Tradition versus Innovation

An aspect of Kokikai Aikido that I deeply appreciate is its focus on innovation. Sensei emphasized this idea a few months ago at Winter Camp. There, he stressed that “Correct movement means growth.” In fact, from the very moment I stepped onto the mat I had been told that it was our responsibility as students to not only learn techniques, but to understand why these techniques work and to think critically on how we might make these techniques better. To quote Rick Berry Sensei: “The dojo is our lab. Experiment!” It is the fact that Kokikai techniques exist in a constant state of refinement that differentiates it from many other martial arts.

Recently, I’ve wondered just how far one can take this concept of critical thought and innovation, and still remain true to the martial art. Let’s start, for example, with the idea that no technique is truly static. At the very least, techniques are constantly challenged, refined, and questioned. In some cases, this analysis leads to the technique being discarded, or, at least, de-emphasized in daily practice. Shomenuchi ikkyo (irimi) is one such technique. For those unfamiliar with this attack-and-defense combination: shomenuchi is a straight-down strike to the head, simulating a sword strike. Ikkyo is a classic joint lock, identified by having the wrist, elbow and shoulder of the opponent at a diagonal angle towards the ground, with the shoulder being the lowest point of the line. Irimi, in this case, refers to the fact that the nage enters uke’s space, essentially using ikkyo to reverse uke’s direction and pin him to the ground. The issue with this technique is the irimi part. For the technique to work effectively, you must be able to get to your uke’s arm before it gains momentum on the way down–otherwise, there’s just too much force to contend with. Now, imagine that you’re five foot two, and your opponent is 6 foot three. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get to your uke’s arm in time! Apparently, Sensei observed this situation, and decided that it was unnecessary to keep practicing this version of the technique. Instead we focus on the tenkan version, which works regardless of your opponent’s height. This is just one example of a technique that has been discarded due to an ever-changing practice environment.

Techniques are not the only area where Kokikai applies this “critical thinking” mentality. Our use of Japanese terminology, for example, is vastly reduced compared to other aikido styles. On the few occasions I have trained with non-Kokikai aikidostudents, I’ve found myself staring blankly when they call out a technique. Once I see the technique, I know exactly what we’re doing, but the terminology gap can be quite wide. Why? I know of no official answer, but I can easily imagine Sensei deciding that excessive Japanese terminology is unnecessary for an art that is supposed to be available to anyone, from any culture.

With a pattern of constant self-analysis, it becomes very easy to start questioning everything. For example:

  • Why do we wear the hakama? It’s a relatively old style of attire, isn’t it? I can understand wearing a gi–the jacket is ideal for protecting your shoulders, arms, and chest during practice. And I’ve often said (to those who study no-gi mixed martial arts: when I go train at the gym, I don’t wear street clothes, I wear workout clothes. Why should the dojo be different?) But most justifications I come up with for the hakama (it forces you learn how to use your feet more efficiently, it gives extra focus to your center) strikes me more as elaborate rationalizations along the lines of “We wear one because that’s just what we do.”
  • We’ve known that some techniques, such as tsuki kotegaeshi, can be very difficult to do against more modern punches, where the attacker rechambers his fist quickly. Given that, why even worry about such a technique, except in the context of weapon disarmament? It seems that there are far more techniques that we could study that have more practical applications today.

Of course, critical thinking does not mean discarding everything that doesn’t make sense. One could argue that we wear the hakama because there is no reason not to wear one, and we could say that we study techniques like tsuki kotegaeshi because it hasn’t yet been sufficiently proven that such a defense has become completely impractical. And, I suppose, that when in doubt we should err on the side of keeping something in, rather than tossing something out. But I do wonder at times if there’s a limit to the usefulness of critical analysis; if, at some point, the balance in the tug of war between tradition and innovation does sometimes favor tradition, and for good reason. I’d just like to get a better sense of what those reasons are.

5 thoughts on “Tradition versus Innovation

  1. Why do businessmen wear suits and ties, get haircuts and shave? Do their morning rituals really say something about their character or is it just symbolical now? There are many examples of people doing things for reasons that no longer apply or that we don’t understand, and in some cases have changed their purpose. Shaking hands is another good example.

    Innovation doesn’t always mean tossing things out (not to mention it can be potentially counter-productive to toss things out when you don’t understand their purpose). Sometimes it means re-discovering what we already know. Standing on the shoulders of giants only gets you so far if you don’t understand the concept of legs.

    Strangely enough, I was just asked the other day why we wear a gi. My response was, “I don’t know. It’s a martial art. That’s just how it is.” In my defense, I also pointed out that my sensei would have a better answer than I would, and I was right! Sweet vindication.

  2. The question of why we bother to wear the traditional garb of a given martial tradition is an old one. Over the years, I’ve thought of a few reasons why we would, but of course, in terms of sheer practicality, no, it’s probably not necessary.

    One reason I do it is because of the focus it gives you. It’s for the same reason practitioners of a particular religion might dress up in special robes and go to a holy place to pray and to worship. Do they NEED to go somewhere special and wear special clothes to gain spiritual enlightenment? Probably not.

    But all of it has a way of focusing the mind on the task at hand in a way casual observances can’t, shutting out the rest of the world for just a little bit. The clothes remind me to take what I’m doing seriously, to pursue it with a sober mind, with honor and dignity. Presumably, we study these arts for reasons other than just sheer self-defense, and these vestments which are unique to budo remind us of it. Otherwise, it’s just a fight club.

    Wonderful blog, by the way. I plan to stop by often!

  3. If they throw me in my regular clothes, they might break. My dokok (gi) is much stronger. We consider our uniforms to be working clothes, because martial arts are hard work.

    This seems like an interesting blog by the way.

  4. I totally agree with Mr Ashby’s post, about focusing the mind, I find I will joke around and catch up with gossip in the change room, but once I am on the mat in Hakama and Gi I’m much more focussed to train and take things seriously.

    I’m not familiar with Kokikai Aikido, but IMHO it seems strange to do away with Shomen Uchi Ikkyo Omote as not being practical, many exercises and techniques I learn may not seem to have a practical purpose but may be practiced to impart a certain principle that Sensei is trying to explain. Shomen Uchi Ikkyo Omote also works very well as long as you take the initiative and don’t wait for the attack (even if the opponent is a lot taller or stronger than you) as long as your timing, maiai and extension is correct, the technique should work. Look at O’Sensei, he was very small and he went up against opponents of all different sizes with great success.

    Another thing is, if you want to learn Aikido for street fighting, it’s probably not the right thing to learn, go for MMA or Muay Thai. Because while Aikido will teach you these things it may take 20-30 years for the understanding of how to use them practically to come out of you.

    BTW I like the Blog too, plan to visit often.

    Kind Regards

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