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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In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.


Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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