Aikido History



It is difficult to speak with certainty about the very early history of Aikido. Tradition suggests that it is possible to trace back the origins of Aikido to Prince Teijun, the sixth son of the Japanese Emperor Seiwa (850-880 A.D.).

However, the first important figure in the history of Aikido was a descendant of Prince Teijun, Minamoto no Yoshimitsu, who lived from 1037 to 1127. Yoshimitsu was the third son in a family already famous forits military accomplishments. His father was a general in the service of the Emperor. The most illustrious member of Yoshimitsu’s family was his older brother Yoshiie, who commanded a number of notable victories chronicled in the “Tale of Mutsu.”

In a famous incident in 1082, during the Gosannen War, the two brothers joined forces to attack Kanazawa Castle. Yoshimitsu noticed a disturbance in the flight pattern of wild geese overhead and thus avoided riding into ambush.

Though Yoshimitsu never achieved the renown of his older brother, he distinguished himself as a warrior. He excelled in spear, sword and unarmed techniques, as well as in archery.

At this point in the development of Japanese military arts, mounted archery was considered more important than swordsmanship. It is notable that the two schools of mounted archery which survive into modern times (Takeda Ryu and Ogasawara Ryu), both trace their origin back to Minamoto no Yoshimitsu.

It is said that Yoshimitsu dissected cadavers to increase his understanding of the workings of bone, muscle and connective tissues.

From this research he added to his repertoire of unarmed techniques, then called “Tai Jutsu.”

Yoshimitsu’s second son moved to the mountainous Kai region of Japan, and founded a new clan with the name Takeda. The Takedas ruled Kai during the breakdown of imperial power and the centuries of war which followed, becoming one of the few ruling families to survive the transition from the era of the shugo, the governor legitimated by the emperor, to the era of the daimyo, the independent feudal lord. During this unsettled period, the Takedas refined the techniques handed down from Yoshimitsu in the face of constant warfare.

A manuscript dating from around 1580, written by one of the Takeda family retainers, illustrates techniques which are recognizable to today’s Aikido practitioners.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Takedas faced the rising ambitions of Nobunaga Oda and Ieyasu Tokugawa, later the first Tokugawa shogun. In 1572, Shingen Takeda scored a conclusive victory over the future shogun, only to die soon afterward from wounds received on a journey to Kyoto. His loss was keenly felt: within a decade, the Takeda of Kai were completely destroyed. (These events form the background of the Kurosawa film, Kagemusha, and are also portrayed in the TV miniseries Shogun.)

The secrets of Takeda military prowess had not been lost, however. Shortly after Shingen Takeda’s death, another Takeda carried Shingen’s last will and testament to their ally in the north, the lord of Aizu. Moriuji Ashina granted this Takeda a mansion and much land, and persuaded him to stay in Aizu as a master of swordsmanship.


Takeda swordmasters instructed the samurai of the Aizu clan for many generations. During the Tokugawa (Edo) period, Aizu grew into a noted center of martial arts in all ninety four different schools of fighting flourished in the region. Certain of the arts were available only to high ranking Aizu retainers and were called Otome Ryu or secret techniques. One of these secret arts was the Takeda style of unarmed defense, called aiki-jujutsu. Jujutsu means “pliable techniques” and is used to describe various unarmed combat styles learned by the samurai to complement their weapons training; aiki at this time meant something like “coming together with the ki, or spiritual energy, of one’s enemy.” The concept of aiki was still very much within the framework of warfare, and destroying one’s opponent.

Perhaps the greatest practitioner of Aiki-jujutsu was Sokaku Takeda.

250px-Takeda_SokakuBorn in 1860, as a child he was interested only in the martial arts. By the age of 17 he had received a teaching license from an Aizu sword school, and when he was twenty, a former Aizu clan retainer began instructing him in the secret techniques of Aiki-jujutsu. Despite his small size (4’11”) Sokaku Takeda earned a reputation as a ferocious and invincible swordsman, one without peer in Japan. He was fond of challenging other swordsmen in order to test and refine his technique, and once single handedly fought off a gang of fifty construction workers, killing a number of them. However, the age of the sword in Japan was drawing to an end. Sokaku’s teacher told him that the unarmed techniques of Aiki-jujutsu should now be given precedence.

In 1889, the former Aizu retainer taught Sokaku the last of the secret techniques, and presented him with this verse: “All people, know this!/ When you strike/ a flowing river/ no trace remains/ in the water.” Thereafter, Sokaku traveled around Japan teaching and giving demonstrations of Aiki-jujutsu. In 1911, Sokaku was invited by the police bureau in Hokkaido to help control the pirates and gangsters then infesting the island, and he returned again in 1915. During his second visit, while conducting a demonstration at an inn, he met a Hokkaido settler named Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba was so overwhelmed by the Aiki-jujutsu techniques he had witnessed that he stayed at the inn for a month, training with Sokaku night and day, forgetting even to notify his family, who assumed he had perished in a blizzard.

Morihei Ueshiba

Osensei 5Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) is the founder of modem Aikido. He is the man who transformed the deadly techniques of Takeda Aiki-jujutsu into a peaceful way of harmony, from a means to destroy one’s enemy into a means to resolve conflict. The contrast between aiki-jujutsu and aiki-do is mirrored in the contrast between Bu-jutsu, military techniques, and Bu-do, the code of conduct for the warrior. The first focuses on practical result, the second on character and ethics.

Unlike Sokaku Takeda, Morihei was born sickly and his early interests lay in religion and science. His father, a landowning farmer of samurai background, encouraged the boy to engage in sports, but as a young man Ueshiba worked first as an instructor in an abacus academy, then as a tax auditor, and then as the owner of a small stationery store in Tokyo. It was not until the younger Ueshiba was called up for a tour of duty in the army that he began serious study of jujutsu and swordsmanship. At age 25, he received a teaching certificate in Yagyu style jujtsu, and after his discharge from the army, his father built him a dojo (training hall) on family property in Tanabe. Morihei taught there, inviting a number of famous judo and jujtsu masters to visit.

In 1912, Morihei led a party of homesteaders from Tanabe north to settle the distant frontier lands of Hokkaido. It was there that he encountered Sokaku Takeda at the inn, and was easily defeated by him a fifty old man who was less than five feet tall. Morihei invited Takeda Sensei to his house and built a training hall for him. For four years Morihei studied the old techniques of Aiki-jujutsu, until his father’s illness called him back to Tanabe.

Throughout his training as a martial artist, Morihei never lost his interest in religion and spirituality. As he grew older, religious ideas exercised an increasingly profound influence over him. The old Aiki-jujutsu techniques had been born in an era of blood and violence; Morihei worked to transform them into a way, or do, of spiritual education that fostered respect and harmony. No longer was the focus of training on self defense and the destruction of one’s opponent. Now aiki took on a new meaning, moving beyond the notion of harmony with the energy of one’s opponent in combat, to embrace the notion of harmony with all things at all times, harmony with the universe. When one has achieved such harmony, there is no longer any enemy. Morihei called this new study Aikido.

Gozo Shioda & The Yoshinkan Aikido School

yoshincsMorihei Ueshiba Sensei taught many students throughout his very long career, and these students in turn founded a number of Aikido schools. The difference between these schools depends in part upon when these students trained with Ueshiba throughout Ueshiba’s life Aikido continued to evolve and in part upon the individual personality of the student. One of Ueshiba’s most exceptional students was Gozo Shioda.

Shioda entered Ueshiba Sensei’s school in 1932, at the age of 17, and trained under him for the next twenty years, except for a five year hiatus caused by the war. At the end of this time Shioda was granted a license to start his own school. In 1954 Shioda was awarded first prize in an All Japan Martial Arts Exhibition, and his subsequent reputation helped him establish the Yoshinkan Aikido school in Tokyo. In addition to its many regular students, the Yoshinkan provides instructors for the 40,000 Tokyo Metropolitan police. In some special squads on the Tokyo police force, advancement in Aikido is a requirement for promotion.

Yukio Utada & the Aikido Association of North America

shapeimage_1Yukio Utada began his training at a very early age. He began training in Tokyo under the tutelage of Gozo Shioda. Mr. Utada distinguished himself in his training by attaining his shodan (1st dan Black Belt) within his first nine months.

In the early seventies, Shioda Sensei sent Mr. Utada to Detroit, Michigan to server as uchi-deshi (live-in student) to his former Yoshinkan chief instructor. In 1974 Mr. Utada moved to Philadelphia to begin his full time teaching career. He also began to lay down the foundation for the organization which would bring about the greatest growth in Yoshinkai style Aikido in the United States — the Aikido Association of North America (AANA).

During the 1990s Gozo Shioda made Mr. Utada the eastern United States Shibu-cho (Chapter Chief) of Yoshinkai Aikido. To accompany this honor, Gozo Shioda bestowed Mr. Utada with his 7th dan and the title of Shihan (mastership of he art).

Utada Kancho and the AANA has overseen the instruction of more than 1000 students. Currently there are more than 400 aikidoka in the AANA’s eighteen affiliate dojos.


Flickr Images

View All at Flickr