Morihei’s Prewar Budo: Transmission, Inheritance, Emulation 3, by Peter Goldsbury

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 the last column I considered the first of the above three propositions from the viewpoint of Morihei Ueshiba as a teacher and discussed the question of how, as a Japanese living in the Taisho & early Showa periods, he would have seen this role. Morihei Ueshiba was not only a teacher, or master, but was also the Source of aikido and constantly refined himself as the Source. (Here we can disregard for the time being the crucial importance of his inheritance from Sokaku Takeda and Daito-ryu, except to note in passing the ways in which Ueshiba distanced himself from Takeda and modified this inheritance. We can also disregard the differences between Morihei Ueshiba and Judo Founder Jigoro Kano, who, like Takeda, was also a Source, but in a less technical sense.) In particular, I drew a sharp distinction between (a) the Master as a Learner, striving to increase his own understanding or possession of the art he is creating, and (b) the Master as a Teacher, or transmitter to others of the art, whether considered as the ‘public’ expression of an individual’s evolving ‘private’ training, or considered as something like an end-product, fashioned into a recognizable art and called aikido.

One could argue that learning and teaching are not so separate and note that many young aikidoists have observed that it was not until they began to teach the art that they actually understood more deeply what they were doing. This might be true, but underlying this observation there seems to be a ‘western’ notion of teaching, with the provision of structured explanations and syllabuses, etc. The observation would thus mean that learning the art in depth entails the quite separate activity of teaching the art to others. Clearly, underlying the observation is also an assumption that teaching is not a mirror image of learning, but a completely different activity, with its own internal principles and strategies. However, the examples of engineering, medicine, languages and philosophy, considered in the previous column, show that in Japan, at least, it is not at all intuitively obvious that acquiring an understanding of an art entails actually having to teach that art to others.

I believe that for Morihei Ueshiba, certainly, teaching and learning were not so easily separated, but this is not because he thought the two activities were different. I think it is rather because he did, in fact, follow the traditional Japanese model and regard teaching and learning as mirror images of each other, as two sides of the same coin. Ueshiba regarded training as ‘doing’ the art—of course, correctly—but he also saw the practice of teaching the art, if he actually ‘saw’ it distinctly at all, as another kind of ‘doing’, namely, being a living pedagogical model to his deshi (hence the meaning of the Japanese term shihan). Thus, he might have modified George Bernard Shaw’s famous diction from, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” to, “Those who can, do; those who do, teach.”

I think that the two poles of the distinction made in the previous paragraph will appear again and again, as we consider Morihei Ueshiba from the viewpoint of his deshi. (Note on the meaning of terms: In what follows I use the terms deshi, uchi-deshi soto-deshi, kayoi-deshi fairly interchangeably. A deshi is a committed student of the art; an uchi-deshi manifests this commitment more obviously, 24 hours a day, by actually living with the Master; a soto-deshi does this, but does not actually live inside the Master’s house; a kayoi-deshi also does this, but travels to the Master’s house each day. The object here is to focus on the Master as constant model of training and on the students as learning 24 hours a day. Of course, it is a deep commitment for both the Master and his student(s). In the interviews an important distinction is sometimes made between those who were uchi-deshi and those who were not and the actual status of Morihei Ueshiba’s students as deshi—whether uchi deshi, soto deshi, or kayoi deshi—is still the occasion of sometimes acrimonious disputes.) Essential material here is the collection of interviews published over the years by Stanley Pranin. These were published in 1990 & 1995 in Japanese, as 『植芝盛平と合気道』 and 『続植芝盛平と合気道』 and a two-volume revised edition was published in 2006. A selection of the interviews with the prewar deshi appeared in English as Aikido Masters: Prewar students of Morihei Ueshiba, first published in 1993 and one of the most important books on aikido ever to appear in English. This was revised and published in 2010 as Aikido Pioneers—Prewar Era. All the interviews with prewar and postwar deshi are scattered through the Aiki News and Aikido Journal magazine and the associated website, but the value of having them all published together is that one can more easily see the vast difference in approach, attitudes and accomplishments.


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