This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Katherine Derbyshire © 2016, all rights reserved.
There aren't very many left.
Morihei Ueshiba died in 1969. In the 47 years since, the number of people with direct experience of his technique has gradually, inexorably, declined. (If you haven't yet seen one of those people in person, don't put it off any longer.)
For better or worse, the future of aikido belongs to the second and third generations: those who studied with O Sensei's direct students, and their students in turn.
The good news is that aikido is in no danger of extinction. With thousands of students worldwide, there is no chance — as there might be with some of Japan's classical arts — that a single tragedy will wipe out the art. The bad news is that the many subgroups of aikido disagree about just about everything, from the core curriculum to the philosophical underpinnings of the art.
Some see this diversity as a tragedy. O Sensei's legacy is being diluted! Critical teachings are being lost!
But could this loss have been avoided? And how are we, the second and third generation students, to proceed?
I see the diversity of aikido practice as an inevitable consequence of its popularity. After 1955, when André Nocquet
(later the official representative of Aikikai Hombu in France) became O Sensei's first foreign-born uchi deshi; after 1961, when the first dojo outside Japan
opened in Hawaii; aikido became an art for the world. It was inevitable that each culture and subculture would re-interpret and re-imagine aikido through the filter of the local environment. From Koichi Tohei's teaching methods to Steven Seagal's action sequences, the fragmentation of aikido has been going on for nearly 50 years. The passage of time will only exacerbate the situation.
And yet. The pieces can return to the center. O Sensei left videos and lectures and pages and pages of written notes. His direct students, living into the age of YouTube and Instagram, leave even more material for future generations of students. We are not koryu students, poring over ancient scrolls, trying to recover what is lost by piecing together hints from related styles. The core of aikido is known, and knowable.
Which is generally where the arguments begin, with each group loudly proclaiming its own interpretation of that core. But really, does it matter? I mean, yes, I have chosen to follow particular teachers, and generally prefer their approach. But other groups focused on other aspects of O Sensei's legacy do me a valuable service: they ensure that material I find less important will be preserved, so that it will be there when I — or my future students — go looking for it.
Even with video and lectures and hands-on instruction, transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next is never perfect. Imperfect teachers may fail to share everything they know in a way that their students can use. Imperfect students may be inattentive at just the wrong moment. The classical arts have always expected each generation to rediscover what has been lost.
Such innovation depends on access to information and therefore on open communications between groups. Some aspects of aikido are also found in other arts. Some aspects are unique, but may be seen differently by various groups. Teachers who refuse to look outside their own traditions or allow their students to do so may defend their positions in the short term, but in the longer term they undermine both themselves and the art as a whole.
As Saotome Shihan said in a recent seminar, "if the teacher doesn't grow, the students can't grow." O Sensei's legacy is knowable, but we won't find it unless we are willing to look.
"The Mirror" is written by a roster of women who describe themselves as a disparate bunch of scientists, healers, artists, teachers, and, yes, writers. Over ten years into this collaboration we find we are a bunch of middle-aged yudansha from various parts of the world and styles of aikido. What we share is a lively curiosity about and love for both life and budo, and an inveterate tendency to write about our explorations.