“A Biography of Rinjiro Shirata – Part 1,” by Kozo Kaku

Rinjiro Shirata (1912-1993)

A Talent known as the “Kobukan Prodigy”
A Contest Between Different Styles

“Fold them in two,” is a good way to put it. This certainly describes Rinjiro Shirata’s attitude. He was tough on opponents who challenged him, to the point of being uncaring. It was hard not to feel sympathy for the challenger.

Of course, he had good reason for his demeanor.

Construction of the Kobukan Dojo was completed in April 1931 on the site where the present Aikikai Honbu Dojo now stands. The dojo held 80 tatami mats and was headed by a great master of the period, Morihei Ueshiba. At the time, he was teaching a martial art called things like “Ueshiba-ryu Jujutsu” or “Aiki Budo.” Important people such as business leaders and high-ranking military officers were drawn by his fame and lined up to be his students.

At the same time, Morihei attracted young men from all over the country who came to the Kobukan in an effort to meet him. But Morihei wasn’t trying to spread his personal budo across the world. Instead, his efforts were directed toward further progress and the refinement of his personal technique. He didn’t say it was a nuisance; he just did not have much interest in having many students, especially uchideshi, or throwing his doors wide open. It could be said that, for this reason, he never admitted an aspiring student who asked to join without a proper introduction from a sponsor, and this reinforced a mystique that covered the private confines of the Kobukan like a veil.

Happily, Rinjiro Shirata, who aspired to be an aikidoka, was blessed with a sponsor and, with the teacher’s approval, became an uchideshi in 1932. A year later, he had distinguished himself among the uchideshi.

“Hey Shirata, see who’s out front!”

Whenever there was a menacing visitor, the senior uchideshi always had Rinjiro take care of it. Indeed, he had a good physique. His height was 5’ 7”, his weight, 165 pounds, and he was 20 years old. He was a son of the Yamagata “Mountain Forest King” and it showed in his countenance. His fair skin, eyes, nose and mouth projected the clear image of Momotaro, the Peach Boy, straight out of a fairy tale.

“I’ll take care of it.”

The stylish Rinjiro tied a hakama over his training uniform and on top of that wore a hatch-patterned haori coat without any identifying crest. He politely asked the visitor the purpose of their visit. No, he didn’t ask. Rather he saw what was written on the visitor’s face; they had come to fight with the school and Morihei Ueshiba.

Most of the Kobukan uchideshi had high ranks in kendo or judo. Probably for that reason, uchideshi with judo experience rushed to meet a visitor if it was apparent that he did judo. At this dojo, whoever was fastest won, but the unwritten law was that seniors had priority.

Rinjiro had been the captain of his school’s judo club, and his strength was unsurpassed back in his home prefecture. However, he was not allowed to meet judo visitors; the seniors grabbed them all. Rinjiro was only chosen to take care of suspicious looking visitors when it was unclear what kind of martial art they used.

“Because I wish to enroll, please give me a lesson.”

The visitor that day was a tall thin man of about thirty with thick stubble on his hollow cheeks. He had a husky voice, and at first he bowed his head, but then he stared back at Rinjiro ominously through narrowed eyes, as if he didn’t know how to blink.

After explaining the history and the spirit of Aiki Budo, Rinjiro said, “A person who wishes to study aikido should start with the spirit. If the spirit is not correct, the path will also be incorrect.” But from the start the visitor refused to listen. “What I want is the one thing at which the Kobukan excels.” Hearing that, Rinjiro resigned himself and invited the visitor into the dojo.

The senior student, Aritoshi Murashige, was in the dojo, and Gozo Shioda ( later head of the Yoshinkan) entered at the same time. Neither of them appeared particularly tense; rather they looked at Rinjiro and the visitor with faces full of anticipation.

The Aiki of One Blow, Certain Victory

“Please bow before the kami.”

While Rinjiro was showing him into the dojo the visitor said, “Teach me with your actions.” Without warning, the man unleashed a furious kick at Rinjiro, whose back was turned. Surprised, Rinjiro just managed to twist his body. The man stood with his left leg forward, deeply bent, and the back leg straight, he put his left hand straight out and his right was near his hip.

“Is he coming?”

As Rinjiro noticed him bend his rear leg to strike, the man sent out another strong kick. The movement of his body was quick. It was obviously karate. The kick is called “Crescent Moon Kick” in some karate styles, but of course Rinjiro didn’t know that.

It’s redundant, but people who have only seen aikido after the war when it was completed harbor doubts about a situation involving an opponent using arts like karate or boxing. Would aikido win, or would they be evenly matched?

Certainly, today’s aikido gives the impression of circularity, and is focused on non-aggressive defense, so it is probably hard to find a response for that kind of destructive power. Nevertheless, in the aikido of Rinjiro’s time, attack and defense were simultaneous. Moreover, “aiki” was certain victory with a single blow.

Just before the opponent sent out his right kick, Rinjiro’s left shoulder was pushed out a little to the side as he stood with his left foot forward. This was clearly an invitation to the opponent. The kick came flying towards his shoulder. Entering diagonally to the front Rinjiro instantly avoided it. Using his front left hand, he placed a hard fist in front of the opponent’s eyes.

Normally at this point, the match would clearly be Rinjiro’s. He had demonstrated a strike aimed not only at the face, but at the eyes. The opponent didn’t understand this and he jumped nimbly backwards, so Rinjiro quickly closed the distance and delivered a bitter lesson.

There was a technique, “rokkajo”, that the uchideshi used constantly in contests between schools at the Kobukan in this period. Now it probably can be called a phantom technique. Yokomenuchi to the opponent’s front or side in response to their thrust; the same essential points are in today’s yokomenuchi shihonage. The points that differed the most were that the face was struck and the opponent’s elbow twisted to its limit. In the end, opponents were put on their stomach using the lever principle and their wrist held down with the knee. At the same time, their spine was completely pinned.

Rinjiro was endowed with strong physical ability. People in his hometown often saw him easily tossing large bales of rice. He grasped the elbow, or possibly the wrist of the opponent who had been pinned with rokkajo, and seizing the neck with the other hand he lifted the man up and casually tossed him backwards. It’s likely that the man’s arm was broken as he was thrown, and not being able to take the fall, he ended up seriously injured.

“Idiot! Can’t you go a little easier?”

Rinjiro in Osaka, c. 1935

Morihei, who happened to be present, thundered at Rinjiro. But this was just for the visitor, who had suffered harsh damage. After sending him away hobbling with a stick, Morihei said, “Well done. That was good.”

Morihei broke into a smile and became cheerful, treating Rinjiro to some sweets. Rinjiro said, “In my own way, I was going easy.” If he were asked, he would have said that his treatment of the visitor was justified. As evidence, Rinjiro said that when facing visitors who had requested a match, he had never actually hit anyone. However, it depends how you take that. It could be said that he dared to omit strikes because ending the match with one blow would be uninteresting.

“What? That’s it? Kind of boring, isn’t it? If you had fallen, I would have taken your place.” The senior student, Murashige, grumbled, looking bored. This was an outrageous dojo and had the name, “Hell Dojo ” among the people. That doesn’t seem like an exaggeration. If one searches for strong martial arts in history, no doubt the Kobukan uchideshi of this period would be among the best in Japanese history.

Before the Kobukan

In later years, when Rinjio was asked about what it was like in those days, he replied in the following manner, “The only two skills were rushing forward and constant motion. Go straight forward or enter beside the opponent? Although I did irimi, I didn’t do tenkan! I only did techniques like ikkyo, nikkyo and what’s now called shihonage in the dojo. Ueshiba Sensei often said that if a step is just a little misplaced the technique wouldn’t work. He also said that, with only a little turn of body or the legs, the technique is completely wrong.”

Rinjiro, who had met Morihei by chance, was fascinated by his mysterious, wonderful skill that almost appeared to be divine technique. Before he knew it, he had decided to dedicate his life to this path. Strangely, until Rinjiro met Morihei, he had never seen aikido. It could be said that it was all based on his father’s actions.

For generations, the Shirata family were high-level bushi warrior class using the hereditary name Yajiuemon [prominent family members would adopt this as their first or given name]. It was a noted family that had continued for twelve generations to Rinjiro’s father, and also produced a notable person like Shirata “Geki” [an archaic title of nobility], who was linked to Hachiro Kiyokawa [1830-1864}, and played an active role as a patriot on the imperial side during the Bakumatsu period [last days of the the Edo period leading to the Meiji restoration ca. 1853 to 1867].

Rinjiro’s father and grandfather worked as heads of their village, and since the Meiji era, were known as wealthy landholders. Rinjiro’s father served in the hard fought Battle of Heikotai [aka The Battle of Sandepu, 1904] during the Russo-Japanese War in which his honorable exploits as a hero with a high reputation were displayed. The battle of Heikotai was a clash between a Japanese Army of 53,800 men and a Russian Army of 96,218 men. It was a bitter battle in which the Japanese sustained three times the Russian casualties: 1848 Japan, 641 Russia .

Rinjiro was the fourth of five siblings. There was the eldest son and daughter, a second daughter, Rinjiro, and after him, a younger sister. He was born as what is commonly referred to as a wealthy family’s second son, and before he entered primary school, he lived with a nanny. [The implication is that Rinjiro lived at a different residence in the manner of the samurai and noble families of old.] “The father of my nanny was a person who liked trout fishing, and I have vague memories of going on fishing trips together.” [From the first issue of the Yamagata Aikikai Newsletter]

Rinjiro, who returned to the Shirata household at the same time he entered primary school, spent his school days as a mischievous boy doing things like killing snakes and being cursed in dreams or smashing hornet nests, and being chased by the hornets.

When he entered Shinjo Middle School, both kendo and judo were required subjects his first and second years. In his third year, he chose judo as his elective. Rinjiro later said that he chose judo because he had confidence in his physical strength and size. Although he was third year, it appears that he frequently defeated fourth and fifth year upperclassmen. In his fourth year, he became team captain, and in his fifth year, he transferred to the Takachiho Middle School in Tokyo.

Not only was my eldest brother there, but my older sister was going to a Tokyo school, and they were renting a house, so it was no surprise that we lived together. The house was on the Odakyu train line near the stop called Hachimandai. The four of us–my younger sister, my older sister, my eldest brother, who was working and living in Tokyo, and myself–rented the house together. In the end, my eldest brother, my younger sister and I remained. [Yamagata Aikikai Newsletter]

Rinjiro was a judo nidan in middle school at 17 years of age. The level of judo practiced at Shinjo Middle School was also higher than in Tokyo. Rinjiro was enthusiastic and started going to after school tournaments at nearby schools. Even so, he seemed to have an excess of energy. He also practiced at police dojos with the regular adult students.

And yet, the interesting point about Rinjiro is that there are no stories about him doing things like fighting in the street. Even though he gave up holidays and devoted himself to judo, he said that he never thought of testing his power outside of judo. Good breeding and an expansive character come to mind.

When asked in the aforementioned newsletter about what he wore back then, Rinjiro replied in the following manner:

Compared to here (Yamagata) the clothes (in Tokyo) were stylish… I wore what you’d call a school uniform. I wore the same kind of uniform as the Gakushuin [a private school attended by the imperial nobility]. Of course, I wore lace up boots for shoes, not geta [wooden footwear]. I kept my pants neatly creased and things like that.

Rinjiro said he pressed his trousers himself by putting them under his mattress and wasn’t drawn into the overly stylish atmosphere of the school. After finishing his studies and graduating, he just “hung around for a year or two.”

Rinjiro’s entry into the Kobukan was connected to the fact that he didn’t have any definite aspiration for the future, and no need to hurry due to the affluence of his family.

Enrolling in the Kobukan

Rinjiro Shirata, second from right, c. 1935

Unbeknownst to Rinjiro, his father had worries about the future of his calm, easy-going son. By contrast, Rinjiro’s father was an ardent believer of the Omoto religion. Around that time, he was blessed with the opportunity to see a demonstration by Morihei Ueshiba in Ayabe [site of the Omoto religion headquarters]. He was immediately amazed, and thinking, “That’s it!” made up his mind to urge Rinjiro to try “Ueshiba-ryu Yawara.”

In the last part of 1931, Rinjiro and his father visited the Kobukan in Wakamatsu cho for the first time.

Really, until I got there I didn’t know aikido. I hadn’t heard anything about aikido or Ueshiba Sensei when I was taken to the Kobukan by my father. My father always liked budo–kendo, judo, etc.–and he promoted it when he was mayor. With the motivation of having a child do something that he couldn’t do himself, he took me without discussing it, and I think if I agreed, then he planned to leave me there.

Rinjiro seems to be extraordinarily magnanimous because he was thrown into the middle of the aikido uchideshi who were complete strangers and his life as an uchideshi started.

In an interview done in later years he was asked, “Didn’t you think about saying no or wonder about what would happen?”

What can I say? That period was a time when you had to listen to what a parent said, and what’s more, I enjoyed budo too. I joined the Kobukan with the feeling that if my father said to, I should probably give it a try.

He enrolled at the Kobukan, which had the nickname “Hell Dojo,” and the year he joined was like a prewar golden age. Everyone there was confident in their ability. Rinjiro didn’t feel any pressure about that sort of thing. The seniors were strong, but that was all.

The job of an uchideshi always starts with cleaning. The everyday cleaning of the toilet, entrance and dojo became Rinjiro’s responsibility. Of course, Morihei didn’t teach him a single technique, but Rinjiro said that he received a little instruction secretly from the senior uchideshi during breaks between cleaning. The seniors who taught only did one-sided techniques–throwing or pinning him. In any case, it was a painful experience.

There were about ten (uchideshi). Those days, what can I say… Within the Omoto, there was something called the “Budo Senyokai,” and there were branches of the Budo Senyokai [Martial Arts Promotion Association, est. in 1932] in various places. It was a time when the people of one such branch called the “Showa Seinenkai” [Showa Youth Association, est. in 1929] were going out and propagating budo. The majority were what would be called Omoto believers, but of course, not only that, there were also the kind of people who wanted do aikido as specialists who were not connected to Omoto. There were people who didn’t just teach in the dojo, but traveled to other places to teach too. Those people would come back from time to time, would be there for a couple of days, and leave.

There was an abundance of practice partners. For novice uchideshi that wasn’t the issue. In those days, there was 6 am training at the Kobukan, but those who had only been uchideshi for a short time didn’t attend. They assisted Morihei’s wife with breakfast preparation. Even if they were lucky and didn’t have any chores, uchideshi could only enter the dojo, and watch the teacher’s regular practice, but just remain seated and watch fixedly.

Naturally, Sensei taught what were called “outside students” who came regularly from outside the dojo. There wasn’t any “uchideshi only training,” so when Sensei taught visitors from outside the dojo, the uchideshi’s role was only to receive techniques. So we weren’t even full training partners. When training finished and Sensei retired to his living quarters, we would say “What was that technique just now?,” and another uchideshi would teach us.

At first, it seems that Rinjiro had culture shock, which is understandable. Rinjiro only knew kendo and judo. He reminisced in later years, “It was a completely different thing. Completely different. I thought, how does it go so quickly? I was astonished.”

The early morning training ended and before eating, more cleaning was waiting for me. The dojo, inside and outside the entry hall, Sensei’s living room, and so forth. “Various kamisama (deities) were enshrined in the room where Sensei slept. I would address the front of the altar and perform tasks like offering pure water and sake, cleaning the Shinto altar, and what is called the work of “serving the kami.” The uchideshi gathered in the kitchen and took breakfast. Afterwards, there was midmorning training, or possibly working as an otomo [travelling assistant] for Sensei’s teaching trips.

And of course, when traveling for training, uchideshi carried Sensei’s training clothes, jo [staff], and ken [wooden sword]. They were the otomo. Generally there were two or three. Maybe a good way to say it is, finally you can be Sensei’s otomo. “You, come.” “Today it’s you.” When he called you like that, it was a little bit of recognition (laughs) from Sensei.

Even Rinjiro, who came to be called “The Kobukan Prodigy” after two or three years, wasn’t invited to be a travel otomo for the first three or four months. Remaining unnoticed, he handled his tasks silently and lived the life of an uchideshi day after day.

Douglas Walker

Originally published in Aikido Tankyu [Aikido Quest], Aikikai Hombu Dojo

Translation by Douglas Walker

Douglas Walker is an independent scholar and student of Japanese culture. He practices Kodokan Aikido and is shoden menkyo in Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu. He lives and trains in Portland, Oregon.

Josh Gold

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

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