Arrested Development

Taken from “The Translator”, the book-interview produced by Aikido Italia Network Publishing, this chapter deals with the thorny issue of the development of Aikido or rather its current non-development. Has the practice of our Art become crystallized and a sort of Takemusu Aiki in reverse? We asked Christopher Li, an aikidoka who describes himself as a “hobbyist with a speciality”. Through his research and writings, Chris has made 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 is not afraid to share them. This chapter of “The Translator”, like the rest of the book, is not easy reading for those unwilling to discuss the official narrative of our art and its people…

di SIMONE CHIERCHINI & CHRISTOPHER LI

“I’ve been training for almost 50 years now and I got the impression for a while already that what Aikidō suffers from is arrested development. While the first two generations of Aikidō 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 Aikidō has been more concerned with reaping the benefits resulting from the legacy of their predecessors. Even at the Aikikai Hombu Dōjō 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 Aikidō. 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?”

Mitsuteru Ueshiba

“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. Moriteru 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 himself was that he didn’t impose a technical curriculum on anybody. Kisshomaru Ueshiba had this kind of neutral, bland Aikidō. He didn’t tell anybody to do anything. He didn’t say do it this way, or prohibit people from doing anything. There were people like Shōji Nishio, or Morihiro Saitō 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 Aikidō.

“He had a kind of neutrality and that allowed the Aikikai to become the largest organization in the world because it included all kinds of different practices. 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 I went to the Aikikai Hombu Dōjō in 1982 you had Sadateru Arikawa 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 Saitō 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 as innovating very much.

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

“There were some real innovators in the early days: Shōji 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 encouragement from the Aikikai to be standardized, to keep things homogenous, going along the same lines which, as an organization, I can understand, but I think it’s kind of a shame in Aikidō. Historically it has been a kind of a big tent art from the beginning, through the early post-war period and has so many really very talented and different practitioners.

“That’s one of the reasons why I really dislike what the Aikikai did to Shōdōkan Aikidō and Tomiki Aikidō. The language in the Aikikai and in Aikidō, in general, is always about inclusiveness. They say it’s about the world family: ‘We’re all a world Aikidō family, but not those guys, because they do something else. That’s not Aikidō’. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could say: ‘We believe that Aikidō should be done this way but what those guys are doing is also Aikidō. Let’s all join together in one world spanning 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.

Kenji Tomiki relaxing with Morihei Ueshiba

“I don’t see that coming and that’s similar to what happens among religions too. You don’t see churches joining back with other churches, with competing denominations, 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 as a dim possibility. The advantage of that of course is that it would allow for a great 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 the common ground would be competition, that competition would be the thing that drew the Aikidō world together. 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 together in competition because they all have to compete under the same ruleset. There’s one space of common ground where everybody gets together no matter what because everybody’s agreed on this ruleset 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 dōjōs and compete under that ruleset.

Aikido Yoshinkan – Tokyo Metropolitan Police Competition – Semifinal and Final

“Kenji Tomiki hoped, or one of his hopes was that competitive Aikidō would bring people together in that one space because there’s really nothing else 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 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 – it wouldn’t even have to be a sporting competition in the sense of sparring or fighting. Figure skaters compete in a common venue and they don’t compete directly against each other, it’s not like boxing, where they’re striking and hurting each other. A lot of people in Aikidō 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.” 

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2021
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorised is strictly prohibited

The Translator
Interview with Christopher Li
The Aiki Dialogues #2
by Simone Chierchini, Christopher Li

Christopher Li is an instructor at the Aikido Sangenkai, a non-profit Aikido group in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. He has been training in traditional and modern Japanese martial arts since 1981, with more than twelve years of training while living in Japan.
Chris calls himself a “hobbyist with a specialty”, however, thanks to his research and writing he has made an important contribution to the understanding of modern Aikido. His views on Aikido, its history and future development are unconventional and often “politically incorrect” but he’s not afraid to share them.
This is not a book for those unwilling to discuss the official narrative of our art and its people.

Contents: The Aikidō Path So Far. Historians vs Communicators in Aikidō. Lost in Translation. The “Philosophy” of the Founder. Taking Responsibility. Tori and Uke. The Internal-External Power Dichotomy. Everyone Is Showing Aiki. The Role of Aikido in Contemporary Society. Morihei Ueshiba and Daitō-Ryū. Was Kisshomaru the Actual Innovator? Are Gradings and Rank a Necessary Evil in Aikido? The Truth About Cross-Training. What Is Aikidō and What Is It For? Arrested Development. The Importance of Keeping a Martial Edge.