Making Sense of Aikido

Recently, the yudansha (black belts) of our dojo were asked to take an exam in classical aikido. Next to the two-day exam, we were asked to write an essay on aikido. This was my paper.

Crossing Swords during suburi with Sensei Gaétan Francken

Aikido as a martial art

I must have been 14 or so. School was a drag. It didn’t have answers to the questions I was struggling with: biology didn’t explain how I could make that girl at the basketball court love me. Vectors in math didn’t tell me how I could ride my friend’s motorbike without getting caught by the police, or worse: by my mother. And surely, no Roman poet could teach me how I could earn respect from the guys in the neighbourhood, or at least avoid getting beat up or mugged by them?

We learnt more from a 3 minute record baby, than we ever learnt in school 
— Bruce Springsteen

For reasons only known to insecure fourteen year olds, karate seemed the obvious solution to all my problems. I would go to a dojo, learn the tricks and kicks, and I would become invincible: simple! And those roundhouse kicks would win the girls for me of course. How it would help me with the motorbikes I don’t remember exactly.

The otherwise perfect plan had only one flaw: my parents wouldn’t let me. They were worried about my temper and thought it wasn’t a good idea to enrich that temper with real fighting skill.

For my younger brother they saw things different though. They felt he lacked self-confidence. So when a friend of his, who practiced Aikido, asked him to come along, they actually encouraged him. And it really did help: one year later, my brother was already a different boy. More relaxed, more joyful. More self-confident.

When my parents saw a demo of the aikido club, they were delighted to see that the whole thing looked civilised, sophisticated even. This wasn’t the barbarity they associated with martial arts they vaguely knew from movies. The teacher, Frans Jacobs, was really a very friendly man, as were most of his pupils.

Sensei Frans Jacobs in his dojo in Mechelen

So now that my parents had witnessed the level of civilisation of my brother’s aikido dojo and the effect it had on him, I had their blessing to do martial arts too.

But I wasn’t going to do aikido. I was going to learn how to fight for real. I was going to do karate. Those black skirts were not going to impress girls. And yes, they moved gracefully, but so do ballet dancers. In a real fight, those aikido dudes would be dead meat.

Since a karate school wasn’t available in the immediate neighbourhood, I settled for jiu-jitsu. I had seen them practice, and it looked a lot rougher than the aikido class from my brother. They still grappled a lot, but there were kicks and punches too, and you could see the pain on their grim faces when they were thrown or when their opponent got their arm in a solid grip. This was the real deal.

I enlisted in the jiu-jitsu club.

I learnt how to fall. How to grapple. How to throw, kick, punch, take grips, tie my belt.

I learnt how to give pain and how to take pain. I learnt all this between tough men: half of the club members were either policemen, or they were in the military or simply stood doors at the local night-clubs. We learnt how to disarm with uke holding real weapons. The head of our dojo was a retired detective who boasted that everything he taught had been tried and tested on the street.

I was an eager student in the science of hurting people. And I wanted to test my skill every chance I got. Every month, a Thai-boxing friend and I rented a boxing ring and sparred. I felt my kicks were no match for his low-kicks so I took up some karate too — I had now found a dojo nearby.

Two years later I thought I knew everything worth knowing about martial arts: I had an orange belt in jiu-jitsu, ten karate lessons or so, and I got beaten up on a monthly basis in a boxing ring.

No pain, no gain

Never mind that sometimes on Mondays I could hardly write because my wrists were still too stiff or painful from the Sunday trainings. And okay, you hadn’t been able to take a breath for more than a minute because your Thai boxing buddy had kicked your solaris plexus with everything he got — he just thought you a valuable lesson, right? No pain, no gain.

However, deep down, I felt more and more a stranger amidst my fellow jiu-jitsu students. Sure, I looked up to the toughest of them on the mat. Our sensei was a genius when it came to grips and pressure points. And it was impressive how carelessly he could throw people.

But things started to bother me about him. The way he greeted class — barely. The way he bullied the barkeep after training, in an attempt to impress the waitress. Once, I heard him insult a female aikido student — on Sundays they trained before us, on Saturdays their class started after ours — because she took too much time trying to fold her hakama. “If you don’t hurry your sorry ass off the mat, I’ll kick it off,” he said. She looked up with a face filled with disgust, took up her hakama unfolded and left, her chin held high.

Gradually, I became a less eager jiu-jitsu student.

O Sensei sends one of his students flying

Somewhere around that same time, I stumbled on a little book about aikido from my brother, written by two Belgian aikidoka. One of them was as a fiction writer, so it was fairly well-written. I started to browse through it. And I read about the life of O Sensei. About the concept of ‘ki’. I studied the pictures of the techniques — they actually looked similar to what I knew from jiu-jitsu. All together, I was impressed by what I had read about ki and the achievements of that little old beardy man. I was even intrigued by what I understood about the philosophy behind aikido, but I remained sceptical.

My understanding back then by reading the book and by watching the aikido club that trained in our dojo, came down to this: you somehow danced away from the zone of conflict, you grabbed your opponent in a circular movement, you then applied this magical ki power, and you more or less kindly asked your opponent to take a gracious fall because you didn’t want to hurt him.

But, if you were really good at it, like O Sensei, nobody could touch you. And you could send them flying really far. And you became invincible! Again, simple!

It would take a decade and a series of events before I took my first aikido lesson to go and try it for myself on the tatami.


Here I was greeting O Sensei.

I didn’t feel the need to be able to fight anymore. I had eventually found my way through high-school and university. I had started in what would turn out a demanding yet very satisfying job. And I had spent enough time trying to unravel the mystery of women to realize that the number of roundhouse kicks you could do wasn’t really the unique selling proposition they were waiting for.

The dojo had become a place where I left my daily worries at the door. The quiet when you entered the dojo, the respect you showed by bowing before entering, the formal rituals: it all made sense. Since I had read a spectacular book about O Sensei, I always felt I had an obligation towards him and his legacy to give it my utmost. I vowed this to his portrait each time we greeted him before keiko.

Because a lot of the Aikido techniques have their origin in jiu-jitsu, I seemed to make progress pretty fast in the beginning. Kote-gaeshi, ikkyo, tenchi nage: I knew these grips and throws. I knew how to take the falls. And if the attacks involved tsuki or geri, our sensei would often pick me as his uke to demonstrate the techniques.

I also felt I had a lot of work in front of me. Often, I felt like Brute in the lake of swans: nearly everybody moved more graciously then I did. Also, I noticed that, though I could throw everybody in the club, I often applied brute force or sharp grips. I also began to notice that some people were avoiding me on the tatami. That troubled me: I understood enough to know that brute force wasn’t the perfect solution, but weren’t we still practicing a martial art? So if uke tried to resist a throw or a grip, shouldn’t they have known that pain might be a possible outcome? Wasn’t that their responsibility? Really, I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody, but this was no dancing class either, was it?

And when was the teacher going to show us ki? Wasn’t that the secret of it all? Wasn’t that half of aiki?

When I talked about it after training with our teacher or the other students, they usually said something along the lines of: “that’s something you shouldn’t worry about before you’re a master yourself”.

Sugano Sensei : the first master I encountered

In a quest for ki, I started to attend the masters’ seminars. Sugano Sensei was our technical director in these days and he taught most of the seminars. He didn’t talk a lot and made us do tenkan over and over again. It looked powerful, but I didn’t see the answers I was looking for — it would take another decade before I understood the value of his ‘simple’ tenkan movements. In fact, I often still struggle with them today. Yamada Sensei was the second master I trained with. He seemed to be enjoying himself all the time and looked like he improvised and sometimes changed his mind during the movement, but always seemed to get away with it. He laughed a lot. But I saw no answers to the questions I had either.

And then came the little giant

Tamura Sensei. Nobuyoshi Tamura. He must have been sixty when I first met him. I suspect he weighed less than 60 kilos and he can’t have been no bigger than 1 meter 60. Yet he was a giant.

Tamura-Shihan: the little giant who showed me the magic of aikido

He took visible pleasure in picking out the biggest and strongest ukes he could find and sent them flying wherever he thought fit. Meanwhile, he tried to explain what he was doing in very neat French, always smiling. When it was our turn to practice what he had shown, he would mingle with beginners and advanced students alike.

He had demonstrated an escape from ushiro ryo te dori. I knew the principle and I could do it with everyone in our dojo. So when he grabbed my wrists — and I had gotten over the initial surprise that a) I was worthy of his attack and b) he was surprisingly quick — I was confident I would get out easily. I struggled, I jumped, I lowered my centre, I wiggled my hips more than a carnival dancer in Rio on New Year’s Eve, yet I didn’t succeed in freeing my wrists from the grip of that little old man. Later on that seminar, he would break the boken of his uke with a simple strike.

Just after the seminar, outside the dojo, our paths crossed near the seaside. He walked up to me, perfectly dressed with blazer and tie. He cheerily greeted my girlfriend and me and then squat to pet my dog. He sat there for minutes. The warmth and the cheerful kindness of that man made a lasting impression on me. But he did more than that.

Tamura Sensei changed my view on aikido forever: he made me believe the magic.

Yet instead of giving answers, he raised more questions. How did he do it? Sometimes it looked like he defied the very laws of physics. Some of my fellow aikidoka even went as far as believing exactly that. I chose to stick with Newton but I couldn’t figure out how Tamura threw his ukes the way he did or how he had been able to resist my centre sinking below his: where did he get that force?

I went to his seminars whenever he was in the country, I read a book of his, looked up interviews to find the answer. I learnt a lot by doing all that. About the importance of etiquette in the dojo. About the relationship between uke and nage. About cleaning the dojo.

But I didn’t discover the secret of the magic.

The 2 Ronin

Occasionally, we were visited by an aikido teacher who used to have his own dojo. He too had written a book about aikido that I had read: “Aikido is een krijgskunst”, literally translated as “Aikido is a martial art.” His name was Peter Van de Ven. And two things in particular had struck me in that book.

The first thing that made a lasting impression on me was a chapter where he compared the spirit of the martial artist to the spirit of prince Calaf in the opera Turandot, by Puccini. Calaf would always follow his sincere heart, even in the face of death. He would calmly accept the consequences of his choices and trust his strong mind to not only survive, but to win the love of the ice-cold Turandot.

The second thing that struck me in the book was the fact that he stressed the ‘art’ part of martial art. I had become so obsessed with the martial part of the equation that I had been blind to a simple truth: a martial art should also be an art. At first, this bothered me a bit. I somehow felt that aesthetics would somehow weaken the martial effectiveness. Today I believe the difference between a true ‘martial art’ and a combat system like Krav Maga is that the latter helps you survive a fysical conflict. The first helps you live your life. Today I believe aesthetics are vital to anything that is of value in life.

On the tatami, Peter demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of weapon work. He admired Saito’s and Saotome’s kata’s and had us train different suburi and kumitachi. In the unarmed techniques, he was very gentle yet quite difficult to counter.

With Peter Van de Ven came another aikidoka, whom I had sometimes met on seminars. He was often asked as uke by the masters and it seemed like everyone knew him wherever he went. It was easy to see why: he demonstrated an extraordinary mastery of technique and despite his strong built he moved graciously like a cat. Though he never blocked your technique and always moved very supple in the movement, you never felt in control as tori. If you were uke, the energy of his technique was simply overwhelming. His name was Peter Reynders.

The both of them, Peter Reynders and Peter Van de Ven, had known each other since they had started practicing aikido. Both of them had more than 30 years of intensive aikido training under their belt. When I started training with them, neither of them had a home dojo. Somehow they were like these homeless samurai, like ronin.

Peter Reynders (left) and Peter Van de Ven (right) performing Saito’s 31 jo-kata in pair

When Peter Van de Ven decided to start a new aikido school, I decided to follow him. When Peter Reynders decided to join us, I felt the luckiest aiki student alive.

Until today, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to train twice a week with two of the finest aikidoka I had encountered. We trained diligently, and without prejudice towards styles. We had no exams, so we could only judge our progress by feeling what happened on the tatami.

With Peter Reynders, I started attending as much seminars here and abroad as I possibly could. We trained in the Netherlands and in France. We went to seminars of Tissier, Endo, Kato, Fukakusa, Sugano, Yamada, Tamura, Yamashima. We studied the classics of Saito. Two years in a row, we went to the 10 day summercamp of Saotome sensei in the south of France.

Every three months or so, we organised tameshi giri sessions — next to his sandan in aikido Peter Van de Ven held a shodan in both Bojo and Iaido. He had the most extensive aikido library I have ever seen and he lent me books of Tohei, Homma, Saotome. Whatever he threw at me, I read them all.

If you asked me where and when I began to understand something about aikido, it would be there.

The secret of aikido

When I told Peter Van de Ven about my ‘magic’ moment with Tamura, and how I still hadn’t solved that mystery, he smiled and asked me if I would want him to show me how it was done. I was baffled: after all these years, somebody simply would show me? Even teach me? Yes, please.

He invited me to attack him in ushiro ryo te dori, let me fully grab both of his wrists and he got out effortlessly. Then he attacked me and asked me to free myself. Like with Tamura sensei, I simply couldn’t sink my centre below his. He then asked me to try it again, but to really pay attention to what he was doing. To try to listen to, or rather: feel the movement. I think I even closed my eyes in upper concentration.

It was then that I felt the subtlest of movements: he simply shifted his centre horizontally, so softly that I would always instinctively align my centre with his to restore balance, without even realising I was doing this. And that was what prevented me all the time from imposing my will on him: I was so blinded by trying to impose my will on him that I forgot to listen to him.

And that is one of the most important lessons I have ever learnt in aikido: always listen very carefully to what uke is doing. Be aware of what is happening. How can you possibly seek harmony with something or someone if you don’t understand what is happening? How can there be ai if there is no zanshin?

Zanshin kanji

I would also discover that you can only realise true zanshin if your mind and body are completely relax. Any fear, anger, distraction, or ego become obstacles you have to get rid of. Accomplishing that state of alertness is a conditio sine qua non for every aikido technique, no matter how basic. Training that is a lifetime’s work. I find that is one of the hardest parts in aikido. It requires a complete acceptance of what is happening without prejudice, with a fearless and an open mind, like prince Calaf in Turandot. This is in essence the spirit of living under the sword. I once heard the story of a samurai who trained this spirit thus: he hung his sword to the ceiling above his futon with nothing but a fragile silk wire when he went to sleep.

But that is only the beginning. Once you understand what is happening, you should try to respond accordingly. The accordingly cannot be emphasised enough. It is the creation of an accord, or what is called a chord in music. Miss one note, and there is no chord, music becomes mere sound. Tighten up, freeze for a split second, and there is no ai; it is the mere repetition of a movement.

Only then can you start executing a technique. And of course, those techniques require training and repetition, over and over again. The training of these techniques is like the learning of the alphabet: you need it to start writing words. With these words, you will someday be able to make full sentences. And maybe, just maybe, you will be able to tell an interesting story with it. Your story.

When does ikkyo become aikido?

Now suppose you do all that: you are calmly aware, you harmonize your movement with your partners’ attack and you throw uke perfectly. Did you do aikido? And if you did all that, how is that ikkyo different from an ikkyo in jiu-jitsu?

Where is the difference?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering over for quite some time. Because jiu-jitsu has that exact same technique — actually, aikido borrowed the technique from them. And they also try to blend their technique as gently as possible with the attack of their uke. In fact, if I were to show most people an aikido or jiu-jitsu demonstration, a lot of them wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

A careful observer might point out that often the finish of the movement is sometimes different. If you look up some demos of Daito-ryu jitsu, you may for example note that they always try to pin down their ukes whilst freeing both of their hands. But that is only part of the answer. If you look up different styles of aikido, you will see contrasts that are even bigger. Compare Yoshinkan aikido with ki-aikido from Tohei and you might think it’s a different ballgame entirely. Much as bebop is very different from cool jazz. Yet they are both jazz.

Daito-ryu demo: can you spot the difference with aikido?

Partly, the difference between the aikido styles is a direct consequence of the great personalities of their founders. Tohei was a very different man from Shioda. And students tend to repeat what they see before they start developing their own personality — if they ever achieve that level. Another part of the answer is the different goal they had. Tohei looked for a way to give aikido a place in modern society, a way to improve your life. Shioda trained the Tokyo riot police who needed tangible combat tactics.

So what binds them? And again: what sets them apart from jiu-jitsu?

The difference is the same as the difference in their respective names: it’s the difference between jitsu and do. Where ‘jitsu’ can in this sense be translated as technique or method, ‘do’ is the way or the path in a more spiritual sense. It might seem a mere semantic subtlety, yet it is a world of difference. Jiu-jitsu can be loosely described as the collection of techniques samurai had at their disposal to destroy the enemy in unarmed combat. After-war aikido is a path towards self-improvement through the training of martial techniques.

So, the difference between an ikkyo in aikido and an ikkyo in jiu-jitsu is the difference in intention: what do you want to achieve when you are executing the technique? The victory over others or the harmony with yourself in this world?

So how do you train ki?

Finally, it’s time to address ki.

Originally a Chinese concept — they call it chi, like in Tai Chi, it can be translated as the energy of life. Every once in a while, you overhear some heated discussions about the meaning of ki, because after all, it is called ai-ki-do right? Usually one party in the discussion attributes some magical force to it. And you may find the other party denying that there is such a thing at all.

Usually, I then remember my somewhat childish comprehension of it when I first read a book about aikido. That it was somehow a magical touch you added to your movement which gave it that almost surreal power.

My understanding of ki today is this.

I had never truly appreciated the miracle of life until my then wife was pregnant with our son. I was literally mind blown when I saw cells break into more cells becoming a tiny body with a big head and arms that would grow hands that would grow fingers. The energy that is capable of that miracle, the same energy that is capable of turning sunlight into leaf greenery is a power beyond imagination. Before my son was born, I believed the universe was indifferent. Nowadays I am convinced that it is not: there is a force that creates life. The universe possesses a creative force.

If you celebrate it by harmonising the energy that flows through another human being’s body with yours, you will feel the most powerful force out there: you will feel alive.

That is what aikido means to me.

A word of thanks

First and foremost, I would like to thank my teacher Gaétan Francken. After I moved from Mechelen to Ghent, I was afraid I would never find another teacher or club that wouldn’t try to reformat my aikido, but allow me to freely express myself through aikido.

I had tried different clubs in the neighbourhood and felt immediately at home in his dojo in the Lucas Munichstraat. Gaétan is one of the rare teachers that combines an extensive aikido experience (more than 30 years he studied with various masters) with an open mind and an almost childlike enthusiasm for new encounters. You see this put into practice by the broad variety of teachers we invite. And you can feel a similar enthusiasm when you practice with the senior students. It’s no coincidence that Aiki O Kami has become one of the biggest clubs in the country.

Furthermore, I’d like to thank you, Stevens Sensei. First, for the immense documentation of a very interesting period in the history of aikido. Without it, lots of the founder’s teachings would have been lost. That work is invaluable. Next to that, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity you are giving the club to formalise itself into the greater Aikikai family. I hope this will open doors for many fellow aikidoka.

I would also like to thank my previous aikido teachers for the patience they have had with me. And my fellow aikidoka for allowing me the opportunity to train with them.

It’s always a pleasure.

Next to Saotome Sensei
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Frédéric De Vries’s story.