Beautiful! Inspiring!… But Did O-Sensei Really Say it?

“What is problematic for Prof. Stevens is that he has no way of verifying the authenticity of the Japanese text that he is using as a source.”

Yesterday, we posted a blog titled “Hey Stan! Did O-Sensei really say this?”. This article dealt with the fact that, with few exceptions, what O-Sensei actually wrote and said is not actually known or accessible. What has been published are edited versions of his talks with no reference to the fact that the Founder’s remarks have been redacted. The blog generated a large amount of discussion on Facebook. Many important issues related to this topic were brought up. Please DO read through these comments which I have culled and edited from the Facebook thread. – Editor


Stanley Pranin: We have no way of knowing if [the words attributed to O-Sensei] are really his. I try to start with audio recordings with his actual voice. Then I look at Hideo Takahashi’s “Takemusu Aiki” text. Other than that, we have to accept on faith that the words [as they appear] are of O-Sensei because we cannot verify this one way or the other.

Kresimir Horvat: Why is it not possible that he actually did say such words since he was a great man and a visionary? Today many aikidoka are truly like family and we often help each other and other people. [edited for English]

Stanley Pranin: He may have said similar things. How can we know? Do you trust the people who edited and published these texts without documenting their work? You have to take a stand on this. I trust nothing that’s not well documented from a variety of sources. It’s a similar situation with biblical texts.

Andrea Molle Montanari: Who knows. The Aikikai established a cult after O-Sensei’s death. I honestly can’t trust half of what is being said and quoted. Stanley Pranin Sensei, of course your works are different because you have legitimate and documented sources. But you are the exception, I am afraid.

Jason Humphrey: Yes, Sensei Pranin is. He, and a handful of people who where with O-Sensei are all that’s left. And, even then it’s hard to tell, because each person tells their stories through the lens of their own experience, tainted by time, as they are all now in their 70’s. It’s as precarious a time for Aikido as when O-Sensei died, imho. [Note: Stanley Pranin never met O-Sensei in person]

Mark DeFillo: After somewhat long consideration (starting with earlier discussions of the issue going back several years), I have somewhat mixed feelings on the issue. We definitely have to take with a grain of salt the edited and translated versions, knowing them to be simplified and whitewashed. Yet I see no particular reason to think that the essence is greatly distorted – beyond the necessity from their point of view in making it understandable to a ‘modern’ international audience. At the same time, it would also be ideal (and academically proper) if the Aikikai would release and publish any originals that may exist, for the sake of those who would be able to appreciate and understand (to some degree) them.

I do not think the edited and translated versions should be rejected as such – they serve particular purposes – but they should be understood to be what they are, distinct from the original versions. If we make an analogy with Biblical texts, as Pranin Sensei mentions, the original words of O-Sensei are like the original Bible texts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek dialects, and the English versions of [John] Stevens Sensei can be compared to simplified translation excerpts sometimes used by missionaries for teaching new or prospective converts (simplified in language, and usually whitewashed to minimize violence, hatred, etc. in the Bible texts).

O-Sensei’s thoughts and words are thoroughly imbued with the influences of Shingon Buddhism, Shinto, and particularly the Omoto-kyo, as well as by the political necessities of living in the pre-WW2 era, without benefit of freedom of speech under the law, and simply the environment of his particular generation. Even his early Japanese students almost unanimously state that his spiritual words were almost incomprehensible to them – most simply lacked the background to understand them. This was naturally even worse in the post-War era, and ever more so since then. Then when we come to non-Japanese students, the problem is far worse, even though it was already nearly insurmountable to many. Each of the spiritual traditions involved is esoteric in its own right – needing special training to properly understand it; and O-Sensei’s thought is ultimately his own combination of all of them. That creates a unique problem in understanding and interpreting.

As such, I cannot fault Nidai Doshu [Kisshomaru Ueshiba] for editing his father’s talks to make them comprehensible to then-younger Japanese people, lacking the specialized religious education needed; nor can I fault Stevens Sensei’s translation and further editing, making them comprehensible to a wide range of international readers.

On the other hand, there are people who do have the capacity to understand, or at least the desire to try, and for their (our?) sake, it would be greatly desired to have the original versions available for study.

For the post-war period, one important aspect was the political need to avoid things couched in the words of pre-War nationalism. Both for Japanese and international Aikidoka, those things would have been highly problematical for various reasons. However, by now, or soon enough, those events and the resulting tensions and feelings, should be far enough in the past that people should be able to see the originals and take them in the context of their period, just as we can read Huckleberry Finn with its descriptions of a deeply racist society with race-based slavery that are now deeply objectionable except to right-wing extremists.

So, again, the edited and translated versions are clearly distinct from the originals, but they are tools for trying to convey the key messages (as understood by the successor Doshus) to various audiences that in truth would not be able to understand O-Sensei’s unedited words, and also in some cases would probably be offended by parts of them; neither of would be of benefit to either the readers or to Aikido. But if originals still exist in some Aikikai file, it would be a good time to release them for the use of those relative few who might actually be able to use them.

Stanley Pranin: Mark, thank you very much for the excellent summary of the state of affairs concerning the modern texts that we have that purport to be the words of the Founder.

Neither do I fault the Aikikai for doing what they did in “simplifying” and editing the texts. The problem for me as a historian is that they have concealed what they have done.

In this situation, then, the Aikikai being an “authoritative” source, practitioners who don’t understand the historical and cultural background will in many cases accept these questionable texts as “gospel”, and then from there produce an unending stream of blogs, articles, and books who theses are essentially built on sand and whose basis cannot be defended because there are no source documents.

I agree that the Aikikai should see if they have any original transcripts. It may even be that the audio tapes exist.

I think the likelihood of them doing so is small, but would certainly welcome such materials if they ever see the light of day.

Jason Humphrey: Sensei Pranin, I agree, disclosure of what and why is a MUST.
Because it also applies to other aspects of Aikido. Things where changed to make it easier to spread Aikido, both in terminology and applications. As where some of the popular “sayings”. I’ve been told that the saying Masakatsu Agatsu Hayabi, is not how O-Sensei said it. But again, that is one persons memory, one persons understanding, etc.

This person has been my teacher for 25 years, so of course I choose to believe him. But I’m much older than when I began Aikido, so I don’t go running around parroting the ideas, turning it into dogma.

Cult of personality is another big danger for the future of Aikido, imho.

Mark DeFillo: FWIW – Stevens Sensei, at least, acknowledges his editing, though with only general descriptions, rather than any detailed documentation. He specifies removing nationalistic language, and repetitive statements. The example I’ve seen most recently is in a note attached to ‘The Secret Teachings of Aikido’ (his version of “Aiki Shinzui’, the Japanese collection of talks edited by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Nidai Doshu). I can’t speak for whatever, if anything, Nidai Doshu may say about his own editing, since my Japanese literacy is less-than-fluent, though I have Aiki Shinzui. But if you say he did not acknowledge it, I can trust your word!

As far as simplifying, I have been in the position of explaining a few different theologies and philosophies to people of widely different levels of knowledge of the topic, so I know from experience how necessary it can be to simplify technical language of theology, philosophy, spirituality and symbolism. That gives me a certain special sympathy for the task.

Jason Humphrey: Yes, for sure not an easy one. From what I understand, O-Sensei was so different (i.e. weird) that even his words where hard to follow and understand for contemporary Japanese. So yes, first understanding something of Aikido, plus Japanese, and then trying to unravel O-Sensei’s meanings is a big task. Not to leave out the cultural and time differences to be taken into account…

Stanley Pranin: What is problematic for Prof. Stevens is that he has no way of verifying the authenticity of the Japanese text that he is using as a source. It becomes a matter of “faith”. We are thus twice removed from an unknown source and obliged to accept on faith both the work of Prof. Stevens and the Aikikai. I personally reject this type of “scholarship” and thus have alluded to this unfortunate state of affairs on various occasions.

Jamie Yugawa: Honestly in the last couple of years the translations of what O Sensei said are shown to be flawed. If you add the adulation many in the west have to have for Japanese culture and the Sensei worship that many have makes for some bad transfers of ideas.O Sensei has morphed from a fearsome martial artist into a Japanese version of Gandhi. The image of the 1st and 2nd generations of western students is of a nice old man that didn’t want to hurt people. This image is so skewed from the original source. I went to one dojo where a conflict between students was not resolved through conflict mediation but through the sensei reading a doka on taking ukemi like a passage of the bible.

Stanley Pranin: I agree fully, Jamie. That’s exactly the kind of cult-like activity that arises when you’re not anchored to a verifiable source. You must know your starting point as it serves as a beacon.

Jamie Yugawa: Stanley Pranin – I have had arguments with people about this very subject. But people seem very attached to that particular idea of O Sensei being a peace loving old man. You bring up the facts and they dodge around the issue. This cult mentality was great for recruiting, but many of those people are just brainwashed beyond comprehension. To each their own I guess…

Categories: Contributed,Featured

9s Comments

  1. If my goal is to practice the aikido which cannot be seen with the eyes, that goes far beyond the aikido which cannot be described in words. When something good, even extraordinary, happens I might try to put words to it, but deeds far outweigh them. One of the clips above reminded me of a time when I turned my own wrath into laughter. The wrath served its purpose at the time and the laughter remains. 😉

  2. I think I have learned more about O’Sensei and his art by watching the historic films that have been left behind of him performing. One picture is worth 1,000 words. I’ve worked out with and spoken with several of O’Sensei’s original students in my 40+ years of Aikido training. Most of them agree that they did not understand what Sensei was saying but they did try their best to mimic what he was doing. I have been told by famous Senseis that you learn by being the uke, the teachings are passed onto to you through your training. Doing is the act of learning. Doing is also the act of teaching or passing on what you have learned.

  3. Ueshiba Sensei was not a teacher in the modern sense. He taught according to the level he had reached at the moment a student started. Consequently new students knew only what they had been exposed to and tended to deny everything else.

    In order to learn from such a teacher, one would have to be fully and unconditionally committed. That means to make oneself available 24/7 and accept any hardship as a learning opportunity. It requires the ability to absorb everything as a sponge, to verify the teachings through study and practice (keiko) and to cultivate equanimity (maintaining an impartial mind in the midst of life’s changing conditions). That also requires the awareness that the teacher is a human being who has been struggling with his own demons –at a more advanced level, though –the antidote to the cult of personality.

    If one retains for example 60% of what one has learned from a teacher and only repeats and teaches what one has learned without doing kenkyu, then the next generation of students may retain 36% of what they learned, the following generation will retain 13% and so on. What’s left from the original teachings after that?

    Today’s students practice an average of 2 to 3 times a week and come to the dojo for exercise and relaxation. In our self-centered consumers’ society it is understandable that some market-oriented organizations have been presenting Aikido as an exotic form of physical entertainment.

    Thank you Pranin Sensei for stimulating our awareness.

    Patrick Augé

  4. I used to have two literary shibboleths for anything attributed to O-Sensei: if it did not talk about Yamatodamashi, and if it read like something from a 1960s New Age hippy writer, it was probably spurious. Of course O-Sensei’s opinions changed in later life, but the Shinto/ Japanese roots remained. Does anyone seriously think that his vision of a world devoted to Aikido and Peace was not to be led from Japan? We are all products of our times and places. O-Sensei was acculturated during a period of growing Japanese nationalism and pride. We do him, and history, a disservice if we eliminate things that do not resonate well with our Zeitgeist. O-Sensei was many things but what we can only learn from the original sources not from organizations or people who are desperate for approval from e.g. American occupation forces. To substitute “the whole world” for “the (triumphant) spirit of Japan” is at best disingenuous and at worst misleading.

  5. Skoyles Sensei: “Used to have…”? What about now?

    Being familiar with your etymological precision, I would hesitate to assume that the more contemporary meaning of “shibboleth”, that of an outmoded belief that should now be discarded, was intended. Rather, I read into your remarks the meaning of a test for authenticity (or, as you put it, the lack of it). You did, however, take the liberty of basing the test on the content or style of the attribution, rather than the phonetic ability of the speaker (attributer?) to articulate the particular phoneme or phonemes unique to a given language, but that’s understandable. What I found confusing was whether or not you meant to imply that you no longer found your two tests useful as a measure of validity. Somehow I can’t see you abandoning these two valid criteria that seemed to have served you so well in the past. (Perhaps my understanding was affected by the unrelated but misleading modern use of the word). Or was that merely your trademark playful use of language?

    Your insistence on basing one’s best understanding of O Sensei’s true views on the unadulterated source material aligns with Pranin Sensei’s view. Without necessarily needing to impugn the Aikikai’s message, which may indeed have a valid thrust on its target audience, surely we, outside the Official Aikikai organisation, should be free to seek the truth, as we see it, through examination and thoughtful reflection on the source material. Having said that, though, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have that access (to the unadulterated source) that we crave.

  6. “Shibboleth” was a test for membership, viz. Judges 12:4ff. Now I hardly think about these things at all. I would rather practice, but Stanley keeps bringing up such interesting matters!

  7. Patrick auge: your post is absolutely spot on. You have a deep understanding of budo and readers would do well to pay attention to your words! Yoroshiku onegaeshimasu!

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.