Aikido and nonviolence

People are sometimes sceptical when they hear Aikido described as being nonviolent. In practice, we counter attacks by twisting joints and throwing our partners to the mat. How can that be considered a form of nonviolence?

First of all, for the uninitiated, let me point out that a considerable amount of training in receiving techniques and falling safely takes place before practice occurs at anything resembling full speed. And of course the purpose of practice is to improve ourselves and others physically and spiritually, not to cause injury.

What about outside the dojo? We need to bear in mind that nonviolence is an attitude, not a predefined set of actions or non-actions. In a physical confrontation, what are your motives? In restraining a violent person, are you using the minimum reasonable force? Are you protecting others and leaving your own ego out of it?

Let’s consider the case of a blind person about to step into traffic. Which is the nonviolent act? Is it to stand back, yelling about the danger and hoping that the blind person hears you above the street noise? Or is it to run forward and shove that person out of the way of an oncoming truck, despite the risk that he or she might fall? I think that most people would agree that physical action is the nonviolent alternative in this case.

Suppose somebody tries to push you into traffic? Most Aikido practitioners would instinctively move off the line of force. But suppose you knew that stepping aside meant that your attacker would plunge headlong into traffic, likely being seriously injured. Would not the side step, even without any physical contact, be an extremely violent act, in terms of intent?

I don’t want to split hairs, here, but let’s take a more ambiguous example. Say you are in a public gathering and someone gets drunk and angry, and starts to attack the people around him. Which is the nonviolent act – to stand back and do nothing while people are injured, or to talk to the attacker to calm or distract him, and, if necessary, restrain him to give him an opportunity to reconsider the situation?

I heard an interesting story touching on this topic from a friend of mine. He was about to walk on stage at a public demonstration, carrying a real katana (sword) in a sheath at his hip. A deranged person rushed out of the crowd and tried to take the katana away from him by drawing it from the sheath. My friend quickly applied nikkyo (a powerful wrist lock) with the sword’s handle, forcing the attacker to release the sword and drop to the ground. The Aikido practitioner then looked around, and saw a police officer staring at him with his hand on his sidearm. The officer said, “I’m glad you did that. If he had gotten that sword away from you, I would have shot him.”

Was this a nonviolent act? For me, essentially, yes. The attacker wound up with a sprained wrist instead of a bullet wound. If he had tried that attack on practitioners of some other martial arts, he might very well have been killed. No one in the dense crowd suffered any injury, and neither the police officer nor the Aikido practitioner nor the attacker had to live the rest of their lives with a death on their conscience. Given the circumstances, I think it was a real-world, win-win-win, nonviolent solution.

Aikido gives us a range of tools that enable us to exert appropriate levels of force when in these situations. It’s a mistake to equate nonviolence with passivity or disinterest. It should be defined as acting for the community’s welfare, protecting yourself and those around you from harm with the necessary degree of control – not brutality.