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A Dilemma Deferred: An Identity Denied and Dismissed

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by Minoru J. Shibata

Published Online

Minoru J. Shibata

In the mid 20th century, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei introduced a martial art that is unique to this day. There are many witnesses living worldwide today who were there, saw him, heard what he said, and physically touched him. There also is a significant amount of recorded and anecdotal history about him and his art, as there are practices and seminars that have been proliferating for many years that appear to be directly related to what he founded. Yet, we find little, if any, evidence of anyone, even those who were close to him, having understood his aikido with certainty and clarity, so there seems to be no acknowledged transmission of his art. Therefore, the aikido that he founded still remains unique and the legacy of what he founded exists as a redundant series of tentative, invalidated interpretations of his original idea – or some other concept and practice of “aikido.”

This other façade of a common art with a singular goal has been essentially a combination of tentative interpretations which has amounted to a repetition of monotones. The uniqueness of the art seems to have been dismissed by those who have been concentrating the chronicles of aikido on an ambiguous form of the art. Furthermore, this art is supposed to have been founded by an idiosyncratic, multifaceted, legendary person who has expanded the art(s) that he learned from others. These efforts and thoughts clearly have been a salvaging of what O-Sensei had completely discarded. The many interpretations of his art obviously have carried forth the martial arts paradigms that pre-date his aikido and they have been substituted and adjusted to the contemporary mindset. This has only further widened the separation from his aikido. This discontinuity has resulted in a travesty that has retarded further evolvement and development of O-Sensei’s martial art. References to techniques by silly notions as “soft or hard” styles or even “world class” aikido only add more spin to blur what has been vague from the beginning. Somehow, “aikido” has become a terminology for a collective diversity of wishful interpretations instead of a diversity of something original.

The frequent gathering of workshops and seminars for all groups and styles seems to support what is already there but does not address what is missing. The commendable effort of sharing information and cross training through friendship and openness is an over-simplification that does not address the real issue – as in the familiar folk tale of the emperor with no clothes; i.e., aikido with no O-Sensei. Most practices, if not all, are interpretations of an idea of “aikido” without any validation that they are O-Sensei’s aikido. There is no clarity in what integration of martial and philosophical strategy and discipline that the practices are supposed to express, satisfy or embody. Its identity is hidden or does not exist, and therefore, it could be anything. Paradoxically, without the presence of O-Sensei’s aikido, the probable potential that is sought remains limited to other than his aikido.

Many of us can only vicariously imagine from past documents and anecdotes of O-Sensei, his personality and character and his relationship with those who were very close to him, including his family. We find little evidence among practitioners of aikido, religious or not, who have accepted his spirituality as the primary essence within his aikido paradigm. We read or hear more about his idiosyncrasy than his spirituality.

We must conclude so far that there has been a variety of answers to the question, “What is aikido?” Most, if not all, the analyses have addressed the wrong question. The compelling question all along should have been, “What is O-Sensei’s aikido?” It is not about its relationship to other martial arts or his relationships to others. It is about his creation and its uniqueness and understanding what he brought to light. The problem continues to be hidden by the implicit ambiguity and vagueness of the practices that are described by an abundance of euphemistic rhetoric and intellectual rationalizations.

What happened to O-Sensei’s aikido is rarely discussed and the probable complicity that brought about the current practices is fascinating in itself. What exists can be described as various cult art forms without the foundation of the founder’s new paradigm. The scope of this activity, as perceived and practiced today, has produced an unbridled amount of activity, and this practice has taken on a life of its own and joined the other forms of entertainment. It appears to be practiced as an art of many forms and philosophies, sharing a common label and a similar conventional wisdom. This wisdom includes the rhetorical relationship that the aikido that is practiced follows the same philosophy and is functionally the same aikido that was developed by O-Sensei. This is a persuasive myth, for such a presumption shares the many familiar characteristics and lineage to past forms and strategies of the ancient martial arts – but it does not concur with his aikido. The essence of the thesis of this article is that O-Sensei realized the futility of such attachments to what he sought. It’s the interpreters, the martially and/or the intellectually oriented, who have kept denying the virgin birth of his aikido. Maintaining the old and the familiar ties appeared and felt consistent and comfortable in the eyes of the early interpreters. It also provided convenient pseudo crossroads for most practitioners to follow. But O-Sensei’s aikido was not a continuation and extension of the old and has a distinct discontinuity with past martial and philosophical concepts. The issue then and now is the need to explore what is still unfamiliar, what he revealed as the spiritually driven new bu. His transcendence to the spiritual and universal reality was the fundamentals of the paradigm that he demonstrated.

This thesis returns to the crossroad that split the prevalent aikido from O-Sensei’s aikido and tracks back to the crossroad and reaches out to the domain where he introduced his aikido. This path most likely was hidden or shelved because it has had no familiar and comfortable markings from past practices. The original domain that O-Sensei created for our participation for the further evolvement of his aikido seems to have been abandoned prematurely like a partially solved equation because its reality could not be envisioned. Among the many translations and scattered data, perhaps there is enough detail and continuity to connect the metaphorical dots into the reality of his aikido. Nevertheless, we do not have to search or wait for the re-appearance of this domain; it has never disappeared and it will not perish from the minds of individuals who have seen or felt it. O-Sensei proved its existence and expected our arrival there. Witnesses have heard him repeatedly telling his young students that one day they will understand what “this old man” is talking about and demonstrating. In the past, the participants saw only a virtual image of him from outside this domain, although they were within the same room or dojo, a few feet or inches away from him.

While he was alive, his developments were still dynamically in progress, as he repeatedly tried to impress upon his students. It is overwhelmingly clear by hindsight that the future of his aikido depended on how much comprehension and spiritual maturity the individuals could realize in the cultures and generations of his time. The maturity, in particular, required the ability to follow his imperative to completely release attachments to past practices, whether they were philosophies, rituals or other favored ideas. The contemporary martial and cultural attitudes of individuals were a distinct distraction or restriction for more clarification and purification (misogi) as well as for more contemplation and meditation. Instead, attention habitually digressed to the calculations of effective to invincible, but only imaginable, techniques. This addictive habit, which was completely eliminated in the new domain, remains clearly present and visible in the contemporary aikido legacy.

After over half a century, there are almost as many mundane reasons as there are number of practitioners for avoiding crucial changes. Yet, individuals can prevail by removing the shackles of comfortable attachments and familiar baggage and choose to enter his domain. We have to enter in order to participate. Otherwise, we can only keep dreaming, talking, and writing about what O-Sensei demonstrated back in the mid 20th century. The choice remains open for participants who seek the reality of his aikido. Others, who prefer practice as usual, may consider the thesis of this article as a recurrent statement of aikido identity crisis that is begging for clarity.