Aikido is often described as the quintessential self-defense martial art, because it focuses entirely upon reacting to attacks. It is completely non-aggressive both in form and philosophy, and, as such, competition is non-existent. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder, believed that “testing, competing with, and criticizing others weaken and defeat you,” because ranking others in relation to yourself creates maliciousness. The founder considered training in Aikido to be training in the “Art of Peace,” and said that it “is the principle of nonresistance. Because it is nonresistant, it is victorious from the beginning. The Art of Peace is invincible because it contends with nothing.”

The literal translation of the name Aikido is “the way of harmonious spirit,” and it’s essential aim in a martial context is to redirect the energy of one’s attacker to unbalance and throw or pin them without injury to either person. This is accomplished by focusing on one’s breath and the natural connection with the attacker, rather than trying to overpower them with force. It focuses not only on the development of the body, but also the mind and spirit, and thus urges its practitioners to apply this philosophy of harmonizing in their everyday lives. To extend love and compassion to all things, even and especially to those that would do you harm, and thereby bring about balance, is the mindset of Aikido. Osensei, or “great teacher,” as the founder is known, said that “the Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. There is evil and disorder in the world because people have forgotten that all things emanate from one source. Return to that source and leave behind all self-centered thoughts, petty desires, and anger. Those who are possessed by nothing possess everything.”

Aikido’s origins lie in a style of martial arts known as Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the “Great Eastern Style.” This school stretches as far back as the mid 9th century AD, and was the secret art of the Minamoto family. Some regard their discovery of the technique of aiki (roughly translated as “harmonious connection with spiritual energy”) as the reason why the Minamoto family rose to such power and prominence. It was only within the last 100 years or so, under the leadership of Sokaku Takeda and his son Tokimune, that this school opened up to outsiders and spread throughout the world.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, was born in 1883 and studied various forms of martial arts at the behest of his father because he was weak and something of a bookworm. He felt no inspiration from them, however, until encountering Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu at the age of 30. He trained under Tokimune Takeda and eventually became an instructor in this style. Over the years, as Ueshiba became more and more spiritual, he slowly changed the curriculum of his school to minimize hard strikes and emphasize blending techniques which use the momentum and energy of an attacker to subdue them.

Ueshiba regards the true beginning of Aikido as following a spiritual awakening he had in 1925 after disarming a wooden sword from a naval officer unarmed and without harming the officer. He said of this experience that he realized that “true Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.” To emphasize this, Ueshiba would sometimes use different kanji to write the name Aikido in a way that translated to “the loving, joyous way.” His philosophy emphasized studying the natural world around us in order to flow in tune with the universe and its movements. He would say “Do not overlook the truth that is right before you. Everything—even mountains, rivers, plants, and trees—should be your teacher.”

The Aikikai Foundation, which began in 1940 by Osensei, is represented globally through the International Aikido Federation, and run to this day by the Ueshiba family. Osensei’s son Kisshomaru succeeded his father following his death in 1969, and Kisshomaru was in turn succeeded in 1999 by his son Moriteru, who is the current Doshu (Master of the Way). He teaches at the Aikikai headquarters dojo, established in 1931, in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan, where training and classes are held every day.

Works cited and further reading:

Wikipedia Articles:
Aikikai main page:
A pretty good FAQ for Aikido, including histories:

The quotes from Osensei can be found in a book called “The Art of Peace” from Shambala Publications