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The origin of Aikido and Morihei Ueshiba

Updated on March 21, 2015

Who Is Morihea Ueshiba

It's fascinating how many martial arts are in fact based on a philosophy of reconciliation and even peace. You wouldn't think so, watching the practitioners appear to bash at each other with lightning speed. Yet for many of these arts, the underlying approach stems not from violence but from harmony.

The founder of Aikido was a man called Morihei Ueshiba, who was born in Japan in late 1883, to a family of farmers. He grew up to be physically rather weak as a youngster, and because of this he tended to spend more time reading and daydreaming than he did exerting himself, even in play. According to some accounts, he even contemplated becoming a Buddhist monk at one point. This is not how one usually imagines the founder of a whole branch of the martial arts.

But Ueshiba also had a Samurai heritage, and his father would tell him tales about his grandfather's prowess. And one day, when the young man saw his politically active father beaten up by followers of a rival politician, he decided that it really was necessary to get in much better physical shape.

Aikido History
Aikido History

Some history about Morihei Ueshiba

He studied several different forms of martial arts (such as jujitsu and judo, among others), but didn't get into them in a truly concentrated way for the first few years. One of the reasons for this was that he served in the army as an infantryman in the early 1900s.

Eventually, even though he showed such promise that he was recommended to the National Military Academy, he left the army and returned to the farm. By this time he was married, and in 1912 he moved to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido as part of a government push to settle it.

Many of the influences that led to Ueshiba's own art were revivals of older practices from Japanese history. For example, in Hokkaido he met Takeda Sokaku, who had revived the martial art known as Daito-ryu Aiki Jutsu, and here Ueshiba began to study martial arts in earnest, with Takeda as his teacher.

Then another element was added that would contribute toward both the physical practice and the spiritual philosophy of Aikido: he met and subsequently studied with Onisaburo Deguchi, who was associated with the Omoto-kyo religious practice - another revival, based on the traditional Shinto religion. Deguchi's pacifism and his spiritual beliefs made a great impression on Ueshiba.

Between 1925 and 1942, as he developed his own art, he called it by several different names, gradually feeling his way toward its real soul and purpose. During these years, he had several spiritual experiences that at last seemed to suggest to him that the way of the true warrior was not to try to defeat an enemy, but actually to prevent slaughter.

Finally, in 1942, he moved from Tokyo to Iwama and established a dojo (or training place) there, along with the Aiki Shrine. And it was here that his practice was first called "Aikido." He perfected and taught at this dojo for a couple of decades, becoming known as "O Sensei," or "Great Teacher."

He was decorated several times by the Japanese government - which was ironic, given that he developed his philosophy of the peace-producing warrior during World War II, in which Japan played a large role.

In the final years of his life Ueshiba saw the Aikido art introduced to France, the UK, the United States, Germany, and Australia. And when he died in 1969, Aikido was well on its way to spreading into the rest of the world.

Ueshiba was one of those leaders who translated his profound insights into a system that would go on to help many thousands of people all over the globe. Even now, several decades after his death, practitioners of Aikido still regard him as their ultimate teacher, their "O Sensei."

More Resources To Help You Learn Everything You Can About This Maritial Art

Aikido: Basic and Intermediate Studies
Aikido: Basic and Intermediate Studies

A good starting point for learning Aikido

The underlying philosophy of Aikido
The underlying philosophy of Aikido

The underlying philosophy

It may sound odd to claim that the underlying philosophy of a martial art ("martial" meaning "warlike" or related to battle) would be harmony and peace. But practitioners of the art known as Aikido make exactly that claim for their discipline.

One of the main goals in this particular martial art is to protect even the attacker from injury while still protecting yourself from his or her attacks.

Some derive the explanation of the philosophy from the three Japanese figures used to form the word "aikido." The figure "ai" is said to mean something like harmony, the "ki" is life energy, and the "do" connects everything to the Tao, which is a path that follows the true nature of the world. For those who use this explanation, the "aiki" part of the word refers to the way an Aikido practitioner should flow with an attacker's own movements and rhythms, in order to use them to exert control.

This could still, theoretically, be used to justify a great deal of aggression and violence, but the founder of the Aikido art, Morihei Ueshiba, took it in a different direction. He did derive many of the techniques from other martial arts disciplines, most particularly an art known as Daityo-ryu. But he was also influenced by the pacifist spiritual beliefs of Onisaburo Deguchi, who was involved in the Shinto-inspired Omoto-kyo religion.

Omoto-kyo teaches that personal virtue leads to ultimate, universal harmony, and that this harmony can be attained in the world today rather than in some afterlife or future utopia. The ultimate goal is for all religions and their adherents to be united under a single banner. Ueshiba took this concept of harmony and devised his Aikido art with such a belief in mind.

Of course there are as many interpreters of Aikido as there are practitioners. Some consider this harmonizing to be just a physical thing, applied only to the movements of the body itself when in conflict with another. Others believe that Aikido should be an entire philosophy applied to every aspect of one's life, interpersonal, intellectual, and spiritual as well as physical. The followers call these two sides of the philosophy "on the mat" (i.e. when doing the physical exercises or practicing with others) and "off the mat" (going out and living in the everyday world).

But the primary belief that seems to run through everything is that at the very least you should try to resolve a physical conflict not by beating up on someone, but by protecting them even while defending yourself from a physical attack.

In fact, some think of Aikido as "non-resistance," where in fact you do not actually resist someone's attack (nor fight back), but work with their movements to glide away from it and bring it to nothing by diverting and distracting the attacker. In a way, you do not fight at all. Instead you work on improving yourself through the training of Aikido, however the rest of your life is conducted.

It's easy to see, though, how the "non-resistance" philosophy of this art could seep into non-physical aspects of a practitioner's life, perhaps without their even realizing it. This not only benefits that person, but can only have good results in the society at large.

The Secret Teachings of Aikido
The Secret Teachings of Aikido

Another great book by Morihei Ueshiba

Aikido Weapons
Aikido Weapons

The Great Schism: differences in philosophy

The history of the martial art of Aikido is much like the history of almost every new religious or philosophical movement that ever existed: sister organizations and branches springing up, combined with splits and schisms.

Martial arts historian and Aikido practitioner Fumiaki Shishida believes that this splitting was probably the inevitable result of the way that this art was originally founded. It was created by Japanese martial arts follower Morihei Ueshiba early in the 20th century, combining ideas mainly from the Daityo-ryu art and the spiritual beliefs of the Omoto-kyo religion.

And according to Shishida, the reason Aikido could split so easily while disciplines like Judo and Kendo did not was that Ueshiba encouraged devotion to solitary practice.

Because of this, there was no objective way devised to measure students' skills and accomplishments. Nor, therefore, was there a unified body overseeing the development of the art, meaning that the different styles and schools were able to go off on their own, and even began to mistrust or resent each others existence and practices.

How did this splitting actually happen?

The original Aiki Kai association, founded by Ueshiba himself, was inherited by his son Kisshomaru, and is still the largest of the Aikido associations. The son was not the first choice as successor, however, since the position was originally offered to Koichi Tohei, the chief instructor at the time of Ueshiba's death. He declined in favour of Kisshomaru, and continued to instruct there. Yet eventually the two of them disagreed, and Tohei founded his own group, the Ki Society.

Similarly, Kenji Tomiki, the first person in Ueshiba's association to receive the eighth dan (the highest level for teaching credentials), wanted to create a "training match" or tournament system of Aikido. This, too, created disagreements, and Tomiki also created his own association.

This issue - whether students should compete with each other or not - has in fact been the main cause of the divisions in the Aikido world. Ueshiba had apparently decided, late in his life, that competition was meaningless. And his son has continued to teach that there should be no competition at all, but that students should simply learn Aikido for self-discipline and the seeking of truth.

So these disputes have continued to occur over the years, as different practitioners - often Ueshiba's own most accomplished disciples, and once, even his nephew - developed different ideas of what Aikido was truly supposed to be.

As Aikido has spread through the world - some groups founded by the Aiki Kai association, others by the Tomiki Aikido International Network (TAIN), and still others by more groups, these issues have continued to come up. TAIN holds international athletic competitions each year while Aiki Kai remains firm in its determination that competition should be banned. The tension between the two viewpoints has prevented Aikido for years from becoming an official Olympic sport.

As the historian Shishida says, there's no mistaking the irony of this situation. While one of the underlying purposes of Aikido practice is harmonization and unification, the end result has been the opposite. While the ultimate beliefs and the goal of the teachings are noble and admirable, each of the practitioners is a human being. And as most human experience through history has demonstrated, the divide between ideals and practice remains sharp.

Total Aikido: The Master Course (Bushido--The Way of the Warrior)
Total Aikido: The Master Course (Bushido--The Way of the Warrior)

Everything you need to know about Learning and Mastering Aikido

Aikido Terminology
Aikido Terminology

Aikido terminology: the shape of the philosophy

There's no way, of course, that you can summarize all the terminology associated with Aikido in one go.

That's because, like virtually all Japanese martial arts, this practice is as much a philosophy and way of life as a physical discipline, for many people at least.

So you don't end up just with words describing kicks and holds and moves, though there are a great many of those. You also discover terms associated with the wider view of the world as well.

Let's look at a few important words and names, just to get a broad picture of how an Aikido disciple might function, even if it's not really possible to touch on a lot of terms.

Take "Aikido" itself, made from three different Japanese figures. The "ai" refers to harmony, the "ki" to life energy, and with the "do," the word is connected with the Tao, very loosely thought of as "the Way." Together these figures suggest harmonizing one's life force with the way the wider world flows. The person who engages in this martial art is known as an "Aikidoka."

A "sensei" is the Japanese word for teacher, meaning "born earlier." But in Aikido, it only refers to someone who has reached the sixth level of expertise, and isn't used in a general way of every teacher. And only one person is referred to as "O Sensei," or "great teacher" - the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, who died in 1969.

In all the martial arts, there are certain standard sequences of movement that they use in attack and defense. Each of these is called a "kata," and students practice these katas over and over again until the techniques become second nature. Aikido teaches katas as well. And then by contrast, some of the sessions are in "randori" style, in which nothing is scripted and the sparring is entirely free form. This also teaches flexibility and develops the students' ability to think on their feet.

There's an interesting relationship between the next two terms, which reflects Aikido philosophy and indicates something of how it is applied in practice.

"Uke" is, in essence, the attacker in the sparring partnership. But since the purpose behind Aikido is to deflect violence and bring harmony, stopping an attack without harming the attacker, practitioners prefer to think of Uke as the one who provides the energy for the defender to work with. Which means that "Tori," the one who is being attacked, is regarded instead as the one who takes the Uke energy and transforms it.

"Osae" means "to press or immobilize," and in Aikido it's used for what are called "lever techniques," or moves used to immobilize an opponent with leverage rather than brute force. "Nage," on the other hand, refers to throws, that involve rolling or falling. So when using a technique - or "waza" - one can either use Osae-Waza or Nage-Waza.

And of course, students learn and practice at a "dojo," or a place where they learn "the way" (the same way as the "do" in "Aikido").

Even with these few words, the general shape of the Aikido philosophy is made manifest. Uke and Tori are two parts of the same process, the energy provider and the energy shaper, and the ultimate goal is harmony. All of the other terminology used in this martial art will be embellishment and elaboration of this key underlying principle.

The Heart of Aikido: The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki
The Heart of Aikido: The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki

This book was written by Morihei Ueshiba

Sport Aikido
Sport Aikido

Shodokan, or Sport Aikido

Back in the late 1960s, the founder of the martial art of Aikido died.

And that was either the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, for Aikido.

After Morihei Ueshiba died, his son Kisshomaru became leader of the organization. But not long afterward, serious splits developed between this organization (Aikikai) and several of Morihei's top students and disciples, many of whom went off and formed their own branches of the art. One of the main divisions focused on whether or not there should be competition within this martial art.

Kenji Tomiki, the person who felt that competition should not only be allowed but should be formalized into a sport, had actually been offered the leadership of the organization after Ueshiba's death, but had declined in favour of Kisshomaru instead. But once the disputes arose about competition, he too departed, forming the Japan Aikido Association.

And thus arose Shodokan Aikido, what is sometimes called Sport Aikido. This is a type of Aikido that developed certain techniques that could be learned and judged in competition. One of the complaints against practicing without competing was that there wasn't always an objective way to assess a student's capabilities. Having students compete regularly and be required to show certain skills and meet specific standards helped to mitigate this lack.

One of the things that distinguishes Shodokan from most other forms of Aikido is what is called the "randori" style of sparring. This word signifies slightly different things depending on which martial art is using it. It literally means something along the lines of "chaos taking." The randori style is where people don't rely so much on the more stylized, almost ritual moves, but instead engage in freeform practice.

In Shodokan Aikido, this most often involves one-on-one sparring, where the two partners try to resist each other's techniques and counter them. It's not that this type of Aikido is the only form that uses randori sparring (Aikikai, for example, does engage in it, more often with multiple attackers), but Shodokan places more emphasis on it than do the various other forms.

And this type of Aikido still uses the "kata" style as well, the more choreographed patterns of movement. Some of these moves, in fact, harken back more to the style of Aikido when it was first developed, before World War II.

The skilled use of these set kata patterns, along with randori matches, are part of the requirements that must be met by students and others participating in Sport Aikido competitions at all levels. There are scoring systems designed to assess the required moves and how well they're done, and also penalties given for certain minor and major violations.

Some of the criteria for awarding credits involve posture and balance as well as the correct execution of moves, strikes, or throws. Negative grading would be given for things like failure to dodge attacks properly, making forbidden grabs, or losing control of a weapon.

There are, of course, certain drawbacks to allowing competition. Apart from potential injuries, which are inherent in any martial art, there is also the question of whether a person is seeking self-betterment and a way to diffuse conflict, or is learning the sport only for the sake of winning. These issues always have to be kept in mind, by teachers, students, and judges alike.

But in Shodokan Aikido, the belief is that the benefits of competition can outweigh the possible disadvantages.

Aikido Weapons Techniques
Aikido Weapons Techniques

Weapons Used in Aikido


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