The Development and Psychology of
Bushido and Budo


Paul D. Short


(for Hon 3391T, The Japanese Psyche, Dr. Fling, Southwest Texas State University)


November 6, 1995


(Revised and expanded December 12, 1995)


The Benefits of Budo

What research says about today's martial artists

Empirical research on the psychological effects of martial arts is weak, in part from the simplistic view of the martial arts by researchers and a general lack of knowledge in this area. (Fuller, p. 326). Another weakness may be a lack of cross-cultural comparisons in studies conducted on the martial arts. However, a few studies have reinforced some traditional views of the martial arts and cleared up some stereotypes.

According to a 1985 CPI scale study conducted by Knoblaunch (as cited in Fuller) of 103 male and females with less than one year's experience in an internal (hard) or external (soft) martial art, novice external martial artists appeared more dominate and competitive than novices in internal arts, but did not appear more aggressive. The novice internal stylists cited personal, self-improvement reasons for choosing their styles. There were no significant gender differences in the motivation for choosing a style, nor were there any gender differences in dominance, aggression, or competitiveness.

A 1981 study conducted by Nosanchuch on 42 traditional karate students (as cited by Fuller) found an inverse relationship between skill level and aggressiveness, which supports the traditional view that training in the martial arts reduces aggressiveness, contrary to what some social psychologists have theorized. Fuller supports the view that tactile communication between partners in the soft arts, especially aikido, is important in reducing aggressiveness. This may because that in soft arts such as judo, jujutsu, and aikido, partners learn how to manage and "feel" each other's balance, energy, momentum, and intent, while in external arts such as karate and tae kwon do(16 ), the emphasis is more on projection of strikes and less on a working partnership. This attitude can be explained with the concept of ki (energy): soft style arts emphasize harmonizing ki, while hard style arts emphasize projection ofki.

Ki and Inner Strength

Perhaps the most difficult topic to talk about in the martial arts is ki (Chi or qi in Chinese). Ki not only forms the basis of aikido and Chinese Tai Chi, but more importantly, "forms the crux of East Asian philosophies and religions." (K. Ueshiba, 1987, p. 25.) Ki is as fundamental to Eastern thought as the idea of Good and Evil is in the West. Ideas of ki, as a refined metaphysical principle, came to Japan in the 7th Century (Locke, Olson, Seitz, and Quam, 1990) infused with Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. The idea of ki fit in with Shinto views of nature, which implied the existence of a "life-force" permeating all substance and events.

Most martial art instructors purposely avoid too much discussion on the subject--the interpretation of ki is usually left up to the student. Ki should not be mistaken for magic (Locke, Olson, Seiz and Quam, 1990, and McCann in Short, 1995)--it is a natural, simple concept which can be interpreted many different ways. Only a few interpretations of ki will be introduced here, but this does not mean that these are the only interpretations.

A traditional Taoist-educated Chinese physician would probably say that chi (ki) is a microbiomaterial which circulates through the body, maintaining life itself (Ho, 1995.). An Eastern philosopher might say that ki is the matter-energy of which the Universe itself is made. In keeping with this line of thought, a physicist might describe ki with the Big Bang Theory. According to Cosmologist Carl Sagan (as cited in K. Ueshiba, 1987, p. 28.), "Our bodies are made up of the dust from the stars. The same atoms that constitute the stars make up our bodies. . . . Indeed, we are the children of the stars." One can consider the dynamic energy generated during the Big-Bang as ki or life itself. Ki can be conceptualized as both energy and matter, similar to the relationships expressed by Einstein's famous "E=MC2" and quantum theories.

At a recent aikido seminar (Kokikai Fall Camp, 1995, Arizona State University), Kokikai aikido founder Sensei Shuji Maruyama continually stressed that ki should be approached as simply "a feeling." In aikido, a feeling of correctness, good posture--a natural, relaxed yet active state(17 )-- not a mysterious magical element. He demonstrated the absurdity of "magical ki" in several ways: once by pretending to exert an invisible force through his hand to stop an attacker, and another by mimicking a person desperately worrying about an aikido test, hoping for divine intervention through ki power.

Unity of ki, mind, and body is the ultimate goal of aikido (K. Ueshiba, p. 26). Sensei Shuji Maruyama uses a physiological example of ki-mind-body unification: the adrenaline rush that a mother uses to lift the end of a car off her fallen child. Another example can be found with yoga, where one learns how to control heartbeat and blood pressure with, according to Skidmore, much better results than conventional bio-feedback therapy (p. 142).

Some may dismiss ki as merely a placebo effect. However, unlike any other placebo effect, which the subject generally believes to be directed from the outside, with ki, the subject believes it to be directed from within (p. 146). Whether ki exists as an entity or not is left up to the individual; many martial artists are content to simply view ki as an overall "blanket concept," or a tool for conceptualization. A personal definition of ki can only be established with experience.

Conflict Resolution

Most contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy in the area of stress management employs techniques ranging from bio-feedback and self monitoring to Socratic discourse and social skills training (Fuller, 1988, p. 325)--highly verbal and cognitive approaches to dealing with stress. In internal martial arts such as aikido, stress management is dealt with in a non-verbal manner, using the body itself as a tool for learning. This has the two-fold effect of relieving stress both physically and mentally.

Thomas Crum, author of The Magic of Conflict, applies his practice of aikido in his Aiki Approach To Living seminars. Along with cofounder John Denver(18), Crum heads Aiki Works, Inc., an educational organization dedicated to teaching conflict management. Crum views conflict as neither negative nor positive. "Conflict just is." (Crum, 1987.) Crum explains that conflict is necessary for change, and teaches students to go with the flow of things, much like the samurai view of conflict, echoing the words of Morihei Ueshiba: "I have no attachment to life or death. I leave everything as it is to God.(19 ) Be apart from attachment to life and death and have a mind which leaves everything to him, not only when you are being attacked, but also in daily life." (M. Ueshiba, 1992.)

Crum uses the principles of aikido to actively resolve conflict. One principle in aikido is to never meet force directly on with force; instead, one takes the force given and controls it by acting perpendicular to the energy--this analogy is similar to a principle in physics that essentially states zero work is required when one force meets another a right angle, or the way a bent pipe can channel a stream of water without doing any work. (Personal communication with former physicist Sensei Bob McCann.) Another useful analogy that demonstrates avoidance of direct force is the conversion of linear energy to circular energy in a watermill: by turning against the force of a waterfall when its pedals are struck, the mill rotates and generates circular force as its center (axis) is stable. In aikido techniques that involve the use of tenkan (turning, pivoting), the aikidoka avoids the linear force of an attacker (punch, strike, kick) and it to circular energy by turning and maintaining a stable axis, an axis that can guide and control the greater force of the attacker, as long as it avoids clashing against it. Crum shows how aiki (harmony with ki) principles work in such a manner in daily life, especially in conversations, arguments, and anywhere stress or conflict may arise.

Crum views depression as a spiralling reaction to conflict. According to him, one of the culprits is a natural tendency for people to label difficulties as bad. These feelings accumulate and the person "spirals down" into depression. Using a relabeling technique he calls "the expansion spiral," Crum uses the wisdom expressed by Master Ueshiba: "Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. . . . do not feel animosity toward others when they treat you unkindly. Instead, feel gratitude toward them for giving you the opportunity to train yourself to handle adversity." (M. Ueshiba, 1992.) Instead of viewing a problem negatively, Crum suggests using the situation as a learning experience.

Centering, or Keeping One-Point

Resolving conflict in the martial arts also means resolving conflict within the self. Koichi Tohei, founder of Shin-Shin Toitsu Aikido (or Ki Society Aikido) once helped a doctor with insomnia by suggesting that he use aikido centering techniques instead of sleeping pills. He pointed out to the doctor that insomniacs sometime suffer from a condition where too much blood rushes to the head, accumulating too much heat and hindering sleep. Tohei showed the doctor how to "sink your mind into the one point in the lower abdomen and think with all your heart that your blood is flowing from that point to the very toenails of the feet." (Tohei, 1994, p. 82.) The technique worked, and the doctor became an enthusiastic Ki Society follower ever since.

Keeping One-Point (Centrum, tanden or the physical point two inches below the navel) is vital in the practice of aikido--an aikidoka maintains One-Point while controlling an attacker's One-Point, or balance. This also applies psychologically--the losing one's center mentally also means losing of one's physical center, as demonstrated by a deafening kiai intended to distract an opponent--and ethically: the very intent of aggression means that the attacker has morally lost One-Point, which also means that the person has lost One-Point psychologically and physically.


The focus of this paper has been to clarify misconceptions about budo and bushido, and to demonstrate the constantly changing martial ethic. The author has purposely avoided the typical approach to bushido, such as detailed examination of seppuku (hara kiri, or ritual suicide), accounts of samurai legends, and so on. The point that the samurai lived a Spartan life of self-sacrifice, which ultimately included the taking of his own life, has been thoroughly covered by other writers. Also, a rather narrow, simplistic view of samurai development was taken in order to generalize on the psychological factors of bushido--this is due to the limited scope and space constraints of this paper. There are probably exceptions to almost everything mentioned.

The section Benefits of Budo is a very brief introduction to the mentality of a martial artist and the concept of ki. It does not mention other important practices such as ki breathing and the importance of "cosmological" breath power; "sixth sense," or awareness training; misogi (spiritual cleansing) exercises, including mantrayana and kotodama (chants, sentic state expression, etc.); mediational exercises, and the like. The more esoteric practices are often treated as supplementary or personal exercises by many dojo. Another limitation is that this paper concentrates on aikido as model for both budo and an internal, or "soft" martial art--definitions of "hard" and "soft" are relative to individual perception. Ki training is not limited to just aikido--other budo, including "hard" styles such as karatedo, have their own interpretations of budo and ki. Self-improvement and conflict management methods in other martial arts are just as valid.

A martial art can be a way to seek enlightenment, resolve conflict, develop character, or improve the quality of life. It can also be used to indoctrinate--in the case of the Meiji Restoration, it led Japan to a war that would eventually end with the dropping of the atomic bomb, but it also fired the Japanese industrial movement which continues to this today. Although practice in budo requires much patience, if one perseveres long enough the wisdom of the samurai will be at his or her disposal, just as it has been for Japan.


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