A Biography of Rinjiro Shirata – Part 1, by Kozo Kaku

“A Talent known as the ‘Kobukan Prodigy'”

Rinjiro Shirata (1912-1993)

“Fold them in two,” is a good way to put it. This certainly describes Rinjiro Shirata’s attitude. He was tough on opponents who challenged him, to the point of being uncaring. It was hard not to feel sympathy for the challenger.

Of course, he had good reason for his demeanor.

Construction of the Kobukan Dojo was completed in April 1931 on the site where the present Aikikai Honbu Dojo now stands. The dojo held 80 tatami mats and was headed by a great master of the period, Morihei Ueshiba. At the time, he was teaching a martial art called things like “Ueshiba-ryu Jujutsu” or “Aiki Budo.” Important people such as business leaders and high-ranking military officers were drawn by his fame and lined up to be his students.

At the same time, Morihei attracted young men from all over the country who came to the Kobukan in an effort to meet him. But Morihei wasn’t trying to spread his personal budo across the world. Instead, his efforts were directed toward further progress and the refinement of his personal technique. He didn’t say it was a nuisance; he just did not have much interest in having many students, especially uchideshi, or throwing his doors wide open. It could be said that, for this reason, he never admitted an aspiring student who asked to join without a proper introduction from a sponsor, and this reinforced a mystique that covered the private confines of the Kobukan like a veil.

Happily, Rinjiro Shirata, who aspired to be an aikidoka, was blessed with a sponsor and, with the teacher’s approval, became an uchideshi in 1932. A year later, he had distinguished himself among the uchideshi.

“Hey Shirata, see who’s out front!”

Whenever there was a menacing visitor, the senior uchideshi always had Rinjiro take care of it. Indeed, he had a good physique. His height was 5’ 7”, his weight, 165 pounds, and he was 20 years old. He was a son of the Yamagata “Mountain Forest King” and it showed in his countenance. His fair skin, eyes, nose and mouth projected the clear image of Momotaro, the Peach Boy, straight out of a fairy tale.

“I’ll take care of it.”

The stylish Rinjiro tied a hakama over his training uniform and on top of that wore a hatch-patterned haori coat without any identifying crest. He politely asked the visitor the purpose of their visit. No, he didn’t ask. Rather he saw what was written on the visitor’s face; they had come to fight with the school and Morihei Ueshiba.

Most of the Kobukan uchideshi had high ranks in kendo or judo. Probably for that reason, uchideshi with judo experience rushed to meet a visitor if it was apparent that he did judo. At this dojo, whoever was fastest won, but the unwritten law was that seniors had priority.

Rinjiro had been the captain of his school’s judo club, and his strength was unsurpassed back in his home prefecture. However, he was not allowed to meet judo visitors; the seniors grabbed them all. Rinjiro was only chosen to take care of suspicious looking visitors when it was unclear what kind of martial art they used.

“Because I wish to enroll, please give me a lesson.”

The visitor that day was a tall thin man of about thirty with thick stubble on his hollow cheeks. He had a husky voice, and at first he bowed his head, but then he stared back at Rinjiro ominously through narrowed eyes, as if he didn’t know how to blink.

After explaining the history and the spirit of Aiki Budo, Rinjiro said, “A person who wishes to study aikido should start with the spirit. If the spirit is not correct, the path will also be incorrect.” But from the start the visitor refused to listen. “What I want is the one thing at which the Kobukan excels.” Hearing that, Rinjiro resigned himself and invited the visitor into the dojo.

The senior student, Aritoshi Murashige, was in the dojo, and Gozo Shioda ( later head of the Yoshinkan) entered at the same time. Neither of them appeared particularly tense; rather they looked at Rinjiro and the visitor with faces full of anticipation.

The Aiki of One Blow, Certain Victory

“Please bow before the kami.”

While Rinjiro was showing him into the dojo the visitor said, “Teach me with your actions.” Without warning, the man unleashed a furious kick at Rinjiro, whose back was turned. Surprised, Rinjiro just managed to twist his body. The man stood with his left leg forward, deeply bent, and the back leg straight, he put his left hand straight out and his right was near his hip.

“Is he coming?”

As Rinjiro noticed him bend his rear leg to strike, the man sent out another strong kick. The movement of his body was quick. It was obviously karate. The kick is called “Crescent Moon Kick” in some karate styles, but of course Rinjiro didn’t know that.

It’s redundant, but people who have only seen aikido after the war when it was completed harbor doubts about a situation involving an opponent using arts like karate or boxing. Would aikido win, or would they be evenly matched?

Certainly, today’s aikido gives the impression of circularity, and is focused on non-aggressive defense, so it is probably hard to find a response for that kind of destructive power. Nevertheless, in the aikido of Rinjiro’s time, attack and defense were simultaneous. Moreover, “aiki” was certain victory with a single blow.

Just before the opponent sent out his right kick, Rinjiro’s left shoulder was pushed out a little to the side as he stood with his left foot forward. This was clearly an invitation to the opponent. The kick came flying towards his shoulder. Entering diagonally to the front Rinjiro instantly avoided it. Using his front left hand, he placed a hard fist in front of the opponent’s eyes.

Normally at this point, the match would clearly be Rinjiro’s. He had demonstrated a strike aimed not only at the face, but at the eyes. The opponent didn’t understand this and he jumped nimbly backwards, so Rinjiro quickly closed the distance and delivered a bitter lesson.

There was a technique, “rokkajo”, that the uchideshi used constantly in contests between schools at the Kobukan in this period. Now it probably can be called a phantom technique. Yokomenuchi to the opponent’s front or side in response to their thrust; the same essential points are in today’s yokomenuchi shihonage. The points that differed the most were that the face was struck and the opponent’s elbow twisted to its limit. In the end, opponents were put on their stomach using the lever principle and their wrist held down with the knee. At the same time, their spine was completely pinned.

Rinjiro was endowed with strong physical ability. People in his hometown often saw him easily tossing large bales of rice. He grasped the elbow, or possibly the wrist of the opponent who had been pinned with rokkajo, and seizing the neck with the other hand he lifted the man up and casually tossed him backwards. It’s likely that the man’s arm was broken as he was thrown, and not being able to take the fall, he ended up seriously injured.

“Idiot! Can’t you go a little easier?”

Rinjiro in Osaka, c. 1935

Morihei, who happened to be present, thundered at Rinjiro. But this was just for the visitor, who had suffered harsh damage. After sending him away hobbling with a stick, Morihei said, “Well done. That was good.”

Morihei broke into a smile and became cheerful, treating Rinjiro to some sweets. Rinjiro said, “In my own way, I was going easy.” If he were asked, he would have said that his treatment of the visitor was justified. As evidence, Rinjiro said that when facing visitors who had requested a match, he had never actually hit anyone. However, it depends how you take that. It could be said that he dared to omit strikes because ending the match with one blow would be uninteresting.

“What? That’s it? Kind of boring, isn’t it? If you had fallen, I would have taken your place.” The senior student, Murashige, grumbled, looking bored. This was an outrageous dojo and had the name, “Hell Dojo ” among the people. That doesn’t seem like an exaggeration. If one searches for strong martial arts in history, no doubt the Kobukan uchideshi of this period would be among the best in Japanese history.

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