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Aikido(合気道) is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying (with) life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength, as the aikidōka (aikido practitioner) “leads” the attacker’s momentum using entering and turning movements. The techniques are completed with various throws or joint locks.
Aikido derives mainly from the martial art of Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but began to diverge from it in the late 1920s, partly due to Ueshiba’s involvement with the Ōmoto-kyō religion. Ueshiba’s early students’ documents bear the term aiki-jūjutsu.
Ueshiba’s senior students have different approaches to aikido, depending partly on when they studied with him. Today aikido is found all over the world in a number of styles, with broad ranges of interpretation and emphasis. However, they all share techniques learned from Ueshiba and most have concern for the well-being of the attacker.
The version of the “four-direction throw” (shihōnage) with standing attacker and seated defender (hanmi-handachi). The receiver of the throw (uke) is taking a breakfall (ukemi) to reach the ground safely.
Ueshiba in Tokyo in 1939
Aikido was created by Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平Ueshiba Morihei, 14 December 1883 – 26 April 1969), referred to by some aikido practitioners as Ōsensei (“Great Teacher”). The term ‘aikido’ is a generic term coined in the twentieth century. Ueshiba envisioned aikido not only as the synthesis of his martial training, but as an expression of his personal philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation. During Ueshiba’s lifetime and continuing today, aikido has evolved from the Aiki that Ueshiba studied into a wide variety of expressions by martial artists throughout the world.
Ueshiba developed aikido primarily during the late 1920s through the 1930s through the synthesis of the older martial arts that he had studied. The core martial art from which aikido derives is Daitō-ryū aiki-jūjutsu, which Ueshiba studied directly with Takeda Sōkaku, the reviver of that art. Additionally, Ueshiba is known to have studied Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū with Tozawa Tokusaburō in Tokyo in 1901, Gotōha Yagyū Shingan-ryū under Nakai Masakatsu in Sakai from 1903 to 1908, and judo with Kiyoichi Takagi (高木 喜代子Takagi Kiyoichi, 1894–1972) in Tanabe in 1911.
The art of Daitō-ryū is the primary technical influence on aikido. Along with empty-handed throwing and joint-locking techniques, Ueshiba incorporated training movements with weapons, such as those for the spear (yari), short staff (jō), and perhaps the bayonet (銃剣jūken). However, aikido derives much of its technical structure from the art of swordsmanship (kenjutsu).
Ueshiba moved to Hokkaidō in 1912, and began studying under Takeda Sokaku in 1915. His official association with Daitō-ryū continued until 1937. However, during the latter part of that period, Ueshiba had already begun to distance himself from Takeda and the Daitō-ryū. At that time Ueshiba was referring to his martial art as “Aiki Budō”. It is unclear exactly when Ueshiba began using the name “aikido”, but it became the official name of the art in 1942 when the Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) was engaged in a government sponsored reorganization and centralization of Japanese martial arts.
After Ueshiba left Hokkaidō in 1919, he met and was profoundly influenced by Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the Ōmoto-kyō religion (a neo-Shinto movement) in Ayabe. One of the primary features of Ōmoto-kyō is its emphasis on the attainment of utopia during one’s life. This was a great influence on Ueshiba’s martial arts philosophy of extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. Aikido demonstrates this philosophy in its emphasis on mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution, not only is the receiver unharmed, but so is the attacker.
In addition to the effect on his spiritual growth, the connection with Deguchi gave Ueshiba entry to elite political and military circles as a martial artist. As a result of this exposure, he was able to attract not only financial backing but also gifted students. Several of these students would found their own styles of aikido.
Aikido was first brought to the rest of the world in 1951 by Minoru Mochizuki with a visit to France where he introduced aikido techniques to judo students. He was followed by Tadashi Abe in 1952 who came as the official Aikikai Hombu representative, remaining in France for seven years. Kenji Tomiki toured with a delegation of various martial arts through 15 continental states of the United States in 1953. Later in that year, Koichi Tohei was sent by Aikikai Hombu to Hawaii, for a full year, where he set up several dojo. This was followed up by several further visits and is considered the formal introduction of aikido to the United States. The United Kingdom followed in 1955; Italy in 1964 by Hiroshi Tada; and Germany 1965 by Katsuaki Asai. Designated “Official Delegate for Europe and Africa” by Morihei Ueshiba, Masamichi Noro arrived in France in September 1961. Seiichi Sugano was appointed to introduce aikido to Australia in 1965. Today there are aikido dojo available throughout the world.
The largest aikido organization is the Aikikai Foundation, which remains under the control of the Ueshiba family. However, aikido has many styles, mostly formed by Morihei Ueshiba’s major students.
The earliest independent styles to emerge were Yoseikan Aikido, begun by Minoru Mochizuki in 1931, Yoshinkan Aikido founded by Gozo Shioda in 1955, and Shodokan Aikido, founded by Kenji Tomiki in 1967. The emergence of these styles pre-dated Ueshiba’s death and did not cause any major upheavals when they were formalized. Shodokan Aikido, however, was controversial, since it introduced a unique rule-based competition that some felt was contrary to the spirit of aikido.
After Ueshiba’s death in 1969, two more major styles emerged. Significant controversy arose with the departure of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo’s chief instructor Koichi Tohei, in 1974. Tohei left as a result of a disagreement with the son of the founder, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, who at that time headed the Aikikai Foundation. The disagreement was over the proper role of ki development in regular aikido training. After Tohei left, he formed his own style, called Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, and the organization which governs it, the Ki Society (Ki no Kenkyūkai).
A final major style evolved from Ueshiba’s retirement in Iwama, Ibaraki, and the teaching methodology of long term student Morihiro Saito. It is unofficially referred to as the “Iwama style”, and at one point a number of its followers formed a loose network of schools they called Iwama Ryu. Although Iwama style practitioners remained part of the Aikikai until Saito’s death in 2002, followers of Saito subsequently split into two groups; one remaining with the Aikikai and the other forming the independent Shinshin Aikishuren Kai in 2004 around Saito’s son Hitohiro Saito.
Today, the major styles of aikido are each run by a separate governing organization, have their own headquarters in Japan, and have an international breadth.
Etymology and basic philosophy
“Aikido” written with “ki” in its old character form
The word “aikido” is formed of three kanji:
合 – ai – joining, unifying, combining, fit
気 – ki – spirit, energy, mood, morale
道 – dō – way, path
The term “aiki” does not readily appear in the Japanese language outside the scope of Budo. This has led to many possible interpretations of the word.
合is mainly used in compounds to mean ‘combine, unite, join together, meet’, examples being 合同(combined/united), 合成(composition), 結合(unite/combine/join together), 連合(union/alliance/association), 統合(combine/unify), and 合意(mutual agreement). There is an idea of reciprocity, 知り合う(to get to know one another), 話し合い(talk/discussion/negotiation), and 待ち合わせる(meet by appointment).
気is often used to describe a feeling, as in なになに気がする(‘I feel X’, as in terms of thinking but with less cognitive reasoning), and 気持ち(feeling/sensation); it is used to mean energy or force, as in 電気(electricity) and 磁気(magnetism); it can also refer to qualities or aspects of people or things, as in 気質(spirit/trait/temperament).
The term dō is also found in martial arts such as judo and kendo, and in the more peaceful arts such as Japanese calligraphy (shodō), flower arranging (kadō) and tea ceremony (chadō or sadō).
Therefore, from a purely linguistic point of view, aikido is ‘Way of combining forces’. The term aiki refers to the martial arts principle or tactic of blending with an attacker’s movements for the purpose of controlling their actions with minimal effort. One applies aiki by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique. This then is very similar to the principles expressed by Kanō Jigorō, founder of judo.
In aikido, as in virtually all Japanese martial arts, there are both physical and mental aspects of training. The physical training in aikido is diverse, covering both general physical fitness and conditioning, as well as specific techniques. Because a substantial portion of any aikido curriculum consists of throws, the first thing most students learn is how to safely fall or roll. The specific techniques for attack include both strikes and grabs; the techniques for defense consist of throws and pins. After basic techniques are learned, students study freestyle defense against multiple opponents, and techniques with weapons.
Ukemi (受け身) is very important for safe practice
Physical training goals pursued in conjunction with aikido include controlled relaxation, flexibility, and endurance, with less emphasis on strength training. In aikido, pushing or extending movements are much more common than pulling or contracting movements. This distinction can be applied to general fitness goals for the aikido practitioner.
In aikido, specific muscles or muscle groups are not isolated and worked to improve tone, mass, and power. Aikido-related training emphasizes the use of coordinated whole-body movement and balance similar to yoga. For example, many dojos begin each class with warm-up exercises which may include stretching and ukemi (break falls).
Aikido training is based primarily on two partners practicing pre-arranged forms (kata) rather than freestyle practice. The basic pattern is for the receiver of the technique (uke) to initiate an attack against the person who applies the techniquetori, also referred to as nage (when applying a throwing technique), who neutralises this attack with an aikido technique.
Both halves of the technique, that of uke and that of nage, are essential to aikido training. Both are studying aikido principles of blending and adaptation. Nage learns to blend with and control attacking energy, while uke learns to become calm and flexible in the disadvantageous, off-balance positions in which nage places them. This “receiving” of the technique is called ukemi. Uke continuously seeks to regain balance and cover vulnerabilities (e.g., an exposed side), while nage uses position and timing to keep uke off-balance and vulnerable. In more advanced training, uke will sometimes apply reversal techniques (返し技kaeshi-waza) to regain balance and pin or throw nage.
Ukemi(受身) refers to the act of receiving a technique. Good ukemi involves attention to the technique, the partner and the immediate environment—it is an active rather than a passive receiving of aikido. The fall itself is part of aikido, and is a way for the practitioner to receive, safely, what would otherwise be a devastating strike or throw.
Aikido techniques are usually a defense against an attack, so students must learn to deliver various types of attacks to be able to practice aikido with a partner. Although attacks are not studied as thoroughly as in striking-based arts, sincere attacks (a strong strike or an immobilizing grab) are needed to study correct and effective application of technique.
Many of the strikes (打ちuchi) of aikido resemble cuts from a sword or other grasped object, which indicate its origins in techniques intended for armed combat. Other techniques, which explicitly appear to be punches (tsuki), are practiced as thrusts with a knife or sword. Kicks are generally reserved for upper-level variations; reasons cited include that falls from kicks are especially dangerous, and that kicks (high kicks in particular) were uncommon during the types of combat prevalent in feudal Japan. Some basic strikes include:
Front-of-the-head strike(正面打ちshōmen’uchi) a vertical knifehand strike to the head. In training, this is usually directed at the forehead or the crown for safety, but more dangerous versions of this attack target the bridge of the nose and the maxillary sinus.
Side-of-the-head strike(横面打ちyokomen’uchi) a diagonal knifehand strike to the side of the head or neck.
Chest thrust(胸突きmune-tsuki) a punch to the torso. Specific targets include the chest, abdomen, and solar plexus. Same as “middle-level thrust” (中段突きchūdan-tsuki), and “direct thrust” (直突きchoku-tsuki).
Face thrust(顔面突きganmen-tsuki) a punch to the face. Same as “upper-level thrust” (上段突きjōdan-tsuki).
Beginners in particular often practice techniques from grabs, because it promotes the correct distance for uke and tori and because it is easier to feel the energy and lines of force of a hold than a strike. Some grabs are historically derived from being held while trying to draw a weapon; a technique could then be used to free oneself and immobilize or strike the attacker who is grabbing the defender. The following are examples of some basic grabs:
Single-hand grab(片手取りkatate-dori) one hand grabs one wrist.
Both-hands grab(諸手取りmorote-dori) both hands grab one wrist. Same as “single hand double-handed grab” (片手両手取りkatateryōte-dori)
Both-hands grab(両手取りryōte-dori) both hands grab both wrists. Same as “double single-handed grab” (両片手取りryōkatate-dori).
Shoulder grab(肩取りkata-dori) a shoulder grab. “Both-shoulders-grab” is ryōkata-dori(両肩取り). It is sometimes combined with an overhead strike as Shoulder grab face strike(肩取り面打ちkata-dori men-uchi).
Chest grab(胸取りmune-dori or muna-dori) grabbing the (clothing of the) chest. Same as “collar grab” (襟取りeri-dori).
The following are a sample of the basic or widely practiced throws and pins. Many of these techniques derive from Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but some others were invented by Morihei Ueshiba. The precise terminology for some may vary between organisations and styles, so what follows are the terms used by the Aikikai Foundation. Note that despite the names of the first five techniques listed, they are not universally taught in numeric order.
First technique(一教ikkyō) a control using one hand on the elbow and one hand near the wrist which leverages uke to the ground. This grip applies pressure into the ulnar nerve at the wrist.
Second technique(二教nikyō) a pronating wristlock that torques the arm and applies painful nerve pressure. (There is an adductive wristlock or Z-lock in ura version.)
Third technique(三教sankyō) a rotational wristlock that directs upward-spiraling tension throughout the arm, elbow and shoulder.
Fourth technique(四教yonkyō) a shoulder control similar to ikkyō, but with both hands gripping the forearm. The knuckles (from the palm side) are applied to the recipient’s radial nerve against the periosteum of the forearm bone.
Fifth technique(五教gokyō) visually similar to ikkyō, but with an inverted grip of the wrist, medial rotation of the arm and shoulder, and downward pressure on the elbow. Common in knife and other weapon take-aways.
Four-direction throw(四方投げshihōnage) The hand is folded back past the shoulder, locking the shoulder joint.
Forearm return(小手返しkotegaeshi) a supinating wristlock-throw that stretches the extensor digitorum.
Breath throw(呼吸投げkokyūnage) a loosely used term for various types of mechanically unrelated techniques, although they generally do not use joint locks like other techniques.
Entering throw(入身投げiriminage) throws in which nage moves through the space occupied by uke. The classic form superficially resembles a “clothesline” technique.
Heaven-and-earth throw(天地投げtenchinage) often beginning with ryōte-dori; moving forward, nage sweeps one hand low (“earth”) and the other high (“heaven”), which unbalances uke so that he or she easily topples over.
Hip throw(腰投げkoshinage) aikido’s version of the hip throw. Nage drops his or her hips lower than those of uke, then flips uke over the resultant fulcrum.
Figure-ten throw(十字投げjūjinage) or figure-ten entanglement(十字絡みjūjigarami) a throw that locks the arms against each other (The kanji for “10” is a cross-shape: 十).
Rotary throw(回転投げkaitennage)nage sweeps the arm back until it locks the shoulder joint, then uses forward pressure to throw.
Diagram showing two versions of the ikkyō technique: one moving forward (the omote version) and one moving to the side (the ura version).
Aikido makes use of body movement (tai sabaki) to blend with uke. For example, an “entering” (irimi) technique consists of movements inward towards uke, while a “turning” (転換tenkan) technique uses a pivoting motion. Additionally, an “inside” (内uchi) technique takes place in front of uke, whereas an “outside” (外soto) technique takes place to his side; a “front” (表omote) technique is applied with motion to the front of uke, and a “rear” (裏ura) version is applied with motion towards the rear of uke, usually by incorporating a turning or pivoting motion. Finally, most techniques can be performed while in a seated posture (seiza). Techniques where both uke and nage are standing are called tachi-waza, techniques where both start off in seiza are called suwari-waza, and techniques performed with uke standing and nage sitting are called hanmi handachi.
Thus, from fewer than twenty basic techniques, there are thousands of possible implementations. For instance, ikkyō can be applied to an opponent moving forward with a strike (perhaps with an ura type of movement to redirect the incoming force), or to an opponent who has already struck and is now moving back to reestablish distance (perhaps an omote-waza version). Specific aikido tecniques or moves are typically referred to using the formula “attack-technique then defensive technique”. For instance, katate-dori ikkyō refers to any ikkyō technique executed when uke is holding one wrist. This could be further specified as katate-dori ikkyō omote, referring to any forward-moving ikkyō technique from that grab.
Atemi (当て身) are strikes (or feints) employed during an aikido technique. Some view atemi as attacks against “vital points” meant to cause damage in and of themselves. For instance, Gōzō Shioda described using atemi in a brawl to quickly down a gang’s leader. Others consider atemi, especially to the face, to be methods of distraction meant to enable other techniques. A strike, whether or not it is blocked, can startle the target and break his or her concentration. The target may become unbalanced in attempting to avoid the blow, for example by jerking the head back, which may allow for an easier throw. Many sayings about atemi are attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, who considered them an essential element of technique.
Disarming an attacker using a “sword taking” (太刀取りtachi-dori) technique.
Weapons training in aikido traditionally includes the short staff (jō), wooden sword (bokken), and knife (tantō). Today, some schools incorporate firearm-disarming techniques. Both weapon-taking and weapon-retention are sometimes taught, to integrate armed and unarmed aspects. Others, such as the Iwama style of Morihiro Saito, usually spend substantial time with bokken and jō, practised under the names aiki-ken, and aiki-jō, respectively.
The founder developed much of empty handed aikido from traditional sword and spear movements. Consequently, the practice of these movements both gives insight into the origin of techniques and movements, and reinforces the concepts of distance, foot movement, presence and connectedness with one’s training partner(s).
Technique performed against two attackers.
One feature of aikido is training to defend against multiple attackers, often called taninzudori, or taninzugake. Freestyle (randori, or jiyūwaza) practice with multiple attackers is a key part of most curricula and is required for the higher level ranks. “Randori”, literally “chaos”, exercises a person’s ability to intuitively perform techniques in an unstructured environment. Strategic choice of techniques, based on how they reposition the student relative to other attackers, is important in randori training. For instance, an ura technique might be used to neutralise the current attacker while turning to face attackers approaching from behind.
In Shodokan Aikido, randori differs in that it is not performed with multiple persons with defined roles of defender and attacker, but between two people, where both participants attack, defend, and counter at will. In this respect it resembles judo randori.
In applying a technique during training, it is the responsibility of nage to prevent injury to uke by employing a speed and force of application which is commensurate with their partner’s proficiency in ukemi. Injuries (especially those to the joints), when they do occur in aikido, are often the result of nage misjudging the ability of uke to receive the throw or pin.
A study of injuries in the martial arts showed that while the type of injuries varied considerably from one art to the other, the differences in overall rates of injury were much less pronounced. Soft tissue injuries are one of the most common types of injuries found within aikido, and even a few reported deaths from repetitive “shihōnage” in a Japanese-style hazing context.
Aikido training is mental as well as physical, emphasizing the ability to relax the mind and body even under the stress of dangerous situations. This is necessary to enable the practitioner to perform the bold enter-and-blend movements that underlie aikido techniques, wherein an attack is met with confidence and directness. Morihei Ueshiba once remarked that one “must be willing to receive 99% of an opponent’s attack and stare death in the face” in order to execute techniques without hesitation. As a martial art concerned not only with fighting proficiency but with the betterment of daily life, this mental aspect is of key importance to aikido practitioners.
The most common criticism of aikido is that it suffers from a lack of realism in training. The attacks initiated by uke (and which nage must defend against) have been criticized as being “weak,” “sloppy,” and “little more than caricatures of an attack.” Weak attacks from uke cause a conditioned response from nage, and result in underdevelopment of the strength and conditioning needed for the safe and effective practice of both partners. To counteract this, some styles allow students to become less compliant over time but, in keeping with the core philosophies, this is after having demonstrated proficiency in being able to protect themselves and their training partners. Shodokan Aikido addresses the issue by practising in a competitive format. Such adaptations are debated between styles, with some maintaining there is no need to adjust their methods because either the criticisms are unjustified, or that they are not training for self-defence or combat effectiveness, but spiritual, fitness or other reasons.
Another criticism is that after the end of Ueshiba’s seclusion in Iwama from 1942 to the mid-1950s, he increasingly emphasized the spiritual and philosophical aspects of aikido. As a result, strikes to vital points by nage, entering (irimi) and initiation of techniques by nage, the distinction between omote (front side) and ura (back side) techniques, and the use of weapons, were all de-emphasized or eliminated from practice. Lack of training in these areas is thought to lead to an overall loss of effectiveness by some aikido practitioners.
Conversely, there are some who criticize aikido practitioners for not placing enough importance on the spiritual practices emphasized by Ueshiba. The premise of this criticism is that “O-Sensei’s aikido was not a continuation and extension of the old and has a distinct discontinuity with past martial and philosophical concepts.” That is, aikido practitioners who focus on aikido’s roots in traditional jujutsu or kenjutsu are diverging from what Ueshiba taught. Such critics urge practitioners to embrace the assertion that “[Ueshiba’s] transcendence to the spiritual and universal reality was the fundamentals of the paradigm which he demonstrated.”
This was the kanji for ki until 1946, when it was changed to 気.
The study of ki is a critical component of aikido, and its study defies categorization as either “physical” or “mental” training, as it encompasses both. The original kanji for ki was 氣, and is a symbolic representation of a lid covering a pot full of rice; the “nourishing vapors” contained within are ki.
The character for ki is used in everyday Japanese terms, such as “health” (元気genki), or “shyness” (内気uchiki). Ki is most often understood as unified physical and mental intention, however in traditional martial arts it is often discussed as “life energy”. Gōzō Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido, considered one of the “hard styles,” largely follows Ueshiba’s teachings from before World War II, and surmises that the secret to ki lies in timing and the application of the whole body’s strength to a single point. In later years, Ueshiba’s application of ki in aikido took on a softer, more gentle feel. This was his Takemusu Aiki and many of his later students teach about ki from this perspective. Koichi Tohei’s Ki Society centers almost exclusively around the study of the empirical (albeit subjective) experience of ki with students ranked separately in aikido techniques and ki development.
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