IX. “The State of Aikido,” by Charles A. McCarty

The traditional martial arts, from which has developed the modern art of Aikido, are the product of an hierarchical society, and reflect this hierarchy within their stratification by rank and by the relationships aikidoists have with their instructors. Critics of Aikido have alleged that what appeared to be remarkable feats by the aged master of Aikido downing slews of young and strong attackers is more reflective of the respect they have for him than of his actual level of power. Not only are his attackers in classes and demonstrations usually (though not always) his students and therefore in awe of him, they are generally Japanese culturally steeped in the display of respect for elders. Illustrative of this, an American who trained under Uyeshiba told me this anecdote.

During a demonstration, O’Sensei was displaying technique with the sword, stepping casually aside from the attackers’ downward strike. At one point, whether from a lapse of attention or some hidden purpose, he failed to move aside and was struck resoundingly on the forehead by the young student. The attacker was aghast; he dropped his wooden sword and fell to his knees, trembling before the master, who only laughed and reassured him.

It is also argued, often by advocates of other martial arts or forms, that the attacks delivered by Aikido partners are stilted and unreal, and the techniques too stylized and elegant for practicality. What seem to the uninitiated to be remarkable feats of defense against many attackers are in fact precisely chore-ographed ballets, a far cry from actual combat.

Aikido partners train with a high degree of sensitivity and understanding regarding each other’s skill level and development in falling and throwing skills. The spirit which pervades the training hall is not one of competitiveness, but of a desire to learn and to assist each other in learning. The pettiness and frustrations of daily life constantly creep into the training, but there they are thrown into high relief against the background of loving action which every instructor attempts to maintain in his interactions and those of his students. Even the instructor is always learning not only more about technique but about himself.

There is collaboration of a sort, a flexible set of agreements which is constantly in silent negotiation between partners. How quickly and vigorously shall the technique be applied, such that the attacker can be challenged by the fall, and still maintain confidence that he will survive it without injury? And how vigorously shall the attack be delivered and the technique resisted, so that the person performing the technique will find it neither too easily completed nor too frustratingly difficult? There is a dynamic balance in training which seeks to optimize the learning experience of both partners.

It is correct to state that aikidoists do not meet as gladiators in an arena, each attempting to conquer the other. They operate within a structure of loose form, the only rule being that they take care of each other. As such, there are agreements and understandings which ensure that Aikido is not a totally practical combat form. It must be remembered that the ultimate aim of the martial arts, as differentiated from martial forms or techniques, is to learn how to not fight. Thus the partners are learning the appropriate ways in which to both give and take in human relationships in such a way that both individuals learn and live a better life for it. Criticisms or awe-filled praise based on the assumption that attacker and defender are at the poles of the dichotomy of good and evil are inappropriate.

The effectiveness of Aikido techniques is sometimes explained as the purely physical product of years of intensive training in patterns of motion which represent a system of superb body mechanics. It is only necessary to watch the awkwardness of a beginner contrasted with the controlled power and grace of an advanced practitioner in order to recognize the absolute necessity of training and conditioning, and to sense that the movement patterns of Aikido are not natural to most people. Aikido is a process of re-education of the body to ways of moving with prevailing forces, rather than against them as is the cultural, and perhaps human heritage. (You need only watch the ongoing battle we wage against gravity, from an infant’s first attempt to lift his own head, to see how deeply ingrained is our instinct to struggle.)

There is more than precise body mechanics, however, to the study of Aikido. Practitioners seek perfection of form, necessary to the physical art and to the spiritual art by serving as a solid foundation for growth of the self. This alone, however, is not Aikido, for that is something much bigger, less limited than the mechanics of correct movement.

Of course Aikido has other aspects of structure as well, just as important to the existence of the art as correct body movement. There are organizations, ranks, standard techniques and traditional forms of performance and teaching. As in other aspects of Aikido, however, these structures ideally arise out of the principles of Aikido, rather than vice versa.

The origin of Aikido in a feudal society sometimes obscures the value of some of the elements of formality in the art. One of the “anachronistic” charac-teristics of Aikido training is the use of “belt” ranks on the basis of periodic tests, much like the competitive martial disciplines, though the features of competition are lacking in the tests by which these belts are awarded.

There is an important advantage to the test and ranking system, quite apart from the influences of hierarchy and etiquette. The successful completion of a test, the placement in a new rank with the acknowledgement of your peers and instructor, is a valuable benchmark of progress in a lifetime art which usually lacks other specific indicators of progress. Aikido is an art which is directed toward a purpose, and as such is never really completed. (A purpose is never-ending, while a goal can be met.) The tests and ranks serve as concrete, if transient, goals; indicators of progress. The purpose is high, but ephemeral. The goals, though lower than the ultimate intention, are solid reassurances that serve to involve the aikidoist, maintaining his confidence and interest, hopefully for a lifetime.

Many of the martial arts, unfortunately, have been stripped of their spiritual content in the transition to this country and Western culture and have become technical sets of fighting forms without ethical content or control, or have become simply sports with tournaments, rules, and divisions by age, weight, and sex. There is no promise of unification or of liberation from materialism in simply another manifestation of division, separateness, competition, win-lose encounters and expertise in violence.

This was not the intent of O’Sensei. The fruit of his initial desires for revenge and justice through force, the many grueling years of martial training and the benefit of spiritual influences from many sources was to guide him into the development of a Path or Way, the do of enlightenment. In this discipline of love through action, there was no place for competition, but rather for cooperation.

Uyeshiba died in 1969, in a world still torn with strife and war. There still must have been some satisfaction in his realization that his art and the organi-zations which furthered it had spread to every continent, involving hundreds of thousands of people. The lives it touches expand exponentially when it is considered that each person who has studied and benefited from the study of Aikido has contacted and interacted with uncounted others, likely with a perspec-tive altered and improved in accordance with their commitment to training.

It is doubtful that Uyeshiba seriously felt that his goal of world peace through universal love would be achieved during his lifetime, or that he allowed himself to be discouraged by the apparent ineffectiveness of the values inherent in Aikido against the overwhelming weight of human misery. His vision was worldwide, and yet his system of thought and activity was highly personal: Every time he saw a child or a beginning adult struggling with and overcoming the challenges of training he must have felt totally fulfilled in that moment, his life complete.

In the tradition of Japanese society, Aikido is being maintained as a family tradition. Morihei’s son, Kisshomaru Uyeshiba, was born in 1921, the third son of the founder. Two older brothers had died the previous year at the ages of 3 years and three months. At age 14, Kisshomaru began intensive training, and by the age of 21 he became the director of the headquarters training hall in Tokyo. He continued intensively training and teaching while attending Waseda University, receiving a degree in political science in 1946.(146)

Nidai Doshu, or second leader, is the spiritual and organizational leader of the World Aikido Headquarters in Japan, furthering the goals set by his father by encouraging and facilitating the spread of Aikido throughout the world. Numerous publications in every major language contribute to the availability of historical material regarding the life of the founder, current statements and thoughts from Nidai Doshu and other major masters of the art and textual and photographic instruction in technique and philosophy. Nidai Doshu’s son will eventually continue the family lineage in Aikido.

There nevertheless is little apparent unity in the world of Aikido. Aside from the world organization, there are more than thirty different interpretations of Aikido or related arts today. They have a broad range of physical and spiritual aims, but though technical and ethical differences are claimed, they are all related in that they grew out of the teachings of one man–Morihei Uyeshiba. This division into related but separate disciplines is a natural process of evolution followed by all Japanese classical and modern martial arts; in fact, it is the process by which Aikido itself was formed from Takeda Sokaku’s aiki-jujutsu.(147)

The power of a religious director’s life does not immunize his legacy from the fragmenting influence of the duality which he personally may have transcended. As Buddha’s meaning and intention were subject to widely different interpretations by his disciples shortly after his death and increasing divisions took place as the centuries went by, so Uyeshiba’s life was barely embed before his most advanced disciples began to offer their own interpret-tations of the Path of Aikido.(148)

Far from a destructive influence, however, such division is both inevitable and necessary to the continued growth and expanded availability of a spiritual path. For the message of Uyeshiba was that there is not one path; there are many, the only common expression being that of love.

(146) Stanley A. Pranin, ed., “Biography of Second Doshu Uyeshiba”,
Aiki News 1:2:10.
(147) Draeger, Bujutsu and Budo, p. 137.
(148) Conze, Buddhism, pp. 14,15.


  1. Brett Jackson says:

    Very well said, indeed!

  2. Samuel Coe says:

    I think this was an excellent article, thank you very much. It was definitely the completeness of aikido that appealed to me having a physical and spiritual side and as you say there is obviously a need to train hard but only with someone who you feel is up to it. Far removed from the break the new person on the first day attitude.

    Thanks, Sam

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