If you should someday find yourself facing alone the simultaneous attack of five strong men and happen to have left your flamethrower at home, one of the things you might find useful is an expert's knowledge of aikido. A relatively new form of Japanese martial art, aikido is not a competitive sport like judo and karate, but it is a spectacularly effective method of self-defense. It looks ceremonious and downright unoffending, but a demonstration makes it plain that aikido has a utilitarian value: an expert aikidoist really can fend off the combined, unrehearsed onslaught of five antagonists. All that is required—besides prolonged training—is complete peace of mind during the attack, and a knowledge of how to turn his aggression against the aggressor.
Aikido looks simpler than it is, and no one can make it look less complex than Koichi Tohei, the highest-ranking—10th degree—aikido black belt in the world. Mr. Tohei glided quietly into New York recently to preside over an aikido seminar that lasted a week and drew more than 600 spectators to his final demonstration, leaving some of them perplexed but all of them fascinated. What perplexes is the total ease of the performing aikidoist; what fascinates is the obvious power.
There is little body contact in aikido. The man defending himself deals mostly with his assailant's arm or wrist, stepping out of the line of attack with upraised arms to block the intended blow, then using the attacker's own momentum to throw him, or as the aikidoist puts it, to "lead" him down. Leading may include an immobilizing pressure on the elbow or wrist but always, in the end, it is the force of the hips, not the strength of the arms or hands, that brings an opponent down. With its circular moves and long gliding steps—as opposed to the linear, head-on contact of judo or the short, abrupt thrusts of karate—aikido resembles nothing so much as a dance, a devastating dance, to be sure.
Relaxation is the key to aikido. Yoshimitsu Yamada, sixth-degree black belt and chief instructor at the New York Aikikai, said of Tohei, "He is like the center of a hurricane, perfectly still and relaxed, with everyone whirling about him trying to make contact."
Every three years or so, since the introduction of aikido into the United States via Hawaii, Mr. Tohei leaves his job as chief instructor at Hombu World Aikido Headquarters in Japan to visit his flourishing little foreign empire. His recent stopover in New York had followed a three-month teaching stint in Los Angeles. Then came Boston and Chicago, and back to Japan in time to pack for Korea, where a version of his art is being taught as hopaikido. "I go there by invitation," he said, "to get the hop out of aikido."
Aikido lends itself to demonstrations, rather than contests, for the winner, by the very nature of aikido techniques, is preordained.
"To win a contest," explains Tohei, "one must develop a fighting mind. In aikido, nage [the victim of an attack] must be completely relaxed in mind and body. He cannot be relaxed if he is angry, fearful or worried about winning. His strength must be centered at his one point, his center of gravity, called by Americans the solar plexus. It is here," and Mr. Tohei put his finger on a point just below his navel. "When uke [the assailant] attacks, nage is alert, able to move quickly in any direction. His mind, in complete unity with his body, goes forward, even if uke attacks from behind. It is then"—he pauses to search his English lexicon—"only then," he continues with an impish smile, "can he peacefully knock uke's block off."
There is no pulling, pushing, punching, kicking, lifting or grappling in aikido, which is designed neither to maim nor kill but to subdue. Aikido has been described as a combination of philosophy, psychology and dynamics.
The Oriental concept that physical prowess and spiritual growth should go hand in hand is one the Western mind has trouble grasping, yet mind over matter, the precept on which aikido is built, is clearly demonstrable. Almost everyone has experienced, or at least knows someone who has experienced, a moment of crisis when the body seemed to be flooded with sudden power. A man in danger of his life finds that he can run faster than he ever ran before; a fragile woman may lift an object she was not able to budge before a crisis arose. The aikidoist calls this ki, a source of energy that, with practice, can be called forth at will.
The aikido student is constantly confronted with "Extend your ki" or "Don't pull your ki inward." An opponent's arm is always extended (which keeps him off balance and makes retaliation impossible), his wrist or elbow is always manipulated or bent in the way that nature designed them to swing otherwise, they would surely be broken in the encounter.