Ueshiba was not the Messiah. He was a very naughty boy.

Not Jesus.

With our Heretics podcast existing as a kind of permanent record online people can discover it at any time. Recently the Aikido Heresies episode we did has kicked off a couple of conversations. 

I think they relate directly to the Myth Busting post I did yesterday. That was all about Chinese martial arts, but the same thing applies to Aikido, perhaps on an even bigger scale.

One post from a listener goes as follows:

“So recently I came across some apparently very grim details of Morihei Ueshiba’s life history. Apparently he was in good terms with far-right activists and known war criminals (including the head of Unit 731; if you don’t know what it is, do yourself a favour and DON’T google it), and was a staunch nationalist supporter of the Emperor and the Imperial regime. 

   I have for long held to the opinion that Ueshiba was perhaps the most complex and misunderstood figures of 20th century martial arts, but now I’ve been really left to grapple with how his legacy and ideology should be correctly dealt with during our era.

   Is this more “ugly” side of Ueshiba well understood and interacted with among many Aikidoka, and what has been your solution to it?”

I see a lot of parallels between the myth-busting of martial arts and the things that are happening in modern times now in the US and UK as we unpick the uncomfortable truths of our relationships to slavery.

For example, almost all the big Downton Abby-style manor houses in the UK that have become the property of the National Trust (usually after the 2nd World War) and we all enjoy spending our Sundays visiting and enjoying the splendid gardens and architecture, were all built by fortunes made off the backs of the slave trade. And none of this is taught in our schools.

Statues like the one of the famous slave trader Edward Coulston in Bristol have been pulled down by angry crowds in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, which have spread to the UK. 

The question is how do we deal with this. Should we stop people bowing to photos of Ueshiba in Aikido dojos, for example?

I don’t know what the answer is. Walking the fine line between personal freedom and making right the sins of the past is a difficult job.

Personally, with Aikido I would look to the Aikido community to address this issue and come to terms with it.

As our friend Tammo notes:

“As a long standing practitioner of Aikido who also runs his own dojo, it was a shocked to hear these things and in the course of a year it completely changed my perspective of Aikido. Meanwhile I have come to terms with that and think I can see and value Aikido for what it is and what it isn’t.

The success of Aikido from roughly the 60s to the early 2000s (I would guess) seems to have been due to the huge efforts of myth-making around Ueshiba, modelling him into a saint-like figure… with a god-like martial ability and some strange esoteric practices which seem all very impressive. It seemed to work. Now I find it more interesting to get my head around general developments in eastern martial arts as a way to understand how different styles and branches are able to develop and become successful and why others don’t.”

In the Aikido episode of our podcast we established Ueshiba’s colonial activities in Manchuria, close ties to the leadership of, for instance 731, and (not war) but colonial crimes against the Ainu. As a member of the Kwantung army he is also associated with all of their atrocities on the continent. On that basis, I think it’s fair to say that Ueshiba was not a nice person.

Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place. 

Real world uses for Taijiquan, Aikido and XingYi, from a real police officer

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I love this article by Bill Fettes, a retired Australian police officer, I came across recently on Ellis Amdur’s blog. It discusses real world uses for the techniques found in the Internet Arts he has trained- Aikido, Tai Chi and XingYi. I like the mix of no nonsense description and practical demonstration.

What’s great is that Bill gives clear recollections of the techniques he actually used “on the streets”, then provides demo pictures of how it played out with a partner. Take a look!

My overwhelming observation is that what he’s showing looks exactly like the kind of techniques my Tai Chi teacher does all the time in push hands/sparring. In fact, I recall being on the end of them several times!

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A lot of the time I see people training Chinese Martial Arts with too much emphasis on getting a single hit in, as if that would be the end of everything. It won’t. “One strike one kill” is a nice idea in theory, but I don’t think you’re meant to take that idea litterally.

One thing my Tai Chi teacher emphasises is that he wants the fight to end with the other guy controlled at his feet, pinned to the ground in some way so he can be incapacitated or restrained. If you want to run away then why not give yourself a head start by breaking something first, or calming them down? Or if you want to hold them in place until help arrives you need to have trained that skill.

You can’t just keep hitting people – it prolongs the conflict and turns what started as a self defence situation into an assault by you on the attacker, even if you were the original victim. Just imagine how it’s going to look on CCTV, which is everywhere in the UK.

Homework time

Tai Chi people! I would suggest you incorporate these techniques into your push hand if you are not doing so already – it’s not hard to see where you could fit them in.

XingYi people! – Note, there’s also a nice reference to one of my favourite XingYi animals, the bear eagle, in the article. And also check out the quote below about the observation of wild animals – this is your homework 🙂

Everyone! One more thing to consider about this article – he’s not really talking about weapon assaults or multiple opponents. How do you think that would change outcomes and what he’s doing? Discuss.

Animal observation

Quite often in martial arts like XingYi we are encouraged to observe actual wild animals and the way they fight. I really like the part of the blog post where he describes a similar instruction from a teacher, and real world example of usage:

When living in Japan, I attended several meetings of martial minded fellas, organized by Phil Relnick. Phil was kind of a godfather to most of us non-Japanese martial artists, having lived and trained in the country since 1955. At once such meeting, a U.S. student living in Singapore, who was studying the Shaolin animal forms, was invited to speak. He told us that his teacher had him go to Singapore zoo each day and study his animal: the boar. He then had to report back with anything he had learnt. I thought that was a pretty cool idea until Master Wang Zhong Dao designated me a ‘tiger,’ and gave me the same instructions. Then it became hard work. I was not sure why he designated me a tiger, maybe my big paws or shoulders, or maybe because I was always pacing or prowling, never being able to keep still. Most masters don’t explain their reasoning to plebs, anyway, so I spent a lot of time observing my namesake behind bars. One thing I did notice about the tiger was that when attacking, it generally uses its weapons on the throat; I used this a couple of times on the street with quite unusual results.

 

 

Review: Hidden in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur (2nd edition)

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Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur is a thorough examination of the subject of internal power exhibited by Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and the historical origins of this type of power in martial arts from China and Japan. Ellis has many years of direct experience in Chinese and Japanese arts and also works (or worked) in a field that requires physical restraint skills to be utilised, so in short, he knows what he’s talking about.

More importantly, he’s a good writer and thorough researcher. The book gets straight down to business, quickly identifying the different types of power that human beings are capable of producing, then how they apply that in martial arts using methods like whipping power or coiling power, then takes a closer look at exactly what ‘internal power’ is and why it’s different, or more refined, compared to other types of human-generated power.

But here I ran into my only real hiccup with the book. Internal arts are full of Chinese words like Jin, Qi, Shen and so forth, none of which are simple concepts that can easily be summed up in one word. In his descriptions of internal power, Ellis translates Jin to mean ‘intent’ (p.54, 56) quite a few times. To my thinking intent is more properly translated as “Yi” in this context, and is indeed a facet of Jin practice, but not a good direct translation of the word “Jin”, which means literally something like ‘refined strength’. Jin is strength produced by the application of Yi, rather than “intent” itself. The process of using intent in the internal martial arts is using the mind to create a path to the ground for jin to follow. A path which may take it from a point of contact with the opponent, for example, straight down to your feet, where it is supported by the ground. It’s a subtle difference, compared to translating Jin as “intent”, and not one which affects the rest of the book, but one which bugs me all the same

Perhaps reflecting the authors experience of having to restrain people in real life, the book is quite down to earth and honest about the realities of looking for this internal strength ability and what it means in practical terms. The main realisation you get is that it’s going to require a serious amount of practice to get basic abilities in internal strength. Time that could be better spent acquiring other skills that would be much more easily applied and learned say from an MMA teacher. I like that Ellis is quite honest about these important points because it’s something that is sometimes lacking in internal strength devotes, especially if they are trying to sell you something! Internal strength is not like a magic pill that once taken will transform you into a martial arts expert. In fact, any skills you develop in this regard still require placing in a martial context to be of any practical use, and that can take as long as developing the skills in the first place. My personal take is similar. I’d say that if your goal is to be an MMA fighter or you just want to learn self-defence skills,  then the amount of time you are required to invest in developing ‘internal’ skills makes no sense – financially or otherwise.

There’s an impressive amount of research that has gone into this book, but since there are so many unanswered questions left about where Ueshiba got his abilities, a large amount of speculation from the author is added throughout which supports his general premise, which at times ignores other possibilities.

For example, at one point Ellis speculates on how this esoteric knowledge of internal power got from China to Japan. On page 103, in wondering what the famous figure Chin Gempin (a Chinese martial artist who ended up in Japan, just as the country was closing itself off to outsiders) could possibly have taught to three experienced Japanese martial artists, as the story goes, who went on to form their own now-famous Ryu (the historical ancestor of Judo amongst them) using this information. Ellis reasons “whatever he taught had to have had such an effect on such men that they made a foreigner part of their origin story, and furthermore, allowed them to develop such men as Ukei and Takino. Internal strength training is the only such methodology that I can think of.

That could well be true, but I can think of something else, as I’m sure you can. (To be fair, in the footnotes Ellis does offers an alternative explanation – being connected to an older Chinese tradition was clearly great marketing, and the whole thing can simply be put down to advertising.)

That’s true, but there is a simpler explanation: submissions. Existing jiujitsu battlefield grappling methods dealt with grounding an armoured opponent, with the goal of finishing them off with a short knife that could easily be worked through the armour at weak points. As such, submission holds weren’t a priority in existing Japanese grappling methods. Equally, Japan’s native Sumo wrestling was more concerned with gaining a victory by rule set (e.g. pushing the opponent out of a ring, for example), rather than by submission. In contrast, the Chinese grappling methods of the time would have been ripe with Chin-Na techniques for breaking limbs or small joints.

(Edit: In this hypothetical situation I’m not trying to imply that submissions skills didn’t exist previously in Japan – they did, of course –  rather that it could be that Chin Gempin was teaching some new types, or higher quality, types of joint locks that hadn’t been seen before.)

From Daito Ryu to Aikido

The second half of HIPS is history-heavy and I have to confess to skipping a few pages that turn into lists of who taught who in a particular Ryu. The history of Daito Ryu however, or rather the personal history of Takeda Sokaku, who was most likely the arts’ founder (since its history is undocumented) is quite revealing. Everything that it’s possible to know about Takeda is here. Ellis often steps over the bounds of mere speculation and delivers a psychological evaluation of a traumatised individual who grew up during the Boshin war, witnessing horrors on a daily basis. He transformed himself into a jiujitsu teacher after disappearing for 17 years. What he was doing and what he was learning in those 17 years nobody knows, but since it followed an incident in which he killed several construction workers in a brawl, and was almost killed himself, it’s probably better not to ask.

Finally, the book turns its attention to Ueshiba himself and collects as much information about his training as is humanly possible. It’s all here, including anecdotes from those that trained with him. There’s also a biography of his life, looking at what martial arts he came into contact with and when in great detail.

A final technical point: you won’t really learn how to do internal strength from this book. This is not a book of exercises, it’s a book about the exercises, and their historical context. In short, it’s a sit down read, not a ‘get up and practice’ manual.

If you’re interested in any of these subjects, and particularly if you practice Aikido, then you’ll find Hidden in Plain Sight provides plenty of food for thought. It’s a great resource and deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Link to Amazon.