Falling for Aikido

Graceful yet brutal, the martial art of Aikido has roots in very old Japanese traditions

Steve Murray
Wednesday - May 12, 2010
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Viewed from the outside, aikido looks more like a graceful dance than an effective way to disarm an attacker. In truth, it’s both. Favoring precise body movements over strength or carefully placed blows, the fairly recent martial art uses various joint locks and throws to redirect the motion of the attacker to either control the opponent or to ward off another attack.

Of course, this is a very simplified description of a martial art form that can have literally thousands of movement combinations.

By design, aikido training is a cooperative effort where both the nage (thrower) and the uke (attacker) move in harmony with one another to maximize the learning of both participants. As with other martial arts that emphasize throws, learning to fall is of utmost importance. It is often said, somewhat jokingly, that aikido is the art of falling down.

And fall down, carefully, you must do.

A recurring message during the first confusing months of lessons is that giving yourself up to your opponent is not accepting defeat, but is a necessary method of protection. And while a student’s first lesson usually involves nothing else, it is a skill that can take a year to execute correctly. Spending a year to understand a basic concept may seem like a lot of time wasted, but in aikido everything takes time.


Which naturally leads to high turnover.

“The dropout rate is pretty high,” says Evan Fujiuchi, a 3rd Dan or third degree black belt. “When you’re sitting in the gallery, it looks pretty cool. So you come back with your 100 bucks and feel you’re just going to roll around on the floor for a month. We are not going to throw you on the floor and apply techniques that could possibly get you hurt. We are preparing the mind and body, so we start to work you in slowly.”

There are other martial arts in which students can climb faster up the ranks, but maturization in aikido is slow and reflects something much different from a Western philosophy centered on results. In aikido, much as in the nation where it was born, there is a great appreciation for the journey, not just the end result.

“Aikido reflects Japanese culture,” says Fujiuchi. “It’s not just aikido, it is the tea ceremony, it is very much tied to the mindset of the Japanese culture. ... Aikido is a relatively new martial art. It hasn’t been around for hundreds of years, but it has its roots in very old traditions and techniques of martial arts.”

For some students, it is that difference in priority and the necessity of working seamlessly with a partner that makes the martial art attractive.

4th Dan Gary Hirata demonstrates a movement on James Matsumura

Craig Sumida, a 41-year-old carpenter who has been studying aikido for four years with his 9-year-old son Colton, says the martial art’s focus on the journey and not the final product provides a good counterbalance for children growing up in a nation that stresses instant gratification. Though tradition dictates that adult students wear just one of two belts - white and black - children progress through a number of colored promotions in an effort to keep their always-active minds occupied. Sumida says this slight variation of the rules does not change the lessons being taught.

“Kids need that motivation,” he says, “but I’m trying to get it into Colton that it isn’t about the belt. It’s that you are here, that you are training and you commit to something that is going to be important to you.”

Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the 1920s-30s. Born to a well-placed family in 1883 in the Wakayama Prefecture, about 30 miles south of Osaka, Ueshiba was weak as a child and spent most of his time reading about Buddhist heroes while hearing stories of his famous samurai forebears. Ueshiba improved his health as a young man through the practice of juijitsu and later came to study with Onisaburo Deguchi, a spiritual leader who taught a pacifist view of human interaction. Ueshiba came to believe that people could gain universal understanding and achieve world peace through the study of martial arts.

Or, at least, through one martial art, aikido, which translates to “The Way of Harmony.”

The spiritual side of aikido, and other similar martial arts, is a difficult thing for many students to comprehend. Ueshiba, also called O Sensie, or Great Teacher, told two Japanese journalists in 1957 that aikido is “a martial art based on universal truth” and that “Aikido can be said to be another manifestation of the creator of the universe.”

That’s a bit much for most students, even ones who have been studying for decades.

Aileen Maypa pins Newton Uyema during practice

Gary Hirata, a 4th Dan, admits to being weak on the metaphysical side of the martial art, but he has found a useful analogy to explain the more mysterious side. The physical side of aikido doesn’t appear to be a problem for Hirata, who, after decades of study, is very skilled in his movements. Hirata repeats an old tale about a shogun who hires a man to train for him a champion fighting cock. The shogun frequently inquires about the animal’s training, but is repeatedly rebuffed by the trainer, who doesn’t release the chicken until years later when “the cock is ready because he can defeat his enemies without fighting.”

As analogies go, that’s a pretty good one. Unlike most martial arts, aikido is traditionally a non-competitive form where a victorious contest is one not entered.

That doesn’t mean things don’t get rough. Practice can leave you quite banged up - especially before ukemi (falling) becomes a natural motion. Testing is even more physical, sometimes requiring three or four days of recovery time following an examination.

Outside of a Steven Seagal movie, this is aikido at its quickest and most violent. It also is when its effectiveness as a self-defense method becomes most apparent as bodies fly, and where bruises and sore muscles stand testament to the training that appears so mild yet is surprisingly aerobic.

“It is not beautiful. It is brutal,” says sensei Robert Aoyagi. Students begin by demonstrating the basic techniques necessary for advancement, and when the sensei feels they have reached their physical limit, he may call for randori, or freestyle training versus multiple opponents. The timing of this portion is critical as those who hand out promotions want to test more than the strength of their students. As with all martial arts, the mental greatly outweighs the physical.

Such an event was held May 2 at Aikido of Honolulu on Waialae Avenue in front of four sensei and the watchful eye of 89-year-old Aoyagi shihan. Aoyagi is a 7th Dan and the heart and soul of the dojo. His typical Sunday presence at the school begins with a line of well-wishers and those who just

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