A comparison of Aikido and Shotokan – two traditional, yet seemingly different Japanese styles.
by Tom Muzila.
Aikido and shotokan karate are popularly viewed as vastly different styles. Their approaches to the martial arts appear to come from opposite ends of the hardness/softness spectrum. Aikido is considered a soft style, while shotokan is viewed as a hard system. Yet, they share many similarities.
Although many people interpret aikido as a passive style, high-ranking aikido instructor Steven Seagal disagrees. “Aikido’s fundamental goal comes from the original martial arts concept: to kill your opponent,” notes Seagal, who lived in Japan for 15 years and studied at aikido’s headquarters dojo (training hall) in Tokyo. “All of the mental and abstract spiritual benefits are acquired from this base. You must have the capacity to kill and be able to cut off all attachments to life in your mind to be able to give life.”
Seagal also emphasizes that real aikido is extremely dangerous. An untrained individual does not know how to fall or go with the throws. In actual combat, the untrained would surely break their joints, back or neck.
Conversely, most people view shotokan karate as a hard style. Yet, at various mental and technical levels, shotokan takes on a much softer appearance.
Let’s take a look at the processes by which karate and aikido practitioners evolve. The beginning karate student usually executes a basic punch with solely muscular strength. He tightens his muscles all the way through the technique. The muscles contract and work against each other. After an individual trains for a few months or a year, however, he learns to relax through the punch and tense only at the end. At the next level, he doesn’t even tense at the end of the punch, but rather aligns and connects his body as the technique is completed. An individual has to have executed thousands of repetitions to achieve this level. The final level finds the student executing the technique totally relaxed physically, but superbly connected to his body all the way through the technique and possessing tremendous internal spirit. This type of punch looks the softest, but is actually the most penetrating of the four stages.
A very small percentage of karate practitioners attain this advanced level of technique. The karateka (karate stylist) must let his body find the most efficient and economical way to punch through diligent, rigorous training and thousands of repetitions with the appropriate state of mind.
This concept is very similar to aikido. The majority of aikido techniques, Seagal says, are based either on a square, triangle or circle. When a person first starts practicing, he will execute techniques formed on a square. After six months or a year of diligent practice, he will graduate to the triangle. Eventually, between one and two years of training, he will be introduced to the circle. At this level, all techniques are taught efficiently and economically with the least amount of power. The circle evolves to a flowing, continuous spiral.
So, while the first few years of aikido and karate training are interpreted differently, the evolution of the techniques is quite similar. In its own way, each style graduates from a more structured, hard and rigid state to a more relaxed, efficient and economical state.
Aikido and karate have somewhat different ranking systems, but each adheres to the dan (black belt) concept, which indicates similar technical, mental and spiritual states. Both systems are based on a lifetime of practice and self-evolution. Morihei Uyeshiba (often called O-Sensei), the founder of aikido, was very mystically and spiritually oriented. Seagal believes O-Sensei formed his ranking system based on the concept of an ancient Shinto crest. He said the nine circles around the outside of the crest all represented planets. The middle circle represented divine heaven on earth.
Shotokan karate founder Gichin Funakoshi’s ranking system is based on five dan. The five levels are spread out over a lifetime of practice similar to the ten dan in aikido. Funakoshi used the already established ranking systems of judo and kendo as a model. Noted Los Angeles karate instructor Tsutomu Ohshima, BLACK BELT’s 1987 Man of the Year, believes Funakoshi fashioned the five dan ranks after the five consciousness levels an individual evolves through in Zen, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
It is interesting to note how Funakoshi’s ranks relate closely to Eastern religions. Shodan (first-degree black belt) indicates that one has acquired a strong foundation of basics and physical senses. In Eastern religions, it is referred to as learning to control your physical senses: sight, feel, touch, hearing and taste. To acquire the nidan rank (second-degree black belt), one has to achieve an understanding of combinations and how to strategically apply them. Eastern religions’ second level represents the control of intelligence and strategy and applying them to life. Sandan (third-degree black belt) requires one to achieve a calm, strong mind in conjunction with a presence of relaxation in the shoulders. The third level’s goal in Eastern religions is to master a calm meditative mind. Yodan (fourth-degree black belt) emphasizes a oneness of mind and body as related to techniques. Humanitarian deeds are focused on throughout this rank. The fourth level of Eastern religions stresses mind-body connection and focuses on compassion. Godan (fifth-degree black bel emphasizes impeccable execution in technique and moral character. It involves channeling spiritual consciousness through your personally disciplined character. Spirituality and oneness with God are also the highest levels in Eastern religions.
Although aikido is modeled on a ten-dan system, the process one goes through is very similar to that in karate. The levels of evolution are also incredibly similar to Eastern religions. The first two aikido degrees emphasize strong basics and combinations, as well as an understanding of strategy. The third and fourth degrees focus on a confident, calm mind which can generate strong ki (internal energy). Practitioners at these levels exude a humble, calm mentality. The fifth level stresses spirituality and channeling the universe within. The remaining five degrees continue to amplify the mystical and spiritual essence of the teachings. An individual’s ability to focus ki and healing abilities are also enhanced at these levels. According to Seagal, only a few individuals exist within the aikido system who exemplify these abilities.
Even the various levels of strategy and fighting ability are exceptionally similar between aikido and karate. The first level of control over your opponent is through combinations. On the next level, when your opponent moves, you already have beaten or hit him. At the next level, you are so overpowering, your opponent cannot move. A person then learns how to completely take the fight out of an opponent, then to use his momentum against him. The highest level is absolute prevention of a confrontation in essence, harmonizing the situation.
Uyeshiba and Funakoshi were very different in character, yet very similar in their expression of concepts and principles of martial arts as they relate to life. Compare, for example, the following quotes by the two famous budoka (martial warriors):
Uyeshiba: “Through aiki, extend all your power to achieve peaceful harmony with the world.”
Funakoshi:”Remember the contrast within these three elements strength and weakness in power; extension and contraction in body; quickness and slow ness in techniques.”
Uyeshiba:”Winning means winning over the mind of discord in yourself. It is to accomplish your own bestowed mission.”
Funakoshi: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”
Uyeshiba: “To compete in techniques, winning and losing is not true budo (warrior way). True budo knows no defeat. Never defeated means never fighting.”
Funakoshi: “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill ”
Uyeshiba: “The inner state must be like a great calm sea.”
Funakoshi: “A truly great man is not disturbed even when suddenly confronted with an unexpected event or crisis.”
Uyeshiba: “The essence of aikido does not lie in fighting with others.”
Funakoshi: “One who truly trains in this do (way) and actually understands karate-do is never easily drawn into a fight.”
As evidenced by their statements, both Funakoshi and Uyeshiba exemplified the importance of not only making your body and mind one, but of making your practice and life one.
The paths of aikido and karate are very opposite in specific elements, but very similar in other ways.
There are many paradoxes in the process. Although each path is different, one can achieve a similar mental and technical state in karate or aikido. Even advanced maneuvers such as throws off of attacks and irimi (entering) techniques possess numerous elements of a similar nature. Even though there are subtle differences in the way the arms or feet move, the basic foundation and principles of execution are the same.
The similarities between the two arts fall into these categories: mentality, alignment, connection, timing, distance, hips, and the state of the body. The mentality in which a technique is executed is similar because a practitioner must give up his life mentally before he is attacked. He must obtain this state so he is able to feel and become one with the opponent. It is the state of not consciously thinking, the Japanese call it mushin (no mind).
Aikido and karate principles are employed within very similar parameters. In both styles, an individual must be able to move in the most efficient and economical way without any external power or resistance. The mind, body and hips all move as one unit, driven by incredible internal feeling and spirit. Uyeshiba had a saying to describe this experience: “My opponent cannot take my power away because I do not use any.”The person who can acquire this “no power” state will achieve more speed. He may train for many years to become a split second faster, but in martial arts, a split second can mean the difference between life or death.
What happens when one faces an opponent of equal physical and technical ability? What will be the deciding factor at this level of combat? The answer is the mind – the most important factor of all. One who has polished his mind and made it like a brilliant illuminating crystal, with no mental blocks, will have the edge. To achieve this state, the individual must pass through any influencing barriers of pain, emotion, fear, and insecurity. His training will have been some of the most rigorous and disciplined of its kind. He must experience hell in his training so he can appreciate heaven. The individual with the mental edge knows and senses in his mind that he has beaten his opponent even before the engagement has begun.
Why is it so difficult for the majority of martial artists to integrate and harmonize various principles? An individual must have the mental capacity to filter out unrealistic concepts and theories in his training. He must have good senior students and instructors to guide him. But most of all he must rely on himself to see the truth in his technical and mental applications of technique and life.
About the Author: Tom Muzila is a Godan (5th dan) black belt under Tsutomu Ohshima in Shotokan Karate of America.
This article appeared in Black Belt Magazine, April 1988.