Aikido – Japan’s newest martial art, which places more emphasis on self-defense than on winning, attracts both new and seasoned practitioners from all over the world to Tanabe, where it originated.
Two guys stood across from one another, holding at arm’s length wooden sticks in the shape of the mythical Japanese sword known as the katana. The men stared solemnly at each other as the points of the sticks crossed one another.
They elevated the sticks above their heads before firmly, but not violently, lowering them to meet the opponent’s. The wooden instruments smashed, making a loud thud, and this motion was repeated multiple times along with twists of the body and arms in a rapid-fire sequence.
One of the men made a stronger lunge while extending his fake sword. The other avoided the blow by quickly spinning to the side to deflect it.
The men continue fighting, first using shorter wooden sticks before escalating to hand-to-hand combat.
The rivals, Junichi Gomita and Yoshinori Okazaki, were sensei at the Aikido Tanabe Dj in Tanabe, the city in the Japanese prefecture of Wakayama where Morihei Ueshiba was born in 1883 and the birthplace of aikido. Aikido, which translates as “way of harmonising energy” and was developed by Ueshiba in the early 20th century, is one of the nine official martial arts of Japan, or bud. Gomita and Okazaki are the most recent students of Tanabe sensei, who are committed to advancing this deeply articulated practice and philosophy.
Aikido, unlike other martial arts, focuses on using “matching the opponent’s force” to deflect blows rather than overwhelming an opponent, according to Gomita. Since the primary goal of aikido is self-defense, there are no winners or losers and no tournaments.
Gomita recalled that his father, who was chosen by Ueshiba to serve as a representative of the martial art in the 1960s and who created Aikido Tanabe Dj in 1981, “Ueshiba used to perform aikido for the deities at the shrine near the dojo (training hall),” a duty they are currently carrying out jointly. The self-control necessary to master aikido derives from the practitioner’s inner power as well as the stability of their stance. The synchronized gestures that must be perfected are so sublime as to be deserving of the gods.
Receiving the energy of the other person is important to aikido, much like when kids clap hands together.
Initially, Ueshiba was mainly devoted to his own training and took on few students. Despite standing at just 156cm tall – as a life-size photograph in the museum demonstrated – he could neutralise much larger opponents, and even multiple ones at a time. “[Yet] aikido isn’t about defeating one’s enemy,” Ueshiba emphasised, “it’s the way to unite human beings.”
This sense of aikido as a community, rather than an individual pursuit, was also apparent in Yukiko’s words. “What I like about this practice are the bonds that form between people on and off stage,” she told me. “At first, it could seem like it’s all about making your opponent fall, but real aikido is about taking care of and connecting to others.”
Aikido’s originator invited anyone, including those from outside, to see the first demonstration to be staged after World War Two in 1956 after being persuaded to do so by Ueshiba’s son. As a result, the discipline spread outside of Japan, and now, millions of individuals practice this martial art in more than 100 nations.
But perhaps nowhere is it more pervasive than Tanabe. In Japan, martial arts are taught in schools as a component of physical education, and in this town, “11 out of 14 middle school students take aikido classes,” according to Gomita. He laughed and said, “I know since I teach most of them.
Aikido practitioners from all over the world travel to Tanabe, including to his dojo, which has 20 regular students, all adults, including six women. Gomita also stated this. Beginners are also welcome, but they might struggle if they don’t speak Japanese, Gomita noted. Therefore, we advise visitors to reserve the tour that the Tanabe Tourism Bureau is offering, which includes a private aikido experience with interpretation.