Stanley Pranin: A Messenger From Aikido’s Past

 

Pranin Interviewing Tissier at the San Francisco Aikido Project, Suginami Aikikai dojo, June 2009 (photo: Jacqueline von Arb)

Text and photos: Jacqueline von Arb (Stavanger JuShinKan Aikido) for aikido.no, June 2009. (This article is hosted in Norwegian on aikido.no)

Stanley Pranin. The name rings a bell, doesn’t it? It should!

That’s the editor-in-chief of THE Aikido Journal. Thanks to Stanley Pranin, many of the videos of O-Sensei and other early masters are available for study on DVD, on AikidoJournal.com and on YouTube. Stanley Pranin is also the man behind the DVD “Christian Tissier — An Aikido Odyssey.”

Did you know that the name of our martial art, aikido, was not chosen by O-Sensei?

Stanley Pranin showed up at the San Francisco Aikido Project, a five-day summer camp with seven daily hours of aikido interspersed with introductory sessions in Brazilian jujitsu, tai chi, yoga, and muay thai, with Christian Tissier (7th dan from France), Bruce Bookman (6th dan from Seattle) and the host James Friedman (5th dan) at Suginami Aikido Dojo in San Francisco this last June of 2009. Stanley, or Stan, as he is known among his aikidoka friends, was there to make a video about the Aikido Project and to interview Christian Tissier about it — and catch a few classes too, of course.

Stanley holds a 5th dan in aikido, but he could equally be considered a master of aikido documentation. During the summer camp, Stan was asked to give a one-hour special talk on the history of aikido during the lunch break. An impossible task, of course—Stan is so full of stories and knowledge, a whole weekend seminar wouldn’t be enough to go through it all. Nevertheless, there he was, in seiza, seizing the audience’s attention with true-or-false quiz questions about O-Sensei or aikido followed by insight and stories — about 20 people were on the mat in rapt attention, including Friedman, Bookman and Tissier!

Did you know that the name of our martial art, aikido, was not chosen by O-Sensei? The art had several names throughout its history, like “daito ryu,” “aikijujutsu,” and “aiki budo.” Then the Japanese government co-opted a martial arts organization called the Butokukai, which needed a category for an array of various lesser known forms of jujitsu. The committee came up with “aikido” as a “cover form,” or generic term, and the name stuck.

Stanley Pranin giving a talk about aikido history at the San Francisco Aikido Project, Suginami Dojo, June 2009 (photo: Jacqueline von Arb)

It was clear that Stan could have gone on for hours. Days. Each word triggered a new story; each story had the potential to evolve into a dozen others. A summer camp of lectures wouldn’t have been enough. Luckily, much of it can already be found on AikidoJournal.com in an innumerable array of articles, interviews, pictures and videos — but it’s not the same as hearing it from the man himself.

Would the interviewer mind being interviewed, for five minutes perhaps—just a small interview? Could an “interview-the-interviewer” interview do justice to the master? But of course, he said, “No problem, let’s find a corner.”

We were allowed to use one of the private rooms of the Suginami Dojo, and appropriately sat in seiza on the tatami-covered floor for the interview.

aikido.no: Jimmy introduced you as one of the guys who introduced aikido to the American West Coast—
Stan: No, no, well, perhaps one of the guys from the second generation of teachers in northern California. Robert Tann, Robert Nadeau, and Frank Doran were the pioneers.

I started aikido in the Yoshinkan style in Los Angeles in 1962. It evolved into a passion that compelled me to travel to Japan in 1977 where one thing led to another, and I ended up travelling with Saito Sensei as an interpreter before coming back to California after 20 years.

“After many unfruitful attempts through regular channels, I employed a somewhat dramatic approach uncommon in Japanese society — I lost my temper — but it worked.”

Stanley Pranin

aikido.no: Where are you based now?
Stan: I’ve been in Las Vegas for the past eight years; I teach a few students out of my garage there.

aikido.no: You’re the man behind the Aikido Journal. It looks like a big operation, or perhaps it is a one-man mission?
Stan: Well, I’ve had a few good helpers along the way, but the content in Aikido Journal is pretty much my work, yes.

aikido.no: Throughout your career, you’ve interviewed an incredible array of aikido personalities, including many of the old masters. How did it start?
Stan: At the time there was no book and way too little information available. I was curious and thirsty for information, so I went out to get it myself. Eventually it became important to me to document and record history before it was too late.

aikido.no: Access to the old masters was not always easy?
Stan: A genuine interest opens many doors, good knowledge and friendships open others, and sadly, sometimes it becomes too late. But it’s true, sometimes it proved to be a difficult task.

Stanley Pranin speaking with Christian Tissier during a break at the San Francisco Aikido Project, Suginami dojo, June 2009 (photo: Jacqueline von Arb)

aikido.no: How so?
Stan: Well, imagine the opposite, imagine that some Japanese person, a complete stranger to you and your family, speaking so-so English, shows up and wants to know everything about your father or grandfather, perhaps already knows a lot about you and your family, wants take pictures, wants to document your history from his or her own “outsider” cultural point of view and—on top of it all—wants to make it available to everyone worldwide? It is understandable to be met with apprehension at what could be considered an invasion of privacy.

aikido.no: Would you share a particularly memorable encounter?
Stan: Well yes: finally meeting the nephew of O-Sensei, Noriaki Inoue (then known as Yoichiro Inoue), was very special, as there were many blocks to overcome. After many unfruitful attempts through regular channels, I employed a somewhat dramatic approach uncommon in Japanese society — I lost my temper — but it worked, and this meeting opened many new areas of aikido history for me[1]. I hope they forgave my crude manners.

aikido.no: I take it you’ve become privy to some sensitive stories?
Stan: Hmm, well yes, inevitably, that would happen sooner or later. There are some stories that are too sensitive to be published at this time. These will probably have to wait for the next generation (or perhaps even two) of aikido historians. Some are still only in here [points to the back of his head], and will probably stay there forever.

aikido.no: There is so much material, articles, interviews, videos; how do you have time for all this?
Stan: I don’t have enough time; really, there’s so much more that needs to be recorded, so much more that has to be documented, so many pictures that need a caption!

aikido.no: How do you see yourself? Are you an aikido historian or an aikido archivist?
Stan: Well, I do have a lot of documents, photographs and videos and I take care of them, which would perhaps make me an archivist, and I have amassed a certain knowledge of the history of aikido, but really, I am “just a collector with a fascination for aikido,” or perhaps I am a just a messenger from the past.

“[At age 14] I found one book called Matthew Brady — Historian with a Camera, which was a collection of people photographed by [famous Civil War photographer] Brady and his students, but what made it special is that all the pictures were accompanied by fascinating anecdotes.”

Stanley Pranin

aikido.no: Was there anything special that triggered this passion of yours?
Stan: I particularly remember something that happened when I was about 14. My family visited Knotts Berry Farm, near Disneyland; it was one of those Old West villages where there also was a bookshop. There I found one book called Matthew Brady — Historian with a Camera, which was a collection of people photographed by [famous Civil War photographer] Brady and his students, but what made it special is that all the pictures were accompanied by fascinating anecdotes. The photograph of Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill, for instance, is his. I still have that book!

aikido.no: And now, you’ve become the Matthew Brady of aikido?
Stan: I didn’t set out to become that at the time, but I suppose that book has been an inspiration for what I would like to leave behind.

aikido.no: What is going to happen to your collection/archive when your time is up? Masters have students that carry on their work—do you have a successor?
Stan: This is one of my main concerns as I’m getting older. I have considered giving the Aikido Journal to an archive, but I’ve seen too many a collection crumble and disappear once institutionalized. There is presently no successor for my work either, or if there were to be one, it should be someone with considerable means, as this type of work isn’t exactly lucrative … or perhaps I should just put everything on the net? No, I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to this problem yet, but I am definitely thinking about it.

aikido.no: What are you currently working on?
Stan: I have an endless number of DVDs and books to complete.

aikido.no: They will be announced on aikidojournal.com, I’m sure!
Stan: Of course, and on your website too, I hope!

The five minutes Stanley Pranin had promised me had turned into a lively conversation of 45 minutes — another proof of his passionate dedication. In the next room, Christian Tissier had changed for his next session. “Alors?” Tissier said in French as he went past us to catch the last few minutes of the aikido self-defense class going on below us. “Oui, oui, on arrive!” A hurried “thank you so much” and “no problem” were exchanged as we scrambled to the changing rooms. We cannot afford to miss a class with one of today’s masters, can we? After all, this could be history in the making!

[1] See one of Stan’s articles about Yoichiro (Noriaki) Inoue: “Aikido’s Forgotten Pioneer”

Josh Gold

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

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