Aikido Journal Home » Articles » A Revisionist View of Aikido History Aiki News Japan

A Revisionist View of Aikido History

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #104 (1995)

The other day one of our readers was kind enough to send along a page from an issue of the International Aikido Newsletter published in December 1994. I believe this newsletter is a publication of the European Aikido Federation. It contained answers by a well-known 8th dan shihan, in reply to questions posed by participants at a recent Dutch Summer School that he conducted. One of the questions reads as follows: “Why doesn’t the instruction of aikido include training with weapons?” To this query, the shihan responded:

“To understand why there is no weapons instruction in aikido, one must take a historical perspective. In the past during the time of the samurai, martial arts were referred to as “kobudo.” The sword was the weapon of the samurai. One of the developments from swordsmanship was “jujutsu.” One of the famous schools among those arts was the “Daito Ryu.” Only in recent times did “softer” martial arts evolve. “Judo” is a good example. It was conceived by Jigoro Kano, who searched for an art superior to killing the opponent. When he had developed judo he could no longer visit other schools to study martial arts. To study other developments he would send his students to different schools. Through this process [Minoru] Mochizuki Sensei visited Morihei Ueshiba. When he reported his teachings back to his master, Kano is supposed to have said that these [Ueshiba’s] techniques were the “true” judo.”

“Aikido can thus be seen as the next stage in the development of martial arts, following the way of the sword which is no longer meant to take life. The weapon is therefore part of a step in the development that lies in the past. To study weapons would be concentrating on the past. To study aikido is to study the most recent development. Much confusion has arisen from the books of Saito Sensei. He was a student of O-Sensei. In his books he tries not so much to combine aikido and weapons, but to preserve the knowledge that is included in the study of the weapons.”

I have slightly edited this response to eliminate some awkward English, but the above version is faithful to the original text, which was presumably read by several thousand European aikidoka, in addition to the hundreds who heard this shihan’s comments in person. It took me several readings to understand the rather subtle logic of the shihan’s response. My understanding of his point is something like the following: The sword, the weapon of the samurai, was an instrument of killing in feudal Japan. Jujutsu—“softer” forms of martial arts—such as Daito-ryu developed out of swordsmanship and is superior in a moral sense since it is not meant to kill. Judo is a recent example of this “soft” martial tradition and its founder, Jigoro Kano, is said to have admired the techniques of Morihei Ueshiba. Aikido therefore represents the “next stage” in the development of martial arts and is superior to swordsmanship because it is not concerned with killing. The study of the sword is a step backward and has no place in aikido training.

I believe that the above paraphrasing does justice to the shihan’s viewpoint. Yet I must in all frankness confess that I find his comments most disturbing for a variety of reasons. I will leave aside the vagueness of his argument in a historical sense and the lack of definition of key terms such as “swordsmanship” and “jujutsu” that may be attributable to the translation and the fact that his comments were directed at an audience not particularly knowledgeable in Japanese history. I do not know if the shihan was voicing his personal viewpoint or the “official” position of his organization. Actually, it doesn’t really matter.

First of all, in an effort to understand this important issue of the role (or lack thereof) of weapons training in aikido, our starting point should be the views of the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Is this unreasonable to suggest? The founder conceived of aikido as an integrated martial system based on the principles of swordsmanship. Modern aikido was a product of the founder’s intensive years of training and meditation in the seclusion of Iwama following World War II. I have written in detail about this subject in my “Overview of Aikido History” contained in Takemusu Aikido, Volume I for those who are interested in reading further.

Aikido’s curriculum consists of hundreds of unarmed techniques (taijutsu), and the numerous techniques of the aiki ken and jo. These techniques are completely interrelated and inseparable in terms of both theory and execution. The sword—soul of the samurai—is transformed in aikido into the katsujinken, or “life-giving sword,” and was used extensively by the founder in his daily practice and demonstrations. Moreover, the founder frequently employed the sword as a metaphor to represent an instrument of love and compassion and considered it a part of the kami’s “grand design” (kami no shikumi). In short, the sword was essential to O-Sensei’s basic concept of aikido and cannot be separated from it without sweeping away the underpinnings of his core beliefs.

Having said this, let me clarify something which might be easily misunderstood. I have no objection whatsoever to anyone—the shihan, or any teacher of aikido—opting not to use weapons in their training and instruction of aikido. That is an individual decision. But I do strongly object to anyone attempting to misrepresent the founder’s concept of aikido by stating that the sword has no part in his art. This is patently false and the truth can be easily perceived through a study of the founder’s writings, films, photos, speeches, and the abundant anecdotal evidence that survives.

The shihan’s statements regarding Saito Sensei also merit comment. Saito Sensei writes clearly in his books that taijutsu and the techniques of the aiki ken and jo are all one in essence and based on the principles of the sword. Since this is the opposite of how the shihan describes the content of his books, it is no wonder that “much confusion” has been the result! What are the owners of Saito Sensei’s technical volumes and his many students worldwide to think of such public utterances as these of a high-ranking shihan?

Aikido Journal has over the years been criticized by various people for its “excessive” focus on historical matters. In other words, concentrating on the past is not a good thing because what we have in the present constitutes a later, improved stage of an evolutionary process. Well, if this implies that any of the aikido shihan today have surpassed Morihei Ueshiba in terms of ability, then the matter must be open to discussion. I have at times remarked to my colleagues that I find research into the origins and early years of the art much more absorbing than the present period because of the incredible skills and epic lives of the early figures such as Morihei Ueshiba, Sokaku Takeda, and Yoichiro Inoue.

Less obviously, perhaps, a knowledge of history may function as a guide to evaluating human character in the present. For example, one can learn a great deal about the honesty and intentions of individuals by observing how they recount past events and color them for their own purposes, Misinformation regarding historical matters can circulate indefinitely and become accepted as fact where the public is poorly informed. In the realm of aikido, Aikido Journal has and will always seek to remedy this situation by offering readers an abundance of well-researched materials on the subject, thereby providing them with sufficient information to arrive at their own conclusions.

In closing, let us not forget the lessons of the founder and the purpose of his life’s work. We are all free to make of aikido what we may, to let our creativity flow freely. But we should stop from time to time to contemplate the starting point of our art and always respect its core principles.