Moriteru Ueshiba: On Transmitting the Essence of Aikido

On September 6th, 2019, the California Aikido Association and Kei Izawa Sensei (Chairman of the International Aikido Federation) coordinated an interview with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba for the Aikido Journal  community. Executive Editor, Josh Gold, briefed the Doshu on some of his upcoming projects and led Aikido Journal’s first interview with Moriteru Ueshiba in 20 years. Translation by Kei Izawa. Photos by Anne Lee.

Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, Josh Gold, and Kei Izawa

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with our community.

The first thing I’d like to ask you about is how you communicate about Aikido. It’s such a beautiful art, but for people who do not practice, it can be a challenge to explain the essence of it, what it is we do, and why. You talk to people about Aikido all the time, so I’m curious to hear how you communicate about the art to those who are unfamiliar with it. 

Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba: Aikido will be disseminated into society by itself if people understand that Aikido, being a martial art, is a wonderful physical and mental activity. In addition to developing the physical techniques, we also pursue similar aims on the mental side in the daily practice of Aikido. The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei) emphasized that through daily practice, we should learn to understand and appreciate the position and thoughts of others to enable the establishment of a peaceful and friendly community. Aikido is a way of harmony. Eventually this philosophy will lead us to become well-balanced individuals of sincerity and devotion.

“Through daily practice, we must create a compassionate heart to bring our mind and that of our training partner into one.

If you had to describe Aikido to someone in 30 seconds, an “elevator pitch” as we would call it in the US, how would you do that?

First, please watch Aikido training. This is my answer.

On a similar note, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a number of different martial arts and Aikido training is something quite special. In technology design, a term that’s used is “User Experience (UX).” The UX of Aikido is so special — what it feels like, what it looks like, what the interaction is with your partner. It’ so unique. And so I wonder, from the perspective of the Doshu, what do you think is the essence of that Aikido user experience? What are the core elements of the Aikido training experience that are essential to its character?

As I have already stated, Aikido was created by the Founder based on his philosophy that, through daily practice, we must create a compassionate heart to bring our mind and that of our training partner into one. Keeping this philosophy in mind, we should diligently pursue our daily training of Aikido.  

Aikido is a Japanese martial art and in a way it’s a Japanese cultural asset. Now that Aikido has spread to 140 countries around the world, some of the cultural elements of the art are likely to be lost or translated differently, and others will remain. From your perspective as Doshu, what are the most important cultural elements that should stay in the art, no matter what country it goes to?

I may be repeating myself, yet I dare to say that no matter where you are, practitioners should continue to walk the path of  Aikido by correctly following the direction shown by the Founder with regard to the philosophy and techniques of Aikido; and make it one’s own way. Continuous practice makes this possible.

“I am convinced that it is our most important priority to pass on to the future in the best possible way, the Aikido that the Founder created. For such purpose, those who are engaging in the propagation of Aikido, including myself, must give our utmost efforts. It is essential that we correctly transmit this magnificent art, which has already spread to 140 countries and regions.”

What’s a day in the life of Doshu like? How much time do you spend teaching, leading organizational activities, traveling, all these things?  

I live right next to the Aikido Hombu Dojo. When I was born, the Dojo was in the same structure as my residence. It was called the Ueshiba Dojo at that time. As I am in such environments, most of my time in daily life is associated with Aikido. I can separate the time I spend in the instruction of Aikido from the rest of the time I engage in other actions like talking with somebody. Still, I cannot separate my life itself from Aikido. My first activity of the day is to teach the morning class at 6:30am at Hombu Dojo.

Wow, that’s early.

After I complete the morning class, I need to regain energy. I eat breakfast at my home. Then, I return to my office in the Dojo. We then have a daily morning meeting, where the members of the Instructors Department gather and brief me on their action report. I also discuss many issues, both domestic and international, with my staff, and give necessary instruction and guidance. I also sometimes spend some time meeting and talking with people who are not part of the Aikido family.

From your perspective, what do you think are the biggest challenges for Aikido in today’s world?

I don’t see any difficult issues, and I am convinced that it is our most important priority to pass on the art to future generations in the best possible way, the Aikido that the Founder created. For such purpose, those who are engaging in the propagation of Aikido, including myself, must give our utmost efforts. It is essential that we correctly transmit this magnificent art, which has already spread to 140 countries and regions.

I understand and agree. We’re now in the 21st century, and with today’s younger generation, it’s definitely been a challenge to figure out how to take the essence and heritage of Aikido and transmit it to the next generation in a way that inspires them to continue practicing and advancing the art.

The situation in the past and the present does not change in regards to this point. We have inherited this art and need to pass it on to our successors in a way that our inheritors will have a correct understanding of Aikido according to our expectations.  In this manner, the ideal environment for Aikido in the future will be secured.

My understanding is that when you lead seminars, you always teach the basics because it is a unifying activity in which everyone can come together and practice the core techniques as a common connecting point. But throughout the history of the art, different masters have had different expression of Aikido and different ways of doing techniques. What are your thoughts on the balance between having a platform of unified basics that everyone can practice versus creative expression and an expansive exploration of technique?

The credo of mine is that I must correctly and humbly succeed what was expressed by the Founder and the 2nd Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, so that Aikido will continue to be magnificent and will not lose its brilliance. Under the licensing system of a traditional Japanese art, I must show the correct model and standard of Aikido as a member of the Ueshiba lineage. In this way, Aikido can be passed on in a correct manner by our inheritors.

The Founder created Aikido some 90 to 100 years ago. Then, it was about 70 years ago that the Founder opened the door of Aikido to the public. I think that the well-balanced philosophy and physical techniques of Aikido enabled Aikido to expand to 140 countries and regions of the world, as well as the wide-spread dissemination of Aikido in Japan. Many of our predecessors have gave their utmost efforts so ordinary people and society can understand the essence of Aikido. It is our duty to pass on this wonderful art and its philosophy to the generations of the future. The responsibility of the Ueshiba family, that takes over the position of successive Doshu, is to maintain, as it is, what has been handed to us. What shall be done by myself and my successor, Mitsuteru Ueshiba, is to preserve the essentials of this art like a thick, immovable tree trunk.

“I don’t ponder how Aikido and/or the Aikikai should directly contribute to society. It is not the way or approach that we should take. Instead, each Aikido devotee, after a long time period of practice, shall consider how they can offer their power and knowledge cultivated by Aikido practice to the betterment of our society.”

Hombu Dojo instructor Terumasa Hino looks on. Mr Hino served as Doshu’s uke and otomo (attendant/companion) for the trip to the United States.

As Aikido Journal, we have access to quite a lot of data on the community. Our Aikido population is somewhere between 14-16% women. At the moment, all the Hombu dojo instructors are men. What are your thoughts on having a woman instructor on the roster?

As for female instructors, I think they will be raised as a natural trend. At Hombu Dojo we actually have two women in our instructors department who are being trained to become future instructors. Also, there are some women instructors in the Aikido community who assist us in some specific cases. Thus, it is wrong if you say there are no female instructors at Hombu. I think the social environment and demands create such a trend in its natural course.

What’s the role of Aikido in modern society? What’s your vision for how Aikido can best serve today’s global community, and what can practitioners do to make that happen? 

I don’t ponder how Aikido and/or the Aikikai should directly contribute to society. It is not the way or approach that we should take. Instead, each Aikido devotee, after a long time period of practice, shall consider how they can offer their power and knowledge cultivated by Aikido practice to the betterment of our society.

Thank you. I think that’s a great answer that’s both empowering and reflective of the spirit of Aikido’s philosophy. I think it’s important for our community to hear that so I really appreciate you sharing your perspective on this.

If you’d entertain a bit of an off-topic question, tell me about one of your favorite movies or TV shows — either now or as a kid.

I was deeply moved and impressed when I first saw Walt Disney’s films on TV. That was more than 60 years ago.

Was there one in particular that you liked?

I remember Bambi. And Fantasia.Both were favorites of mine. For a young boy, those movies were beautiful and pure. As I grow older, cynical movies handling various social problems were produced and I had opportunities to see those movies. Still, the memory of beautiful and pure movies are fresh to me even now.

Thank you very much for your time and insights, Doshu. Aside from the topics we’ve discussed, Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Aikido community?  

To preserve Aikido as created by the Founder is the Aikikai’s duty and responsibility. The International Aikido Federation (IAF) also supports these activities. I hope we can help everyone understand the structure and purpose of the Aikikai and the supporting organizations so we can all work together in harmony to practice and promote the art of Aikido.

Thank you for your support, Doshu and for sharing your message with the Aikido Journal community. 

Interview wrapped. Josh stops the audio recording and goodbyes are said before the Doshu prepares to lead the Friday evening class at the seminar.

Be sure to check out our two part photo journal from Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba’s September 2019 seminar in California. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.  

Josh Gold

Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, CEO of Budo Accelerator, and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo.

7 comments

  • Josh, Thanks for taking the time to get this interview with Doshu. I thought the questions were great and some of the answers from Doshu were as well. I did find some of his answers vague and did not really address your question. One was where you asked about “basics that everyone can practice versus creative expression and an expansive exploration of technique?”. I would hav liked to hear what he thinks of the different expressions of Aikido that are our in the world.

    Nevertheless it was great to hear his words about the Ueshiba family responsibility to preserve the purity of O’Sensei’s Aikido.

  • Hi Josh, I like Doshu. He’s a nice guy and he has a role to play as someone who represents the art in a very public way. As a consequence, he is like a professional diplomat. He needs to maintain his leadership position to convey the essence of aikido to those who are unaware of its founding philosophy and beautiful movements. He might have put some of his answers in a different light but I think he did a good job. I especially liked his response to your question “How can aikido best serve society..?.” His answer is typical of Japanese spiritual disciplines. It is up to the individual. In short, it is up to us what we make of it. If we are unenlightened, we will get what we put into it. If we are enlightened, or rather see aikido through the lens of self-development toward spiritual awakening, then we would get an aikido which closely approximates the Founder’s ideal. I don’t think this is merely about self-fulfilling prophesies though. There is much to be said for the idea that we drift toward our most dominant thoughts. The question for me is: “What kinds of experiences, thoughts, experiences, do we need to have before aikido – as conceived by O-Sensei – makes sense to us…?” Doshu answers this question too, although says it indirectly. To put it more directly, he says, we become good aikidoka, when we share in the thoughts and feelings of our training partners (when we become one with them). This is the essence of dialogue and shared meaning. Isn’t conflict a result, more often than not, of taking sides in a world of plenty…? When we could just as well share rather than fight for resources..?

    • I understand about Japanese politeness and the fact that the doshu has to be diplomatic but , honestly, I got very little from those answers.
      The questions were good, the answers not so much.

      • I dunno, trying to get the guy to talk give an “elevator pitch” and frame it in reference to UX seems almost disrespectful. The Doshu obviously sees this as a timeless art, but the interview keeps wanting to see it on his own contemporary terms.

        • Thomas – thanks for sharing. Good perspective, but if the art truly is timeless, he should be able to talk about in ways relevant to our current time / age – especially since the Aikikai themselves describe aikido as a “modern” martial art. The Doshu was really open during our discussion and I don’t think he felt the questions were disrespectful in any way. We had a great dialogue and I think he may have even found it interesting to think about things in those terms.

  • I think that when the title refers to ‘transmission’ and ‘essence’ it seems a pity that neither subject seems to surface during the answers. What is the ‘essence’? For sure it must be the tiny ingredient that makes all the other parts into one special wholeness, but what is it in aikido? How do you transmit the skills of the art of aikido? If we know, why not share?
    So, what is the essence? How is it transmitted?