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Modern Aikido: Moves and Meaning (Part 1)

Modern Aikido: Moves and Meaning (Part 1)

Forget the politics that have divided the founder Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido into a half-dozen communities, all calling themselves aikido. There are, in truth, only two aikido camps today: one mostly hidden, some say forgotten, and the other ascendant.

The first is a fearsome martial art cobbled together from older Japanese styles, resulting in a pattern of off-balancing entries, devastating throws and effective joint locks. That was the system Morihei Ueshiba, also known as O-Sensei, used in 70 matches when adepts from other styles came by to ask for a “lesson.”

The second is a noncombat-related practice in which aikido moves are taught to advance Morihei Ueshiba’s social philosophy, one in which effectiveness is at best secondary to goals of personal balance and communal harmony. That is hombu aikido today, the discipline that’s advanced by the founder’s grandson, Moriteru Ueshiba, the current head, or doshu, of the style. That doesn’t mean the aikido moves he teaches are ineffective, only that martial excellence is, for him, a secondary concern.


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Hawaii Event Celebrates Tradition and Offers Forum for Practice of Aikido Moves

That was the message preached and repeated at Aikido Celebration 2011 in Honolulu. Fifty years before, O-Sensei traveled to Hawaii on his only teaching trip outside Japan to dedicate Honolulu Aikido Dojo, a 130-mat building that was to be the center from which his art would spread through the state and to the world. His grandson, as well as his son and eventual successor, were there to rededicate the dojo and reaffirm the art’s message.

In 1961 O-Sensei came to teach a small community of largely Japanese-Hawaiian students, many of them practitioners of other arts. Most were looking to reconnect with Japan, seeking to join their heritage with their post-World War II American lives. Aikido, some said, would be the answer. “I wish to build a bridge to bring the different countries of the world together through the harmony and love contained in aikido,” O-Sensei said. “I think that aiki, offspring of the martial arts, can unite the people of the world in harmony, in the true spirit of budo, enveloping the world in unchanging love.”

If Japanese-Hawaiian students were looking for links to the Old World and its ways, they would be O-Sensei’s link to the world that was evolving. The Hawaii event was a celebration of that local history and the founder’s pledge to spread his message to the world. Talk about bridge building: On the practice mat were more than 400 instructors and students from 15 countries engaged in aikido moves.

The whole production — from opening ceremony to the doshu’s last-day demonstration of aikido moves — brought together Hawaii’s disparate community of practitioners. For a few days at least, O-Sensei’s harmonious bridge seemed real. Under celebration President Glen Shoji Yoshida, sixth dan, everything worked well as dojo members from Hawaii’s various islands pitched in to make it a success.

For Hawaii, a microcosm of aikido’s many technical disputes and stylistic splits, that was unprecedented. If Hawaii was to be the base for the founder’s bridge, it was also where the bridge supports first fractured. It was in Hawaii in the 1970s that Koichi Tohei, then the senior instructor of Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido in Honolulu, broke away after the founder’s death to create shin shin to itsu, known today as Ki Society aikido.

Ever since that split, hombu-style practitioners have tended to discord and division, splitting from their original schools to pursue their own ideas regarding aikido moves. Each new dojo chooses a slightly different mix of martial practice and philosophy, with most instructors insisting their idea of how to meld martial practice and social harmony is the real path.

The Art Today: Aikido Moves and Aikido Spirit

That, the doshu said with Yoshida translating, is the way it should be. “It depends on how the instructor has internalized these different aspects, martial or philosophical, and how he or she pursues it,” the doshu said. “Whether you do it one way or the other, you’re still doing what is aikido, strengthening your body and spirit.”

Some teachers are interested in practical applications of aikido moves, while others seek a less-martial, almost philosophical practice. Some teach weapons while others do not. “It’s all aikido,” the doshu said, different parts of the whole. And really, he continued, this is the way it has always been, the way styles have stayed fresh. People train, develop and practice aikido moves, then they teach others who appreciate their ideas. “To have an example in front of you is to have the traditional way we’ve done it in Japan in budo and bujutsu, and O-Sensei took this as the way to train.”

If some wish to make basic aikido moves into a practical self-defense art, that’s fine, the doshu said, but for him, martial excellence is a secondary result. In contrast with most modern arts, aikido permits no competition. But then Japanese martial arts have never been solely about fighting.

Jigoro Kano, founder of judo, sought to create a modern art that could be an Olympic sport and serve as a vehicle for international cooperation. Gichin Funakoshi, founder of shotokan, wanted an art that would foster individual betterment and social advancement.

“Aikido’s foundation is in the ancient warring techniques,” the doshu said. “What the founder did was take elements of this physical training, mental training and spiritual training and create a system that anyone can practice.”

Time and again, the doshu insisted on one thing: Aikido is a system of practice based on older arts but whose goal is to bring people together for mutual benefit. It comes from Japanese martial arts but is not just a practical art. Rather, it’s a philosophy learned through practice. “The evidence of what we do is in the people who are pursuing aikido throughout the world, strengthening their bodies and minds,” he said.

Continued in Modern Aikido: Moves and Meaning (Part 2)


About the author:
Tom Koch is a hombu-aikido fourth-degree black belt with shodan rank in shotokan and shukokai karate. He’s a former assistant instructor at Honolulu Aikido Dojo.

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7 Responses

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  1. Tom says

    Tom, thank you for the piece on Aikido, which I read with interest. I’m a big fan of aikido’s founder, who was a great example of a martial artist / human being out “there” making a difference in the lives of others –thru his commitment to (his own) noteworthy ideas and beliefs.

    And / but who really cares about aikido’s political issues? In fact, who but aikido practitioners even believe that aikido is a “thing” at all, separate, unique, and apart?

    The Curie’s were great scientists, Marie Curie twice won the Nobel Prize. Their work, collectively, changed the world in many ways. But we don’t look at their life’s work and insinuate their’s is “the way (or the right way).” Now I’m not saying your piece expressed that idea about aikido, but far too many of the aikido people I’ve mixed with, in general (notable exception, Bernie Lau of Hilo, student of Tohei Sensei) are some of the most close-minded martial artists I’ve ever met. Many are just simply elitists –or so, I imagine, they consider themselves.

    Nevertheless, I love what aikido is about that’s not the dysfunctional part perpetuated by some of its practitioners. What’s best, in my opinion –and most valuable –about aikido is what it embraces that’s universal, that’s not “aikido” at all, but man/woman at their best –embracing non-violence, acting in a spiritually evolved way, seeking to make all the work, all the movement about something more than what is so obviously appears to be.

    I volunteer with a, predominantly aikido based group called Peace Dojos International –and sometimes, among some, but not all, of the members there, there so much time spent on trying to distinguish how unique and apart aikido is from everything else, that little or nothing gets done. The flow of accomplishment gets broken by holding onto something that should be let go.

    What’s brilliant to me about O’Sensei’s approach, his life’s work, is how NOT unique and apart aikido is, from what I practice, from any martial art, and from life and how it flows. That being said, I respect aikido, but I’m not sure aikido will truly come to adulthood (or manifest it’s potential to make change in the world) until it’s teachers transcend the confines of it’s name and beginnings.

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  2. Tom says

    And forgive, please, the typos! –Tom Callos

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  3. Bruce says

    Well I have had the fortune to train with Moriteru & Kisshomaru Ueshiba in Japan back in 1991. Kisshomaru was a frail old man, who seemed more doing his duty as a son, than practice the teachings of his father. After a year I tired of the politics and ineffectiveness and started training in Bujinkan Ninpo! Let’s bring back O-Sensei’s Art! – Jahn Laster

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Continuing the Discussion

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