What’s so aiki about peace, love and understanding?
Aikido is one of the best-known martial arts in the world, yet the meaning of the word aiki is not well understood. Most people, including many of the 1 million who study aikido today, are probably familiar with Morihei Ueshiba’s famous interpretation — namely, universal love and harmony.
In the classical Japanese martial arts, however, it has a different — and definitely more combative — meaning. Ueshiba’s own jujitsu teacher Sogaku Takeda defined aiki as “the ability to defeat an enemy with a single glance.”
So which one is right?
Hanza hantachi techniques performed from a seated position against a standing opponent (above) are found in daito-ryu aikijujutsu and aikido. They’re said to have originated from methods used to fight inside a palace, where much time was spent seated.
Koryu Bujutsu and Aiki
The concept of aiki can be found in some of Japan’s koryu bujutsu, or classical martial arts, and should not be thought of as unique to aikido. However, the interpretation of the word changed significantly by the time aikido was formed.
The koryu bujutsu were the arts in use during Japan’s feudal era beginning around the 15th century and ending in the late 19th century. They were primarily systems of combat practiced by the professional military classes rather than the civilian population. They included arts such as jujitsu and kenjutsu.
The modern budo — which include karate-do, judo, aikido and kendo — don’t focus on combat to the same extent. They’re considered vehicles for spiritual development and self-improvement, although great skill in fighting may certainly be achieved, as well.
For a better discussion of the differences between the koryu arts and the modern systems than is possible in this article, Donn F. Draeger’s three-part series The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan is recommended.
The word “aiki” literally means a fusion or meeting of energy. It’s no accident that it’s an anagram of the word kiai (focusing the spirit), and indeed the distinction between the two is blurry.
In the koryu arts, the application of aiki first appeared in kenjutsu schools (see Aikido: Tradition and the Competitive Edge, by Fumiaki Shishida and Tetsuro Nariyama) and referred to a contest of wills between combatants. Some other interpretations include the ability to gain the initiative and to use physical and psychological techniques to unbalance a foe. Over time, more esoteric meanings were offered, which would make any Jedi knight proud. They included the ability to see in the dark, to bring a walking man to a stop and to read minds (see The Fighting Spirit of Japan, by E.J. Harrison).
Several jujitsu and judo schools also teach the concept of aiki, but the first one to formally include it in its name was daito-ryu aikijujutsu.
Two Remarkable Men
Daito-ryu master Sogaku Takeda may not have looked anything like Tom Cruise, but it would be apt to describe him as the real “last samurai.” Takeda was born in 1859 in Aizu, Japan, and lived through the Meiji Restoration, the ending of the feudal age and the final days of the samurai caste.
From childhood, he was trained in several of the bujutsu of the Aizu clan, including the ono-ha itto-ryu style of kenjutsu and the family art of daito-ryu aikijujutsu. According to oral legends, aikijujutsu was created around 1100 and passed down secretly within the Takeda family. It’s said to have originated from sumo wresting and unarmed sword strikes. Daito (“great east”) was the name of the area in which Yoshimitsu Minamoto, the alleged creator, lived.
One of the fighting arts Sogaku Takeda learned as a child was the ono-ha itto-ryu style of kenjutsu (above).
Despite standing less than 5 feet tall, Takeda was a formidable fighter and personally pressure-tested his skills in several life-or-death encounters. The most notorious incident occurred when he was in his early 20s and fought a gang of construction workers in Fukushima. Takeda killed around seven of them with his sword after they attacked him with weapons and tools.
During his lifetime, Takeda taught thousands of people. His most famous pupil, however, was undoubtedly Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido.
Ueshiba met Takeda in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, in 1915. Ueshiba was already a strong fighter with considerable training in other jujitsu styles, but he found he was no match for Takeda. Consequently, Ueshiba abandoned all his activities to study with his superior. Contrary to the beliefs of many aikidoka, Ueshiba studied daito-ryu for a long time — Takeda’s meticulous records indicate that he trained for more than 20 years.
Ueshiba would later modify the daito-ryu techniques he learned and combine them with the spiritual teachings of the Omoto-kyo religion to create what we now know as aikido. In the later stages of his remarkable life, he played on the fact that the character for love was pronounced ai, the same as the first syllable of aiki. His proclamation that “aiki is the manifestation of love” signified his conversion of aikido from its combative bujutsu roots into a budo system that could reconcile human beings and avoid conflict. This probably gave rise to the vision that many aikidoka of today are familiar with and have as their ideal.
But not all aikido teachers agree that this is being pursued in the best or most realistic way today. Dave Humm, a British aikido instructor and prison officer, believes that reconciliation and conflict resolution without violence are high ideals that are overemphasized in many organizations. While he ultimately agrees with the ideology and philosophy of the art, he also believes that many aikido schools don’t fully condition their students for dealing with aggressive physical confrontation. He holds that spending many years training to control physically uncooperative aggressors is a necessary step on the path to achieving Ueshiba’s higher ideology.
That doesn’t seem like such a radical doctrinal departure when one considers that even Ueshiba defined aiki in a less-than-altruistic manner in the early part of his career. In Dueling with O-Sensei, koryu and aikido teacher Ellis Amdur describes how Ueshiba reportedly said, “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.”
In the same book, Amdur writes that Ueshiba purportedly taught combat methods at the infamous Nakano Spy School during the war. The former headmaster is said to have recounted how Ueshiba would demonstrate killing techniques, saying “This is how you finish them off.” Given the nature of the academy, the era and the activities of its members, he probably wasn’t teaching students how to love people to death.
About the author: Dr. Nick Hallale has practiced the Chinese and Japanese martial arts since 1988. He has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and taught for several years at the University of Manchester in England. He has written freelance articles about the martial arts for the past 10 years. The author is grateful to Antonino Certa and Giacomo Merello of Milan, Italy, for providing much of the technical information about daito-ryu. He also wishes to thank Dave Humm of the Higashi Kaigan Aikido Dojo in England.
(Photos courtesy of Antonino Certa)