What does Aikido mean?

My name is Erik Calderon and I’ve been doing martial arts from the age of 5. When I was 20, I got this incredible itch to move to Japan and study martial arts full time.
In 1989 I went traveling to Mexico with my Dad. One night, he had some business to attend to, and I was left in the hotel to kill the time. I turned on the tv and a movie called, “Nico,” was airing.
It was interesting, and I enjoyed watching it. I especially like the martial art that was highlighted in the film, Aikido. I knew nothing about Aikido, but from what I saw, it looked like fun.
When I got back to Boston, I looked up a few Aikido schools and started taking Aikido classes at Shobu Aikido of Boston under William Gleason.
I read every book I could find on Aikido and learned about it’s history, it’s culture and its philosophy.

Aikido was founded by a man named Morihei Ueshiba.  He was born in 1883 and died in 1969. In 1926 he moved to Tokyo, Japan and opened up his dojo, the Aikikai World Headquarters.  During World War II the dojo was closed and Morihei Ueshiba moved to Iwama and built a dojo there.  It’s important to note these two location, because they have developed into two distinct styles of Aikido, the Iwama Ryu and the Aikikai style.

Learning about the history of Aikido and Japan and how it influenced the development and ultimately the meaning of Aikido is very important to make note of.   During the war, and Japan’s loss, the martial arts as a whole changed in Japan. First off, during the US occupation, all martial arts were banned. This is about the time Morihei Ueshiba moved to Iwama and was able to continue his teaching and training in secret.

All arts transformed at this time, from “jutsu” (術 【すべ】 way, method, technique, means)  for example, Ueshiba had trained in Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, to “do” (道  【みち】road-way, street, district, journey, course, moral) Aikido.  This helps us understand how this word was shaped, from method or technique to way of life or path.

The Japanese language is structured differently than the English language.  In English we typically have the Subject – Verb – Object structure, where as in Japanese the structure is Subject – Object – Verb.  

This difference in language structure helped me understand, on a deeper level, what Aikido means and the practical applications of the techniques.  Let’s say that this is one of the hidden secrets of Aikido. Instead of me being an active participant in applying a technique, the subject, me and the object, my attacker are brothers and the technique is what comes last.

Let’s take a look at the the word, Aikido (合気道.)  The word is made up of three seperate Chinese Characters know as Kanji (漢字.)  The first kanji – Ai – 合い means to fit, suit or join. We usually refer to this word as meaning harmony.  The second kanji Ki – 気 – spirit; mind; heart​. We refer to this word as meaning spirit. And the last kanji – Do – 道 –  road-way, street, district, journey, course, moral, teachings. We refer to this word as way.

So, translated into English, Aikido means, “The Way of Spiritual Harmony.”  But, what does that actually mean? The word has a deep philosophical meaning that transcends the literal meaning.

I’ve been doing Aikido for over 19 years, constantly thinking about what Aikido means and why I continue to pursue learning Aikido.

Constantly, I think about Aikido on three separate plains; the physical, the mental and the spiritual.

On a physical level, Aikido means the forging and training of the body.  Constant and never ending physical exercise. Taking our bodies as far as they can go.  And yes, that means being extremely physically fit. Training the body so that you can train all day long.  Training the body so that even when you are tired, you can continue. Kind of like running a marathon. You need to constantly train the body so that you are at a level that, one, you can compete against the clock, and two you are physically able to run the marathon without injury.

This is a very important point to note.  You do not train to injure yourself, but train in order to build the physical body to prevent injury and endure long training sessions.

On a mental level Aikido means that we are constantly studying and seeking for understanding on a philosophical level as well on a technical level of the movements of Aikido.   While in Japan, I spent hours upon hours reading every book I could in order to understand what Aikido is. I studied the religions it’s based on, I studied the people that wrote the books.  I studied the philosophies of the time. Everything I could get my hands on, even fictional books. I enjoyed the novel, Miyamoto Musashi.   This novel is a must read for anyone interested in martial arts.  Musashi was a true figure and a legend of the sword in Japan. He also wrote, “The Book of Five Rings.”  And, another book I read about him:  Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings.  

One important point to make note of, you can always learn something and the deeper you dive into the learning, the deeper the pool of knowledge becomes.

On a spiritual level, Aikido means that we are working on values that add to and build our spirit:

  • Self-Discipline
  • Compassion
  • Responsibility
  • Friendship
  • Work
  • Courage
  • Perseverance
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Faith

I actually picked up these values from a book I read, “The Book of Virtues,” by William Bennett while in Japan studying Aikido and they became a core essence of what I believe to be the important values that we can build while training in Aikido that will transcend into every aspect of our lives.  

It’s not easy training the spirit, it’s such an unknown and hard to understand aspect of our lives.  Exhaust yourself physically, never stop learning and that is the gateway to the spirit. And yes, the bible is a great book to read.  

Although Aikido literally translates into, “The Way of Spiritual Harmony,” it means a lot more than just that.  Aikido is a martial art, or a fighting art. The techniques are designed to protect you from an attack. Interestingly what separates Aikido from other martial arts, is that the techniques are also designed to protect your attacker as well.   This adds even more meaning to the word Aikido.

As you train, you will develop your own meaning, the harder and deeper you study, the more profound your understanding of the word Aikido will become.

Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.

– Morihei Ueshiba

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