Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平, December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969) was a martial artist and founder of the modern Japanese martial art of Aikido. He is often referred to as "the founder" Kaiso (開祖) or Ōsensei(大先生/翁先生), "Great Teacher". Ueshiba envisioned aikido not only as the synthesis of his martial training, but as an expression of his personal philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation. He developed aikido primarily during the late 1920s to the 1930s based on the older martial arts that he had studied.
Today, the largest aikido organization is the Aikikai Foundation, which remains under the control of the Ueshiba family. However, aikido has many styles, mostly formed by Morihei Ueshiba's major students. These major styles of aikido are each run by a separate governing organization, have their own headquarters (本部道場 honbu dōjō), and have an international breadth.
Aikido is often translated as "the way of unifying (with) life energy" or as "the way of harmonious spirit". Ueshiba's goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
Aikido techniques consist of entering and turning movements that redirect the momentum of an opponent's attack, and a throw or joint lock that terminates the technique.
The word "aikido" is formed of three kanji:
Therefore, from a purely literal interpretation, aikido is the "Way of combining forces", in that the term aiki refers to the martial arts principle or tactic of blending with an attacker's movements for the purpose of controlling their actions with minimal effort. One applies aiki by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique
Yoshimitsu Yamada was born on February 17th, 1938 in Tokyo. His father’s cousin, Tadashi Abe, began practicing aikido in 1942. This coincidence undoubtedly affected the later life of Yoshimitsu, who had his first contact with O-Sensei when he was only a few years old during a martial arts demonstration at the Abe family’s home. This meeting made a lasting impression on young Yoshimitsu. He remembers it as if it were yesterday: at first glance, O-Sensei seemed like a nice, calm, elderly man, but he became a completely different person on the mat – an uncatchable and mysterious martial arts master.
The experience undoubtedly heavily influenced eighteen-year-old Yoshimitsu’s decision to join Hombu Dojo as an uchi-deshi in 1955, which was made possible thanks to a recommendation by Tadashi Abe, since Yoshimitsu had never before trained in martial arts. His first day as an uchi-deshi was also his first day on the mat. He immediately made friends with his sempai Nabuyoshi Tamura and Sadateru Arikawa.
At the time, Hombu Dojo was a completely different place than it is nowadays. The Ueshiba family’s house was part of the dojo, and Morihei himself quite often, although irregularly, appeared on the mat.
The training was demanding and life at the dojo had an almost ascetic nature. This was due to the difficult economic situation in the country after World War II. Life at Hombu Dojo did not differ greatly from the general quality of life in Japan at the time. The building was not heated, so in winter the temperature would regularly drop below zero degrees Celsius, and in summer the heat would strike mercilessly. Deshi did not have their own quarters or too many personal items, their life was subject to the dojo’s rhythm, and private moments were very rare. Each uchi-deshi had to perform certain tasks and take private lessons. Yoshimitsu Yamada remembers the schedule of that time: the first training of the day, conducted by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, started at 6:30, the next one, at 8:00, was run by either Koichi Tohei or Kisaburo Osawa, and once a week by Kenji Tomiki. Hiroshi Tada or Seigo Yamaguchi conducted the 15:00 training, and the 16:00 and 18:30 trainings were run by various teachers. Koichi Tohei was an idol to many trainees – he impressed them with his character and technical skills. Many uchi-deshi regretted that he became more and more involved in running a school in Hawaii, and his visits to Tokyo became rare. With time, the student body grew – Yasuo Kabayashi, Kazuo Chiba, Mitsunari Kanai and Seichi Sugano joined, and along with Yoshimitsu became a tight group of friends.
Despite their intense commitment to training and dojo life, they all secretly dreamt of leaving Japan, which, after the American occupation, opened itself to the world. Yoshimitsu Yamada was chosen to teach aikido at American military bases as a delegate of Hombu Dojo. He honed his English skills and learned about America’s culture and traditions, which fascinated him, and his desire to go to the USA grew.
An opportunity finally came along during the early sixties, when Eddie Hagihara from New York, whom Yoshimitsu met personally in Japan, reached out to Hombu Dojo. In 1964, the Aikido Headquarters were asked to prepare an aikido demonstration for the World’s Fair in New York City. At first, the dojo was to be represented by Koichi Tohei. However, due to an injury he sustained, plans had to be changed, and Yoshimitsu Yamada was sent in his stead. Eagerly snatching up the opportunity, Yoshimitsu met his American friends while abroad and agreed to take care of the New York Aikikai school. However, his future had almost turned out completely different, for at that time Tadashi Abe had already moved to France, and Yoshimitsu had intended to follow him and become his successor. However, Yoshimitsu’s friend and sempai, Nabuyoshi Tamura, who is still the head of European aikido, beat him to it. Instead, Yoshimitsu Yamada was delegated to the East Coast of the United States and subsequently chose New York for his headquarters.
After difficult beginnings, aikido slowly became more appealing to people not only in New York, but also on the whole East Coast. This was above all thanks to Yamada Sensei’s incredible involvement. He travelled so much – to Boston, southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even Canada – that his students started complaining about how he was never in NYC. However, since he was the only person with proper experience, he had to take care of satellite groups himself. Yamada Sensei remembers that he only began seeing the results of his work after 20 years. The first 10 years he devoted to the New York school, and the next 10 years to the development of aikido on the entire East Coast. The actions of Yoshimitsu Yamada were intentional – working on strong foundations in time resulted in numerous great teachers, many of whom today run their own schools.
Once the NY dojo grew stable, aikido overall became more popular, and the individual dojos were operating smoothly, the time came to establish an organization in order to formalize and specify their cooperation at an administrative level. In 1968 the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) was created as a result of the cooperation between the teachers delegated to the USA by Hombu Dojo, and it is to date the largest organization of its kind in Northern America.
The eighties were a period of relative stabilization. Two decades after the establishment of the dojo in the USA, there was a big summer camp held in 1984, with aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in attendance. This proof of appreciation was an incentive for more effortful work. Sensei travelled more and more, and in 1992 he invited Seichi Sugano Sensei to come join him. His friend from Hombu Dojo joined the New York Aikikai, giving the school a unique rank. The New York dojo was the only school in the world, in which two direct students of O-Sensei taught at the same time.
Yoshimitsu Yamada spent about seven years at Hombu Dojo. Since that time, the set of techniques taught has changed significantly, and aikido itself has become a slightly different martial art than what the first uchi-deshi of Morihei Ueshiba were taught. Despite this evolution, Yamada Sensei tries to pass on what he learned during that time. Orthodox in his teaching, he teaches basic techniques, which he tries not to modify. He believes that a solid foundation is necessary for proper development. He is an enthusiast of intensive training as the means for both physical and spiritual development. He does not oppose hard training, according to budo spirit, however he does not excuse brutality or stupidity on the mat. He still travels intensively, visiting almost all continents every year. He is Chairman of the American Aikido Federation and the South American Aikido Federation, as well as the author of several books and DVDs on aikido.
When asked what he is most proud of, Yamada Sensei lists the following: his own dojo, the fact that he contributed to the development and spreading of aikido across the world, and that he helped so many people become great aikido teachers.
Edward Lin started practicing Aikido at the New York Aikikai in 2011. He studied under Yamada sensei for 6 years, spending 10 months as an uchi-deshi. Not only has he received direct instruction from Yamada sensei himself, but also from Yamada sensei's top students, including Harvey Konigsberg (7th Dan, Shihan), Donovan Waite (7th Dan, Shihan), Mike Abrams (7th Dan, Shihan), Steve Pimsler (7th Dan, Shihan), Robert Workoff (7th Dan, Shihan), Hal Lehrman (7th Dan, Shihan). Edward earned his 2nd dan degree at the United States Aikido Federation Summer Camp in 2018. He hopes to create a fun, inclusive, and intensive learning environment at Taipei Budokai, which will soon encompass enough regular students to invite Yamada sensei to Taiwan to instruct a seminar.
All background photos: Javier Dominguez Photography