“The Improbable Launch of My Career as an Aikido Historian,” by Stanley Pranin
“A Long Journey Begins with the First Step…”
The veterans among visitors to our websites will know something about the history of Aikido Journal, and its predecessor, Aiki News. Here and there I have described our beginnings, but let me flesh out the story a bit more for you now.
The trigger for the research that began this long journey took place during the 1968-69 academic year at the University of California at Berkeley. I was a graduate student at that time and assisted Dr. Robert Frager of the Psychology Department with the instruction of the school’s aikido club. Dr. Frager who had spent several years in Japan had among his papers photocopies of newspaper clippings of a serialized biography of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. 17 articles of this series were published by a sports newspaper in Tokyo, although I didn’t know this at the time.
Bob Frager showed me the photocopies and I asked to get a set for myself to use to practice Japanese-English translation. Earlier, Bob had some of the articles translated by a Japanese student, but the translated texts contained many errors because of the translator’s lack of familiarity with aikido and the founder’s life. For example, the name “Tohei” was romanized as “Fujihira,” and “Omoto” became “Daihon.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to do anything right away because of my study load. But I made a promise to myself to one day complete the work. In fact, I would have to wait some three years for the opportunity to find a Japanese native speaker to assist me.
In the meantime in the summer of 1969, I was able to make my first trip to Japan where I spent 10 weeks practicing aikido at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. I did a lot of training with some of the most famous names of the day studying with teachers like Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi, Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, and a few others.
I had great hopes of being able to conduct research on aikido history while I was there, but got almost no cooperation from the Japanese side. I did have one success of great importance on the research side. I had Bob Frager’s articles on O-Sensei with me in Tokyo, and one day sat down to take a good look at them. I knew I had only some of the articles, but did not know how many there were in the series, or when or where they were published. Let me tell you how I solved this problem.
I reasoned that the best place to start to look for the newspaper would be the National Diet Library, which is the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress. One of the articles had a portion of the masthead of the newspaper which had half of the kanji “higashi” or “tou” visible. Since Morihei was in Tokyo at the time and the Hombu Dojo was also located there, I guessed that the newspaper had “Tokyo” as part of its title. I discussed what I was looking for with a librarian and was directed to the periodicals room where most of the newspapers of any note from all over the country were housed. I was shown a list of the available periodicals and looked for those that had “Tokyo” in the title. Since this happened 43 years ago, I don’t exactly remember the sequence of events, but there weren’t so many periodicals that matched the criteria, so I thought I had a chance to find what I was looking for.
I sat down with a stack of each newspaper that had “Tokyo” in its title, and began scanning the pages looking for something with a similar layout and font. I think I spent an hour or so before I happened across something that looked very close to my articles. The title of the newspaper was the “Tokyo Times.” Very excited, I started quickly leafing through the pages, and lo and behold, I found a photo of O-Sensei embedded in an article of the series I was looking for! Needless to say, I was elated. I found there were a total of 17 articles altogether, and I pulled out my little Minolta half-frame camera which squeezed two 16mm images in a single 35mm frame, and started snapping away. I felt like James Bond with a spy camera bending over the articles and pressing the shutter which produced a sublimely cool click! I photographed all 17 articles, and was very proud of my research prowess!
Since I knew I had all the articles, I was not too worried about translating them right away. Besides, I was about to enter the US Army which would determine my fate for the next several years. My chance to start work on these biographical articles would come two years later. At that point, I was stationed at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I was assigned to the French department as an assistant instructor. Luckily, the Japanese Department was in the next building, and I was able to audit language classes there and meet several of the teachers.
Through this connection, one of the professors agreed to work with me on the articles at a leisurely pace. The O-Sensei articles were part of an ongoing series titled “Kawaridane Nihonjin,” which I decided to translate as “Remarkable Japanese.” The teacher would read aloud the Japanese text and then come up with a rough translation. Since I was the native English speaker and had the knowledge of aikido, it was my job to clean up the English and make sure the text made sense. Over a period of several months we completed a few of the articles.
By this time, I was discharged from the army and decided to remain in Monterey. I also decided to try to start up an aikido class as there was nothing in Monterey at that time. With the help of some of my aikido friends from Northern California, I conducted an aikido demonstration at a local jujutsu school. The demonstration was successful and I think we ended up with about 15 people for the first aikido class conducted at the jujutsu dojo. Among the new students was an economics professor at the nearby Naval Postgraduate School. His name was Katsuaki Terasawa.
We struck up a good friendship and he agreed to help me continue with my translations of the O-Sensei articles. It took a few months for us to complete the entire series of articles. As things turned out, it was the existence of these 17 “Kawaridane Nihonjin” translations that would launch my career as an aikido journalist/historian in 1974.