“Weapons: Yes, They’re Important” by Eric J. Webber
Training with weapons is important in aikido. This is a common statement heard many times from many sources. But what exactly is the implication of this statement? What does it truly mean to the average practicing aikidoka? How does an aikidoka actively integrate weapons into daily practice and what implications does it have on that practice? Simply stated, training with weapons enhances aikido practice by giving another method of practicing aikido’s principles and discovering its applications.
Basic Weapons Training
What exactly does the term “weapons training” imply? For many aikidoka, it implies gaining some amount of familiarity and proficiency with weapons commonly used in aikido, namely the bokken and the jo. Familiarity and proficiency means understanding the basics of how to properly hold the weapon, having basic correct form when wielding the weapon in a swing, thrust, or cut, and being fairly accurate when distancing and targeting with it. For the many practitioners who train several days per week regularly, take their practice seriously, and are committed to pursuing their training for some time to come, this level of proficiency is satisfactory. Some organizations have a particular set of kata for each weapon which members are required to learn for rank promotion. Most aikidoka will learn the kata, memorizing and practicing them, performing them at the appropriately necessary times (such as camps, seminars, and exams).
With many aikidoka practicing with weapons, it begs the question, “what is all this weapons training really doing for us?” In short, it benefits aikido training by enhancing certain aikido principles of movement and engagement. The principles of irimi, ma-ai (martial distance), timing, connection, positioning, and line of attack are all enhanced by examining them in weapons practice. By examination in weapons practice and subsequent application to tai-jitsu (empty hand techniques), these principles will become more clear and honed. Practicing with weapons can also help the aikidoka become more smooth and fluid when moving. Ideally, the weapon becomes an extension of the aikidoka and is incorporated into all aikido movement, making tai-jitsu techniques more fluid and smooth, as well.
Weapons should be practiced at each aikido class to some extent, even as little as simply swinging a bokken a few dozen times before or after the regular class time. Kata should be reviewed at each practice, as repetition will build muscle memory and cognitive familiarity. It is also recommended that weapons are practiced between classes, as well. Exercises can be as basic as making a series of shomen strikes with varied footwork, such as sliding forward and back in hanmi, taking one step or two, or making a tenkan movement. Shomen, yokomen, tsuki, and various defensive postures can all be practiced in solo form with both the bokken and the jo outside of the dojo.
More Weapons Training
The basic outline of why weapons are important in aikido training has been stated, and though there can be some minor argument that weapons are not necessary in aikido practice, it is fairly clear that they definitely enhance it. So what would then be the next step for weapons training? Where can we go from here? How far can it take us?
Students can begin weapons training by learning the basic movements, such as various strikes, blocks, footwork and movement, and then learning the basic kata used in their particular dojo or organization. After becoming familiar and proficient with the kata, students can then begin to use the kata as stepping stones to gain a deeper understanding of weapons training.
Using kata as stepping stones involves going through the movements of the kata and examining not only one’s own movements, but also the movements of one’s partner, possible variations on each movement, and how each of these variations will affect the next step of the kata (whether it will have to be changed, adjusted, or abandoned). By using the kata as a platform, partners can have a common ground from which to start exploring more freedom in movement, openings, and possibilities in variations. Ideas in variations of preset kata include using a murabashi bridge for more linear kata (e.g. Saotome Sensei’s basic kumitachi), using shinai in order to safely strike with more intent to make contact with one’s partner, and changing various strikes, blocks and positions to understand whether or not they provide more or less advantage in the preset exchange.
The murabashi bridge offers some interesting insights into movement, line of attack, and relationship to one’s partner during the exchange when performing basic kumitachi (numbers 1-5). In kumitachi 1 and 3, one discovers how important it is for nage to use kokyu in order efficiently to take the line of attack from uke on the initial exchange. In both katas nage must use kokyu to take the line or uke will overpower him by the force of the strike. In kumitachi 2 and 4, nage discovers that he can no longer afford a large lateral movement to blend with the initial attack, and thus must deal with it by using another method. Nage must use timing and subtle changes in body position in order to close the opening that was the original target. For kumitachi 2, this involves a subtle increase in body inclination to his left, along with timing his own strike and body movement in that it must make uke pull back from finishing the original shomenuchi. Nage’s initial movement cannot be a block per se, but must be a defensive rise moving into a yokomen strike that thwarts uke’s shomen. For kumitachi 4, timing is crucial for stopping uke’s shomen. Nage must strike at uke’s knee with intent and without fear of getting hit himself. In order to increase the amount of time he has to execute his own movement, nage will have to bend his knees very deeply in order to increase the vertical distance that uke has to cover in order to successfully finish the strike. In this method, nage can reach out and take uke’s base (i.e. front leg) before he gets hit. Uke should respond by defending with his bokken and by ceasing forward movement, giving nage the opportunity to then advance into uke’s space and begin moving him backward through the series of thrusts and strikes. For kumitachi 5, the overall movement and shape of the kata is changed when practiced on a murabashi bridge, in that it must remain very linear rather than becoming circular. Uke’s defense to the initial movement of nage’s mentsuki is very linear (reminiscent of kumitachi 2), and the subsequent yokomen is very narrow, being executed more vertically with little lateral variance. Nage must defend the yokomen by either twisting his hips to the right or stepping back with the right foot rather than circling around to the side. Hamni will dictate which method is used (to some degree). If the right foot is forward then it may be pulled back to actuate the hip motion, rather than trying to twist the hips in this footwork configuration. If the left foot is forward, then either the hips can be twisted sharply to create power or a slide in hamni can be performed to put nage in a good position. On the last strike of the kata, uke cannot move around in circular fashion as is normally seen, but must strike yoko-do and remain basically on line. As well, nage cannot move in a circular pattern to match the circular strike, but must deal with the circular strike in a linear fashion. He must move irimi to take uke’s center and use kokyu to suppress the strike to end the exchange. Thus, the murabashi bridge offers some very interesting variations on the basic kumitachi.
Other advanced training comes into play with less defined roles in the exchange. Using either the bokken of the jo, one partner initiates an exchange by attacking, and the other partner counters freely. Uke should defend in such a way that he can instantly counterattack in the next movement. When beginning this type of exercise, partners should make deliberate, staccato movements and wait for the other partner to move before re-attacking (it should not be a dueling competition). Partners can use as many steps as they wish in finding openings and making advances to “win” the exchange. Typically, the exchange is over when a partner realizes that he has been caught by a strike and no opening exists to counter. It may take one or two movements, or a long series of blocks and strikes. In this type of practice aikidoka can begin to explore timing, distance, and openings without having to be confined to any preset form. There is a tremendous amount to be learned in this type of practice, though caution must be observed very closely for safety reasons: it should only be performed at a rate of speed and quickness of movement with which both partners are comfortable and competent.
As mentioned above, shinai may be used rather than the typical wooden bokken for paired practice. Shinai are very helpful when practicing kumitachi as they can enhance the ability to strike with intent to make contact and increase speed in the exchange. In another exercise, partners may square off using shinai, simply looking for an opening for a single strike (one strike and the exchange is over). Again, caution should be used in this training, as fingers and faces tend to take the brunt of the resulting scrapes and cuts. Safety equipment such as gloves and facial protection is highly recommended.
Shinai can also be very useful in practicing simple irimi movements. One partner holds a shinai in siegan, the other partner stands facing him without a weapon. The armed partner strikes shomen quickly and the partner makes an irimi movement either omote or ura in order to get to a better position. Unless the partner moves with correct timing and sufficient efficiency, he will either get hit with the shinai or be completely open to a second strike. This type of exercise is a one step kata that provides clear feedback of whether the aikidoka has been successful or not in making a sufficient irimi movement. This particular exercise is recommended for randori practice in that it helps teach good irimi movement and allows an aikidoka to learn that getting hit in practice is an inevitable part of the learning experience.
Training With Other Weapons
Aikido traditionally uses the bokken and jo as training weapons to enhance aiki principles. However, there are many other weapons available, some of which are traditional Japanese weapons, and some of which are not: tanto, naginata, shoto, bo, escrima sticks, and so forth. Each of these presents its own interesting questions, problems, and practice opportunities for the aikidoka.
There other more modern weapons that can be beneficial for training, as well, such as expandable batons and handguns. Use of modern weapons (i.e. handguns and batons) in aikido training can be interesting and stimulating in that it provides the aikidoka with an application of techniques to situations that might arise in the present time. When training with modern weapons it obviously paramount that safety is observed first and foremost. Keeping safety in mind, a way of training with modern weapons is to use substitutes for the actual weapons, such as readily identifiable toy guns (bright orange cap guns are good), rubber knifes or suede covered bamboo tantos, and old jo staffs cut to length for batons.
Training weapons in aikido does not always mean defending against the weapon. It is possible to use a weapon in an aikido manner in effective technique. Weapons that are generally practiced in such a manner are the jo and the bokken, but the baton can also be used as an aiki weapon should one choose to employ aiki principles when wielding it. For example, by using kokyu and irimi when engaging a partner, an aikidoka can effectively use the baton to subdue his partner without having to resort to blatantly striking and using it as a blunt instrument. Holding the baton with the majority of the length along the forearm, it can be used to blend with an attack and capture a target such as uke’s forearm, elbow, or throat. Joint locks and various throws can be extremely effective when using a baton in this manner. Variations on kotegeishi and iriminage, as well as ikkyo, keiten nage, and hiji nage are all possible and highly effective.
Another set of weapons that is far too neglected in training is the use of things that are generally not thought of as weapons. These can fall under the category of average work or household items: brooms, kitchen implements, extension cords, umbrellas, garage tools, etc. There are obvious things that pop out once one starts looking: kitchen knives, frying pans, fireplace instruments, etc. But one should also look a little further for more obscure but highly effective defensive weapons. An excellent choice to train with is the hand towel. It can be twisted along its length to create a strong instrument that can be used to capture a thrusting limb. Once engaged, the towel becomes an extension of the aikidoka and can be used to effectively execute technique such as kotegeishi, shihonage, or ikkyo. For training purposes have uke attack with a practice knife and nage defend by first capturing uke’s attack with the towel, then executing a particular technique. Ikkyo, kotegeishi, and hijinage can be applied in defense of most strikes, both linear (e.g. shomenuchi, tsuki) and circular (e.g. yokomenuchi, hantai). Iriminage and chokes can also be very effectively applied using a hand towel. Caution should be used when practicing these techniques with a hand towel as they become extremely powerful and injury to joints (and especially the neck) can be more prevalent.
It is fairly easy to ascertain that basic training with weapons is beneficial in aikido. Practice with weapons adds to the fluidity of movement and flow of technique. It aids in understanding line of attack, ma-ai, and connection to one’s partner, as well as using a tool as an extension of oneself.
More advanced training is also warranted should the aikidoka want to push the boundaries of understanding and applicability. If there is some truth to be found in aikido and aiki principles, then that truth should be available in the form of more advanced weapons training, and applicability to modern weapons, both when defending against them and using them in an aikido based method. Thus, it is recommended that a variety of weapons and applications be safely explored by aikidoka to discover a wider view of aikido and its applications.