The Current State of Aikido and Iwama Ryu Aikido

Stanley Pranin Aikido’s learned historian and longtime editor of Aiki Journal wrote  “The aikido seen commonly today differs considerably to that developed by the founder during the Iwama years in the following respects. Atemi (strikes) to vital points have been de-emphasized or eliminated. The number of techniques commonly practiced has been reduced. The focus on irimi (entering) and initiation of techniques by tori (person executing the technique) has been lost, and the distinction between omote and ura blurred. Practice of Aiki sword, staff, is infrequent or non-existent. Aikido, though still considered a budo by some, retains little of its historical martial effectiveness due to the soft, casual nature of practice and as such has been transformed into what could be better called a health or exercise system.”

Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) the founder of Aikido, also known as O-Sensei, devoted his life to discovering and preserving the core of the martial arts that had been brought to his time by the Samurai; the elite warrior class who ruled Japan for nearly 700 years (1185 to 1867). Because of his birth date and place, for much of his life he had direct access to the trainings and information necessary for him to take the essential principles of the Samurai, and shape them into one art, which he would call Aikido. He foresaw that most martial schools would die out because of the arrival of the new paradigm, and planned that those who trained and studied his Aikido would have the benefits of the preceding Samurai era.  He envisaged that his Aikido would preserve the core of the Samurai tradition; it’s essential Bujutsu (martial techniques, sword, other weapons and open handed), Bushin, martial spirit, and Budo, the martial way of living. Some believe he personally achieved all this. He is the bridge over which all that should not be lost from the Samurai era passes through to us. Today that bridge is very narrow, more difficult to cross than a tight rope. This is because most Aikido schools do not practice Ueshiba’s bujutsu (they have no sword, little atemi, misunderstand irimi, do not initiate techniques, teach only a small percentage of the original techniques), do not practice (bushin) stilling the “mind”, and do not prepare for battle (budo) by in depth strategic thinking about the issues that have confronted others but perhaps not yet them.

During World War II O-Sensei moved to a village called Iwama, (a few hours from Tokyo by train) to continue his research and training. He spent most of his time there until his death in 1969. In 1947, Morihiro Saito became his uchideshi (a live-in apprentice) and remained so for twenty-three years. Throughout Ueshiba’s long lifetime, no other student can claim this day-in-day-out exposure to the Master of Aikido. The duration of time, saturation of physical technique, and total exposure to the founder’s daily living made Saito the founder’s technical heir. Saito Sensei was well aware of the responsibility that lay with him alone to preserve the original Aikido.  The name Iwama Ryu Aikido is used to denote the Aikido that Ueshiba taught Saito, and that Saito transmitted to his Iwama students up to his own death in 2002.

At his Hombu dojo in Tokyo Ueshiba allowed only Saito and himself to teach weapons. According to Saito this was because O-Sensei was not happy with the weapons level of instructors. Ueshiba’s Iwama Aikido requires the student to do more weapons than most want to. It is hard work, but the end result is a superior Aikido, O-Sensei’s Aikido.

Ueshiba spent many years combining into an integrated system samurai weapons and open handed techniques where the three parts compliment and enhance the whole. His open handed techniques use the same stances, postures, movements and strategic principles as his weapons. He instructed his Iwama period students to think weapons when practicing openhanded techniques, and to think openhanded techniques when doing weapons.

So the sword that O-Sensei taught in Iwama from the mid-1950s is the sword of Aikido. Today however, most Aikido schools, if they teach weapons at all are not doing the founder’s weapons! Some practice Iado or some modern Kendo practices, which will not improve their open handed technique as Iwama Ryu Ken Jo (sword and staff) practices, do. The practice of Iado and Kendo are excellent in themselves, but the body postures they require the student to muscle-learn preclude the deshi from ever mastering Ueshiba’s Aikido.

The chief reason for O-Sensei’s Aiki Ken not being taught in most Aikido dojos today, is that only some Iwama deshi knew it, and there was not a lot of them. During the 1960s Aikido’s popularity grew quickly which meant that lesser instructors could attract a following. Ueshiba’s organization, headed by his son (the late Doshu Kissomaru Ueshiba) was always being asked to supply instructors within Japan and for foreign countries.

In Japan itself, no one who has a lower rank than 4th Dan is considered to be an Instructor (a 4th Dan is understood to be master of the technical content of his chosen art). It is historical fact that the Aikikai Hombu deshi sent out to teach did not know Morihei Ueshiba’s sword. And of course they could not teach what they did not know. It was known that O-Sensei taught sword, but as they did not have easy access to him, it was easier to teach the Iado or Kendo they had learnt at school or elsewhere. Another option, taken by most, was to do only open handed technique.

During his long life Ueshiba had many students. Some went on to become well known. Of these, many had gone their own way developmentally (with or without his blessing) long before he called what he was doing Aikido (1950s). With the ever increasing popularity of Aikido though, many of them, or their organizations started calling what they did Aikido too, making it harder to find the founder’s Aikido.

Much of Aikido as we know it today is not what Ueshiba would have called Aikido himself. O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido – were he alive today would be very unhappy with most Aikido Bujutsu (martial techniques). He would be telling anyone who would listen that there cannot be Aikido without the sword, as there cannot be Samurai without the sword. Without the sword, the links to the Samurai past is severed. He would view the work of Morihiro Saito (now being continued by some of his deshi) as the bujutsu tight rope to be crossed by all who wish to experience his Aikido.

Morihei Ueshiba would be unhappy with the state of Bushin and Budo in modern Aikido. His famous deshi all seem to be in agreement that they did not understand much of what he was talking to them about, that his language was arcane, that he did not require them to practice kotodama, meditation or pray with him. The founder was, according to his son, the most religious man in the whole of Japan. He was a member of the Omoto Kyo Shinto sect. It is fortunate for Aikido that he was not taken seriously by his famous students in this regard O-Sensei’s spiritual practices were too steeped in what to believe rather than how to experience states of being. Aikido for the most part has been spared becoming another religious “ism”. However, we should have no doubt that O-Sensei would want Aikido schools to teach how to experience different states. Students should not be taught what to experience or think, but how to experience and think clearly.

O-Sensei’s Aikido is still reachable across the tight rope of Iwama Ryu Bujutsu, “enlightened” Bushin and Budo practices (which are perhaps practiced more outside Iwama Aikido circles!). The main obstacle to achieving O-Sensei’s Aikido is the quality of Aikido teachers. In the best of worlds all Aikido teachers would be 4th Dan holders in both Aiki open handed and Aiki weapons, be able to teach all students how to change state of being, and teach clear thinking. All teachers would be of good character, be good students themselves, and excellent role models for their students. There are some Aikido Senseis that are all of the above, so Morihei Ueshiba’s Aikido is alive but unless these Senseis can “replicate” themselves through their best students it’s long term survival is not certain.

The bujutsu that Morihei Ueshiba bequeathed to us can, to more or less a degree, only be found in what is commonly known in Aikido circles as Iwama Ryu and Iwama “Style” schools. These days there are a number of Iwama Aikido streams.

  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct students of Morihiro Saito Sensei and are dedicated to preserving his technique to the best of their abilities unaltered.  For example Michael Field Sensei.  All of these schools are proud to use the name “Iwama Ryu Aikido”.
  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct students of Morihiro Saito Sensei and his son Hitohiro Saito Sensei (who shared the teaching workload at the Iwama Dojo with his father from 1987) and are dedicated to preserving what they learnt from both teachers unaltered.  There is confusion with these deshi for as time went by Hitohiro Sensei deviated from his father’s technique therefore O-Sensei’s technique also.
  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct students of Morihiro Saito Sensei who are not dedicated to preserving his technique unaltered. Saito Sensei died in 2002, some of his teaching students Senseis (4th Dan holders and above) fit in this group.
  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct Iwama students of the founder who do not claim to teach unaltered what they learnt from the founder.  Isoyama Sensei, Shigemi Inagaki Sensei, Hirosawa Sensei.
  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct Iwama students of the founder and Morihiro Saito Sensei, who claim to teach unaltered what they learnt from the founder and Saito Sensei.  For example Hiroki Nemoto Sensei.
  • Dojos headed by Senseis who are the direct Iwama students of the founder and Morihiro Saito Sensei, who do not claim to teach unaltered what they learnt from the founder and Saito Sensei (the technical heir).  For example Hitohiro Saito Sensei

Michael Field Sensei was Morihiro Saito Sensei’s representative for Iwama Ryu Aikido in Australia and issued Iwama Ryu Aikido Dan Ranks exclusively there from 1994.  Field Sensei taught Bujutsu (martial techniques both open handed and weapons) as he learned them from Morihiro Saito Sensei over 23 years. He taught Budo (martial code of behavior) so his students would learn about loyalty, respect, duty, rights and obligations. He taught Bushin (martial techniques to still the mind) so his students could access peace more often, even when the world around them is chaotic.  He dedicated his time and skill to ensure that the Iwama Ryu Aikido – Online Dojo brings to the internet world O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba’s original Aikido.