Aikido's Morihei Ueshiba | Classic Martial Arts Profiles

This vintage 1968 article from the Black Belt archives takes you behind the walls of the hombu dojo of Morihei Ueshiba for an inside account of the master, his training methods and his philosophy.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the May 1968 issue of Black Belt. Its original title was "The Old Man and the Ki." The text is presented here with the time references intact. Every man, as he grows older, seeks some real or symbolic achievement with which to cap his career. If the calendar years have flown past the 80 mark, pushed upward to 85, you're going to check your personal record books that much more. Usually, when you take the profits and the losses and throw them into your own Mulligan Stew of life, you're hard put to get the ledger into the black.

Morihei Ueshiba knows he's in the clear. In December 1967, the 85-year-old originator of aikido got his crowning symbol when the opening of the three-story world headquarters took place in Japan. (Editor's Note: To learn more about the Aikikai Foundation and today's five-story hombu dojo, visit the English version of the Aikikai Foundation website.)

O-Sensei (great instructor), as Morihei Ueshiba is affectionately known, has turned into something of a mystic in his later years. Still a dynamic man whose presence in a room is immediately known, the wispy bearded professor hasn't lessened his interest in or practice of the physical side of aikido training. Indeed, he likes nothing more than getting out on the mat at 6:30 a.m. and working out, no holds barred, with the multitude of young students whose shaving days are, for the most part, still a big thrill. At a recent demonstration at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo, Morihei Ueshiba displayed the technique that has made his name a household word wherever the martial arts are discussed. Performing before the hard-bitten newspaper men who have been throwing stones at every innovation since Shipwreck Kelly took to sitting on flagpoles, a certain amount of skepticism is expected. When you've come to see an 85-year-old flip, toss and hurl younger, more virile men, you know you're not going to believe it — even if it's done. You're certain that it's the old shell game, perhaps this time done with mirrors.

It doesn't help, either, for the vintage leader to be so adept at his technique that it looks as if Gorgeous George could do it. Even patient explanations that aikido at first sight appears simple in its complexity failed to nudge some of the veteran newsmen. They remained sure that P.T. Barnum was somewhere in the wings. Apparently, the only thing that would turn their view into something more optimistic would be to don a gi themselves and work out with the likes of O-Sensei or his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. Aikido’s Zen History But they were solid workmen, and they ran the gamut of questions to the professor. Asked when aikido was established, Morihei Ueshiba replied, "The day I was born." That didn't satisfy the group, so Morihei Ueshiba's son made things more specific: The first dojo was set up in 1931. Questioned about the meaning of aikido, the professor blithely answered, "It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family." The newsmen bit on the bait; they wanted to know more. "How do you overcome an opponent?" asked one, his pencil poised on a small pad. He was interested in the old man's views. "If he's going to pull you," O-Sensei said, "then let him pull. Don't pull against him; pull in unison with him." The reporter put down his pencil and looked disgruntled. There was disappointment all around; quite realistically, the technique had more to do with it than what could be explained in pat answers. Just as in Zen, one understands aikido only by practicing it — not by talking about it. One can then discuss techniques and daily routines with a fair amount of comprehension. Aikido’s Hombu Dojo The hombu, a ramshackle 75-mat dojo that has served as the headquarters for aikido since its founding, is located on the sprawling Shinjuku section of Tokyo, in an area named Higashi-okubo. Here has been the ki, so to speak, of the world aikido movement. The new headquarters will contain a 130-mat dojo with two smaller 40-mat rooms. From these headquarters, radiating throughout the world are some 300,000 practitioners, one-third of them in Japan. More than 30 countries have aikido clubs, including the United States with more than 20 and France with about 10. In Japan, there are 70, 30 of them in the Tokyo area. Nearly 2,000 belong to the hombu, and its doors are regularly open to them. On any given day, you'll find no less than 300 students working out in the five hourly sessions beginning at 6:30 a.m. These classes encompass about 50 students each, in all ranks, all ages and both sexes. Beginners, however, are segregated to themselves, working under a much more tolerant instructor than the experienced practitioners would merit.

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The greatest problem has been the limited number of practitioners who are deemed worthy of teaching the students. The hombu instructor is a man who has made the grade to become a leader among men. Because of the shortage, private classes are limited, and only 15 are now allowed to enroll at a cost of 5,000 yen ($14) per month. There is also a $2.80 admission fee. The general training fee is less than $1 per month, and a $2.25 fee for school students is levied because they train every day rather than twice a week.

At a typical session, the instructor demonstrates a technique with one of the members in front of the group once or twice, then everyone practices for at least five minutes. Another technique is then shown, and practice is resumed. The concept of ki is part of the regular instruction because, as the younger Uyeshiba points out, you can't separate ki from the ordinary lessons.

Earning an Aikido Black Belt Beginners from fifth to first kyu wear a gi, which for all intents and purposes is a judo gi. It's only when they've been promoted to shodan that they're allowed to wear the black hakama skirt. Working up to first-degree black belt takes from a year and a half to two years. Among the foreigners who train at the hombu — about 10 percent are foreign born — one of the most dedicated is 28-year-old George Lee Willard of Glendale, California. Standing 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighing a muscular 170 pounds, he's a practitioner of karate, which he learned in Hawaii. When it comes to the striking art, George Lee Willard can handle himself fairly adeptly, but he would be the first to admit he's still no match for O-Sensei. That seems to be his goal, however. He would like, just once, to take on the master and come out the winner. He claims the master's old age is no detriment to his being able to best the others in battle. He only hopes the life of the old man holds out until he has a chance to get one up on him. That would take a large number of years, he believes, for the old man is in top-notch health. Speaking of ki, George Lee Willard is a firm believer and can't fathom why so many people make a metaphysical bunch of hogwash out of the philosophy. "We all have it to a certain degree," he said, "and you can feel it immediately when some dynamic person comes into the room. He radiates ki. Intense emotional feeling also brings out the ki in us. When we're frightened, we can run much faster than normal; when we're in a rage, we can strike much harder, and so on."

Aikido Belt Testing

The intensive workouts and training sessions are accelerated by a battery of examinations held on the fourth Friday and fourth Sunday of every month. Only January, August and December are exempt from examination rosters. The competition for the degrees is keen, but Kisshomaru Ueshiba has worked out a system that makes judging the events that much more precise.

Deciding on who should be elevated to a higher degree is at best a difficult chore, but to make the decision easier and more just, the students are divided into professional and amateur categories. That merely means those who concentrate on aikido training and those who concentrate on attending the workouts. It's similar to taking courses for college credit or just "sitting in" on the classes.

So intense is the competition and so conservative are the judges that Kisshomaru Ueshiba considers a third dan who has received training at the hombu equivalent to a fifth dan on the outside. Make no mistake about it: The physical side of the training is only a portion of the curriculum. Instructors who accompany O-Sensei and his son on visits to the Tokyo-area dojo also must have a total command of the spiritual side of aikido. Morihei Ueshiba: Aikido’s High Priest As for O-Sensei — the diminutive Father of Aikido who stands 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 125 pounds — he's so wrapped up in the philosophical side of the sport that it's difficult to talk on the same level with him. One of the leading officials at the training center claims O-Sensei is so religious he would make the best priest in Japan.

While his 45-year-old son handles the administrative end, the father spends most of his time these days at the Aikido Shrine in Iwama, Ibaragi prefecture, north of Tokyo. Early last fall, the grand festival of the shrine was held there, and more than 150 people came to pay tribute. Rank was awarded, demonstrations given and speeches made.

Morihei Ueshiba is adamant about his belief that aikido was not influenced by any other martial art, but ardent critics claim both jujitsu and kendo were involved in its formation. The garb worn during training is a combination of the kendo hakama and the jujitsu (or judo) gi. The turnings and general hip movements are said to be derived from kendo. One hardened critic, a sports reporter at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, went to great lengths to explain the similarities between aikido and jujitsu. If anything, aikido is a scientific transformation rather than an outgrowth of jujitsu.

O-Sensei dismisses all books about aikido because they fail to capture the spiritual side of the martial art. He claims the God in him emerged and expressed himself in aikido. O-Sensei also insists God is protecting him, a belief that is supported by the old master's ability to withstand and conquer younger opponents. The Ki to Aikido

One of the draws of aikido is ki. While it's widely used and supported, it's done so, in most cases, incorrectly. The basic idea is that the physical movement is controlled by the mind, a view to which many cynical participants refuse to adhere.

Although ki has been defined as the "spirit of love and protection for all things" or "spirit of peace," it has also been regarded as the instinctive feeling of danger and the ability to anticipate and overcome it. In this way, it's a sort of sixth sense, and the proper command of ki produces a whip-like reaction so fast and sure that a camera cannot properly catch it.

The aikido combatant quickly sizes up his opponent and instantly determines whether there's a dangerous or harmful presence. He's always ready to spring into action. Aikido students claim they were never really aware of the power of ki until their training brought it out. One calls it a universal power or spirit present in everyone to varying degrees. Another describes it as human vitality, producing spiritual and mental feelings. A third thinks of it as psychic energy manifested by applying the mind or will to any part of the body.

Whatever it is, it works. The aikido practitioner is hard and fast and equipped with a lethal ability to put opponents away faster than can be done in any other sport. In some respects, the acknowledgment of the philosophy and the physics is all the professor is asking for. The fact that many people are now adhering to his view and providing a new home and cultural center for his art is testament to the validity of his message. At 85, he can claim his life has been a success. For More Information:Black Belt's online store offers a selection of aikido DVDs and video downloads for further study. Titles include the following:
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