Just by way of introduction for those who do not know me and question my privilege to an opinion on this subject: after four years of judo, I started aikido in 1962, with Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Tohei Koichi, and Takahshi Isao Senseis. From early 1967, while O-Sensei was still alive, I trained at Hombu until his death. I have been in aikido and budo for over sixty years and have seen a lot of aikido history.
There are too many reasons and problems to single out an individual reason why aikido has become what it is today. I will try to point out some causes and effects of this long process of decline.
After the founder’s death, the infighting and struggle for leadership and position began. Tohei Koichi Sensei, previously the highest ranking and Chief Instructor at Hombu, left because of politics and duplicity, and so it started.
Hombu, at that time under the leadership of Kisshomaru, was getting organized and took the position of Hombu. Instructors (so-called Shihan) were sent around the world to teach and spread the art of aikido. Some were good and others not so good, but they were exotic, could not speak a word of the language of the country they were teaching in, and became worshipped as a guru or spiritual person. In fact – of course – most were about as spiritual as your postman, but the image stuck and later became the groundwork for the Aikido Cult.
After the death of Kisshomaru, the second Doshu, Hombu became more interested in quantity than quality – the more members, more the money. Ranking, another curse and reason for aikido’s problems, became a handy tool to control and secure the International Aikido community. Then the splinter groups began. In the US, we had one aikido association, then Chiba Kazuo and Yamada Yoshimitsu decided to share the kingdom and had two associations, which made some people unhappy, and they formed their own associations. There are dozens now and, as long as they are Hombu members and send the fees, Hombu couldn’t care less about the quality of their aikido or worth of the teachers. More than a few of those sensei were convicted of sexual abuse and other crimes, but Hombu just ignores this and never pulled their rank and Hombu standing.
Now we reached the point of “quality of teachers.” First let me say, there are people out here that are technically proficient, and some (very few) are excellent. They do not need to be Japanese, as a matter of fact, most aren’t. Hombu is very careful not to promote non-Japanese to the highest ranks.
But since everybody wants to be a sensei, people with five or six years of part time training, who should be students, open a dojo, and pass on all their skill and knowledge to the unsuspecting members. The art is advertised and marketed as “Martial Art” and “Self Defense.” The fact that those “Senseis” could not defend themselves against the average street fighter is explained away as aikido is not for fighting; aikido is peace and harmony; aikido is love. and other O-Sensei quotes.
You cannot be a pacifist if you are unable to resolve a hostile situation, you are simply a victim with illusions. If you can stop the aggression and choose to be merciful, then you are a pacifist.
Endlessly quoting O-Sensei’s post-war sayings and philosophies without having his training and experience turns aikido, in many cases, into an O-Sensei cult with exotic samurai uniform and all the trimmings. There are too many aikido practitioners that live this phantasy, but the blame lies not with them, but with the system. A lot of those half-baked sensei selling and promoting all those things that are wrong with the art today. So, aikido has become an O-Sensei cult with no martial use other than exercise and learning waza that cannot be used in most realistic confrontations. As with yoga and similar disciplines, there is nothing wrong with this in itself, but don’t make yourself believe you are a warrior or because you are doing strange things with a sword or bokken you are Musashi. I speak of the majority of such sensei, as I said before, there are some people who truly understand.
Expansion of the ideas, techniques, and philosophy of aikido will be limited by the nature of those ideas themselves, the students’ inertia, and the incapacity to understand those ideas. Aikido was meant for a limited group of people and never was to be a mass movement. Takeda Sokaku carefully selected the people he was teaching the art too.
Times have changed, people have changed, and weapons have changed the world has changed. The old masters such as Funakoshi, Kano, Ueshiba, etc. could not imagine this world nor adapt to it. So even at its best, aikido has lost its original meaning and is not what it was or meant to be.
So, we need to decide if it is a martial art or not, get rid of the double standard where it is sold as a martial art and self-defense, and as a pacifist cult. It cannot exist in this twilight zone.
Yes, I know all the pro and con arguments on this subject and the truth is: it cannot be solved or saved. You can look at other movements, cults, and religions and see the same patterns. Beginning, flowering, deterioration, and death.
I would like to return to the previous topic on the subject of ranking.
Ranking without actual competition leads to politics and political authorities, rather than excellence in the art. There is, of course, plenty of competition, but it is in the political arena rather than on the tatami. Like in all politics, government or corporative, the politician, not the most qualified person, wins and rises to the top.
Ranking is totally meaningless, the founder himself had no rank, the aforementioned Musashi had no rank, and the list goes on in all disciplines not just budo; a person can be fabulous at an art and have no rank while a politician with rank can be a total failure and usually is.
But without ranking, Hombu could not control aikido and the flow of income.
In my own town, there are two aikido dojos, mine and one other one. The other one is run by a person who studied for a whole two years with me and claiming thirty years of experience, opened a dojo that teaches “the martial art of peace and harmony.” This dojo is Hombu associated and approved also.
Now with the corona pandemic, dojos are forced to close and many of them will not recover. This is not altogether a bad thing, great things in art and anything else are rare and not found on every street corner. The more “aikido” there is, the less aikido there will be.
The virus only sped up the unavoidable natural process of survival of the fittest. Aikido will not survive as the art O-Sensei was teaching unless it starts becoming realistic and the way it used to be. Even then, the new world might not care to continue the preservation of an ancient and outdated Japanese folk art.
Some talented teachers will continue and keep trying to keep aikido alive, but it will never be a popular thing for the majority of people. Perhaps less quantity would raise the quality.
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.