Transmission, Inheritance, Emulation 2, by Peter Goldsbury

In the next few columns of this series, I plan to examine in more detail the activities of teaching, learning and ‘stealing’, especially as these applied to Morihei Ueshiba and his immediate disciples, and also the crucial relationship between these activities and their own (and our own) personal training regimes.

As they progress with their training, aikidoists tend to encounter various problems, when they are led to question the validity of what they are doing. They practice under the supervision of a ‘Sensei’, who has also practiced—and perhaps received his license to teach, from another ‘Sensei’ and the pattern then is to trace the lineage and also competence as an aikidoist and an aikido teacher, right back to O Sensei, who is generally considered to be the Source (acknowledgements to the Wachowski brothers), hence the etymology of the Japanese term Sensei [before + life/living].

The problems arise when these aikidoists encounter exponents of other martial arts, who tell aikidoists that they are lacking in their technique and training, and also when they encounter other exponents of aikido who are from a different lineage to their own. How is it possible that aikido can be lacking in such essential skills, given that the Founder was the Source, and how is it possible that there can be so many different ‘schools’ of aikido, when there is only one Founder/Source? The problems have led to much discussion, especially on dedicated websites like AikiWeb, and have also led dedicated aikidoists to question severely their own training history. There is no point in going into denial here. The problems exist and the most honest approach is to admit this and then try to find a way to resolve the dilemma in the best traditions of 文武 BUN/BU: study and training.

One way out of the dilemma is to argue that aikido has changed over the generations and that (again following the Matrix analogy) in order to practice ‘real’ aikido, one has to follow in Neo’s footsteps and go back to the Source and actually study how Morihei Ueshiba himself trained, how he practiced and what & how he taught. This is a fine idea, provided we can actually find out how he trained & practiced and also what he taught. As a matter of fact, this is rather difficult and we are not helped so much by Ueshiba’s own writings.

Morihei Ueshiba was a Japanese living in the Taisho/Early Showa eras and ‘taught’ his aikido in a conservative and quintessentially Japanese way. He wrote virtually nothing apart from a diary and annotations to his copy of Onisaburo Deguchi’s Reikai Monogatari, both of which appear to have been lost. However, he did give many lectures and discourses, some of which have been published in book form. His published ‘writings’ in English are translations of Douka and excerpts from the spoken discourses and interviews. There are no dedicated editions of Ueshiba’s writings in English. Thus there is no guarantee that simply reading those of his so-called writings that have been translated from the original Japanese will enable anyone to find out how he trained & practiced and also what he taught. Much more study of the original Japanese is required.

The first column specified the issues in the form of three propositions:


  1. Morihei Ueshiba made no attempt to ‘teach’ the knowledge and skills he possessed to his deshi;
  2. The latter all gained profound knowledge and skills during their time as deshi, but it is by no means clear that they gained all the knowledge or that all gained the same knowledge.
  3. Morihei Ueshiba appears to have made no specific attempt to check whether his deshi had understood what they had learned from him.

In this column we will consider the first of these propositions, especially the vertical relationship between teacher and student as this is seen in Japan.


  1. Morihei Ueshiba made no attempt to ‘teach’ the knowledge and skills he possessed to his deshi.

I have put ‘teach’ in quotation marks, because of doubt about the precise sense the term had for Morihei Ueshiba. I think that what he was doing was certainly quite different from the aikido teaching I myself experienced in the UK and US before coming to Japan. This doubt is also closely bound up with the question of ‘stealing’ techniques, which I take to mean learning what has not been explicitly taught (though it might well have been shown intentionally). From all accounts that I have read and also that I have heard from the deshi themselves, Morihei Ueshiba spent a very long time pursuing his own personal training, such that what he actually showed his deshi is only the tip of a very large iceberg. In fact, what he showed his deshi during practice almost continually and exclusively were waza, without any technical explanation, and he also left them to work out for themselves, not only what they had been shown and the principles lying behind this, but also the training regime that resulted in the ability to produce the waza in the way that he showed. However, Ueshiba usually preceded his waza with lengthy personal training exercises and the deshi also saw these.

Ueshiba has been criticized for ‘teaching’ in this antiquated way and for requiring his students to resort to such non-productive means as ‘stealing’ knowledge. If only he had used the well-tried ‘western’ methods, so familiar to us, of working through a well-defined syllabus, presenting all the material (including the solo training exercises) in detail and in a clear and logical fashion, with periodic checks to see whether he had been understood, we would now be in a much better situation. The issues here are of fundamental importance, not only for the way we practice the art nowadays, but also for the way we actually conceive the art and ‘frame’ what we are doing in the dojo.

The first question that arises is how usual Morihei Ueshiba’s approach was in Japan, and so it is instructive to compare the teaching of aikido with the teaching of other forms of structured activity or practice, understood in a broad sense. Does the method of ‘teaching’, and also the ‘teaching’ relationship between the master and student, change according to what is being taught?

At the outset, the heavily Confucian nature of the teaching role needs to be stressed, as also the difference between this way of teaching and the Socratic method, which, as the name implies, originated with the Greeks. In his book, Education in Tokugawa Japan, Ronald Dore presents a picture of what and how Japanese teachers taught in the domain schools. It was Confucian, in the sense that (1) knowledge was bestowed from the teacher above and the students below had a moral duty to understand and learn what the teacher showed or taught and, (2) the knowledge shown, and thus the training to acquire it, followed a prescribed pattern—one can say that it was kata-based. The students carried out their role by patient listening, rote learning, and imitation.

I think the best contemporary parallel is the learning of written Japanese, especially the 2,000 Chinese characters in common use, in Japanese schools. This awesome task is accomplished in several predetermined steps and every single Japanese child in elementary and junior high school goes through the same steps at the same time, all over Japan. Everything is there: there is a determined order; students are learn by endless repetition; they have to learn to write the easier characters correctly before going on to the more difficult ones, but they learn the underlying structures and principles as they go along; the skills are so internalized that they become effortless. Westerners who have merely to master the alphabet need to make a serious mental leap to understand the dimensions of this learning process and also to see how it establishes a Confucian learning paradigm that is right at the center of the cognitive process of any Japanese who has been through the school system.

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