I find it difficult to explain Aikido to people who have not practiced it for some time. It is easier to demonstrate key features of Aikido in concrete situations than to describe it in words. Repeated practice gradually brings awareness of what the words mean. Descriptions heard once without first-hand experience usually are misunderstood. For example, to introduce Aikido I can say that it is a “martial art,” but this term conveys little. Aikido is not like other martial arts commonly found in North America or Japan. The characteristics most people associate with martial art training or typical martial artists are not key features of Aikido. Yet if I tell people that Aikido is not what they think of as a martial art, or if I tell them that Aikido documents state that Aikido is not fighting, then many conclude that it is a type of stylized martial exercise or dance unrelated to practical self-defense. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Aikido is a comprehensive martial art, with the emphasis on the word “comprehensive.” Let me try to indicate something of the range of meanings indicated by “comprehensive.” Aikido is all inclusive: both armed and unarmed, employing every type of unarmed skill (throws, joint-locks, strikes, vital points, and mystical attacks without touch) and every kind of weapon (sword, knife, stick, spear, halberd, etc.). Aikido is systematic: every technique is based on the same fundamental principles. Practicing one improves all. Even armed and unarmed techniques mirror each other. This system encompasses the metaphysical foundations of nature itself. Aikido is the study of the natural laws of energy flow, exchange and transformation. Aikido techniques cultivate spiritual energy based on profound and subtle manipulations of the psychology and physiology of the mind-body continuum.
Most importantly Aikido embodies a highly developed ethical and philosophical analysis of the pedagogy and goals of martial training. Aikido centers on controlling and neutralizing one’s opponent. This focus distinguishes Aikido from most modern martial arts practiced in and outside Japan, which center on teaching people how to hit each other in sport-like tournaments. In Aikido, conflict is the problem to be solved–not the goal to be practiced. Aikido centers on controlling any potential opponent before a confrontation, during a conflict, and at its conclusion. Ultimately, the best way to control others is by doing what is right and by winning their friendship. Weakness is not an answer to conflict, but neither is brutality. For this reason, Aikido documents state that Aikido is not a martial art, not conflict, not striking down one’s enemies. If one controls an enemy, then how can conflict arise? If one neutralizes an enemy, then why bother striking him down? If one converts an enemy into an ally, then how can that relationship be subject to martial art? Well, it can if the martial art in question is truly comprehensive.
A second key characteristic of Aikido is that it is a self-consciously “High-Class” martial art. In part “high-class” refers to attitude. Aikido traditions hold that certain approaches to martial arts are unbecoming. There is this element of snobbishness. But for the most part “high-class” refers to how Aikido conceives of the fundamental basis and orientation of martial training. Most martial arts popular today are based on systems of combat developed by and for peasants (e.g., Karate-do) or professional fighters (e.g., Ninjutsu). While each has its subtleties and hidden depths, these traditions developed in a context within which a few martial specialists were expected to expend more time and effort to attain more power, more speed, and faster reflexes than normal. Their emphasis lies in delivering concentrated violence more effectively. Aikido practitioners, in contrast, learn how to use less muscle power, to move more centered, all without reacting to the opponent. Aikido was developed for noblemen who had better things to do than concentrate on martial art training. Nonetheless, Aikido amateurs reasonably expect to control and neutralize professional practitioners of other systems. A minimum of training had to provide a higher level of martial effectiveness. The effectiveness had to be built into the system, not dependant upon building supermen. One reason why Aikido practitioners can master martial arts quickly is because all techniques are built around the same basic sequences of moves. Sword, stick, spear, bare hand, or halberd—it makes no difference. All are used the same way. But to understand how Aikido techniques can be effective without depending upon power, speed, or reflex requires another explanation.
Of course, Aikido training is geared toward improving an individual’s power, speed, and reflexes. But these attributes cannot determine or limit the effectiveness of Aikido. The effectiveness of Aikido develops from controlling the course of an engagement. Most people think of an engagement as proceeding along the lines of: first I react to the opponent’s move `A’ with the counter `B’ and next follow his defense `C’ with the crucial new reaction `D,’ etc. In Aikido, however, every technique already includes A-B-C-D-E-F-G-etc. In other words, every technique includes the whole system. Every technique is “comprehensive”: The reactions and counter reactions are built in. A third person observer might think he sees a shift from one technique to another, but the Aikido practitioner just keeps applying what to him is the same technique. Moreover, the engagement begins before it begins. It is allowed only a controlled development. These two aspects of Aikido are very difficult to comprehend without wide experience. Only gradually does it become clear that these elements govern how they all work together and are the keys to applying them effectively.