Recently, the Aikikai released the 58th All-Japan Aikido Embukai to YouTube. It’s an interesting watch and, in some places, has prompted much criticism from aikidoka. Some have described it as embarrassing, others have been less kind. These criticisms are a little unfair, but they do shine a light on some of the problems with aikido embu in general.
If you watch the Embukai a couple of things should become clear immediately. The first is that in some cases the standard of demonstration was lower than you would expect. There are several reasons for this. To begin with it would seem the pandemic has resulted in many substitute ukes. There even appeared to be kyu grades taking ukemi. This caused the standard of ukemi to be lower than in previous years. The question of whether or not that’s a good thing has to be asked.
Why would it be a good thing that the standard of ukemi is lower? Because it reveals that the nages demonstrating are seldom, if ever, challenged. A good, experienced uke can make even the worst nage look incredible. On the other hand, an inexperienced or stiff uke does not do the same thing. There appear to have been many last minute uke substitutions so the nages do not look as good as previous years.
In many dojos the sensei is never challenged. The pupils go with the techniques for them and so they never fail to complete a technique. Unfortunately, this means they never learn what their mistakes are and so their prowess slowly declines. There is a lot more to say about ukemi in this regard, and you can read about that in a later blog post. For now, the important thing to know is that for many nages the ukemi was stiff, or not what they were expecting.
An Obvious Dichotomy
There is a clear difference in the standard of the embukai. The younger aikidoka were much better than the older ones. Their demonstrations were more vibrant, full of life, enthusiastic. Often they displayed a greater sense of martial awareness. Why would that be the case though? Well, the answer is one of the things that has caused the derision directed at the 58th All-Japan Embukai. In short, old people move like old people while young people move like young people.
Stop Judging Old People
The problem here is that most of the Embukai consists of shihan demonstrating aikido. On the surface of it that’s not a problem. Consider it this way though, the Embukai is mostly tired old men demonstrating aikido. That is the unfortunate truth of the matter.
As the knife of time works it’s way in the physical powers of the body fade. Reaction times decrease, muscular strength declines, injuries heal slower. No-one can fight against this foe but it is possible to fake it. Until they stand beside the youth.
The All-Japan Embukai is standing the old men beside the young ones. In normal days this wouldn’t be a problem, but the substitute ukes have shown the truth. The old people are moving like old people. This is not a bad thing, it’s to be expected. The problem is that the old people are taking centre stage. Perhaps they should step aside and let the younger generations take that spotlight. Who knows, that might even help with the image of the art and attract some youth to it.
An Unfortunate Example
Nowhere is this concept more obvious than Steven Seagal. Regardless of what you think of Seagal’s aikido, his current demonstrations are bad. Watch his more recent displays. He cannot move with ease. He is almost completely fixed to the spot and relies on his weight to complete a technique. There are obvious health issues that prevent him moving like he once did.
There were 67 embu performed as part of the 58th All-Japan Embukai. The majority of them were identical. The same techniques, performed in the same way, with almost no variation. It’s as if the Aikikai have issued a set of acceptable demonstration techniques.
In some cases that appeared to be exactly what had happened. Several hombu dojo shidoin were demonstrating set techniques. You can hear them called out by the announcer. It’s seems likely this was a result of Covid cancellations; however, it is a shame that they were not given free rein to show what they could do.
A problem with this is that the Embukai has become 3 hours of watching the same 2 minutes. It’s kind of boring. Even to an aikidoka that loves watching high level aikido. There was very little to make a person sit up and say, “WOW! Must get on the mats with them!” There’s no inspiration, no jaw-dropping moments to catch the attention of anyone.
There is an acknowledgment that aikido is in decline and that it struggles to attract youth. Part of that could be because the demonstrations are always performed by a bunch of old people. They’re good at what they’re doing, they’re just old. The perception becomes that it’s for old people and the young search somewhere else for a martial art.
Watching the Embukai in years past a thought has occurred. Performing a 2 minute, 3 or 4 person randori, would be the best demonstration to take place for years. It might even be the best thing for the art that has taken place for years.
Time To Step Aside
If the Embukai shows anything it’s that aikido demonstrations need to change. At the very least it’s time to stop placing the high ranking sensei as the stars of the show. While they may not be technically better, the younger folk give a better display, especially to potential aikidoka.
It would also be better if the attacks didn’t start from 2 metres away. A little bit realism would be a good thing.
A final observation on this is that maybe somebody should demonstrate aikido itself, rather than the training method. There is little difference between the training method and demonstrations. The method is not the art and we should stop demonstrating it.
Ultimately, the standard of aikido on display at the 58th All-Japan Aikido Embukai was no worse than in any other year. The pandemic simply exposed some underlying issues at the heart of aikido embu. Primarily, old people move like old people.
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