“O-Sensei’s Spiritual Writings: Where did they really come from?” by Stanley Pranin

“The published books containing quotations attributed to Morihei Ueshiba available in various Western languages are based on “sanitized” Japanese versions of Morihei’s words.”

Recently, due to the publication of a series of books whose authorship has been attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, I have felt compelled to weigh in on the subject of what O-Sensei actually did write during his career as a martial artist. The answer is in brief, “almost nothing.”

Works attributed to him–both before and after the war–were based on his spoken words and lectures rather than on texts that he had composed himself. They were transcribed and edited primarily by his son, Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and by several trusted students having varying degrees of literary skills. This is especially the case after World War II. Much of what we think of as the spiritual writings of Morihei is based on material published in the “Aikido Shimbun” of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo starting in 1959 and continuing following his passing in 1969. What was published in the “Aikido Shimbun” as “Doka” (Songs of the Way) were actually culled from heavily edited transcriptions of tape-recorded talks and lectures given by O-Sensei inside the dojo and elsewhere.

To understand the rationale for the editing of Morihei’s remarks, one must take into consideration the times and psychology of the Japanese during this period. World War II had recently ended, and much of the population were either direct participants, or deeply affected by the war and its outcome. Japan had acquired the stigma of a defeated nation, and many Japanese wished to distance themselves from all things associated with the conflict and those that had led the country into it.

During the early postwar period, subjects related to Japan’s military and political institutions, State Shinto, and the heavy destruction wrought upon the country were topics many Japanese chose to avoid due to the painful associations they held. Moreover, Morihei’s active role in teaching at numerous military installations during the 1930s and early 40s was a subject that the Aikikai chose to mention only in passing for understandable reasons.

Given Morihei’s tendency to speak using religious terminology and concepts, and the difficulty modern Japanese had in interpreting his meaning, the decision-makers at the Hombu Dojo chose to edit O-Sensei’s words in an attempt to make them more palatable to the postwar generation. Another important consideration in this decision was the fact that the effort to disseminate aikido on foreign soil was in full swing. It was thought that foreign enthusiasts of the art would be incapable of understanding such religious imagery anyway, and that some might take offense considering that many early practitioners abroad were themselves war veterans, or adversely affected by the war.

I first became aware of the discrepancy between what had been published under the name of Morihei, and his actual way of speaking when, little by little, recorded tapes of his talks and interviews found their way into my hands in the course of my research.

Early on while residing in Japan, I attempted to have one of these tapes transcribed by educated native speakers on three occasions. The result was the same in that each of them in turn abandoned their attempt due to their inability to understand O-Sensei’s words and determine the appropriate kanji, or Chinese characters, to render difficult terms and concepts.

When I at last produced a transcription and translation of a somewhat easier text of a radio interview of Morihei, we faced a similar problem though on a smaller scale. In an effort to clear up several difficult passages, we approached three persons versed in the subject matter who were close to O-Sensei to aid us in deciphering their meaning. The amazing thing was that every answer on every point of each of the three authorities was different! From that point on, I fully understood the difficulties confronting anyone who attempted to make sense of Morihei’s words.

It is my opinion that there is only one published text that faithfully preserves the content and flavor of O-Sensei’s actual speech. The book is titled “Takemusu Aiki,” edited by Hideo Takahashi of the Byakko Shin Kokai. This Japanese-language book consists of transcriptions of a series of lectures given by Morihei before members of this religious group. Mr. Takahashi was very diligent in transcribing Morihei’s speech and visited the founder periodically in Iwama for help in determining the correct meaning of O-Sensei’s words.

With the permission of Mr. Takahashi, a colleague Sonoko Tanaka–a black-belt student of Morihiro Saito Sensei–and I translated the first four chapters of “Takemusu Aiki.” It was a daunting task, and Sonoko did a good deal of background reading, especially on the “Kojiki,” before undertaking the translation. Below are the links to our translations of these chapters of “Takemusu Aiki.”

Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 1
Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 2
Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 3
Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 4

These English translations represent our best efforts to faithfully render the original Japanese. There are a copious amount of notes accompanying the translations to provide further explanation of difficult passages. We were asked to stop our translation work at this point due to the intervention of the Aikikai.

essence-of-aikido-stevensIn recent years, Professor John Stevens, a Japanese scholar and high-ranking aikidoka, has published a series of volumes on aikido through the Kodansha Publishing House. Several of these books bear the name of “Morihei Ueshiba” as the author. I confess not to have reviewed these works carefully, but Professor Stevens himself has alluded to the difficulty of translating various passages attributed to the founder. Other considerations such as the requirements of the publisher to enhance the saleability of the published works undoubtedly came into play when making editorial decisions.

I wish to make a few observations here. Professor Stevens’ earlier translations were based on materials already published in Japanese, mainly “Doka” appearing in the previously alluded to “Aikido Shimbun.” As I have pointed out, these passages were extensively edited to purge the text of Shinto imagery and difficult-to-understand passages. Professor Stevens latest work, “The Heart of Aikido: The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki,” is a rather loose translation of the Japanese lectures edited by Mr. Takahashi.

Personally speaking, I don’t have any objection to the presentation of Morihei Ueshiba’s spoken word and philosophy in the above-described manner. Given the extenuating circumstances of the aftermath of World War II and the desire to spread aikido beyond the shores of Japan, it is difficult to fault the Aikikai in their decision to proceed in this manner.

At the same time in fairness to readers, I feel it incumbent upon anyone who publishes a work attributed to Founder Morihei Ueshiba to clarify the source of the original Japanese, and any modifications to these texts and the reasoning behind such editorial determinations. I believe this holds true for translated texts as well, particularly given the difficult subject matter.

In conclusion, the published books containing quotations attributed to Morihei Ueshiba available in various Western languages are based on “sanitized” Japanese versions of Morihei’s words. They have been edited and simplified with an eye to presenting text accesible to modern readers, but are devoid of many of those terms and metaphors actually used by the founder of aikido which failed to match the tenor of the times.

A serious attempt to faithfully transcribe, edit and annotate the corpus of recordings of O-Sensei’s speeches and lectures has yet to be undertaken. Readers of the currently available materials should bear this in mind when researching the philosophy of the aikido founder.

Categories: Recommended Reading,Stanley Pranin

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15s Comments

  1. I continue to be awed by your scholarship. Thank you for this very helpful introduction to an imposingly difficult subject!

  2. I wonder if you could comment here or in a follow up article on the authorship of the two works that were published during Ueshiba Morihei’s lifetime, “Budo Renshu” and “Budo”. Both have a similar introductory section including so called doka and then a listing of technique. Is there similar scholarship on the source of these texts and the persons involved in the editorial and publishing process?

  3. In response to Walter’s comment, I will just mention a couple of theories. There is some evidence that it was actually Kenji Tomiki who wrote the text used in “Budo Renshu” under Morihei’s direction. There may also have been someone from the Omoto side who contributed. The case for “Budo” is less uncertain. There are only a few brief comments made by O-Sensei’s son, Kisshomaru, to explain its provenance. I have written up what I know about this subject in the introduction to “Takemusu Aikido Special Edition: Budo” which can be found here: http://www.aikidojournal.com/catalog/productdetails?code=tase

  4. Thanks again for your faithful ongoing work in clarifying where literal history intersects with the interpretation of ideas associated with aikido. In my experience, there are often very different expectations when professional martial artists and professional scholars end up in the same conversation (or even in the same personality).

    I sometimes see martial artists presupposing that truth can only be found in simplicity of expression (perhaps “either he said these words or he didn’t – which is it?”), whereas those accustomed to treating language critically have been trained to assume that any use of language is a complex of meanings (literal, figurative, factual, imaginal) which second hand transmission and translation make even more problematic.

    It has been my delight to discover in many martial artists one particular virtue that applies here, and from which scholars certainly benefit. That is the assumption that, while helpful ideas may come from many sources, there is only one place to receive communication with certain provenance, and that is the mouth of the person claiming the ideas involved. Even so, any speaker, no matter how precise, makes mythology: an imaginative way of cultivating understanding and building systems through language with enough room for the full range of both fact and fiction.

  5. Stan, thank you for this very clearly presented overview of the English translations of O-Sensei’s philosophical writings. Your essay has answered several questions that I have had for a while, and I will make sure that other members of my dojo are aware of this essay.

  6. What you have said here is very important, Stan. While people are continually searching for the meanings in what O’Sensei said and wrote, it is important for us to remember that we don’t really know how much of the information came directly from him, rather than from, or through, somebody else. The phrase “grain of salt” might apply here.

  7. Matt, you may need to expand the comments sections to see them. I’m looking at them right now.

  8. I still don’t see them and I don’t see an “expand comments” link or command. Maybe it’s because I’m not a facebook member.

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  10. Well, I must have a slant on this. I don’t speak or write Japanese. I have trained in Saito Sensei’s Iwama tradition for 40 years now. As I believe I’ve moved through the steps at least as far as ki-no-nagare some of the things O Sensei is reported to have said make some sense. And based on my training I see that expressing some of the stuff that comes with training in words is extremely difficult if not impossible. Understanding those things outside the context of training is probably just impossible. So, as always, “the Way is in training”. It would be nice aesthetically and as a matter of integrity if O Sensei’s work was available unedited, but then the subtleties could always be lost in translation, too.

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  12. This was one of the most interesting articles to read for me. I was training for my Ikkyu test and hated Shomen Uchi Ikkyo Hanmi Handachi. Kawahara Sensei taught this one technique in a seminar, and told the class, “you need to receive 99% of the attack and stare death in the face.” I recognized the Dokka. He made this a real valuable insight for the technique, but I also learned about The Art Of Peace that day – the Dokka are out of context.

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