Retracing the footsteps of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

“The attraction for me, a teenager at that time, was the flashy action scenes, the cool detachment of the heroes, and the exotic language and settings. I was fast becoming a Japanophile! “

stanley-pranin-encyI have been asked by my staff to write about how it was that I embarked on the path that I have chosen as my life’s work. I can only say that as a young man I could never have dreamed that my life would follow the strange course it has. How did it happen that my professional career became devoted to documenting the life and times of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba? It’s a question I sometimes ask myself as I recall the sequence of events that led to my connection with Japan, my beginning the practice of aikido, and the thirty years of publication of Aiki News.

You might consider it merely a romantic notion that one is predestined to follow a certain course of action or is somehow closely linked to a certain person or group. I can’t say one way or the other if this is true. However, I myself find it quite odd that I was drawn into this line of research to the extent that my travels and whereabouts and my meeting of hundreds of people over three decades have been directly influenced by the actions of Morihei Ueshiba in times past. There was no particular planning on my part to make things happen the way they have, but each small step I took along the way seemed to pull me irrevocably in a specific direction.

This having been said, let me search back through my memories to see if I can identify some of the key events that led to my embarking on the path I have chosen.

Bound by destiny to Japan before birth

When my mother was expecting me in the spring of 1945, my parents planned to call me “William” if I turned out to be a boy. All of this changed suddenly when my father’s younger brother Stanley was killed while serving in the navy in the Battle of Okinawa. Stanley became my name instead. Through this tragic occurrence, a fate shared by hundreds of thousands on all sides who paid the ultimate price, my link with Japan was forged even before my birth. I think about this event often and what it might mean and wonder if it is not somehow related to my deep ties to Japan.

Bringing home a Japanese newspaper

One of my memories as a child of 7 or 8 involves visiting the home of a Japanese-American family in my neighborhood to play with their son. Living with them, was the boy’s “bachan,” his grandmother, who spoke almost no English. She was very kind and always smiling and would often serve me ice water on hot summer days. One day Bachan showed me a Japanese newspaper that she had been reading. I was captivated by this strange writing system that appeared to a child’s eyes to be a jumble of incomprehensible symbols.

As I looked closer, I could see hundreds of little pictographs that obviously had some meaning for Japanese. The writing system seemed so complex compared to English, the only language I had been exposed to up to that point. Fascinated, I asked and was given permission to take home an old Japanese newspaper which I proudly showed my mother. I remember that I kept it as a treasure for a long time. This seemingly inconsequential event would prove to be a harbinger of events to transpire many years later as I would come to use Japanese regularly in my personal life and work.

Beginning aikido

As I lived in a multi-cultural community in southern California, there were many children of Japanese descent some of whom became my friends at school. Apart from that, I don’t recall any particular connection with Japan or things Japanese when growing up. However, that changed abruptly in the spring of 1962 when I witnessed a demonstration of a little known Japanese martial art at my high school. The martial art was of course aikido and I was duly impressed by its obvious self-defense potential and its dynamic, flowing techniques.

During the summer I had an experience where I witnessed first-hand a violent act that occurred right before my eyes and this was the trigger that pushed me to start training. My decision to study aikido proved to be a life-determining decision. I first attended a nearby Yoshinkan Aikido dojo and then, about half a year later, joined an Aikikai group that trained at the local YMCA. Regular training in aikido gradually began to transform me both physically and mentally and the art soon became the main focal point of my life.

Again fascinated by kanji

One day while attending aikido class, my teacher, Isao Takahashi Sensei, began writing Japanese characters on the blackboard to explain the principles behind the techniques we were practicing. Since I had been exposed to kanji as a child more than a decade earlier, I watched very attentively as Sensei stroked out the characters on the board accompanied by a distinct clacking sound. The rhythm used for writing Japanese was very different from that of English cursive script. The hand-drawn characters themselves were pleasing to look at as they revealed a balanced beauty and complexity. I marveled that each kanji had a concept-based meaning derived from ideograms thousand of years old in contrast to phonetically based English. I must confess that, despite my fascination, I felt not a little frustrated being unable to to read them. I promised myself that someday I would learn this language.

A screenshot of the first film of O-Sensei I ever saw!

A screenshot from the first film of O-Sensei I ever saw!

Seeing the founder on film for the first time

Another occasion that proved a turning point which took place early in my training was the day that our dojo members were treated to a showing of an 8mm film of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. It was inspiring to watch the figure of O-Sensei performing techniques for the first time. There was something markedly different about the way he moved compared to the aikido I had seen thus far. The founder’s techniques were dynamic and powerful, with a centered grace that was a beauty to behold.

Shortly thereafter, I was able to borrow the film for a time and I watched it over and over and showed it to family and friends. That movie really left a deep impression on me. It would have been too much of a leap to imagine that this very film and others I collected over the years would provide the basis for the business I was to build much later.

Through friendships I made during my first years of aikido training I became exposed to other aspects of Japanese culture. I started attending “chambara” (samurai sword-fighting) movies quite often and also saw several classics of Akira Kurosawa, many starring Toshiro Mifune, one of my early heroes. The “Samurai Trilogy” (Miyamoto Musashi) and “Red Beard” were among my favorites. Of course, the attraction for me, a teenager at that time, was the flashy action scenes, the cool detachment of the heroes, and the exotic language and settings. I was fast becoming a Japanophile!

This steady input of aikido and things Japanese led me to begin studying Japanese formally as an elective course at my university. Since there were a number of Japanese speakers at the Los Angeles dojo which I was attending at that time, I had a chance to try out a few Japanese phrases here and there and this made the aikido training and dojo experience all the more enjoyable.

Memoir of the Master

The 1963 book titled “Aikido” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba that contains the “Memoir of the Master”

At the end of 1963, Hozansha Publishing Company put out a book in English titled Aikido by Kisshomaru Ueshiba that had a major impact on the tiny aikido population practicing in America. This book was a compilation of material appearing in the early Japanese-language Aikido and Aikido Giho by the same author. In addition to the several dozen techniques presented, this book had a few pages devoted to the history of aikido. This initial glimpse of the life of Morihei Ueshiba’s impressed me deeply and I remember reading the text over and over again. Another important section of the book was a 4 1/2 page section titled “Memoir of the Master.” This consisted of a series of maxims attributed to Morihei Ueshiba that encapsulate his moral and spiritual vision and the purpose of aikido.

Although the translated English of the text is imperfect, these paragraphs are profoundly inspiring for their moral depth and original thinking, particularly when viewed from a Western standpoint. The idea of a martial art, normally associated with fighting and violence, being conceived as a tool for peace struck a responsive chord in me for it set forth a series of ethical principles that has served as a guide for me ever since.

A couple of examples of O-Sensei’s words provide an idea of the idealistic content of “Memoir of the Master”:

“True budo is the loving protection of all beings with a spirit of reconciliation…”

“True budo is a work of love. It is a work of giving life to all beings, and not killing or struggling with each other…”

If you read through these aphorisms carefully you will realize that the founder is offering a veiled criticism of the destructive use of budo during Japan’s militaristic era. It would become apparent to me much later that the language used in “Memoir” had been edited to eliminate references to Shinto and Japan’s imperial past and “universalize” the vocabulary for consumption by a postwar readership. Many aikido schools printed up little booklets containing these paragraphs for distribution among their members. In those days, most of the aikidoka in the USA and other English-speaking countries were reading “Memoir of the Master.”

Of course I thoroughly enjoyed aikido training, but the added dimension of a strong spiritual foundation that aikido offered was deeply satisfying to me in a moral sense.

The 10th installment of the "Kawaridane Nihonjin" series published in 1966

The 10th installment of the “Kawaridane Nihonjin” series published in 1966

Kawaridane Nihonjin

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