A closer look at the three kanji in “Aikido”

posted in: Aiki, Kanji | 2

aikido-rainbowThe word Aikido 合気道 is pretty much impossible to translate into English precisely. We tend to say things like:

  • The Way of Universal Harmony
  • The Way of unifying (with) life energy
  • The Way of harmonious spirit.

In trying to understand this complex word, it may help to know a little more about the three kanji that make it up.

Here’s what the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji Dictionary (written for little Japanese kids – and a delight to use!) has to say about them . . .





Copied from p219 of the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji Dictionary, 5th edition.

The dictionary explains that the character ai 合 brings together a hole, and a lid which fits it. It therefore shows a meaning of something fitting perfectly, like covering the hole with this lid. 

The meanings of 合 include:

1. To match or join together as one. To come together.

2. The same. To be consistent. To fulfil.

The Iaido Journal gives a more complex and esoteric explanation, although it doesn’t give clear sources for all of the claims it makes:

合, the “ai”, originally, is the gathering of 气 (気,き, ki, qi, chi). 亼, the triangle arrow-like upper part, signifies the going in a direction. It will also signify intentionality analogically this time. The 口 at the bottom of 合 is a hole. For a human being, it usually means the mouth or the nostrils where breath happens and 気 flows through. To put together, 合 is the 気 going out from oneself and gathering at somewhere outside […] 合 then can be said to be the inner process and practice for both shi and samurai.

Further, as Warner and Draeger have mentioned, 合 signifies the capability of one person to adapt quickly to “any and all circumstances that occur in life” (96). Fundamentally, it is the capability of consciousness to transcend to a being/thing-that is the capability of 気 to gather at that being. Hence, it is a responsive attitude that requires one’s flexibility (Warner and Draeger, 96). At this juncture, it can be said such flexibility is one of things that the Iaido practitioner trains himself for.

– Source: What does Iaido mean literally? by Kefu Zhu





Copied from p609 of the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji Dictionary, 5th edition.

The older form of this kanji was 氣.

This original version combined a radical 气 meaning steam or breath (see image) and the kanji for rice 米. Putting these together represented the vapour that rises from rice when you cook it; and this had connotations of life-giving or vital energy, with rice being such an important staple food.

This old kanji is the one that O Sensei used in his own calligraphy (see image at the end of this article). The modern version is simplified: 気.

The meanings of 気 include:

1. Air; atmosphere
2. Gas
3. Breath
4. Nature; the natural world
5. Spirit; mind; heart
6. Nature; disposition
7. Motivation; intention
8. Mood; feelings
9. Ambience; atmosphere; mood



Copied from p943 of the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji DIctionary, 5th edition

The kanji (or michi) has two parts.

shinnyō is a radical meaning: road; walk; to advance

首 shu means neck – it’s also pronounced kubi, as in kubishime: neck choke. It can sometimes mean head. As you can see from the image, the kanji is a little picture of a head with rampant hair growing on it:

Putting shu and shinnyō together to form 道 gives a sense of continuing on however far the journey is.

My friend Keiko says:

There are several stories regarding what 道 meant in China.

One of the stories is: thousands of years ago roads weren’t safe and people were afraid of walking on roads. When there was a fight, a winner cut off a head of an enemy and put the heads on the road as charms against demons and the other enemies. That is why 首 was used as a part of 道. 漢字の意味は、怖いものがありますね。[This kanji has a scary meaning doesn’t it!]

The blogger Juju Kurihaga has a fairly similar, equally gruesome explanation:

I always wondered why the way is related to 首 (neck). Now I know… Are you ready?

This Kanji was created from the form of a hand holding a head (separated from the body of course…).

Ancient time, people used a head to purify the bad spirits who bring disasters and curses on the wasteland where there were no roads.

The meanings of michi (dō) include:
1. Road
2. Morals; path of righteousness / duty; correct path
3. The way of doing a traditional performing art / accomplishment such as as sadō (tea ceremony) or judō.

Using the literal word for Road or Way in a metaphorical sense to denote a moral or spiritual path is something we also do in English.


Calligraphy of "Aikido" by O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Calligraphy of “Aikido” by O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Source: Wikimedia Commons

合気道 aikido

Even with all this detail on the kanji, we will never get a definitive translation into English of this complex word. O Sensei himself explained it in mystical, perhaps even impenetrable terms:

Aikido is the study of the spirit. Aikido is the subtle breath linking the spiritual and material, the A [alpha] and UN [omega] of existence. Aikido is additionally the sacred manifestation of the functioning of the universe; it is the supreme law that reveals the active principles underlying the nature of things, and the manner in which the world operates.

These are cryptic words, which I don’t much understand myself. In any case, Aikido in this sense is not something that can be understood through words; its deep meaning ultimately needs to be learned through the body.

However, we say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and to quote Hiraga’s classic essay on the topic, all kanji are icons, and many of them represent rich, evocative metaphors:

Every Kanji tells a different story or scenario, which must be discovered imaginatively by the pictographic cues, inferences and background knowledge at the time of the blend […] Kanji offer endless creativity and imagination in visual and verbal arts, particularly in calligraphy and poetry

– Masako J Hiraga. (2006). “Kanji: The Visual Metaphor.” Style, Vol. 40 (1-2), pp. 133-147 – this quote is from Page 139.

The brain actually processes kanji in a different way to phonetic scripts, as it sees them as pictures, not abstract symbols. And interpreting them can be a subtle art. Wikipedia says:

Care must be taken about the absolute meanings of words when discussing concepts derived from other cultures and expressed in different languages. This is particularly true when the words we use today have been derived from symbols, in this case Chinese and Japanese kanji, which represent ideas rather than literal translations of the components […]

The use of the term would be passed on orally, as such teachings were often a closely guarded secret. In some schools, concepts like aiki are described in logical, tangible, terms based on physics, while in other definitions of aiki tend to be vague and open-ended, or more concerned with spiritual aspects. The use of the term aiki can often be ambiguous.

In any case, I see studying kanji as a great way to train one’s brain, supplement our physical training, and explore evocative little windows into other ways of thinking – and hope you’ve enjoyed this brief taster of what such study might feel like . . .

Related posts:

The meaning of the kanji for Rei (etiquette)

Keiko, renshu, shuren, tanren, kufu, and shugyo – Six Japanese words for training – and their kanji


2 Responses

Leave a Reply