Understanding defense through the context of Aikido

By Linus Hagström
Swedish Defence University
April 07, 2023
In recent years, conventional ways of explaining and understanding world politics have been criticized as providing biased Western perspectives and relying excessively on Euro- and US-centric examples and cases. A range of scholars have sought to identify alternative ways, often indigenous ones, of making sense of the world and acquiring knowledge about it. Chinese International Relations (IR) scholars, perhaps in particular, have referenced Chinese history, Confucianism and Daoism, to challenge key concepts and theories and sometimes seemingly to facilitate and legitimize China’s expanding international role.

Similarly, some have drawn lessons from Japanese thought traditions, not least the Kyoto School and Japanese experiences of Buddhism. In a recent article, published in European Journal of International Relations, a colleague and I began to explore aikido, one of the Japanese budo, or martial arts, as yet another potential source of insight. As longtime practitioners (albeit somewhat less active in recent years) and political science professors, we argue that aikido could help avoid protracted conflicts and security dilemmas by inspiring alternative ways of dealing with antagonism in world politics.

Translated as “the way of harmony,” aikido ironically shares the same key concept—harmony—as some proponents of the Chinese school of IR and the Chinese state. The dangers are obvious. Research shows that Chinese authorities have dispatched “harmony makers” to discipline people in regions labelled “disharmonious”—for example, Xinjiang and Tibet. In world politics, a rhetoric of harmony has often just barely masked belligerent and totalitarian ambitions, and powerful actors have invoked harmony to quell dissent and pre-empt conflict. In the 1930s, for example, harmony was the prescribed ideal for unifying the Japanese people under the “divine” emperor’s “benign” rule and Asian states under Japan’s “benevolent” leadership. Various justifications of European colonial expansion and rule contained similar notions. How can aikido draw on harmony without falling into similar traps?

Founder Ueshiba Morihei (1883–1969) began to develop aikido about a century ago, combining established fighting techniques with spiritual revelations derived from his involvement with religion. Initially, his concept of harmony echoed that of Imperial Japan, and Ueshiba supported Japan’s imperialistic ambitions. However, after experiencing a profound spiritual revelation in 1942 he became more skeptical about them. Clearly addressing Japan’s war, he was quoted as saying: “The Way of the Warrior [budo] has been misunderstood as a means to kill and destroy others. … The real Way of the Warrior is to prevent slaughter—it is the Art of Peace, the power of love” (Stevens 1992: 8).
A man throwing another man on a beach, using aikido
Aikido is less about fighting than about understanding the nature of conflict, and can hold lessons on a larger scale
Since then, aikido is no longer about fighting or even self-defense. While it centers around the mastering of a broad set of techniques, the deeper goal is arguably to nurture new dispositions, which are integral to the successful execution of these techniques but are also meant to influence practitioners’ daily lives. What are the main lessons for world politics?

Lesson number one: Live with and unify imminent conflicts, tensions and insecurities. Rather than just reacting to conflicts once they have occurred, in the words of the late aikido master Yoshigasaki Kenjiro, the goal is rather to “create a new situation in which the attack does not harm you” (2015: 68), or indeed in which attacks do not happen. IR scholars have similarly clarified that the goal of security policy should be to remove “incentives to attack” (Wolfers 1952: 497).

Lesson number two: Be prepared to be on the “receiving end” of all actions performed to defend yourself in a narrow sense. Aikido practitioners sometimes act and move their own and their partner’s (or partners’) bodies—and are sometimes acted on. The fact that practitioners constantly change places means that they need to learn to treat each other as they themselves wish to be treated.

Lesson number three: Prevent attacks creatively, if possible, but do not strive for their total abolition. Harmony in aikido does not emerge through stipulation or following the violent annihilation of conflicts and tensions, as in the case of China's policy on Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or for that matter European and Japanese imperialism and colonialism, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.

Lesson number four: If attacks still happen, neutralize them without applying force, harming the attacker unnecessarily or even constructing antagonism. The key insight is that force inevitably invites resistance.

Lesson number five: Develop an ethos of tolerance of and curiosity about uncertainty, ambivalence, and hybridity, and try to avoid binary thinking. Aikido masters not only advise against the designation of threats, enemies and allies, but also warn against thinking in terms of friends, because enemy and friend conceptually rely on each other.

Lesson number six: Foster empathetic dispositions through the repeated enactment of selfless, caring acts. Existing IR research agrees that empathy can help bring about reconciliation and provide an antidote to the fear, anger, resentment, and hatred that are seen as driving violence and conflict (e.g., Bleiker and Hutchison, 2021).

Is the ethos of aikido somehow already ingrained in Japanese foreign and security policy, for allegedly having altered “the orthodox understanding of how a great power behaves,” as some scholars argued more than 20 years ago (Hook et al. 2001: 380)? I would disagree and contend that aikido practice currently shares few similarities with them.

What are then the main take-aways from this intervention? Japan and other international actors that would like to emulate aikido practice in their international relations should think less about how to defend themselves in a narrow sense, nor how to make the self attractive so that others empathize and identify with it. The challenge is instead again to empathize and identify with others, including potential attackers, and extend one’s defenses also to include them.

While this thought experiment might be criticized as too removed from reality, it actually projects individual-level traits and behaviors on to collectivities similarly to many other IR theories. More importantly, however, we show in our article that contemporary world politics is at times already performed in accordance with aikido principles, albeit only imperfectly and partially, and the challenge is to continue to aspire in that direction. In a spirit of humility and self-reflexivity, we must try to understand and absolve increasingly greater and lesser tensions and insecurities in ourselves and in our relationship with others.
Bleiker, Roland and Emma Hutchison (2021) Performing political empathy. In: Rai Shirin, et al. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Politics and Performance.

Hagström, Linus and Niklas Bremberg (2022) Aikido and world politics: A practice theory for transcending the security dilemma. European Journal of International Relations 28(2): 263–286.

Hook, Glenn D., Julie Gilson, Cristopher W. Hughes and Hugo Dobson (2001) Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security. London: Routledge.

Stevens, John (1992) Introduction. In: The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba, translation and introduction by John Stevens. Boston and London: Shambhala, 5–10.

Wolfers, Arnold (1952) “National security” as an ambiguous symbol. Political Science Quarterly 67(4): 481–502.

Yoshigasaki, Kenjiro (2015) All of Aikido. Heidelberg: Verner Kristkeitz Verlag.
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