Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?, by Stanley Pranin


“O-Sensei did not teach in Tokyo on a regular basis after the war. Even when he appeared, often he would spend most of the hour lecturing on esoteric subjects completely beyond the comprehension of the students present.”

stanley-pranin-encyFrom Aikido Journal #109, 1996

After practicing and researching aikido for a number of years I gradually arrived at a hypothesis that went against conventional wisdom and the testimonies of numerous shihan who claimed to have spent long years studying at the side of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. I had over the years attended numerous seminars given in the USA by Japanese teachers and also made several trips to Japan where I had seen and trained with many of the best known teachers. My theory was simply that aikido as we know it today was not the art practiced and taught by O-Sensei, but rather any one of a number of derivative forms developed by key students who studied under the Founder for relatively short periods of time. This would account for the considerable divergency in styles, the relatively small number of techniques taught, and the absence of an Omoto-like religious perspective in the modern forms of the art. This was not meant as a criticism of these “modern” forms of the art, but rather an observation based on historical research that ran contrary to common perception.

When I moved permanently to Japan in August 1977, I made a personal decision to study in Iwama under Morihiro Saito Sensei. In the final analysis, what attracted me to Iwama was the emphasis on firmness and precision of technique, and the inclusion of the aiki ken and aiki jo in the training curriculum. I’m sure that the proximity of the Aiki Shrine and the fact that training in Iwama took place in O-Sensei’s personal dojo were also contributing factors.

Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke

Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke

At the same time, I would hasten to mention that I didn’t consider Saito Sensei’s technique to be a faithful continuation of the aikido of the Founder, but rather regarded him as a technical master in his own right. Looking back, I put Saito Sensei in the same category with well-known teachers like Koichi Tohei, Shoji Nishio, Seigo Yamaguchi, and others who were all highly skilled and had developed original teaching styles which, though initially inspired by Morihei Ueshiba, had evolved into quite different directions.

I recall clearly that, even though my Japanese language skills were rather limited at that stage, I managed to communicate to Saito Sensei my thoughts on this subject and doubts that his aikido was essentially the same as that of the Founder as he claimed. My perception was based on the fact that Saito Sensei’s technique appeared to be quite different from the aikido of the Founder that I had seen on film. Somewhat amused at my skepticism and no doubt my cheekiness considering that I was his student, Sensei patiently explained that the reason for my confusion was that most of what was preserved on film of the Founder were demonstrations. He pointed out that the public displays of technique of the Founder were very different from what O-Sensei showed in the dojo in Iwama. Saito Sensei continued to insist that it was his responsibility to faithfully transmit the aikido of the Founder and that it was not his intention to develop a “Saito-ryu Aikido.”

Despite his best efforts, I continued to have strong doubts on the matter even though my admiration for his technical skills was never in question. Then, one day about several years after my arrival, I was conducting an interview with Zenzaburo Akazawa, a prewar uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba from the Kobukan Dojo period. Mr. Akazawa proceeded to show me a technical manual published in 1938 titled Budo which I had never seen before. It contained some fifty techniques demonstrated by the Founder himself. As I slowly turned the pages of the manual, I was amazed to see that the execution of several basics techniques such as ikkyo, iriminage and shihonage were virtually identical to what I had learned in Iwama under Saito Sensei. Here was the Founder himself demonstrating what I had up until then regarded as “Iwama” style techniques. Mr. Akazawa kindly lent me the book and I hurried to show it to Saito Sensei.

Morihei Ueshiba's 1938 "Budo" technical manual

Morihei Ueshiba’s 1938 “Budo” technical manual

I’ll always remember the scene as I called at Sensei’s door to share with him my new discovery. To my surprise, he had never seen or heard mention of the book before. He put on his reading glasses and leafed through the manual, his eyes scanning the technical sequences intently. I felt compelled then and there to apologize to him for having ever doubted his assertion that he was making every effort to faithfully preserve the Founder’s techniques. Saito Sensei laughed and, obviously with great pleasure, bellowed, “See, I told you so!” From that time on (1981) even up through this day, Saito Sensei always travels to his aikido seminars with a copy of Budo to use as proof to show that a particular technique originated in the Founder’s teachings.

It goes without saying that I was forced to admit that there was at least one instructor who was disseminating aikido in a manner faithful to the original teachings of the Founder. But did this disprove my general theory that the styles of aikido widely practiced today have little to do technically and philosophically with the art of the Founder? Consider the following. If you go to the dojos of any of the major teachers, you will find that their students’ movements closely resemble the teacher in question. Let’s face it, they would be poor students if they did not make every effort to emulate their teacher’s movements. It is often possible to identify students of a given teacher in the context of a large demonstration in which participants from many different dojos appear. Why is it then that there is a such a vast difference among the major styles of aikido if all of the shihan studied directly under the Founder?

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