This book, by Brian M. Bagot, is definitely on my recommended reading list as a training manual and revision material for kyu gradings. I also recommend it to anyone seriously thinking about joining a dojo, wanting to know what Aikido is. Haydn Foster (you know, the guy who trained with Henry Ellis under Kenshiro Abe) gave his glowing endorsement of the book in the foreword.
One thing that came as a surprise was how closely the content followed my training syllabus: The set of foundational techniques in the book, their forms of application, and even the minor details in the illustrations, are identical. Just as we do, Bagot divided these into two categories: four immobilisation techiques, and the other five projection techniques. Also, though the book is about the traditional style of Aikido, it wasn’t dismissive of Ki and the mind-body unification thing that was introduced to us by Koichi Tohei. Bagot also briefly and impartially described the technical differences between his and other styles of the art without the usual politics.
The opening chapters assume the reader has no prior experience with the martial arts, and it introduces the reader to dojo etiquette and customs. Early in the book, the fundamentals are covered, such as relaxation, co-ordination, breakfalls, ‘blending’ (a training partner grabs your wrist and you feel for their centre). These are the essentials that junior grades will practice thousands of times before it becomes second nature.
About 30 pages are dedicated to the bokken, following the style taught by the Iwama school. Bagot argues that sword practice is important for properly understanding the projection techniques. At my dojo we take the opposing view: One must be able to move naturally with relaxation and co-ordination, always, before we could start working on extending that control to a weapon – why waste valuable mat time waving a stick around? Our sword handling, movements and katas are used to refine techniques and to amplify deficiencies in co-ordination. Also, the overhead shomen uchi position, which seems to be common in Aiki-ken, has always puzzled me. Why would a swordsman leave his throat and the front of his body exposed to an opponent? Was that really taught by the Kashima Shinto-ryu?
Moving on… Another forty pages deal with the jo (basically a wooden staff), which, as Bagot pointed out, is notoriously difficult to master. Where we have one long kata, Bagot’s style has numerous shorter ones. Each movement should either be a strike or a defence that maintains the distance between the attacker and defender. In the defence techniques, it’s important to keep the opponent moving and get into the position to project from the end of the jo.
Following that, there are two chapters on various forms of kokyu-nage and advanced techniques. As Bagot wrote: ‘The practice of kokyu nage is the closest that we come to touching the true spirit of Aikido. For the kokyu nage to be performed well, it is essential to achieve unification of mind and body, to blend with your partner and to breathe correctly and without haste‘.
If I recall correctly, ‘kokyu nage’ translates to English as ‘breath throw’, and the author argued that breath control is critical to pulling it off. Real Aikido is dynamic, with the practitioner striking the attacker to get the effect s/he wants before the wrist is grabbed, and the grab might be substituted for a punch. One of the reasons Aikido is often slagged off as a martial art is that techniques taught to junior students are confused with the defensive applications one develops from them. As a white belt, I wasn’t taught how 1st form ikkyo could be adapted to work against anything but a wrist grab. For someone who only trains a couple of hours per week, it’s a slow learning curve.
Also, history appears to suggest that Aikido was originally taught to to students who already had a foundation in other martal arts (especially Judo) , and were able to quickly assimilate Aiki.
I’ve probably digressed, but the above is relevant to the chapter on ‘kokyu nage’, because for us, ‘kokyu nage’ doesn’t refer to any technique, or any set of techniques. Rather, it’s a general term for a throw that’s performed after blending with an opponent’s movements. I even use that term (maybe incorrectly) for anything simple that ends with a throw, and often it’s something I’ve improvised. That’s what we should be doing, in applying the throws and joint locks instinctively, even combining them, with minimal movement or thought. For anyone using Aiki, wrist grabs can be substituted for straight and right-hook punches, and the techniques would still work.
In the closing chapter, Aikido – The Modern Face, Bagot provides a brief description of three main styles that were established outdside the Aikikai – Ki Aikido, Yoshinkan and Tomiki Aikido. The bulk of this chapter is dedicated to the latter, probably because it differs the most from the traditional style, being adapted to competition and sport. Apparently in Tomiki Aikido there is more emphasis on randori – free-form practice – which develops the ability to react to attacks more quickly.
Appendix I is a section dealing with basic Japanese language, with a katakana character table and a ist of common phrases. Apparently, a basic understanding of Japanese is a requirement at certain dojos, and it’s a practice among some practitioners to wear a belt with their name embroidered on it – I’ve never encountered this myself.
Appendix II contains the grading syllabi for the kyu ranks. Again, the format and terminology are identical to what I’ve practiced, though only senior grades practice with weapons at our dojo.