"... I know you probably scream and cry that your little world won't let you go ..."
This phrase from the song "Are You Experienced" by Hendrix (one of my personal favorite artists from way back yonder yesteryear) describes the state of affairs for many martial artists today. Stuck in a rut. Teaching the same-o-same-o year after year. Never changing. Never reconsidering. Never reviewing. Going stale. Unable to escape your little world (or unwilling actually); almost like a big minnow in a small jar.
Over the last year or so we've become increasingly more focused on our tanto work and doing so has necessitated our "review and reconsideration" of the tanto work left us by Tomiki in his Aikido Ryu.
One historical item that I was unaware until fairly recently was that since he built most of his teaching pedagogy after the end of WW II he was apparently influenced in his tanto work by the level of street crime in Japan. Imagine a broken country with everyone starving to death, no jobs to speak of, some living in cardboard boxes, entire cities burnt to the ground and still not fully rebuilt 10 or 15 years later ... a country in the process of trying to remember and rediscover who and what it was, and was becoming.
The sensei I spent 20 odd years training under used to tell stories about training at the Kodokan during the 1950's and taking gifts of cartons of cigarettes and cans of spam and food to the teachers there so that they literally could eat and feed their families; sometimes using the cigarettes as barter for other items they needed, but had no money for.
Forbidden to own firearms (a holdover from both Samurai law where only Samurai could have weapons and the Allied Occupation) many Japanese carried knives and attacks in some cities were apparently quite frequent (in contradiction to today's view of Japan as a "crimeless society") which while it may be today, 50 or 60 years ago it wasn't.
Tomiki's tanto work and subsequent tanto randori concepts were focused on defense against a tanto but the attacks as seen in his kata and randori were structured (in my view) around classical use of the tanto and for whatever reason, were adequate for randori practice but not truly reflective of an efficient knife-fighter.
They were also limited in that the attacks were either broad overhead stikes, big circular attacks aimed at the kidneys or simple forward thrusts. All-in-all not too shabby for practice and easily cleaned up by lots of randori where the attacks would naturally evolve in the heat of the moment as-it-were but still, not truly reflective of how to actually "use" the knife and "think" like a true knife fighter.
So IMO, while Tomiki Aikido has a much greater emphasis on using and defending against the tanto than probably any other style (of Aikido), it still lacks a method by which to teach the mental, aggressive, cut them down fast mentality that could change Tomiki tanto work from "merely good" to "incredibly dangerous" which would in turn, create "real ability" to defend against a knife attach and not simply do "randori" or "shiai".
Don't get me wrong here. It is truly a great place to start your training in tanto and it is capable of teaching very effective knife defense. I've never had to use it in a real knife fight but personally knowing a couple of players who have and knowing at least one other player at a different dojo who used it very successfully after being attacked, I feel confident that it is, and remains, an effective study.
During the Vietnam era and in the period immediately after that, the US Military was evaluating the lessons learned from that experience and began looking for ways to create a new animal for the battlefield. Some things such as the New Earth Battalion and staring at goats were tried for a while and eventually discarded but one item that survived and was successful (at least until replaced by the Budo Du'Jour after a change of command) was a new form of knife work developed for Spec Ops by Michael Echanis (one of the original goat staring guys). This form of knife work, while using strokes and moves that everything else out there used, had a new "mental" emphasis that can best be summed up as, "all in or all out, there is no in-between".
Many forms of knife work use 3 ma-ai; basically close-in, middle distance and far distance. The issue with this however, is that too much time is spent and taught at the middle distance, basically the distance used in "The Mark of Zorro" where you dual and exchange cuts or as one of my deshi put it (apparently from knifework learned prior to joining us) "you cut, I cut, you cut, I cut".
So I asked the obvious (at least to me) question of, "Why in the H___ do you want to learn a system where the emphasis is on programming your subconscious mind to accept the idea of being cut in order to give you a chance to cut him first? The fact is, no matter how good you think you are you're likely to have to accept some level of carving on yourself anyway; but why make intuitive a system in which y0u plan on being cut in order to cut (e.g. playing Zorro and dualing at the "middle" distance)? Why not stay outside the range (of being cut) and then jumping in to finish the opponent in the fastest and most efficient way possible? Dualing at the middle distance strikes many of us having the mental quality of "hanging back" until you are sure of that open opportunity to cut. So again, why build a mental attitude of "waiting" for the magic moment to arrive and thus providing the more proactive/aggressive attacker a means to enter your zone (as you wait around and dual he may just jump the goat so-to-speak)?
So the Echanis system, by using what a Budo-man could refer to as "classic kihon and kata" forms, uses a system in which there is NO middle distance. You stay outside the range and if he violates the range then you parry and go for a fatal stab or deep slash or, if he offers an opening in his defense then you jump in FAST and take him. There is no slashing, dualing, or cut-for-cut; only "all in or all out" with no middle distance to speak of; the allowable operating ma-ai dropping out the middle range and effectively having only far and close.
This pedagogy creates that efficient and aggressive mind-set that Tomiki randori has classically lacked and that Tomiki randori/shiai (don't get me started on the shiai issue) lacks. And no, don't tell me that competition with a big rubber sausage wrapped in white leather with a red dot on the end is the same. It just isn't unless you let me stab you in the face or bladder with it and also allow me to add atemi with my free hand and then drive it through you until you fold up like a lawn chair.
However, as fun as this all sounds and as much as I'm enjoying developing (with the help of an ex-military man who was trained in this system and is teaching it to us), the true beauty of this is something entirely different that even Echanis spoke of all those years ago, something that apparently even he considered to actually be MORE important than just learning the knife.............. and that is the creation of a teaching environment in which both players learn to become as efficient as possible as the attacking uke, which in turn produces a tori defender who must now change his mind-set to one that is more serious, more focused and more "efficient" with no extraneous movements allowed; basically creating the cleanest and most efficient knife system possible which in turn, re-wires your head to become more efficient in everything you do, not just when holding a tanto.
How many times do Aikido Sensei talk a good talk about uke giving "real attacks" but those "real" attacks look like my grandmother getting up for a fresh mimosa. No matter how good the physical movements look, where is the mental aspect of uke giving a good, focused and efficient attack (efficient being BOTH physical AND mental in its intensity)? This doesn't mean vicious and dangerous training. This only should be viewed as controlled intensity such that if tori doesn't get serious in their mind then uke may scare them.
One story that comes to my mind here is that of my wife being called upon to uke for a jodo promotional demo at a Houston seminar many years ago. A jodo student from out of town wanted to demo for promotion but his normal uchidachi failed to attend. During the demo she literally scared him to death with a 2/3'ds speed attack. It wasn't the speed that make him cry out and literally jump back (almost failing his promotional exam) but instead, it was her mentality, that projection of focus and intensity that communicated to him the idea of, "Here I come! Move well or die where you stand!" as she did the jodo techniques, itself a paragon of efficient kihon and waza.
Pretty thought provoking isn't it? At least it was for me when I sat down and really gave some serious thought to it. Producing the most efficient uke possible by using mind-set and the most dangerous and efficient attacks possible, in turn producing a tori who becomes even better than thought possible. It may start in learning to use and defend against the knife (using efficiency instead of loose sloppiness and taking out that "dualing" thing ma-ai that looks good only on paper) but it certainly should carry over to empty hand practice also; esp. once skill in toshu randori is reached.
Thank about this for a second. In hand/toshu randori how long can a player survive if operating only at the middle "dualing" distance? Doesn't a skilled randori player operate at far distance first, setting up the kuzushi, or the aiki or the internal power (your choice of descriptive pronouns) before closing fast to the near/close-in ma-ai and then finishing the opponent for the atemi, joint lock or throw?
The mentality should be the same. If we claim to use efficient attacks but leave out the mentality of it all, if we worship the middle ma-ai because we feel safe by not closing and by "dualing" then the only thing we've really accomplished is what some MA's from other art forms keep claiming about Aikido; that it's just a dance with no real feeling to it, looking good but accomplishing little.
As Hendrix said (or as I am paraphrasing), "come out of your little world and make it let you go. There's a big world out there to see", but you have to go look for it.
So now you've got a new idea to work in your tanto, jodo or hand randori. Get after it and see you on the mat.
L.F. Wilkinson Sensei, Aikibudo Kancho
Aikibudokan, Houston, Texas