The sword of contention.Kumitachi and the integration of Aikiken and Kashima Shinto Ryu.

In defining Aikido, we often say that it is a Martial Art in which there is no competition.

If by this definition we mean the absence of competitions, that is fights framed by a regulation in which there is an athlete who wins and one who loses, as it happens in the sports declinations of Judo, Karate, Taekwondo and similar disciplines, we could be right.

If one pretends to indicate Aikido as a discipline in which practitioners do not strive together to reach a goal (compete), we obviously give a very distorted definition of Aikido.

The study of a Martial Mrt proceeds for the most part through the execution of forms within a safety zone that allows us to experience the flavor of the simulated conflict in codified fights.

International and federal regulations impose certain safety measures within combat sports competitions. Certain techniques are forbidden, as it is forbidden to perform some hits on certain areas of the opponent’s body, risking a series of penalties or even disqualification.

This does not mean that the fight, kumite, is reduced to a parody of a fight to the death. But obviously, although the body is brought to very high levels to perform certain athletic and fighting schemes, generally the competition behind a medal allows both fighters to return back to their affections after the competition. On a battlefield, things obviously were on another layer. Forgetting about this and believing oneself as a samurai 2.0 – as far as technically skilled – is a mistake and also a dangerous act of enlargement of the…ego.

In the practice of Aikido we do not really talk about kumite. However, forms of simulated combat rise in the study of kumitachi and kumijo: highly codified forms of combat with the use of the bokken or jo.

In our purpose of contributing to the dissemination of the culture and practice of Aikido also through the dissemination of clips that substantially record the entire basic technical program of bukiwaza as transmitted starting from the legacy of Morihiro Saito, the practice of kumitachi gave us the opportunity to deal organically with the issue of the practice of weapons in our discipline. Especially the sword.

The practitioner, in his early years, absorbs a didactic proposal from his teachers, without asking too many questions. After some time, especially looking outside your Dojo, you discover that you are part of a movement in which several technical dialects coexist (the styles of Aikido) with which it is sometimes not immediate to share something. It is also noted that different groups do not practice weapons, leaving the individuals the freedom of initiative to orient themselves in the world of Japanese sword schools. Among the groups that give the chance to practice (also) weapons, those who follow the approach of Morihiro Saito (identifiable as Iwama Ryu) reaffirm the didactic approach, that is: among tai jutsu and buki waza there is a deep interconnection. The biomechanical principles rise with clarity so much that you handle a stick, a wooden sword or execute it with your hands. In Iwama Ryu we tend to emphasize how Aikiken and Aikijo are “the” sword and “the” stick in the perspective of Aikido, without therefore feeling the need for further philological research.

Philological research – or at least parallel practices of other disciplines and koryu – can be experienced in many other ramifications of Aikido, also due to the fact that historically the Honbu Dojo has not invested in the direction of the study of bukiwaza as it has happened elsewhere (Iwama, for instance).

When dealing with these issues there is a risk of slipping into easy simplifications and mistakes. The first is to consider that the practice of Aikido is correct if and only if inserted in a specific didactic groove. This approach tends to be divisive and harms the transmission of the values ​​of a discipline. The second is the stiffening based on what is understood about tradition. Aikido is a human phenomenon and therefore necessarily anchored to principles that have value when compared to the (non-static) dynamics of the human being. The third, more widespread than one could think, is that philological and historical research (in other words: the legitimate investigation of the why of things), is replaced by a means to grow with a single end. Perhaps we end up being experts in the history of Budo and at the same time never defining the bases on which we can build relationships, trajectories, communities.

The kumitachi offer an opportunity to ask some questions about our martial roots and perspectives.

It is historically proven that in 1937 Morihei Ueshiba took part in the formation of the traditional sword school of Kashima Shinto Ryu; the actual influence on the Founder of another Japanese fencing current, the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, is a little more discussed.

It is historically known that Morihiro Saito was a rather advanced practitioner of Kendo and that the approach he received from Kendo was in some ways a help to better understand the prospects of integrating the use of the sword into the system that Morihei Ueshiba started day after day to experiment, settle and consolidate.

It is also a fact that in the Shinshin Aikishuren Kai, the school that Hitoira Saito runs in the roots of his father and which, in the intentions, should be the custodian of the message not only of Morihiro Saito but, by deduction, of the Founder, does not disdain an integration of the study of Aikido through in-depth studies of Iai; nor is it a mystery that Yasuhiro Saito is a Kashima Shinto Ryu practitioner.

Many world-renowned teachers do not offer Aikiken or Aikijo-based teaching; rather they integrate technical proposals from other schools of Jodo or Japanese fencing.

So what?

Kumitachi help to sort out some ideas.

First of all to understand the fundamental difference between using a weapon as a striking object or as a sharp object. In Aikiken (and of course Aikijo), all strikes are percussive, not cutting, although made with a weapon that has the shape and weight of a katana. An excellent instructional video was made by Miles Kessler Sensei on this distinction.
This conceptual difference also and above all determines a radically different approach to standing (shisei). A percussive strike requires a stable and grounded posture.
This is one of the reasons why, in 1987, in an interview in Rome, Morihiro Saito reiterated the need for a good understanding of the suburi of ken for a correct practice of kumitachi. The dynamics of a kumitachi is not possible apart from the solid foundations of the solitary practice of a suburi.

Furthermore, in the first kumitachi the same kata as proposed in the Kashima Shinto Ryu actually reverberates. It is noted in this video that  the kumitachi of Aikiken represents a much more refined evolution than what is noted in Kashima; at the same time it is observed that in the attack made to the partner’s ribs’ side a technique takes place in the kumitachi of Aikiken that is not practiced in the suburi.

The same, in the fifth kumitachi, can be said for movements in which engagements in the couple are noted by means of the tsuba zeriai followed by a knee attack with a hiza-guruma. There is no trace of all this in the suburi and it is evident that they are legacies from previous fencing schools.

If, to all this, we add that most of the movements and techniques with bare hands derive from a dynamic approach typical of the practice of the sword, we understand how the topic is stratified.

It is not a matter of who is right or who’s wrong. To understand if those who dedicate themselves to Aikido do well or not to take the parallel path of other schools with the aim of understanding something more.

The feeling is that the stylistic references of our discipline (Morihei Ueshiba, Morihiro Saito) have already done this kind of research. Certainly for themselves; most likely for us too. The point is that one of the traits of the human being is curious restlessness. The discoveries of those who precede us can be a trigger or they can be the cage of the worst traditionalism. It depends on our ability to go beyond things and appearances. For some, this ability coincides with a rediscovery of what is entrusted to us. For others, another type of path is needed. For everyone, the end point of this journey is the same.

Disclaimer Picture by Sachith Ravishka Kodikara from Pexels

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Below is the playlist with the 5 kumitachi and, as a “bonus track”, the Ki musubi no tachi.

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