I am on rather less solid ground here, for I think that aikido is a set of skills and as such is morally neutral. Note that I do not separate the mental and the physical in this respect. I think that repeated practice will make someone more sensitive about physical movements and the physical potentialities of their own bodies. It will also make them aware of possibilities which are really spiritual. But I believe that aikido is not a moral panacea and that practice does not automatically make you a better person. O-Sensei was a very special person and he affected those who encountered him in a very special way. He was a strong believer in the doctrines of the Omoto religion and this also affected his aikido practice. However, the Omoto religion is no longer the powerful organisation it used to be in the 1930s and there are very few aikido masters in Japan today who are believers. In addition, the qualities of a person cannot easily be transmitted to an organisation and I think one reason why people find aikido attractive and beneficial is that the individuals who practise it interact with each other on several levels. I think that aikido has great potentialities for good, but it can also be a very powerful force for evil. People enter a dojo and sign up to practice on the general assumption that they will be enhanced in some way as a result. But it is possible to conceive of an aikido practice not dedicated purely to morally 'good' ends. The practice itself would be the same as normal, in the sense that the same skills are being taught, but the aim would be to kill or maim as many people as possible outside the dojo. Shoko Asahara, the head of Aum Shinrikyo, is currently on trial in Tokyo for murdering ordinary citizens by poisoned gas. It would have taken more time and might have been less effective, but he could have used aikido for the same purpose. There are stories of young deshi in О Sensei's day wandering around Tokyo seeking to test their skills on the neighbourhood toughs. There is nothing in aikido practice which intrinsically ensures that it will automatically lead to the 'self-realisation' (whatever this means), of those who practise.
Of course, it is undeniable that aikido brings various physical and spiritual skills and these are usually seen as benefits. One's body becomes more flexible with the repetition of stretching exercises and there is an undoubted mental benefit in 'training', the repetition of movements till they become second nature. The fact that one will have to be uke makes for general restraint in the execution of potentially
dangerous techniques and the vertical organisation of the dojo - the fact that there is always likely to be someone more accomplished than you are, can occasionally be a humbling experience. There are also some important cultural differences between Japan and the rest of the world and since aikido is Japanese, the way it is taught, at least by the Japanese, will reflect these cultural differences. Aikido fits in very well with the vertical structure of Japanese society and a person who has a commitment to the art will usually be happy to be entirely in the hands of the instructor. There is less of a contract entered into and less of an explicit motivation to seek tangible spiritual benefits. Since aikido is not really culturally attuned to the individualistic and democratic structure of most western group activities, westerners practising the art have to make major cultural adjustments. Nevertheless, aikido is sometimes presented in the west as an art which will yield explicit benefits, which practitioners expect to receive after a certain period. The cultural differences are rather subtle and their existence can cause problems for a westerner in Japan, who expects the same explicit commitment to the art and even a kind of spiritual 'high' during or after practice. I think I was most aware of this 'puritan' approach to aikido in the USA. There was an almost Calvinistic attention to the positive benefits of practice and if aikido did not make you a better person there was something wrong—usually, it was thought, with the person. Those who could not do the techniques properly went through great agonies of anxiety. There was a great pressure to be seen to be good at the art and to be 'in favour' with the Japanese instructor, who was invested with almost superhuman qualities. In Japan, however, О Sensei's picture never appears in the tokonoma of a dojo and intense discussions about practice, even in the student clubs, are much rarer. The personal bond between student and sensei is less obvious, but the commitment is still there, as is the level of technical ability.
Is Aikido Practical?
Since I have never practised another martial art, I am in no position to make effective comparisons here, but I would think that the complicated structure of aikido techniques makes the essentials very hard to grasp. I still remember when I realised that the basic attacks and the basic techniques all form a coherent structure: the realisation, which was helped by books such as Westbrook and Ratti's and Doshu Kisshomaru's Aikido, came like a Pauline revelation. This is at a very basic level. Other, more advanced, mysteries, like the crucial importance of being 'centred', of having correct posture and foot movements, of the correct use of the fingers and shoulders, were - and are - much harder to grasp. I have just received Kanetsuka Sensei's 'teaching' videotapes and I also have some tapes of BAF summer schools. Even though his techniques have changed much since I practised at Ryushinkan in the 1970's, his basic message has not. Even after 25 years, he still emphasises the importance of one's 'centre', basic cutting movements, and the absence of 'forcing' the techniques and the reason can only be that such basics are very difficult to master.
In respect of practicality, the comparison between clubs at Hiroshima University is instructive. Occasionally,
several martial arts clubs hold their practice at the same time in the university's large gymnasium and it is interesting to see what goes into a typical 2-hour practice. Aikido students will spend much time executing mae-ukemi, ushiro-ukemi and shikko in unison and it is clear that great emphasis is placed on the execution of soft, relaxed, flowing breakfalls. The practice of techniques follows and these are usually very basic, but there is much less attention placed on movements, footwork, attacking posture etc, than on ukemi. In the last 30 minutes of practice, there will sometimes be kakari-geiko, during which tori throws the same uke up to 50 times and, again, the emphasis is not so much on the techniques as on the ukemi. In karate and shorinji-kempo, on the other hand, there is much more emphasis on the rhythmic practice of kicks and punches, usually practised in unison, with someone doing the counting. There is virtually no sparring between members until students have become quite advanced and reached the rank of shodan. Of course, executing accurate kicks and punches is of crucial importance and the fact that they are practised so much is probably some indication of their difficulty.
At the end of their 4-year courses, university students graduate with a dan grade. In aikido the rank is 2nd dan and those in the other martial arts are roughly equivalent. What will a typical aikido student know after four years of practice? Flexible in body and accomplished in executing ukemi in a certain way, the student will also have a dim awareness of the
other essentials of practice, but that is about all. A karate or shorinji student will also be flexible in body and be able to execute kicks and punches with a degree of accuracy, but will not be able to do much else.
The limits on the practicality of aikido as a usable martial art have a great deal to do with the nature of the art. The fact that there is no winning & losing and no tournaments or competitions means that it is more difficult to make an objective assessment of one's progress and one's level. In sumo, a martial art which has competition and which is thought by some to be the supreme martial art, the assessment is clear. The outcome of sumo bouts are usually decided in an instant and the basis for the judge's decision is very simple: there is a loser and a winner who has used one of the 70-odd recognised techniques to achieve his victory. Sumotori are ranked from yokozuna (grand champion) downwards and the rule of the rankings is merciless: an ozeki, for example, the next in line to a yokozuna will, forfeit his rank if he does not win at least eight out of the fifteen bouts in a tournament. Despite the enormous differences between the two martial arts, the basics - being 'centred', using the hips etc - receive just as much emphasis in sumo as in aikido and at least one sumo grand champion has been to the Hombu Dojo to receive special instruction in these aspects of training. In fact sumo and aikido have had a loose relationship from the time when the famous sekiwake Tenryu spent a brief time as a student of О Sensei at the old Hombu Dojo before WWII.