A mixed-method investigation of the potential of aikido, a Japanese martial art, as a means to improve intercultural encounters and communication

Begin - Einde 
2019 - 2019 (lopend)



In our fast-changing world that is ever-more characterised by global flows, systems and networks, intercultural communication is a dynamic field. The ubiquity of cultural and linguistic contact in a ‘flat’ globalized world (Friedman, 2006), and the commodification of language (Heller, 2010), have resulted in a strong interest in intercultural communication, both inside and outside academia.

Academic research on intercultural communication has variously focused on nations, companies and individuals. While these focal points emerged at different times, each new emphasis combined with the previous one and today all three perspectives co-exist. Not only do they co-exist, but they also overlap and inform each other (Piller, 2017: 7).

Outside academia, it is mostly the work on nations and cultural differences by Hofstede (2010), Trompenaars (1998) and Lewis (2006, 1999, 1996) which has been particularly influential and has spawned a vast body of intercultural business communication advice literature. In these popular studies, ‘cultural difference’ is often seen as one aspect of the challenges and difficulties that international companies and their employees might need to manage (Piller, 2017: 7). Mostly, the studies are about interpersonal relationships and how these are communicated verbally (for instance, through engaging in or avoiding small-talk) and non-verbally (for instance through removing or not removing shoes when entering a business associate’s home in India or China). Typically, however, they are focused on ‘culture’ as an entity, something we ‘have’ – a trait – rather than something we do – a performance – with the danger of stereotyping lurking (e.g. Germans are able to drink large quantities of beer in one evening).

If, in contrast, we treat culture as something we do, its status changes from an entity to a process: something people perform, and, crucially, compete over. It has been widely documented that one of the challenges employees are facing in intercultural relations is communicating non-violently or collaboratively (Rosenberg, 2015; d’Ansembourg, 2001).

Today, popular books, internet videos and websites increasingly promote nonviolent communication and link it to aikido. Aikido, a Japanese martial art, aims to turn opponents into partners, aims to build bridges even when the odds are against harmony (Ueshiba and Stevens, 1993). Applying aikido principles in communication and interactions has been coined verbal aikido (Smith & Smith, 2008; Archer, 2013). The advantages of translating aikido principles to another field have been researched, for instance in helping veterans reduce depression, enhance well-being, and improve memory and cognitive processing (Lukoff & Strozzi-Heckler, 2017).

It is the aim of this research to explore the potential of aikido as a strategy and tool to teach employees to perform nonviolent intercultural communication. The research questions are descriptive and exploratory, and will be subdivided into three questions:


o          To what extent do the principles of aikido serve intercultural understanding and communication?

o          How efficient is the use of aikido in teaching intercultural communication skills?

o          How effective is aikido-based intercultural training in intercultural and multilingual encounters?

Research Design and Methodology

To answer the research questions, I will use a mixed-method approach, complementing interpretative, qualitative methods, with descriptive, quantitative analysis. Qualitative methods will be used to make the main inferences, with quantitative components added to test the assumptions. The study adopts an essentially ethnographic approach, is not oriented towards generating population-representative facts, but towards case-based productive hypothesis formulation reflecting on the complexities of social life.

Before embarking upon a pilot study and a two-year longitudinal research, I will set up a two-year benchmarking study to validate aikido principles. The benchmarking study will first rely on a thorough review of literature on aikido principles, intercultural communication and benchmarking. The literature review will help me to set up a highly accurate approach for a validation by group judgment. A panel of experts who have expertise in both the martial art of aikido and in interculturalism will judge to what extent the principles of aikido serve intercultural understanding and communication..

Upon having answered the first research question, I will set up a preliminary one-year pilot study which aims to investigate whether crucial components of the main study will be feasible, to avoid wasting time and resources. The pilot study will be set up with entrepreneurs who have enrolled for a course of aikido (n=12). The pilot study must answer a simple question: “Can the full-scale study be conducted in the way that has been planned or should some component(s) be altered?”. The method for data collection is twofold: semi-structured interviews and journal entries. Semi-structured interviews refer to interviews with open-ended questions whereby the interviewer notes down a list of issues to be addressed with the respondents but the specific wording and style of questions are flexible (Patton, 2002). Journal entries can help to identify issues that are previously not considered or covered in the interview and allow participants to record the fresh memory and critical incidents. Participants in the course will be interviewed before and after the course, and will be asked to make journal entries during the course so as to gain a complete understanding of their expectations, experiences, and takeaways.

Next, I will embark on a two-year longitudinal research project. I will recruit a minimum of 60 participants and divide them into three groups. Each group will perform an identical intercultural communication assignment. In preparation of the assignment, one group will receive traditional intercultural training, a second group will receive aikido-based intercultural training and a third group will receive no intercultural training. The groups will perform the assignment three times at particular time intervals. They will be interviewed before and after each performance, and will be asked to make journal entries during the entire two-year period. After the two-year period, they will be asked to fill in a survey. The findings will show short-term, mid-term and long-term benefits of intercultural (aikido) training, if any.