Is aikido really a martial art?

It wasn’t long after I began training in physical aikido that I discovered the philosophy behind it, and asked myself if it really was a martial art. Of course, without thinking, most people would say that aikido is just that, and I guess it’s quite understandable that it got put into the ‘martial’ category. But despite the scornful looks and disparaging remarks that my question met, I still hesitated in accepting it as such. My interest in words and their origin showed me that a ‘martial’ art is de facto an art of war – remember ‘Mars’ (root of the word ‘martial’) the Roman god of war? And sure, I knew the various aspects of aikido help us deal with the ‘wars’ that people manifest both internally and externally, but I just couldn’t get it to fit… I couldn’t see how this art, whose creator proclaimed its intention as being “to unify the world in love and harmony”, could really be considered as martial?

“Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter — it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

Morihei Ueshiba

Indeed, anyone who has gone just a little further than the mat, knows how much aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, insisted that “budo[1] is love” and that aikido was “not a technique to fight with or defeat the enemy. It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.” And that was where I got stuck, because no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t seem to make the founder’s philosophy stick with the idea of an art of war.

“So if it’s not a martial art, what is it then?”  I hear you, I hear you. Well, in this journey of understanding that I had begun, my first stop was in the opposite direction. Instead of qualifying this art in relation to a god of war, I thought that surely we could find some sort of ‘god of love and harmony’, to be more in line with O-Sensei’s vision of aikido. Still holding a torch for the roman mythological references, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon Venus who, just like Mars, before becoming a planet, started out her life as one of the gods. Indeed, you may find it curiously significant how, even on an astrological level, this would be considered as the opposite direction; on the one side of our beautiful planet we find war (Mars), and on the other side… yep, love.

Venus & MarsSo Venus was known as the goddess of love, and anything pertaining to Venus may well be called venusian, and I guess, if I wanted to open a debate or provoke a storm of contesting views, I would insist that aikido is much closer to a venusian art than a martial one… but that is not my intention. However to avoid both confusion and controversy, when speaking of aikido I will replace the use of the terms ‘martial arts’ and ‘martial way’ by the original term ‘budo’, which can be translated as ‘the way of brave and enlightened activity’. But do let your own sense of ‘budo’ develop alongside your understanding and practice of it.

Even if you still maintain that Aikido is a martial art, you will most likely uphold that it is so much more than that too, and that the physical approach simply demonstrates what is possible on so many other levels – emotional, intellectual, verbal and so on. It demonstrates that, no matter what we are confronted with in life, we can neutralize or transform it by accepting, blending with and redirecting the energy, whatever form it takes.

[1] The Japanese term ‘budo’ has often been translated as ‘martial way’ or ‘martial art’, but the founder redefined this concept, separating it from any idea of war.

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Is aikido really a martial art?