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.

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.

Japanese martial arts: from the battlefield to MMA

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I’ve written a guest blog post about my Heretics podcast and our history of Japanese martial arts series for Holistic Budo, a blog run by my friend Robert Van Valkenburgh.

Here’s a quote:

After the Tokugawa-era ended with the bloody Boshin war followed by the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan slowly opened up to the outside world. In fact, it was forced open by the British and Americans using violent gunboat diplomacy, but eventually the new era was embraced by the new rulers and also reflected in a new spirit of openness within the martial arts. Aliveness was back in fashion and innovators like Jigoro Kano breathed new life into the martial arts they inherited using the practice of randori (free sparring). His approach was so effective that Kano went from never having trained martial arts at all, to founding his own style in less than 6 years. Ultimately Kano’s Judo would outshine all the other styles of Jiujitsu and change the course of martial arts in Japan entirely, not to mention the rest of the world.

Check out the whole post here.

Aikido Heresies. The dark side of Aikido.

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Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

Just remembered I didn’t post about the last Heretics podcast we did. This one was about the history of Aikido. I thought it would be quite a light-hearted one, but as Damon explains, it turns out the history of Aikido, and its parent art Daito Ryo, is largely unknown to the average martial artists (i.e. me) and also pretty dark and nasty. Very nasty.

War crimes, extreme nationalism, invasion, torture, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and so on.

So, if you’d like to have your illusions about “the way of harmonious spirit” shattered, then listen on, otherwise, as they say, ignorance is bliss.

 

The history of Jiujitsu and Kempo. Part 4

The latest episode of the Heretics podcast is out!

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/episode4final

In part 4 we examine the time period between 1960 and 1980 in Japan, and discuss topics such as martial arts marketing and the different ways in which the Japanese created and promoted a wide range of new martial arts.

Here are a few links to videos of the things we talk about this time:

Gracie vs. Kimura – October 23, 1951 (Maracanã Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brasil)

Gracies vs bullies on beach:

Rikidozan vs Masahiko Kimura (1954 – Part 2/2)

PRIDE 25: Kazushi Sakuraba vs Antonio “Elvis” Schembri

Muhammed Ali vs Antonio Inoki Boxer vs MMA Fighter 1976

 

Mas Oyama vs “bull”:

TV show about Iwama and Aikido, Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県, Ibaraki-ken) Japan featuring the late Morihiro Saito Sensei.

Taido:

Kodo: