Kokikai and Zanshin

There is an old Japanese samurai proverb which cautions warriors that “In victory, tighten your helmet.”
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Joseph J.

Although Aikido is a Japanese martial art, Kokikai Aikido is a uniquely American interpretation of it. In class here in Japan, Sensei frequently tells us that his teachers were “crazy Americans” and, after many bumps and bruises and a couple of missing teeth, Kokikai was born (and continues to grow). Recently though, Sensei has been talking about Japanese martial arts philosophy and its connection to Kokikai Aikido. Over the last few weeks, Sensei has been using the term zanshin and lecturing about the necessity of zanshin (残心) in Kokikai practice. Zanshin is one of the most salient philosophical tenets of the Japanese martial arts and it is important that we, as Sensei’s students, come to some understanding of it, if we truly practice Sensei’s Kokikai Aikido, and apply our practice to our daily lives.

Simply put, zanshin1 means “remaining mind” (zan (nokoru)= to maintain or to keep; shin=mind/heart) and it refers to a state of mental and physical awareness/alertness after an action is undertaken and “completed.” Zanshin is the mental fortitude maintained before, during and after an action (a throw or pin, for example). It is the continued state of spirit, mental vigilance and physical preparedness to meet the next situation, attack or confrontation. Through dedicated training and research of Kokikai principles we can learn how to stay focused, attentive and positive, regardless of the situation we are confronted with. This is the thrust of Kokikai Aikido training. It is concepts such as zanshin that can be applied to one’s daily activities and character outside the dojo that makes the study of Kokikai Aikido a lifelong journey of progress, growth and development.

As was stated above, zanshin is heavily emphasized concept in Japanese martial arts. For example, kyudo2 (Japanese archery), kendo3 (the way of the Japanese sword) and shodo4 (Japanese calligraphy) all employ this notion. For example, in kyudo the act of shooting the arrow does not end with the release of the arrow; zanshin continues after the release of the arrow when the archer continues to maintain their posture and is maintained even after the arrow has reached (or missed) the target. The emphasis on zanshin is so strong that it is impossible to tell, just by looking at the archer, whether or not the arrow hit the target. Whether or not the archer hits or misses the target is undetectable as the austere facial expression of the archer remans the same and the succeeding movements are undisturbed, yet resolute. In shodo, zanshin is present when the calligrapher finishes the final brush stroke and the hand and brush smoothly and gracefully leaves the paper. In the case of aikido, reference to zanshin is rare and, I would venture to guess that if you check most aikido books, zanshin is probably not listed in a glossary or index. Zanshin is a fundamental construct of self-defense and it needs to be given serious consideration if we are to travel Sensei’s path in Kokikai.

Consider the following 2 sounds: the sound of a cowbell and the sound of a Japanese temple bell. A common analogy used in Japan compares zanshin with a temple bell. When a Japanese temple bell is struck, the sound reverberates, resonates and continues for several seconds, unimpeeded, after initially being struck. On the other hand, when a cowbell is rattled, the sound almost immediately terminates. And this is the point: most aikido students practice techniques like cowbells, Sensei is the temple bell. Whenever Sensei throws, he is in a state of mind that is always relaxed, yet aware; after a throw is completed, Sensei is balanced and prepared for the next attack. This is what we must strive to do. A throw is never completed…there is always another attack on the horizon, there is always another confrontation brewing (whether it is physical, mental or spiritual) and we must learn to be prepared for the next attack. This is what Sensei teaches, zanshin in everyday life.

Joseph J. Pielech
Nagoya, Japan


1Zanshin (Jp. 残心)
2Kyudo (Jp. 弓道)
3 Kendo (Jp. 剣道)
4Shodo (Jp. 書道)