Book Review: “Hidden in Plain Sight”

Title: Hidden In Plain Sight Tracing the Roots of Usehiba Morihei’s Power
Author: Ellis Amdur
ISBN #: 978-0-9823762-0-1
Year: 2009

At one point in my life I had over 500 martial arts related books in my personal library. They covered every style imaginable, and many were in languages I couldn’t read. I would say that 85% weren’t worth the paper they were printed on–and that’s being gracious.

For the most part, these books were written by people–usually martial arts instructors–who are not professional writers or scholars. Just being an experienced teacher does not necessarily make someone an authority on their art, and it certainly does not guarantee that one is capable of explaining their style clearly. Writing is hard.

Many of these books perpetuated myths and misconceptions. A lot of the information in them could easily be disproved with a little research. Worse yet, the books often were filled with techniques that weren’t viable as presented.

In fact, the majority of these books contained nothing but disjointed sequences of photographs and drawings with “chop-socky” explanations of techniques. There was nothing in these that one could–or should–actually learn from. I suppose that they had some use as a reference for students of that particular style who already knew the techniques.

In my opinion, almost all martial arts books are interesting for the “hobbyist,” but have no value for someone really trying to research the (factual) history of an art, delve into the theories of “martial science” or improve their skills past a basic level. Sure, they may contain some worthwhile tidbit from time to time, but overall they aren’t worth the time it takes to read them.

But, every now and then, you run into a book that has valuable content and is written by someone who is both very knowledgeable and has the ability to communicate clearly. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is one of those books.

I’ll start my review with the following two comments: it is not an easy read, and trying to summarize the book with any brevity is impossible. Anyone looking for a “how to” book to improve their Aikido/Aiki skills will be disappointed–sort of. But in some ways, that is the point. He is not providing any information that the real serious martial artist hasn’t contemplated; he is just reaffirming what they should already know that there has to be more to training than just being taught techniques.

At its most basic, this book is an examination of the development of Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido and how he developed his level of skill–skill that his contemporaries considered outstanding, or even superhuman.

But it’s more than that. It’s also a book about the culture and history of Japanese Budo and the Aiki arts. How training was done in the past, what teachers of the past put themselves through to achieve their level of skill, and how that knowledge was propagated.

The theme of the book is about how many of these methods are overlooked or not understood today, though they are “hidden in plain sight.”

What I appreciate about Mr. Amdur’s work is that he avoids the all-too-common reliance on the mystical nature of martial arts, opting to focus on more of the tangible scientific development and application that make them viable.

I consider this book to be a must-read for any serious practitioner of the martial arts.

On a more personal note, this book has made me go back and reexamine the way in which my teacher taught me (see previously posted essay titled “Training Via Osmosis”). As I said in that essay, I now believe there was a lot more method to the seeming madness of how I was trained.

For this alone, Mr. Amdur’s book was invaluable to me.