Aikijujutsu vs. Aikido:
The Transition From Deadly Combat to Gentle Self-Defense

By Gail E. Nelson
Morihei Uyeshiba is credited with founding aikido in 1938. He first
studied aikijujutsu but eliminated
painful and dangerous techniques,
as weIl as kicks and punches.

(Photo from the Black Belt archives)

A black belt and years of martial arts training do not guarantee survival on the streets. Some even say these skills may be absolutely useless in real-life combat situations.

Bernie Lau, a retired Seattle police detective and aikijujutsuinstructor, founded the Washington Budokan after his 20 years of aikido training failed to support him in a life-threatening situation. Until the incident occurred, Lau found aikido to be helpful in his day-to-day police work. Aikido served him well even earlier on the evening of the incident, when he and his partner responded to two routine calls.

First, the pair entered a bar where a burly drunken man was smashing tables and chairs. With disciplined ease, Lau subdued the drunk and held him in an arm lock until a transportation unit arrived. Later, not far from the bar, a prostitute was fighting a man while trying to steal his wallet. Again, with quick motions, Lau subdued the prostitute and placed her under arrest. Lau used sankyo, a wrist-twist restraining lock taught in aikido.

Later that evening, however, Lau received a call that was to change the course of his aikido training forever. He and his partner were dispatched to a disturbance on the waterfront, where a 250-pound lumberjack, who was intoxicated and looking to fight, was provoking bar customers. When the officers arrived, the lumberjack challenged them to try and take him. With 20 years of aikido experience behind him, Lau met the challenge with strong confidence. He attempted several aikido techniques, but the moves barely fazed his opponent. The lumberjack was just too strong. During the melee, Lau’s partner was seriously injured by a kick to the face from the lumberjack. Backup units were called in, and after seeing Lau’s injured partner, the officers overreacted and the lumberjack ended up in the hospital.

Baffled by this incident and his inability to subdue the lumberjack single-handedly, Lau became disillusioned and began questioning the methods of training in modern aikido. He believed he had let his partner down. Why was it that after years of training, he was unable to handle the lumberjack? His disillusion became an obsession: What was different in the arrest of the first drunk, the prostitute and the lumberjack?

The drunk, upon seeing the officers, cursed them but really didn’t feel like fighting. A simple hold was all that was required to subdue him. The prostitute wanted to get away more than anything else, and taking her into custody was no problem. The lumberjack, however, was an entirely different situation. Besides being a skillful street fighter, he possessed the willingness to fight. This made him a very dangerous individual.

Aikido techniques may not be enough for law-enforcement officials. A strong individual could
escape from an aikido wrist-twist lock (1). But by using the finger-Iocking techniques (2) of
aikijujutsu, a police officer, or any person, can better restrain a strong individual. By locking
the fingers and arm (3), the officer has a free hand to fend off other assailants.
(Photos from the Black Belt archives)

Questions haunted Lau incessantly. How could the injury have been avoided? Why wasn’t the lumberjack subdued before the escalation occurred? Why did aikido fail?

Lau wrote his aikido instructor in Hawaii, asking for answers. The reply came swiftly by phone: “In street combat situations,” his instructor said, “you must use kicking and punching. Aikido alone will not work.”

Discussing the matter further, the aikido instructor recalled an altercation he had with a fellow sixth-degree black belt.

“What techniques did you use?” Lau asked.

“We didn’t use any techniques,” the instructor said. “We just punched it out!”

Completely disillusioned, Lau sought a workable solution. He conducted extensive research on aikido and its parent art, aikijujutsu.


The main purpose of modern aikido is the development of a healthy mind and body. Aikido is not taught as a hand-to-hand combat method. The do (martial path) is stressed over the jutsu (martial art). Aikido is purely defensive in nature, and practice is not based on realistic street combat situations.

In 1912, at age 29, Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of aikido, met Sokaku Takeda. Uyeshiba asked to be introduced to the secrets of daito-ryu aikijujutsu and was accepted as a disciple by Takeda. For the privilege of learning from Takeda, Uyeshiba had to pay between $150 and $300 per technique, plus chop wood and carry water for his instructor. Uyeshiba spent most of his inheritance during this period of training.

Most aikido locks (1) require the use of both hands and do not usually keep a violent suspect immobilized. But with the application of the joint-locking techniques (2) found in aikijujutsu,
a suspect can be completely immobilized and the officer also has his other hand free.
(Photos from the Black Belt archives)

Although his training in aikijujutsu lasted many years, Uyeshiba’s actual instruction under Takeda was only 100 days. He was very impressed by the secret techniques of daito-ryu and later received a transmission scroll that listed 188 general techniques, 30 aiki techniques and 36 secret teachings. Uyeshiba found the techniques of daito-ryu more practical than the jujutsu techniques he had previously learned. The nonviolent effectiveness of the joint-Iockng techniques and attacks to the vital points (atemi) were something new to him. Although Uyeshiba was physically stronger than Takeda, he was powerless to the latter’s control and pinning techniques.

In 1922, Uyeshiba was authorized by Takeda to become an instructor in daito-ryu aikijujutsu. Uyeshiba’s early form of aikijujutsu emphasized practical self-defense. As the years went by, however, he made gradual changes in the art. The transformation from aikijujutsu to aikido was a slow one, taking more than two decades. During that time, the art went by many names: daito-ryu aikijujutsu, tenshin-ryu aikijujutsu, Uyeshiba ryu, Takemuso aiki budo, aiki budo and finally aikido.

But bu (Japan’s military dimension) was dropped after World War II, probably because of the Allied occupation ban on practicing martial arts. The next big change was Uyeshiba’s decision to “go public” with his art. The techniques that could be practiced by the public (young and old, men and women) were quite different from those practiced by military students and senior black belts from Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan dojo (training hall). Painful and dangerous techniques were eliminated, as were strikes and kicks. Other techniques were modified for safety. Defensive measures replaced the aggressive nature of aikijujutsu.

Aikijujutsu techniques are geared more toward real-life combat situations. When grabbed (1)
by an assailant, the aikijujutsu practitioner might immediately counter with a punch (2) to the face, thus creating an opening in his opponent’s defense. An arm-locking technique (3) can now be applied, forcing (4) the assailant down and allowing him to be handcuffed (5) by the officer.
(Photos from the Black Belt archives)

Don Draeger said, “Uyeshiba’s aikido is a highly weakened form of hand-to-hand combat. Aikido is essentially noncombative in nature. Further, the omission of atemi (strikes) from its techniques removes aikido from the category of practical hand-to-hand combat styles.”

Uyeshiba thought aikido should not be used as a system of combat but rather as a path for self- and world improvements. “Aikido is not to defeat the enemy,” he said, “but to make no enemy.”

Another interesting fact Lau came across during his intensive research was that in 1953 in Hilo, Hawaii, Koichi Tohei, the first instructor from Japan to introduce aikido to the Western world, tried to convince the Hawaiian police to accept the art as their method of self-defense. Tohei’s aikido demonstrations were a success, but the mission died when the police turned him and aikido down. Modern aikido alone was not practical for police work.


Unlike aikido, aikijujutsu is a warrior combat method used during Japan’s many civil wars. It was designed to cripple or kill the attacker or opponent.

Today, aikijujutsu techniques can be used to subdue a suspect or attacker without pain, to cause pain without injury, or to inflict pain, injury and the dislocation of joints, should the situation demand it. In aikijujutsu, ample use is made of striking techniques against body weaknesses. One also studies many martial disciplines in aikijujutsu and receives a well-rounded and effective program of combat skills. A path for personal improvement and awareness remains open, but the primary purpose of aikijujutsu is an effective form of combat.

In aikijujutsu training, your “partner” takes the form of an aggressor and, unlike aikido, resistance to a technique is allowed. Also, unlike aikido, attacks and holds in aikijujutsu are made with power and focus.

According to legend, the foundations of aikijujutsu were laid down by Prince Teijun in the ninth century. The art was passed down as a bujutsu (military science) for many generations. Around 1180, a physician’s studies led to great contributions to the art. It was his habit to dissect the bodies of war victims and executed criminals to study the effects of various martial arts techniques. This led to the technical sophistication of aikijujutsu, particularly in the area of joint-locking and twisting techniques.

Bernie Lau founded the Washington
Budokan after aikido failed him on the
street. The school is dedicated to the
study and development of aikijujutsu.
(Photo from the Black Belt archives)

Aikijujutsu continued to be passed down from generation to generation as a “secret and mysterious martial art.” Changes and modifications were of course made with each generation. The objective was to have an effective combat art.

With this new knowledge and better understanding of aikido and aikijujutsu, Lau decided it was time to revive aikijujutsu. He traveled to San Diego and attended seminars taught by daito-ryu instructors from Hokkaido, Japan. Lau later received private instruction in yamate-ryu aikijujutsu, in which he now holds a black-belt ranking.

Lau eventually built a traditional dojo and formed an organization dedicated to the study, training and further development of aikijujutsu for combat and defense tactics suitable for self-defense and law-enforcement work. It is a private organization whose members consist of law-enforcement officers, military personnel and selected individuals. The organization has been in existence for 10 years, and training and research continue to this day.

“It is not a question of which is better, aikijujutsu or aikido,” Lau said. “They both have their merits. It is more a question of which system will better serve the needs of the individual: self-protection or self-perfection. The theory of no enemy is fine, but try explaining that to the lumberjack who’s trying to relocate your nose.”

There are times to be nice, but there are also times when you must turn into an animal. Violence is evil, but sometimes it is your only recourse.

About the author: Gail E. Nelson is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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