The Fight that Never Comes

What Aikido teaches about life

“Instead of leaning back away from a punch,” the man said, “you let it come, let the other guy commit to the attack, then spin it around on him.”

The man wasn’t talking about a fist fight. He was talking about how to deal with life’s daily problems, like an argument with a co-worker or a negotiation for a hotel discount.

He was talking about Aikido.

Aikido, like karate, is a martial art, but with a big difference: its practitioners don’t fight. Instead of throwing kicks and punches, in the martial ballet of Aikido they rigorously prepare themselves to side-step the violence of a fight that never comes.

Writing for Qualitative Sociology, sociologist Drew Foster wonders, “Why do people who will never actually fight train their bodies to fight?”

Roll with It

Aikido is not like the other martial arts. “Instead of overcoming an opponent through force,” Foster writes, “the goal of aikido techniques is simply to neutralize the situation by pinning, throwing, or taking the balance of the aggressor, often only to the extent that one can safely withdraw from the situation.” You receive the attack, flow with it, and find the exact point where you can use the attacker’s force to counterattack.

A rule: You can’t muscle it. The whole point is minimal force. Submission by sheer force – and not the ballet of angle, leverage, and timing – is a cheat. Rule breakers are admonished.

Another rule: No competition. An early Aikido founder declared competitiveness as inimical to Aikido’s spirit: “Such things are seen as fueling only egotism, self-concern and disregard for others.” To rise in status, one goes through formal tests to earn grades and degrees (like academia).

Foster spent nearly two years in an Aikido training center, called a Dojo, set up “in a revamped storage facility near the edge of town” somewhere in Middle America. With his “body as a tool for research,” he interviewed, observed, participated, and took notes. To gain their acquaintance, he went to out-of-Dojo experiences such as parties and potlucks, bars and restaurants.

Aikido in America is a mostly white, male, and middle class affair. In Foster’s study, the Dojo’s Sensei, or main instructor, worked at a business consulting firm. His assistants included a musicologist, a retired professor, and a children’s drama teacher. Most of the members were white men. They were architects, academics, consultants, and engineers. Membership was a hundred bucks a month. They came in after work.

Most have never been in a physical fight.

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners,” Foster writes, “are extremely unlikely to experience violence or risk of violence in their everyday worlds.”

What Are They Training For?

Mike is a 30-something graduate student and a member of the Dojo. “Lately I’ve been thinking how I’m striving to do aikido in everyday arguments with my wife,” Mike said.

“I’ve been really trying to figure out how to finesse my responses to my wife and blend with what she’s saying… I also try to know when I’ve been overcome and roll out of it safely instead of trying to meet whatever’s beating me with more counterforce.”

As hokey as it may sound, they are training for life. It’s what Foster and some of his interviewees call Big Aikido, “the employment of aikido techniques, philosophies, and principles in non-martial settings.”

One guy told the story of when he tried to get the discount he was owed at a hotel. Instead of being angry and confrontational, the guy calmly took in the hotel clerk’s aggression (so the story went) and produced the necessary information to win the argument. He got the discount. The guy’s wife praised him: “Wow! You really aikido-ed that!”

In Aikido, the body is fit and the pain is real. But hitting is for the mat and the training is for life’s non-martial problems.

“Ever since that period when I really just pushed myself to keep rolling out of throws even though I was so afraid of getting hurt,” a woman in the Dojo said, “I’ve found I can apply this ‘just roll’ to other areas of my life…”

“Like trying to finish my novel.”


This piece is written by Josh Dubrow and is based on the article, “Fighters who Don’t Fight: The Case of Aikido and Somatic Metaphorism,” by Drew Foster and published in Qualitative Sociology, (2015) 38:165–183.

“Instead of leaning back…” (178).

“Why do people …” (166).

“Instead of overcoming an opponent …” (171).

“muscling it” (175)

“Such things are seen …” Quote by Ueshiba (1984: 15) in Foster (2015: 171).

“in a revamped storage facility…” (170)

“body as a tool for research” (169)

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners…” (171). Most of his 19 interviewees were white men in their 30s and 40s. Most were middle class.

“Lately I’ve been thinking… beating me with more counterforce.” (176)

“the employment of aikido techniques…” (176).

“Wow! You really aikido-ed that …” (178).

“Ever since that period … trying to finish my novel.” (177)

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND



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