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.”

O Sensei Raised Horses!!!

I have wondered about this, and tried to find any information on whether O Sensei may have kept horses, or worked with them. I thought maybe… I knew he was a farmer, but he could have farmed by hand, or with oxen. I had not found any mention of horses, until just now, in The Art of Peace, by Morihei Ueshiba & John Stevens. From Part One – Morihei Ueshiba, Prophet of the Art of Peace:

“Looking for new worlds to conquer, in 1912 Morihei led a group of settlers from Tanabe to the wilds of Hokkaikdo, Japan’s northernmost, largely undeveloped island. The group settled in remote Shirataki, and started to build a village from scratch. Morihei worked tirelessly to make the project a success. He put up buildings; cleared the land for the cultivation of potatoes, peppermint, and sesame; engaged in prudent logging of the great forests; raised horses; and eventually served as a local councilman. (Despite Morihei’s great efforts, the settlement never really succeeded. Crops failed the first few years, and there was a disastrous fire in 1916 that destroyed 80 percent of the village, including Morihei’s first home. Morihei did learn how to tame wild animals, though, becoming pals with several big Hokkaido bears.)”

O Sensei raised horses!!!

If anyone has more information, details, stories, references, anything, I’d love to know about it. Did he ride? Did he train them? Use them as draft animals? Did he raise them for sale? For meat? I’d love to add notes here with any links, book recommendations, etc. If you have anything to share.

And bears? I’d love to hear anything about that, too. 

I have always seen animals as a great common thread across time and borders. When I see a worn black and white photo of someone many decades ago, in a very foreign land, with a cat in the doorway, I know their life must have been quite different from mine, now, but I also know their cat was a cat like any cat I might know. I’m sure it meowed around their feet while they cooked, scratched at the door to be let in, and left dead “gifts” on the doormat. I know a little about their life, and know they can’t have been so very different from me, really.

I’ve always wondered if O Sensei had a cat, too. I can see him after a long day regaling uchi deshi with stories of Shinto gods, and overseeing dojo activities, sneaking a purring kitty a bit of meat from his dinner. It makes him seem so human, and so timeless.


I’m adding a couple of comments here that I made when I posted this to Facebook, in case anyone has any info/thoughts on them. I don’t have commenting enabled here, but if you are on AikiWeb you are certainly invited to add your thoughts or information on resources to this post there: http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/my-path-17246/o-sensei-raised-horses-4436/

– I’ve also thought there was a strong connection between farming and Aikido. Living with nature and learning to take what’s in front of you and use it seems like something anyone dealing with seasons, soils, insects, etc. would have to learn. You can’t push back against a storm, or take a stand against a swarm of bugs. You have to notice “OK, it’s pouring. I can’t plant today. How can I move forward from here?”

– Do you know where I can find information about the Settlement? (Or O Sensei’s other farming activities, before or after?) I’m curious about this aspect of his life because I find that training one’s body is not very different from training a horse (same learning patterns), and that working with nature and the land seems entirely compatible with Aikido principles. I’d love to know if/how that experience might have influenced his creation of the art, teaching, or view of how the world works.

My Aikido Timeline

I keep forgetting and remembering important events on my Aikido path, and our organization doesn’t use kyu books. So before I misplace any entirely I thought I should get them all written down in one place. What a chore! So here they are – or the ones I could think of this evening, at least, plus a few I’m planning on in the near future.

I will update this post regularly, and keep a permanent link to it in the sidebar, eventually. This has a sister post now, too: My Aikido Teachers.

— Someday —

Aikido Randori and Weapons 4-Day Intensive w/ George Ledyard Sensei
Aikido Eastside, Bellevue, WA 
[I am tentatively planning a 2-week train trip around this.] 

— 2012 —

Fall, 2012 
Aikido of San Diego Fall Retreat
Instructors Denise Barry Sensei (KumaKai Aikido) & Dave Goldberg Sensei
Local mountains of San Diego County (?)  

September 14-16, 2012
Weekend Intensive with George Ledyard Sensei
Facebook Event page for the Weekend Intensive with George Ledyard
Two Rivers Budo, Sacramento, CA

August 4-5, 2012
Daitoryu Aikijujitsu Ginjukai Seminar with Howard Popkin
Facebook Event page for the seminar with Howard Popkin
Jiai Aikido, San Diego, CA

June, 2012 Unfortunately, the Retreat is not happening in 2012.
CAA Aiki Summer Retreat 
Aiki Retreat Fan Page
Bay Area, CA  

May 18-20, 2012
CAA Division 3 Retreat, Robert Nadeau Shihan & Others
Sabastopol, CA

March 30-April 1, 2012
Evolutionary Aikido Seminar, Patrick Cassidy Sensei & Dave Goldberg Sensei
Register for Evolutionary Aikido Seminar
Aikido of San Diego 

March 2-4, 2012
Dan Messisco Sensei
Facebook Event page for the seminar
Two Rivers Budo, Sacramento, CA (Geoff Yudien’s and Adam Fong’s new dojo!)

January 21, 2012
My 2nd Kyu Exam
Video of my 2nd kyu exam, on YouTube
Aikido of San Diego, Dave Goldberg Sensei   

January 12-16, 2012
Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar
Instructors: Hiroshi Ikeda, Frank Doran and Christian Tissier Shihan
Register for Aikido Bridge Seminar 
Jiai Aikido, in San Diego  

— 2011 —

October 7-9, 2011
Mary Heiny Sensei
Aikido of San Diego  

September, 2011
Mitsugu Saotome Shihan
Redlands Aikikai 

September 11, 2011
Aikido In Focus: Aikido, Fear, and Freedom, Dave Goldberg Sensei
Aikido of San Diego  

Summer, 2011
Jo (Staff) Seminar, Chetan Prakash Sensei
Redlands Aikikai  

July 15-17, 2011
Robert Nadeau Shihan
Aikido of San Diego  

July 9, 2011
My 3rd Kyu Exam
Video of my 3rd kyu exam, on YouTube
Aikido of San Diego, Dave Goldberg Sensei  

June 12-18, 2011
CAA Aiki Summer Retreat (Nadeau, Doran, Ikeda, Heiny, & others)
Aiki Retreat Fan SiteMenlo College, Atherton, CA  

 Feb 18-21, 2011
Gasshuku, Patrick Cassidy Sensei
Aikido of San Diego 

January 13-17, 2011
Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar
Instructors: Hiroshi Ikeda, Frank Doran and Christian Tissier Shihan
Jiai Aikido, in San Diego  

January 3, 2011
Special New Year Training with Dave Goldberg Sensei,
and instructors Mike Coit, Megan Palm, and Lloyd McClellan 
Aikido of San Diego 

January 2011
Dojo Projects
Aikido of San Diego
Post: Service and Community 

— 2010 —

November 13, 2010
My 4th Kyu Exam
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuGsMi4MhOQ 
Post: To 4th Kyu & Beyond

October 24, 2010
Aikido In Focus workshop, Dave Goldberg Sensei 
Subject: “How am I limiting myself / getting in my own way?”
[My focus: Over extending.]
Aikido of San Diego
Post: How am I Limiting Myself?  

September 24-26, 2010
Seminar with Mary Heiny Sensei
Aikido of San Diego
[Helped with seminar logistics. “Tetsudai.”]

July 12, 2010
First day of training at new location (6356 Riverdale St. 92120)

Month of July, 2010
Several Work parties at the new and old locations.

May 22, 2010
Spring picnic at Santee Lakes

May 3, 2010
154 total training days. Just interesting trivia. 

April 9-11, 2010
Seminar with Robert Nadeau Shihan
Aikido of San Diego 
A Flickr slideshow of my seminar photos  

March 21, 2010
Aikido In Focus workshop with Dave Goldberg Sensei 
Subject: “Putting the Free in Freestyle”
Aikido of San Diego
Post: Body, Border Collies, & Beer 

February 6, 2010
My 5th Kyu Exam
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bhlXh91Ksg 
Post: 5th Kyu Test Tomorrow
Post: Thoughts on My 5th Kyu Test
Post: More thoughts – What I Meant 

January 31, 2010
Aikido In Focus workshop with Dave Goldberg Sensei 
Subject: “Ukemi”
Aikido of San Diego

January 23, 2010
Community service project with Aikido of San Diego
Fire clearance work day at the Unity Center Ranch (where our retreats are held)

January, 2010
Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar
Instructors: Hiroshi Ikeda, Frank Doran and Christian Tissier Shihan 
Plus guest instructors: Wilko Vriesman, Francis Takahashi, Morihiko Murashige Shihan
Jiai Aikido, in San Diego
Post: How To Go To Your First Big Seminar
Post: Great Trip, Happy to be Home  
On AikidoBridge.com: Article, with photos, by Frank Richardson

— 2009 —

December 15, 2009
My first column for The Mirror, on AikiWeb.com
“Learning By Feel" 

September 11-13
Annual Fall Retreat, with Kayla Feder & Dave Goldberg Sensei
Unity Center Ranch, Descanso, CA
[Mostly weapons and meditation.] 

September 19, 2009
My 6th Kyu Test
Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZR4eKhpRXE
Post: Studying for 6th Kyu Exam
Post: Reflections at the 1st Milestone
Post: Comments After My Exam 

August 30 (?), 2009
Aikido In Focus workshop with Dave Goldberg Sensei 
Subject: "Relax, It’s Aikido”
Aikido of San Diego
Post: Don’t Push So Hard Against the World 

July 24-26, 2009
Seminar with Robert Nadeau Shihan
Aikido of San Diego
Post: Getting to the Nadeau Seminar

July 8, 2009
10th training day 

Mid-May through June, 2009
Of the mat with a shoulder injury (separated AC joint)
Watched classes 1-2x/week 

May 5, 2009
My first day of training
Aikido of San Diego
Post: Introduction 

Questions for My Teacher’s Teacher

My teacher’s teacher is coming to our dojo in April. My teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, is a student of Robert Nadeau Shihan. Nadeau Shihan will be leading a seminar at Aikido of San Diego, April 9-11, 2010.

Nadeau Shihan, 7th Dan, trained in Japan with O Sensei in the 1960s. He has been teaching Aikido since 1965. He runs two dojo: Aikido of Mountain View, and City Aikido in San Francisco. His students have included several of my favorite Aikido authors: George Leonard, Wendy Palmer, and Richard Strozzi-Heckler Sensei. He is a founder and division head (Division 3) of the California Aikido Association. It is an honor to have him come to work with us.

I had the privilege of training with Nadeau Shihan last year, before I’d even tested for 6th kyu, and very much enjoy and “get” his approach to teaching. I’m really looking forward to training with him again, now that I have a tiny bit more experience and perspective.

This year, Friday evening will be a question and answer session. We’ve been invited to submit questions. I thought it might be interesting to share my questions here. If you want the answers, come to the seminar. Not that all, or any, of these will be asked, of course. Lots of people will be asking questions. This is just my unfiltered list – the things I wonder about.*

Your Experience of Aikido

Q: What brought you to Aikido?

Q: Is there something in your background that made you particularly receptive to, or inquisitive about, what has been available for you in Aikido?

Q: Did you find support and validation in Aikido for who you were already, or did Aikido change you?

Q: Is there something you wish you’d discovered or realized earlier in your Aikido training that would’ve helped you grow or learn? Or something you actually did discover or realize, that fundamentally changed your approach or understanding?

Or perhaps is there something you hope your students can grasp (or let go of), that would help them? Is there something you see your students struggling with, that you wish they could just *get* more easily?

Q: Are there activities you find to be complementary to your Aikido practice? (Meditation, gardening, …) Would you recommend them to others, or does everyone have to find their own way?

Q: In your experience of the larger “I” knowing who you are (such as why you love “junk,” or love movement), were those sudden realizations, that you immediately saw (“Aha!) to be true? Or did you go through a lot of seeking and questioning before you discovered what was so for you?

Q: Do you continue to make discoveries about yourself through your practice of Aikido? How has that changed over time?


Q: What kind of change of consciousness, or development of consciousness, is possible through Aikido? What might that look like, in people’s lives? In a community? In the world?

Q: How does Aikido work? How much is mechanics, psychology, emotion, spiritual, energetic? Or do those characterizations even make sense in the context of Aikido?

The Art of Aikido

Q: If Aikido is a way of helping to bring peace and happiness to the world, what is the process by which you see that happening?

Q: How has Aikido changed since you first came to it? Has it expanded and strengthened? Or lost focus, gone off the tracks, or become diluted?

Q: What are your hopes for the future of Aikido, and how might that future come about?

Teaching, Sensei, and Students

Q: Do you see a correlation between the reasons people come to Aikido, and their likelihood to stay with the practice? Or maybe, does it matter why people walk through the door of the dojo, or just that they do?

Q: What do you see as the best way to teach Aikido? Does the teacher convey knowledge directly, simply demonstrate, or support the student somehow in making discoveries on their own?

Q: What do you see as a Sensei’s place in a student’s life? Instructor of practical skills? Role model? Spiritual guide? Counselor? Parental figure? Friend?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) will get from practicing Aikido?

Q: What do you hope your students (or students of Aikido in general) might contribute to Aikido?

Your Experience of O Sensei

Q: How would you characterize your relationship with O Sensei?

Q: Did O Sensei make requests of you (and of others, if you know), like "Go back to the U.S. and teach this”? Was he teaching his students to teach, necessarily?

Q: You have said that O Sensei had a process by which he could quickly jump into a bigger / higher level of himself. Could you tell us about the nature of that process? (Was it a physical practice? Meditation or prayer?)

Q: Do you think that Aikido today is (or is becoming) what O Sensei envisioned for it? Is it growing and spreading as he’d hoped? Affecting humanity as he’d intended? Better / worse / different?

Q: If you could spend an evening talking with O Sensei now, what would ask him? Or tell him?

In thinking about these questions, it struck me that the world might be a much different place for many, many people, had a certain young Robert Nadeau not somehow connected with Aikido. Just another example of how one pebble can make waves affecting an entire ocean.

*It occurred to me the day after posting these questions (and sending them off to Sensei) that I’d be interested in hearing others’ answers to them as well. If you teach Aikido, or have just practiced for a long time (however you define that), please feel free to copy some or all of my questions, and answer them on your own blog or Web site. I’d appreciate a mention, and please let me know where I can go to read your answers. Thanks!