There is a school of thought in aikido that is almost impossible to miss. You cannot spend any time in an online forum that involves aikido without coming across the statement that aikido ‘needs to modernise’. This is inevitably met with loud voices claiming the exact opposite, and the infighting is off to the races. After seeing this discussion and listening to both sides for many years I have come to the conclusion that it’s annoying and utterly boring. I also can’t help but notice that both sides are wrong, and both sides are right. C’est la vie.
What is Modernisation
When aikidoka say that aikido needs to modernise what is it that they actually mean? This is a valid question to ask and although this topic comes up frequently very few people can actually answer the question. Any answers pushing for modernisation tend to feature certain consistent elements.
These generally include:
- Altering the attacks to be more modern
- Including pressure testing/sparring
- Competing in mixed martial art competitions/competition in general
- Street lethal self-defence
Those are the main themes that crop up during these discussions. On the surface of it you would be forgiven for thinking that aikido either fails in these areas or doesn’t have it to begin with. This is what the proponents of modernisation are claiming. Their detractors usually state that aikido doesn’t need these things, or that the way it does them is just fine. Let’s see why they’re both right and both wrong.
Alter the Attacks
This is a really obvious one, it’s why it’s at the top of the list. The attacks in aikido are ridiculous when you look at them. Nobody attacks anybody like that. There is very little point in training in a martial art that doesn’t prepare you to deal with an attack that somebody would use. From this point of view the attacks need to change.
Unfortunately, the aikidoka pushing for this change are almost always referring to a double leg takedown. Somehow the idea has arisen that everybody is a semi-professional BJJ competitor just itching to drive in for one of these. There is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t even know where to begin. Suffice to say that performing a double leg takedown takes practice, and not that many people practice martial arts, even fewer that particular technique, and fewer still willing to get into a street fight with you. While the odds of it happening are not zero they are incredibly low.
At the same time the fact that aikidoka would likely struggle to defend it is a valid point. It is an unfamiliar attack that would take an aikidoka off-guard. That’s only because aikidoka don’t understand the purpose of their attacks though.
This follows on from the attacks one, and is mostly under the same banner. It’s a direct consequence of the exaggerated and often misapplied attacks in aikido. The crux of the argument goes like this – The attacks used in aikido are not realistic, nobody would ever attack like that. We are training to defend against something that would never happen. This seems like a perfectly reasonable argument, until you really start to think about it.
People get grabbed all the time during fights, so you can assume the validity of those. Note though that aikido does not include all the grabs that will take place, and many of the counters assume you are wearing sturdy clothing. There are counters to grabs that will not work if you are wearing a t-shirt for instance.
What about shomen uchi, yokomen uchi, and tsuki though? Good question. If you watch this video closely (taken a week ago) you will see at least three shomen strikes in this brawl. All made with a bottle, but all valid. More importantly though you will find that a shomen strike turns up everywhere in fighting. Hammer fists, axe kicks, vertical elbows, uppercuts, etc. These all follow the same trajectory as shomen. i.e. vertical. The other strikes in aikido are no different. You find their trajectory in common use in every martial art. Additionally, at about 23 seconds in this video is a yokomen strike.
What is true of these attacks though is that they are delivered poorly. Aikidoka would do no actual damage with their strikes. They might succeed only in hurting themselves. There is no danger to the nage and so there is no need to do aikido.
This is my favourite. Many people claim that aikido needs to have pressure testing. When pushed for details this is generally taken to mean sparring. It would seem that any martial art that doesn’t include sparring is worthless. If you were to believe the folk pushing for this you’d wonder how anyone ever leaves their dojo alive. They make it sound like every session is an all out brawl.
The first thing to note about this idea is that aikido already has sparring. First of all, randori, when performed correctly, is sparring. In most cases randori are not done well, so it never reaches the level of sparring it is supposed to be.
Second, pressure testing that borders on sparring is already built into every aikido technique. You don’t see it in the majority of dojos because we fail to train our ukes properly. That’s an endemic issue with our training and it’s reflected in the rise of the idea that we should modernise.
There is a genuine case to answer here though, aikido training would benefit from sparring, but it doesn’t need to add it. All aikidoka need to do is revitalise this aspect of our training, and we can accomplish that by teaching the ukemi.
Ah yes, this old chestnut. It amazes me that there are aikidoka out there that say there is no competition in aikido. Within 6 months of starting aikido I was aware that there were competitions in some styles. That was in 1997, before the internet was the behemoth of information it has become today. We don’t need to add competition because at least three styles already have it (Shodokan, Yosiekan, Ki).
I also can’t help but think that this is an attempt to win a popularity contest or prove aikido’s effectiveness. I don’t think either of those things need to happen. Aikido could be more popular but it won’t happen without radical change to our teaching methods and demonstration styles. Competing in something like MMA would help, but not as much as people think. You can’t win in MMA with a single pure style. The design of the contest prohibits it. You can be very strong in one area, but you need multiple. If an aikidoka wins in MMA it’ll be pointed out that they didn’t use just aikido, if they lose it’ll be pointed out that they are an aikidoka. It’s a lose/lose situation.
This baffles me. The idea that aikido should add grappling. I don’t get it because aikido is grappling. The only thing this can relate to is ground-fighting. Aikido does not have ground-fighting. If you think suwari-waza covers this it does not. Suwari-waza is not ground-fighting. It’s not even close. Go grab a judoka, wrestler, anyone really, and try to fight them on the ground using suwari-waza if you don’t believe me. It should take about 30 seconds to convince you I’m right.
Aikido has no ground fighting and so this aspect is true, it would benefit from adding ground-fighting to it. Where the argument falls down is that it’s generally coupled with the phrase, “90% of street fights end up on the ground”. The implication here is that statistically you will fight on the ground, therefore you need to learn ground fighting.
This is a valid argument but not a sound one because the initial premise is false. The statistic is both wrong and misapplied. It comes from an LAPD study that discovered some interesting statistics. 95% of police altercations follow 1 of 5 patterns. Of those altercations 62% end with the officer and suspect on the ground with the officer applying a joint lock and handcuffs. It has nothing to do with street fights, it’s about making arrests. You can read the original article here:
So this reason for wanting to add ground fighting is mistaken, but that doesn’t change the idea that it would be a good thing to know. The real question is how to add it in while maintaining the principles of aikido. That’s not an easy one to do and it’s partly because of a difference in focus. Aikido has a slight tendency towards single limb control; ground fighting mostly involves full body control. That’s not to say it can’t be done, just that it has a bias to get past in the initial stage.
Street Lethal Self-Defence
All I’m going to say on this topic is that both sides of the argument are very wrong for one simple reason. Self-defence is a martial art in it’s own right and should be taught as such.
Should We Do It?
Hopefully you can see that the case for modernisation isn’t a good one, but, it does highlight issues with aikido and the way we train for it. The things that advocates of modernisation want to add to aikido already exist within it. The only exception to that is ground-fighting. At the same time though, the way the elements they want to add are trained is quite poor. There is vast scope for improvement in the way these things are currently done.
In my opinion it would be a more worthwhile exercise to improve the elements that we already have, rather than trying to add in new ones to accomplish the same thing.
If you enjoyed this post you can find further insights in my new book.