“Aikido in a Nutshell (1) – “What is Aikido?,” by Stanley Pranin

“Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), was a talented martial artist who devoted his life to the pursuit of martial and spiritual disciplines, culminating in the creation of aikido.”

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that evolved into its modern form in the years immediately following World War II. The art’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), was a talented martial artist from a well-to-do family, who devoted his life to the pursuit of martial and spiritual disciplines, culminating in the creation of aikido.

Modern aikido’s curriculum is varied and generally includes a jujutsu-like component with joint-locking techniques, as well as throwing techniques characterized by circular and spiral movements. The principles of timing and balance-breaking are essential to the successful application of aikido techniques. Some schools also incorporate the practice of sword (ken) and staff (jo) forms.

Aikido’s largest organization, the Aikikai Foundation, based in Tokyo, Japan, is the successor and headquarters of the martial tradition established by Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Aikido’s head figure is referred to as the “Doshu” (lit., “way leader”), and serves in a dual role as both the administrative director, and arbiter of the art’s official curriculum. The first “Doshu” was Morihei Ueshiba, followed by his son Kisshomaru (1921-1999), and his grandson, Moriteru Ueshiba (b. 1951), the third and current Doshu.

The art is typically practiced in a training facility called a “dojo” (lit., “way place”) on a mat surface, the preferred one being Japanese tatami mats. In recent years, the mats commonly used have evolved with foam-core mats patterned after traditional tatami being widely preferred.

Aikido classes begin under the direction of an instructor called a “sensei.” Students sit in rows in formal Japanese seated posture–sometimes according to rank–to receive instruction. Training begins with stretching and warmup movements, followed by rolling and falling exercises. The instructor then explains and demonstrates techniques whereupon students–typically working in pairs–practice, each alternating in turn.

Most schools employ a variety of Japanese terms to refer to techniques, aikido principles, and the dojo setting. Students typically learn a basic vocabulary of Japanese aikido terms, especially for testing purposes. The technical names used sometimes vary depending on the style of aikido, but most core terms are universally understood.

Japanese etiquette is also observed in aikido schools in a manner similar to the adoption of Japanese technical terms. Common etiqueet includes bowing of the instructor and students toward the kamiza–the dojo altar where a photo of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba and/or the current Doshu are usually displayed–at the beginning and end of each class. The instructor and students bow towards one another from the formal seated posture called “seiza” at the opening and conclusion of the class, and students bow to their partner before and after pairing off to practice.

The uniform worn during aikido training also corresponds to the traditional dress standard observed in Japan for aikido training. The uniform is variously referred to as the “keikogi” or “dogi,” and consists of a top piece or jacket, and pants.* A belt called an obi is tied around the waist to hold the jacket in place.  In most cases, the uniform is made of cotton. Black belt holders called yudansha wear a hakama or “pleated skirt” denoting their higher ranking status. The hakama is descended from the formal wear of the samurai caste.

* The term “gi” has been widely adopted outside of Japan to refer to the aikido uniform, but is technically incorrect and confusing to Japanese speakers.

Aikido is practiced in most countries of the world nearly sixty years after its introduction to Europe and the USA. In particular, there are large numbers of practitioners in France, the USA, Japan, and Brazil. Exact figures of the practicing aikido population are not accurately known and often exaggerated. Probably more than 1,000,000 practice the art today, and certainly several millions have studied aikido at one time or other.


  1. I envision this series of articles as an aid for aikido beginners or those contemplating a study of the art. There are some beginner guides out there, some quite good, but I feel I can deliver a fresh perspective and cover important subjects that are usually neglected giving a more well-rounded view of the expanse of the art. Later on, these blogs may be compiled as an ebook.

    Reader feedback is welcomed.

  2. …Bill Witt gave me my 3rd dan sho-sho, and traced over the kanji for doshu, explaining with a smile, “king…of the road”…

  3. Gabriel Chin says:

    I’ve always felt that the martiality of aikido should be stressed. Considering how difficult it is for a beginner or prospective student to understand the ‘budo’ aspect of Aikido without stepping on the mat, I feel it is imperative to properly illustrate how Aikido’s fluid techniques and its ‘forgiving’ nature can be understood in the context of the martial arts.

  4. The topic of your article brought back some pleasant memories of my deceased sensei, Jack Leonardo. He always used to say: “Aikido in a nutshell – Power without strength”. Thank-you. M

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