Understanding the aikido approach to weaponry

Written by Darren Friend

The way of harmony with the spirit — aka the martial art of aikido — was developed by O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba from jujutsu or, more specifically, Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. While aikido has of course undergone many changes and has been largely developed during a modern peacetime, it retains strong links to its battlefield origins and this is no more apparent than in its use of weapons. 

aikido
 Image by Charlie Suriano

Traditional aikido utilises three main weapons: the tanto (long knife), ken (sword — often called a katana, which describes a weapon of particular length) and jo (staff). In my time training in Japan, these were standard issue in the various dojo of the different aikido groups. Some systems formalised the methods of all three into their syllabus, others had one of the three as their main weapon, while some approached weaponry training as an extra element outside of their regular empty-hand syllabus.

With the training that I was involved in or observed, primarily within the Yoshinkan system, the weapons were almost always treated as traditional weapons with a series of prearranged — and thus anticipated — attack patterns. This is not how combat (with or without weapons) occurs, of course, but it serves as a means of introducing the concepts involved with weapons training in a safe manner. Initially the student is learning how to use the weapon in the most impactful way, with the ultimate goal of becoming one with the weapon and maximising its kinetic force.

Learning to defend against attacks by weapon-wielding opponents is often espoused as aikido’s main focus, and defence against a sword or knife attack is regularly a highlight of aikido demonstrations. As a result, those who observe aiki weapons demonstrations often come to one of two conclusions: either aikido is extremely effective against an attack involving a weapon…or aikido is fake. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. Against an armed opponent who’s very skilled with their weapon of choice, the odds are slim for anyone who finds themselves unarmed — but aikido gives the unarmed combatant a greater chance of survival, particularly if the advantageously armed aggressor makes a mistake, becomes overconfident or hesitates at the ‘kill point’. In every situation there is always the chance that a mistake (such as over-commitment, a common result of an attacker’s combined commitment to harm and confidence in causing it) may bring an opportunity to apply aiki techniques.

Looking across the range of techniques involving weapons in aikido, it is possible to divide aiki weaponry techniques and tactics into three broad categories:

1. Defence against an attack from a weapon-wielding opponent

2. Suppression of an opponent’s weapon to limit its use in an attack

3. Clearance of one’s own weapon that’s being suppressed, allowing the weapon to be drawn and used in defence.

Read more aikido tips here.