Notes on the Origin and Meaning of the Ai-Ki-Do Ideograms

Many pages have been written on the meaning of the term “Aikido”, often based on translations from Japanese that do not exactly correspond to the semantic content of the ideograms that compose it. Let’s examine the matter more closely with Bruno Brugnoli, Shodo/Shufa expert


A Brief Note on Writing in Japan

Han writing arrived in Japan in the wake of Buddhism, via Korea. The Japanese had never thought about writing, so when he arrived in Japan around the sixth century he had finished the evolution of his forms for at least three centuries. So when it comes to Japanese soil, writing is an already complete and packaged package to which they cannot add anything.

In fact, even today those who study shodo (in Japanese) 書 道, or shufa (in Chinese) 书法 in Japan, and take the whole academic path to become a calligrapher (from 5th Kyu to 8th Dan) learn and complete exams in kanji, together with classic Chinese models; furthermore, Japanese calligraphy dictionaries with the five forms of writing from the origins to the twentieth century, show only Chinese examples.

As for the history of the adaptation of Han writing to Japanese language, it happened to be difficult and witnessed several attempts, which were unsuccessful because they proposed too complex and uncertain compromises. The solution turned out to be the seventh-century creation of two series of syllabic writings (composed of 48 signs corresponding to the Japanese syllables of the time), derived from kanji, to be placed side by side to the latter to explain the relative relevance in terms of Japanese grammar.

Notes on the origin and meaning of the Ai-Ki-Do ideograms

Ai 合
The Han 汉字 (kanji) character of AI 合 according to the epigraphist historian Zhu Fagpu (1835-1973), analyzing the oldest found character – an engraving on the bronzes of the Shang 商朝 period, Shāngcháo (1675-1046 BC), where the features represent a jar with its cap or a pot with its own lid – means to unite, from which to join, to put together and in all the figurative senses that derive from it: agree, associate, assent.

Subsequently, the AI 合 character continued to change up to the shape currently in use.

Other interpretations of AI 合, developed from the final form of the character, have no basis, even if beautiful and evocative:

  • “A single mouth that speaks among people”.
  • “Around a table under one roof”.

Some translate Ai 合 as love 爱 which has the same phonetics but a different character.

In his final years, playing on the same phonetics of the two characters, O Sensei interpreted Aiki 爱 气, (with the character of Ai as love) as universal love.

Another mistake is to translate AI of AI-kido as harmony, which has its own character and its phonetic (WA 和 in Japanese and He 和 in Chinese).

Ki 氣
Il carattere KI 氣 è un composto fonetico MI-RISO 米 e della sua pronuncia Qi (in cinese) carattere di aria 气qi.

Its first meaning would be “to offer food” or “air, breath, steam”.

The concept of cosmic “vital energy” that governs all the visible that populates the universe, like other Chinese cosmological concepts, was clarified in the period of the fighting realms (480-22 BC).

Its first mention with this meaning is probably found in DAOTEJING, The Book of the Way and of Virtue (350 BC) attributed to Laotzi.

Previously, in Confucius (561-479 BC) it only meant “breath, temperament, disposition of the spirit.

Do-Tao 道

The evolution of this Han 汉字 (kanji) character is very complicated and reveals the complexity of the Chinese language, which is expressed in the written form of the Han characters.

In the West, DO-TAO is translated as “way”, ignoring the semantic richness of the characters, as stated by Nicola Piccioli, a master of calligraphy and sigillography, and a scholar of oriental culture.

Per Confucio (561-479 a.c.) questo carattere esprime un “principio morale” all’interno di una dottrina in un dato contesto sociale.

After Confucius, classical Chinese cosmology developed, Yin and Yang appeared and the character began to indicate the “cosmic principle”.

The character was never discovered on the finds of the Shang dynasty 商朝 (1675-1046 BC) and appeared later in the Zhou era 周朝 (1045-256 BC). Over the years it experienced several changes following its simplification.

Originally the character is formed by the character for “dress” yi 衣, with inside “head” tou 頭, under which appears “hand” shou 手.

Later the character “dress” is replaced by the character “street” (called in modern Chinese dao lu 道路). The reason for this is not known, but a transcription error can be assumed, given the similarity between the two characters.

During the period of the Fighting Kingdoms (475-221 BC) the character is simplified, the right part of “street” disappears and the left part becomes “step”, consisting of “walking and foot” and the hand disappears.

With the calligraphy reform wanted by SHI HUANG DI 秦始皇 帝 (247-221 BC), the first emperor, the character stabilizes in the form composed of “step” and “head”.

Subsequently, the strokes are simplified, also to make writing easier and faster, up to the current form.

Viste le premesse è molto difficile fare una corretta etimologia. Le interpretazioni note, sono costruite dalla forma ultima che il carattere ha assunto, vedi “il piede del maestro che traccia una via e l’allievo che lo segue”.

Bruno Brugnoli has been studying Chinese and Japanese calligraphy for many years, as well as being an Aikido teacher and a Zen monk. Here is the link to the ShobuAiki website, the Milanese association founded and directed by Bruno Brugnoli:

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