I wanted to use this post to write a little about my thoughts concerning the role of techniques in aikido and to try to tackle the question: how many techniques are there in aikido?1
I’ve heard at least three distinct answers to this question, including my own. The first answer is that each named form constitutes a legitimate technique. The techniques are therefore ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, gokyo, kotegaeshi, shihōnage, iriminage, tenchinage, sumiotoshi, kaitennage, koshinage, kokyūnage and jūjinage, and perhaps also sokumen, rokkyo, nanakyo, katanage, etc., depending on whom you ask. This gives a total of at least fifteen techniques, and possibly more depending on the school. Additionally, you could count weapons techniques, exercises, footwork, etc., and potentially arrive at a very high, but more-or-less exact number.
My problem with this approach is that it leaves too many uncomfortable lingering questions. For example, if we say, “there are 100 techniques in aikido,” this does not give an allowance for new techniques to be developed, promoting a view that aikido is something to be curated and passed on as-is, rather than engaged with and personalised. Aikido is, after all, a way of life – aikido is meant to be a living thing, evolving with you, and not something that is the same for everyone. Another question posed concerns whether the distinctions chosen between ‘technique’ and ‘exercise’, or between one technique and another, are good ones. When analysed, any lines drawn seem to be decided arbitrarily – is sokumen a technique, or is it a variation? How different does something have to be in order to be counted as distinct from the others, and how can you justify your answer? Because of these difficulties, counting techniques seems impractical if one’s goal is to arrive at a precise, accurate number. 2
The second answer is that there is only one technique. According to this view, all of what we call techniques in the day-to-day sense are different manifestations of this one technique. This, in my opinion, is a much better answer than the previous one, because it permits us to say that any action that’s committed (that has a technical element to it) that conforms to the philosophy of aikido is in fact aikido, and a manifestation of the technique of aikido. It gives us the flexibility demanded when considering what is and what is not an aikido technique. However, it is not in my opinion a perfect answer, since this ‘one technique’ eludes inspection. If we admit that there is only one technique, then what is that technique? It is simply the philosophy of aikido as applied to physical action. In other words, it is not itself a technique, but a source of technique.
There is a third answer that I could propose, and that is that there is no number of techniques – there are techniques, but they are uncountable. This seems like a reasonable answer to me – it places no limits on future discoveries or the ingenuity of a person who must perform aikido without premeditation, and provides a philosophical justification for calling aikido techniques techniques. However, it doesn’t give us any means to definitively differentiate one technique from another, and still requires a degree of arbitrariness if we ourselves are to determine what criteria are to constitute meaningful distinctions.3
My own answer is that there are no definitive techniques in aikido – what we learn as techniques are called ‘aikido techniques’ simply to make our lives easier, without any metaphysical justifications. I don’t think that there exists a non-arbitrary boundary between one technique and another, and I don’t think that it makes sense to say that there is only one technique if it is so vague as to be the philosophy of aikido itself. In my opinion, any action that is committed in the spirit of aikido is aikido, and any aikido that it helps us to call a ‘technique’ we can call a technique. This answers the additional question of what can be said of aikido techniques practised in other martial arts. Ikkyo, as a principle, is known not only to aikido – does that mean that when another martial art practises what we would call ikkyo, that they are practising aikido? No, because they are performing it in a different spirit – they are not practising with the spirit of aikido. The technique does not exist unto itself, rather it is a physical application of the philosophy of aikido. What we call ‘techniques’, then, are applications of aikido that demonstrate particular principles that, once internalised, can be used to improvise new aikido, never seen before and never to be seen again.
Techniques, as they seem to me today, are ‘snapshots’ of aikido, preserved in order for us to see them. In the same way that by glimpsing enough photographs you can become familiar with a location never visited, so too can we become familiar with aikido through the practising of techniques.
I’ve since discovered an interview in which Ueshiba is quoted answering this exact question. Needless to say, my answer given in this article conflicts with his. According to Ueshiba, there are approximately 48,000 techniques in aikido. ↩
In fact, kokyūnage hints at these problems – instead of being a technique in its own right, it is a kind of catch-all for techniques which do not resemble the other named techniques closely enough. The common element to kokyūnage throws is that they each rely on kokyū (breathing), though arguably so do all the techniques in aikido. ↩
That is, unless we decided that there were an infinite number of techniques, with every possible difference being enough to classify a technique as unique. This, however, strikes me as inelegant (though I hope I’m more careful than to let myself avoid belief in something just because it doesn’t agree with my aesthetic ideals). ↩