Editor: Abe Sensei, I think it was during a period of misogi training, before the war, that you first met Ueshiba Sensei. Is that right?
Abe Sensei: Yes, I met Ueshiba Sensei before the war. Before World War II, a professor of medicine at Tokyo University, Kenzo Futaki Sensei, had organized a “Misogi-Kai” (a group for the practice of purification exercises). Down in Ise (site of the Imperial Family’s shrine to their ancestor, Ameratsu Omikami, the Sun Goddess), there was a “misogi dojo” and a wonderfully equipped dojo it was. After the defeat though, shrines and everything associated with the kami (gods) were suppressed and, of course, the Misogi Dojo went with all the rest. I’m afraid the offices of some sort of religious organization now occupy the site. That’s really a shame. Really too bad…
Futaki Sensei started Aikido after he was already over sixty years old and he was greatly respected by O-Sensei. He was, at that time, 65 years of age. I was just 25, then. Of course, Futaki Sensei was very healthy.
I recall a misogi-kai in 1941. The purification practices required us to eat three meals a day totaling about 4 cups of thin gruel made of brown rice and to perform cold water douches to wash away impurities of both the body and the mind. We were working to achieve “chinkon” (tranquility of the soul). In the middle of the exhausting week there was supposed to be some entertainment. At that time, a certain sensei got up and said, “You youngsters have no discipline nowadays…” and then continued, “Anyone among the young guys who thinks he can (take me on) just step up here.” With that three people pushed their way to the front and immediately jumped to the attack. How it happened, I don’t know, but they all ended up being thrown. This time they took jo (fighting sticks) and were told to come from any angle they wanted… This time they were thinking, “This old grandpa sure talks big.” But again with no indication of how it was done, look to the left, look to the right, and all you could see were those three fellows flying through the air. Everyone was impressed by what wonderful techniques they were. We were terribly surprised by it all. Later we were told that some wonder-man named Morihei Ueshiba was teaching something called “Ueshiba Ryu Taijutsu” (body arts), and if we should ever run across this name we must, by all means, study the art.
That was all back in 1941. I felt that I really would like to try it, but at that time, no one had any idea where this Ueshiba Sensei was.
I first met Ueshiba Sensei at the Osaka Dojo of Bansen Tanaka Sensei. At that time I had no idea that it was the opening ceremony for the dojo. I was just passing by when I suddenly noticed a sign that read Morihei Ueshiba. I guess that it was some kind of (mysterious) guidance from O-Sensei; anyway, I went right in. That’s when I realized that the dojo had been open only the day before, and that the display, at the misogi-kai, was given by the same Ueshiba Sensei. When I mentioned it, I was immediately taken upstairs. There I asked Ueshiba Sensei, “How did you ever learn such a wonderful budo?” He answered, “Through misogi” Now, I had been doing misogi since 1941 and when I heard that Aikido came from misogi, suddenly, “snap” the two came together. Then and there, I made up my mind that I had to dedicate myself to learning Aikido and stick with O-Sensei to the bitter end.
Sensei told me about the misogi he did during his stay in Hokkaido as one of the pioneer settlers of Shirataki Village.
Up there in the winter, in the middle of all that snow, even when there were 20 or 30 centimeters of ice on the river, I did misogi. I did “chinkon” in the snow, too. Every morning I went to the river and scooped up water with a large dipper and so even though the ice was this deep everywhere else, it was thin at my misogi spot.
Just listening to him gave me the chills.
So, O-Sensei practiced misogi even before he entered the Omoto religion. I wonder when it was that Ueshiba Sensei actually began this practice.
Well, I have never heard that exactly, but I have been with him on occasions when genuine misogi had taken place. There was a time when O-Sensei and I were invited to the place of a certain Shinto priest who lives deep in the mountains, up behind the city of Yokkaichi. This priest became a kyoshi (licensed instructor) when Sensei died. Anyway, there is a waterfall there. I have a picture of O-Sensei doing chinkon under the falls, which I still have at my home. Since he was nude, it was a little inappropriate to snap the picture, so I keep it displayed in a dark corner. (laughter)
Wasn’t Sensei somewhere around 75 years old at that time?
That’s right, and extremely healthy. His body had the flexibility of someone seventeen or eighteen years old. Even so, he had gradually lost weight (over the years) and he complained about how much his muscles were sagging. But, when he put his ki into them, “pop,” they became hard as steel.
Do you think that there was a significant difference between the techniques of that period and those of O-Sensei’s later years?
As far as the Aikido he practiced in his later years, even young girls, old people and children could do it. That is a big difference. I suppose you could say that it was a difference in the severity or the strictness of the training. Before the war, it was severity and strong technique, as opposed to the (kind of) techniques that invigorate our partners as we have now. In other words, those powerful techniques, at least in O-Sensei’s case, embraced more than just the power to injure someone. He had a realization (satori) of superb technique that gave life to his training partner. I think this is something truly splendid.
I believe that the reason that Aikido has become so popular today is precisely because it is not simply another martial technique. It goes beyond, and gives life. It is, in fact, a harmonious unification with the Great Universe – a really wonderful thing.
To what extent do you think that Ueshiba Sensei was influenced by the Omoto religion?
Do you mean influenced religiously by Omoto? That is hard to say. The greatest influences from this source are (the concept of) kotodama and the Kojiki. The brilliant Kojiki and the techniques that O-Sensei created were inseparably connected. When O-Sensei spoke about Kojiki, he was not speaking in terms of literary or scholastic explanations. For him, the Kojiki was read in terms of kotodama (the science of the intrinsic power of the spoken word).
In fact, the first time I ever spoke to Seagal Sensei, we discussed the Kojiki. He asked me various questions that pinpointed some of the Kojiki’s most pertinent parts – the kind of questions that most Japanese don’t know enough to ask about. I respect him for that. If one were to follow this kind of thought a little further, I think that it would tie in with Omoto.
Of course, these concepts are very important in Aikido, but Western practitioners of the art have little way of ever directly knowing about them. Does that mean that it is impossible for them to practice true Aikido?
I don’t think that is the case. There is no distinction in Aikido between being Japanese and being non-Japanese. This is because as you delve deeper and deeper into Aikido, you will naturally encounter a sort of Kojiki and a sort of Kotodama. In another, broader sense, we can say that Omoto is not the only religion and Reverend Deguchi’s kotodama isn’t the only kotodama. Also this means that when we go to Europe, we find the Bible; in India, Buddhism; and so on. Nevertheless, whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, or what have you, essentially they are seeking a single goal. In the Kojiki, we find the expression, “Ame no Minakanushi Omikami.” This means to become one body with the Great Universe. It is the same goal simply expressed in different words. If you happen to be speaking about Japan, then you should look to the Kojiki. Therefore, if by chance, you are non-Japanese, it is enough that outside of the (physical) techniques there exists some spiritual direction in your mind. If you have incorporated this element (into your training) then you will develop a kind of Aikido. Anyone who delves deeply into this budo, which we have inherited from O-Sensei, will eventually enter a religious realm.
Personally, I also practice shodo (calligraphy). When the artistic beauty of calligraphy became for me bound up with religion, I felt that for the first time I had been granted some understanding of mankind in this world. Don’t you agree that even if a person can’t read a certain (well-written) character, that somewhere in his heart something clicks? This is “kokyu.” This is “ki.”
It is clear that you speak with an intimate knowledge of things relating to O-Sensei. Would you simply just talk to us about him?
There is just too much to say. (laughter) For twenty years, I spent one week of each month with O-Sensei. But, there is an especially good story known as, “Even a live sword wouldn’t cut it.”
One time, during a demonstration, Kazuo Chiba Sensei attacked O-Sensei with a wooden sword and struck him violently (on top of the head). I expected his head to split and see blood gushing from the wound. However, O-Sensei was unscathed. Remember, O-Sensei had hardly a hair on his head, and that it was the strong arms of Chiba Sensei that hit him. I am sure that if it had been a normal person, it would have been disastrous. Well, we had been recording that whole event. Generally, O-Sensei greatly disliked recordings (of his own voice), so we had the microphone well-hidden (laughter). That was a demonstration for the Sumitomo Company, so there were many famous and important people watching all of this. CRASH! There was this great noise, and everyone jumped. But O-Sensei played it up big and nonchalantly remarked, “Even a real sword wouldn’t cut this head of mine.”
Another thing was the speed with which O-Sensei walked. Those of us who were following, carrying his luggage, or something, could hardly keep up. This was the most mysterious thing about his daily life, because, you see, he would move around as if he thought his body could fly.
Oh yes, then there was this unexplainable event. This was back when traffic accidents were not so persistent a problem as now. You remember the old electric streetcars, don’t you? Now, of course, they’ve disappeared in Osaka with the advent of the subways. Well, O-Sensei, one other person and myself had taken a car, and along the way, we collided with one of those streetcars. Now, if a car was to sideswipe one of these things, then naturally the car is going to roll over. Normally the occupants would be severely injured, if not killed. In this case, though, our car just rattled shakily, high into the air, made one giant roll, (and landed). So the instant that car struck the streetcar, O-Sensei had put in ki, and performed chinkon. All the window glass had shattered and disappeared. Since the streetcar had stopped after being hit, we got out of the car and pushed the wreck out of the way of traffic. Then we got another car and proceeded on to the dojo, a place called Osaka Stadium. Until that time, I hadn’t felt much of anything. From there, I went to a hospital where they told me that I had heavy injuries that would take a month to heal. O-Sensei was completely untouched by the whole thing.
In a different vain, I heard that O-Sensei started studying calligraphy in 1954.
Yes. That’s right. O-Sensei observed that, “In the case of calligraphy, when you are finished you have something (tangible) left in your hand. On the contrary, in the case of Aikido, I can only convey the essence to someone who already understands ki. In shodo, I have encountered a very wonderful thing.” Sensei said this and he tried very hard in calligraphy. He would look at something once and then write it from his intuition or from the direct impression it made on him. When he saw me write something, he would say, “Now that is marvelous. I would like to write that too.” Even without me telling him that this or that was basic (to the art of writing), just by looking at it, “bing” he would have a realization of its essence. For example, in writing the word “Aikido” or something, he would look at it and immediately be able to write it. It’s not that he had been taken away with my style. Rather, through his eyes, he would have some king of intuition; and by means of his kokyu (breathing), he seemed to inhale it. In O-Sensei’s writing we see the whole Great Universe abiding there—the very universe itself, and O-Sensei himself. It is writing that will forever be vibrant and alive.
Abe Sensei, about when was it that you first took up the writing brush?
It was a little before I started misogi. When I found that shodo didn’t open up the “Way” for me, I was really depressed. At that painful time, I found out about misogi. Actually, there at Futaki Sensei’s place, I comprehended what shodo should be like. Now, when I teach calligraphy, I start just as I would if I were teaching Aikido – with kokyu (breathing). Of course, a person who is teaching aikido has no use for the techniques of shodo, this you can see from O-Sensei. It is enough if you just write according to the kokyu (breath rhythm) of your own aiki. This is something that you can’t force onto anyone. When being taught, it is best to sit silently and observe. This is real shodo because it is kokyu. The essence of the brush is to be found in the things the eye can’t see. That is to say, in the kokyu. Recently, modern shodo has degenerated into the realm of the visible—simple brushwork, slight of hand and spiritless clich?echniques. The meaning of true Japanese calligraphy has been lost. It is a real shame.
We have heard that you lived together with Ueshiba Sensei for a time. Do you have any stories about that period for us?
Mornings. They came so early… First, he did misogi (purification) with water, then prayers before the indoor Shinto shrine, followed by the Chinkon and other rites. Together, all of these occupied a little more than an hour, and was a daily part of the morning routine. For that reason, our sleep time was limited to about three hours. In the summer, Sensei rose at the first, feint light of dawn, sometime around 4:00 AM. That meant that I had to get up around thirty minutes before that, perform misogi, put on my keiko-gi (training uniform) and sit in seiza to wait in case there was anything that Sensei might request. In the winter time, since the sun comes up somewhat later, I could get about five hours of sleep.
Then, at night, Sensei went to bed rather early. After Sensei got into bed, I often had to read certain books to him. At times, he even had me reading popular storybooks and magazines. As I read along, coming to a sword fight scene, Sensei would spring up from the covers and dramatize the action saying, “Now, that technique works like this…” So it was that the hours after retiring, were Sensei’s time for relaxation and pleasure. While he was up during the day, it was all difficult passages from Kojiki or kotodama lectures, you see. No matter what I would ask him, he would give me an answer right away. It is certainly true that he had a deep understanding of the Kojiki.
To move onto the subject of O-Sensei’s Aikido, I couldn’t follow any of it if I didn’t lose weight. My body had this subtle strange condition. Whenever I would get a call from the Honbu that Sensei was coming on such-and-such a day, my weight would drop… (laughter). Well, anyway, if I maintained my usual weight, I found that I couldn’t figure out anything that O-Sensei would say, or what he was thinking about. For that reason, I would lose about two to three kilograms and I found that everything was so interesting. My blood circulation improved, as well. Of course, this too was the result of the invisible power of O-Sensei’s ki.
Then there was when O-Sensei would get into the “ofuro” (bath). We had to prepare the bath and adjust the temperature and water level before Sensei got in, but until Sensei had taken his own bath, none of the uchideshi was allowed to touch the water directly. All of the adjusting and the testing of the water had to be done with a short-handed bucket. Then one time, for some reason, someone used their hand directly. Sensei knew it immediately, and bellowed, “Who has been in the bath?” You see if you check it with your hand, the hot water will dissolve the oils on your hand. Sensei was sensitive enough to detect even that. I suppose this quality is the one called kan, (something akin to sixth sense). It was also things like this that were the invisible causes of hardship for the uchideshi, but I think this was the ki of the real O-Sensei. It is not just the ki we find in Aikido, it is a human ki – something that is learned through the body. And in the end, it comes down to the old proverb that, “budo begins with politeness (bow) and ends with politeness (bow). The mainstream of O-Sensei’s teachings is proper etiquette. This, though, is the kind of thing that you simply can’t have taught to you by word of mouth alone. It must come to you through kan or as if by reflex and is taught to you in daily life. This is the wonderful part about it.
Among my works there are collections of doka (songs of the way) in which I have divided O-Sensei’s poems into pre-World War II and post-war categories. I then attempted, by means of analyzing these works of O-Sensei, to derive some understanding of what Aikido was like before the war, and what Aikido became in the period after the defeat. Therefore I feel that if you were to read through these thoroughly, you would understand about O-Sensei’s thought in relation to Aikido. They should help you get a grip on the changes that took the (pre-war) Aiki-Budo and transformed it into the modern Aikido of today; from certain death (hissatsu) into “Bu is Love.” I would really like to see someone translate these into English so that Aikido practitioners from all over the world could read them, but I suppose that such “songs” would be especially difficult to work with.
The above interview with Seiseki Abe took place in the dojo of Steven Seagal Sensei in Osaka on July 11,1981. It was digitized with the kind assistance of Shaun Ravens of the USA.