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

Several years later, another incident occurred that presaged the future course of events that would lead me into the field of publishing on aikido-related topics. In the fall of 1968, I had become a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley. At that time. a psychology professor and aikido practitioner, Dr. Robert Frager and I taught the university aikido club jointly. Bob had spent about two years in Japan in the early 1960s and received instruction directly from O-Sensei.

Somewhere along the way, he had picked up photocopies of several articles from a series of biographical newspaper articles on the life of the founder written in Japanese. The title of this series was “Kawaridane Nihonjin” (Exceptional Japanese) and these articles were authored by a certain Kazuhiko Ikeda. These articles were extremely important because they contained the most detailed information on O-Sensei’s life available up to that point. This was before the publication of the first Morihei biography. It was clear to me from reading the texts that, even though written in journalistic style, the writer had talked extensively with O-Sensei and certainly his son Kisshomaru as well.

Bob had these articles translated into English but there were many errors in the translated texts so I decided to have a go at it myself. My Japanese wasn’t advanced enough at that stage to do the job alone, so over a period of time, I worked with a succession of Japanese friends who helped me render the texts into English. Later I located the missing articles of the series in the National Diet Library in Tokyo on my first trip to Japan in 1969. It took me until about 1972 to get everything translated, but those 17 articles about Morihei Ueshiba were the seed that eventually bloomed into my little newsletter “Aiki News” which first appeared in April 1974.

Relocating to Japan

A Japanese typewriter similar to the one I used for the early bilingual issues of Aiki News

A Japanese typewriter similar to the one I used for the early bilingual issues of Aiki News

By the time I moved to Japan in the summer of 1977, more than 25 issues of Aiki News had been published. I soon made the decision to make the publication bilingual since I was now living in Japan and so little on aikido history was available in Japanese either. I ended up buying an unwieldy old Japanese typewriter and typing a couple of issues entirely by myself. “Kachunk, kachunk, kachunk” went the klunky machine as I punched thousands of characters onto the page one by one. That had to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life! Soon I came to my senses and got some help from a professional Japanese typist.

Starting in the late 1970s I began systematically interviewing the early aikido pioneers who studied with the founder before and soon after the war. Issues of Aiki News were centered around these interviews. Each number contained an interview, an editorial, and a technical series until the early 80s when, little by little, we started adding more content.

Ikuko Kimura, today the Editor-in-chief of Dou joined my staff about 1982 and has worked continuously since that time being the person most responsible for the present form of the transformed Aiki News.

From magazines to books and events

The mid-1980s were important times for Aiki News because we began we began publishing books on aikido and sponsoring events such as the Friendship Demonstrations held between 1985-1988. Through such activities we were gradually able to enlarge our sphere of influence in the aikido world and produce a constant stream of information on the life and work of Morihei Ueshiba to an international audience.

Relevance of history

Throughout my professional career there have been from time to time people who have voiced a criticism of our emphasis on research into the founder Morihei Ueshiba and related historical subjects. Their thinking goes something like this: why do you spend a disproportionate amount of time researching O-Sensei and his early students when all of these people are long dead and belong to the past? Aikido is a dynamic art that has spread all over the world and there are many masters today who are more worthy of attention. Why don’t you spend your time focusing on them and what is happening today?

My response to this line of thinking goes as follows: to be sure, the founder and his contemporaries are long gone, but they lived their primes during a tumultuous era of Japan when those training in the martial arts faced the looming specter of war. These people who stared death in the face, even as civilians, with the endless bombing raids of World War II, lived to tell us their first hand experiences of the horrors of warfare and its devastating consequences. Those who live their lives under such conditions had a different view of the world and they approached their study of the martial arts with a sense of purpose born of necessity.

In contrast, the modern generation have, for the most part, lived during peaceful times. Their aikido has been influenced by the ubiquitous sports mentality where martial arts either tend to be regarded as competitive activities for the young or as leisure activities for the general population. Neither setting produces the same seriousness of intent or focus of earlier generations exposed to physical danger.

Also, as I have repeatedly pointed out in previous articles, aikido was “defanged” after the war due to a backlash in Japanese society against any institution or activity associated with the nation’s military past. A softer, even casual mentality came to become accepted as the norm for aikido practice. While such an approach to training may develop physical fitness and provide pleasant social interaction, it doesn’t not develop serious martial artists. It is for these reasons that I have been so strongly drawn to the founder, his contemporaries, and the turbulent times in which they lived.

There is another observation I would like to make for those who fail to see the relevance of history. Consider this: any information that reaches us is, in a fundamental sense, already part of the past. We regard something that took place a few days ago or even a few years ago as “contemporary,” and events that have taken place decades, centuries or millennia ago as “historical.” However, I would submit that the distinction is arbitrary and that what really matters is the quality and usability of the information we process rather than its chronological age.

For example, a news report about a recent event might be inaccurate and misleading and be of little value. In contrast, an historical account of a happening that occurred long ago might be skillfully written and eminently usable in the sense that it gives the reader deep insight into the minds of men, their actions and their institutions. If the content speaks to universal principles of human action, it is always of relevance regardless of age. If not, it is just meaningless noise.

Of course, none of this implies that it is not worthwhile to document outstanding contemporary practitioners of the art and we have and will continue to do so. But neither does it imply that we should neglect and relegate the founder and aikido’s early luminaries to the wastebin of history. Somewhere in between lies the balance.

Where do we go from here?

Personally, much of my field work in Japan has been completed as I have spent more than 30 years retracing the footsteps of Morihei Ueshiba. At the present time I am in the midst of organizing the mountain of material I have collected over the years looking for new insights and perspectives that will help to better explain the epic work of O-Sensei in the creation of aikido.

As we are now in an Internet age, most of my personal output is in electronic form through the Aikido Journal website as opposed to printed media. The ease and rapidity with which it is possible to reach out to a worldwide audience through the Internet has created a true revolution in our times. It is my intention to continue availing myself of this wonderful new tool and continue to tell this eternal story.

This article appeared in Japanese in “Dou Magazine” about 2005 and was never published in English.

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The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.

Click here to see Morihei Ueshiba in action!

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