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.