Ueshiba Morihei (1883 – 1969)
Aikido is a classical Japanese martial art, contemporary to Judo, founded by Master Ueshiba Morihei. Its roots are to be found in 8th century Japan, during the samurai feudal era. It is known for its fluid, circular and turning motions (tenkan), and for its sharp, angular, entering techniques (irimi), usually followed by solid immobilizing postures.
The forms of Aikido are well-founded in a myriad of throws, joint locks, ground techniques and traumatizing attacks. It also an integral part of Aikido the training in armed techniques for which the samurai class was notorious for, such as Kenjutsu (samurai swordsmanship), Jojutsu (wooden staff) and Tantodori (knife techniques). At an advanced level, there are techniques that seek to enable the practitioner to evade ambushes, where one is attacked by multiple individuals (randori). In fact, in samurai sword culture, being caught by war adversaries was considered worse than death itself.
The Japanese characters that comprise the word Aikido mean, respectively, aiki (harmony), and do (path), hence, The way of Harmony is a commonly accepted translation. Due to its historical background on the deadly battlefields of feudal Japan, Aikido is beyond doubt a highly effective form of self-defence. That being said, it is important to understand that the goals of Aikido lie beyond mere fighting techniques, since it nurtures physical and psycho-emotional health, developing a sharp sense of concentration and awareness.
One of the many enriching aspects of this art is that within the practice of Aikido one has direct experience of traditional Japanese culture, which includes the aesthetics of etiquette rules that are found in most traditions of Japan, from tea ceremony to archery.
Thus, one also acquires knowledge of Japanese history and eastern philosophy, since practice is held within a dojo environment, the place were traditional Japanese martial arts are practiced.
In Japan though, calligraphy, flower arrangement schools, as well as archery and Buddhist meditation halls are also called dojo. Hence, a dojo is a hall for immersive learning and self-growth. The term literally translates to “place of the Way”. At a dojo, one finds a more serene and reverent atmosphere, rather different from the sports-like environment of gyms.
The practice of Aikido can be adapted to one’s individual needs, taking a more intense or gentler approach, be it for health, culture, self-defence, philosophy and the like. It is not unusual to find people from all different walks of life at an Aikido dojo, from scholars to law enforcement agents and military personnel, from artists to holistic health practitioners, students, business people, entrepreneurs and so forth. Due to its non-competitive nature, Aikido is suitable for everyone, regardless of age or gender.
Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平 14 December 1883 – 26 April 1969), referred to by Aikido practitioners as Ō-sensei, or “Great Teacher”, developed Aikido primarily during the late 1920s through the 1930s as a synthesis of the older martial arts that he had studied. The core martial art from which Aikido derives is Daitoryu Aiki-jujutsu, along with many other ancient samurai arts such as Tenjin Shintoryu, Kashima Shinden Jikishinkageryu and Gotoha Yagyu Shinganryu.
Most importantly, is the influence of Daitoryu Aiki-jujutsu (大東流合気柔術), or simply Daitoryu. The origins of Daitoryu maintain a direct lineage extending approximately 900 years, originating with Prince Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (1045–1127), a samurai descended from the 56th imperial ruler of Japan, Emperor Seiwa.
The samurai clan was highly structured, with various sorts of military divisions. The elite samurai warriors responsible for the safeguard of palaces, castles, and of high profile personnel, such as feudal lords and mainly the Emperor of Japan, developed and practiced the art of Daitoryu, and for this reason it was kept a well-guarded secret for almost 1000 years. Ancient texts refer to it as the “mystical circular art of the palaces”.
With the decline of the samurai era (Asakusa to Tokugawa periods), during the transition to modern Japan (Meiji period – 1860 onward), it was feared that these many arts would disappear along with the samurai class, and it was only then, for the sake of its preservation, that the samurai decided to expose their arts to the general public.
Ueshiba sensei was one of the first lay men to receive the ancient secrets of the samurai, which he learned from Sokaku Takeda, one of the masters assigned to spread Daitoryu. Ueshiba was later considered Takeda’s best student. Many claimed that Ueshiba sensei actually became a greater master then Takeda himself.
Still within the historical development of Aikido is the influence of Ueshiba sensei’s spiritual guide, Onisaburo Deguchi the leader of Omotokyo, a sect of the native Japanese religion – Shintoism. Deguchi had a great impact on Ueshiba’s martial arts philosophy and spirituality.
Nevertheless, in the last years of Ueshiba sensei, it was still a major concern if his art would survive the modern world. His close disciples were sent abroad and Aikido was first brought to the rest of the world in 1951, to countries such as France, USA, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Australia.
In the early 80’s this concern was still alive, and Aikido was still rather unknown till it saw a boom in popularity due its appearance in Hollywood movies. Today there are Aikido dojos available across the globe, and its revival has been responsible even for the rediscovery and preservation of Daitoryu.
One peculiarity of Aikido lies in the fact that Ueshiba sensei officially forbade any sort of competitive practices, and as a direct consequence of this ordinance, Aikido managed to preserve and keep alive its ancient philosophy and spirituality, a fact that, most unfortunately, is not true among the overly commercialized modern martial arts.
One can find clear evidence of Aikido’s philosophical and spiritual ideals, for instance, by closely observing one of the core principles of Aikido which is the cultivation of ki (vital force), that reflects in a state of harmony with nature and oneself, blossoming in the deep realization that this vital force is in fact one’s innermost essence and true identity. This is a concept that is widely exposed in diverse philosophical, spiritual and medicinal systems found throughout Asia, rooted mostly in ancient China and India. As a matter of fact, the healing process of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda (traditional medicine from India) revolves purely around the healthy flow of ch’i, pronounced as ki in Japanese.
It is thus not uncommon for the art to be explained within the context of lofty ideals such as non-violence and brotherhood, and in some dojos the practice of meditation is either a part of practices or encouraged. In truth, not only its philosophy, but Aikido’s practical techniques are frequently described under the perspective of the observation of the patterns of nature, such as the striking force of thunder and lightning, the harmonious, circular, yet very powerful movement of ocean waves, and the spiraling motions of hurricanes and galaxies – a clear influence of Shinto worldview.
The founder of Aikido would frequently quote the Kojiki, the “Book of ancient matters” of Shintoism, to the point that some breathing and energization techniques practiced in most Aikido dojos till today, such as torifune, furidama and funakogi derive directly from the Shugendo tradition of the Yamabushi – the mountain dwelling Shinto monks that belong to an immemorial spiritual tradition that relates back to the Tengu, the mythological entities of pre-Buddhist Japan.
Throughout the ages, martial arts have been held in high esteem for developing the human character, and that is perhaps the greatest treasure that one can acquire from its practice. Self improvement within the spectrum of martial arts include physical fitness, a healthy lifestyle, self confidence, improved reflexes, focus and stillness.
On a deeper sense, the practice of martial arts mature one’s understanding of morals and values, which are broadly described in samurai literature, and in different writings of the vast literary corpus of eastern traditions, bringing to the surface the noble qualities of the human spirit, such as rectitude, justice, courage, benevolence, mercy, politeness, honesty, sincerity, honor, loyalty, character, self-control, perseverance, self-discipline, straightforwardness, non-injury, truthfulness, peacefulness, compassion, gentleness, modesty, radiance, forgiveness, patience and love – qualities that are indeed much needed in the troubled world in which we live in, widening and purifying one’s perspective of existence, enabling one to live a fulfilling, clear and enlightened life.