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Aikido Today: An Overview

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #107 (1996)

I recently received my copy of Aikido Journal 106 and, as I was leafing through it, felt a certain sense of pride that the magazine has been published continuously for twenty-two years and has come to occupy a place of importance within the international aikido community. It goes without saying that I very much appreciate the cooperation of the scores of aikido shihan who have lent their support over the years. I also have a great admiration for our readers, many of whom are sincerely dedicated to their studies of the martial arts and have integrated this knowledge into their lifestyles.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that many of our articles are geared toward instructors and experienced practitioners. We perhaps too often assume that Aikido Journal readers have a certain common knowledge that includes at least a nodding acquaintance with aikido and Daito-ryu history, familiarity with the names of the leading teachers, and a certain understanding of techniques. But I suspect that more and more of our newer readers are novices in the martial arts and may find themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the depth and amount of detail presented in these pages. Consequently, I have decided to piece together an overview of the main focus of this publication - the art of aikido. For those readers for whom all of this will be “old hat,” please indulge me.

Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art created by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). It is unique as a martial art in that it places great emphasis on ethical principles that are embodied in the application of its techniques. Although Morihei Ueshiba was active for more than twenty years prior to World War II, the art is generally considered to have developed into its modern form in the years after the end of the war.

The technical roots of aikido derive, for the most part, from Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. This jujutsu art originated in turn from various traditions handed down among warriors of the Aizu clan. The curriculum of Daito-ryu was modernized and disseminated by Sokaku Takeda starting in the late 1800s and was said to have been taught to some thirty thousand persons. Morihei Ueshiba was one of Takeda’s leading students and the former’s success has helped inspire a revival of interest in the Daito-ryu school.

Ueshiba was also greatly influenced by Onisaburo Deguchi (1871-1948) of the Omoto religious sect. The aikido founder absorbed a great deal from Omoto teachings and Ueshiba’s vision of a Universe in dynamic harmony closely parallels the tenets of the religion.

Aikido enjoyed a steady growth in popularity both in Japan and abroad starting in the early 1950s. Ueshiba, who by that time was already past seventy, was not a major participant in the postwar dissemination of aikido. Credit for the rapid spread of the art must be given primarily to individuals such as Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, Minoru Mochizuki, Kenji Tomiki, and Kisshomaru Ueshiba.

These central figures are also responsible for the development of today’s main styles of aikido. The pedigree of practically every aikido school active today can be traced back to at least one of these pioneering teachers. Let’s now turn our attention to the five major trends in aikido that are based on the teachings of the above-named instructors.

First, the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The “Hombu Dojo,” as it is known to tens of thousands of practitioners the world over, is the direct continuation of Ueshiba’s prewar school known as the Kobukan Dojo. It is by far the largest of all aikido organizations, with thousands of affiliated schools worldwide. The main school is presided over by Second Doshu (lit., “Way Leader”) Kisshomaru Ueshiba (b. 1921), the third son of the founder. The early success of the Aikikai and its spread internationally are mainly due to the efforts of Koichi Tohei (see feature interview in this issue) and other early Aikikai shihan. Tohei made frequent trips to Hawaii and the continental U.S. and also authored a series of popular books that were translated into the major European languages.

Following the death of the founder in 1969, his son, Kisshomaru, assumed leadership of the Aikikai, and Tohei tendered his resignation in 1974. The Doshu’s main contributions have been in the area of administration over the growth of the art and the modification and simplification of its technical curriculum. In the Aikikai school, the techniques and teaching methods employed by the founder have been phased out in favor of newer pedagogical approaches. The Aikikai de-emphasizes the martial side of aikido techniques favoring instead a focus on the art as a discipline for self-improvement with the aim of developing productive members of society.

In addition to its broad base of students, the Aikikai enjoys the support of various prominent business groups and political institutions. These connections to the elite of Japanese society go all the way back to the prewar years when Morihei Ueshiba counted among his students and supporters many figures from the political, military, and business worlds.

The Aikikai has also produced many of the leading shihan who operate under its umbrella and have large followings of their own. Figures such as Shigenobu Okumura, Morihiro Saito, Sadateru Arikawa, Hiroshi Tada, and Shoji Nishio occupy the senior-most tier. Absent from this brief list are Rinjiro Shirata, Kisaburo Osawa, and Seigo Yamaguchi who have already passed on. The next generation of instructors includes such names as Masatake Fujita, Seishiro Endo, Seijuro Masuda, Masando Sasaki, Norihiko Ichihashi, and Nobuyuki Watanabe. To this list must be added the name of Moriteru Ueshiba, the son of Kisshomaru, who is the present Dojo-cho and the next Doshu. Moriteru has traveled extensively as an aikido ambassador and has also authored several books on the art.

An organization called the International Aikido Federation (IAF) was established by the Aikikai in 1976 amid much fanfare. The IAF adopted a complicated, pyramid-like structure and an elaborate set of regulations. However, the federation failed to establish itself as an entity separate from the Hombu Dojo and eventually floundered. Although the IAF continues to exist in name, it has never achieved any real political clout.

In recent years, the Aikikai has adopted a rather accommodating stance, organizationally speaking. As a consequence, a number of large independent groups who for one reason or another had earlier separated from the Hombu Dojo, have been accepted back into its fold after years of isolation.

The second largest of aikido organizations in terms of number of practitioners is generally considered to be Yoshinkan aikido. This school of aikido was started by Gozo Shioda (1915-1994) in the early 1950s. Shioda was one of Ueshiba’s top students from the prewar years and his style is characterized by its effective, jujutsu-like technique and a well-defined teaching methodology. Shioda authored many books on Yoshinkan aikido and made several trips abroad.

Like the Aikikai, the Yoshinkan is well-connected in business and political circles and this has been a positive factor in its growth. The actual political control of the organization lies in the hands of its Board of Directors. The top Yoshinkan shihan following Shioda’s death is Kiyoyuki Terada. Other well-known teachers include Kyoichi Inoue, Takefumi Takeno, Tsutomu Chida, and Hiromichi Nagano.

The Yoshinkan created the International Yoshinkai Aikido Federation (IYAF) in 1990. In contrast to the Aikikai, the Yoshinkan adopted a loose, non-hierarchical structure for its organization and has been successful in welcoming a steady stream of independent dojos into its network.

Shinshin Toitsu Aikido is the organization established by Koichi Tohei in 1974 at the time of his separation from the Aikikai. Often referred to as the “Ki Society,” as the term implies, this group emphasizes the concept of ki as the dynamic force in the Universe. This principle of ki guides the practice of aikido techniques contained in the Ki Society’s curriculum. Tohei’s group also incorporates ki healing techniques as part of its teachings. It has a nationwide network of dojos in Japan and many branches abroad. It is centrally controlled from the Headquarters Dojo situated in Shinjuku, not far from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.

Tohei is the author of numerous books on aikido and ki-related subjects and is one of aikido’s best-known figures internationally. As mentioned above, his role in the early spread of aikido in Japan and abroad while still part of the Aikikai was pivotal. However, because of the acrimony surrounding his departure from the main organization, Tohei’s name has been all but stricken from the annals of Aikikai history and as a result many practitioners today have never even heard of him.

We turn our attention now to Tomiki aikido. The principles and practice of aikido of this group are based on the teachings of Kenji Tomiki (1900-1979). Tomiki was one of Ueshiba’s earliest students and a top judoka prior to his introduction to aikido. He was also a very learned man and graduated from one of Japan’s most prestigious schools of higher learning, Waseda University.

Tomiki became a professor at his alma mater after the war and it was there that he developed his unique theories of aikido which were heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Tomiki devised a series of techniques and rules that allowed aikido to be practiced as a sport. His idea was to provide students with a way of objectively measuring their progress through open competition.

Tomiki wrote extensively on his theories in a number of books and essays. He developed a following of groups in Japan and abroad which incorporate competition into their training. Tomiki’s approach was, however, flatly rejected by the aikido community at large, which considered his theories to be diametrically opposed to the ethical teachings of the founder, Ueshiba.

Local and international competitions among Tomiki aikido dojos are still held regularly and the group’s membership has grown steadily in concert with the overall success of aikido. The leading figures today in Tomiki aikido are Tetsuro Nariyama and Fumiaki Shishida and the decision-making is in the hands of the Board of Directors of the Japan Aikido Association.

The other major school of the art is called Yoseikan aikido. It was established by Minoru Mochizuki (b. 1907), another early student of Ueshiba and successful judo competitor. Mochizuki was sent to study at Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo by Jigoro Kano in 1930. Besides aikido and judo, Mochizuki also studied Katori Shinto-ryu and karate. Mochizuki’s innovation was to develop a composite art, incorporating elements from all of the schools he had studied. As a result, Yoseikan aikido has a vast technical curriculum which takes many years to master.

Mochizuki is also very theoretical in his approach and has written many essays touching upon a wide-range of martial arts-related subjects. He also played an important role in the international spread of aikido. Mochizuki is credited with being the first person to teach aikido abroad, having spent two years in France starting in 1951 where he taught judo and aikido. The Yoseikan has a limited following in Japan but is strong in Europe, especially in France. It also has a small but dedicated following in North America.

Although the above list covers the major styles of aikido practiced today, there are a number of smaller independent groups which merit mention. Tendokan aikido established by a former Aikikai instructor named Kenji Shimizu has a strong dojo in Tokyo and a large following in Europe, mainly in Germany. Shimizu is also the co-author of a best-selling book titled Zen and Aikido.

Takashi Kushida, a former Yoshinkan instructor, is active in North America operating an organization known as the Yoshokai, with many affiliated dojos. Seidokan aikido was established by the late Rod Kobayashi, formerly of the Ki Society, and has a strong contingent of schools, primarily in the Western U.S. Shizuo Imaizumi based in New York City is also a former Aikikai and Ki Society instructor who now operates a group known as the Shin Budo Kai.

There are a number of independent organizations in England, France, Germany and Scandinavia. Several of these European groups have expressly refused to affiliate with any Japanese authority because of negative past experiences.

My greatest fear in writing the above is that I may have neglected to mention certain important individuals. I am surely guilty of this and apologize in advance for offending anyone. The art has grown to such an extent that it is practically impossible for anyone to keep abreast of all major developments. Yet it is this steady flowering of aikido that has led to the lives of thousands of people being touched in a positive way and their involvement has in turn added ever-increasing levels of enrichment to the art.