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A peaceful martial art

india Updated: May 30, 2007 17:03 IST
Alastair Himmer
Alastair Himmer
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Any form of combat in which the danger exists of having your wrist snapped like a pencil clearly merits due care and attention.

Yet, as fierce as the Japanese martial art of aikido can sometimes appear, its defining mission still mirrors that of bikini-clad beauty queens: world peace.

"It's a peaceful martial art," Hideo Yonemochi, executive director for the Aikido World Headquarters, told Reuters in his office in a sleepy backstreet of Tokyo.

"You don't attack. You don't knock your opponent down. It's traditional Japanese culture. It's the coming together of mind and body."

Aikido, which means 'the way of harmonious spirit', was developed from elements of jujutsu and the samurai sword art of kenjutsu in the late 1920s and counts Hollywood action movie star Steven Seagal among its devoted followers.

The aim of aikido is to immobilise rather than hurt or kill while at the same time finding harmony in conflict.

"It's unique," said the 77-year-old Yonemochi, anxious despite his age to show potentially arm-breaking techniques to visitors.

"It's a martial art but the objective is to be in harmony with your opponent - not to strike him down. But if you had a knife and gave me no option..."

At the 45th annual All Japan Aikido Demonstration at the weekend both its harmonious elements and Yonemochi's point were quickly proven by 7,500 participants of all ages.

"It's frightening," grinned 26-year-old John Presley, who came to Japan from North Carolina in 2003 to study aikido. "I've seen people make mistakes.

"I also do 'iaido' which is a style of swordsmanship where you draw, cut (your opponent) and re-sheath your sword. I've seen people not draw properly and shish-kebab their own hand."

Even without weapons, the open-hand form of aikido exudes a menace more subtle yet tangible than combat sports judo or karate in its Matrix-like movements.

"I saw Steven Seagal movies when I was a teenager... and that attracted me to aikido," said Presley, moments before being tossed around like a rag-doll during Saturday's exhibition.

"It doesn't feel pleasant to be pinned but as soon as they let you go you're totally fine again. Aikido is about using your opponent's aggression against them."

Presley added: "There is a beauty to aikido. There is a lot of flow to it. It's not choppy. The flow is what makes it work."

Seagal may have popularised aikido in the West with movies such as Above the Law, Hard To Kill and Under Siege in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The American actor also participated in several of the Tokyo demonstrations. But aikido officials still take a dim view of his movies.

"Steven Seagal is like a PR man," laughed 70-year-old aikido instructor Masatake Fujita. "His films are a little bit different from real aikido. His early ones were okay though."

Fujita also repeated the mantra that aikido could become a panacea for the world's ills.

"You don't kill or stab your opponent," he said. "It's a non-combat martial art. There are people fighting stupid wars all over the world.

"Even though it's the 21st century human beings haven't progressed. Aikido is trying to create people who can build a peaceful world. Ideally the final goal is world peace."

Asked about her views on contributing to world peace, however, university student Yuki Yasuda looked slightly puzzled.

"Eh? I'm a beginner," giggled the 18-year-old. "It's nice that it's not too violent and not just about fighting.

"But I only started because I thought it looked really, really cool!"

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