George S. Ledyard
I think these discussions always get problematical because, as O-Sensei was frequently quoted as saying, "no one is doing my Aikido." Notice he didn't say, "No one is doing my Aikido any more" or "No one after 1942 is doing my Aikido."
For the Founder, there simply was no distinction between the various elements of his practice. Meaning his waza, his spiritual beliefs, his misogi training, even his farming, was all Aikido. The thirties deshi, especially his nephew Inoue sensei, were technically the closest in terms of waza but other than Inoue. none of them seemed the least interested in his spiritual practices, at least the ones who are famous because they started their own styles (Shioda, Tomiki, Mochizuki). Shirata Sensei was the only one of the thirties deshi of any great repute who stayed with the Aikikai.
I have mentioned before a conversation I had with Saotome Sensei and Stan Pranin about which of O-Sensei's students tried hardest to understand Aikido the way the Founder understood it. The answer was Hikitsuchi, Abe, and Sunadomari. Notice that none of these are early thirties deshi.
It is clear that the early thirties deshi did Daito Ryu. As has been discussed at length elsewhere, they did various forms of "internal power" development exercises that largely seemed to drop out of Aikido after the war. But I think it would be a huge mistake to say that their Aikido was any closer to O-Sensei's Aikido than the post war folks. From the standpoint of the Founder, I think their Aikido was just as out of balance as much of what came later.
In addition to the three teachers I mentioned who pursued their Aikido as a balanced technical / spiritual practice, there were many students of the Founder who incorporated aspects of his practice into their own. Some studied kototama, some tried to get outside martial arts experience (as the Founder had), some, like my own teacher, Saotome Sensei, tried very hard to understand what the Founder was talking about when he taught as obscure as it was, and then translate it into ideas that would be meaningful to modern Japanese, and later American practitioners.
When you hear that O-Sensei yelled at people for not doping technique "right" are we talking about particular stylistic details not being correct? Or are we talking about the difference between what works and what doesn't? My take on O-Sensei was that as he developed his Aikido, he progressively became less and less concerned with exactly how one did a given technique and more and more with whether it embodied the proper principles.
I have direct experience of this myself with my own teacher. While students focus on how they think Sensei did such and such a sword form on his video, my experience is that he cares not one whit that my form is a bit different than his. As long as it embodies the principles he was striving to teach via the form, he isn't that concerned with the actual form itself, in fact he often has trouble remembering the exact forms, even though he made them up.
It was the students of the Founder who were so concerned with form, and naturally so. They had to distill the massive amount of teaching they received from the Founder into something they could digest themselves and then in turn, pass on to another generation of students. I see no evidence that O-Sensei was the least interested in "form" as he developed his art. Saito Sensei was really the last deshi to get a lot of detailed technical training because it was with Saito that O-Sensei worked out what would become the foundations of post war Aikido.
Whether you go back to the thirties or read the accounts of the post war deshi, it is clear that what O-Sensei thought was important about Aikido was its balance between the spiritual and the technical. When he taught, he talked about spiritual principles and then demonstrated how those principles were embodied in technique. That's just a fact. It is also a fact that the majority of his students simply couldn't go there with him.
I think it has always been the case the Aikido was about finding your own Aikido. O-Sensei presented his ideas about what that might be but never developed any systematic method for passing it on. I still believe that, in the end, the one student whose Aikido was probably the closest to that of the Founder, both technically and philosophically was Inoue Sensei, who had very little following in Japan and almost none overseas.
To the extent that one seeks "O-Sensei's Aikido" it is rather like the research required to reconstruct the original texts of Buddhism. The original texts in Sanskrit are lost, destroyed by the Islamic invaders of Northern India. To get an idea of what was in the originals, one has to look at the Pali, the Chinese and the Tibetan texts and compare them. Anything that appears in all three versions is assumed to have been in the original.
So we can look at various teachers from different time periods and derive pieces of the Founder's Aikido. But no one, whether it's pre-war or post-war, was either technically or spiritually doing exactly what the Founder had done. That's a fact. We can get over it and move on with our Aikido or we can keep trying to set up our own "Jurassic Park" of Aikido using various strands of Aikido DNA left behind in other practitioners.
It's not O-Sensei's Aikido that we are striving for. It's our own Aikido that perhaps O-Sensei might have recognized and hopefully, approved of. No one duplicated his Aikido when he was alive and they could train with him on a daily level. There is zero chance we can duplicate it for ourselves. But I do think he had an intention about what the art should be as a transformative practice. I do think that he expected that what one could express from a spiritual point of view one should be able to express on the mat technically. Aikido is fundamentally a marriage of the material and the spiritual. It is meant to be an art which unifies these two realms. If it is not, then we can with certainty say it isn't O-Sensei's Aikido. If this isn't something we are at least striving for, I don't think it's Aikido.
The folks who simply say they aren't interested in the spiritual side of the art, that the Founder isn't really relevant to their practice are not doing Aikido, in my opinion. The focus on mere effectiveness, the obsession with application and the almost complete lack of any thoughtfulness regarding the art simply isn't Aikido. Most of the time it's just bad jujutsu.
In contrast, the wonderful sentiments expressed by many people about peace, harmony, personal transformation etc. coupled with a sort of "it's all ok" sentiment regarding technique is equally missing the point. Beautiful ideas with absolutely no understanding of how those ideas are grounded in the physical realm of reality, with no ability to really connect the spiritual with ones waza in a way that actually is real is not Aikido either.
It is the great tragedy of Aikido that there are so few people who seem to be able to bring these elements together. All concepts in Aikido are grounded in waza. As you start to really get a handle on "aiki", you can see exactly how the Founder developed his ideas about how waza and the spiritual come together. It is then that one can start taking ideas from the spiritual realm and allowing them to inform our waza. This process is Aikido, as far as I can see.