Is Aikido Functional For Real-world Applications?

Black Belt Papers Essays

By Jeremy Lehew

  Is Aikido a practical martial art for the purposes of self-defense and restraining techniques against an adversarial combatant? When first asked this question, years ago when I initially began training in a version of aikido, my answer was a resounding YES!  My martial arts experience was spotty at best, founded in my fandom of UFC and MMA style competitive matches, minimal first hand drilling with a more experienced friend, and of course, action movies.

I was a fan of UFC and MMA since the infancy of that sport when it was very much a style vs style type of affair, before it became commercialized and the martial arts on display seemed to become diluted. I enjoyed dissecting the body mechanics in play, and the efficiency of motion utilized by masters of their individual crafts. My personal experience came from light drills and sparring matches of my own with a friend who had trained in some other martial arts, who taught me a smattering of bastardized western kickboxing and grappling techniques from catch-wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. 

When I was first invited to an aikido class, I was amazed at what was being demonstrated. There were some impressive throws on display that seemed to come straight out of a movie sequence. Even more impressive was the ability of the instructors, men older and smaller than me, to send me tumbling to the mat at will and I was completely unable to figure out how they were doing it! Not only was I debilitated at will, but this was accomplished without causing me injury – no black eyes or broken bones. I have never been confrontational or competitive. While a part of me often wondered how I would fare if I were to be truly attacked or found myself locked in a life or death type of struggle, the idea of “enforcing my will” or “dominating” someone never really appealed to me.  The idea that I could learn something that would allow me to protect myself and others without needing to inflict damage or harm to someone was extremely alluring to me. I was hooked and began attending classes religiously.

Now, after more than a decade training in aikido and some cross training in other martial arts, my answer to the question posed above is still yes, aikido can be functional in real-world combat scenarios, but I admit that answer is not nearly as resonant as it once was and comes with a large asterisk.

Wake up!

The aikido club I originally trained in was unaffiliated with any specific organization. I knew the art was started by O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, and our particular brand or “flavor” was heavily reliant on the teachings and curriculum of Dr. Kenji Tomiki, but I did not know much else of the history of the art other than some anecdotes about our most recent lineage, my teacher’s teacher, etc. I loved the teaching I was receiving, and as I progressed on my own aikido journey, I craved as much practice and perspective as I could get. I began attending seminars as often as I could for additional instruction. Through these seminars, I met many wonderful people affiliated with the Tomiki Aikido of the Americas, a national organization with several clubs located in the state I reside in. I enjoyed our interactions immensely, as well as the additional instruction I received. However, I was very disheartened to eventually discover that the TAA was primarily a sporting organization. Travesty! Sport taints the purity of the art! There is no harmony in competition! And on and on… I was naïve. While I still attended seminars and still enjoyed learning from TAA instructors, I had no interest in sport application. After all, it was training for a “game”, and it was the interference of an expanded ruleset that initially led to me no longer enjoy UFC events. I still cringe to remember being chided by other attendees at a seminar I attended because I stated that I “didn’t believe in” tanto sport randori competition.

As I became accustomed to training with TAA instructors, I was eventually convinced to try a few rounds of sport randori in a casual setting. I grudgingly agreed to give it a shot. I didn’t really care if I “won” or not, I’d just do it so I could say I did. I think I secretly thought I’d surprise some people. At that point I’d been training a couple years or so, just long enough to gain some confidence in my abilities. So I gave it a shot. I did surprise, after all. I was extremely surprised to find out how bad I was at it. Not just because I was unaccustomed to the ruleset, but because pulling off any kind of technique against a fully resisting opponent is hard! I’d trained light randori in the past, even against multiple attackers, but hadn’t fully realized how compliant my fellow students and myself were being in those sessions. After all, we had to consider safety. Which is the whole point of the ruleset I had so despised. It was a wake up call, and helped me to gain a new perspective on the point of Tomiki Sensei including shiai  competition in his program. I also began to question how functional my aikido was, which, again, I believe is another reason to test ourselves this way in the first place, and is a good thing. I found that assuming my techniques would work without ever testing them against a fully resisting opponent is delusional, and this kind of pressure testing is necessary to discern what techniques to use in which situations to garner a higher success rate.

Cross training

I’ve been lucky in that my life has been relatively free from violence. While I believe that the techniques I’ve learned in my aikido training can work in real-life scenarios if needed, I don’t have a lot of personal experience to draw on for comparison. I have, however, had the pleasure to work with other martial artists that are law enforcement officers, corrections officers, military veterans, and private security professionals. These professionals are drawn to aikido and are learning the same things I am to improve their skills.

I have cross trained by attending classes and seminars for other martial arts and have found that the principles and concepts I’ve been taught hold up very well when cross training. I have also found that my aikido has improved by leaps and bounds from training in other martial arts. When I have had conversations with military, law enforcement, or security professionals, I find that they all have cross-trained in at least one if not several martial arts. While this is not surprising in and of itself, since those professions often require a high level of martial skill, what I found upon further inquiry is that most of these professionals started their martial arts careers in other disciplines and came to aikido later in their lives or careers. They had an established knowledge base, and came to aikido for something different. A common theme I’ve heard from several anecdotal stories is that they found themselves in a situation where they were faced with making the decision to either hurt their opponent or allow their opponent to hurt them or someone else. They came to aikido so that, when faced with a similar situation, they will have the option to do something else. To control, or restrain, without damaging or destroying. This is the same ideal that brought me to aikido.

The experiences of these colleagues that I’ve talked to differ from my own background in that aikido is the first art I trained regularly and exclusively. I felt I spent a long time floundering with the movements and principles being taught, like the instruction was swooping up over my conceptual ability to hold it, no matter how much I clutched and grasped at it. My personal progression felt like it would stall, and I would be frustrated. Then, when I began to cross train in other disciplines, I would be introduced to a new concept or technique and pick it up fairly quickly, thinking to myself, “Oh, this is similar to what we do in aikido, just a slightly different movement or way of explaining it.” I began to suspect, and over time to firmly believe, that aikido is a supplemental and advanced skillset. Since my focus was on aikido when I started training regularly, I was beginning at an advanced level. Rather than give me a head start, this actually stunted my martial growth. I was an infant trying to understand adult concepts. A contractor building a house on the surface of a lake. I had no base or structure to build on, so for a time I sputtered and sank. It wasn’t until I began to round out my skillset that that some of these higher-level teachings began to really make sense to me. I finally had a base to build on.

I don’t think I’m alone in the frustrations I experienced. Looking back, it appears that many of O’Sensei’s original students were already black belts, or high level practitioners in other disciplines before they came to him for instruction, and were thus able to flourish under his teaching. But there is also evidence that there were frustrations as to whether or not aikido was a “complete” or well-rounded art. In an interview with Minoru Mochizuki, found on the Aikido Journal website, Minoru Mochizuki Sensei says, “I went overseas to spread Aikido and had shiai matches with many different people while there. From that experience I realized that with only the techniques of Aikido it was very difficult to win. In those cases I instinctively switched to judo or kendo techniques and was able to come out on top of the situation. No matter how I thought about it I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the techniques of Daito Ryu Jujutsu were not enough to decide the issue. Wrestlers and others with that sort of experience are not put off by being thrown down and rolling away. They get right back up and close for some grappling and the French style of boxing is far above the hand and foot techniques of karate. I’m sure that Aikido will become more and more international and worldwide in the future, but if it does, it’s technical range will have to expand to be able to respond to any sort of enemy successfully.”

He makes a salient point. There is no grappling or ground fighting to speak of taught in the aikido curriculum. Even in the Tomiki system, which does an amazing job of categorizing and distilling dozens if not hundreds of old style, koryu techniques into a simplified and coherent curriculum, there are some fundamentals that seem to be glossed over. Take, for example, the first of the movements taught in the set of striking techniques, shomen ate. We are taught to clear center, break balance, attack the center line, etc. The principles and concepts are applied, and we learn body control and proper movement. But at its core, and dumbed down, it is to stand in front of someone and strike them in the head. It is a highly advanced version of “Punch ‘em in the face.” It feels like it is expected that the student already know how to stand in front of someone and strike them, and now they are being taught at a higher level to build on that. All the striking techniques in the curriculum are similar, in that they are zones of attack. “Hit them from here, or from here; hit them high, or hit them low, or hit them from behind. You know how to do this, now here is a better way.” This is good, but can be frustrating for someone who doesn’t already understand the basics of striking.

This is not an indictment against aikido, or the curriculum as it is being taught. People practice for many different reasons, whether they be social, fitness related, for competition, or just to have fun. These are purely observations in the context of functional martial ability for self defense or security purposes. In the seminars I have been lucky enough to attend under Satoh Tadayuki Sensei, he has suggested several times that jujutsu as a whole is a circle or a wheel, with aikido as one part, working in conjunction with judo, kendo, and several other arts dictated by proper distancing and specific situations and desired outcomes.  For a fully rounded and functional martial skillset, cross-training is not only encouraged, but is necessary.


Stephen Hayes is credited with bringing about the ninja craze in the United States back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as the first westerner to go to Japan and be accepted to learn ninjitsu. He came back and started teaching his own style of ninjitsu as Tosh-in Do. I’ve seen and worked with practitioners of the original Bujinkan ninjitsu. The style seems somewhat clunky, and ill-fitted to function against modern day attacks someone from the United States would be likely to see. It deals with long, powerful drawn out lunging karate style punches and over the head chops, and has notoriously been criticized for having poor quality control from one training center to the next. Tosh-in Do, on the other hand, has been modernized to defend against American style punch and kick combos, wrestling take-downs, and other westernized attacks. It is functional and well-rounded.

Aikido is often trained against lunging style punches and knife attacks, overhead chops, complicated lapel, collar or double wrist grabs, or from a static position. All the techniques could just as easily be applied to punch combos, kicks, and other western style attacks. In my minds eye, I can see many of the high level instructors I’ve worked with rolling their eyes and saying, “You can make them work against anything, it’s the principle that makes the technique work!” I can certainly agree with this. However, I would counter with a quote I once heard along the lines of, “We rarely rise to level of our potential, and usually fall to the level of our training.” We do what we’re trained to do. If someone attacks us, and the most likely attack we’re going to see is a punch, we should probably train what to do when we get punched.

I don’t by any means believe we should throw out anything we’re currently doing. Tradition is important, and its important to preserve the legacy of those that came before us. I do believe, however, that there are a lot of people that currently practice Tomiki aikido or would like to that are similar to the club I originally started in; people that enjoy the art or have interest in the discipline that don’t want focus purely on sport application and only sport application. I believe these people crave and would welcome the assistance of a governing body to support them in expanding their means of instruction as well as provide a level of quality control to ensure that they are receiving top level instruction.

A separate branch could provide this service, one that works in tandem with or in addition to the existing organizational structure. One that teaches to work off of punches, grabs, and kicks. The advantage to this is two-fold: the defender gets to learn how to deal with commonly seen attacks, while the attacker gets a basic instruction on striking fundamentals. I have seen many functional drills in training that were specifically created to hone the skills of tanto randori players. It could be good to develop drills more targeted to different attacks than we see in competition as far as timing and spacing for hand to hand or different weapon attacks. There is also existing curriculum in place – the kata sets that Tomiki sensei taught before he developed the 17’s specifically for sport training. I have questioned Satoh Sensei more than once at his seminars about the use and evolution of the 15’ and 19’s to the 17’s. His response has always been the same. Those sets are for application. Greater minds than mine will determine if this is a viable or time worthy endeavor, but I like to think this is a need that could be met by TAA.

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