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That said, O-Sensei was a terrifying practitioner. Videos of him show a master with impeccable timing and uncanny technique. His son, the current doshu’s father, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, regularly mystified me in practice. You went to grab him and poof! He was gone, and you went head over heels. He was always perfectly balanced, and his partner, no matter the attack, was not. The current doshu isn’t like that. “Clean,” one seventh-dan instructor said after watching his demonstration. “Precise,” said another. Absent, however, was his predecessors’ martial verve, that sense of life-threatening attack and lifesaving defense. It isn’t that he can’t do it, I suspect. After all, he’s been practicing daily for more than 40 years. It’s that this isn’t the aikido that interests him or that he seeks to emphasize. “Aikido can be used as defense, but you’re not doing it for that,” the doshu explained. “What we’ve got here is that you don’t do this practice just to learn self-defense moves. Aikido comes from the traditional combat ways of Japan. We’ve made it into a system that anyone can practice. In this way, you learn the spirit of it, and you can continue with it later on in practice with others.” How a student chooses to focus that practice isn’t his concern. All this was very slippery. In our interview, direct questions about competition, practical application of aikido moves and teaching techniques were turned, time and again, to this essential message. People do what they do. They seek the instructor they need and move forward from there. Balance, in the end, is what he has to offer: balance in the techniques of practice and balance in the purpose of practice along the martial-philosophical-social spectrum. Aikido isn’t a thing with a single purpose but a process involving people. It changes with the people who lead its training and those whose practice keeps it alive. It isn’t uniform any more than the people who practice it are. Alternative Journeys Also in Hawaii was the doshu’s 31-year-old son, Mitsuteru Ueshiba, now formally known as waka sensei (young teacher). Like his father and grandfather, he’s destined to inherit the leadership of aikido, to be the doshu at some point. Aikido, after all, is a family business whose leadership is handed from father to son. Waka sensei taught a few classes and listened politely to everyone. What his aikido will be is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’ll be a martial maniac like his great-grandfather, an exemplary practitioner of aikido moves like his grandfather or, like his father, simply a decent guy who believes in practice but not in dogma. Maybe this doshu is right and the martial is where we come from and not where we necessarily should be going. All we knew in Honolulu was that a United Nations of aikido students and instructors, all with different ideas about what the art can and should be, spent three days practicing aikido moves together without serious injury and with pleasure. For Moriteru Ueshiba, that is success.
About the author: Tom Koch is a hombu-aikido fourth-degree black belt with shodan rank in shotokan and shukokai karate. He’s a former assistant instructor at Honolulu Aikido Dojo.