Interview with Rinjiro Shirata: Part 1

The following interview of Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, 9th dan of Yamagata Prefecture is the first of a two-part series and took place on June 4, 1983 in Shirata Sensei’s home.

Although the history of Aikido is very important, we are sorry to say that there aren’t many items published concerning the pre-war period.

There are almost no publications except “Budo Renshu”, yet there was something called a “mokuroku”, the mokuroku of Daito-ryu. It deals with “ikkajo” and such techniques. It is a scroll with the same contents as “Budo Renshu”. In 1938, “Budo” was given to all people involved with Aikido.

Was the “mokuroku” the scroll you read at the “Budokan” Aikido demonstration?

No, it isn’t. I read a poem called “Ueshiba Sensei o tatou” (In Praise of Ueshiba Sensei), which praises Ueshiba Sensei as a kami incarnate. Both Ueshiba Sensei and Goi Sensei were deeply involved with spiritual matters, so they knew each other very well. That’s why Goi Sensei wrote this poem in praise of Ueshiba Sensei himself. It was published in the memorial photo album (page 99). They met after the war.

Rinjiro Shirata with Morihei Ueshiba

Are you also a direct acquaintance of Goi Sensei?

No, it was through Ueshiba Sensei. After I read the poem in praise of Ueshiba Sensei I began to admire Goi Sensei. I felt that Goi Sensei was the person who best understood the divineness of Ueshiba Sensei.

I understand that Ueshiba Sensei’s views concerning the spiritual world were heavily influenced by the Omoto religion.

Well, yes, I think Omoto influenced him a great deal. Although you may have already learned by reading the memorial photo album or the stories about Ueshiba Sensei, he persistently pursued his study of Budo. Since he wasn’t able to realize his goal, he joined Omoto and achieved enlightenment. However, he wasn’t satisfied with that so he by himself went to places like Nachi and Kurama (Wakayama Prefecture and Kyoto, respectively) to engage in ascetic practices. As a result he was initiated into the secrets of Budo.

Are you personally an Omoto believer?

Yes, my father was also a believer. Ueshiba Sensei and my father met through their involvement in Omoto. This led to my father wishing me to train in Aikido. I entered the dojo during the Kobukan period. It was either the end of 1931 or the beginning of 1932.

How old were you at that time?

Since it was the beginning of the Kobukan period I must have been 18 or 19. At that time there were Akazawa Sensei and Yonekawa Sensei. Their seniors were Iwata Sensei, Yukawa Sensei and Kamata Sensei (See photo album page 43).

Would you describe the atmosphere of the dojo at that time?

The atmosphere of the dojo at that time was completely different from that of the present dojo. There was an altar and a hanging scroll in which “Takehayasusanou no ookami, futsunushi no ookami” and “Takemikazuchi no ookami” were written in the center. The wife of Onisaburo Deguchi was named Sumiko and she was the second successor of the Omoto religion. The husband of their daughter (Naohi) the third successor was named Hidemaro and he wrote the characters using his fingers. They are the names of three budo kami. Ueshiba Sensei venerated those three kami very much. That was placed in the highest position of the altar and Sensei would go there and recite Shinto prayers. Ueshiba Sensei was always with the kami. I think he had been involved in these practices for a long time before that. We memorized prayers naturally. We did the knee-walk naturally by following his example.

From your viewpoint, Sensei, when was O-Sensei at his highest level of development, before or after the war?

He was at his best in the later years of his life, perhaps. I believe he reached his highest level of development after the Iwama years. When I entered the dojo it was about three years after Ueshiba Sensei came to Tokyo from Kyoto. It was right in the middle years of his “shugyo” (ascetic training). Everyday was “shugyo”. In fact, Ueshiba Sensei’s training was much longer than ours. It seemed that through training his energy was activated.

Do you think that Ueshiba Sensei’s attitude toward budo changed a great deal as a result of the war experience?

It can be said that he changed after the war. Aikido was originally for the purpose of harmony so I think that he felt even more keenly about this. After we lost the war he faced reality and pursured his studies of budo further. In any case, it was a period where one had to establish oneself. In our period there were many dojo “busters” who came to challenge us.

Was Tenryu …

Tenryu was not a dojo buster but he challenged 0-Sensei wondering what kind of a strange old man he was. But he was soundly defeated. He entered the dojo only because he was defeated. It was not a period where one did Aikido because he wanted to, like nowadays. Those who were actively involved in martial arts would join a dojo because of losing a match. One wouldn’t have to join a dojo if he won. It was a period where one had to win in budo. We uchideshi (live-in students) absolutely had to win when those people came. If we didn’t beat those people who thought they could easily handle us even though there was no way they could defeat 0-Sensei, they would make light of us. The budo world used to be like that. You absolutely could not lose. That’s why our dojo used to be called the “Hell Dojo”.

Tenryu (illustration)

I understand that the training of the pre-war uchideshi was quite different from that of the general students.

There wasn’t any special training for uchideshi. If there was, it was the “Budo Promotion Association” period in Takeda.

In that dojo there were only people like uchideshi. There weren’t any special classes exclusively for uchideshi. We never practiced techniques in any specific order. It was not a practice where we were taught. As I told you before, Ueshiba had his own training. Therefore, he practiced techniques as he wanted. That was his training. Ueshiba Sensei’s way of explaining techniques was first of all to give the names of karoisama (deities). After that, he explained the movement. He told us, “Aikido originally didn’t have any form. The movements of the body in response to one’s state of mind became the techniques.

How could beginners at that time learn basic techniques?

They learned techniques starting with the “ikkajo” of Daito-ryu Jujutsu from the uchideshi. Techniques like ikkajo, nikajo, shihonage… There wasn’t any iriminage. There were techniques which, on later reflection, can be considered as the antecedents of iriminage. Iriminage was a technique originally developed by 0-Sensei. Sensei’s techniques were always changing. The techniques which had their origin in Daito-ryu were transformed into Aiki and as he trained himself gradually his techniques changed. That’s why the technique Tomiki Sensei learned, the techniques we learned, the techniques Shioda Sensei learned and the techniques Murashige Sensei learned before that were completely different. Sensei sometimes said to me, “Shirata, my techniques have changed. Look!” So I watched him. They became circular in a way completely different from the previous techniques. The person who systemized and perfected those techniques is the present Doshu.

It seems that you have preserved 0-Sensei’s sword as it was before the War.

He didn’t teach us the sword directly. He practiced it by himself. We learned it by watching him. When I was an uchideshi Ueshiba Sensei used to invite a Katori Shinto-ryu sensei to learn the sword. 0-Sensei would sometimes study it for a certain period. (Note: The ken is expressed through the body and body movements are expressed through the ken. This means that subtle changes in breathing (kokyu) coming from ki lead to changes in ki and these in turn become the movements of the body. These movements then become taijutsu which becomes the ken.)

O-Sensei in his later years used the ken to explain techniques. Did he do the same during training before the War?

Yes, he used the ken when we practiced shihonage before the War. He said that the ken and body are the same and the same was the case for the jo. We were taught that the mind is the source and the movement of the body is expressed through the hands which becomes the jo. Thus, the jo is an extension of the mind.

What did teachers of other budo think of O-Sensei’s ken?

I think that they thought it was very unusual. Teachers at that time studied all of the first-rate budo. Hakudo Nakayama Sensei and Sasaburo Takano at that time studied the first-rate martial forms. They practiced all of the forms of the old schools as well as the present Kendo. Among those forms, there resides the spirit of the founder of those schools. The expression of the spirit becomes the technique. If O-Sensei looked at the techniques of those first-rate schools, he understood their spirits.

Did you ever have a chance to see Sokaku Takeda Sensei?

Yes, I met him two or three times. However, I rarely talked to him. Although he was small he was well-built. His eyes were piercing.

Sokaku Takeda (1859-1943)

Did he teach at the Kobukan Dojo?

He didn’t teach techniques. In the old days they didn’t teach anyone but their own students. Even when they taught their own students, they were taught according to their own level. The classical martial arts are still taught that way today.

Have you ever met Takeda Sokaku Sensei’s son (Tokimune)?

Tokimune Takeda

No, I haven’t. I understand that he is now in Hokkaido. I sometimes talk to Doshu about that subject. I hear that he is doing a fine job teaching his art which he calls Daito-ryu. According to Doshu, he says clearly, “My art is Daito-ryu not Aikido.” Even though Ueshiba Sensei studied Daito-ryu, it does not mean that his art was Daito-ryu. 0-Sensei went beyond that and combined various budo and created what we call “Aiki no jutsu”. Although some of the original forms remained in his art, his way of thinking and way of moving the body were very different. My Aikido and Ueshiba Sensei’s Aikido are quite different. The techniques of Tomiki Sensei, Shioda Sensei and Saito Sensei are all different. I think that this is fine. Since Aikido is formless, we move according to how we feel. However, we should do this without forgetting the spirit of budo in ourselves. We must practice while not letting our techniques turn into an “Aiki dance”. It may be okay if we “dance” at the beginning, but gradually it has to become an expression of budo. Ueshiba Sensei expressed Aikido in a budo way. Religious people express Aiki in religious terms. “Aiki” (i.e., “unified ki”) is expressed by singers in songs and artists in their art. The bu of Aiki is not only for budo. Aiki pervades everything. We just express things which unite with the universe. I think this is fine.

I believe you said you entered the dojo at the age of 19. Would you describe the training at that time?

I couldn’t train at all at first. I was just an underling like “Oshin” (a poor servant girl who is the heroine of a highly popular television melodrama). (Laughter) I would clean and wash the dishes left by the senior students and also clean the toilets. We had to do everything. After some months when more junior students appeared, they let us train. First, we would just watch. Then gradually we were able to train. That’s how it was.

Who were the senior students at that time?

Mr. Yonekawa came mainly. Mr. Yukawa sometimes came. There was also a person named Funahashi who has passed away. (Yoichi) Inoue Sensei sometimes came but didn’t train. He might have trained but I don’t remember. There was a distance between Ueshiba Sensei and Inoue Sensei and concerning the latter 0-Sensei would say something like, “I don’t know what to do about Yoichi”. Among the female students there were a Miss Sekiguchi and Miss Takako Kunigoshi. They came everyday. They were really tough. I was helpless against them.

We talked to Ms. Kunigoshi about two years ago.

I’m sure she still remembers me. She used to beat me up regularly. (Laughter) I couldn’t possibly beat her.

We discovered that Kunigoshi Sensei is the person who drew the pictures for “Budo Renshu”. Did 0-Sensei actually pose for the techniques?

That may have been the case… Since Ms. Kunigoshi is an artist she drew very fast. Even though they were small changes of detail, she would draw them rapidly.

Could all of the students obtain copies of that book?

Not all. Ueshiba Sensei gave it to those who caught his eye. I too was given a copy. Those who were given copies left their money on the dojo altar by way of thanks.

I understand that at that time Ueshiba Sensei went to other dojos. Did you accompany him often?

There were many dojos such as Military Police dojo, the Naval Academy dojo, and the Torpedo Technical school and the Akasaka Dojo. Being able to accompany 0-Sensei was one of the dreams of the uchideshi. I used to envy my seniors who accompanied him. When I was finally able to go with him I was very glad. Sensei’s techniques changed depending on the dojo.

Were the techniques he showed in demonstrations and in dojos completely different?

The demonstration techniques were really fantastic, but there were some techniques in the dojo which could not be explained. There was an organization called the “Seigankai”. This was the organization which tried to perfect the techniques of Ueshiba Sensei (at that time his art was called Ueshiba-ryu Jujutsu not Daito-ryu Jujutsu). It was an organization consisting of the supporters of Ueshiba Sensei. There was a meeting once every two or three months or so. There, Ueshiba Sensei dressed in his formal kimono, haori and hakama would do a special demonstration. He showed what he had been practicing and these gatherings were really wonderful. A group of really top people would attend. There was a naval officer by the name of Isamu Takeshita and various people from the financial world, the budo world and the religious world.

Did “dojo buster” type individuals ever come to the dojo while you were engaged in such severe training?

Yes, but they didn’t come as “dojo busters”. They came with the intention of becoming students and being taught.

However, you needed two sponsors to get permission to enter the dojo. Without letters of reference, people wouldn’t be shown any techniques at all. Jigoro Kano Sensei was shown the techniques but Mifune Sensei was not.

Some teachers of Aikido emphasize techniques while others stress religion. What points do you emphasize?

I think both are the same. As you know, your way of thinking is expressed inwards and those words are expressed in physical reality. If physical reality comes first, things don’t go well. You immediately run up against a wall. Ueshiba Sensei also said that the spirit always led the body.

I first saw you seven years ago at the time of the establishment of the International Aikido Federation. I remember you attached importance to warming-up before training and that you personally were wonderfully flexible.

Well, being flexible is indispensable. I think that flexibility is especially important nowadays. We should stretch our bodies thoroughly and naturally.

Did you use to warm-up before training in the old days?

Sensei never had us warm-up before training. We warmed up ourselves while waiting for Sensei to come. As soon as he came the practice began. Even though we practiced before he came, we had to stop and sit in seiza and began with a bow. When Ueshiba Sensei wasn’t able to come, one of the senior uchideshi would go to Sensei and get permission to teach. The technique which Ueshiba Sensei did most often was suwari waza ikkyo. So, the senior would say, “Sensei, we would like permission to do suwari waza ikkyo.” Ueshiba Sensei would answer, “All right.” (Laughter) Training times were one to one-and a-half hours. We often did “kokyu undo”. I guess you could call those exercises our warm-up. They were for the purpose of training our legs and hips. Ueshiba Sensei said that we should start and end with kokyu undo.

Were there many injuries during training before the war?

There were almost no injuries during training. We were very careful about that. One who got injured was senior deshi Mr. Yukawa (since deceased). He was injured when 0-Sensei demonstrated before the Emperor. Mr. Yukawa was injured taking falls for 0-Sensei. If you showed a halfhearted attitude towards Sensei you would get injured (See AN No. 53 for detailed account of this episode). As long as you were serious there wouldn’t be any injuries. There were times when your wrist would be swollen because of nikyo, sankyo and yonkyo and you couldn’t hold chopsticks.

Have you written any books about Aikido?

Not so far. I record the kinds of things we are talking about now in my notebook little by little. I also write down things I explain in the dojo in bits and pieces. However much we explain it won’t be equal to 0-Sensei’s words. The level is different. When it comes to how many times we train a week, we train a maximum of seven or eight hours. But Ueshiba Sensei wasn’t like that. He trained whether awake or asleep whereas I have another job and do Aikido in my free time. I don’t have a natural gift. With that handicap, both the amount of training and the time for thinking is less. It is a matter of course that the levels are different. We can’t catch up to him. Fortunately, the present Doshu who grew up in Hombu Dojo is able to immerse himself in Aikido 24 hours a day. He is around Aikido all the time. His mind will naturally open up. Unless you immerse yourself in Aikido 24 hours a day you won’t be able to attain greatness. As long as I do Aikido as an amateur while holding down another a job, I won’t be able to reach 0-Sensei’s level. You have to train the spirit and body 24 hours a day.

It seems that Ueshiba Sensei immersed himself in budo 24 hours a day, 100% without concerning himself with financial matters.

Yes, he was indifferent to money matters. His wife controlled everything. When you gave monetary gifts he would say, “It’s not necessary”. We would say, “No, not that. This is for the kamisama.” (Laughter) Then, they would receive it from the kamisama. He didn’t concern himself with such things.

(Translated by Stanley Pranin and Ikuko Kimura)

Josh Gold

Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, CEO of Budo Accelerator, and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo.

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