Why Study Aikido

Professor Kenji Tomiki taught physical education at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. As a professor he taught both Judo and then Aikido to the students at Waseda. The title of professor carries weight in that it delineates that someone is an expert in the discipline that they practice. The fact that Kenji Tomiki was an expert in both Judo and Aikido is irrefutable. However the term professor has another connotation: that of an educator or teacher. It would therefore be correct to say that Kenji Tomiki was a teacher. It is important to point this out because this is what makes Tomiki’s system of Aikido practice unique. It was Professor Tomiki’s ability as a teacher that led him to the codification of the Basic Seventeen Aikido techniques (Junana Hon). This innovation allows a new practitioner of Aikido to understand and digest each technique in its simplest form before undertaking more difficult application of the art form. It is this step-by-step instructional model that makes Tomiki’s system of Aikido training superior to other forms of Aikido training. Tomiki’s teaching methods are what set Tomiki Aikido apart from other styles.

Japanese culture considers a teacher to have an important role in society. The title “sensei” is used as a title to honor anyone who teaches another person a particular skill. It also infers that the person is imparting important information in a skillful way that allows the student to grow and then one-day master the material. It is not only the fact that the teacher instructs, but more how that teacher is able to impart the information that gives them skill. In the Martial Arts, the honorific sensei is bestowed on those individuals who teach the art form to others in this manner. Kenji Tomiki was one of these special teachers. Tomiki Sensei had insight into Aikido that allowed him to organize Aikido into small chunks of information or techniques that that could easily be transferred to others. This transference of small easily managed bits of material allowed the student to understand how a particular joint lock or throw was applied by showing the directions and forces that were present in each technique. The system that Tomiki applied to Aikido was similar in organization to the one that Kano Sensei, the founder of Judo, used to organize Judo. Tomiki believed that using ambiguous terminology or listing hundreds of techniques that are applied in similar ways as separate techniques was counterproductive to the student learning the art of Aikido. It was for this reason that he decided that Aikido needed to be broken down into a simple form so that a student could quickly pick up the basic fundamentals.

The Basic Seventeen (Junnana Hon) is the centerpiece to the Tomiki Sensei’s brilliant innovation to Aikido education. Tomiki studied Aikido with its founder Morihei Ueshiba Sensei starting in 1925. During his years of training with Ueshiba Sensei, Tomiki Sensei began to organize Aikido by giving the techniques he was practicing names. The final outcome of this organization was the Kata known as the Basic Seventeen techniques (Junana Hon). Tomiki looked at hundreds of Aikido techniques and realized that many of the movements were repeated multiple times but considered to be separate techniques because they originated from different attacks. As an educator he realized that this was an impediment to teaching the art and counterintuitive to educational principles of physical education. He decided to distill Aikido down to seventeen techniques that were repeated over and over in the cannon of Aikido kata. He felt this would be a good place for a beginning student of Aikido to start.

Tomiki’s second innovation to the practice of Aikido is the use of the same basic stance at the start of each technique in the Basic Seventeen kata. Basic Stance allows the beginning student to concentrate on the techniques components solely without having to consider proper distance (maai) or the complications of adding different attacks. The Basic Stance carries with it the assumption that the attack has already occurred. This assumption allows beginners to take the time that they need to work through the movements and understand the technique at their pace. Adding multiple attacks to the practice is appropriate after the student has understood the fundamentals but can confuse and discourage a beginner. Tomiki Sensei has eliminated these problems with the use of the Basic Stance in the kata.

Finally, Basic Practice (Kihon Renshu) is a pedagogical innovation that shows Tomiki Sensei’s complex understanding of body mechanics and the necessary skills that a beginner must develop to become a competent practitioner of Aikido (an aikidoka). Tomiki Sensei’s system of a quick, repetitive, basic-skills practice allows the beginner to create muscle memories of fundamental aikido movements. The practice is designed to begin every aikido class and build these skills in beginners and veterans alike. Again Tomiki Sensei used this strategy to give students fundamental building blocks of movements that can later be used in the practice of Aikido technique. Difficult skills such as proper distance (maai), movement (tsukuri), and breaking balance (kuzushi) are all difficult to foster in the beginner. Repetition is the key to unlocking these skills and Basic Practice facilitates this easily at every Aikido practice.

The legacy that Kenji Tomiki left his students is a path of Aikido practice that is both methodical and logical. Other styles of Aikido offer complex training methods steeped in mysticism. These systems can create good Aikido but the process can easily discourage the beginner. Tomiki Sensei created a pedagogical method that allows students to clearly understand how Aikido techniques work and the body mechanics behind them. He set out a curriculum that engages the beginner and veteran alike allowing them to gain a general level of proficiency that does not exist in other forms of budo training. The strength of Tomiki Aikido is not in flashy techniques but in the methods of training its students. Tomiki Aikidoka around the world exhibit strong basic principles and effective technique. Kenji Tomiki’s ability as a teacher is evident in all of them.

-Sensei Ari Reinstein