“Hara and Aikido,” by Alister Gillies

Is Aikido a relatively modern martial art that tacitly acknowledges links with its Koryu (Japanese Classical Budo Arts) antecedents? Or is Aikido a form of Haragei – the cultivation and development of Hara in the activity of Aikido? These are important questions: how individuals or groups define themselves determines their disposition and character – “man construes himself, and disposes himself accordingly.”

If Aikido is construed as Haragei, then it is possible to locate it firmly within a broad cultural tradition that encapsulates both modern Aikido, Koryu arts, Zen training and many other art forms that have no direct martial application. If Aikido is viewed as something other, separated out from its cultural source, then problems of definition and distinctions between styles are naturally bound to arise. This might go some way to explain why there is such a lack of consensus about what Aikido is, and why there seems to be endless political disputes within and between different factions.

There are many arts in Japan, each very different from the other. They coexist without too much fractiousness because they all have a common purpose, albeit expressed in different forms, and with different conventions and rituals. Loosely, they are “belly arts”, or Haragei – the cultivation of Hara in a chosen activity. This could be tea, theatre, flower arranging, archery, and so on.

The test of whether something is Haragei or not is determined, amongst other things, by its longevity – does it stand the test of time? Does it function as a way of enriching one’s life in the present; is it meaningful and rewarding in itself; and does it extend beyond itself and filter into one’s daily life and society at large?

The ‘Way of harmony and Peace’ as envisaged by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, is a far cry from the reality of Aikido as it is today. There are ‘styles’ of Aikido that look backwards to a definitive form that was sculpted in the past, and there are other, more forward looking approaches, that see the art as evolving continuously.

In between these extremes there are many different shades and complexions. It might be argued – and it often is – that there are common principles that draw the disparate strands of Aikido together. But these, too, are open to interpretation.
Cultural Roots of Haragei

Typically, Haragei arts have the following in common: a reliance on direct oral transmission and practical example from master to student. The bulk of developmental work, in terms of making progress, requires a prodigious commitment from the student. Teachers do not inculcate in the pedagogical style that we are accustomed to in the west, they facilitate and guide. The student is responsible almost entirely for their own learning.

As a Haragei art Aikido, from this phenomenological perspective, partakes of and contributes to a shared Japanese cultural world view. It is a view that has its own particular units of meaning, and can only be fully understood with reference to that system of meaning. To understand this requires doing, rather than intellectualising. One’s ethnicity or cultural origin is not relevant in a form of teaching that seeks to elicit an apprehension of the universal nature of man through activity.

Inside Out?

This learning model, as a result of its opacity, has presented many difficulties for Aikido teachers from the west. Although there are exceptions, many occidental teachers have attempted to transcribe traditional Japanese teaching methods within a rational framework, emphasizing the ‘laws of physics’, ‘force vectors’, ‘mechanics’, and so on.

In so doing, there is a danger that the ‘baby may have been thrown out with the bath water’. While this kind of explanation of Aikido techniques may be clearer to the intellect, it unfortunately remains true that you cannot defend yourself with an explanation: “when pointing at the moon, do not mistake the finger for the moon”, a Zen proverb admonishes.

The benefits of explaining Aikido via the ‘rational paradaigm’ approach are immediately apparent from a Western student’s perspective. They naturally feel that they have learned something. This is how they are accustomed to learning. From the Japanese Haragei approach, students who learn in this way have only learned ‘about’ the thing, but not the ‘thing in itself’ – the “dasein” of Aikido, in Husserlian terms. To really learn something from the Haragei view point takes time. How much time? How long is a piece of string?

Haragei is often described in corporate ‘negotiation skills courses’ as a strategy of non verbal communication employed by Japanese corporate executives, with hidden cues and clues that only the initiated can understand. It is much more than this and such narrow definitions can be very misleading. The cultivation of Hara is an integral part of one’s life, not a negotiation tool. If Hara is used in negotiations, it is because Hara is used in one’s life.

Hara: The Vital Centre of Man

In his book Hara: The Vital Centre of Man, philosopher and Zen practitioner Karlfried Graf Dürckheim says that when Haragei is cultivated:

“an all-around transformation of all one’s faculties takes place, unhindered by the limitations of the five senses and the intellect. One perceives reality more sensitively, is able to take in perceptions in a different way, assimilates them and therefore reacts differently and, finally radiates something different…The three fundamental reactions to life and the world—perception, assimilation, and response—change in the direction of an expansion, deepening, and intensifying of the whole personality.”

Dürckheim’s book describes Haragei as a quality of presence in which the sensibility of the belly is fully integrated into any activity, from the subtle ritual of the traditional tea ceremony to the focused intent of an archer drawing their bow, or the graceful stroke of a calligrapher’s brush. It is present in Aikido when the art is cultivated to its optimum level.

Aikido and Haragei

Examples of this kind of highly developed Aikido can be found in old film footage of the founder of Aikido, Kodo Horikawa (Daito Ryu), Noriaki Inoue (Shin Taido), and Gozo Shioda (all former students of Sokaku Takeda) to name but a few. It can also be seen in the Aikido of Yoshinobu Takeda and a few other contemporary teachers. But it is not easily understood.

It often draws negative reactions from Westerners who do not understand what is going on. Typically, they may comment that it’s ‘fake’, ‘contrived’, ‘choreographed’, or that ‘this kind of stuff’ contributes to the perception that Aikido is not a ‘serious martial art’.

On one level, failure to understand the function and purpose of Haragei arts as part of the rich cultural heritage of another country can result in a missed opportunity for our own learning and enrichment. On another, statements uttered from an incomplete understanding of those cultural sources, can present Westerners in a less than flattering light.

This is not so much a problem now as it was in the past, since many younger Japanese do not understand it very well either. The traditional arts in Japan have been in decline for some time, though like everything else this is probably cyclical and the interest may be re-emerging, as exemplified in the growing interest in Akira Hino and Yoshinori Kono.

Teaching and Learning

Within this tradition of Haragei, the emphasis has always been on what D.T. Suzuki described as radical empiricism – find out for yourself! From this point of view, it is not surprising that the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (and other Japanese teachers since his time), did not explain what he was teaching beyond the necessary forms of kata.

Some Japanese teachers, somewhat mystifyingly from a Western perspective, even assert that they will take what they know with them when they die. This is incomprehensible to the average Westerner, and perhaps some modern day Japanese, too. But it is perfectly in line with a mode of teaching in which the student bears most of the weight of the learning process. It can’t be any other way. Haragei is not something a teacher can give to a student.

If one accepts that Aikido has a history, and it undoubtedly has, then it is clear that: Morihei Ueshiba underwent an apprenticeship, drawing his martial skills from a variety of sources and teachers within the world of classical Budo.

Throughout his life Morihei Ueshiba continued to refine and develop those skills, while others took responsibility for the creation of modern Aikido, most notably Kisshomaru Ueshiba and others from Aikikai Hombu, Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei and Morihiro Saito. Many other teachers dispersed to other parts of the world to make Aikido what it is today.

Each one of the Founder’s students went on to develop their own style of Aikido that, while sharing the common name Aikido, became quite distinct from one another. It might seem to a beginner approaching Aikido for the first time that the ‘Way of Harmony’ is fraught with contradiction and contention. And they would not be completely wrong. But from the perspective of Haragei it all makes sense – it enfolds unity and diversity within its perspective without contradiction.

“Equality without discrimination is poor equality; discrimination without equality is poor discrimination” – Chinese mirror verse.

The Great Path

The path of Haragei, of which Aikido and other arts are a part is broad, with a long tradition and history – it goes as far back as Bodhidharma, and is certainly contained in the Soto Zen tradition of Dogen that came from China and flowered in Japan. It is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the culture and psyche of the Japanese people. Haragei is any activity in which one develops the Hara.

‘One Point, ‘Seika Tanden’ and ‘Centre’ are terms commonly found in Aikido. But these terms do not fully convey the significance of Hara. They are starting points at the beginning level from which the student can progress, as Dürckheim explains, to experience the “ground of being” and its connection to the “totality of being” in activities of everyday life.

The Founder of Aikido alludes to such an experience in his verse, framed in his own idiosyncratic style:
“Create each day anew by clothing yourself with heaven and earth, bathing yourself with wisdom and love, and placing yourself in the heart of Mother Nature.”

Every time an Aikido student sits in seiza or bows, they are practicing Haragei – bowing and seiza are extremely important. It is useful, however, to have a teacher that knows how to teach students to do this properly. Spectacular throws can be impressive, but in terms of ‘belly art’, what is not so obvious is so much more impressive.

Aikido is a young art, comparatively speaking, and its future survival – in whatever form it takes – will be determined by how ‘settled’ it becomes. Endless disputation and schism may be part of this ‘settling’ process, but from a Haragei perspective it is of limited functional use. The purpose of the Haragei arts and Aikido is, as Morihei Ueshiba stated of Aikido:

“It is not for correcting others; it is for correcting your own mind.”

©Aikido as Belly Art – by Alister Gillies 02/01/2010


  1. Jack Richard Hosie says:

    Aiki is definitely a haragei. The author in the second to last paragraph touches upon the secret profound truth of aiki.

    I must stress yet again in support of the article, the secrets of budo are concealed and yet revealed in the very beginning. As to what and where that beginning is well, that also is of the path of life, learning and study. But aiki is definitely an inside out art, founded upon certain principles, that is to say aiki is an internal dynamic, expressed outwardly through specific breath and body mechanics, it is not a set of rote techniques or manner style of a particular period of aikido development during Ueshiba sensei’s life, it is also rational and yet intuitive, and herein lies the mystery of aiki.

  2. Yes, I agree that Aikido can be defined as haragei practice. I chose the name Itten for my dojo with that in mind. My problem, if i may call it that, with internet discussion is that we may call Aikido many things, and each leads to its own way, as you quite rightly stated. I also see Aikido as Budo, a warrior art, in which the qualities of centredness, for want of a better term, physical, mental and emotional, were vital for survival. In my mind, these two should be kept together or else the essential character is lost. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. I see Aikido polarizing between the “aiki-bunny” philosophers at one end, and the “it has to work on the street” ju-jitsu type on the other (no disrespect intended to traditional ju-jitsu!). Like Zen mind, the harmony of Aikido is tested and refined in conflict. the level of the conflict can rise as the ability of the practitioner improves. Breathing with the tanden, defocussing the eyes, gripping the ground with the ball of the feet (“bubbling well” in CMA), cultivating an equal attitude to success and failure, hard physical training to the point of exhaustion and just beyond, learning to lose and yield, all and more play a role. I have practised Aikido for almost 18 years, and MA for over 30, and like you, I feel I am just beginning to get it. I also think that there are not enough teachers out there who are able or willing to focus this way, modern instructors tend to be technically sound, but not much else.
    I wish you luck!

  3. David DeLong says:

    This is a very valuable essay that can help to build bridges between differing approaches to aikido.
    However, it would seem that to understand Haragei does not demand an either-or approach.
    Consider archery. It’s presumably a Haragei art. Much has been written about the subjective, psychological requirements of development in the art.
    However, the arrow makes it to the target because the bow and string impart enough energy into the arrow for it to make the distance. That’s a physical fact.
    For a student to study and understand the biomechanical principles of aikido techniques and how they manifest themselves and resonate through the whole curriculum does not preclude his development of “hara”. The most important idea in the essay is that the knowing is in the doing. Get on the mat and put aside abstract conceptualization, whether that be “physics” or the experience of “an all-around transformation of all one’s faculties”. Surrendering to subjectivity is as fraught with danger as imagining exaggerated powers of objectivity. To be human is to always be surfing a wave between subjectivity and objectivity.
    When it “really” happens to you, you’ll know it, whether you “wanted” it to happen or not.
    Again, the essay is a valuable exposition especially for Westerners who seek to understand Japanese culture and bring meaning into their own living creation of culture. It points the way.

  4. Thanks for your comments. There were some links that didn’t get transferred on submission – if anyone’s interested, those links can be found here:http://alister-aikiblog.blogspot.com/

    The objective/subjective debate has been going on for a long time, but is a bit of a red herring. I lean towards the Haiku principle of using the objective to convey the subjective, myself.

    This alleged dichotomy always reminds me of the joke: Q. How many Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb? A. One to change it, one to not change it, and one to change it and not change it.

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