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Interview with Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #81 (July 1989)

The forerunner of the present Aikikai Hombu, the prewar Kobukan Dojo was known as the “Hell Dojo” and produced some of the most important figures in aikido history. However, ar very few who have a detailed knowledge of those colorful days. In this issue, we interview the present Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, certainly the most knowledgeable witness to aikido history, and ask about the uchideshi of that era.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1921-1999)
Photo courtesy of Mariye Takahashi

Stanley Pranin: We understand that many of the uchideshi (live-in students) of the Kobukan period before the war have already passed away.

Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba: There weren’t as many as we tend to think of nowadays. People left from those days all say that things were better then. However, I think that the golden period of Aikido is now and the art will continue to develop in the future. In my father’s time the school was a local dojo and there was a limit to what he could do. My father was not the type of person to manage an organization. However, he did visit Osaka regularly, even though he operated a local dojo, and he was active on quite a large scale. But in the sense of spreading the art among the general public you can’t call those times a “golden age.” Although I did describe this period as a “golden age” in my book entitled Aikido [published in 1957 by Kowado Publications] I had a reason for doing so. In those days before the war Aikido wasn’t very well-known and was only popular in specific places compared to the period after the war. I wanted to let readers know that many important people trained in those days, and it was in that sense that I used the term. Although this is something I always say, people today practice more than ever. There were very talented people among the old-timers but their number was very limited. There are very few students alive from the prewar period. For example, in the Aikikai there are only Hajime Iwata (present head of the Ichonomiya branch dojo) and Rinjiro Shirata (present head of the Aikikai Yamagata Branch dojo. Mr. Kisaburo Osawa (present assistant to Doshu) and Mr. Gozo Shioda (present head of Yoshinkan Aikido) were not uchideshi but commuted and trained religiously. Mr. Shioda entered the dojo before Mr. Osawa, but a long time after Mr. Iwata and Mr. Shirata. Although there are others still alive such as Shigemi Yonekawa (began training around 1932) and Zenzaburo Akazawa (began about 1933), there are only a few who are still teaching today.

Would you also talk about Kaoru Funahashi and Tsutomu Yukawa?

Mr. Yukawa and Funahashi started about the same time in 1931 just after the establishment of the Kobukan dojo. I think Mr. Funahashi was about five or six years older than me and entered the dojo around the same time as Mr. Shirata. He was from Tottori Prefecture and came to the Kobukan introduced by someone connected with the Omoto religion. He was always compared with Mr. Yukawa. Funahashi had a flexible body and was very good at taking falls. My father said, “I bet there is no one as good at falls as Funahashi in the Judo world.” I understand he suffered from pleurisy which turned into a lung illness and passed away around 1943.

Mr. Yukawa was from Gobo in Wakayama Prefecture. There is an interesting episode concerning the entrance of Yukawa into the dojo. He just showed up one day. There was a Judo teacher by the name of Tesshin Hoshi in his junior high school. Mr. Yukawa was strong at Judo because of Hoshi’s influence. I understand those who knew Yukawa in those days called him the “child prodigy” of Judo in Wakayama. There was no one who could best him in that prefecture so he came up to the Kodokan [Judo headquarters] in Tokyo to further his training. He practiced with a 5th dan—I imagine he was about a 2nd dan then—and threw the man first, but the next time he was the one thrown. Yukawa was upset and angry and left the Kodokan and walked around while still fuming. He happened to pass by my father’s dojo. He popped in thinking he would have a match but the moment my father grabbed his hand, he felt paralyzed all over and could not move. He was so surprised that he asked for permission to be accepted as a student. Then Yukawa brought his bedding to the front door and sat until he was accepted. I understand that he was accepted because he was from Wakayama Prefecture and a relative of Mr. Kakkichi Morita. He was a man of great strength and could bend five-inch nails with his hands. He ended up tragically because of his strength and drinking. My cousin Kiku was married to him. I was hospitalized at the Women’s Medical College Hospital because of pleurisy about 1941 and it was Mr. Yukawa who carried me on his back to the hospital. That was the last time I was close to him. One year later, I received a telegram informing me of his death around August 1942. Mr. Yukawa had gone to Manchuria with my father but came back first. There was an incident in which he overdrank that led to his death.

We understand that Mr. Yukawa later went to Osaka.

He went to Osaka accompanying my father since there was a group training there. At that time there was a police chief named Kenji Tomita and through this connection my father was invited as a martial arts instructor to teach a group which was similar to the present riot police called the “Shinsengumi.” When my father couldn’t go, Yukawa would go in his place. My father went to Osaka about once a month in the beginning. It wasn’t a big dojo, but consisted of a group of Omoto believers.

In those days he would travel to teach businessmen in places such as the Sumitomo Club and the Yuko Club. Even now I have contact with those people who are still alive although we don’t practice anymore.

Would you tell us about Minoru Mochizuki Sensei (head of the Yoseikan), Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, Aritoshi Murashige Sensei, and Tadashi Abe Sensei?

Mr. Mochizuki started training after this dojo was opened following the instructions of Jigoro Kano [the Founder of Judo]. His main interest was Judo and he didn’t stay for very long. Then about one year later Rinjiro Shirata came. Mr. Murashige commuted to the dojo. He was a very active person and did things which aroused criticism. He came to the Hombu Dojo often after the war. He had a dojo in Europe and died in a traffic accident. Mr. Murashige began practice in Tokyo but was not connected with the Omoto religion at that time. It was through my father that he became involved with the religion. He liked martial arts and practiced Judo. Although he became a student of Mr. Kano he was told to practice other martial arts because he was small in stature. So he practiced various arts such as Katori Shinto-ryu and then he entered the Kobukan Dojo. Mr. Mochizuki and Murashige were Judo friends. Mr. Murashige apparently killed many people during the war and was known as “killer Murashige.” Probably if he were alive now he would be about 80 years old. We used to say that it was “Aritoshi Murashige before the war” and “Tadashi Abe after the war” because there were so many incidents involving them.

Mr. Abe was intelligent and a graduate in law of Waseda University. He was good at languages and a talented person. It was a shame that his character and his drinking habit brought him to a sad end. However, there are many people who learned about Aikido through Mr. Abe in France and most of them are affiliated with Hombu.

Was Kenji Tomiki Sensei [Founder of the Japan Aikido Association] an uchideshi?

No, but although he commuted he was very involved in the dojo. He began training under my father around 1925. There was a man named Hidetaro Nishimura [a member of the Judo club of Waseda University] who was an Omoto believer and was stronger in Judo than Mr. Tomiki. Mr. Nishimura, who later joined the Manchurian Railroad Company becoming its director, brought Mr. Tomiki to the dojo since they were friends at Waseda. Mr. Tomiki went to Ayabe during all school holidays and practiced for about a month. Therefore, I knew him starting in those days. His way of thinking and view of Aikido were quite different from that of the Hombu (my father), but he used to say that he even though he didn’t always agree with my father he had to respect him. I advised him in his later years to change the name of his art from Aikido to something else. The situation would have become clear and thus less confusing. I told him that if he did this I would support him and would think of some way of co-existing with his organization by contacting about 150 university Aikido clubs affiliated with Hombu. Mr. Tomiki was greatly tempted to do so, but he finally decided not to change the name of the art he was teaching because he had many students. He couldn’t decide on his own and he was afraid of being expelled by my father. In fact, it seems that there was a slight change in the name of his art, for example, to “Shin Aiki” (New Aiki). The relationship between Mr. [Shigenobu] Okumura and Mr. Tomiki goes back many years. Mr. Okumura used to advise Mr. Tomiki to change the name of the art together with those who knew him from the old days such as Mr. Shirata.

Mr. Tomiki started training about 1925 and was good at calligraphy. There were many famous artists and noted people among his relatives. I think that he did very well as a student of political economics at Waseda University. He had many relatives who attended Tokyo University and national universities and was from an academic background. He went on to graduate school after graduation from the university. Then he returned to his home town of Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture and became a junior high school teacher. After that, he came back to Tokyo being unable to forget about my father, the Founder of Aikido. However, in those days, the dojo could not afford to pay any salaries, so I think he had a difficult time of it. It was around then that Kenkoku University was established in Manchuria in 1938. There was an army general named Matsudaira who was involved in the setting up of the university and he was my father’s student. Through his connection, Soichi Sakuta Sensei, the first president of Kenkoku University, Kakei Sensei of Tokyo University and various other professors came to observe a demonstration by my father. Although many opposed the idea, they finally decided to accept my father at Kenkoku University.

Thus the Kobukan was supposed to send an instructor of Aiki Budo to Kenkoku University. We discussed who should be sent first and decided to send Mr. Rinjiro Shirata. We sent his resume and he was accepted as a professor, but the China Incident occurred in 1937 and he was immediately drafted. Then we sent Mr. Tomiki who happened to have come to the dojo from Kakunodate instead of Mr. Shirata. There Mr. Tomiki increased the scope of his activities beyond Aiki Budo and also taught the military police. However, recently someone has been saying it was Mr. Tomiki who recommended Morihei to be an adviser to Kenkoku University. This is completely wrong. Mr. Shirata and the father (6th dan Judo) of Mr. Masatake Fujita (office head of Hombu Dojo) know this version is false. There are also others who know what really happened in those days. The reason Mr. Tomiki was accepted at Kenkoku University was because of his connection with Morihei Ueshiba. This is certain historically and I would like to make it clear.

Would you please talk about Hisao Kamata?

He passed away recently. Mr. Kamata began training when the dojo was located in Kuruma-cho in Takanawa and began to practice seriously from the Shimo-ochiai dojo period. He was from a place close to Tanabe in Kishu (present-day Wakayama Prefecture) and came to the dojo because of his mother who was a devout Omoto believer. He was an uchideshi. Mr. Kamata went to Shanghai and worked at different jobs and contributed to the spread of Aiki there together with Hajime Iwata (after graduation from Waseda, Mr. Iwata was employed by Tokyo Gas, then went to Shanghai were he edited a publication called All Shanghai and established a dojo.)

I bought a copy of your book Aikido in a second-hand bookstore recently. It has become quite difficult to find old Aikido books now.

It was reprinted seven times and then went out-of-print. There are still many people who want to get copies. If Aikido had not spread to this extent, books like Budo Renshu and Budo would not have resurfaced. I may appear to be boastful, but the reason Aikido books gathered attention was because of my book Aikido. Before that a certain person published a book concerning Aiki Jutsu, but there were financial problems and after that, publishers would refuse to accept Aikido-related books. Therefore, the copies of my book from Kowado were all returned at the time of its publication. However, when Mr. Kusaka of Kowado advertised the book, all copies were sold out within a week. The book was republished and became popular to the extent that the publishers began to receive orders from the Tohan and Nippan agencies. Because the book Aikido was successful then, many people began to write about Aikido. In this sense, I think the book was a history-making event.

How is work on your next book going?

I’m finding it a great bother to work on it. Many famous writers committed suicide in their later years because they reached an impass in their writing. It would be nice if our minds and hands would work together. But this becomes difficult when you get old. There are many people who stopped writing at the age of about 40. There is a limit as to how much you can write. However, some people receive literary awards at the age of about 60.

You are a limitless source of information about Aikido history.

As Aikido develops further I will become more important because no one knows more than me about the art or has had the same experiences. Aikido should not become a self-centered art. It should be considered as a fine art by all other martial art schools such as Kendo and Judo. In this sense, Morihei Ueshiba was great. Putting aside his abilities as a martial artist, I still believe his way of viewing the martial arts was wonderful. His ideas are one aspect of Aikido which is a representative Japanese martial art and will be disseminated in the new age.