Aikido is Morihei Ueshiba’s grand synthesis of the martial and spiritual traditions of Japan. Morihei Ueshiba (1883 – 1969), also known as O-Sensei, founded Aikido and personally led its growth over four decades. O-Sensei trained in martial arts from an early age. He studied jujutsu, kenjutsu, and judo, eventually earning teaching certificates in judo and Daito-Ryu jujutsu. Elements of each of these arts, along with the spiritual traditions of Shinto, Buddhism and Omoto-kyo, formed the backdrop to the creation of what is known today as Aikido.
Originally referred to as Aiki bujutsu, O-Sensei’s “new” martial art diverged from classical styles and forms in several important ways. First, the use of the term “aiki” in this context denoted a more profound emphasis on harmonizing with the energy of the attacker than any martial art that preceded it. “Ai” refers to matching, blending with, or harmonizing with, and “ki” refers to the fundamental life force that pervades all beings and the entire universe. Second, the change from “bujutsu” to “do” indicates a move away from just techniques and more toward a martial “way”.
O-Sensei’s tireless efforts caused Aikido to grow in popularity over the period from approximately 1922 (when it was still known as aiki bujustsu) until his death in 1969. This growth included the formation of the first Ueshiba-ryu dojo, specifically for other followers of the Omoto-Kyo religion, to the establishment of the Iwama dojo and shrine, to the creation of the Hombu dojo.
During this period, the growth of Aikido occurred despite very adverse circumstances. Personal hardships confronted O-Sensei, including the death of his father and his two infant sons. Global events, including the increasing militarism of Japan and, ultimately, World War II, made continued focus on martial arts very difficult. Particularly difficult was the period immediately after World War II when Allied occupation forces essentially banned all martial arts training. Despite these hardships, O-Sensei’s commitment, personal dedication and shugyo caused Aikido not only to survive but to flourish. That so many students were attracted to the art in O-Sensei’s lifetime can be attributed to several factors. First, his mastery of the art was so total and complete that even those who did not believe were easily and quickly converted. Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, is said to have remarked on seeing O-Sensei demonstrate “This is my ideal budo”. Some were disbelievers until they actually had occasion to attack O-Sensei and were thrown or pinned with an ease that instantly converted the most serious skeptic. Word of mouth transmission of these accomplishments caused O-Sensei to achieve almost legendary status in his own lifetime.
This near living legend status, coupled with an almost total personal dedication to his mission of developing AIkido, equated to great leadership, an ever-increasing following, and a tremendous surge in the number of people practicing Aikido.
Unfortunately, even the greatest leaders are mortal. O-Sensei knew that for the art to survive there had to be some type of orderly succession by someone who could pass on his ideas undiluted to future generations. Luckily, he had a son who was able to train diligently and absorb his teachings to the fullest. Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1921- 1998) took the reins from O-Sensei and continued the founder’s mission. This event was tremendously important in the continuation of the art. Also important were the students who studied directly under O-Sensei and who opened their own dojos and spread the practice of Aikido. These people formed the next generation of teachers of Aikido, who took as their mission the continued undiluted dissemination of the art to the world. The succession continues today, with the recent death of Kisshomaru Ueshiba and the subsequent passing of the title of Doshu to Kisshomaru’s son Moriteru. The Doshu is considered the ultimate world leader of Aikido.
Aikido has basically gone through three distinct phases. The early years of development are referred to as the “pre-war” period. During this period the art was evolving but, for many reasons was disseminated only to a limited number of influential people. Second, the so-called “post-war” period (1948 – 1969) where the art began expand through increased interest, more students, and greater emphasis on the administrative side of growing what amounts to a world Aikido organization. The establishment of the Aikikai Foundation marked the beginning of this period, and Aikido began to cross geographic boundaries and spread to greater numbers of people than ever before. The third era, although lacking a name, I will refer to here as the “modern” era. This era is marked by a global mindset, easy access to information, and almost universal use of the Internet. Information about Aikido can be spread more quickly and easily than ever before. Geographic barriers blur, as Europe adopts one currency and cheap, easy air travel makes first hand experience of other cultures almost routine. The modern era presents Aikido with many challenges, and our ability to blend with these challenges will determine the ultimate future of Aikido.
The challenges of the modern Aikido era come from the very success that has brought us to this point. A beginning student entering Aikido today will probably be under the guidance of a Sensei who was the student of a student of O-Sensei. This means that the teaching this new student will receive has been diluted by two layers of personal experiences, backgrounds, philosophies and religious beliefs. Like the game of telephone, if the players are not careful, the resulting teachings can be very different from the original teachings of the founder. If this happens enough, the art can lose its identity and ultimately cease to exist as a single, well defined entity. This does not mean that the art is stagnant. Change is a fundamental part of life and Aikido must change and evolve in order to stay alive and vibrant. That being said, the “heart” of Aikido, the principles upon which the founder built the art, must remain unchanged in order for the art to continue to be the Aikido created and nurtured by O-Sensei. The future of Aikido depends on this.
There are two roles that are critical to the continued growth and success of Aikido. First and foremost is the role of the Shihan. A Shihan, or teacher of teachers, is the pillar of Aikido teaching and represents the closest link to the original teachings of O-Sensei. Building an organization with consistent, quality teaching, instructor certifications, and a worldwide presence is a key Shihan responsibility. By doing this, they ensure that the next generation of students will receive the best possible instruction. Also, by promoting the art through public demonstrations and seminars, they are continuing to expand interest in the Art and constantly bringing in new students to the art.
The second role is the role of the student. Each and every student has a responsibility not only to learn and understand the art, but to incorporate shugyo into their daily practice both on and off the mat. Although students are attracted to Aikido for many reasons, there must be commitment, perseverance and diligent training or the art will not survive. Without this the art is reduced to mere casual exercise, devoid of budo.
O-Sensei’s vision of Aikido was that it was a way to bring people together through a common path; a way to create bridges between people and cultures; a way to achieve peace and harmony for all mankind. In his own words:
“Aikido is the bridge to peace and harmony for all humankind. The first character for martial art, “bu”, means “ to stop weapons of destruction”. If its true meaning is understood by people all over the world, nothing would make me happier. The creator of this universe, which is the home for all humankind, is also the creator of Aikido. The art of Japanese budo is simply harmony and love. It is only natural that people should welcome it.”