“Ueshiba and Timing: Pre-War vs. Post-War Technique” by Gary Ohama

“Ueshiba’s stance is very still, calm, peaceable, and light;
as though he is one with the universe.”

The Aikido of The Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, illustrates several distinct qualities, usually noted as styles. They are described as Diamond, Willow, Flowing, and Ki. Light was added at a later date. (Energy directed forward, energy directed outward, energy directed inward, energy directed into space, and internal radiant energy.) “Our techniques employ four qualities that reflect the nature of our world. Depending on the circumstance, you should be hard as diamond, flexible as a willow, smooth-flowing like water, or as empty as space.” (1)

For Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido can also be described in terms of pre-war and post-war Aikido. One of the dimensions that define the later post-war era is the presence of extremely dynamic internal forces being manifested into Aikido technique. The sources of energy include energy harnessed from outside the body. It is to be noted that not only is Ueshiba’s technique different; but the physical response of the receiver also is dynamically/energetically different. Specific description of the receiver’s response is evidence of a distinct style. The unique and signature physical differences of both Ueshiba and his demonstration partners are easily observed in photos representing Aikido from each of the eras.

Two photos of Ueshiba performing an iriminage/step-in throw are on page 243 of the book Invincible Warrior (2). One photo is from 1936, pre-war. The other photo is from 1966, post-war. Both photos occur at a similar point in the execution of the technique. The differences are indicative of a ki entrapment by focusing downward vs. ki release and blending by focusing outward/heavenward. (3)

(Photos with permission and courtesy of John Stevens.)

The pre-war 1936 photo illustrates a powerful, forward focused, hard style with a center to center Ki connection. At this particular moment of the technique the source of energy emanates from Ueshiba and appears to be on an exhale breath or hold for both people. Ueshiba’s energy is driving the attacker downwards. Ki infused hands envelope the receiver’s head to control and unbalance, driving the head downward and arching the back of the relatively motionless attacker. Ueshiba is in a strongly planted, forward weighted, hips locked, splayed feet, driving back leg stance of a “hard style” sword cut transferring energy forward and downward. There is a powerful diagonal line of forward energy from rear toe to forward finger tips. The total effect is a linear arc downward and forward with a slight rotation. Body positions of both people are precisely defined, and grounded. Note the grounded state of both hakamas. A state of muscular tension and rigid joints is evident for both.

The post-war 1966 photo illustrates a void/empty/heavenly space, internal energy state of being. Ueshiba is creating the lifting the attacker upwards. The connection is oneness. At this particular moment of the technique the sources of energy are not only Ueshiba, but an outside energy force pushing the attacker’s hips/small of back upward and forward. The breath is an inhale for both people, but with different manifestations. There is also an energy source lifting/pulling the attacker’s center/hara upward. The total effect is a rotation or spiral upwards.Ueshiba’s energy infused lower hand compassionately cradles the attacker’s head to prevent the attacker from pin wheeling onto the back/top of his head as his feet become weightless and rotate upward. Ueshiba is leading the attacker into a safe breakfall from what would be a neck snapping, totally unbalanced, upside down throw. The unbalancing is via the upward spiraling energy even though there is no physical contact. Ueshiba’s stance is very still, calm, peaceable, and light; as though he is one with the universe. There is a strong vertical line of energy in the erect position of his body (the human connection between heaven and earth.) Of note is the opposite dynamics of the attacker and Ueshiba, a yin and yang. Note the contrast of the wild abandonment of the attacker being lifted into the air as he is simultaneously lifted and rotates on an axis about his hips. Both feet are lifted off the ground by void drawn, rocketing upward of the hips/center. The back is arched in response to the energy flow. The head arcs back without being touched. The receiver’s blurred hakama is an indication of the energy being abundantly released. Ueshiba’s quiet and still hakama is an indication of the rootedness of his energy. Both bodies are extremely relaxed with a center to center Ki connection. There is not any muscular tension in either of them. All movements appear to be without muscle.

The element of timing is present in everything that exists, and all that is done in life. Time implies a constant motion which includes the maturing and aging process. Spiritual and knowledge factors are also factored by time. Time makes the “one point” a continual process. The “right here, right now” moves in time. So does a lifestyle.

The element of timing is always present in Aikido. Today’s Aikido is not as yesterday’s Aikido. Tomorrow’s Aikido has evolved from all that is previous. Aikido is a personal manifestation of the current state of one’s body/mind/spirit.

To pursue the dignity, as well as the compassion (Ai), which we can uplift in all others is also part of the evolving nature of Aikido.(4)

(1) Stevens, John. The Essence of Aikido, Kodansha International, New York, 1993.
And , Workshop Lectures of John Stevens.
(2) Stevens, John. Invincible Warrior, page 243, Shambhala, Boston, 1997.
(3) Rick Hamilton. United Martial Arts and Fitness Center, Oreland,PA.
(4)From the teachings of Kancho Yukio Utada, Doshinkan Aikido International,

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  1. Walker says:

    The photography of the pre-war period was posed and static. Ueshiba compassionately holds his pose so that the photographer can do his work. Whereas the photography of the post-war period frees Ueshiba and his partner to run and dance.

  2. Robert Cowham says:

    Nice analysis.

    Reminds me of http://www.aikinews.com/share/Close_look_at_1935_Budo.pdf which makes for fascinating reading.

  3. Thank you for your insight.
    Would you clarify something for me?
    In the 1936 picture, isn’t O’sensei going under the opponent’s arm therefore making the dynamics of the physics as it needed to be?
    Wouldn’t the physics to that application still be the same today?
    O’sensei’s 1930’s over the arm irimi from the Aikido Journal videos seems to be applied just as he is doing it in the 1960’s photo.
    Thank you for your article. I truly enjoyed it.
    Palm to Palm,
    Marcos Miranda

  4. James says:

    There seems to be an implied assumption that these two photos represent O’Sensei’s aikido at the time each was taken. Walker raises the possibility the assumption is wrong, implying your analysis is pure speculation.

    I am more comfortable taking the opposite approach from your writing.

    I have read and heard anecdotally that O’Sensei’s aikido developed significantly during the 30 year period covered by these photos. He became more subtle and refined in his movements.

    Assuming that is true, these photos visually show some of the differences. Even if the 1936 photo was posed, it does not look like the same body posture/positions that would have been used in 1966.

    I enjoyed your analysis. Thank you.

  5. Greg says:

    I am confused by the statement, “A state of muscular tension and rigid joints is evident for both.”
    Are you implying, from that remark, that O’sensei used muscular force in the 1936 photo to take down his opponent? As opposed to the 1966 photo when he used absolutely no force, just technique and ki?

    I thought all aikido used ki as opposed to physical strength. I also know that Gozo Shioda (who learned from O’sensei during the period of the 1936 photo and whose style is very similar to O’sensei’s style used in 1936) did a lot of incredible Ki demonstrations as did O’sensei during 1930′s. Perhaps the “harder style” just looks like there is muscular tension involved because the energy is going downwards, as you say, and not out?

  6. Arlo says:

    Or perhaps many aikidoka seek to distance what they are learning now from it’s origins perhaps implying that now is some how better. Analyzing old photographs that portray slightly different techniques is one way of attempting to justify this point of view, but it is very tenuous. What I see when I look at these pictures is a similarity between two different techniques performed many years apart on different ukes in different situations of attack with one being dynamic and one being relatively static. Still it does make for an interesting comparison. I think that Walker’s assertion about the 1936 photography requiring a pose is likely correct and is in line with other photography I have seen of waza from that era. Interestingly when the waza is referred to from the old photographs by those who know it, the actual performance is far more dynamic than the photographs portray! Having said that, the author is correct about the endgame of each technique, circa 1936 the object was to finish with uke locked up at nage/tori’s feet, later developments in aikido see variations to this approach.

  7. Gary Ohama says:

    Marcos wrote “would you clarify something for me.”
    The arm over or under the attacker’s arm are aspects of the particular technique being used to unbalance the attacker so the throw can be performed; in this case the spinal cord is being arched/bent backwards. Therefore you are correct in assuming that these same physics are in effect regardless of the era in which they are being used, and Ueshiba could be doing either principle in both eras. (The arm over or under usually depends on if the attacker’s arm is raised to strike or is down in a strike or punch. In our Doshinkan style even atemi’s to the face or lower back are used to bring the head backwards and bend the backbone.)
    The difference between the two photos is that in the pre-war technique the head is being bent backwards, most likely physically, to bend the spinal cord. In the post-war photo the hips are being “lifted/rotated forward/upwards” by a combination of energy forces while the head is being cradled in a stationary positon. Not much physical contact. What is lifting the hip? Therefore it is “How” the unbalancing/back bending is being accomplished that is the focus of the comparison. (It doesn’t look as though the receiver is jumping,; there is more going on.)Of course this is conjecture on my part. But, food for thought.

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