This post is the second in the series of Quotes That Need To Die. This one focuses on a specific aikido quote. It appears everywhere and in my opinion is unhelpful to both training and a general discourse on aikido.
“Aikido is 90% atemi!” – O Sensei.
I’m going to assume that you’ve heard this one before. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation with an aikidoka without encountering this quote. I’m pretty sure that this quote needs to die. It’s not helpful to aikidoka and even a moments thought about it would make you realise it’s probably not true.
What was actually said?
The first thing I should mention about this is that it’s wrong. I say this because I’ve never actually found the original quote where O Sensei said this. What I have found are a lot of different numbers from as low as 40% to as high as 99%. Nobody seems to be in any actual agreement out there about what the number O Sensei stated was.
Another aspect of this is that I’ve never come across a reference that O Sensei actually said it. In this I’m referring to what historians would call a primary source, such as his diary, or an interview with him. I’ve only ever come across it as a secondary source. An example being that Gozo Shioda wrote in Dynamic Aikido that O Sensei said this.
This doesn’t mean the primary source isn’t kicking around somewhere, merely that I am unaware of it. I would point out that I have encountered it in enough secondary sources to believe that O Sensei said something like this. Whether it was exactly this is a different question. If you’re reading this and you do have a primary source, please let me know in the comments because I’d love to see it.
What’s the problem?
Let’s assume then that O Sensei did say that ‘aikido is 90% atemi’. What does that actually mean for us and why do I think this quote needs to die?
The answer to the first is that it means we should predominantly be striking people in aikido. This comes up all the time with reference to this quote. The subject of atemi, or what is aikido, or sparring, or pressure testing, or … arises and out comes this quote. It’s like a weird form of Godwin’s Law. Talk about aikido long enough on social media and eventually someone will say, “aikido is 90% atemi”.
Here’s the catch. We don’t do anything like that much striking. Nobody does. Not even boxers. A boxer will spend almost as much time on defence as they do on attack depending on personal style. If you average that out it’ll be roughly a 50/50 split. How then are aikidoka, who don’t really strike at all, allegedly hitting 90% of the time? The answer quite simply is that we aren’t. We spend most of our time throwing, balance breaking, joint locking, avoiding a strike and blending. Even in the limited footage of O Sensei that exists he isn’t hitting anything like that amount. None of his direct students are either. Prewar or postwar doesn’t matter. Hard or soft is irrelevant. They just weren’t doing it. If you were to subscribe to the idea that the only preservation of O Sensei’s aikido is in the Iwama style then you have further proof right there. They don’t strike 90% of the time either.
What we’re now looking at is a situation where O Sensei has said one thing and done something completely different. He was human, so that’s entirely possible. Translators are human so it’s entirely possible they got it wrong too. I actually think it’s closer to the second than the first. Through lengthy discussions around this quote I’ve come across a different interpretation. This centres around the word ‘atemi’ and what O Sensei meant by it.
Translation is tricky
To illustrate this lets consider the English word bow. If I were to say to you, ‘Go up there and tie the bow’ I could be suggesting you tie a pretty ribbon to something, or that you tie off the front of a ship. That doesn’t even consider that it can also mean to bend at the waist, or is a weapon of war, or part of a musical instrument. If it wasn’t written down you would be forgiven for thinking I meant a tree branch (bough). Language is a tricky thing, so is its interpretation. As with many things context is king, and as with many things O Sensei said, we have no context.
This is where these secondary sources come in handy. Some translators have explained that actually the interpretation of the word atemi is incorrect in this instance. Atemi is generally taken to mean a percussive strike such as a punch or kick. It would seem that in this case O Sensei was referring to atemi as having a hitting body. Wait, wtf? That makes no sense. Actually it does.
A hitting body
The explanation, and the only one that makes sense with the evidence that is right before us, is that atemi is not referring to a percussive strike. Rather, it is referring to being able to enter such that you can strike with any part of the body during the technique. That’s a very different thing when you consider it. There is a great deal of depth to that statement about what aikido is and how to perform it. You can ponder that at your own leisure.
This quote needs to die not because it’s wrong nor because it was never said. It should die because it has resulted in a wildly inaccurate description of what it actually meant and is used to encourage aikidoka to punch other ones. Don’t get me wrong, most aikido techniques require atemi (a percussive strike) but that’s not what this quote was talking about.
I have long considered that this quote would be better stated as, ‘Aikido is 90% irimi’. Not quite the same thing but a lot closer to what appears to be the contextual truth of the matter. Used as it currently is, it causes a lot of confusion among practitioners, both beginners and advanced students.
This quote needs to die.
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Also, if you enjoyed this post you can find further insights in this book.