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Daito-Ryu 101: Aikijujutsu Has Influenced Many Martial Arts - Its Time to Learn More About It

Daito-Ryu via
Daito-Ryu via
Black Belt Plus

Daito-ryu aikijujutsu is definitely not the world’s most popular martial art. It’s not even close.

However, it is one of those mystical Asian parent arts that everyone seems to have heard of. How often have you witnessed a writer or instructor claiming, “Our art is a modern version of aikijujutsu,” or “This wrist-escape technique comes from aikijujutsu”?

In actuality, relatively little is known about daito-ryu aikijujutsu — other than the fact that its high-level techniques have a reputation for speed and effectiveness. Yet from this system are said to have evolved aikido, hapkido and judo, according to some researchers. This alone makes daito-ryu worth investigating. 

In this article, Seigo Okamoto, a daito-ryu aikijujutsu sensei from Japan’s Saitama prefecture, and two of his top American students provide some answers to the most frequently asked questions about this esoteric art and offer a glimpse into what makes it work so well for self-defense.


“Aikijujutsu is just the name for a style that combines jujitsu and aiki,” says Brently Keen, one of the few Americans qualified to teach daito-ryu. “Within daito- ryu, there are many different kinds of techniques: jujitsu, atemi waza (striking techniques), weapons, aiki techniques and special techniques developed for use inside the castle.

“Aikijujutsu is usually the combination of aiki and jujitsu techniques. This is what Sogaku Takeda popu- larized. The addition of aiki to jujitsu makes the jujitsu more effective and difficult to counter. Regular jujitsu works against a person who does not know jujitsu, but a skilled martial artist can counter it. 

Okamoto has stopped teaching jujitsu and the basic techniques and weapons, Keen says. “All he teaches is the aiki and some of the aikijujutsu techniques. That’s why the Roppokai branch is different from all the other branches.” 

Roppokai is the name of the branch of aikijujutsu Okamoto teaches, and it’s the name of his organiza- tion. “The Roppokai is dedicated to preserving the essence of daito-ryu — which is the aiki techniques — and developing it further,” Keen says. “The other schools are more interested in preserving the traditions, the kata and the forms of daito-ryu, and the specific jujitsu techniques that they remember Takeda doing or that their teacher learned.”

Okamoto, who bears the title of soshi, or founder, of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu Roppokai, studied under Kodo Horikawa, a top student of Takeda. “Takeda specifically taught aiki techniques — more than jujitsu,” Keen says. “Horikawa sensei was very small — about 4 feet 11 [inch- es tall]. Takeda told him he would have to master aiki techniques in order to defeat a larger opponent.

“The students of Takeda each learned different things from him. His students preserved the techniques they learned from their teacher. The differences of the people — body size, backgrounds — is why the styles’ techniques are different now. They didn’t have different philosophies or learn different things from Takeda. The students are the ones who formed the various branches of daito-ryu.”

After Okamoto learned the aiki techniques from Horikawa, he set about developing them. He then formed his own group, the Roppokai. “The biggest group is aikijujutsu,” says Desmond Harpster, who teaches the art in Canby, Oregon. “Daito-ryu aikiju-jutsu is a small part of that. Roppokai is [Okamoto’s] organization of aikijujutsu.”

Daito-ryu has influenced the development of aikido, judo, karate, jujitsu and hapkido, Keen says, but what most people do not realize is that the essence of daito-ryu — the technique known as aiki — is unique to the style.

“This is not the common concept of aiki but an actual technique; it doesn’t exist in other martial arts,” Keen continues. “The concept of aiki — blending and harmonizing with the attacker’s energy or momentum — exists in other martial arts like kenjutsu, aikido and some Chinese arts. That’s in daito-ryu, but it’s also in other arts. The technique of aiki is different.”

For the Public

“Daito-ryu is a very old art,” Okamoto says. “Because it was secret, not too many people could learn it. In the old times, daito-ryu was only in the northern part of Japan. Before I went to Tokyo in 1977, it was only in Hokkaido.

“When [Morihei] Ueshiba changed daito-ryu to aikido, it became much simpler to do and learn. Now aikido is much more popular in Japan.”

“Daito-ryu is harder to learn because the techniques were designed for combat,” Keen says. But that doesn’t mean the effectiveness of daito-ryu is necessarily great- er than that of aikido.

“The effectiveness depends on the individual,” Keen says. “Aikido was obviously affected by Ueshiba’s philosophy. He modified daito-ryu’s techniques to fit with his philosophy. Daito-ryu doesn’t contain that philosophy.”

In the past, daito-ryu was not taught to the public — only to select people of high social standing: samurai, military officials, police officers and the like. “It was seldom even demonstrated publicly,” Keen says. “And when it was, only jujitsu techniques from the first level were shown.” So why does Okamoto teach the art openly now? “I don’t care about secrets,” he says. “I want to teach people who want to know.” 

These days, people who want to know are spread across the globe. And the Roppokai is expanding to meet their demands: Two instructors live in Hawaii, Harpster is based in Oregon and Keen teaches in California.

Technical Differences

“Most daito-ryu instructors only teach the jujitsu aspect of the art, which includes joint-locking techniques and nerves manipulations,” Keen says. “Okamoto sensei is unique among the daito-ryu teachers because he specializes in the aiki aspect of the art, which is the highest level of techniques.”

“The underlying theme is that you need to use the daitoryu ideas so you’re not powering through the techniques,” Harpster says. “You shouldn’t have to use your strength.” 

Just how do aiki techniques differ from the joint locks and throws of other arts? “They are more internal, and they don’t require actual joint locking to affect the body,” Keen says. “It has more to do with the nervous system and the body’s reaction to the movements.

There’s minimal use of motion.” 

Some pressure-point usage is involved. “It involves more use of the nervous system rather than nerve points,” Keen says. “Okamoto sensei can affect your body just by touching you. A lot of sensitivity is in-volved. The training methods we use develop sensitivity and require sensitivity.”

When a daito-ryu aikijujutsu expert moves, very little external movement is visible. But that lack of movement can be deceiving. “All the body’s energy is coming together,” Okamoto says. “Through movement the energy becomes big. It doesn’t work at a slow pace. It should be done quickly. It’s so hard to teach because those movements are so small. At just the right movement, I make the other person’s body belong to me,like it’s part of my body. That’s why it looks so easy and relaxed. The smaller movement makes it quicker and requires less energy.”

One of the basic principles of daito-ryu involves breaking an opponent’s balance so he can’t stand or use his power to resist or fight back, Okamoto says. During the proper execution of a technique, the opponent cannot move freely because he’s off-balance and his muscles are tensed.

Unfortunately, the ability to use the often- mentioned essence of aiki is nearly impossible to acquire from an article or book. As Okamoto says, it must be learned one-on-one from a qualified instructor. Until you gain access to such a person, the material presented here will have to serve as a short introduction to the mysterious art of daito- ryu aikijujutsu.

S.D. Seong is a freelance writer and martial artist based in the Los Angeles area. Special thanks to Tomoko Harpster for translating.

This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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