledge mastery in its different levels, but Chris, do you think that we really need to purchase 4-5-6-7 times expensive postal certificates of mastery over our Aikido career? I don’t think so.

LI
I don’t think so either.

CHIERCHINI
What has that got to do with Aikido? Also, to be honest, I never heard of a 6th dan violinist.

LI
That’s right.

CHIERCHINI
There are only good and bad musicians, and the judge of that is the quality of their art and how their art is perceived by others. That also connects with what we were saying earlier about this continuous calling the legacy of our predecessors to justify what we do, while our art should be the only thing that should be judged. Why do you think that Aikido people love coloured belts and certificates, diplomas and “Very Good Boy” badges so much?

LI
Well, everybody does. I’m waiting for my 10th dan, someday…
It was a scheme to market the art after the war, basically speaking. There were no ranks before the war and then the Dai Butokukai, which was mandated by the government to control all martial arts, started requiring Dan ranks, very shortly before the war ended and then that’s when Morihei Ueshiba handed out a number of Dan ranks. He gave an 8th Dan to Kenji Tomiki and so forth.  After the war, everybody was using Dan ranks, so they used it to spread the art. 
There’s really no meaning to it today. It’s an income stream for the Aikikai and maybe for the organizations, depending on how they handle the promotions. There’s no regulation of it. It’s all a diploma mail. You send in your money and they send back these certificates. I’ve done that many many times in Hawaii. When we send in promotions, they have no idea who we’re sending in, they don’t know. Some nice secretary in the Hombu’s office stamps it with Doshu’s hanko and then mails it back after they get the money. There’s no real meaning to it in terms of rank. It has perhaps some meaning in your local organization, you get it from your instructor but so forth there’s no standards for it. If it were a degree from an institution of higher learning or the university, it would never pass accreditation. They have accrediting standards to make sure that degrees have some objective standard of testing and certification. That’s not perfect either but there is some regulation. There’s really no meaning to that in terms of what they’re giving out.

Simone Chierchini handing over Aikikai Certificates (Donegal, Ireland – 2007)

Then there’s the question of whether you need ranks at all. They originally started with Jigoro Kano because his idea was to bring Judo into the educational system, into public education and they work great for kids. When my daughter took swimming classes in Japan, they used Kyu ranks. Each Kyu had a different set of swimming tasks: you could swim 20 meters, swim 30 meters, swim underwater for so far, so they broke a difficult task down into understandable chunks or achievable portions but nobody went around saying: “Hey, I’m a 3rd Kyu in swimming”, there was no status attached to it. It just made it very achievable, very reasonable.
For adults, there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose to it, for me. If you look at things like violin or golfing or surfing, they’ve no ranks. You’re just doing it. I can say that perhaps as an organization you may want to certify your instructors.  I can see there might be a reason for that, you want to certify that they have certain qualifications. I know that in England, for example, you have to be certified in CPR and certain types of First Aid and so forth. I think that might be reasonable if you’re trying to create a professional organization. You want to be sure that people who are teaching for your organization and in your organization’s name have a certain qualification. Outside of that, there’s really no purpose for anybody else, except that it’s an income stream and I guess it makes people feel good.  There are a lot of poisonous effects as well.

CHIERCHINI
Yes, but we can’t criticize the Aikikai or the other major organizations for giving diplomas to people that are so hungry to get them.  The problem is not with the Aikikai or the Yoshinkan or whoever else. The problem is with the Aikido community. I have been a senior teacher in Ireland for a while and in time I understood that most people actually wanted from me rank, not teaching. Teaching, yes, yes, but from a certain point on the focus switches from the passion for learning to status… Another rank, another one, another one, another one so.
The Aikikai is only feeding this. I don’t think they’re the culprits. We are, each of us, because no one can say: “OK, enough. Enough of this you”. Well, I said it but not many do.

LI
That’s true. Everybody’s involved, it’s a two-way street. If nobody asked for promotions from the Aikikai, then of course the problem wouldn’t exist. I had this conversation with some person on Facebook: I was saying that we don’t really give out ranks anymore. The people in our group aren’t interested in them, they aren’t interested in accruing rank. It’s something that we’re just not doing. There’s been no formal decision like: “OK, nobody around here is ever giving out rank again”. It’s just that nobody’s really interested, in our particular group of people who are training together. The person made the argument that the Aikikai required you to give ranks. I thought that that was a little odd. There is a way you could read the International Regulations that would say that you’re supposed to be giving out ranks because it makes money for the Aikikai, but I think that was a misinterpretation of the regulations.

If enough people said no, then there would be no money going to the Aikikai. If people said: “Why should I send them 500-600 thousand dollars”, we would stop. It’s like the old problem with cocaine. Is it the supplier or is it or the demand, right? Which one is the problem? And then, I guess, in the end, it’s on both ends, supply and demand.

CHIERCHINI
Another interesting topic, I think: there is much talk going on about the current problems within Aikido and many observers both from the outside world of martial arts and within our community are calling for larger use of cross-training. Cross-training is now seen by many as the means to “save” our art and give it new life energy, bring it more in line with the current expectations for martial arts… What do you think? Is this the way ahead or is it just a cosmetic operation to better compete with combat sports on social media?

LI
Well, it depends on what your goals are. There’s no question, if you’re going to interact with the more modern martial artists today, BJJ, MMA people, then you’re going to have to expand your horizons technically. The Gracies really proved that to traditional martial artists. They challenged people and just took them to the ground: nobody knew what to do on the ground. So they ate everyone alive for the first few years, now not so much, it’s balanced out. Everybody in MMA, for example, acknowledges that you have to have a ground game or you can’t survive the ground. You also have to be able to strike, you have to be able to kick, you have to have any number of tools in your toolbox if you’re going to interact in that environment.
If you’re not going to interact in that environment, then who cares? I have no interest, if I went in and went to the ground with a BJJ guy, he’d absolutely dominate me, there’s no question, because I have no idea what I’m doing. And that’s OK because that’s not really the focus of my training, so that’s fine. There’s a thing in Aikido, where a lot of people say about fighting – well fighting has to be defined, first of all, but if we’re talking about fighting in general: “We’re not interested in fighting. Fighting is not the purpose of Aikido, but I could fight if I really wanted to”.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – Royce Gracie vs Jason DeLucia (1991)

A lot of people say something like: “We’re not good at MMA but we could do that if we really wanted to”. For me, I would know, you can’t. You really can’t, you couldn’t do that. That’s impossible, you couldn’t do that without doing something else.
If you are doing what you are doing, let’s say you are doing Tai-ji, you are doing Yoga, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t be claiming to do something else. This is where problems arise. People make claims that are difficult for them to support. That false narrative is a lot of where Aikido people get into trouble. Some people might claim to be able to fight but they’re obviously not able to and they’re not willing to challenge it. Then you say: “OK, if you’re able to step in and do MMA, then why not do it? You can go in any place and just try it out and you see what happens”, but of course that isn’t on most people’s radar.
So it goes back to what you want to do. I think there has to be a kind of truth in advertising. If you’re saying you’re doing something, then you should be doing it. If you’re not doing it, then people will eventually see through it and that will be part of your problem.

CHIERCHINI
It would be enough to have a clear and honest narrative about what you’re doing and what are the objectives of what you’re doing.

LI
That’s right.

CHIERCHINI
This is not the case for most Aikido organizations. The narrative is not clear at all and that’s probably where the real problem with Aikido popularity or waning popularity lies. 70 or 80 years after its beginnings, it’s still very difficult to say what is it and what is it for. How do you sell something like that?  

LI
It’s very difficult. And it’s not even that people can’t define Aikido in general. I understand that there are a thousand different people doing a thousand different things, that’s OK. People have trouble even defining what they themselves are doing as Aikido. If you ask them “What are you doing?”, they’ll answer “Well, I’m doing this thing and it’s maybe useful for self-defence but not really”. There are a lot of contradictory claims and – I don’t want to criticize anybody – there are a lot of stupid arguments or stupid excuses. There are excuses that have been used in Aikido for a long time that just don’t stand up to logical reasoning. When people use those arguments, then it’s just worse for the martial art because you look like an idiot.
I don’t want to call anyone in any way, but for example there are people who say when we talk about MMA: “Oh, well, Aikido is much too dangerous to be used in MMA. That’s why we can’t fight in MMA”. Well, OK, but if you look at the standard MMA, rules everything virtually everything you do in a standard Aikido class is allowed under the rules, so go try it, right? But then of course that doesn’t happen. You’re arguing something that is not supportable, you’re making a real argument and then things go south. 
People need to be clear about what they’re doing and just honest about it and it’s fine. People do Kyudo. Kyudo has zero relation to anything in the real world, nobody hunts with Kyudo. Nobody’s in fights or battles with Kyudo unless we’re going back to the zombie apocalypse or something. It has no usefulness in the real world but probably more people enjoy Kyudo than Aikido if you look at the number of people practising Kyudo in Japan overall. People just have to be clear about what they’re doing and whatever they are doing is fine, I think. If they want to take Aikido and take put it in a context in which they can compete in MMA, that’s great for you. You can go out and get a ground game and do whatever, you update yourself tactically for that ruleset… I think that’s great too.
People have to define what they’re doing for themselves.

CHIERCHINI
I’ve been training for almost 50 years now and I got the impression for a while already that what Aikido suffers from is arrested development. While the first two generations of Aikido teachers, Morihei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba sensei leading the way, created and developed the practice and its methods, it seems to me that the third generation in Aikido has been more concerned with reaping the benefits resulting from the legacy of their predecessors. Even at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo they seem content with teaching the basics of an art that by now is getting crystallized, we could say, no? “That’s the way it’s done”. This to me seems the exact opposite of Morihei Ueshiba’s Takemusu Aikido. There’s nothing fresh, nothing new coming out of that. Would you expect the fourth of the Ueshibas to lead the way to the future the way his father or his grandfather did?  

Waka Sensei Mitsuteru Ueshiba – 57th All Japan Aikido Demonstration 2019

LI
It seems that the trend in the Aikikai under Mitsuteru Ueshiba and Moriteru Ueshiba is towards homogenization, making everything the same and making everything the same along the same very very simple lines, which is OK. That’s their approach. Moriteu Ueshiba is getting older, so I don’t want to say he’s on his way out, maybe that’s disrespectful, but he’s certainly older. I think Mitsuteru is really really taking the lead these days. I don’t see him as an innovator technically, I don’t think he sees himself that way either. The real genius of Kisshomaru Ueshiba was that he didn’t impose a technical curriculum on anybody. Kisshomaru Ueshiba had this kind of neutral, bland Aikido. He didn’t tell anybody to do anything. He didn’t say do it this way, or prohibited people from doing anything. There were people like Shoji Nishio, or Morihiro Saito and they did their own things. Even Koichi Tohei probably could have done exactly what he did, if he hadn’t been doing it at the Aikikai Hombu and trying to make that the main style of Aikido.
He was kind of neutral and that allowed the Aikikai to become the largest organization because it included all kinds of different practice. Mitsuteru Ueshiba and Moriteru Ueshiba seem to be trying to homogenize things more. There’s still no mandate from the Aikikai technically, but there seems to be something within the Aikikai that all the teachers now are kind of the same. When, in 1982, I went to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo you had Sadateru Harikawa sensei and you had Nobuyoshi Watanabe sensei: they were just completely different. You had Tada sensei if he was there from Italy, and you had Seigo Yamaguchi sensei… and you had all these different teachers with very different styles. You had Morihiro Saito out in Iwama and you had these different approaches they were all kind of under the umbrella of the Aikikai. Today, if you go to the Aikikai, the teachers are all kind of similar. I guess there are benefits to that too but I don’t see Mitsuteru is innovating very much.
There were some real innovators in the early days: Shoji Nishio was a real innovator. He went out and added in all kinds of different things. Yoshio Kuroiwa would add it in his boxing movements. I don’t think that’ll happen in the Aikikai. The question is going to be, going forward, whether the Aikikai will permit that to occur as before. They have no real leverage, so they have no way to forbid that from happening. But I think there will be more in motion from the Aikikai to be standardized, to keep things homogenous, going along the same lines which, as an organization, I can understand why they would do that but I think it’s kind of a shame in Aikido. It’s kind of a big tent art in the beginning, through the early post-war period and has so many really very talented and different practitioners.

Kenji Tomiki relaxing with Morihei Ueshiba

That’s one of the reasons why I really dislike what the Aikikai did to Shodokan Aikido and Tomiki Aikido. The language in the Aikikai and in Aikido, in general, is always about inclusiveness. They say it’s about the world family: “We’re all a world Aikido family, but not those guys, because they do something else. That’s not Aikido”. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could say: “We believe that Aikido should be done this way but what those guys are doing is also Aikido. Let’s all joined together in one world span, overall, umbrella organization where everybody can get together and meet”. Wouldn’t that be interesting? I doubt that will happen for reasons of power and authority and of course probably income as well.   
I don’t see that coming in and that’s similar to what happens among religions too. You don’t see the Catholic Church joining back with other churches, with the Baptist Church and the Methodist Church, even though everybody talks about the Brotherhood of Man and so forth and so on… Wouldn’t it be interesting if everybody could get together? But I see that it’s a dim possibility. The advantage of that of course is that it would allow for great a base for innovation and recognition that innovation is OK.
I guess there needs to be a common ground somewhere where we meet and, interestingly, Kenji Tomiki’s idea was that that common ground would be competition, that competition would be the thing that drew the Aikido world together because if you look at Taekwondo, for example, which is a world-spanning Olympic martial art, no matter what crazy stuff anybody does in any school anywhere in the world, they all have to get there in competition because they all have to compete under the same rule set. There’s one space of common ground where everybody gets together no matter what because everybody’s agreed on this toolset and we all compete together under that ruleset. You may hate the ruleset, that’s OK. 99% of the time you can do something else, but at some point, you’re going to have to get together with all the other Taekwondo dojos and compete under that ruleset.
Kenji Tomiki hoped, or one of his hopes was that competitive Aikido would bring people together in that one space because there’s really nothing that unites us. Our philosophies are all over the place and our practices are all over the place. We disagree about this and this and that. So where are we going to get together? I think the Ueshiba family would like it to be around the Ueshiba family, obviously, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore. They don’t have the prestige or the pull or the authority to do that. What else is is there? There’s a philosophy that people don’t really agree on. There’s a technical curriculum that people don’t really agree on. There are goals that people don’t really agree on, so there’s really no ground for everyone to come together. Unless everybody would accept some kind of competitive venue that people could unite under and it wouldn’t even have to be a sporting competition. Figure skaters compete in a common view and they don’t compete directly against each other, it’s not like boxing, where they’re striking and hurting each other. People are really opposed to that. There are different kinds of competition so maybe that’s something that could happen in the future. I don’t see it happening anytime soon, certainly.  

Aikido Yoshinkan – Tokyo Metropolitan Police Competition – Semifinal and Final

CHIERCHINI
My last question, Chris. Aikido and traditional Budo in general are experiencing a strong vocation crisis worldwide. In your opinion, can Aikido effectively relocate itself within the realm of the relational without completely losing its martial edge? But more to the point, is Aikido any good as a conflict resolution method once it loses its martial edge? We’re not interested in beating and fighting. Aikido is good because of A-B-C-D, whatever, we said it’s open to discussion. The way to make it good, however, has always been martial training. So my question is, in your opinion, with time going by and the martial edge going lower and lower is Aikido going to be any good, even at a relational level?

LI
Good is a value judgment, so that’s a difficult judgment. Traditionally Aikido, even if it wasn’t actually used for fighting when I started or anytime in the post-war, all the first generation of teachers assumed that there was an element of effectiveness as a Budo, as a martial art, and that was part of the package. The assumption was that martial training was part of the personal training, this spiritual or sociological training, the martial training was an element in that – whether it’s that element of conflict, or that element of danger, that element of intensity that’s brought about by martial training – that was an essential part of the training. Something that you couldn’t put away and then have to have the same thing. An argument could be said that once you lose the martial edge it really becomes something else.
Now that something else might be better, I don’t know. It might be worse. It might be Yoga. It might be interpretive dance and maybe it’ll be more popular, I don’t, that’s for people to judge. I think there is also an argument to be made that once you lose that martial edge, even if it’s not applicable to martial reality, then it’s going to be changing what you’re doing. For example, you can look at martial arts that have no application to reality, like most of the Koryu. Look at Risuke Otake, when he did his Katori Shinto Ryu, when he’s training with naginata and spear… Nobody’s going to fight with naginata and spear anymore, that’s never going to happen. There’s no connection to reality for his training, but his training was also very martial, there was a kind of reality to it, it gave it that edge. You could argue that it’s that edge that gives it the power to, if we’re seeing to, transform people or have an effect on people.

Risuke Otake, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

CHIERCHINI
No martial edge would actually translate into no intent or little intent and little power.

LI
Yeah, perhaps. I mean that argument could be made. That’s not saying that anything that came out of that would be worse, if there were no martial edge to it. It would be different, certainly. There’s always a question when you change things. I think I’ve had this discussion with some people about marketing in Aikido. There’s been some very good material that’s come out recently about marketing martial arts dojos and marketing Aikido. There have been some surveys conducted about that and I think that’s great, because people definitely, if you’re running Aikido and you need to pay the bills, then you need to do some marketing. 
I also feel that you have to be cautious when you change things for marketing purposes. I’ve spoken to people that say that Aikido should be presented as more of a group exercise activity because the surveys show that’s what people really want. They want more of a group Yoga or something like that. That’s probably true, it’s probably what people want. I think you have to be careful about that because as you change those things, you also change what you’re doing and then you end up with something different, which is not bad, something different might be great, might be better, as I said, but might be worse, who knows. It’s certainly something different. If we’re trying to preserve something and we don’t know what it is, because we don’t, we don’t agree on what martial arts are and so forth, I think it’s very easy to argue that that sense of martial training is something that’s certainly essential to what Morihei Ueshiba was doing. I think he felt that Aikido is Budo, there was a martial aspect. Kisshomaru Ueshiba I think also felt the same way. Moriteru Ueshiba, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how he feels about that, I’m not sure that it’s still even on their radar anymore as an effective Budo. It may be, I don’t want to speak for them, but I think that’s certainly kind of disappearing, so it’s certainly going to change. 
Whether that’s a good thing or not, who could tell? It’s very easy to argue that Budo increases intensity. The only negative aspect, in the modern world, is that you have to separate the intensity of your Budo training. If you’re doing naginata, this should be martial, it should be intense, it should be focused. At the same time, you have to realize that naginata has no relation to the real world. Being the world’s deadliest person with the naginata doesn’t make you a fighter. It’s not going to put you in an MMA ring and bring your success, except that you have a certain focus and intensity. Because Aikido is an empty-hand art, those things are very easily mixed together: I’m practicing intensely, martially, then that becomes mixed in with arguments for effectiveness and real-world application, which may or may not be applicable. Because someone can practice Aikido, just standard old regular Aikido, say Kazuo Chiba, he was very intense, he had a very martial practice: would he do OK with a BBJ guy? He’d probably get his ass handed to him because he’s not familiar with that paradigm. He was not used to working under that ruleset.

Kazuo Chiba

It’s important that we separate those things. Again, going back to what we spoke about before, there’s a problem that people think that if they’re training martially, therefore they are effective martial artists, or they’re effective fighters but that’s a different thing.

CHIERCHINI
Ok, I think we reached the end of this interview.  Chris, thanks a lot for this great conversation, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

LI
Thank you very much.

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Un pensiero riguardo “The Translator – Interview with Christopher Li”

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