The origin and meaning of martial arts demonstrations in Japan
The warm days have returned and with them, comes a time of demonstrations and martial arts events of all kinds. Indeed, we will soon be preparing for the great annual demonstration of the aikitaisai (合気大祭), and a few weeks later, the All Japan Aikido held at the Nippon Budokan. Soon after will follow the summer courses (合宿, gasshuku), which in Japan, often contain their fair share of demonstrations. What better time then to reflect upon the origin and significance of martial arts demonstrations?
For practitioners in Japan, the biggest aikido event is by far the All Japan Aikido Demonstration, which annually attracts some 8,000 practitioners and over 14,000 spectators. In Japan, a demonstration is as much a formal event as it is a social experience. For this reason, whenever time allows, I join the team of volunteers who take part in the organization the event. I also consider this as a way to show my appreciation to Doshu and to the instructors of the Aikikai. Obvisouly, not everything of what is being demonstrated during the day necessarily corresponds to my personal choices of practice, but the most important is the sincerity of the practitioners of all levels who participate. It is not unlike one of those big family celebrations where everyone bring something they have prepared.
A quiet moment before the opening of the Nippon Budokan doors to the public
Indeed, contrary to a common misconception in the West, the demonstration in Japan is not the reserved turf of a few handpicked virtuosos. On the contrary, the only prerequisite to participate in a demonstration in Japan is not, as one might think, to have a certain level of technical proficiency, but instead, to be an enthusiastic member of the dojo, for however how long or short a time. As practitioners we tend to tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough to do a demonstration, but in truth, the demonstration is precisely supposed to give a glimpse of the practice of the dojo across levels. It is honesty and the joy of practicing that counts more than technical proficiency.
The members of the Hombu Dojo preparing the big demonstration at the Budokan
In order to understand the differences of perception about the significance of the demonstration in the West and in Japan, I think we have to go back in time, at the origin of the exercise. In Japan, we talk about martial arts demonstrations in terms of enbutaikai (演武, enbu: demonstration, 大会, taikai: convention). Over here, martial arts have always been more or less associated with the sacred, and the first forms of demonstrations were often held privately in order to honor one or more deities, as well as sometimes, prominent figures of human authority. The original term is honoenbu (奉納演武), which means that the demonstration is made as a votive offer. An example of this ceremonial aspect is, for example, the aikitaisai, which is held every year in Iwama to celebrate the memory of the founder Morihei Ueshiba and his son, the Second Doshu, Ueshiba Kisshomaru.
Ueshiba Moriteru Doshu demonstrating at the Aiki-jinja
This demonstration is held in the small sanctuary of Aiki (aikijinja, 合気神社), which was built by O Sensei. It is however only a relatively small part of the day’s program and it is preceded by a long ceremony presided over by Shinto priests. The purpose of such a demonstration, in such a setting, is not to publicize the art to the masses, nor to promote the Doshu or his pupils, let alone to show who is the strongest, but on the contrary, it’s about showing respect to our forefathers, and to serve our art with humility. Keeping this in mind helps us understand better the very formal, ritualized format of demonstrations, the one held in Iwama in particular. It is obvious that one does not go every year to Iwama just to contemplate the demonstration of the Doshu, which by its ceremonial nature, tends to be always the same, but to humbly go to pay homage to Ueshiba Morihei Kaiso (the founder, 開祖) and Ueshiba Kisshomaru Nidai Doshu, and enjoy a moment ith fellow practicioners.
Members of the Hombu Dojo celebrating the aikitaisai alongside the Ueshiba family
It is relatively late in Japanese history that martial arts demonstrations began to be open to individuals from outside the school (流派, ryuha). In aikido, this began during O Sensei‘s lifetime, with demonstrations held in front of prominent members of Japan’s pre-war military and political society, mainly for the purpose of obtaining the help of patrons for the dojo. Subsequently, a number of much more publicized demonstrations were held, like the 1935 demonstration held at Osaka‘s Asahi newspaper, which many of us have seen on video. It is very interesting to note that depending on the context, what the founder showed could be very different, the technical content changing according to the occasion and the audience.
Ueshiba Morihei demonstrating at the Asahi newspaper in 1935
A notable incident can help us shed more light on the plural nature of aikido demonstrations. According to Shioda Gozo, when Ueshiba Morihei was invited in 1941 to give a demonstration in front of the imperial family at the Sainenkan, the dojo of the imperial palace, he refused, explaining that in aikido, one killed the opponent in one single blow, and that to project the adversary so he could get back on his feet would be equivalent to presenting a lie, which Ueshiba refused to do before the emperor. The emperor replied that he wanted to see this lie and Ueshiba performed his demonstration without killing anyone. One can conclude that by nature, the demonstration is a form of lie, a staging, and that it can in no way represent the reality of the techniques, unless we accept to demonstrate not as a gift to the audience, but as a kind of ritual sacrifice.
I can’t show false techniques to the Emperor. Basically in aikido, the opponent is killed with a single blow. It’s false if the attacker is thrown, leisurely stands up, and attacks again. [On the other hand], I can’t go around killing my students.
Ueshiba Morihei quoted by Shioda Gozo – Aiki News # 93, autumn 1992
According to some other teachers, it would even appear that certain elements of the technical curriculum of a school are intended solely for the demonstration and promotion of art among neophytes. Hisa Takuma, who was the only person to have received a certificate of complete transmission of Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu by Takeda Sokaku, and who was the holder of the 8th dan in aikido, is one of those:
The techniques against several attackers are not high level techniques, they are not martial techniques, they are just staged for the demonstrations. It amazes people who do not know what the true martial arts are and makes them think that the Daito-ryu is splendid. These techniques are a form of propaganda.
Hisa Takuma quoted by Amatsu Yutaka – Aiki News # 129, summer 2001
It is interesting to note that Hisa also learned directly from Ueshiba Morihei for three years (from 1933 to 1936), including some techniques against several attackers. It would therefore have been interesting to ask O Sensei directly what he thought of the techniques against several attackers…
Deception goes even further since traditionally, masters showed only the basic shoden (初伝, first transmission) techniques and forms, and certainly not those of the higher chuden, (中伝) and okuden (奥伝) levels. Even then, they would often voluntarily modify their techniques so as not to divulge the deeper secrets of their art, and sometimes, to even mislead those who would try to copy them. Those who wanted to see the true art had better keep abreast of street duels rather than demonstrations, because only a situation of life and death allowed to get a glimpse the essence and the reality of the techniques.
Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu master Chiba Tsugutaka demonstrating techniques to his students… while hiding some crucial details…
It must also be understood that an effective martial technique is not necessarily pleasant to see or even understandable by the uninitiated public, and some masters deliberately slow down or exaggerate their work so that the audience can make sense of what is happening. Indeed, in some contexts, an important aspect of demonstrations is also its educational purpose, especially for a budo whose main purpose is not war nor self-defense. This idea is not new because even before the war, this educational component was also present in demonstrations.
At that time, aikibudo was not very well known. For this reason, I think the demonstrations included a lot of what might be called educational materials. That is to say things that appeal to various elements, or to show that it was not just a martial art, but a means of self-development through the martial arts, or a path for construction character.
Yonekawa Shigemi – Aiki News # 36, January 1980
Yonekawa Shigemi was a pre-war student of O Sensei, in a period when the founder taught Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, and he often served him as uke, including during the 1935 demonstration mentioned above. Yonekawa was also one of O Sensei’s assistants who taught Hisa Takuma, Nakatsu Heizaburo, and their colleagues at the Asahi Journal in Osaka between 1933 and 1936.
More recently, I particularly liked the work that Christian Tissier presented at the 2010 Combat Games, showing his usual dynamic style, but also adding a less common didactic element, which in my opinion was very relevant given the multidisciplinary context of the event. However, when I discussed it with him, he told me that he received some criticism about this unusual format.
What I want to do is something a bit more like what I did at the World Games, […] I did something different, and I want to do that, go slowly. I still got criticized about it […] I wanted to show what it was to pause, and people said, “He made pauses!”
Christian Tissier – Interview with Christian Tissier
These people somewhat missed the intention behind Tissier’s demonstration. This anecdote is for me a further proof of the expectations that many people have about what they are, or what they can be.
Demonstration of Christian Tissier at the Beijing Combat Games in 2010
The public before whom the demonstration takes place has a considerable influence on what is shown there. Kata enbu kyogi (公開演武競技, competitive demonstrations of kata) are presented to an audience of specialists, or at least to members of the school, and the forms are thus demonstrated in a less misleading way (even if the kata itself does contain a great deal of codification and pretense, in order to deceive the school members themselves according to their rank or level, but that is another subject). One can also question the relevance of judging a practitioner on his ability to demonstrate only the external form, an example of the perversions found in the very demonstrative kata performed in current competitions.
Shotokan Karate Demonstration
To return to O Sensei, he was until late in his life, the only one allowed to demonstrate. In case of absence, his representatives were told to offer initiations or courses, but under no circumstance were they supposed to do demonstrations. It is only after the war, when Ueshiba Kisshomaru recognized the need to spread and open-up the practice of aikido so that it could survive, that he managed to convince his father to update the format of the demonstrations and to allow other instructors to participate, and more importantly, to do this in front of the general public.
Very well. Perhaps it is necessary to reach out to all levels of society. If it helps to clear the muddy stream, this old man will do his best to demonstrate the essence of aikido.
Ueshiba Morihei quoted by Ueshiba Kisshomaru – Aikido Ichiro
This was a true revolution that led to the format of demonstrations that can be seen today at the Budokan and elsewhere. The first public aikido demonstration took place in October 1955 on the roof of the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo‘s Nihonbashi district. The instructors of the Aikikai succeed to one another for five days and the final demonstration was given by Ueshiba Morihei.
Ueshiba Moriheï demonstrating on the roof of Takashimaya in 1955
From that point on, in aikido and elsewhere, the public got to know a multitude of demonstrators, but the hierarchy in Japan being such a fundamental part of the culture, the cult of personality that developed around some of the most popular masters is perhaps less visible than it is in the West (even if there are nevertheless a few quasi-superstar budo masters who regularly appear in the magazines and on the television sets of the archipelago). It should be noted that in traditional martial arts, it is the junior who performs the technique on the master, and it is the latter who is being defeated. In aikido (and in many other ju-jutsu), the roles have been reversed and it is the most experienced who throws, and especially immobilizes the students on the ground. Should we see in this a factor in the development of the cult of personality that seem so specific to aikido?
For the majority of japanese practitioners, the senior teachers are on top of the hierarchical pyramid, and it would never cross the mind an intermediate practitioner to put himself forward. I explained elsewhere that in Japan, a practitioner is supposed to serve his art, and not to make the art serve him. Doshu is a remarkable example of this. Having taken ukemi for him, I know that his aikido is effective, powerful and technically rich, but in demonstrations, he focuses on demonstrating aikido kihon (基本, basics) in a neutral way, rather than giving free rein to his own interpretations, which is exactly his role as Doshu (道主, Guardian of the Way). For me, as aikidoka, we should always keep in mind the following words of the Ueshiba Kisshomaru:
[…] you must be natural, and avoid a showy performance, which has the express purpose of impressing the audience. An Aikido demonstration is a seriously strict form of self expression.
Ueshiba Kisshomaru – “The Strictness of Demonstration” – Aikikai Newspaper (Vol 12 No. 1, Winter 1975)
Someone like Miyamoto Tsuruzo Sensei has a pretty interesting attitude when it comes to demonstrations. At the end of a seminar, it is customary for the shihan to give a demonstration to thank his hosts. When I used to accompany him to courses in Japan, I knew that this moment would come, but each time, a knot formed in my stomach because Miyamoto Sensei never rehearsed these demonstrations and as a uke, I never knew what he was going to do. I was initially frustrated by this lack of preparation, until I realized that in addition to being a gift for the audience, Miyamoto Sensei envisioned his demonstrations as a special moment of communication and improvisation with his students. Fujimaki Hiroshi Sensei, another Hombu Dojo teacher, does not necessarily choose the best uke for his demonstrations, but he strives to take people of different genders, sizes, and levels. I find these two approaches remarkable because via these, these teachers aim to present aikido as a whole, and not just “their aikido“.
Ueshiba Moriteru Doshu demonstrating at the Budokan
Just as the original honoenbu is an offering to the gods, the modern enbutaikai should be an offering to the audience, and not an exercise in ego-boosting or hidden competition. Everyone, even beginner, has something to contribute. Moreover, the exaggeration and the dramatization are just insults to the public, and according to my friend Ellis Amdur (a Shihan in Toda-ha Buko-ryu and in Araki-ryu), the goal of an enbu is precisely not to show anything different from usual, and to provide a serene example of routine school practice.
It should be our goal to do nothing special in a demonstration — and not to do anything ordinary in regular practice.
More fundamentally, the fact that today, we are able to watch those great demonstrations of martial arts is a sign of their obsolescence as warlike techniques. They have become arts of life, or even hobbies, and the current war techniques (explosives, ballistics, drones, etc.) is kept secret, just as budo were in their time. We therefore address a different audience and everyone has its place.
All Japan Aikido Demonstration
During demonstrations, we give to the gods, to the public, and to our art. To go back to the All Japan Aikido Demonstration, at the end of this long day, a few dozen practitioners from the Hombu Dojo head down to the arena to represent their dojo during the general demonstration. I am often asked why I bother participating in it, since I will be drowned in the mass, but that is precisely the reason why I go down, to share with my Hombu colleagues a special moment of practice and gratitude.
As viewers, do not be fooled by fashionable names, stagings, and glossy photos, and strive to see beyond the mirror to get a glimpse of the essence of everyone’s practice. As practitioners, do not hesitate to get on the tatami with your friends, whatever your level, and offer a sincere and humble practice of the art to which you dedicate so many of your precious hours throughout the year. It will be the most beautiful and the most true form of demonstration.