TAE Journal, Edition 8, Birth of Iwama Weapons System. By Adrian Punt and Michael Ormerod
FROM EDITION 8 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – SUMMER 2022
The origins and inspiration of the Founders' weapons practice is widely debated and most likely draws upon a wide range of influences. Detailed discussion on this is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is hard to discuss weapons forms in Aikido without some reflection on underlying influences. Here we mainly focus on the weapons system that O-Sensei taught, and how others further developed this. How did the weapons practice of solo bokken and jo practice (suburi and for the jo, kata); the partnered blending exercises (awase); the kumi-tachi and subsequently the kumi-jo; and, the ken-tai-jo etc aspects of the Iwama weapons system of the ’aiki-ken’ and ‘aiki-jo’, come to be? Through review of a number of literature sources we try to answer this question.
Prior to WWII, O-Sensei practised alone with weapons. Kisshomaru Ueshiba recalls his father practicing with a bokken, a long spear, a ‘yari’ (which was later cut in half – and half of which may have ended up in Iwama) and a bo (~180 cm) staff in the garden of their family home in Ayabe (potentially late 1920s to sometime in the 1930s) . Interestingly, he notes that the Founder preferred longer weapons and although he was trained in the use of the jo (shorter ~120 cm staff), he only really adopted practice with it in his later-life. In the pre-war years, O-Sensei included partnered (and presumably solo) bokken work in demonstrations, often assisted by his son . Gozo Shioda notes that the early ken work of the Founder was often criticised as it was different to regular kendo and also lacked the kata training forms found in traditional ken-jutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) schools, i.e., it was a type of free-form or creative movement style .
Aside from solo practice and demonstrations (and providing formal training in bayonet-fighting in the military ), the Founder does not seem to have included weapons practices in his Aikido teaching prior to the war and his subsequent move to Iwama .
It was during WWII, in 1942, that O-Sensei, aged 59, retired from public life in Tokyo and moved to Iwama. He spent most of the next twelve or so years there, only resuming travelling from Iwama and teaching in Tokyo from around 1955 . Nonetheless, Iwama remained his home up until around 1968, about a year before he died. It is in Iwama where the aiki-ken and aiki-jo practices he taught subsequently became systemised into what is variously now known as the weapons system (buki waza) of ‘Takemusu Aikido’, ‘Iwama Ryu’ or the ‘Saito Method’.
The first practitioners in the Ibaraki Dojo in Iwama, in the early 1940s, included Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Tadashi Abe and Koichi Tohei, and for a short time, Gozo Shioda . These individuals were most likely exposed to some of the Founders’ earliest explorations into weapons teaching (and probably O-Sensei’s personal exploration and development activities).
Morihiro Saito started training in Iwama in the summer of 1946, about a year after WWII ended. He continued training there in Iwama, with the Founder, for over two decades. In the early post-war years, he became the only student left with O-Sensei and had, without a doubt, the most exposure to the development of the aiki-weapons systems of the Founder (i.e., during the mid-1940s to mid-1950s).
From the mid-1950s onwards, when the Founder started again to visit Tokyo, he demonstrated bokken and jo work, but there is little to suggest that he taught his buki waza system – at least in the same way he was exploring it in Iwama.
Morihiro Saito became an Aikikai Shihan in January 1959 and through the 1960s taught weekly at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. This included weapons training, albeit limited to the last 15 minutes of a Sunday class . As he was the only Aikikai Shihan approved by O-Sensei to teach weapons, many in Tokyo would have had only limited exposure to the aiki-ken and aiki-jo of the Founder. This probably explains why a number of uchi deshi in Tokyo took up the study of ken-jutsu, iaido (the art of quickly drawing a blade and responding to a sudden attack) and jodo (the art of the jo) and subsequently incorporated these other weapons systems into their Aikido teaching. Shoji Nishio Sensei, in a 1984 article in Aiki News , notes that in terms of ken work, the form practised by some at the Hombu Dojo was almost the opposite of that developed in Iwama and states that “Saito Sensei is the only person who can hand down O-Sensei’s Aikido exactly as it was”.
Here we focus on the aiki-ken and aiki-jo systems that have developed from O-Sensei’s teachings in Iwama. In the early 1970s (and following the Founders’ death in 1969), Morihiro Saito, from here referred to as Saito Sensei, wrote a series of five technical manuals exploring multiple aspects of Aikido, a series called ‘Traditional Aikido’. Volume 1 (1973)  shows the 7 bokken suburi, alongside 7 partnered awase exercises and the 20 jo suburi, the relationship of these to the 31-jo kata, along with 8 partnered exercises. Volume 2 (also 1973)  describes the 5 kumi-tachi and the ki-musubi-no-tachi exercise for the ken, along with variations to the 5 kumi-tachi and also 7 kumi-jo and 10 ken and jo blending exercises. The 13-jo kata is not mentioned in either of these books. However, it is included in the supporting ‘On the Move’ 8 mm film footage from 1975 or 1976. The partnered forms of the 13 and 31 jo katas are absent from the books and film footage, but are clearly shown in the Aikido Journal footage of ‘Aiki-ken – Aiki-jo Demonstrations Iwama Shrine 1979’ and hence, as discussed below, are almost certainly later developments.
So how did the current Iwama buki waza curriculum develop? We explore this below, first considering aiki-ken, then aiki-jo, then the concept of riai, i.e., that the movements of the aiki-ken, aiki-jo and tai-jutsu represent a single integrated system, where the underlying biomechanical principles of movement are the same between all three.
Saito Sensei notes that when he started in Iwama in 1946, the only ken practice at the time involved striking at O-Sensei. There were no thrusts (tsuki) practised in the sword work or any particular partnered forms .
Upon request of the Founder, Saito Sensei developed a stand for bokken strike training (initially bundles of thin tree branches bound together, which quickly failed, then thicker pieces of wood nailed together, that again, after repeated hard striking failed, and then ultimately motorcycle tyres). He notes that this was training for the hips and arms and grip and also for uchi-komi (power striking). He named this type of striking practice “tanren-uchi”. Tanren-uchi, accompanied by a loud kiai with each strike, became normal morning practice in Iwama, strike after strike until people were exhausted .
The morning Iwama tanren-uchi practice of O-Sensei and others was clearly very different to ‘tame-shi-giri’ practice, the Japanese art of target test-cutting with a sharp blade. These were hard, downward, percussive strikes repeated over and over, where Saito Sensei notes that the Founder preferred a thick and heavy bokken . As Saito Sensei  notes:
“If we use the thin jo or bokken you find in shops in Tokyo, they all break since we strike hard. Therefore, I order a special size. O-Sensei’s bokken was thick. Everybody imitated him and ordered thick ones. He had a professional make his.”
This style of striking practice was similar to that undertaken in Jigen Ryu, a traditional Japanese sword school focused on delivering a single devastating blow. Was the tanren-uchi practice of O-Sensei copied, or in some way influenced, by Jigen Ryu? We don’t know, but the concept of a single ‘devastating blow’, of dominating an encounter, ‘fits’ with what we know of O-Sensei’s teachings.
Saito Sensei then notes that as training advanced, they were taught what we now call “Ichi no Tachi” (first paired sword practice of the kumi-tachi). Where O-Sensei taught them only this for three or four years and nothing else . With time, post-war training In Iwama progressed to include all of the five kumi-tachi (and the form of ki-musubi-no-tachi) where O-sensei adopted and modified the old sword school (e.g., Katori Shinto Ryu) forms to include the body movements according to the principles of aiki and to allow at any point in the kumi-tachi to change to tai-jutsu applications of buki dori (weapons taking) . Saito Sensei also notes that the way the Founder was using ki and turning his hips were completely different to that of the ken-jutsu original . That is, the Founder retained the broad form, but fundamentally changed the approach and concept behind how and what the forms aimed to demonstrate.
Beyond the kumi-tachi and ki-musubi-no-tachi, the Founder does not seem to have been interested in other partnered ken forms. Is it possible that his aiki-versions of these exercises, once complete, encompassed all key aspects (in terms of sword work) that he needed? Irrespective of this, it would seem that some (but not all) of the basic movements found within the kumi-tachi - specifically the ‘aiki-versions’ of the Founder – were codified by Saito Sensei into the 7 bokken suburi. Saito Sensei’s suburi are not, from what can be seen, ken-jutsu applications. They are not about cut / slice, guard, counter strike etc, but about learning to move from the centre and development of whole-body power. It is also important to note that there were changes in how Saito Sensei applied the forms. For instance, Ethan Weisgard, in his Bukiwaza book on aiki-ken  notes that in the 1970s, Saito Sensei taught basic hanmi with the characteristic out-turned angle of the front foot, but that this had become straight in the 1980s.
Is it possible that for O-Sensei, the bokken was not a simulacrum for a katana? Is it possible that it was not considered a cutting, slicing, piercing blade, i.e., it was not a shinken, a ‘real sword’? Is it possible that for O-Sensei, the bokken was predominantly a blunt instrument used for practising body movement, posture and extension, or as a weapon in its own right, rather than an instrument for beheading, disembowelling, or otherwise crippling or killing an opponent? For us, the answer is yes.
Saito Sensei notes that when he started in Iwama (1946), that what we now know as the ‘31-jo kata’ was, as a form, complete and being practised – albeit without any specific count . He suggests that the 22-jo kata as taught by Koichi Tohei may represent an earlier version ; in essence a development stage that may have been practised in Iwama shortly after O-Sensei retired there.
Yasuo Kobayashi notes , about training in Iwama in the late 1950s with O-Sensei, that:
“O-Sensei would teach ken and jo however he felt inclined, and then the next day would do something completely different”.
Clearly O-Sensei explored and experimented with different things and it seems quite reasonable to assume that his approach to weapons training evolved with time. Kobayashi also notes :
“It was owing to the genius of Saito Sensei, that an easy-to-understand system of teaching jo and ken was established.”
Saito Sensei notes the Founder did not use a count, but that he (Saito) initially taught the movements of the kata as a 24-count kata then later as a 31-count. These counts were however only a teaching aid and he was very specific that the form remained the same as that of the Founder, albeit the name, san-ju-ichi (31) came from him.
Saito Sensei also notes that the 31-jo kata was to teach the movements of the jo . However, the jo movements explored in the kata are relatively simple thrusts and strikes and do not encompass the wider range of movements subsequently codified into the 20 jo suburi. Saito Sensei talks about the Founder demonstrating attack and defence applications with the jo .
“He [O-Sensei] wielded the jo in various ways while showing us movements. He offered us an explanation of how a technique was used depending on the type of attack. This was different from the awase or partner practices. He did it without a partner. He just imagined that he had an enemy in front of him and quickly showed techniques for various situations such as when you are attacked in a given manner, whether by a thrust or a strike.”
Perhaps at the time the 31-jo kata was being developed in Iwama (early to mid-1940s), the forms later included within the suburi of one-handed katate series, the hasso series and the nagare pair were not yet being practised (at least routinely). Is it possible that the movements of the aiki-jo represent an extended period of development and the variety of movements we now associate with the aiki-jo may have taken a number of years to develop? O-Sensei did not name or number these jo exercises. Saito Sensei is clear that he arranged, numbered and named them into 20 basic movements, the suburi, which included tsuki (thrusting), uchi-komi (striking), hasso-gaeshi (figure-eight movements) and so on, so it would be easier for students to practise them .
Building on practice with the Founder, Saito Sensei also developed (initially) 7 kumi-jo exercises (later expanded to 10) and 7 ken and jo exercises (later known as the ken-tai-jo exercises).
As noted earlier, the 1970s Traditional Aikido book publications did not mention the 13-jo kata, nor the partnered versions of the 13- or 31-jo katas. In terms of the 13-jo kata, Saito Sensei states :
“O-Sensei also showed me different kata. However, I only remember half of them. The ‘13-movement jo kata’ is one I created by imitating these kata I remembered.”
The conclusion here is that the 13-jo kata was compiled by Saito Sensei (after O-Sensei died), most likely based on component forms drawn from different movements and sequences O-Sensei did. Where did O-Sensei’s inspiration for the original movements that Saito Sensei formulated into the 13-jo kata come from? We don’t know. Did Saito Sensei have a particular concept in mind when he formulated the 13-jo kata? Again, we don’t know. It is sometimes said that the 13-jo kata is a spear kata and one dealing with attacks from multiple directions. This is certainly how the awase (partnered form) is (or can be) practised. However, the awase form, as discussed below, along with the 31-jo awase, are later developments – they are interpretations and adaptations and do not necessarily represent the original intent (or purpose) of the kata form.
Saito Sensei notes that he created the 31-jo awase, the partnered 31-jo kata , and that this along with the 13-jo awase were in existence by the early 1980s. These are clearly later developments in the Iwama weapons system.
O-Sensei frequently demonstrated solo forms with the jo – often with long and complex sequences of movements, an approach that he does not seem to have applied to working with the bokken. As noted earlier , Kisshomaru Ueshiba suggests that O-Sensei “preferred longer weapons”. Is it perhaps that a spear, and particularly a staff (i.e., the bo and even more so the jo) were more multifunctional? Were they better tools through which O-Sensei could explore different body movements? It is possible…
The core concept of the ‘Iwama’ system is that body movements of the aiki-ken, aiki-jo and tai-jutsu are the same. Saito Sensei notes that O-Sensei (at least in his later years) showed no preference between bokken and jo. Saito Sensei notes :
“To understand the combined Aikido system is to realise that one is not dependent upon a ken, jo, or other weapon. Development of mind, body, and technique does not rely upon an armoury, but on independence of action. If a sword is used, do not realise it as a sword. If using a jo, do not depend on it, but feel the common harmony in movement.”
For us the key words here are “…feel the common harmony in movement”.
Saito Sensei also notes  that:
“He (O-Sensei) said Aikido was tai-jutsu that incorporated sword principles.”
But also :
“When O-Sensei explained Aikido, he always said that tai-jutsu (body techniques) and ken and jo techniques were all the same.”
As Saito Sensei notes , O-Sensei clearly said that Aikido tai-jutsu techniques were modified from the ken. Saito Sensei notes that, when practising tai-jutsu, if you don’t move as if dealing with a sword you won’t be able to handle a sword attack. However, O-Sensei (at least in post-war years in Iwama) showed no preference between practice with the bokken or jo. Saito Sensei also notes that tai-jutsu forms such as ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, and yonkyo are not directly related to techniques of the sword, and suggests that the ‘sword principles’ that O-Sensei discussed were more about the concept of awase or blending – rather than technical evolution of a ‘cutting technique’ to a ‘tai-jutsu technique’.
The mantra amongst many Aikidoka is that ‘Aikido is sword-work and sword-work is Aikido’. As such, many practitioners practise and incorporate into their Aikido aspects of iaido and ken-jutsu. Others have studied jodo and done the same. Is it possible, for O-Sensei, that the body work of ken and jo practice just represents different aspects of the tai-jutsu? Ultimately, whether bokken, jo or tai-jutsu, the objectives of practice are the same. That is to be able to move and apply body mass in a coordinated way and to ‘feel the common harmony in movement’.
Ultimately is it that the forms of the ken, jo and tai-justu practice are simply different applications of the same thing, they are the ‘external’ forms through which we learn aiki? For us the answer is yes.
 Aikido Pioneers Prewar Era
 Interview with Morihiro Saito (1991) Aiki News #88
 Interview with Morihiro Saito Part 2 (1987)
 Traditional Aikido. Volume 1 (1973)
 Traditional Aikido. Volume 2 (1973)
 Interview with Morihiro Saito Part 1 (1987)
 Interview with Saito 1975 – Aikido Journal
 Ethan Weisgard (2020), Bukiwaza Basic and Advanced Aiki-Ken
 Yasuo Kobayashi talking about Morihiro Saito in “Aikido, My Way”