Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?, by Stanley Pranin

“O-Sensei did not teach in Tokyo on a regular basis after the war. Even when he appeared, often he would spend most of the hour lecturing on esoteric subjects completely beyond the comprehension of the students present.”

stanley-pranin-encyFrom Aikido Journal #109, 1996

After practicing and researching aikido for a number of years I gradually arrived at a hypothesis that went against conventional wisdom and the testimonies of numerous shihan who claimed to have spent long years studying at the side of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. I had over the years attended numerous seminars given in the USA by Japanese teachers and also made several trips to Japan where I had seen and trained with many of the best known teachers. My theory was simply that aikido as we know it today was not the art practiced and taught by O-Sensei, but rather any one of a number of derivative forms developed by key students who studied under the Founder for relatively short periods of time. This would account for the considerable divergency in styles, the relatively small number of techniques taught, and the absence of an Omoto-like religious perspective in the modern forms of the art. This was not meant as a criticism of these “modern” forms of the art, but rather an observation based on historical research that ran contrary to common perception.

When I moved permanently to Japan in August 1977, I made a personal decision to study in Iwama under Morihiro Saito Sensei. In the final analysis, what attracted me to Iwama was the emphasis on firmness and precision of technique, and the inclusion of the aiki ken and aiki jo in the training curriculum. I’m sure that the proximity of the Aiki Shrine and the fact that training in Iwama took place in O-Sensei’s personal dojo were also contributing factors.

Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke
Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke

At the same time, I would hasten to mention that I didn’t consider Saito Sensei’s technique to be a faithful continuation of the aikido of the Founder, but rather regarded him as a technical master in his own right.

Looking back, I put Saito Sensei in the same category with well-known teachers like Koichi Tohei, Shoji Nishio, Seigo Yamaguchi, and others who were all highly skilled and had developed original teaching styles which, though initially inspired by Morihei Ueshiba, had evolved into quite different directions.

I recall clearly that, even though my Japanese language skills were rather limited at that stage, I managed to communicate to Saito Sensei my thoughts on this subject and doubts that his aikido was essentially the same as that of the Founder as he claimed. My perception was based on the fact that Saito Sensei’s technique appeared to be quite different from the aikido of the Founder that I had seen on film. Somewhat amused at my skepticism and no doubt my cheekiness considering that I was his student, Sensei patiently explained that the reason for my confusion was that most of what was preserved on film of the Founder were demonstrations. He pointed out that the public displays of technique of the Founder were very different from what O-Sensei showed in the dojo in Iwama. Saito Sensei continued to insist that it was his responsibility to faithfully transmit the aikido of the Founder and that it was not his intention to develop a “Saito-ryu Aikido.”

Despite his best efforts, I continued to have strong doubts on the matter even though my admiration for his technical skills was never in question. Then, one day about several years after my arrival, I was conducting an interview with Zenzaburo Akazawa, a prewar uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba from the Kobukan Dojo period. Mr. Akazawa proceeded to show me a technical manual published in 1938 titled Budo which I had never seen before. It contained some fifty techniques demonstrated by the Founder himself. As I slowly turned the pages of the manual, I was amazed to see that the execution of several basics techniques such as ikkyo, iriminage and shihonage were virtually identical to what I had learned in Iwama under Saito Sensei. Here was the Founder himself demonstrating what I had up until then regarded as “Iwama” style techniques. Mr. Akazawa kindly lent me the book and I hurried to show it to Saito Sensei.

Morihei Ueshiba's 1938 "Budo" technical manual
Morihei Ueshiba’s 1938 “Budo” technical manual

I’ll always remember the scene as I called at Sensei’s door to share with him my new discovery. To my surprise, he had never seen or heard mention of the book before. He put on his reading glasses and leafed through the manual, his eyes scanning the technical sequences intently. I felt compelled then and there to apologize to him for having ever doubted his assertion that he was making every effort to faithfully preserve the Founder’s techniques. Saito Sensei laughed and, obviously with great pleasure, bellowed, “See, I told you so!” From that time on (1981) even up through this day, Saito Sensei always travels to his aikido seminars with a copy of Budo to use as proof to show that a particular technique originated in the Founder’s teachings.

It goes without saying that I was forced to admit that there was at least one instructor who was disseminating aikido in a manner faithful to the original teachings of the Founder. But did this disprove my general theory that the styles of aikido widely practiced today have little to do technically and philosophically with the art of the Founder? Consider the following. If you go to the dojos of any of the major teachers, you will find that their students’ movements closely resemble the teacher in question. Let’s face it, they would be poor students if they did not make every effort to emulate their teacher’s movements. It is often possible to identify students of a given teacher in the context of a large demonstration in which participants from many different dojos appear. Why is it then that there is a such a vast difference among the major styles of aikido if all of the shihan studied directly under the Founder?

Some have said that the Founder’s art changed greatly over the years and that this accounts for the differences in the techniques of his students who learned during different periods. Others state that O-Sensei would teach different things to different students according to their character and ability. I have never found either of these arguments to be particularly persuasive. In fact, when I discovered the old 1935 Asahi News film many years ago I was surprised at how “modern” the Founder’s art was even at that early stage. Moreover, the Founder usually taught groups of students, not individuals, and this fact does not lend support to the theory that he adapted his instruction to the needs of individual students.

No, I believe there is a very different explanation for this considerable divergency of styles. I think it is due primarily to the fact that very few of O-Sensei’s students trained under him for any protracted length of time.

With the exception of Yoichiro (Noriaki) Inoue, a nephew of Ueshiba, Gozo Shioda, the Founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, and Tsutomu Yukawa, O-Sensei’s prewar uchideshi studied a maximum of perhaps five to six years. Certainly this was enough time to become proficient in the art, but not enough to master the vast technical repertoire of Aiki Budo with its many subtleties.

Most of these vigorous young men who enrolled as uchideshi were forced to prematurely end their martial arts training to enter military service. Furthermore, only a handful of these early deshi resumed their practice after the war.

Front row left to right: Hiroshi Tada, Shigenobu Okumura, Kisaburo Osawa, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Sadateru Arikawa, unknown. Back row left to right: unknown, Seiichi Sugano, Fukiko (Mitsue) Sunadomari, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Masamichi Noro, Yasuo Kobayashi, Kazuo Chiba, Mitsunari Kanai. Photo taken c. 1961 at old Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.
Front row left to right: Hiroshi Tada, Shigenobu Okumura, Kisaburo Osawa, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Sadateru Arikawa, unknown. Back row left to right: unknown, Seiichi Sugano, Fukiko (Mitsue) Sunadomari, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Masamichi Noro, Yasuo Kobayashi, Kazuo Chiba, Mitsunari Kanai. Photo taken c. 1961 at old Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.

The same can be said of the postwar period. The initiates of that period include such well-known figures as Sadateru Arikawa, Hiroshi Tada, Seigo Yamaguchi, Shoji Nishio, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Yasuo Kobayashi, and later Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai, Kazuo Chiba, Seiichi Sugano, Mitsugi Saotome and various others. Shigenobu Okumura, Koichi Tohei, and Kisaburo Osawa form a somewhat unique group in that they practiced only briefly before the war, but achieved master status after World War II. None of these teachers spent any lengthy period studying directly under O- Sensei. This may seem like a shocking statement, but let’s look at the historical facts.

Before the war, Morihei Ueshiba used the Kobukan Dojo in Tokyo as his base, but was widely active in the Kansai area as well. In fact, he even had a house at one time in Osaka. Over the years it has become clear to me from listening to the testimonies of the oldtimers that the Founder moved around a great deal and would spend perhaps one to two weeks a month away from the Kobukan Dojo. Also, keep in mind that the early uchideshi ended up being co-opted as instructors due to the burgeoning popularity of the art and the wide-ranging activities of the Omoto-sponsored Budo Senyokai (Society for the Promotion of Martial Arts) headed by Ueshiba. These pioneers studied for relatively short periods, had only limited exposure to the Founder because of his frequent absences from the dojo, and were themselves often away from the headquarters dojo functioning in a teaching capacity.

In the years during and shortly after the war, O-Sensei was ensconced in Iwama. Finally from the mid-1950s he began to resume his travels with regular visits to Tokyo and the Kansai region. By the late 1950s his trips increased in frequency and it seemed no one ever knew where he would be at a given point in time. He divided his time between Iwama, Tokyo, and his favorite spots in Kansai which included Osaka, Kameoka, Ayabe, his native Tanabe, and Shingu. He even visited Kanshu Sunadomari in far away Kyushu. I remember hearing Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei state that O-Sensei visited Shingu more than sixty times after the war. Considering that this refers to a period of about twelve to fifteen years, we see that the Founder was off in Kansai on the average of four to six times per year.

The astute reader will see no doubt see what I am leading up to.

O-Sensei did not teach in Tokyo on a regular basis after the war. Even when he appeared on the mat, often he would spend most of the hour lecturing on esoteric subjects completely beyond the comprehension of the students present. The main teachers at the Hombu in the postwar years were Koichi Tohei and the present Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba.

They were assisted by Okumura, Osawa, Arikawa, Tada, Tamura and the subsequent generation of uchideshi mentioned above. As before the war, the uchideshi of later years would teach outside the Hombu Dojo in clubs and universities after only a relatively short period of apprenticeship. Also, this period was characterized by “dan inflation,” many of these young teachers being promoted at the rate of one dan per year. In a number of cases, they also “skipped” ranks. But that is the subject of another article!

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba at newly opened Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1968
Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba at newly opened Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1968

What does all of this mean? It means that the common view of the spread of aikido following the war taking place under the direct tutelage of the Founder is fundamentally in error. Tohei and the present Doshu deserve the lion’s share of the credit, not the Founder. It means further that O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba was not seriously involved in the instruction or administration of aikido in the postwar years. He was already long retired and very focused on his personal training, spiritual development, travel and social activities.

Also, it should be noted that, despite his stereotyped image as a gentle, kind old man, O-Sensei was also the possessor of piercing eyes and a heroic temper. His presence was not always sought at the Hombu Dojo due to his critical comments and frequent outbursts.

This is the truth of the matter as attested to by numerous first-hand witnesses. In the past I have hinted at some of these things, but have only recently felt confident enough to speak out because of the weighty evidence gathered from numerous sources close to the Founder. I can’t say necessarily that these comments will help practitioners in their training or bring them closer to their goals, but I do sincerely hope that by shining the light of truth on an important subject, those committed to aikido will have a deeper understanding on which to base their judgments. I also hope that the key figure of Koichi Tohei, who has in recent years been relegated to a peripheral role or overlooked entirely, will be given his just due.

Josh Gold

I am Executive Editor of Aikido Journal and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo. I began my aikido journey in 1991 under Haruo Matsuoka and am honored to have been his direct disciple for the last 27 years.

7 comments

Leave a Reply to Charles Warren Cancel reply

  • Is this one of those “omote and ura” questions? Are we falling into the typical western mindset trap, like Toto pulling aside the curtain to reveal the wizard at the controls?

  • I’m French, I was lucky enough to train under Noro Sensei during the mid seventies. It was a few years before he developed his own Ki No Mi Chi. I remember that he often told us about the long O sensei’s speeches.

    Noro Sensei was young and eager to train, and most of the time he did not understand what O sensei was talking about.
    He, and all of uchi deshi had to stay in seiza during long period of time listening to O Sensei waiting to stand up and move their bodies.
    In these years, I think most aikidokas in France hardly knew about Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, or Tohei Sensei.
    The true people who spread aikido, and developed it were Noro, and Tamura Sensei.

  • I suspect (have no evidence) that the founder taught to his students based on what he felt they were ready to receive, which in turn would have depended on the type of person they were and their strengths and weaknesses. It is the only way I can account for the very different messages he seemed to impart to different students. This to me is of paramount importance above counting up numbers of classes. I don’t think modern aikido was created accidentally because the teachers were not getting enough contact time. I think the founder had the time and presence of mind to put into place the type of aikido that he wanted to live on past his death. As a result, we have the multifaceted art that he intended, with no single facet more important than another.

  • I would like to sicerely thank Mr. Pranin for his great efforts. With my style of choice, Yoshinkan, and huge respect for the Daitoryu aikijujutsu, I somehow haven’t really been focusing on the personality of Kaiso himself although I did once order books about him from Japan. Yet, Mr. Pranin’s work has somehow set my mind at peace and reconciled those contradictory views I used to have. Funny as this may sound but Ueshiba Kaiso with piercing eyes and a heroic temper looks much more like the one who helped Shioda Souke become what he was. Also interestingly, when I came back to aikido after a 2 years break I found that my own sensei’s style had drastically changed and was now much softer and flowing. Not all of aikidoka will reach the high level of the great masters of the past but the principles they have taught us will always be there. Exactly with this in mind, I keep unlearning my former “jujitsu-like hard style” and studying more precise and economical moves. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu!

    • I can relate to your comments, although I have trained mostly under Aikikai and generally agree w their approach. I have had injuries and family issues that distanced me from the mat for periods. Although I never stop the study in my mind, upon returning to the mat, I had many realizations. I have also noticed changes in the Aikido of various Sensei, as well as my own.
      I’m nowhere nearly as effortless and soft as I would wish, but it is vastly better than even 5yrs ago (out of the 20yrs that I have been in Aikido).

  • I think it is pretty refuted. We could postulate any number of theories, but there is nothing to materially support that O’Sensei is not the progenitor of Aikido, or of modern Aikido. The evidence that prewar Aikido was materially different than post war Aikido up until O’Sensei’s death is clear indication that he did create the Art and continued to develop it until his death. The further changes/adaptation that have occurred after his death are not to his detriment, but a validation of his own teachings!
    The “relatively small periods of time” these top students spent training under O’Sensei is mostly because most of those students were already advanced martial artists, and were exposed to a great teacher.
    O’Sensei having “minimal presence in Tokio” and teaching “mostly esoteric” things while there is irrelevant. He observed practice while there and would have objected to bad form. He also was the teacher of the instructors, whom did go have actual classes w O’Sensei. AJ’s own videos/essays and interviews would be sufficient evidence of that…
    PS – I value Mr Pranin’s opinion and feel that he is a true scholar in the history n ethnology of/within Aikido. As a scholar I also understand the value and the scholarly calling for discussing these sort of things.

  • Stan,
    I respect your immense insights in Aikido. Your dedication is exceptional and the wealth of information you gave us is unparalleled. I respect the freedom of speech and your freedom to use the information within aikido journal in the way you wish. But I think this subject should be rested as it causes resentment and it hurts. Is Hippocrates the father of medicine? Doctors existed before Hippocrates and medical treatment was practised long before Hippocrates was born. But Hippocrates formulated the principles that govern medical practice ever since and he gave us the oath that remains at the core of medical activities. This is why Hippocrates is and will remain undoubtedly the “founder” of Medicine.

    Aikido is not different. O Sensei polished the art and attached the “spirit” to it. He made sense to all martial forms and formulated the eternal thoughts of Aikido, which was so well summarised to us by his disciple, Seiichi Sugano shihan (my respected Sensei): “Don’t forget the spirit of Aikido, without that there is no Aikido”. This is why O Sensei is and will remain the founder of Aikido.