Aikido (合気道, aikidō) is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. The aikidōka (aikido practitioner) “leads” the attacker’s momentum using entering and turning movements. The techniques are completed with various throws or joint locks. Aikido can be categorized under the general umbrella of grappling arts.
Aikido derives mainly from the martial art of Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but began to diverge from it in the late 1920s, partly due to Ueshiba’s involvement with the Ōmoto-kyō religion. Ueshiba’s early students’ documents bear the term aiki-jūjutsu. Many of Ueshiba’s senior students have different approaches to aikido, depending on when they studied with him. Today aikido is found all over the world in a number of styles, with broad ranges of interpretation and emphasis. However, they all share techniques learned from Ueshiba and most have concern for the well-being of the attacker. This attitude has been at the core of criticisms of aikido and related arts.
Etymology and basic philosophy
The word “aikido” is formed of three kanji:
- 合 – ai – joining, harmonizing
- 気 – ki – spirit, life energy
- 道 – dō – way, path
The term dō connects the practice of aikido with the philosophical concept of Tao, which can be found in martial arts such as judo and kendo, and in more peaceful arts such as Japanese calligraphy (shodō), flower arranging (kadō) and tea ceremony (chadō or sadō). The term aiki refers to the martial arts principle or tactic of blending with an attacker’s movements for the purpose of controlling their actions with minimal effort. One applies aiki by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique. Historically, aiki was mastered for the purpose of killing; however in aikido one seeks to control an aggressor without causing harm. The founder of aikido declared: “To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” A number of aikido practitioners interpret aikido metaphorically, seeing parallels between aikido techniques and other methods for conflict resolution. These kanji are identical to the Korean versions of the characters that form the word hapkido, a Korean martial art. Although there are no known direct connections between the two arts, it is suspected that the founders of both arts trained in Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu.
Aikido was created by Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平 Ueshiba Morihei, 14 December 1883–26 April 1969), referred to by some aikido practitioners as Ōsensei (“Great Teacher”). Ueshiba envisioned aikido not only as the synthesis of his martial training, but also an expression of his personal philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation. During Ueshiba’s lifetime and continuing today, aikido has evolved from the koryū (old-style martial arts) that Ueshiba studied into a wide variety of expressions by martial artists throughout the world.
Ueshiba developed aikido primarily during the late 1920s through the 1930s through the synthesis of the older martial arts that he had studied. The core martial art from which aikido derives is Daitō-ryū aiki-jūjutsu, which Ueshiba studied directly with Takeda Sokaku, the revivor of that art. Additionally, Ueshiba is known to have studied Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū with Tozawa Tokusaburō in Tokyo in 1901, Gotōha Yagyū Shingan-ryū under Nakai Masakatsu in Sakai from 1903 to 1908, and judo with Kiyoichi Takagi (高木 喜代子 Takagi Kiyoichi, 1894–1972) in Tanabe in 1911.
The art of Daitō-ryū is the primary technical influence on aikido. Along with empty-handed throwing and joint-locking techniques, Ueshiba incorporated training movements with weapons, such as those for the spear (yari), short staff (jō), and perhaps the bayonet (銃剣, jūken). However, aikido derives much of its technical structure from the art of swordsmanship (kenjutsu).
Ueshiba moved to Hokkaidō in 1912, and began studying under Takeda Sokaku in 1915. His official association with Daitō-ryū continued until 1937. However, during the latter part of that period, Ueshiba had already begun to distance himself from Takeda and the Daitō-ryū. At that time Ueshiba was referring to his martial art as “Aiki Budō”. It is unclear exactly when Ueshiba began using the name “aikido”, but it became the official name of the art in 1942 when the Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) was engaged in a government sponsored reorganization and centralization of Japanese martial arts.
After Ueshiba left Hokkaidō in 1919, he met and was profoundly influenced by Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the Ōmoto-kyō religion (a neo-Shinto movement) in Ayabe. One of the primary features of Ōmoto-kyō is its emphasis on the attainment of utopia during one’s life. This was a great influence on Ueshiba’s martial arts philosophy of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. Aikido demonstrates this philosophy in its emphasis on mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution not only is the receiver unharmed but so is the attacker.
In addition to the effect on his spiritual growth, the connection with Deguchi gave Ueshiba entry to elite political and military circles as a martial artist. As a result of this exposure, he was able to attract not only financial backing but also gifted students. Several of these students would found their own styles of aikido.
Aikido was first brought to the West in 1951 by Minoru Mochizuki with a visit to France where he introduced aikido techniques to judo students. He was followed by Tadashi Abe in 1952 who came as the official Aikikai Hombu representative, remaining in France for seven years. Kenji Tomiki toured with a delegation of various martial arts through fifteen continental states of the United States in 1953. Later in that year, Koichi Tohei was sent by Aikikai Hombu to Hawaii, for a full year, where he set up several dojo. This was followed up by several further visits and is considered the formal introduction of aikido to the United States. The United Kingdom followed in 1955; Italy in 1964; Germany and Australia in 1965. Designated “Official Delegate for Europe and Africa” by Morihei Ueshiba, Masamichi Noro arrived in France in September 1961. Today there are aikido dojo available throughout the world.
Proliferation of independent organisations
The biggest aikido organisation is the Aikikai Foundation which remains under the control of the Ueshiba family. However, aikido has many styles, mostly formed by Morihei Ueshiba’s major students.
The earliest independent styles to emerge were Yoseikan Aikido, begun by Minoru Mochizuki in 1931, Yoshinkan Aikido founded by Gozo Shioda in 1955, and Shodokan Aikido, founded by Kenji Tomiki in 1967. The emergence of these styles pre-dated Ueshiba’s death and did not cause any major upheavals when they were formalized. Shodokan Aikido, however, was controversial, since it introduced a unique rule-based competition that some felt was contrary to the spirit of aikido.
After Ueshiba’s death in 1969, two more major styles emerged. Significant controversy arose with the departure of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo’s chief instructor Koichi Tohei, in 1974. Tohei left as a result of a disagreement with the son of the founder, Kisshomaru Ueshiba , who at that time headed the Aikikai Foundation. The disagreement was over the proper role of ki development in regular aikido training. After Tohei left, he formed his own style, called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, and the organization which governs it, the Ki Society.
A final major style evolved from Ueshiba’s retirement in Iwama, Ibaraki, and the teaching methodology of long term student Morihiro Saito. It is unofficially referred to as the “Iwama style”, and at one point a number of its followers formed a loose network of schools they called Iwama Ryu. Although Iwama style practitioners remained part of the Aikikai until Saito’s death in 2002, followers of Saito subsequently split into two groups; one remaining with the Aikikai and the other forming the independent organization the Shinshin Aikishuren Kai, in 2004 around Saito’s son Hitohiro Saito.
In aikido, as in virtually all Japanese martial arts, there are both physical and mental aspects of training. The physical training in aikido is diverse, covering both general physical fitness and conditioning, as well as specific techniques. Because a substantial portion of any aikido curriculum consists of throws, the first thing most students learn is how to safely fall or roll. The specific techniques for attack include both strikes and grabs; the techniques for defense consist of throws and pins. After basic techniques are learned, students study freestyle defense against multiple opponents, and in certain styles, techniques with weapons.
Physical training goals pursued in conjunction with aikido include controlled relaxation, flexibility, and endurance, with less emphasis on strength training. In aikido pushing or extending movements are much more common than pulling or contracting movements. This distinction can be applied to general fitness goals for the aikido practitioner.
Certain anaerobic fitness activities, such as weight training, emphasize contracting movements. In aikido specific muscles or muscle groups are not isolated and worked to improve tone, mass, and power. Aikido related training emphasizes the use of coordinated whole body movement and balance similar to yoga or pilates. For example many dojo begin each class with warm-up exercises (準備体操, junbi taisō?), which may include stretching and break falls.
Roles of uke and nage
Aikido training is based primarily on two partners practicing pre-arranged forms (kata) rather than freestyle practice. The basic pattern is for the receiver of the technique (uke) to initiate an attack against the thrower (投げ nage, also referred to as 取り tori, or 仕手 shite, depending on aikido style), who neutralises this attack with an aikido technique.
Both halves of the technique, that of uke and that of nage, are considered essential to aikido training. Both are studying aikido principles of blending and adaptation. Nage learns to blend with and control attacking energy, while uke learns to become calm and flexible in the disadvantageous, off-balance positions in which nage places them. This “receiving” of the technique is called ukemi. Uke continuously seeks to regain balance and cover vulnerabilities (e.g., an exposed side), while nage uses position and timing to keep uke off-balance and vulnerable. In more advanced training, uke will sometimes apply reversal techniques (返し技, kaeshi-waza) to regain balance and pin or throw nage.
Aikido techniques are usually a defense against an attack; therefore, to practice aikido with their partner, students must learn to deliver various types of attacks. Although attacks are not studied as thoroughly as in striking-based arts, “honest” attacks (a strong strike or an immobilizing grab) are needed to study correct and effective application of technique.
Many of the strikes (打ち, uchi) of aikido are often said to resemble cuts from a sword or other grasped object, which may suggest origins in techniques intended for armed combat. Other techniques, which appear to explicitly be punches (tsuki), are also practiced as thrusts with a knife or sword. Kicks are generally reserved for upper-level variations; reasons cited include that falls from kicks are especially dangerous, and that kicks (high kicks in particular) were uncommon during the types of combat prevalent in feudal Japan. Some basic strikes include:
- Front-of-the-head strike (正面打ち, shōmen’uchi) a vertical knifehand strike to the head.
- Side-of-the-head strike (横面打ち, yokomen’uchi) a diagonal knifehand strike to the side of the head or neck.
- Chest thrust (胸突き, mune-tsuki) a punch to the torso. Specific targets include the chest, abdomen, and solar plexus. Same as “middle-level thrust” (中段突き, chūdan-tsuki), and “direct thrust” (直突き, choku-tsuki).
- Face thrust (顔面突き, ganmen-tsuki) a punch to the face. Same as “upper-level thrust” (上段突き, jōdan-tsuki).
Beginners in particular often practice techniques from grabs, both because they are safer and because it is easier to feel the energy and lines of force of a hold than a strike. Some grabs are historically derived from being held while trying to draw a weapon; a technique could then be used to free oneself and immobilize or strike the attacker who is grabbing the defender. The following are examples of some basic grabs:
- Single-hand grab (片手取り, katate-dori) one hand grabs one wrist.
- Both-hands grab (諸手取り, morote-dori) both hands grab one wrist.
- Both-hands grab (両手取り, ryōte-dori) both hands grab both wrists. Same as “double single-handed grab” (両片手取り, ryōkatate-dori).
- Shoulder grab (肩取り, kata-dori) a shoulder grab. “Both-shoulders-grab” is ryōkata-dori (両肩取り, ryōkata-dor)
- Chest grab (胸取り, mune-dori) grabbing the (clothing of the) chest. Same as “collar grab” (襟取り, eri-dori?).
The following are a sample of the basic or widely practiced throws and pins. The precise terminology for some may vary between organisations and styles, so what follows are the terms used by the Aikikai Foundation. Note that despite the names of the first five techniques listed, they are not universally taught in numeric order.
- First technique (一教, ikkyō) a control using one hand on the elbow and one hand near the wrist which leverages uke to the ground. This grip also applies pressure into the ulnar nerve at the wrist.
- Second technique (二教, nikyō) a pronating wristlock that torques the arm and applies painful nerve pressure. (There is an adductive wristlock or Z-lock in ura version.)
- Third technique (三教, sankyō) a rotational wristlock that directs upward-spiraling tension throughout the arm, elbow and shoulder.
- Fourth technique (四教, yonkyō) a shoulder control similar to ikkyō, but with both hands gripping the forearm. The knuckles (from the palm side) are applied to the recipient’s radial nerve against the periosteum of the forearm bone.
- Fifth technique (五教, gokyō) visually similar to ikkyō, but with an inverted grip of the wrist, medial rotation of the arm and shoulder, and downward pressure on the elbow. Common in knife and other weapon take-aways.
- Four-direction throw (四方投げ, shihōnage) The hand is folded back past the shoulder, locking the shoulder joint.
- Forearm return (小手返し, kotegaeshi) a supinating wristlock-throw that stretches the extensor digitorum.
- Breath throw (呼吸投げ, kokyūnage) a loosely used term for various types of mechanically unrelated techniques.
- Entering throw (入身投げ, iriminage) throws in which nage moves through the space occupied by uke. The classic form superficially resembles a “clothesline” technique.
- Heaven-and-earth throw (天地投げ, tenchinage) beginning with ryōte-dori; moving forward, nage sweeps one hand low (“earth”) and the other high (“heaven”), which unbalances uke so that he or she easily topples over.
- Hip throw (腰投げ, koshinage) aikido’s version of the hip throw. Nage drops his or her hips lower than those of uke, then flips uke over the resultant fulcrum.
- Figure-ten throw (十字投げ, jūjinage) or figure-ten entanglement (十字絡み, jūjigarami) a throw that locks the arms against each other (The kanji for “10″ is a cross-shape: 十).
- Rotary throw (回転投げ, kaitennage) nage sweeps the arm back until it locks the shoulder joint, then uses forward pressure to throw.
Aikido makes use of body movement (tai sabaki) to blend with uke. For example, an “entering” (irimi) technique consists of movements inward towards uke, while a “turning” (転換, tenkan) technique uses a pivoting motion. Additionally, an “inside” (内, uchi) technique takes place in front of uke, whereas an “outside” (外, soto) technique takes place to his side; a “front” (表, omote) technique is applied with motion to the front of uke, and a “rear” (裏, ura) version is applied with motion towards the rear of uke, usually by incorporating a turning or pivoting motion. Finally, most techniques can be performed while in a seated posture (seiza). Seated techniques are called suwari-waza.
Thus, from fewer than twenty basic techniques, there are thousands of possible implementations. For instance, ikkyō can be applied to an opponent moving forward with a strike (perhaps with an ura type of movement to redirect the incoming force), or to an opponent who has already struck and is now moving back to reestablish distance (perhaps an omote-waza version). Specific aikido kata are typically referred to with the formula “attack-technique(-modifier)”. For instance, katate-dori ikkyō refers to any ikkyō technique executed when uke is holding one wrist. This could be further specified as katate-dori ikkyō omote, referring to any forward-moving ikkyō technique from that grab.
Atemi (当て身) are strikes (or feints) employed during an aikido technique. Some view atemi as attacks against “vital points” meant to cause damage in and of themselves. For instance, Gōzō Shioda described using atemi in a brawl to quickly down a gang’s leader. Others consider atemi, especially to the face, to be methods of distraction meant to enable other techniques. A strike, whether or not it is blocked, can startle the target and break his or her concentration. The target may also become unbalanced in attempting to avoid the blow, for example by jerking the head back, which may allow for an easier throw. Many sayings about atemi are attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, who considered them an essential element of technique.
Weapons training in aikido traditionally includes the short staff (jō), wooden sword (bokken), and knife (tantō). Today, some schools also incorporate firearms-disarming techniques. Both weapon-taking and weapon-retention are sometimes taught, to integrate armed and unarmed aspects, although some schools of aikido do not train with weapons at all. Others, such as the Iwama style of Morihiro Saito, usually spend substantial time with bokken and jō, practised under the names aiki-ken, and aiki-jō, respectively. The founder developed much of empty handed aikido from traditional sword and spear movements, so the practice of these movements is generally for the purpose of giving insight into the origin of techniques and movements, as well as vital practice of these basic building blocks.
Multiple attackers and randori
One feature of aikido is training to defend against multiple attackers, often called taninzudori, or taninzugake. Freestyle (randori, or jiyūwaza) practice with multiple attackers is a key part of most curricula and is required for the higher level ranks.Randori exercises a person’s ability to intuitively perform techniques in an unstructured environment. Strategic choice of techniques, based on how they reposition the student relative to other attackers, is important in randori training. For instance, an ura technique might be used to neutralise the current attacker while turning to face attackers approaching from behind.
In Shodokan Aikido, randori differs in that it is not performed with multiple persons with defined roles of defender and attacker, but between two people, where both participants attack, defend, and counter at will. In this respect it resembles judo randori.
In applying a technique during training, it is the responsibility of nage to prevent injury to uke by employing a speed and force of application that is commensurate with their partner’s proficiency in ukemi. Injuries (especially those to the joints), when they do occur in aikido, are often the result of nage misjudging the ability of uke to receive the throw or pin.
A study of injuries in the martial arts showed that while the type of injuries varied considerably from one art to the other, the differences in overall rates of injury were much less pronounced. Soft tissue injuries are one of the most common types of injuries found within aikido although a few deaths from repetitive “shihōnage” have been reported.
Aikido training is mental as well as physical, emphasizing the ability to relax the mind and body even under the stress of dangerous situations. This is necessary to enable the practitioner to perform the bold enter-and-blend movements that underlie aikido techniques, wherein an attack is met with confidence and directness. Morihei Ueshiba once remarked that one “must be willing to receive 99% of an opponent’s attack and stare death in the face” in order to execute techniques without hesitation. As a martial art concerned not only with fighting proficiency but also with the betterment of daily life, this mental aspect is of key importance to aikido practitioners.
The most common criticism of aikido is that it suffers from a lack of realism in training. The attacks initiated by uke (and which nage must defend against) have been criticized as being “weak,” “sloppy,” and “little more than caricatures of an attack.” Weak attacks from uke cause a conditioned response from nage, and result in underdevelopment of the strength and conditioning needed for the safe and effective practice of both partners. To counteract this, some styles allow students to become less compliant over time but, in keeping with the core philosophies, this is after having demonstrated proficiency in being able to protect themselves and their training partners, Shodokan Aikido addresses the issue by practising in a competitive format. Such adaptations are debated between styles, with some maintaining that there is no need to adjust their methods because either the criticisms are unjustified, or that they are not training for self-defence or combat effectiveness, but spiritual, fitness or other reasons.
Another criticism is that after the end of Ueshiba’s seclusion in Iwama from 1942 to the mid 1950s, he increasingly emphasized the spiritual and philosophical aspects of aikido. As a result, strikes to vital points by nage, entering (irimi) and initiation of techniques by nage, the distinction between omote and ura techniques, and the practice of weapons, were all deemphasized or eliminated from practice. Lack of training in these areas is thought to lead to an overall loss of effectiveness by some aikido practitioners.
Alternately, there are some who criticize aikido practitioners for not placing enough importance on the spiritual practices emphasized by Ueshiba. The premise of this criticism is that “O-Sensei’s aikido was not a continuation and extension of the old and has a distinct discontinuity with past martial and philosophical concepts.” That is, that aikido practitioners who focus on aikido’s roots in traditional jujutsu or kenjutsu are diverging from what Ueshiba taught. Such critics urge practitioners to embrace the assertion that “[Ueshiba's] transcendence to the spiritual and universal reality was the fundamentals [sic] of the paradigm that he demonstrated.”
The study of ki is a critical component of aikido, and its study defies categorization as either “physical” or “mental” training, as it encompasses both. The original kanji for ki was 氣 (shown right), and is a symbolic representation of a lid covering a pot full of rice; the “nourishing vapors” contained within are ki.
The character for ki is used in everyday Japanese terms, such as “health” (元気, genki), or “shyness” (内気, uchiki). Ki is most often understood as unified physical and mental intention, however in traditional martial arts it is often discussed as “life energy”. Gōzō Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido, considered one of the “hard styles,” largely follows Ueshiba’s teachings from before World War II, and surmises that the secret to ki lies in timing and the application of the whole body’s strength to a single point. In later years, Ueshiba’s application of ki in aikido took on a softer, more gentle feel. This was his Takemusu Aiki and many of his later students teach about ki from this perspective. Koichi Tohei’s Ki Society centers almost exclusively around the study of the empirical (albeit subjective) experience of ki with students ranked separately in aikido techniques and ki development.