“Interview with Stanley Pranin”, by Paul Swainson

stanley-pranin-encyStanley Pranin started Aikido in 1962 at the age of 17. His first dojo was a Yoshinkan dojo run by a man named Virgil Crank. Since that day Aikido has always been part of Stanley Pranin’s life. His writings on Aikido and its historical beginnings, and its founder Morihei Ueshiba will be appreciated for many years to come and prove invaluable to those practicing and researching this unique Budo.

MI: How are you today Mr. Pranin? MI Magazine really appreciates you taking the time out for this exclusive interview. Let us start by asking what rank in Aikido are you Mr. Pranin?

SP: I have a 5th dan awarded by Saito Sensei in 1983 or 84.

MI: This year’s Aiki Expo is not far away, how do you feel when you are there among thousands of people knowing you started it all?

SP: Well, it is overwhelming, but it is not the kind of situation where you can sit back and contemplate on what is going on at the time. There are always little problems to fix and people asking you questions, and running from room to room and it is very much a whirlwind of activity. Although afterwards when you sit down and watch the videos, you think, “Well, that was quite an accomplishment and it seemed like a lot of people had a good time and probably a few lives were changed.” It really is a satisfying feeling at the end of it all.

MI: Do you plan to take the Expo to other countries in the future?

SP: I think we will be moving it around within the States, possibly Canada. I feel it would be a little more complicated if we took it to another country. The laws and the cultures are different and I would have to rely very heavily on someone in that country to do a lot of the legwork and that I feel would be difficult. I don’t completely exclude it as a possibility; it is something I would hesitate outlaying before actually committing to. I also would lose control over a lot of the aspects of the event that I can handle here within the States and I know the culture and laws already here.

MI: How many people are you expecting this year?

SP: I am hoping to get between 700 – 1000 attending, you never know, but I think we will do much better than Las Vegas because there is very little martial arts activity here (Aikido Journal Office is based in Nevada) by comparison whereas southern California is a Mecca for martial arts so hopefully we’ll get quite a bit more. Click here for Expo details.

MI: Will you be participating in any of the demonstrations?

SP: No, I really don’t have the time to prepare for something like that, however I have toyed with the idea of doing it. I just want to concentrate on making the event run well itself.

MI: What is your opinion on Aikido today?

SP: Well, I have written a lot of editorials on that. I think that there is a lack of leadership in that when an activity is founded it is usually founded by a very passionate, highly motivated, charismatic individual. Then when an organization forms around that person you tend to get people who are more interested in running an organization and doing the things organizations do. They create by-laws and preserve the traditions, which means the art that they were exposed to directly, whereas other people who had access to the founder may have received quite different instructions. You tend to get a kind of change to the situation of inertia where change is resisted. The organization becomes a goal in itself and it all tends to become more bureaucratic. In that sort of a situation it is certainly understandable. If you think of Aikido as something vital in your daily life and you want to prepare yourself physically, physiologically and spiritually for a violent encounter or to just deal with your daily life, I think we have to be constant seekers. The type of atmosphere, the type of thinking and the type of focus that an organization typically emphasizes might not be the optimum one for personal development, so I fortunately through what we do with the website and the activities that we are doing which are independent of an organization means I don’t have to deal so much with that.

If I ever were to begin teaching Aikido actively again I am not really sure that I would join any organization or attempt to give ranking. Basically I think that there’s a kind of a status quo, which is satisfactory, but borders on mediocrity. In terms of technique and the direction, there’s not really a forward dynamic thinking that I can see that comes out of the organization, so one of the purposes of the Expo is to create a situation, of a dynamic mix of people from different kinds of Aikido and other arts who can get together. By just being in proximity with a diverse mix of people like that and being able to see their techniques, feel their techniques, tends to be really stimulating. If you look at O’sensei’s background, he did a lot of cross training too, so those who criticize the Expo for venturing into other areas which aren’t related to Aikido should maybe look back at the history and see what O’sensei and his teacher Sokaku Takeda did and their personal training.

MI: Would the development of Ueshiba Sensei’s Budo have been different had he not had his Satori (mystical experiences)

SP: Well, one can only speculate. I did not meet O’sensei; I arrived in Japan two months to the day after his death, so what I know of the founder is what I have understood from talking with people who have been close to him and reading a lot and thinking about the subject. You have to understand that his so-called enlightenment is portrayed as a one time thing, but when you look at the way he was particularly in his later life, where he is going in and out of this enlightened consciousness, and would talk as though he were a vehicle, and he was channeling for the Kami or the Deity and he adhered himself in those terms, so when you see O’sensei, let’s say on the mat doing Aikido or you see someone who is channeling for a higher energy, I tend to view that there may have been something that stuck out in his mind that he talked about. I think that there may have been many experiences that brought him closer to the universal spirit and that he went in and out of that consciousness and maybe even remained in that unconsciousness for long periods of time especially as he grew older and contemplated those things more.

You know we talk as though we understand what we mean by Satori and if I were to ask you, or you ask me or we ask ten other people to describe what we are talking about when we say Satori I think we would get some pretty different opinions. So words like that I tend to handle kind of lightly because I really don’t know what people mean or what images it might conjure up in their own consciousness. It is quite hard to say but perhaps it was around 1925 but it is very hard to pin down a date and you know it could be a difference of experiences and he had enlightenment like experiences in Mongolia, also when they were captured/arrested and prepared for execution. So I tend just to listen to the stories but there’s not much I can do with it, as an historian.

MI: What changes occurred later on to throw open the doors to the wider public?

SP: I would recommend that readers take a look at an editorial I did titled “Is O’sensei really the founder of modern Aikido?” Basically to answer that question you have to look at how Aikido developed within Japan and spread around the world after the war and you will find that O’sensei played a rather small role in the process. Of course he influenced the people who did pass his teachings on and he was there as a source of inspiration. The people who actually did the leg work and the instruction were for the most part people like Shioda Sensei, his son Kisshomaru Sensei, Tohei Sensei and some of the early Shihan’s who traveled Japan and other countries around the world.

MI: There seems to be a marked contrast between Tomiki Sensei’s and Shioda Sensei’s emphasis and approaches. Would you throw some light on this?

SP: I have also written some editorials regarding Tomiki Sensei and Shioda Sensei and they go into quite some detail. Basically Tomiki Kenji Sensei was influenced a lot by O’sensei but also a lot by Kano Jigoro the founder of Judo, and as well as being an excellent martial artist he was an academic. A lot of what Tomiki Kenji Sensei did later on with the art was based on the Judo model much more than what O’sensei was teaching.

O’sensei was rather unorganized in terms of teaching so Tomiki Sensei wanted to codify things in a manner similar to what Kano did, the latter also being an educator. Tomiki Aikido developed it into a form that had competition, which took place in the late 1950’s and part of it was that he wanted to give the Aikido club the status of a normal university club. In order to do that the administration dictated that a competitive form would have to be developed. So part of this creation of the sport system and the system of competition was due to him wanting to have a more beneficial status within the Waseda University, so you have to factor that into consideration also. I don’t know if he would have developed a system like that had he not had that pressure from the university administrators. Only the old timers within the Tomiki Organization could answer that, but I know that to be a fact.

O’sensei and his pre-war teachings first and foremost influenced Shioda Sensei and Shioda Sensei did not study very much after the war from O’sensei, so it developed into Yoshinkan Aikido, which took place after he went off on his own. Shioda Sensei had to do things like teach large groups of people and that caused him to modify and codify his teaching methodology to deal with such situations. Again, nonetheless there are interviews with him where I have touched on that.

MI: You have been to Japan many times and have first hand experience training on the mats there. Would you say that there is more of a focus on technique or in the principles of Aikido?

SP: Well, the technique I see as being taught in a larger organization is in a somewhat static state, in other words unchanged. The principles tend to be things you will find in the introduction of books and maybe in pamphlets and they are generalized feel good superficial statements. That with very few exceptions, you are not going to see a teacher talking about the principles of Aikido and going deep into philosophy in an actual training session. You are going to find that teaching will be 6 – 10 techniques and some will explain more than others and most will just demonstrate it a few times and have you practice. Now if there are a few individuals that actually know things, they will talk about these various things, but they are generally people who have been really influenced by O’sensei and for the most part it is hard physical training. In a situation where the status quo is being preserved, in which you will tend to see the student being developed, being clearly identifiable to the teacher, you will most likely not see too much of innovation take place.

MI: Was it a big difference when you went to Japan to train?

SP: Yes, it was a big surprise when I went in 1969; it was a big surprise in many regards partially because there was so little interest in O’sensei.

MI: Did that surprise you that there was not much interest in the founder?

SP: Yes, you know I expected that the founder of Aikido being such a giant and talented charismatic individual, that there would be lots of people studying his background and exploring his technical development and learning from that and I had a hard time trying to talk with people and they just didn’t seem interested. Even by that point in 1969, institutionalization I think had set in, to a certain extent. You had at the Honbu Dojo (where I was) different camps around teachers especially around Tohei Sensei. People who attended his classes tended not to attend other Shihans’ classes, things like that went on. I mean people were stronger in the sense that they were well trained and had different cardiovascular conditioning but they were not strong technically. They were just moving and thrashing around a lot. They were physically conditioned and with a bit of maturity in techniques.

Part of the reason for the state of Aikido today is that good strong skilled attacks are never emphasized, so when we practice in the dojo it is unlike anything we would encounter in a violent situation. I am certainly not recommending violent attacks but I would recommend people learn well-controlled energetic attacks and that they venture into areas where they are not just in a completely controlled environment. You have to get out of that and we have what you call randori, I mean you have people coming and grabbing with two hands and are waiting to be thrown and it’s not very realistic.

MI: You have met nearly every important person who had trained with O’sensei, and some of the biggest names in Aikido. Were there times when the person you interviewed overwhelmed you?

SP: Well communicating and interacting with O’sensei’s nephew Noriaki (Yoichiro) Inoue was one of the highlights. It was so intense and so hard to get to meet with him but once we broke the ice he was a very attentive person and I was able to have a lot of quality interaction with him and he gave me so much important historical information which allowed me to make breakthroughs in my research. I also spent a lot of time with Saito Sensei and especially during a five-year period where I traveled with him. I have also had some meaningful interactions with Tohei Sensei on a number of occasions and my Shodan and Nidan examinations were done in front of him, so I know about him, his background and history.

MI: The writings you have done covering all aspects of Aikido have really helped everyone understand more about the art we practice. Do you think they have made people sit up and want to learn more about Aikido?

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