The “soft” martial art?

Hang around the edge of the mat, and sooner or later you'll hear a newcomer say: "I'm coming to Aikido because I want a soft martial art." Or even, "I understand this is a soft style of Aikido."

What does this mean? Is Aikido really a "soft" martial art? Is Kokikai a "soft" version of this already "soft" martial art? And wouldn't that mean Aikido is not very effective for self-defense?

Think about what is behind this newcomer's words. Someone attacks, and we respond in a soft and gentle manner. It suggests that no matter what the attacker does, he will never get hurt. How ideal for muggers, then, that Aikido was invented!

The truth of the matter is, Aikido should only always be soft for one person: Nage (the defender). And the reason is, soft (or gentle, or relaxed) simply works best.

The founder of Aikido did not make a philosophical decision to create a soft martial art just so it would be loving and harmonious. Ueshiba started out learning from a true martial arts terror: Sokaku. And Ueshiba, like Maruyama Sensei, wanted his techniques to always be incredibly effective. Through Ueshiba's years of study, he found that a softer, more relaxed way simply worked better. His ideas about Aikido being the budo of love came out of this realization, not the other way around.

Several years ago, as I walked from the dining hall back to practice at Summer Camp, I had my first opportunity to talk with Maruyama Sensei. I thought carefully about what I might ask him to yield the most valuable information. So I said to him, "Sensei, how can you be so soft?" I expected an answer like, "Years of practice," or "Lots of concentration." But what Sensei said really surprised me and began to open my eyes to the truth about his Aikido. He said, "It's the only way I can throw."

That's the reason Kokikai Aikido is soft: Soft makes it possible to throw. It's like trying to move a stalled car. If you kick and punch the car, it hurts a lot and doesn't accomplish your objective. But if you move up close to it, make soft contact, and gradually start the car moving, you can then accelerate it and push it right off a cliff.

So what about this matter of Kokikai Aikido being a soft style of Aikido? People who have gone to other dojos, or who have simply looked at most of the Aikido books on the shelves, can understand where this commentary is coming from. In other styles, the arms are held stiffly, with fingers rigidly extended. Sometimes, the arms are used to block. In other styles, atemi (hitting the attacker) is used to disorient the attacker before the technique is executed.

This is indeed harder - for nage. It's hard to throw a big person when you yourself are stiff. Plus, nage (defender) is more likely to feel pain from blocking uke's attack. If uke is larger, then nage will get the worst of it. Furthermore, uke is more likely to feel the urge and the opportunity to counterattack, because when uke's attack meets nage's block, uke feels pain and regains balance.

Kokikai Aikido is indeed soft. Sometimes when Maruyama Sensei throws you, you get the sensation of feeling virtually nothing - until you encounter the mat. In this manner, Sensei gives you nothing to resist, nothing to fight against. It almost seems like a cooperative venture, both of you working together to lead your body all the way to the mat. And it is here that we have the choice of making our Aikido hard or soft. For nobody's fists are as hard or immoveable as the earth beneath us.

Sensei's Aikido is also soft in other ways that make it very powerful. He often demonstrates a version of Kata Tori Kokyunage in which uke pushes hard on his shoulder. The feeling you get when pushing on Sensei is like pushing against a huge immoveable boulder that is covered with foam padding. There is a core that is immoveable, but the exterior has a disconcerting softness. This softness gives uke the feeling of almost winning (as the "foam padding" becomes compressed) until the underlying boulder starts its inexorable movement forward (to flatten you!).

In Kokikai Aikido, we always have a choice. You can throw gently, or you can throw with great power. Since we always take uke's balance before throwing, even the largest uke is made to feel light. That is what gives us a choice. Of course, it is always best to use the minimum force necessary to defend against an attack. But if we only had the option of throwing softly, Aikido Kokikai would not be a real martial art.