Aikido and its origins

Calligraphy of a circle, triangle and square
Circle, Triangle, Square: calligraphy from a temple in Kyoto

Aikido is a discipline with its roots in highly practical martial arts, but whose scope and purpose go far beyond just physical self-defence.

Aikido was created in the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba, as an evolution of his previous experience in several martial arts – including the use of the staff (jōjutsu), spear (yari- or sōjutsu), sword (notably Shin Kage ryu kenjutsu), and several schools of jujutsu, principally Daito ryu jujutsu.

As the founder of aikido, Ueshiba is also often referred to as O Sensei, meaning “revered teacher”. Part of what O Sensei would have learned in Daito ryu jujutsu was aiki-no-jutsu: a specific subset of techniques aimed at using the opponent’s movement or intention to their disadvantage… and yet he named his art aikido, and not aikijutsu.

This is is helpful in understanding the purpose and philosophy of aikido, because we can look at other examples of disciplines classed as -do and not -jutsu. For example: jujutsu is generally thought of as a martial art, whereas judo is a sport with its origins in some jujutsu techniques. Similarly, kenjutsu is a martial art, whereas for kendo, the original sword techniques and equipment have been modified to make a competitive (and non-lethal!) sport. The same principle applies to kyujutsu (martial archery) and the modern target discipline of kyudo.

This tells us part of the story, but not the whole thing. Aikido has its roots in the martial arts of aiki-jujutsu, but aikido is non-competitive, and is not a sport. To understand the full distinction we have to look at other, non-martial -do such as chādo (the study of the tea ceremony) and shōdo (the study of calligraphy). In these disciplies, -do is usually translated as a “way” – in the sense of a path towards self-fulfilment and enlightened understanding.

O Sensei saw aikido very much in this sense. As a live-in student of O Sensei, Mitsugi Saotome, puts it: “O Sensei constantly refined aikido training as a way to reform your whole being, your spirit, your body, and your relationship to the spirit of the universe”.

Learning aikido techniques is like learning the grammar and vocabulary of a language. It teaches you how the language works, but it can never teach you everything that the language can express. O Sensei’s vision was of a world in which the practice of aikido gives people a way to understand and improve themselves and their relationship to others. He had a deep personal conviction that, ultimately, this could lead to a better world.

Here is how Sugano sensei, another live-in student of O Sensei, described the ethics of aikido to his students in Australia:

Aikido is a Way

There is commitment and there is obligation
Do not abuse or misuse the art of Aikido
Study carefully, honestly and humbly
Respect your seniors 
Take care of your juniors 
                                   Seiichi Sugano 8th Dan