A Reply to L.E.

written by David Birt, chief instructor of The Davis Aikikai

            For many years I trained at an excellent dojo where we occasionally indulged a gladiatorial pageant called Aiki wrestling. All the men (women rarely participated) paired off in seiza (sitting posture) and grabbed their partner around the waist by gripping the belt. The first person to take the other's balance "won." The rules allowed no clever "tricks" of any sort. You could not use your hands to regain balance, and there was no pinning. You either toppled over and hit the mats or you didn't. The only exception occurred in the standing variant of the wrestling exercise, where you could recover from a hip throw by landing on your feet. In deference to those with injured knees, myself amongst, we rarely wrestled in standing posture, and I only saw one such escape in ten years! But whatever the style or strategy, the simple nature of Aiki wrestling left no doubt as to winners and losers as the wrestle-down proceeded inexorably to a climatic match for the dojo, and hence world championship.
            Our instructors viewed Aiki wrestling as a fun derivative of regular training, a rare diversion that allowed the "boys" to blow off steam while learning the coordination of muscular strength and tanden (centered) movement. I never shared this view. I always hated Aiki wrestling, deriving hollow satisfaction from victory and none from defeat. Also, the whole idea of competition violated my sense of the spirit of Aikido by triggering an intensely competitive streak I came to Aikido to release - not reinforce.
            Although we downplayed its importance, Aiki wrestling served as a sort of unofficial imprimatur of the effectiveness of our Aikido and sometimes added an unduly competitive element to kokyu-ho - the seated ki extension exercise that usually ended class. Thus I was not surprised when L.E. - a fine Aikidoka and good friend, who also had a highly competitive streak - approached me after class and implored me to "really resist" in kokyo-ho. She reiterated her firm insistence on REAL resistance, no token training! This encounter would truly measure the practical effectiveness of her Aikido. The results were predictable: after much travail and gnashing of teeth, I threw her repeatedly while remaining unmoved.
            We both knew that strength decided the issue. But the stark reality of her situation brought out frustration, rage, tears, and a gut question that articulated her anguish: "Do you ever think a woman could be as effective as a man in a fighting situation?"
            Her frustration and rage reflected the reality of strength and intimidation, a problem that disturbed me deeply. For the previous twelve years, I had worked in steel mills, warehouses, and construction sites throughout America and had met more than a few fast, tough, muscular, and occasionally vicious street-wise types who were VERY good fighters. Types I'd have been reluctant to go against even though I was 6'3" and in good condition through aerobic and martial arts training. Thus my own insecurity prompted my twofold answer. Practically, I said, it was unlikely that many women could become good enough at Aikido to overcome a really good street fighter, but spiritually it might be possible. Were she sufficiently proficient at the art (8th dan and above?) to discern every intentionality and thus blend with any movement, the advantages of strength and speed could be overcome.
            My answer of the mid 1970s amazes me. It reflected the insecurity invariably allied with competitiveness and did not reflect a proper integration of my own experience. Here I judge somewhat harshly. My problem of integration reflects an almost universal dilemma within the martial arts. Roughly speaking, martial artists divide into two camps. One camp sees the martial arts almost exclusively in terms of combative effectiveness; the other sees the martial arts as a way of spiritual development. In terms of nomenclature, the suffixes "jutsu" and "do" (meaning "way or path" in Japanese) designate that distinction. Aikijujutsu stresses martial effectiveness and Aikido stresses martial techniques as the "way" of harmony. A similar divide distinguishes Jujutsu from Judo. In my case, these two poles had strong feminine influences as the following personal history illustrates.
            My original connection with the martial arts began because my mother insisted I play Judo as a child living in Japan in 1954. She practiced a high level of competitive Judo during the early 1940s and fully knew the value of martial arts training as the following "war story" reveals. For obvious reasons, a strong anti-Japanese feeling prevailed in the China-Burma-India Theater where she served as an American army nurse during WW2. As this prejudice impeded efforts by the local brass to drum up interest in a self-defense course, some bright young officer decided to illustrate the effectiveness of Judo by staging a public demonstration for the troops in which a man attacked a woman Judoka. Thus my mother volunteered to demonstrate the most difficult aspect of the martial arts, weapons taking, agreeing to disarm a bayonet attack by a large American military policeman (MP) she had never met! My mother arrived at the demonstration and noticed that the MP standing at the other end of the platform held a rifle with a sheathed bayonet. Angered, she refused to participate unless the MP unsheathed his weapon. After urgent discussion, the soldier received the order to comply. The demonstration proceeded successfully despite a mistake in her deflection technique that sent the bayonet through her boot and into the wood flooring. Luckily the blade went between her big toe and the toe next, hitting no flesh! She quickly pulled the rifle out and used it to choke the MP. Had the blade gone through her foot, she probably would have done the same. With more difficulty for sure, but difficulty seldom impeded her from completing any important task.
            It took me years to understand the significance of that day in India. First, I never thought of my mother as a martial artist. She gave up Judo entirely after the war and settled into a rather conventional lifestyle. She was simply mom: an attractive intelligent woman who married my father (a British officer in the Indian Army) during the war and stayed happily married until she died in 1983. Though she radiated a strong presence, she had absolutely none of the verbal and/or physical bluster and bravado often associated with a strong martial artist. She showed more interest in medicine and probably would have used her excellent academic record to become an MD had she not chosen marriage and children. The second aspect of my appreciation came with growth as a martial artist. Disarming an attacker wielding a weapon manifests the pinnacle of martial skill, and I sometimes demonstrate weapons taking at public exhibitions. My uke uses a large knife with a sharp blade and I insist on real attacks. BUT, I don't demonstrate with strangers. I use thoroughly trained senior students with whom I have practiced. Indeed, I know of no contemporary Shihan who as part of a demonstration has solicited a live attack from a weapons qualified stranger! For a whole host of reasons, I would never attempt the type of demonstration my mother pulled off! Her skill and daring amaze me.

            Suffice to say, my mother would have strongly disagreed with my assessment of what women could and couldn't do against an experienced street fighter.

            The counterpoise to my mother's experience came in Boston during the early 1970's. While training at The New England Aikikai, then located at Central Square in Cambridge, I felt a sudden urge to look at the group of people watching practice. As I usually never do anything that takes my concentration off practice, I resisted the impulse but to no avail and found myself looking at a woman I thought I recognized from a lecture series. At the end of class, I introduced myself and, after the usual amenities, discovered that she had indeed attended the same lectures. I also became privy to a fascinating Aikido history. About a year previous, attracted by an intuition she tried to shake but couldn't, this woman began the practice of Aikido. After a couple months training, she hitched a ride from a driver who pulled over and assaulted her. Although a novice, she remembered enough about Aikido principles to avoid fighting. Instead, she blended with the blows and misdirected his energy. Remaining self-possessed, she managed to both deflect his blows and open the car door and escape. Followed by her assailant, she rushed to the nearest house and tried to get in but no one would help. Enraged the man threw her on the ground, and resumed his rape attempt, trying to tear off her clothes. Again she deflected his blows and eventually managed to squirm free and run to another house where she was given shelter. After that incident, her intuition about practice dropped, and her attraction to Aikido became purely aesthetic.
            I don't remember the woman's name, but she remains one of my most significant teachers. Her approach and my mother's reflect the two aforementioned poles of the martial arts. One pole sees the martial arts as a contest of technical skill and emphasizes mastering fighting techniques; the other pole sees the futility of fighting and emphasizes blending and avoidance of conflict. "Can you resist the world of non-resistance?" These words, addressed to a thoroughly frustrated challenger by Rinjiro Shirata - a truly excellent martial artist - epitomize the essence of the martial arts practiced as a Way of Avoidance. In the latter case, aggressive energy meets/doesn't-meet non-judgmental absorptive emptiness, and in the former case, aggressive energy (hopefully) meets combative techniques honed to technical excellence. The technical excellence model parallels sporting competition (and indeed some martial arts consider themselves sports, seeking Olympic status and so forth), but therein lies a problem. In sport, the race goes to the swift: if all factors are nearly equal, the bigger, stronger and swifter almost invariably win. For this reason, almost all combative sports sequester athletes into weight categories. Without such divisions, lighter weight athletes would rarely compete, for the likelihood of a good lightweight beating a good heavyweight or super-heavyweight in any form or combination of grappling or punching art is very slim. Many practitioners of Sumo consider their art the pinnacle of the martial arts, and with good reason. Sumo wrestlers are superbly trained athletes and skilled martial artists who just happen to be MUCH bigger than heavyweights in most other arts. And herein lies the problem: technical excellence will only carry so far in combative situations. Nakazono Sensei expressed the problem thusly: "Do shihonage on an elephant." John L. Sullivan, the great heavyweight champ, took another tack on the same issue. While imbibing at a local watering hole, he constantly had to fend off challenges from a small man madly determined to fight. Finally, in exasperation, he confronted his tormentor: "If you hit me and someone tells me about it, you're in trouble."

            Extending all apologies to my late and much-loved mother, I now see blending and avoidance as the key to resolving conflict and violence, not "winning" through technical wizardry. For although a martial artists should pursue technical excellence, fighting skill alone offers no answer to all the elephants and John L. Sullivans of this world. True martial effectiveness involves a mentality shift that passes through and transcends the fighting instinct by recasting the fighting impulse into a mindset of blending that meets resistance with non-resistance. For this reason, my answer to L.E. is now a resounding YES. Yes, with the proper study of Aikido, not only could a woman be as effective as a man in a fighting situation - she should be.