The Ethics of Aikido and the Hierarchy of Submissions

Most of the traditional martial arts have a code of ethics intertwined within them, but Aikido’s ethics are very interesting. Specifically, how Aikido addresses the ethics of utilizing technique. The ultimate aim in Aikido is to adequately defend oneself and leave the attacker completely unharmed, even when they mean to kill you.

This may seem completely impractical, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Upon closer examination into the art of Aikido everyone should see some practical value. Granted, the Aikido haters have made very valid arguments regarding the practicality of the art in a real self-defense situation. Generally, that the techniques only work against a very moronic, overly extended attack with some level of cooperation from the attacker. This is very true. Mostly, Aikido does not address even mildly skilled attacks or the issue of a resisting opponent. Given this legitimate criticism, Aikido has some pretty lofty ideals to leave an aggressive attacker completely unharmed. However, the whole art shouldn’t be thrown out because of some bad or unrealistic elements. It is better to take what is useful and leave what is not. Aside from any physical movements or techniques in Aikido, I want to focus on the ethics of doing no harm. Should practitioners of BJJ adopt that same mindset in their training? This question will certainly be divisive amongst the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community.

Why does Aikido espouse these ethics? It is most certainly because its founder Morehei Ueshiba’s religious leanings, which include a combination of Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. But, beyond that, there is an important element of technical development that must accompany anyone who adopts these ethics. The Aikidoka strives not only to leave their attacker unharmed because their affinity to fellow humans, but also because they themselves must have the highest technical ability in order to do so. In the case of Jiu Jitsu, having the “Highest Technical Ability” is the ultimate goal. Or at least it should be. The BJJ practitioner should have such skill and “Technical Gap” as to merely play with an aggressive attacker like a cat with a mouse. In this case, there is no need to harm the attacker. The attacker can be controlled in a calm and equanimous manner. A recent video was posted online of Matt Serra, who is Renzo Gracie’s first American black belt and unarguably a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu badass. The video shows Matt, who was at a restaurant with his family, get into a confrontation with an individual who was causing problems. The video (click HERE) shows Matt effortlessly control the individual. He wasn’t hurting him, choking him, or breaking his arms (which he most certainly could have), instead he just calmly mounted him and nonchalantly controlled him. The reason Matt Serra could do this is due to his high level of expertise in Jiu Jitsu. The “Technical Gap” here was extremely wide.

But this becomes an issue when the attacker has a skill set closer to our own. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller. In Aikido, the techniques more or less require a very un-technical attack. A lunging, over extended haymaker punch or over-hand chop. Timing, footwork and circular motions are then used to create dynamic off balancing and leverage. This is all very useful and good if the attacker is completely unskilled. The same techniques will fail horribly against any skilled martial artist. But, there are technical elements, we as BJJ practitioners, can adopt into our repertoire. Circular and blending motions just to name a couple. Technical aspects aside, we can also adopt the ethics of doing no harm. Maybe because we just want to be ethical human beings, or because in order to achieve such ideals we need a huge “Technical Gap.” This inspires the BJJ practitioner to work hard and gain mastery of the art. But to gain mastery of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu takes a very long time and is extremely difficult. This is because the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is quality checked and pressure tested against resistance every step of the way.

In BJJ, dealing with resisting opponents is standard practice. These opponents will have varying degrees of technical development. SKILL versus SKILL everyday. Not SKILL versus NO SKILL. The resistance training method in the BJJ keeps the sword sharp and readily usable. The saying “Iron Sharpens Iron,” is certainly apt for BJJ. When the “Technical Gap” is smaller between us and our opponent (which is commonplace in Jiu Jitsu) we don’t have the luxury of “playing” with them. We must employ multiple layers of strategy and technique to control our opponent. This is very difficult. And this difficulty (ie, resistance) hones our weapon (ie, technique) to a razor sharpness. And in this quest for control, we employ submissions. We must utilize these submissions because we have to gain the advantage. But not all submissions are equal.

There is a hierarchy to submissions based upon how capable the attacker will be to continue their aggression. The smaller the joint is, the more likely the attacker can keep fighting. The Hierarchy is as follows (from least to greatest):

  • Wrist (gooseneck, cowhand, Nikyo, Sankyo, KoteGaeshi)
  • Ankle (straight ankle lock, toe-hold, cross-body ankle lock)
  • Elbow (arm bar)
  • Knee (kneebar, heel hook)
  • Shoulder (Kimura, Americana, Omoplata)
  • Hip (Hip locks)
  • Neck & spine cranks (Twister, neck cranks)
  • Neck strangulations (Rear naked choke, Guillotine, circle chokes)

Wrist locks are the lowest of the hierarchy. Losing mobility of the wrist and hand is minor in the grand scheme of things. A tough opponent can keep fighting through this. As we progress up the hierarchy to bigger joints, the likelihood of our opponent continuing diminishes greatly. Then we come to the highest technical submission, the neck strangulation. Restricting blood flow to the brain by constricting the carotid arteries renders the attacker unconscious and completely incapable of continuing aggression. It is also the most humane submission, leaving the attacker uninjured (unless it is not released then it renders death.) So, technically speaking, the Jiu Jitsu practitioner should choose the highest order of submissions, the strangle. But life and combative situations are seldom ideal. We accept the reality of the situation and take the opportunities we can to affect our opponent. If the “Technical Gap” is tiny, then we may have no choice but to take the submission that presents itself. The weakest and mostly ignored joint, the wrist, is usually an easy target. So we may feel the need to snag a wrist lock in lieu of a higher order submission, such as an armlock or kimura. We can even use threats of submissions as a means to climb the ladder of submissions. We can put our opponent in a situation that he must defend his arm so that the pathway to his neck is clear. All things being equal, we should always choose the highest order of physical submissions, the neck strangulation.

So, we practice our skills and sharpen our techniques at every rung of the technical / submission hierarchical ladder. We do this day in and day out with our training partners/team mates in the dojo. Each training partner will have different levels of skill and experience that challenges (ie, sharpens) our skill. This method of training within the smaller “Technical Gaps” is a crucial and necessary step to widening that gap. To advancing our skill. So that we may be able to toy with an attacker like a cat with a mouse, just as Matt Serra did.

Could Matt Serra have annihilated that guy? For sure. So why didn’t he? Because he didn’t need to. His level of expertise is at such a high level through years of training that he could have controlled him in his sleep. If Matt were to harm that guy, it would have been purely due to a malevolent ego. It would have been unethical. Remember, Jiu Jitsu is “The Gentle Art.”

The adoption of an Aikido “leaving the attacker” unharmed philosophy is the GOAL, a skill set to aspire to. However, the only real way to get there is through pressure testing our techniques in realistic/resistive situation with other skilled opponents. To do this, submissions are necessary because the “Technical Gap” is small. They must be utilized to gain advantage that can quickly go to our opponent. If, as BJJ practitioners, we can hold our own with other skilled BJJ practitioners, then we can effortlessly control the unskilled attacker. In this case, outside the dojo in a real life self-defense situation, submissions may not be necessary. Calm and relaxed control is all that is needed, as in the case of Matt Serra. There then is no need to harm. So, it can be argued then that the ultimate submission is NO SUBMISSION. I often refer to this a Psychological Submission. If we agree with the ethical stance of Aikido, we view aggressors that mean us harm as being of a lower evolutionary order. They are just operating on a lower level. To harm them is an option, but at the cost of our own higher order. If we take these “attacks” as a direct insult to our ego rather than them just being unevolved, then we ourselves de-evolve.

That should be the ideal of every BJJ practitioner. To be so masterfully skilled that we can just play with our attacker, and choose to show mercy. But BJJ practitioners also understand that mercy may not be an option. We may have to break a limb or choke someone unconscious to protect ourselves or others. We understand that to truly “play” with an attacker we must first accept reality and prepare for it by utilizing the hierarchy of submissions on skilled and resisting training partners for several years.