Daito-ryu is a Japanese core style from which many modern variations have sprung. Shorinji kenpo, hapkido, Kodokan judo and aiki are martial arts that were originated by disciples of daito-ryu that have since splintered into numerous modern variations of their own.
Daito-ryu aikijujutsu is one such splinter style that has somehow managed to adhere to the traditional teachings of its core style forerunner (daito-ryu) and its predecessor (aiki). But because of its adherence to tradition—and its insistence on retaining most of the more painful and deadly self-defense techniques—the martial art has remained relatively obscure.
Although there are several thousand disciples of the art in Japan, daito-ryu aikijujutsu is almost totally unknown in the United States. Most senior students of modern aikido know that their art descended from daito-ryu, but many are under the impression that the daito system became extinct several generations ago.
Aiki’s Many Branches
At the present time, there are more than 40 different styles of aiki in Japan, with most of them emanating from the modern branch started by Morihei Uyeshiba. While modern styles are widely taught in the United States, the older forms are little known, leaving many people with the idea that there is only one style of the art. Actually, old densho (teaching scrolls) are full of mention of aiki.
Long a secret art, aiki was first openly taught by Takeda Sokaku in the early part of this century. Takeda Sokaku was a man of frightening spiritual power and one of the last of the old swordsmen. In addition to being the 24th-generation headmaster of the daito-ryu, he was a master of itto-ryu kenjutsu (sword) and hozoin-ryu sojutsu (spear). He was one of the most influential and least known of the great Japanese masters of the 20th century. Among the more famous daito-ryu disciples were Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of modern aikido), Doshin So (founder of shorinji kenpo) and Yong Shul Choi (founder of hapkido). Another great was Shiro Shida, immortalized in such films as Sanshiro Sugata, who played a major part in the founding of Kodokan judo. Many people are not aware that he won many matches for the Kodokan, in the early days when it was struggling for survival, using the daito-ryu technique of yama arashi (mountain storm).
Modern aiki has gone through many profound changes during the past 50 years, primarily because of the efforts of Morihei Uyeshiba. A man of tremendous physical strength, he is the most famous disciple of Takeda Sokaku. He started teaching daito-ryu aikijujutsu but soon began making changes in the art. As he changed techniques, he also changed the name of the style, using successively daito-ryu aikijutsu, kobukan aikijujutsu, kobukai aiki budo, tenshin aikido, takemusu aiki budo and finally aikido. This last change came at the end of World War II. The bu was dropped because of the Allied occupation ban on practicing martial arts. As Jigoro Kano did with judo, Morihei Uyeshiba eliminated many dangerous techniques and modified others for safety. This allowed aikido to be practiced by a much wider range of people than the more violent aikijutsu styles, thus greatly increasing its popularity.
Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu vs. Modern Aiki Styles
The first thing that one may notice when practicing daito-ryu aikijujutsu is the power of the attacks. In most of the modern aiki styles, the attacks tend to be rather soft. If your training partner resists the technique, he does so not with his arms but by motion of his hips. However, in daito-ryu aikijujutsu training, the attacks are full power. When your partner grabs your wrist, he does so with the intention of trying to prevent even the slightest motion of your hand. He grabs hard, locking every muscle in his body, as if he was trying to crush the bone in your forearm. Proper practice should result in a mass of finger-shaped bruises on your forearm the next day.
The spiritual differences are equally evident. In the old days, masters used the terms aiki and kiai interchangeably. They thought of aiki as a method of spiritually overpowering an opponent, and it was a part of many arts, especially kenjutsu (fencing). While most modern styles think of aiki as a process of gently blending with an opponent in order to control him, daito-ryu aikijujutsu adheres to the traditional approach and treats aiki as a powerful blast of spiritual energy, little different from the karate kiai.
Falling for Daito-Ryu’s Techniques
Technically, the differences between traditional and modern aiki are very obvious. Although there are exceptions, almost all the modern aikido’s techniques stress the use of very large circles. Daito-ryu, on the other hand, tends to use very small circles. While the small-circle techniques are much more combat efficient, they are much harder to practice. You can use large circle techniques on even a beginning student without breaking him, but the daito-ryu aikijujutsu technique will require a very good ukemi (falling technique). The modern aikido technique will twist your arm, forcing you to the mat. The old-style technique twists your arm in an effort to remove it from your body. You are often required to throw yourself into a rather spectacular fall in an effort to keep the arm from being dislocated.
Most modern throwing techniques will result in large, circular rolls, while their older counterparts cause hard, judo-style falls. This sudden, painful action is a characteristic of all old styles and illustrates a key factor of traditional martial arts. Modern martial arts dilute their self-defense techniques in order to allow a beginner to practice safely. Traditional ryu however, takes the attitude, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the fire.” If a few beginners get broken, that’s their own problem. Techniques are not altered for the student’s benefit.
When you practice a self-defense technique, if your partner smiles, it is modern aikido. If he screams, it is daito-ryu aikijujutsu.
Although the traditional forms of aiki lack much of the fluid grace of their more modern cousins, they more than make up for it with combat realism. The daito-ryu aikijujutsu idea of a good training partner is someone who weighs about 300 pounds and has a grip like a hydraulic vise. If they can manage to throw someone like that, after he has been allowed to plant both feet and hold as tight as possible, they know that the technique really works.
Katsumi Yonezawa, a Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu Master
One of the most prominent practitioners of the art, Katsumi Yonezawa of Hokkaido, Japan, annually visits the United States to teach this ancient art. From the headquarters of the American branch of the Daito-Ryu Kodo Kai in San Luis Obispo, he travels throughout California giving lectures and seminars.
A small man, Katsumi Yonezawa is a schoolteacher, and if you fail to notice the very thick wrists, you might think that’s all he is. He has a very disarming smile and gentle manner that tends to relax people in his presence. His disciples have learned to ignore this, for they know that he is still smiling while busily at work tying their arms into complex knots. Katsumi Yonezawa’s students have also learned to pay particular attention to how he acts before class. If he sits at the edge of the mat waiting for class to start, there will be only the normal amount of pain. However, if he starts doing stretching exercises, students start looking at each other and quietly groaning in anticipation of some brutal throws. When Katsumi Yonezawa actually goes so far as to practice his ukemi, students start looking for a place to hide.
Daito-ryu aikijujutsu is not for everybody. It is just too physically demanding to ever be practiced by the wide range of students studying modern aikido. But to those who are interested in the foundations of the martial art, it offers both a window into the past and a gate to the future. Daito-ryu aikijujutsu is an unchanging path, straight down the middle of all of the modern variations of aiki.
(F.J. Lovret is the head instructor of the San Diego Budokan and the owner of Nippon-To, a shop specializing in the sale of antique Japanese swords.)