What is the Philosophy of Aikido: A Complete Overview


Some martial arts are clearly about fighting, while others seem more spiritual or peaceful, and yet some others are clearly geared towards self-defense. I’ve practiced Aikido some, but I still recall wondering when I first started out, what is the philosophy of Aikido?

Here’s what I discovered training with an Aikido black belt:

Aikido’s philosophy is about refining and improving oneself, such that the practitioner becomes an instrument for spreading peace. It’s about attuning yourself to the universe, eliminating aggression, and making the world a better place.

Aikido is probably the most profound and peaceful martial art.

The word, Aikido, is the Japanese expression for “way of harmonizing energy.” At first glance, it seems like a contradiction — how can a martial art be about harmony?

But, once you learn a bit about it, its immense uniqueness and relevance for our age, its power, and its majesty are unveiled.

In this article, I’ll be sharing insights about the essence of Aikido.

Let’s get started.

Who is the founder of Aikido & when was Aikido created?

Morihei Ueshiba, commonly known as O-Sensei, founded Aikido in the early 1920s. He was already a master of Jiu-jitsu and several other fighting styles but came to believe our true purpose was peace and harmony, so Aikido was born of that spirit.

He was born on December 14, 1883, in Tanabe, a fishing and farming village in Japan. His father was a landowner and councilman whose ancestry stretched back to the ancient Samurais.

He was born prematurely — this could be the reason why he was not very tall.

He was just a bit above 5 feet. Because of his physique, his father encouraged him to learn how to run and to engage in sumo wrestling and swimming.

When he was very young, he’d often witness his father being beaten by local thugs because of different political affiliations.

That heightened the desire to learn how to defend himself, and this is what he started doing at the age of 15. He wanted to reach a point where he’d become strong enough and take revenge. I doubt if he ever did take revenge.

He went out of his way to find and study with masters of many traditional martial art forms. And he was able to become a master himself. Some of the arts he mastered include sojutsu (spear fighting), kenjutsu (fencing), and jujutsu (unarmed combat).

He became highly skilled in these arts, and his fame grew so much, so students came from all over Japan to train with him.

He opened his first school in Tokyo in 1931.

Over time, his skills grew prodigious; he eventually became an invincible fighter. Those who saw him even in his old age spoke of the ease with which he defeated opponents.

At a point, he even taught martial arts to elite soldiers. The aim of such training was to enable those who mastered the art to be skillful enough to be able to kill! This use of martial arts troubled him, and as he said in an interview, at a point, he sought to “discover the true spirit of Aikido.”

In time, O-Sensei became a spiritual seeker.

(By the way, the word “O-Sensei” means “great teacher”). In addition to his profound interest in martial arts, he also became equally interested in religious and philosophical studies.

He recognized that continual conflict would only end up destroying the whole world.

He was an exceptional man in a sense that, even though he had become a consummate warrior, he was able to rise to a sublime understanding of the true essence of the martial arts. He conceived of them as vehicles for instituting love and harmony.

He passed away on April 26, 1969, at the age of 86. After his demise, the Japanese government declared him a sacred national treasure!

Now that we know who developed the martial art and when it’s a good time to check out how he saw the world. What made him tick?

What did Morihei Ueshiba believe in?

Morihei Ueshiba believed that Aikido is not about conflict or defeating one’s enemy but a way through which one can become attuned to the universe and become one with it. He taught that harmony of spirit could mitigate violence and aggression.

And that it’s a budo (way) to “harmonize all people into one family.”

He sought to use Aikido as a way to foster the brotherhood of all mankind and ensure world peace. He wasn’t merely interested in a defensive martial art form.

He actually believed that we are here to make the earth heaven-like. It’s a profound testament to the power of his beliefs that Aikido is practiced in most countries in the world.

He believed in the transformative potential of peace.

He taught that “The world will continue to change dramatically, but fighting and war can destroy us utterly. What we need now are techniques of harmony, not those of contention. The Art of Peace is required, not the Art of War”.

When we conceive of victory, it’s almost having our opponent on the ground. It’s giving them a thorough beatdown. One of O-Sensei’s core beliefs is that true victory is not in defeating another human being.

Rather it’s in victory over oneself.

Having trained for years myself, I can completely agree with that. There is nothing in my way as a martial artist more than my own fears, doubts, and mental limitations.

Ueshiba believed that Aikido, the art of peace, is a holistic discipline with mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. And that its principles such as harmony, reconciliation, empathy, cooperation could be used in all facets of life.

You’ll agree that the founder was driven by lofty humanistic values we should all aspire for, right? Now, let’s look at what served as the foundational experiences that helped him to develop Aikido.

Did Morihei Ueshiba know any other martial arts besides Aikido?

Yes. Morihei Ueshiba studied Jiu-Jitsu and Judo. From the age of 14, he studied four different forms of Jiu-Jitsu. They include Tenshinyo-Ryu Jiujitsu, Kito-Ryu, Yagyu-Ryu, Aioi-Ryu, and Shinkage-Ryu.

The first one he learned was Tenshinyo-Ryu Jiujitsu, and his teacher was Tokusaburo Tozawa Sensei.

He was seeking a true form of budo (way). Later, he also learned Kendo and Hozoin-Ryu Sojitsu. All that he’d learned, at this point were one-to-one combat.

He still felt he needed to know more and kept seeking. It’s believed that he also learned Judo for a few months from Kiyoichi Takagi, one of the most respected Judo masters who was a 9th Dan.

In an interview, O-Sensei also revealed that he relocated to Hokkaido when he was about 30 years old and stayed at an inn known as Hisada in Kitami.

While he was there, he met Sokaku Takeda, who taught Daito-ryu Jujitsu.

He invited Takeda to his home, and he and about 16 of his employees learned Daito-Ryu Jujitsu from him. And he said he felt inspired while learning from him.

We could see from above that Aikido wasn’t developed in a vacuum. The founder had a strong foundation in the aforementioned martial arts, and later, he developed Aikido. Interesting, you might say, and at the same time wonder about Aikido’s effectiveness. After all, it’s an art of peace.

Can Aikido really be effective in a street fight, for example?

That’s what I explored in a recent article of mine. I answered questions, such as “Is Aikido absolutely useless?”. I shared about seven different benefits it offers.

That’s in addition to its use in self-defense. I outlined the best moves for self-defense in Aikido. And, I also shared which one is the best: Karate, Jujitsu, or Aikido.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What is taught in Aikido?

What’s taught in Aikido includes throws, joint locks, and other techniques that are highly effective in self-defense but are designed to immobilize an opponent with as little permanent damage as possible.

Aikido is a martial art that’s focused on strategy rather than brute force.

It’s about how to use an opponent’s energy and movement against them. The goal is not to harm or kill; it’s to subdue peacefully and even foster harmony.

It’s one of the best martial arts because it’s for everybody.

You don’t have to be muscular or have exceptional physical fitness before you start learning the art. You’ll be taught how to throw an assailant and about some locks, which you can easily apply even if they’re heavier and stronger than you.

It’s a “budo” (a way), not just a set of tactics for fighting. And, yet the self-defense aspects must not be sneezed at; they can be lethal!

One of the most vital things that Aikidokas (those who practice Aikido) are taught is how to fall correctly.

Being pushed is one of the most common things that happens in most fights, and one can be wounded severely if one doesn’t know how to break one’s fall masterfully. How to pin, throw, apply wrist locks, and strikes are some of the techniques that are taught.

One of the Aikido icons you probably know of is the movie star, Steven Seagal.

In his captivating movies, we saw how fluid and, at the same time, how effective Aikido can be. And, unlike some movies where the actor is simply playing pretend, Seagal is the real deal.

He has a black belt 7th, Dan, in Aikido and was the first foreigner to have a dojo (a training school) in Japan.

In fact, another Aikido master, Haruo Matsuoka, trained at that dojo, under Steven Segal. He eventually accompanied Seagal to America, when the latter decided to return and go into movies.

Matsuoka recalls the time he trained under Seagal with pure nostalgia. Seagal helped him to advance rapidly in mastering Aikido. “Nothing compares to those days back in Japan,”… “Our lives were pure aikido,” Matsuoka said.

We now have a deeper take on what Aikido is all about, but how would one classify it? In relation to other martial arts, where does it stand?

What type of martial arts is aikido?

Aikido is a ‘soft’ martial art in the sense that it focuses not on how to harm or kill the opponent. Aikido’s focus is on redirecting an opponent’s energy and using it against them, but without trying to harm them any more than necessary. 

It’s a smart person’s art. It’s highly strategic.

It’s not merely a collection of methods and techniques that’ll help you defend yourself. It’s actually a budo, a way, a means for realizing holistic character development. That’s not to suggest that it’s not lethal and effective as a means to defend yourself.

But it offers a lot more.

It’s profound. And, it can seem too idealistic and a tad unrealistic. But, once you take the time to experience it, you’ll see how practical and profound a system it is.

It’s in part a recognition of the fact that conflicts are ultimately unsustainable. If we all just keep fighting and fighting, we’ll end up utterly destroying ourselves. So, its focus is on harmony.

Let’s assume that you were able to give someone a thorough beatdown today.

Have you really won? What if they decided to attack you again, a few weeks later, armed with broken bottles, and in the company of some of their thug friends?

Aikido is a distillation of the founder’s decades of experience in different martial arts, being in the military, and his exploration of religion and philosophy. So, it’s borne out of his experience and deep reflections.

What are the ranks in Aikido?

If you’re hardworking and consistent, it’ll take you an average of 3 years to become good in Aikido. Of course, the time will vary from individual to individual. But, if you’re consistent and can devote time to practicing under a trainer at a recognized center twice or thrice a week, you ought to be very good by your third year.

It has a ranking system. The colors of the belts worn by practitioners show their current status in the system. The black belt is the highest. That takes more time to attain. If you continue with the same level of devotion, on average, by your 5th or 8th year, you should have reached it.

Let’s look at the Belt System in Aikido:

  1. 6th kyu – white.
  2. 5th kyu – yellow.
  3. 4th kyu – orange.
  4. 3rd kyu – blue.
  5. 2nd kyu – brown.
  6. 1st dan – black.
  7. 2nd dan – black with thin gold stripes.
  8. 3rd dan – black with red stripes.

KYU — grades

DAN– black belt holders

You can see that there are also levels in the black belt level. It’s vital to stress that having a black belt doesn’t imply that the holder stops training.

You might be thinking, “but how does Aikido compare to a martial art like BJJ”?

I’ve got you covered. That’s what I explored in a recent article of mine. I compared Aikido and BJJ and suggested which is better for self-defense.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Is Aikido the most peaceful martial art?

Yes, Aikido is the most peaceful martial art, perhaps 2nd only to Tai Chi Chuan, although Tai Chi is used for martial purposes much less frequently. Aikido is a martial art that not only stresses harmony but also places a premium on the welfare of both the attacker and themselves! 

From all that we’ve explored in the preceding paragraphs, it’s clear.

It’s highly relevant to know that there are no attacks in Aikido, only defense. There’s also no winner or loser. It’s really the art of peace; that’s why it takes a lifetime to truly master it. In fact, an Aikido master would likely believe the only winners are those who never engage in a fight, to begin with.

Aikido’s ultimate goal is to help individuals develop themselves in such a way that they become one with the universe and help bring about a better world.

It’s not about harming or killing others when there’s conflict, but how to employ love, harmony, balance, and reconciliation to win the opponent over.

Most of those coming to Aikido might be forgiven for thinking that it will give them skills that will enable them to beat up anybody they want.

But, they’ll learn that what it offers is much more valuable. It’s really about being able to overcome oneself. That, the founder said, is true victory. Aikido is not simply a set of techniques; it’s an art.

It’s a conscious way of being in the world.

But what I shared above shouldn’t be misunderstood. Aikido is highly effective if you have to defend yourself. There are lethal throws and locks that can be applied, so it’s not an ineffective art.

It’s peaceful because even though one learns a warrior’s techniques, you’re also taught restraint. You’re trained on how to control yourself so that you become a force for harmony.

Conclusion

I’ve shared a ton of info in the paragraphs above.

I looked at the core beliefs that underlie Aikido, we learned about the founder and when it was developed, we looked at what it really entails, we touched briefly on Steven Seagal, and Haruo Matsuoka, and the ranks in Aikido.

Most people know Steven Seagal from his movies, in which we glimpsed his profound grasp of Aikido.

He’s a black belt 7th Dan in Aikido, so those fluid, masterful moves are real. In fact, he was the first foreigner to own a dojo, where he trained folks in Aikido in Japan.

We called it a wrap by exploring if it’s the most peaceful martial art.


Photo which requires attribution:

Nikkyo by Chocodyno is licensed under CC2.0

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell was Academy Director for a large martial arts school for over 7 years, and has trained extensively in a variety of martial arts including Brazilian Jiujitsu, different styles of Karate, the Russian Martial Art of Systema, Aikido, and much more.

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