Iwama, Ueshiba sensei's last adventure

This article was first published in Dojo Arts martiaux N°34 - July / August 1989.

Aikido can't be learned, one needs to practice it. Big truth. But an informed practice of our discipline requires some understanding about the way it has evolved. And here’s a troubling paradox: if the adventurous pre war period of O sensei’s life is relatively well documented, the following twenty post war years are a black hole even though these years are closer to us in time. Allow me to open a page of Aikido history, the year is 1941.

Ueshiba sensei had been living in Tokyo for 15 years and taught in many Police Academies and the most prestigious military schools. Aiki-jutsu or Aiki-budo (since such were the names of Aikido at that time) were widely recognized and Ueshiba's sensei notoriety gave him a place in the venerable National Budo Commission.

He was respected as a true master by his country’s aristocracy, by personalities such as Prince Shimizu, Admiral Takeshita or General Miura, hero of the war against Russia. The end of his life seemed obvious, honored ambassador of the art he created around the world, a bit like Jigoro Kano, Founder of Judo, a few decades before.

Arriving in Iwama

Well, at the age of sixty, reaching an age when most men are tired and just want to enjoy the rewards of a life of work, Ueshiba sensei set for adventure again. He quit all his official positions, gave up glory, the urban life and settled in a tiny village in the middle of the woods, a hundred kilometers north of Tokyo. He cleared the land, had a (small) house and a small dojo built with his students’ gifts. That's where he would live from 1942 until his death in 1969. Why against all odds, after all his achievements, once the Ueshiba ryu had eventually reached a well-deserved recognition, why did O sensei put his life upside down so radically?

It has been said, and it's true, that Tokyo's dojos had been emptied of their practitioners. But I don't believe O sensei was the kind of man who gives up in time of hardship. The settlement in Iwama had deeper motivations and corresponded to a "divine inspiration" as the Founder stated in his own symbolic words. And one must pay attention to these words.

Until the end of the thirties, Daito ryu's aiki jutsu is still very present in O sensei's art who gives at the time - that fact is worth being underlined - certificates of Daito ryu under Sokaku Takeda sensei's authority and authentification. But then the technical and spiritual evolution became irreversible and settling in Iwama made the break off with Daito ryu even more real. The strongest symbol - as O sensei wished it - of the birth of an art which had nothing in common with Takeda sensei's is the choice of a name: the word AIKIDO, few know that fact, was used for the first time in Iwama in 1942 to describe O sensei's particular path.

If Aikido's gestation spread, of course, on the previous fifty years, that child born out of patience really saw life at the beginning of the forties. And it was still quite fragile. It needed to be consolidated by bringing it to maturity. That was the extraordinary task lying in front of Ueshiba sensei in 1941. It just can't be achieved in the superficial and demanding urban life, in the noise of the world. It requires tranquility, peace, and that harmonious link with nature that comes with a peasant life. That in my opinion explains the choice of Iwama.

Ueshiba sensei

Weapons used according to Aiki laws.

The birth of Aikido

All students testimonies are unanimous. From 1942 and for more than twenty years, O sensei immerses himself in Aikido practice and study with an exceptional determination. He sets two axis for it:

  1. the constant improvement of empty hands techniques still rough or imperfect ;
  2. the correlation of the entire technical aspect of Aikido with a vast initiation-purposed symbolism.

With these two goals in mind, he developed like never before the use of the staff and the sword, studying every morning for hours the infinite possibilities of these weapons used according to aiki laws. These weapons act as a magnifier, enlarging fundamental principles less perceptible with empty hands.

To be fully acceptable, these last statements would need a technical back up for which there is unfortunately no space here. What must be remembered here is that O sensei achieved a colossal work in Iwama, between the age of 60 and 80 years old: he actually created Aikido in the sense that he organized it for the first time in a meaningful and structured whole, something the previous combat method didn’t have.

That gigantic task went nearly unnoticed in Aikido history. The explanation is both simple and hard to be conceived: There was barely anyone with the Founder all along these years. Only four true uchi-deshi lived in Aiki Shu Ren dojo:

  • Kisshomaru Ueshiba, O Sensei's son, but he settled in Tokyo as early as the beginning of the forties and worked at Osaka Shoken company before taking responsibility of Aikikai's administration and the technical supervision of Ushigome dojo which would become Hombu dojo in 1956 only, mainly to promote Aikido's expansion world wide ;
  • Koichi Tohei left Iwama around the same time to set up a coal business before settling in Hawai ;
  • Tadashi Abe whom France was greatly honored to welcome in the early fifties ;
  • Gozo Shioda who stayed only a short while in Iwama before founding his own school, the Yoshinkan, just after the war.

From 1950, there was no uchi deshi left in Iwama. This is important because O sensei taught tai jutsu every night to the local soto deshi and the occasional uchi deshi from Tokyo. But he practiced weapons in the morning in the surrounding countryside and nowhere else. No uchi deshi shared his work anymore.

We have to understand this astonishing situation:

Although he devoted the best part of his research to weapons, O sensei did not and would never teach them. He even ended up forbidding their use in Tokyo’s Hombu dojo where, in rare occasions, he only showed a few possibilities of the staff and the sword.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba & Morihiro Saito

The randomness of history

However, during his daily morning weapons trainings, O sensei was not completely alone. Even if all uchi deshi had gone away, he had one partner left: a soto deshi, a local from Iwama, enrolled in 1946 and who was able to live one day on two with the Founder since he worked at the Japanese Railways on a peculiar schedule.

Thanks to a great accident of history, Saito sensei had thus been the only witness to play an active role in O sensei's constant work and research with weapons. This was how, between 1946 and 1969, he learned what nobody else was destined to learn from the Founder. Without that historical "accident" the priceless universe of Aikido weapons that O sensei spent so much time and effort exploring would now be closed forever.

This is probably to seal that mission - for the future of Aikido - that O sensei made him the guardian of the historical Iwama dojo he had loved so much and the Aiki Ginga, the temple of Aikido, built next to it.

Morihiro Saito, a lunch in Iwama.

What is Traditional Aikido?

Aikido is not a sport, it is a martial art which laws (takemusu) are in harmony with the laws of the universe. Studying them allows the practitioner to understand his place in the universe. Aikido was born in Iwama, O sensei achieved in that village the synthesis of tai jutsu, aiki ken and aiki jo.

Where to practice Traditional Aikido?

The International Takemusu Aikido Federation (ITAF) brings to the practitioner the structure he needs in order to work as close as possible to the reality O sensei MU defined. The official national representations are the guarantee of a teaching faithful to the Founder's.

The weapons of Aikido, aiki ken and aiki jo

In modern Aikido, weapons are hardly taught, if taught at all. In O sensei's Aikido, on the contrary, aiki ken, aiki jo and tai jutsu are unified and form together a riai, a family of harmonious techniques stemming from one unique principle. Each techniques helps understand all the others.

Aikido, a martial art or an art of peace?

Peace is a balance between a human being and the world around him. The true martial art's goal is not to become stronger than one's opponent but to find in that opponent a way to realize harmony. There is no enemy anymore as such, but an opportunity offered to reach unified ki.

Copyright TAI (Takemusu Aikido Intercontinental)