At the end of every seminar, a large stack of student passports are brought to me for signing. These passports contain a student’s identification and a record of a student’s ranking history and seminar attendance. The passports are brought to me to sign to document attendance at my seminars. The passports are issued by this federation or that association and come in a variety of styles and colors. Some are just general membership identification books, but most of the passports are held by students who have achieved at least the rank of 1st degree Black Belt,Shodan or Yudanshasho, so they are called Black Belt passports. At one seminar I taught overseas, I received over twenty different kinds of passports to sign. The most numerous of the passports held by students around the world are Aikikai International Black Belt Passports.
In my last article, “Who are the Real False Profiteers?” http://www.nippon-kan.org/senseis_articles/10/false-profiteers.html, I wrote about the Aikikai Aikido Headquarters International Division and Mr. T who wrote the following direct quote: “Please note that Aikido is a Japanese traditional culture which has an unique system and rules with Doshu’s exclusive authority and responsibility being the core of the system. To legitimate and award Dan/Kyu grades is Doshu’s exclusive authority. If some organization or someone issues Aikido Dan/Kyu certificate, it means violation and denial of Doshu’s authority, which can be compared to producing fake money (false profit) in a nation”.
These words carry a sense of command and authority that on the surface supports the status of those who hold Aikikai Black Belt passports, but if you take a deeper look at how some Aikikai Black Belt passports have been issued in recent times, you might find that their value has unfortunately become somewhat diminished.
In about 1976, there was a group of Aikido instructors that had settled on the East Coast of the United States, that had all been sent their officially by Aikikai Hombu (Headquarters) in Japan. I remember listening to many discussions among this group of instructors at that time about the need for membership passports that reflected the larger organization of Aikikai, not just individual dojos. With the suggestions and influence of these new American-based Aikikai Instructors, Aikikai Headquarters in Japan began to issue Aikikai International Back Belt passports.
In the seventies, the United States was divided into three large Aikikai International divisions. Each division was presided over by one or two major Japanese Aikikai-based instructors and these territories were fiercely guarded over and protected by this reigning hierarchy.
Passports provided quick and clear identification of students by division, instructor, dojo name and rank; like a brand for livestock. To keep track of their students, instructors used these passports to see what seminars their students were attending…or holding; to make sure their students were not going to, or giving any seminars without permission. Attendance in Tomiki style or Yoshinkan style Aikido instructed by American Aikikai instructors was especially scrutinized at this time, as instructors were on the lookout for students that might break from their organization. Also on their radar were students who traveled themselves to Japan to seek enough rank on their own to open their own school or dojo without their permission.
Most students, then and now were pure and innocent and attended seminars simply because they enjoyed practicing Aikido. They were unaware of the twists and turns of Aikido politics, and collected seminar attendance stamps in their passports without knowledge of any negative ramifications.
After this international passport system was put into place, two things began to happen. First, some instructors began to refuse to sign the passports of students if they were from a different organization. The second was that students seeking a ranking promotion from their own instructor would not be given credit for a seminar instructed by someone not to their instructor’s liking; disqualifying the student for promotion. The results? Students learned quickly to only attend the seminars that would earn them promotions in their own dojos and organizations. Besides a way for instructors to monitor and control the activities of students, passports were of course also quickly becoming a lucrative income producing operation.
In the late 70’s, then Aikikai Chief Instructor, Koichi Tohei broke ranks from Aikikai to form his own independent organization, Kinokenkyukai (Ki Aikido). It was not long however before instructors again broke from this new organization to form their own independent organizations. Each new organization of course created their own new passport system. It soon became rather common for students to carry more than one kind of passport…a fact that still holds true today.
Over the past few years, I have seen more and more Aikikai passports that in some way look fraudulent or otherwise modified. Through my travels, I have unfortunately discovered that some local native Aikikai instructors are in the business of fraudulently manipulating these passports for a profit.
Not long ago, I saw an official Aikikai passport that had an authentic, official Aikikai Headquartersshodan ranking stamp followed by a falsified nidan stamp below it. I have seen many of these modified passports, especially in the South American country of Brazil and in many Middle East and European countries.
I know of one high-ranking, native Asian instructor who is involved in modifying Aikikai passports that I have seen frequently in Islamic countries in the Middle East. Even in Baltic countries I have visited, I have seen questionable passports that had been issued through a Japanese Aikikai related instructor and his students. The United States is not exempt from these less than ethical practices, and recently I had the opportunity to talk with and examine the passport of a student who, unbeknown to him, contained two fraudulent looking DAN ranking stamps.
In many cases where unethical practices are occurring, local native instructors are selling big dreams with “promotions by recommendation” instead of testing. These recommendation promotions require recommendation fees and promotion donations; the latter of which, usually end up in the local instructor’s pocket. I knew of someone once who paid over $7000.00 for a fifth DAN ranking. I also know of someone who paid $4000.00 for his 3rd DAN and 4th DAN rankings; both promotions of which he received in the same year! In my opinion, this is a disgraceful and clearly criminal use of the Aikikai International passport system.
Those who have received fraudulent passports also receive certificates with their promotions. I have seen certificates that were supposed to be DAN certificates from Aikikai but on close inspection I could tell, even if the certificate was framed, that the certificate was an imitation. In the old days, authentic certificates were written on paper that had three Japanese kanji characters imbedded in the paper as a large watermark. This used to be an easy way to identify if a certificate was authentic or not. These days however even watermarks can be counterfeited so imitations are more difficult to identify. Today an authentic certificate can only be identified by the stamps and certificate numbers, which can pose a problem since Aikikai issued certificates are written entirely in Japanese; even the names and registration numbers are written in Japanese. Unless one is fluent in reading Japanese it is very difficult to detect a counterfeit, especially if issued to students outside of Japan.
The trade in counterfeit Aikikai certificates continues today because there is a market for them; a market created by unethical instructors, many in places far from Japan where students have no way of knowing if their certificates are authentic or not. Certificates might be printed in the Philippines and ordered by a high-ranking American Aikikai instructor without anyone becoming the wiser. This market is also fueled by students who possess more ambition than they do ethical scruples.
Mr. T at the International Division of Aikikai Headquarters laments publically, as noted in quote at the beginning of this article, about false profiteering by others, but does not include any condemnation of the same affliction within Aikikai Headquarters itself. Aikikai Headquarters has many high-ranking instructors who lucratively secure promotions for their own students through their recommendation promotion system. They maintain their position in the Aikikai hierarchy on the one hand, and use their position to procure certification for just about anyone if the price is right on the other. This is not just a little hypocritical, it borders on being criminal.
In one country I visited, I saw an article that was written by the local Aikikai Aikido Federation President. In this article the author wrote in length about the money their organization had made for Aikikai Headquarters and about his opinion that the time had come for them to make the money for themselves instead of Aikikai Headquarters. This Federation President did not see anything wrong with his logic that “business is business” and that it was time for him to start realizing a profit for what he had invested.
This kind of attitude is growing in our international Aikido world, and it did not arise all on its own. It is not just the result of an oversight on the part of Aikikai Headquarters or just laziness; someone started all of this and now it has grown to a point that it is hard to control.
Today in our world, there are countless Aikido federations, associations and groups of Aikido dojos and most of these organizations hold their own examinations and produce their own passports. In my experience, most dojos that are official members of Japan’s Aikikai International Division have their own ranking system and issue their own certifications as well.
I have seen with my own eyes during my travels, just how this situation is growing out of control. In one country, a student took the examination at his own dojo and passed to the rank of shodan. This made the student eligible to take his country’s Aikikai Aikido Federation examination for the rank of shodan. Once he passes this examination, he will be able to apply to test for shodan again with the Aikikai’s International Division.
In Japan, this would be unbelievable, but in countries outside of Japan this is quite commonplace. Throughout this long process of testing after testing for the same rank, each student is obligated to pay substantial fees. Most people cannot afford all of this testing and never reach the level of official Aikikai ranking. They settle instead for local ranking from their own dojo; or in some cases, don’t test at all.
I personally have seen Aikidoka that have achieved local ranks all the way through 8th DAN, and their ranks are titled: Aikikai Aikido, (fill in the blank)Federation, (fill in the blank) DAN. In this kind of system, it is the students that have money that receive promotions, regardless of their technical proficiency or experience. It is the students that have money that receive Aikikai ranking and open their own dojos, and use their new dojos to recoup some of the money they spent on all of this paperwork; this time from a new generation of students. This cycle as I have witnessed is beginning to spiral out of control.
In one country in the EU, I visited a city that has over thirty different kinds of “Aikikai” dojos. All of the dojos are unrelated to one another, and each dojo boasts some kind of Aikikai Federation title. Dojos in this city have sprung up everywhere without centralized organization or communication, and each dojo competes with the others for students and status. This happens frequently in cities that are popular destinations for tourists.
Factors contributing to an over-saturation of dojos in popular location:
- High-ranking Japanese Aikikai Instructors with the authority to issue “official” promotions and ranking by recommendation or testing hold seminars in attractive locations. (No wonder popular tourist spots have so many dojos and regular visits by Aikikai high-ranking instructors).
- Local students inspired by this exposure to Aikido, travel to Japan to study at Japanese dojos, Some students stay long enough to be given what we call a souvenir DAN ranking before returning home to their country of origin. Their Japanese Instructors then go to visit the student’s country to teach and establish their own dojo system.
- Senior JICA instructors teaching Aikido in foreign countries contact their own instructors privately and invite them to visit the countries they are teaching in.
- Retired Aikikai Headquarter Shihan privately travel to these cities on their own, continuing to give their own seminars, issue certification and perpetuate a following on their own.
With all of these scenarios in play, you end up with a situation where one city is supporting numerous dojos with different instructors and affiliations, each sponsoring their own seminars, giving their own examinations and offering their own “recommendation” promotions. The results; confusion and rivalry for potential students just interested in learning Aikido.
I cannot believe that Aikikai Headquarters in Japan is not aware that these kinds of problems are occurring. It is difficult for me to understand how Aikikai could turn a blind eye to their own organization as a possible source of this “disease”. I also cannot believe that Aikikai believes that all of these problems are occurring because of external forces outside of their organization or because of the influences of “independent” instructors. This is almost amusing. The “fake money makers” that Mr. T from Aikikai Headquarters complains about, are in some cases part of their own internal organization.
Recently I was visiting a country where an official Aikikai Aikido organization was holding DAN testing. “Federation DAN Examinations” was the title of the event and there were a few hundred people in attendance. The testing started early in the morning and continued throughout the entire day. The examinations were rigorous and included everything from how to walk and how to bow, to suwariwaza, a complete range of open-hand techniques multiple attacks, and buki waza or weapons techniques. The examiners barked out orders for techniques to be demonstrated like auctioneers, and the students participating in the examinations performed over 100 techniques each in thirty minute periods without breaks or water. The level of examination was extremely high, making some DAN testing I have seen at Aikikai Headquarters seem more like KYU testing.
Interestingly, these examinations were not at all related to Aikikai Headquarters in Japan even though after the examinations had concluded, about 200 individuals were awarded DAN certification by their country’s Aikikai Aikido Federation. On this day, all of the students who passed their examination also received an Aikikai Aikido Federation Black Belt Passports issued by their country of origin, not Japan.
Many of these new black belt students will not seek further testing having achieved a DAN ranking from their country’s Aikikai Aikido Federation. Some will go on, (those who can afford it) and testagain for Japanese Aikikai Headquarters DAN ranking. I have seen students that hold certification from their country as Aikikai Federation 5th DAN and from Aikikai Headquarters as 1st DAN. I think this is a little strange if you think about it.
It gets a bit confusing, especially for the students who are also required to first test for promotion and DAN certification at their own home dojos, paying all of the required promotion fees and donations required before they can even begin this Federation certification process. If a student does not first obtain DAN ranking certification from their home dojo, they will not be recommended for Aikikai Federation or “official” Japanese Aikikai International testing and promotion.
Actually anyone can apply to test for DAN ranking at the Federation level, but if a student bypasses their home dojo certification, it could be grounds for dismissal. If a student chooses to bypasses their home dojo certification, it is possible that they will not be allowed to return to practice with their own instructor, forcing the end of that relationship. Students dismissed from their dojos for bypassing home certification sometimes go on to open their own dojos. More competition and less communication I think, do not promote a good environment for the teaching of the martial art of Aikido.
I have also seen official Japanese Aikikai Headquarter regulation examinations held in countries outside of Japan. This following description is real and one I have personally witnessed in other country I have visited.
In many countries outside of Japan, Aikido federations or associations are often officially sponsored by their government’s Ministry of Sports or Education. In many cases, these federations or associations are made up not only of Aikido dojos, but include Judo or Chinese martial art dojos as well. Sometimes fledgling Aikido groups rent space from Judo or other martial art dojos so even their organizations name includes the name of their “parent” Judo or other martial art dojo. On a national level, since Aikido does not have tournaments, the art of Aikido is usually put in the “etc.” category with other non-competitive martial arts and remains a low national priority. A martial art without tournaments creates little in the way of fans or national awareness and pride.
It would of course be incorrect to include all Aikido organizations that fall into this category in blanket generalizations, but at times, in these types of groups, the examinations and examiners are not even Aikidoka, but are committees made up from people of different martial art backgrounds.
Sometimes committees are made up of people who practice very little; using their local political influence and their wallets instead to influence promotion certification. For these committee members, a lot of money changes hands and certification has become quite a profitable business. This type of business certification is facilitated by “recommendation promotions” through an Aikikai Headquarters instructor who uses his position to influence Aikikai Headquarter promotion committees for a hefty fee from local committees.
Promotion certification has become quite a lucrative business for examiners and instructors alike; both in the higher echelons of Aikikai and at the local levels. I know one person that was seeking an Aikikai shodan promotion by recommendation and the price tag was incredibly, $4000.00. With such profits to be made by these committee members, it is no wonder that this “certification business” is growing every day.
With so much money, power and position at stake, many of these committees go to great lengths to insure the continuation of their positions. Japanese official Aikikai instructors are provided with lavish hospitality when they come to teach seminars and arrange for promotion certification. Luxury hotels, expensive meals, local travel and sightseeing are usual benefits that are provided for instructors to insure the continuing position of committee members. We also must not forget the usual cash bonuses or “thank you money” that is commonly given to visiting instructor as parting gifts.
Some of these committee members don’t even practice Aikido or have a very small dojo space with a handful of students. They do have one thing however which allows them the opportunity to continue their business ventures; a title as International Aikikai Federation Committee Member.
Funny, that all of this is so common place, yet is it somehow not thought of as unethical behavior?
I believe that the people that serve on these promotion committees should be Aikidoka with practice experience who are dedicated, active and productive leaders in their dojos and their communities. What is important is the development of students, not their exploitation for profit.
I believe it is very important for Japanese Aikikai Instructors who travel to countries outside of Japan to be the standard bearers for a clean, clear and fair promotion system. Traveling instructors must beware of committee hosts who provide overly luxurious accommodations or favors or money. None of these factors should determine the outcome of any promotion consideration. This is our responsibility of culture and a step needed for its preservation.
Especially an organization such as Aikikai, that is licensed with the Japanese government as a traditional cultural organization (Zaidan Hojin), needs to make sure that their own ethical standards live up to the responsibility of the title.
I did not personally seek out any of the information I have written about in this article. I have learned about all of this while visiting other countries or from Aikidoka who have come to Denver and shared accounts of their problems and concerns with me.
I am the instructor of an independent dojo and remain neutral to any affiliation. Many people from many different backgrounds and organizations have felt comfortable sharing with me; even asking for advice from time to time. I have been fortunate in many ways to have met the Aikidoka that are open minded and seeking solutions to these growing problems.
I have taken special care to listen carefully, to weigh information from all sides and have thought long and hard before I have committed any of my thoughts to here to paper.
I have received a lot of mail recently, even mail from inside Aikikai Headquarters in Japan that name names in their complaints. It is not however my purpose to expose any individuals or create scandal. I just think it is very important for the future of Aikido that I share what I have learned from all over the world.
I write to ring a bell of warning.
What I have experienced in my travels is that for Aikidoka practicing in many parts of the world, black belt promotions have evolved into a mutated system of sub-levels and hypocritical payoffs.
These systems vary from country to county and association to association; making for an even more complex situation world-wide.
There are discrepancies and in congruencies in these systems that have even affected me personally! I traveled this year to one country to teach a seminar, and upon my arrival was shown the promotional posters that had already been posted all over the city advertising the event. In this advertising, they had listed my rank as 8th DAN! As I am not anyone’s 8th DAN, I soon contacted the organizers to raise my concerns about their billing of me in this fashion. As an independent instructor, I do not attach any level of rank to my name other than Kancho which means Founder in English. The organizers replied, “Sensei, since you are an independent instructor, it was our Federations decision to award you our Federation Rank of 8th DAN”. They looked at me quizzically as if to ask what could possibly be wrong with this.
It greatly concerns me when I see Aikikai promotion certificates used as a commodity for advertising or barter; a commodity that people trade or award for their own use or benefit. I wonder, how and why did this happen?
In my last article, “Who are the Real False Profiteers” link here. http://www.nippon-kan.org/senseis_articles/10/false-profiteers.html I wrote about the behavior of some of the high-ranking instructors at Aikikai Headquarters and the decline in moral standards among some of them. This problem is a affliction of profit and power at Aikikai Headquarters and the establishment of a hierarchy based more on seniority, blind loyalty and family lineage than ability and honesty. I write this article because I do not believe that the best qualifications and talents are being used to manage our international Aikido community at Aikikai.
Aikikai Headquarters claims to be the leading authority on Aikido in the world, the primary organization world-wide that represents the Aikido of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. In actuality however, Aikikai as a symbolic representation of Japanese Aikido commands less respect and holds less power on the international stage than it once commanded.
You might ask why I am focusing so much on Aikikai Headquarters when I am not a member of Aikikai. Why should I get so involved in this subject? My point of view is that of a Japanese Budokaor Martial Artist. My point of view goes beyond the policy of any one organization and seeks to focus more broadly on the place of Aikido as a martial art in our history and in our world.
Mr. T of Aikikai International Division Headquarters made it clear that he believes that “Aikido is a Japanese traditional culture”. This statement I believe needs to be qualified.
My question is, in what context of Japanese history is “Aikido is a Japanese traditional culture”? Japan has been a country for over 2,600 years. Relative to such a long history, the history of the practice of Aikido is minor. For Mr T to support the claim that “Aikido is Japanese tradition”, he needs to put this statement and its inherent responsibilities in a greater context.
Although Aikido has had a relatively short history, it was not created by the Founder Ueshiba in a vacuum; even in books published by Aikikai state that “Ueshiba learned from many different martial arts, etc. before he created Aikido”. For Aikido to belong in the realm of “traditional culture”, we must include all of the Japanese culture and arts and history that culminated in its creation.
Being responsible for representing traditional Japanese culture to the world is a serious responsibility.
Representing traditional Japanese culture is representing Japan as a nation and we cannot permit corruption or misrepresentation to invade this responsibility. If we find corruption, it is our responsibility as stewards of this traditional culture to protect the integrity of the Japanese people, our customs and our history. If we just close our eyes and ignore practices that lower the moral standards of our traditions, this will have a negative effect on the standing of Japanese culture in the world; now and into our future. In a grander sense, how we represent Japanese Aikido in the world affects the understanding and the future.
If the practice of Aikido is a representation of Japanese culture then the impressions we make with our practice of Aikido makes a difference in the world. ONE mistake or misrepresentation can make a difference in the perception of the character of the Japanese people and of Japan world-wide.
My concern is for the overall representation of Aikido and although of course, not all of thee representation of our practice internationally is bad, I think that Aikikai International Headquarters could do much more to keep us from heading further down a very wrong path.
Like I said before, I think it is my ethical responsibility just to ring the bell…
The Japanese martial arts are a powerful representation of Japanese culture and have been introduced and adopted into many cultures in the farthest reaches of the world. As a representation of Japanese culture, the practice of Aikido is relatively new to this international stage and the way we handle this responsibility is critically important. I cannot stand silently by when I see that the image of Aikido that we project to the world becoming tarnished or corrupted.
At the time I write this article, the erosion of our Japanese culture heritage in the world is already taking place; I have seen it with my own eyes and it disturbs me. I speak not only as an Aikidoka but as a Japanese martial artist and my concerns are for Japan and Japan’s place in the world in our future.
If Aikikai, the largest Aikido organization in our world-wide Aikido community is proud of and truly believes that they are guardians of Japanese traditional culture then they must take this responsibility and obligation seriously. My advice to Aikikai authorities is to take a more positive, proactive role in the guardianship of Aikido as a traditional Japanese culture.
Be careful and perform due diligence before forming relationships with organizations outside of Japan; be more professional in world relations. Listen to the complaints and concerns of others outside the inner circles of the organization; steer away from policy mandated by the old, outdated standards of a seniority and loyalty based hierarchy. Open up the organization; offer and share correct information with all levels of administrators and instructors at home and abroad within the organization, and process outside feedback before forming policy just within inner circle committees.
It is my hope that taking these steps might allow Aikikai to stand more proudly and confidently as guardians of traditional Japanese culture through Aikido.
Many of the high-ranking Aikikai instructors that served as the original Aikido pioneers in foreign lands have now passed away. It is a new generation’s responsibility to take the helm and keep our Aikido community moving forward on an even keel. The future of Aikido in the world will continue to move forward. There is no guarantee that Aikikai or even Japan will forever be the standard bearer for our art of Aikido. This will depend on our actions today and there may be more difficult days ahead.
There are many fine, respectable Aikidoka in the world, and I have had the good fortune to meet many of them in person. It is both a personal tribute to their character and a detriment to our community at large that these leaders usually seek little in the ways of political advancement. We need to develop these leaders as the guardians of the traditions of the Aikido of Morihei Ueshiba.
I would like to see Aikikai International Headquarters become more open to the development of new and strong leaders and join in the efforts to condemn and eradicate bad practices both internally and externally.
A negative representation of Japanese Aikido is not a positive representation of Japan and the Japanese people. As martial artists, we must be leaders in our world and use the great opportunity we have through Aikido to educate the world about our traditional Japanese heritage and culture. We as martial artists must lead by example, and I think this is the best way we can carry on the traditions of Japan as a nation and a culture. I think if Aikikai believes Aikido is a traditional Japanese culture, then we must all take this “Responsibility of Culture” with the utmost and serious dedication.
Aikido Nippon Kan General Headquarters
Nippon Kan General Headquarters Founder Gaku Homma Kancho
July 31st, 2010