History – How Aikido Came Into Being

This is the eighth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

H is for History.

There are many excellent books and web resources covering the history of Aikido in great detail. I will list several at the end of this post. Here I’m going to give a very brief overview, and a few special bits that I find particularly interesting.

A very (very) brief overview of Aikido’s history:

Morihei Ueshiba [more-ee-HEY oo-ay-SHE-bah] (1883-1969) founded the art of Aikido. We refer to him as O Sensei, meaning great teacher.

Ueshiba was descended from samurai, and his family was well off. He was a small, sickly kid who got picked on, so he took up sumo wrestling. At about 20 he joined the military, and served during the Russo-Japanese War. After his military service Ueshiba trained in several martial arts.

In 1912, Ueshiba led a group of settlers to Hokkaido, to begin a farming community there. It was on Hokkaido that he met the formidable martial artist Takeda Sokaku, and began training in the powerful art of daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu.

During this time he also begin studying under the spiritual teacher, Onisaburo Deguchi, a leader in the Omoto religion. Deguchi had a strong influence on Ueshiba’s development of Aikido. A central teaching of Oomoto-kyo is “harmonious alignment with all life and the universe,” and this is reflected in Aikido today.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“… Aikido is different from all previous martial arts. Its sole purpose is to experience universal truth in one’s own body and spirit.
I ask all of you to explore the spiritual dimensions of Aikido.”

~ Morihei Ueshiba (O Sensei)
The Heart of Aikido – The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

During World War II, Ueshiba moved to Iwama, a small, rural town, to settle down as a farmer, and soon built his own dojo there. The Iwama dojo is still active.

O Sensei changed the name of his art several times, finally arriving at “Aikido” after World War II. He also changed the way of practicing the art to be safer, and accessible to more people. While some martial artists are secretive about their art, only passing it on to a select few, O Sensei purposefully promoted Aikido and encouraged teachers to spread it around the world. A few of these direct students are still teaching today, and many of their students are senior practitioners with their own dojo, continuing to pass the art along.

Some particularly interesting bits:

These are some random pieces of the story of O Sensei and the history of Aikido that I personally find intriguing.

  • Young Morihei did not care for school, and quit early. He has been described as restless. (I suspect that in our current culture he would have been diagnosed as having ADHD, and would have been medicated into compliance.) As a young man he tried his hand at a few business ventures, but that was not his thing either.
  • At several times during his life Ueshiba engaged in farming, and at one point headed a group of settlers who started an agricultural community on the island of Hokkaido. “O-Sensei’s move to Iwama was prompted by his long held belief that ‘the true martial path is like unto agriculture, both originate in the life giving power of Takemusu Aiki.'” (Source)
  • In 1902, he married his childhood friend, Hatsu. When Morihei died in 1969, Hatsu died two weeks later.
  • Ueshiba wanted to join the military, but was rejected because he was too short. To lengthen his body he hung from tree branches. It worked, and when he tried again he was accepted.
  • Omoto-kyo, the religion O Sensei practiced, was founded by a woman, Deguchi Nao. Onisaburo Deguchi, O Sensei’s spiritual teacher, was her son-in-law.
  • Deguchi’s grandmother may have been the one who taught him the kotodama chanting that some Aikido people practice. (I cannot recall the source for this, but will update this post when I find it.)
  • Omoto-kyo, has used and supported the language of Esperanto, which was created to help people around the world communicate more easily with each other.
  • Ueshiba, along with Deguchi and a few others went to Manchuria and Mongolia in 1924 to spread Omoto-kyo. There they were arrested and almost executed. Over 100 others were shot, but they were released and sent back to Japan.

Want to learn more?

There are many very good books and web resources on O Sensei and the history of Aikido. Here are just a few I recommend:

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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