I have been practicing aikido for more than 40 years, and I am still pondering what it is that I have learned. I have seen the different ways aikido is portrayed and perceived externally, and the behind-the-scenes problems the major aikido organizations have faced.
I wonder if we as a society of aikidoists are really practicing what the Founder taught us. It seems to me that we may be missing his message of humanity and love. I have watched instructors and students who seem to be self-absorbed and isolated in their practice. They seem to concentrate primarily on their own development and promotion. I am afraid that this is a very narrow and limiting understanding of what aikido can be and can give others the wrong impression about the true nature of aikido.
The world of aikido is not governed like other martial arts by tournaments that determine who are the most skilled or powerful. Therefore, anyone can claim to be an instructor and justify his or her own personal interpretations. I have watched amateur “aikido analysts” portray aikido with words instead of practice, whose primary format of aikido experience has been discussions on the Internet. (This is not in reference to Aikido Journal or other major professional on-line publications). Many instructors make wonderful speeches about aikido and the art of peace, but not many are active leaders, who lead by doing, not by what they say we are to do. To me, to retreat from the world and build an aikido commune and Aiki shrine deep in the mountains is more indicative of self-glorification than true understanding of aikido. Instructors who preach flowery concepts not based in reality, do not lead others to understand themselves or the world. Using the words of the Founder as a shroud to hide behind reveals a basic lack of understanding.
By simply practicing aikido in a dojo, are we changing or improving the world around us? Just one step outside the dojo, you can find homelessness, poverty, drugs, unemployment and crime. Merely practicing aikido by itself does not change this.
Every time we step outside, we are in contact with real life. We can’t forget that aikido is only a small part of a big world. I always make the point to my students that true understanding does not come from the practice of martial arts only. We need to widen our scope of study to truly understand the role martial arts play in human development.
Where do martial arts come from? Human beings make martial arts. Martial arts do not make human beings. This is a very basic point that needs to be understood. It is very important to study how history, political climates and ideologies have affected the development of martial arts. Without understanding these greater issues and their application, it is impossible to understand the purpose of the aikido we all practice.
We now live in a time of relative peace in the United States and Japan, therefore, we speak of aikido in terms of love and peace. However, throughout the history of Japan and other countries whose political realities have not been as stable, martial arts have been studied as a means to control others or as a means of survival. There is evidence of this in the history of all martial arts, including the history of aikido. In Korea and China especially, the role aikido has played in history has had its regrettable aspects.
There are more current examples of applications of aikido that are not based in “love and harmony.” In an era where the basis of aikido philosophy is one of peace, aikido is taught and used by the Myanmar (Burmese) military and government law enforcement to suppress democratic reform activities in that country. Myanmar activist Tsu Yan Chi, through Japanese support organizations, petitioned Hombu Doshu Ueshiba to stop sending Japanese aikido instructors to Myanmar. To date this situation still has not been remedied, and aikido is being taught as a means of suppression.
There are very interesting experiences in the life of Founder Morihei Ueshiba that need to be examined and understood to appreciate his ultimate accomplishments. Their importance is mainly historical, but it is essential to understand the Founder as a man, a man of many dreams, but also of many trials and tribulations.
In 1905, Japan had colonized Korea, and in 1906 invaded and colonized parts of what now lie in the northern Manchurian region of China. Mongolia lay north of these provinces between what is now China to the south and Russia to the north. Koulong (present day Ulaanbaatar), the capitol city of Mongolia, during this era, had more than 800 Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries with thousands of monks living in them. Tibetan Buddhism was flourishing, and the monks wielded political power in the region while maintaining their spiritual ties to the people of Mongolia.
To keep a strong hold in these territories, the Japanese needed to increase their military presence. They needed natural resources and strategic positioning, and they looked toward Mongolia. Russia, as well, had its eye on Mongolia and had begun to form ties with the Mongolian government. The Japanese were well aware that the Russians would not be kind to the Buddhist Monks if they gained control of Mongolia. This was an opening that the Japanese government thought it could use.
In the world’s political arena in the very early 1900s, the United States and Europe had condemned Japan for overt military actions in the region, so Japan resorted to more covert forms of maneuvering in these new territories.
At this time, China was not nationalized, and there were many power struggles between rival factions and clans. The Japanese Kanto Tokumukikan (covert branch of the Japanese government) supported Chinese revolutionary groups. One group in northern Manchuria was headed by a political leader named Cho, whose ultimate goal was to conquer all of China. In his service was a special agent named Ro who had experience in Mongolian affairs.
Covertly through the Japanese Kanto Tokumukikan, one strategy was to send Onisaburo Deguchi, the leader of the Omoto Kyo religion along with members of elite northern Chinese revolutionary groups to Mongolia to try to influence the religious leaders to join the Japanese. Strategically for the Japanese military, one way of taking control of the country was to take control of the Buddhist priests and the influence they held in Mongolia. In 1924, Founder Morihei Ueshiba left for Mongolia with Onisaburo Deguchi, the leader of the Omoto Kyo religion. The Founder had been teaching martial arts to members of the Omoto Kyo religion at the time. It was a time of unrest for the Omoto Kyo religion clan and they were faced with tremendous government persecution for their popular yet radical ideologies. One of Deguchi’s biographies says that he went to Mongolia after a divine inspiration to find and build a religious utopia. It is said that he left in the dark of night to escape religious persecution. Another possibility was that he knew of the military strategy at hand and had negotiated his release from probation.
It is written that Onisaburo Deguchi and his entourage, including Founder Ueshiba, set out for Mongolia in pursuit of a dream. One question is whose dream was it? Onisaburo Deguchi attempted to enter Mongolia under the guise of being the reincarnated Dalai Lama Suzun Khan. The Founder Ueshiba had also changed his name and identity. In their entourage were members of the Chinese revolutionaries supported by the Japanese Kanto Tokumukikan. Their mission was not successful however, and they never reached Mongolia. Had they been successful, would the Japanese military have been far behind? Countries, even continents, all over the world have been conquered first by religious missionaries followed by military rule. Throughout history, religion and politics have in many instances gone hand in hand.
This correlation is not mentioned in biographies on the Founder. This period in his history has simply been recorded as an “ordeal.” I have trouble believing that the Founder Ueshiba, then a man in his forties, truly believed he was looking for Utopia when he went to Mongolia. In an era of wartime ideology and political strategy he must have been aware of other reasons he could be sent to Mongolia. If he truly believed that he could build a utopian society in someone else’s country, this shows a bit of arrogance towards the peoples and cultures of the country he attempted to reach.
Fortunately for the development of aikido, the entourage was arrested by the Chinese (who had previously supported them), before they reached the Mongolian border. Out of fear of repercussions by the Japanese military, the Chinese led by Mr. Cho, spared Onisaburo Deguchi and his party and sent them back to Japan. Ironically, a few years later in 1928, Mr. Cho himself was killed by the Japanese military. After his return to Japan however, the Founders relationship with Manchuria was not over.
Tensions continued to mount in the region and in 1931 the Japanese military covertly through the Kanto Tokumukikan, executed one of their own Japanese high-ranking military officers and blamed the Chinese. This was an excuse for an outright invasion and with the help of Chinese Emperor Fugi of the Shin dynasty, the Japanese invaded and declared the country of Manchuria under Japanese rule. Setting up their own government in Manchuria, the Japanese began the task of converting Manchuria into a Japanese state. In 1939, Kenkoku University was built in Manchuria as a demonstration of the solidarity and strength of Japanese rule. At that time, aikido was taught as a major field at the Kenkoku University in Manchuria. The Founder, Morihei Ueshiba while remaining in Japan, was an advisory director to the Kenkoku University in Manchuria. In 1941, the Founder also became an advisory director of the Manchurian Shin Buden Martial Art Association. As part of the Japanese effort to maintain control in Manchuria, martial arts including aikido were presented as a show of domination; not as arts of peace and harmony. This image of cruelty of the Japanese military leaders during WWII has been a legacy that Japan still suffers from today in many parts of the world.
As the war continued, the Founder Ueshiba, being a very intelligent man and also being very involved with the Japanese military, could see the tide turning against Japan. He began to take actions to protect himself and those around him. In 1940, five years before the end of the war, the Founder established the Yagai dojo (an outside practice area) in the small country town of Iwama, east of Tokyo. Three years before the end of the war in 1943, the Founder, proclaiming enlightenment, left Tokyo headquarters and retreated to Iwama, where he built the Iwama dojo and Aiki shrine. It was then that he began to talk of aikido as the art of love and peace.
After the end of the war, during GHQ occupation of Japan, the military police could find little to complain about during a visit to Iwama. Deep in the countryside, surrounded by chestnut trees, suwariwaza (kneeling techniques) were practiced at the Iwama dojo. If anything, to the GHQ it looked like a strange local dance more than it did a martial art form. Secretly Ueshiba and his students practiced suburi (weapons training) using hoe handles for bokken and ladle handles for jo. Stored in the farming tool sheds, the handles did not look like anything used for the practice of a martial art. This practice became the origin of Iwama-style aikido. During this time at Iwama, the Founder’s open-hand aikido practice was always a silent practice. Usually the practice was held on wooden floors, which were too hard to hit or land hard on. Even if practicing on tatami, no kiai were allowed. For the rest of his life, the Founder continued practice at Iwama in this fashion.
It is at this point in history that we begin to see a split in styles between the aikido practiced at Tokyo Headquarters and the aikido practiced at Iwama. At Tokyo Headquarters after WWII and in my memory in 1967, bokken and jo were not used for public practice. The aikido style practiced at Hombu looked very mild to keep a peaceful image; it was not martial at all in appearance. This was an intentional deception to quiet any suspicions by GHQ, but in my opinion was also a deliberate act on the part of the Founder. Remembering that it is people that make martial arts, I believe the Founder at this point planted two seeds, each sprouting into two different styles of aikido. In diversification, there is strength.
Jumping forward in time to 1964, demonstrations at the Tokyo Olympics had made the practice of aikido famous, and its popularity was spreading quickly, especially in the United States and Europe. Bruce Lee was making his debut on the movie screen and had started a martial arts boom that would last for decades. In the 1970s while still enjoying a surge of growth, there was little organization, structure or standards for teaching aikido. Techniques were called by different names depending on where they were being taught, and everyone was teaching independently. In the United States the demand for Japanese instructors was high, and rank or qualification was not a major issue. Anyone who was Japanese could teach aikido in the United States. Obviously the quality of instruction went down.
The realization was made that a unifying structure was needed and an organization was created. Unfortunately, by the time this structure was put into place, instructors had already established territories on their own. Especially in the United States, when the new organizational body drew new territorial lines, infighting began over territory, money and students. The original goals of practicing aikido and trying to discover its meaning and application were lost in a fight over money and power.
I have said that human beings make aikido. aikido does not make human beings. The Founder Ueshiba’s contributed greatly to our world, but his life too had its twists and turns. His journey was filled with many travels, many trials and many tribulations, but it is through a life filled with hardship that one can find the most meaning. There is a famous story about a Zen Roshi who had spent years in the practice of meditation and dedication to others. One evening while taking a stroll in the temple garden he hit his shinbone on a rock. At that very instant he achieved enlightenment and retold his experience to the young monks at the temple. The next evening all of the young monks hurried to the garden and began hitting their shinbones on the rock.
For us to try to understand the Founder’s message without understanding his journey is like the young monks trying to find enlightenment by hitting their shinbones on a rock.
The Founder’s final message was that “Budo (Martial Arts) is Love”. In a way, he left a labeled package for us but never truly revealed its meaning or the contents of this package. He left many poems, and many have tried to interpret them, but these interpretations remind me of the young monks and the rock in the garden.
For example, I remember a photo that used to be popular entitled “Peace,” that showed a close-up view of two men, arms and hands outstretched towards one another about to engage in kokyudosa. Looking at it with a literal eye, I find the photo a little scary. If you think about it, one second after that photo was taken, the two wrestled each other until one had a dominant position over the other on the mat. I really don’t find that very peaceful. The focus of the photo is too narrow to fully understand the concept of “Peace” as the Founder saw it.
To truly understand the meaning of “Budo is Love,” I believe we need to look at these words in a wider context. To accept the words without further, wider reflection is to miss the meaning of these words. We need to study what might be inside the package and how we can apply it to our lives. This is the purpose of our practice. Reciting the “label” does not accomplish this.
In the package is another hint from the Founder about the origin of aikido: that aikido is derived from bokken and jo movements. He did not leave us clear relationships between these two forms or weapons kata for practice. The bokken and jo kata now practiced in Iwama-ryu were created from his memory of the Founder by Morihiro Saito Shihan, 9th dan.
As aikidoists, there are two subjects of study and discovery in the package the Founder left for us. One is philosophical, and the other is physical.
“Budo is Love” is a very large package. The fact that martial arts have been used to dominate others like the monks in Mongolia is not love. Or is it? It is the discrepancies that we need to investigate and think about. We must discover these for ourselves, not just accept slogans blindly. The photo of the two men practicing kokyudosa is nice, but it is important to look outside the lines of the image. Blind acceptance is not understanding.
Like a koan in the practice of Zen, it is important to question for yourself. This type of training and self-discovery may sound difficult, but is actually easier because you can do it yourself. For self-discovery you don’t always need other people.
There is a Zen story about a village looking for a lost cow. A cow wandered from the temple in the center of town and disappeared. Search parties were sent out, and they looked and looked for the cow. Every path they searched branched into more paths, which branched into more paths. Finally there were not enough villagers to search every path, and they all returned to the temple. Outside the temple, the priest looked down on the disheartened villagers and told them, “Don’t worry, the cow is not lost, it was never lost. The cow is here, and has always been here."
Applying this to the present day world of aikido, I see instructors struggling at times like the villagers searching for the cow. The cow in this case being the meaning of our aikido practice. Truly, you do not need to look farther than yourself. Collectively, if you can understand this as a dojo, the dojo will grow and become stronger, as will each individual inside the dojo.
The older I become, the more I think that what is in the package we need to discover for ourselves. Human beings make aikido, aikido does not make human beings. The Founder left us the “labeled package” but it is up to us to fill the package. The package is ourselves.
To fill the package, we first need to have a positive lifestyle and a positive self-image. We need to listen to ourselves continuously. This way the box will fill naturally. The Founder said that every day is misogi waza, which translates as “ridding oneself of jaki,” a concept that has passed down from ancient times in Japan. Jaki translates, as a negative mind that pursues material desires, the desire for fame resulting in hatred, jealousy etc. The Shinto phrase, “Masakatsu agatsu Katsu Hayabi” has a similar translation.
To fill the package, we start with the things we can do today. This is the first step. Yesterday and tomorrow are not as important as what you do today. For example, let’s say your goal is to become a marathon runner. This is a positive goal. You may not be ready to run a race, but today you can stretch and walk a short distance. This is the first step, and it is a positive step toward your goal.
In 1980, I found myself one Sunday standing in the kitchen at the Denver Rescue Mission. Being “Sensei,” I usually find myself teaching in front of students. But one day I asked myself, “Is it really right to be “Sensei” all of the time?” So I put myself in a different position and began volunteering to make meals for the homeless. This was my first “step.”
Today, I have been cooking at the Denver Rescue Mission for 11 years, and to date, we have served over 25,000 meals. It is much easier now. Many of my students help prepare and serve the dinners each month, and every year we hold a seminar to raise funds to support this project. Nippon Kan’s volunteer efforts have expanded to include volunteer service twice a year assisting the Denver Parks and Recreation Department. Over the past ten years, we have saved the City of Denver over $500,000 in labor costs and have received two Resolutions of Commendation from the Denver City Council. All of this began with a first step.
In Denver, Nippon Kan is not known only as a martial art dojo. Nippon Kan’s “package” has been filled with many other positive activities. The reward for participation in positive activities is a positive circulation of energy. Dojo members are proud of their accomplishments and contributions to the community. Their energy attracts new students with the same goals and ideals. The dojo grows, filling the “package” with positive ideas. As the “package” is filled with community exchange and communication, the size and scope of the “package” changes as well. It is for this reason that Nippon Kan began a new project this year, a worldwide project called AHAN. (Aikido Humanitarian Active Network).
In July of 2000, Nippon Kan began building a bridge that reached all the way around the globe to Mongolia. We built the foundation through cultural exchange with a friendship tour hosted by our new Mongolian friends. This year in July 2001, we expanded the scope of the project by searching for a more humanitarian application. Through our contacts in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia’s capital city), we were able to make contact with the National Association of Support for the Orphans of Mongolia, a government sponsored agency of the Mongolian Department of Labor and the General Intelligence Agency.
We were touched by what we saw when we visited the orphanage school and summer camp. We met 250 children who were living on 41 cents per day for food, clothing, shelter, medical supplies and education. We were able to donate children’s clothing, medical supplies and $1,500.00, which enabled the orphanage to buy a computer. Before we left, Nippon Kan and AHAN pledged to support this orphanage with $1,500 per month for the next five years, which amounts to $18,000 per year. We also pledged to continue clothing and medical supply donations. By increasing the budget for these children by even 50 cents a day will increase their quality of life dramatically. It will also allow the orphanage to bring more children in off the streets. This initial donation was derived from my book and other publication sales and private student donations.
Our goal now to honor our pledge and help our “package” grow around the world. Many of our students have made a pledge to support AHAN with a $10.00 monthly donation, or $120.00 per year. It is our hope that you will join us in this fund-raising effort.
Nippon Kan also has many fundraising plans ahead. This Labor Day, September 3, 2001, a taiko drumming concert will be held at Nippon Kan and Domo Restaurant and Gardens to promote cross-cultural exchange and to support our humanitarian efforts. This concert will feature the internationally renowned Kyo Gaku drummers from Matsukawa, Japan. The Kyo Gaku drummers were featured at the opening ceremony at the 1998 Winter Olympics held in Nagano, Japan. We are expecting over 300 people to attend.
Next year Nippon Kan has other exciting events on the horizon. We will be featuring another musical cross-cultural exchange event featuring a well-known and talented group of Mongolian Soyol folk singers from the National Music University in Ulaanbaatar.
Another tour is scheduled to Mongolia in July of 2002. The title for this tour is “The Great Mongolian Caravan Tour” and the focus of this tour is to continue the dream of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba with an Aikido Caravan of Practice. All aikidoists, beyond style or affiliation, around the world are invited and welcome to join us for this special event. This special journey will combine cross-cultural exchange, humanitarian efforts and aikido practice.
I believe that the key for the success of any dojo is the active combination of aikido practice, cross-cultural exchange and humanitarian efforts. The benefit of this kind of individual effort cannot be realized by attending a hundred seminars with a thousand instructors.
From its beginning in the United States, Nippon Kan has been an independent dojo. I have had no Sensei or instructor to look to for guidance. It is through the individual efforts of myself and my students that have made Nippon Kan the organization it is today. One of the main purposes of training at Nippon Kan has been the research and development of the aikido of the Founder. To successfully understand this has been a process in reaching out and contributing to our surrounding community. This is truly aikido for life.
It is up to all of us to choose our path of training. Whether we stay locked inside or reach out to others is our decision to make. Locked inside we are like the light of a small single candle. If we reach out together, the light of one candle becomes the light of ten, then 100 until the light is bright enough that we can truly see what can be achieved through aikido. I invite all aikidoists from around the world to join together through AHAN to shine a light for a brighter world.
I hope you will be able to understand my philosophy and point of view on the aikido we practice.
Thank you, Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho