The Way of Harmony
Editor’s note: As an aikido practitioner for more than 15 years, I was amazed to come to Japan and discover that Aikikai Foundation’s dojo headquarters is more than the mere sum of its parts. I wrote this article for Metropolis magazine six years ago before coming to Stars and Stripes. That it is still relevant today (even everyone quoted is still an active dojo member) is, in my opinion, evidence of how unique this dojo – and the martial art it embodies – truly are.
From the first foreigners to The Last Samurai, budo, that mysterious way of the warrior, has lured the culturally curious to Japan. The era of honor by sword may be gone but its allure remains. Today, the budo-minded master martial arts to hone spirit and character. At Aikido World Headquarters in Shinjuku’s Wakamatsucho, it’s taught to help students grapple with life’s persistent questions—and each other.
In a spacious room carpeted with padded tatami, students grab and lob one another with varying degrees of intensity. Some glide willing partners to the floor into a graceful pin; others counter swift attacks, slamming them to the mat in earnest. It’s an enigmatic spectacle of maneuvers that seem alternately choreographed and potentially lethal. It’s no wonder. Aikido, which literally means “the way of harmony,” has been touted as an art of peace and love, yet showcased in Steven Seagal movies as a means to mete out bone-snapping justice to bad guys. Even long-time practitioners struggle for words to describe its draw.
“It’s hard to say… More than anything, it’s the feeling of learning how to use your body effectively—it’s mysterious,” says John Presley, 25, who left North Carolina for the dojo three years ago. “Aikido is very soft yet very powerful. If I’m relaxed and focused I can easily move another human being. Meeting that other person’s motion and moving with them is pretty interesting.” He’s not the only one who thinks so.
This home, or “hombu,” dojo was established by the founder of aikido and is headquarters of the Aikikai Foundation, which oversees accreditation for dojo in some 40 countries that follow its style of aikido. (Other dojo such as Yoshinkan, made famous in Robert Twigger’s bestseller Angry White Pyjamas, practice different styles of aikido and have their own accredited networks.) Aikikai draws hundreds of pilgrims like Presley, who take up residence in Tokyo specifically to train there. About half of its nearly 1,300 members are active and pay monthly dues. On average, 300 students attend daily classes, says Assistant Director Masaki Tani. Over the decades, the number of foreign students has surged to about 20 percent and can comprise up to half of some classes. “More than 20 years ago the nationalities of most foreigners were those from the United States, France and a few other Western European countries,” Tani says. ”Now we have many different nationalities that practice here, especially from Eastern Europe, Iran, Bulgaria, Russia, South America and Spain.”
Didier Boyet, 60, began studying aikido and iaido, or traditional Japanese sword drawing, in 1972. He left France first for England where his mentor, Shihan (master) Kazuo Chiba, then taught aikido. Four years later, his training brought him to Japan. “I said, ‘If I want to study aikido and iaido I have to go to Japan.’ I thought I’d be here two years,” he says. After three decades, Boyet is now a sixth dan shihan, one of the highest ranking foreign members of the dojo. “This is where the founder established his dojo. It’s really special; it supposedly has the best teachers in the world and offers an array of people that you can practice with. This is the heart of aikido. If you really want to study it you have to be here for a number of years.”
Gaute Lambertsen, 33, feels the same way. After a decade in Kyoto he jumped at a job offer in Tokyo that would bring him to the dojo he had pined for since starting aikido 15 years ago in Norway. Now the third dan says he trains there daily. “When the company asked what I wanted for an apartment I said two things: price and location—I wanted to be close to the dojo. I was really lucky; I got an apartment just three doors down.”
The Hombu Dojo isn’t the only thing drawing modern-day warriors, or bushi, from abroad. Last month’s 18th International Seminar of Budo Culture, which Aikikai participated in, drew scores of martial artists from North and South America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. In recent years, aikido has been the discipline most practiced by participants in this four-day event for foreign martial artists, followed by karate, judo and kendo, according to Nippon Budokan officials. International Budo University (IBU), Nippon Budokan, Japanese Budo Associations, and the Japanese Kobudo Association host the annual state-supported seminar to meet growing gaijin interest in the ways of Japan’s warriors of old. It aims to foster international understanding of budo principles that build character as well as proficiency in martial arts.
Professor Ryuji Bunasawa is the director of the Budo Specialization Program at IBU in Katsuura, Chiba where part of the seminar was held. He says these days, the budo arts of old are embodied in nine disciplines: aikido, judo, kendo, kyudo, sumo, karate-do, shoringi kempo, as well as naginata and jukendo.
“These budo differ from other sports in that they stress not only keiko, practice, and shugyo, austere training… but also character formation, or shin-gi-tai,” which involves the spirit as well as mind and body,” Bunasawa explains.
Aikido is relatively new as far as Japanese martial arts go. It was the brainchild of Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). He mastered classical martial arts such as jujutsu, judo and kenjutsu while developing an intense spirituality based on Shinto principles. Along with his character, Ueshiba’s fabled ability to anticipate and avoid bullets on the Russo-Japanese battlefield (where he was honored for bravery), defeat a kendo master in a duel without raising a hand, and pin an ex-sumo wrestler with one finger all helped distinguish this new martial art. Over time, Ueshiba earned numerous national honors and taught dignitaries as well as other martial artists at a military academy, police stations and elsewhere around the country. In 1931, he opened the Kobukan dojo in Wakamatsu. It has since grown into Aikido World Headquarters, a five-storied ferroconcrete building with three separate training halls.
His grandson, Moriteru Ueshiba, now heads Aikikai as its third doshu after his father, the late Kisshomaru Ueshiba. He says the blend of martial austerity and gentleness of aikido describes the man as much as the discipline he devised: “I remember him as very kind,” says Ueshiba, adding that in his grandfather’s latter years they lived in the same household and often watched TV and roughhoused together. He would also give impromptu talks and demonstrations in his father’s classes at the nearby dojo. “But when I would go to the dojo as a student, he was completely different. That made a deep impression on me.”
The elder Ueshiba’s somber intensity was due in part to the task at hand; he was pushing the bounds of ordinary budo: “Aikido includes riai, or the ‘principles of harmony’ of traditional Japanese martial arts, but it highly values a spirituality of cultivating oneself and respecting others,” Moriteru Ueshiba says. “The founder created aikido because he realized the true essence of martial arts is the complete cultivation and evolution of the individual through self-discipline and practice—not the act of fighting. He used to say, ‘Aikido is the way of absolute self-realization.’”
Aikikai’s aikido classes are free of explicit esoterics and instructors and students alike say the ultimate goal of the art is up to the practitioner. But the strictly physical training does aim for more than mere Karate Kid “wax-on, wax-off” techniques, and it causes some to wax philosophical. Masatoshi Yasuno, a 57-year-old seventh dan shihan, says it’s about, “practicing with many people to become aware of one’s power and heart—to be sensitive to one’s own self.” He says what attracted him to aikido at age 18 was his own “self-realization during training which allowed me to move and think in new ways.” Similarly, sixth dan Shihan Takeshi Kanazawa, 41, says he was drawn to aikido as a teen by an inherent “spirituality in the art form.” Kanazawa, Yasuno and others all say continuous training is essential for reaping the benefits of aikido. “By studying the form, one can preserve one’s independence and creativity,” Yasuno says. He adds that the biggest challenge some foreigners have with aikido is understanding that “instead of trying to ‘learn’ it, they should try to imitate or embody it. I want people to appreciate how to use budo in everyday life.”
That’s what attracted Boyet, from France. “Aikido is my life, the way I live. It’s a path for me, a way to deal with life and death. I have to train every day or I feel I’m missing something,” he says. “I don’t adhere to any religion; perhaps this kind of replaces that. The founder was a very religious person, a Shinto practitioner. I think that this [way of life] is what aikido was created for.” To illustrate his point, Boyet quotes his mentor: “Chiba sensei always says, ‘You have to practice aikido with the idea that you could die any day.’ When your partner applies a technique, your life is on the line; then he releases you.”
Bringing budo into daily life is also the mission of International Budo University, which was founded in 1984 for that purpose. It offers accredited undergraduate and graduate courses in physical education, international sports and sports training as well as budo. In addition to the annual International Budo Seminar, it also touts an international exchange program. “We believe the spiritual elements of budo—the budo Spirit—can be applied constructively in other areas of human endeavor,” says Bunasawa, who also heads the university’s judo club. “The budo spirit motivates the practitioner to pursue excellence in everything pertaining to self-improvement. Moreover, a person trained in budo will be refined and highly respectful of others. The daily budo classes at IBU stress all these elements of budo that are highly valued by contemporary society. This is why Japanese budo is becoming world-renowned.
“We would like to provide foreign practitioners living in Japan with the opportunity to understand the essence of the theory and techniques of budo, as well as its historical and scientific aspects,” Bunasawa says. “In doing this we also contribute to the deeper understanding of traditional Japanese budo culture around the globe.”
Such goals can be as much about reeducating the world about budo as educating it. Nippon Budokan’s charter notes the organization’s push to promote the deeper principles of budo stem, in part, from the “recent trend towards infatuation just with technical ability compounded by an excessive concern with winning, [which] is a severe threat to the essence of budo.” It’s less of a problem with aikido, in which only cooperative training is allowed, not sparring and competition.
“Aikido maintains the original idea of budo,” Aikikai assistant director Tani explains, “things you can practice but not compete in. To have a competition in aikido, it would have to be like a duel. Or if we compete we must make rules such as not using certain dangerous techniques. Then you lose that original budo.” That’s not to say Aikikai Foundation isn’t busy promulgating aikido abroad. In addition to the many that come to the dojo to learn, its more than 30 traditionally trained instructors regularly teach at dojo around the world. Tani insists, however, that far from proselytizing, over the years Aikikai Foundation has only responded to increasing international demand.
“I haven’t practiced aikido in order to spread it,” says current Aikikai doshu Ueshiba. “In the midst of practicing it solely for self-training, I showed through my own example that aikido is an amazing thing, and because of that it spread throughout the world. My grandfather called for ‘world peace,’ but I think that it is the respect one shows for one’s opponent that is widely recognized by society and has thus made it popular.”
It would seem the spread of aikido through practice, instead of preaching, are in line with the goals of founder Morihei Ueshiba, a visionary who, indeed, sought to use the highest principles of budo to craft a world of peace. “I have come to Hawaii to build a silver bridge,” he said of his first trip abroad in 1961 to share this new martial art. “I wish to bring the different countries of the world together through the harmony and love contained in aikido. I think that aiki (love or harmony), offspring of the martial arts, can unite the people of the world in harmony, in the true spirit of budo.”