Four Symptoms of a Martial Aikido


There is undoubtedly a crisis in Aikido when the art is taken as a whole. This crisis functions at both the level of spiritual validity and at the level of martial validity. This crisis therefore rests at the heart of the art. Here, however, I would like to only speak about the latter: The crisis of martial validity.


There is a peculiar aspect to any crisis, this one being no exception, and this is the fact that any crisis depends heavily upon a majority of involved parties not sensing that they themselves are generating said crisis. That is to say, there is indeed a segment of the Aikido population that has no sense of Aikido’s martial validity crisis, but this is a relatively small population in comparison to the greater majority of Aikido practitioners that sense the crisis but that believe their Aikido is not contributing to the crisis – people that wrongly believe their Aikido is martially valid when it is not.


Often times, this “martial validity” is supported by irrelevant aspects of training thought to be related to martial viability. Some examples of this are training fast, Uke’s getting winded during class, the reputation of one’s lineage head, the presence of yang/yang clashes, injuries on the mat, bending one’s knees, and/or concentrating very strenuously during Kihon Waza, etc. Critics of Aikido, those most vocal in noting Aikido’s martial crisis, are quick to note, and rightly so, that these things are not necessarily, or even at all, the markers of martial validity. And, their charge for “pressure testing” is really just an attempt to confront supporting Aikido discourse and the polemics of discourse with experience: “Spar!” This, however, brings no insight to the majority of Aikido practitioners that are actually generating the crisis because part of said discourse has for all intents and purposes made pressure testing a taboo.


Therefore, I would like to bring other telltale signs, symptoms, ones that through which a person can diagnose if not whether his/her Aikido is martially valid or invalid then at least whether or not the means of transmitting that Aikido is martially valid or invalid. Noting these symptoms, their presence or their absence, allows one to determine, regardless of how much they bend their knees as Nage in Tachiwaza, whether they are or are not part of the majority of practitioners that actually responsible for the martial crisis in the art. All of these symptoms are really symptoms of artistic health, so to speak, Where these signs are absent, one’s Aikido is not martial – again, regardless of how winded your Uke becomes during class.


The first symptom of a martial Aikido is a crowded mat. The “mat” in this case is not the mat during federation seminars but rather your individual dojo mat. Here, “crowded” refers to adults, and would have to entail deshi numbering or near numbering twenty practitioners. This “crowded mat” (approximating twenty practitioners) is a sign of proper branding. An uncrowded mat, having less than ten practitioners on it, is a sign of misbranding. Allow me to explain: Regardless of what Aikido is and/or can be, it is in the general public consciousness a martial art. And, while the technical elements that would go into an accurate definition of the noun “martial art” are indeed complex, the general public, as ignorant as they may be, possess an intuition that no amount of word-smithing can override. For them, if it does not look like a duck, it is not a duck; and, thus if upon looking at your Aikido they do not see a martial art – it is not a martial art. This means, for them, you’re misbranding your art, and as they would not go to a bank to order a hamburger, they will not go to your dojo to do your Aikido. You therefore suffer the negative impact of misbranding: low market percentages. Contrarily, since the general public are in the market to learn a martial art, and if your Aikido is martially valid, it will appear thus to them, and when they enter your dojo, you will not suffer the misbranding mistake that most of the western Aikido world is currently suffering from: shrinking dojo membership. A sparse mat is a symptom of a non-martial Aikido.


The second symptom of a martial Aikido is the demographic of your crowded mat. In particular, a martial Aikido will demonstrate a generally youthful mat. Here, a youthful mat shows a majority of practitioners being ages 16 years old to 30 years old. While this youthfulness does indeed lend itself to the necessity of hard training, which is indeed a part of a martial Aikido, this pressing need for hard training is actually satisfied by a fit mat, not a youthful mat. Therefore, I will speak on these components separately. The reason a martial Aikido shows a youthful mat is because it is the relatively young that feel the need for self-defense or that have the need for a professional use of their martial art. As we mature in age, we learn that we are much more of a threat to ourselves than the unknown unprovoked attacker, and our lifestyles come to adapt as we age to strategically place ourselves out of the probabilities of being so attacked. For example, we frequent bars less, and when we do go to bars, we get less intoxicated, etc. – we learn how to get along with people. The youth, however, still feel this pressing need to defend themselves from others. Equally, professions that require a professional use of one’s martial art are also dominated by the youth. Examples of this are members of our military and law enforcement. In such professions, the older take on more supervisorial roles and/or administrative roles, and they no longer have a professional end to their own individual martial prowess. The young, just getting into these professions, however, are walking beats and are being transported to front lines, places where their martial prowess is regularly put to the test. The geriatric mat, or the predominantly geriatric mat, is a symptom of a non-martial Aikido.


The third symptom of a martial Aikido is the fitness of one’s mat. While technical skill is important martially, it is never so important that one’s strength and one’s mobility can become unimportant to one’s martial viability. Technical skills only significantly outweigh strength and mobility in non-martial Aikido. As a result, a martial Aikido has a mat made up of people showing above-average strength and above-average mobility. Here, we are talking about objective strength and mobility, not merely the strength and mobility required for Kihon Waza. Think instead of deadlifts, back squats, shoulder press, bench press, pull-ups, obstacle courses, wall climbs, etc. For example, a good minimum marker is that all males on your mat can do ten pull-ups; women doing five pull-ups. Overall, a martial Aikido dojo will have people fit enough to compete with athletes from any number of sports or fitness industries. The obese, weak, frail, stiff mat is a symptom of a non-martial Aikido.


The fourth symptom of a martial Aikido is a daily training schedule having a minimum of four hours of training per day. This symptom is related to the third symptom, of course, in that higher-than-average fitness allows one to train daily without injury, soreness, and any other detriment that requires time off the mat. However, the bulk of this symptom is related to the fact that “martial” means the overcoming of another human being. As such, training equations become much more relevant to overall martial prowess than the mere memorization of technical routines. “Every day, every hour, that one is not training, someone else is training to kick your ass!” – that is the unsaid (and sometimes said) assumption of the martial dojo and the reguarl training schedule reflects this. Research has demonstrated, both empirical and scientific, that optimal performance for an activity such as engaging in human v. human violence is achieved by training somewhere in the vicinity of four to six hours per day. The Aikido dojo that is not offering this training schedule is offering a non-martial Aikido.


Undoubtedly, there is more to a martial Aikido than these four symptoms. HOWEVER, the transmission of a martial Aikido will always have these four symptoms - they will be clear and present markers of such. Thus, we can say that an Aikido that does not demonstrate all four of these symptoms is not a martial Aikido. We do not have to spar to note the presence or absence of these symptoms. If we are doing an Aikido not having these four symptoms, but we hold our Aikido is nevertheless martial, then we are part of that majority so necessary for a crisis to manifest.