Does “Aikido” Even Exist?
a very well put together piece by George Ledyard

What is Aikido? One could simply say that all Aikido, regardless of style, has a certain basic set of techniques and movement principles which make the art “Aikido” as distinct from aikijutsu or jiujutsu or any other martial art. But, as any person who has trained widely in the Aikido community can tell you, there is such a wide range of interpretation with regard to how these techniques are practiced and executed that the surface similarities get outweighed by these inherent differences.

In Japan there is the traditional faction that believes that the art is the sole creation of Morihei Ueshiba and that Aikido is essentially the property of the Ueshiba family. Whereas, this might be the attitude of certain members of the Aikikai Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, I don’t think one can effectively maintain this as a point of view. Unlike the koryu, or classical martial styles of Japan, Aikido has had no set curriculum or any narrowly defined standards for the certification of its teachers. Even before the term “Aikido” came into common usage in the 1940’s, a wide gulf existed between the interpretations taken by various early instructors. The Yoseikan, Yoshinkan, Shudokan, Aikibudo (later Shin’ei Taido) systems emerged as distinct styles of what was just becoming known generally as “Aikido”.

The family claim to “Aikido” stems from its origin with the Founder whom we refer to as O-Sensei. Yet, even before the death of the Founder in 1969, his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, had secularized the philosophical underpinnings of the art and begun the process of simplifying its techniques, de-emphasizing the use of weapons and the more martially oriented techniques of the system. The Uchi Deshi who took Aikido abroad after WWII took varying elements from the Founder, the Nidai Doshu, and the Honbu Dojo Cho (Chief Instructor), Koichi Tohei Sensei, not to mention varying influences of the other senior instructors at the Honbu dojo. Saito Sensei, the caretaker of the shrine at Iwama, also had a degree of influence over the teachers sent overseas as virtually all of them had spent considerable time accompanying the Founder on his lengthy visits to the shrine and dojo.

By the time we reach the late 1970’s, this process had largely completed itself with Japanese Shihan presiding over the growth of Aikido all over the world. Yet even amongst these teachers, all considered “Aikikai” instructors, there was a wide range of interpretation as to what Aikido actually was. Some maintained a strong emphasis on weapons work; some even developed their own unique weapons training systems. Others put little or no emphasis on weapons training. Some ignored the trend towards a less martially oriented Aikido coming out of the home dojo and kept a strong emphasis on atemi and the more martial techniques which were dropping out of the Honbu Dojo repertoire. Even in Japan, apart from a small number of teachers like Abe Sensei, Hikitsuchi Sensei, Sunadomari Sensei and a few others, the spiritual orientation of the art had completely shifted away from the traditional, religious, Shinto based outlook which was fundamental to the way in which the Founder conceived and taught his art.

Where some sense of spirituality was maintained, its emphasis was more on the ethical / philosophical elements of the Founder’s teachings than on the mystical religious elements which didn’t travel well overseas and were even considered obscure by most modern Japanese practitioners themselves. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the Nidai Doshu, wrote a number of books on Aikido and this orientation was quite evident in his works. In many, if not most cases, the practice of Aikido became almost entirely secularized with almost no emphasis by the teachers on the spiritual side of the art in favor of almost total focus on the technical side. This was in stark contrast to the Founder’s emphasis which was to talk about the spiritual underpinnings of Aikido and only rarely deal with the technical aspects of training.

When Tohei Sensei left the Aikikai after the death of the Founder he created his own style of Aikido which focused heavily on ki development as well as waza (technique). His ideas on this were derived from the work done by Tempu Nakamura rather than anything he had learned directly from O-Sensei and despite a painful rift with the Aikikai, many prominent teachers both in Japan and abroad left the organization to do the new style called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido. Over the decades that followed, the majority of these teachers have struck out on their own, setting up their own organizations and adding further to the wide mix of interpretations that exist in contemporary Aikido.

So by the time the new millennium rolls around we find an Aikido that is variously defined by styles, organizations and individual teachers. In addition to the previously mentioned recognized “styles”, some teachers like Saito Sensei, in an attempt to distinguish their very traditional Aikido from the variants that followed came very close to developing new “styles”. “Iwama Style” came into common usage although it was never declared to be such by Saito Sensei nor recognized as such by the Aikikai Headquarters.

Some individual teachers, like Mitsugi Saotome, went off on their own (in his case the USA), started their own organizations, and then subsequently were reunited with the Aikikai Honbu Dojo. The “organization”, led by a talented and charismatic senior teacher soon became the new vehicle for promoting the growth of Aikido. It became possible to actually have one’s own organization which promoted a very specific interpretation of Aikido while simultaneously maintaining membership in the Aikiaki organization. K. Chiba Sensei’s creation of the Birankai is an example of this approach. Thus, re-absorption of previously estranged groups coupled with this toleration of organizations functioning within the larger headquarters organization has slowed down the creation of recognized separate “styles” of Aikido but serves to only thinly veil the fact that there continues to be very wide variation in approach and technique, even amongst students who trained with the Founder at precisely the same time.

With the spread of Aikido around the world we find the tendency towards entropy magnified even more. Most countries now have senior instructors at what would once have been considered “Shihan” grade who have their own ideas, not always in concert with the Japanese viewpoints, on what should happen with their art in their own country. Further, the development of non-Japanese teachers has also diminished the Japanese mystique which used to surround the senior teachers, all of whom had trained with the Founder. Now, students of the students of these teachers are instructing in their own schools. The pure numbers of practitioners, especially in France and the United States has made it virtually impossible for the Uchi Deshi of the Founder to remain as the dominant influences in the countries in which they have settled. Aikido has begun to take on aspects of the national character of the various countries it has spread to with increasing variation amongst a growing number of high level instructors.

At this stage, connection with the Aikikai Headquarters in Japan is more a sentimental attachment rather than something considered important to the continued development of the art in its various host countries. Pandora’s box has been opened and nothing will return it to its former state.

It is evident that, at this point in time, that the term “Aikido” which might have referred to something specific historically, is really a generic reference to a collection of martial and non-martial movement systems which share only the most surface similarities. Saying one does Aikido is like saying that one likes to eat Chinese Food. What kind of Chinese food? Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, Peking? What kind of Aikido? Yoseikan, Yoshinkan, Shudokan, Aikikai? Aikikai? Well, that doesn’t describe anything at this point… it’s all about the particular teacher within the organization or even which organization within the organization.

If this all seems to be impossibly confusing, it is. My intention in pointing this out is to help us all get past any remaining tendency to argue about what is the “true” Aikido, which Aikido is the most authentic. I don’t believe that there ever was anything that could be defined as “Aikido” in the sense of a “style”. Even before it officially became “Aikido” it had already morphed into several versions. The fact that the Founder spent his entire life refining and developing his art meant that what was called Aikido at any point in time represented only a temporal snapshot of what kept changing right up until the Founder died. It is almost impossible to maintain that any particular approach is more valid than any other. It’s simply a matter of finding the one that works for a particular individual. Not much more can be said.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog, and I hope it makes you want to find out more about Aikido