When people describe aikido, they often refer to it as an art of self-defense that does not use strikes or kicks. This is not entirely inaccurate. After all the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, referred to it as "the art of peace." I believe this is an attractive concept for a lot of people who seek a "safe" form of martial arts training, one that they can practice without the fear of getting punched in the face or kicked in the ribs as they might in say, karate or MMA. Unfortunately, there a quite a few aikido schools out there selling the notion that a person can adequately defend against a real attack without having trained in other systems or combat-oriented styles. When this idea is challenged, some aikido practioners will avoid the obvious fallacy of this notion by saying something like, "Aikido is not about fighting, it's a way of life." Again, not an inaccurate statement, but misconstrued none-the-less.
Most people familiar with aikido know that its roots stem from kenjutsu (art of the sword) and aikijujutsu which we can accurately describe as an advanced form of jujutsu. Ancient jujutsu schools taught specific striking techniques often referred to as atemi waza. We also see striking techniques in aikijujitsu, the forerunner of aikido. These were not the clumsy, pugilistic punches and kicks often seen in sport fighting whose purpose is to cause damage anywhere they can. Instead, atemi focused on key areas of the body to cause immediate damage or destruction to end a confrontation quickly. For example, there were striking techniques specifically designed for the throat; others targeted the eyes, the knees, the groin, etc. As a master of aikijujutsu, Ueshiba Sensei would have been familiar with these techniques and undoubtedly incorporated them into the earlier form of his art that he called aikibudo. The important point here is that the original forms of the arts we practice were designed for close-quarter combat, usually involving some type of bladed weapon.
Much of the aikido we see today appears to have abandoned its combat roots in favor of three basic attacks including shomenuchi, yokomenuchi and tsuki along with assorted grabs and holds. These basic attacks are invaluable for learning and maintaining skill and proficiency in aikido. The problem is that a lot of aikido schools do not teach effective delivery of such attacks. Instead, the aggressor more or less extends his arm overhead or out to the side providing a safe and effective means for the defender to enter in and perform his technique. It looks cool, but it simply is not very realistic. Furthermore, if we only train in manner that provides an easy path to generate aikido technique, how effective is that technique?
Like many aikidoka, I had a strong background in striking (karate) before I found aikido while stationed at Misawa ABS in Japan. I was extremely fortunate to have found a good dojo, but I was a little concerned about the lack of realistic punches and kicks that I felt were vital to my own training. Still, I thought it was important for me to fully invest myself in aikido training, so I spent the majority of my free time at the dojo. After four years of intensive training, I was reassigned to another military base and immediately opened aikido classes at the gym. Anyone familiar with military bases realizes that there a lot of folks who have some form of combat training and they are always looking for a place to test their skills. Opening a dojo on a military base is an open invitation for anyone to come and lay down a challenge in one form or another and this happened to me on several occasions.
The first person to "challenge" me was guy who studied American Kempo for a number of years. He called me on the phone and said he was interested in learning aikido but when he showed up to class wearing his kempo uniform and black belt, I had a feeling he was there for a different reason. Because I had a class full of beginners, I was teaching very basic movements, rolling, falling, etc. The kempo practioner was pretty patient throughout the class, but wanted to see how aikido worked against his chosen art so I agreed to spar with him after the session. He was not in particularly good shape and I felt that my intense training in Japan over the past four years would give me an edge. I was terribly wrong. Let me stress that MY aikido did not work because I made two terrible blunders. First, I attempted to "spar" with aikido and that's not what it's for. Second, I initially didn't attempt any striking or kicking techniques to at least fend this guy off. It was only after a few minutes that my karate training kicked in and I was able to keep from getting hit (after a while). That, and his poor physical conditioning are the only things that kept me from getting completely thrashed. In the end, I did a very poor job of representing aikido but I learned a valuable lesson.
A couple of years later I was stationed at a military base in Georgia where I again opened a class at the base gym. I felt pretty confident in what I was teaching, especially after incorporating striking and grappling into my curriculum. I felt confident that is, until I met an Army Ranger who was interested in training with us. He was a very nice guy, very humble. One day after class he asked if I had any experience with knife fighting. I was sure that my 15 years of martial arts training would keep me well out of range any knife attack. Um, no. This guy killed me so many times with such ease that I seriously went home that day ready to give it all up. After thinking about it for a long time, I realized there is always something to learn, always a way to improve and add to your knowledge. Having been humbled (again), I asked my new friend to show me everything he knew about close-quarter combat and we still use many of those techniques today.
These life-changing experiences not only taught me the value of incorporating striking (and other) techniques into my aikido, but that any attack we use for training should be performed with accuracy and commitment. If we don't train with intensity and realistic attacks, our aikido is nothing more than an exercise in body movement. In our dojo, we use striking, kicking and boxing. We also pull from other arts I have had the opportunity to study, such as karate, jujutsu and grappling. I felt it was vital to incorporate different aspects of combat, not because aikido is incomplete, but to enhance our aikido training.
Aikido is an invaluable part of my life. I am a better person because of our training and the philosophy behind it. I also realize that I can never allow myself or my students to become overly confident or get comfortable. I believe this is one of the most important aspects of modern Budo training.