I think it's probably fair to say no one knows exactly what he meant; maybe he just didn't see Ki being used, or maybe things were too competitive. In the same way that we shouldn't assume we know what he meant, it may not be fair to make similar assumptions about the people talking about internal skills. I fully embrace the wisdom of non-resistance, of not trying to compete. Of course there should be something martial behind it, or else it's just philosophy and not warrior-philosophy. According to Tohei, one blow in Aikido is lethal enough to kill. Leaving aside that you don't see that kind of ability much, the way of the peaceful warrior carries the presumption that said warrior can actually do something serious if he has to. Otherwise just look to Ghandi, not Ueshiba.
The idea that there should be something serious there often leads to people doing aggressive Aikido, or incorporating other arts to try to make it more "street ready", which I agree can be a mistake. I think the internal skills are needed, but that doesn't mean I think it changes the goal or philosophy of Aikido.
It's a fine line to walk, and part of the issue is that Ueshiba *was* a tough guy before he developed Aikido. He basically went around to every master he could find to train with, until he was the toughest man around. Then he started to question what it was all good for. Eventually his powers would fade with age, he would no longer be the baddest around, so what had he gained, what does it all mean? It's something that happens with age, we in the West call it a midlife crisis.
As you get older you tend to look for the deeper meaning and purpose of what you do in life, and he had a revelation on the deep meaning of martial art. So here was a highly skilled, highly capable fighter, turning his mind in the direction of an encompassing spiritual and philosophical purpose for his skills.
Importantly, in his belief system, the Ki skills were actually a manifestation of Ki. The unbendable arm isn't just a mind-intent visualization that encourages proper body usage, it is an example of letting Ki flow. Point being, the only way you could dig him up, magically reanimate his corpse, have him look at what you do and then give your practice the thumbs up is if you 1) are on the same page philosophically as to the purpose of Aikido, 2) have the technical syllabus down, 3) have the Ki skills down (including sensing opponents' intention, not just internal body skill), and 4) believe that the things in (3) are manifestations of the Ki of the universe.
People of different backgrounds and mentalities fall variously into these areas. Let's try looking at a few common types for fun:
The Hippie New Ager Looking-for-the-Nearest-Cult-Leader-to-Follow
- Can be on board with (1) and (4) within minutes of his first lesson, will spend his life on (2) and believe he has (3) without ever really scratching the real surface of (3).
The Clueless Martial Newbie
- Likes the sound of (1), but thinks of (4) as an asian cultural thing. If (4) is taken seriously, will become Hippie New Ager. Will work on (2), probably never hear of (3) in a physically meaningful way, and will hopefully never have to actually use Aikido for real since it probably won't work. If concerns about the latter develop, could seek help from combative arts and become...
The Experienced External Stylist
- Likes the sound of (1) and stories of Ueshiba's prowess, doesn't put much stock in (4), and has a relatively easy time with learning (2). Believes Aikido can work if you're strong, fast, and use techniques from other arts if the Aikido ones don't work, and you back yourself up with MMA and powerlifting. Probably hasn't heard of (3) either, but if he does considers it core training like working on a stability ball.
The Internal Stylist Without a Clue About Internal Skills
- Hasn't been exposed to real internal goods even though he practices what should be an internal style, so usually comes to Aikido as the Hippie New Ager.
- Believes that incessant talk increases (2), and even more talk makes (2) into (3).
The Made Man
- Part of the Aikido mob heirarchy, primarily interested in rank and social advancement and making anyone who undermines his credibility "sleep with the fishes". Does (2) as needed for rank advancement. Is scared by the idea of (3) because it sounds like it might be hard to fake. Sound of kissing noises gives away location of nearest higher-ranking Aikidoka in the heirarchy. Claims to believe (1), and (4) if necessary, but has far less spiritually lofty interests.
Jeckyll and Hyde
- Claims full belief in (1), peace, love, harmony for all - but if you disagree with him or say anything that might be remotely critical of Aikido, would love to rip out your eyeballs in a most un-Aiki way, or at the very least have you banished to the far side of the moon as you are not welcome in the perfect human family that is worldwide Aikido. Depending on rank and affiliation may actually be The Made Man.
And so on.
OK the last few are drifting from my point for amusement's sake, but I am trying to make a serious point about internal skills. In my case, I have an external background, including typical Aikido, and I like (1), remember a decent amount of (2), and am mostly interested in pursuing (3) because I think it's one of the most interesting study areas in martial arts, particularly as you get older. I will probably never be on board with (4), so even if I had (1) (2) and (3) decently covered some day, the Spirit of Ueshiba would probably still wank on me for that reason. Maybe he'd think I have Ki, but from the Dark Side.
Long story short, I don't think many people, especially in the West, will ever really do Ueshiba's Aikido in the full sense that he would completely approve of. So you really have to understand what you care about and are interested in, and pursue those aspects, and maybe not be overly concerned about what you hope he might think about it, or what other people think he might think about it. You mention him enticing people to Aikido with power demonstrations, well, that might be a good reason to be able to show those things to spread the art. In the current show-me MMA environment, what else will sell? The idea that hakamas look cool?
Still I don't think anyone is trying to, or really can, dictate what the "right" path necessarily is. What is a fact though is that meaningful, down-to-earth, practical discussion of (3) is hard to find, because it was never taught openly. I think at least part of the reason for that is (4). To focus Western-style on what actually happens to the body so that you can really learn this stuff seems to deny Ki-as-mystical-energy. You're not supposed to look behind the Great Oz's curtain. Even if that isn't a fair dichotomy to create, I can imagine that if Ueshiba showed you the unbendable arm and talked about you projecting Ki, and you said something like "well gee, isn't it just stronger because I'm not fighting myself with tense biceps?" or some other pedestrian real-world explanation, he'd probably slap you upside the head and throw you out.
He probably just didn't think that way, so seeing completely eye to eye with him from a Western perspective may not be possible in the first place, and all the post-mortem mindreading and channeling from Westerners is meaningless because we can't truly emulate his mindset.
Bottom line, it's hard to find good information on how to actually develop the ki skills, so the fact that it's being talked about and shown openly at all is a good thing, IMO. Some will ignore it, some will pursue it, some will use it for good, and some for evil (see The Made Man
). Doesn't mean anyone has to care, or agree with how some people think it fits into the grand scheme, but there it is.