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Interview with Shigenobu Okumura

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Attending Kenkoku University

Aikido Journal: Okumura Sensei, you were in Manchuria through the end of the war?

Shigenobu Okumura, 9th dan Aikikai Shihan

Shigenobu Okumura: Yes, because my father was working for the China-Japan Culture Society (Chunichi Bunka Kyokai). Back in Hokkaido he’d been among the first students to attend Otaru Commercial High School, where he’d studied Chinese. During World War I shortly after he graduated, he was sent to a post on the Shandong peninsula [in eastern China]. That was before I was born. Later he went to Manchuria. I was born in Hokkaido, and was taken to Manchuria at the age of three.

I attended Kenkoku University there, which at that time was like an East Asian version of the United Nations, in the sense that there were people there from all over East Asia. My major was in economics, but I also studied Russian and Chinese. During my summer and winter breaks (forty days and two months, respectively) I went back to Otaru. From Manchuria to Tokyo to Otaru, then back again.

So during that time you were learning from Kenji Tomiki Sensei at Kenkoku University in Manchuria, then attending classes at the Kobukan Dojo whenever you were passing through Tokyo?

Exactly. At the time there we quite a few uchideshi (live-in students) at the Kobukan. Kanshu Sunadomari, for example, as well as a Toshinobu Matsumoto, and Koichi Tohei. Kisaburo Osawa joined around September 1940.

My mother was a director in the Shotoku Women’s Society in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, where she also took self-defense lessons from Aritoshi Murashige and Yoichiro Inoue. That was sometime around 1933. Back then my image of aiki bujutsu was of my mother sitting there on the floor doing some complicated thing. I was much more interested in kendo at the time and consequently didn’t have much interest at all in aiki bujutsu.

I remember Mr. Murashige telling me once to not worry so much about the details, but just to make sure that I got in enough suburi (sword-swinging) practice. He and some others were members of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Martial Arts (Nihon Budo Senyokai) and often traveled around Manchuria in that capacity. Hidemaro Deguchi* was another one who came there.

*Son-in-law of Onisaburo Deguchi married to his eldest daughter, Naohi.

I believe Morihei Ueshiba was also in Manchuria four or five times before the war….

Yes, he first went to Kenkoku University as an advisor in 1939, and then again in 1940, 1941 and 1942. By 1943, however, the war was on and travel there became impossible.

Was the aikido department at Kenkoku University considered a branch of the Kobukan dojo at the time you joined?

No, it wasn’t a branch dojo. A lot of us were training in kendo, and both kendo and aiki bujutsu were part of the regular curriculum, as was jukenjutsu (bayonet). So my kendo and jukenjutsu were actually part of my regular classes.

Kenji Tomiki at Kenkoku University

Was Tomiki Sensei at Kenkoku University in the capacity of a Kobukan Dojo shihan?

No, Mr. Tomiki was actually recruited from the Kobukan Dojo to go to Manchuria by Hideki Tojo. Tojo had become the provost marshal of the Guangdong Army sometime before Kenkoku University was established. Mr. Tomiki came to Manchuria and set up the Tomiki Dojo in Daiyagai. He was the Manchukuo government’s official aiki bujutsu teacher at Daido Gakuin and also an instructor to the military police. Kenkoku University was established a little later, in 1938, and from then on Hideo Oba taught the military police while Mr. Tomiki went to Kenkoku University as an assistant professor. At that point he was still teaching aikido as he had learned it from Ueshiba Sensei, in other words, without the competitive matches he later introduced.

Whenever Tojo trained [in aiki bujutsu] with the Guangdong Army he had his non-commissioned officers take ukemi for him, with him doing all the throwing. Lieutenant General Maeda used Zenzaburo Akazawa as his uke, and Kisshomaru took ukemi for King Rioh.* The military police took their aiki bujutsu training very seriously.

*King Rioh: this is probably an error since the King died in 1926.

I think we can talk about the Guangdong Army in relation to the Omoto religion as well. For example, weren’t people like Mitsuru Toyama and Ryohei Uchida on familiar terms with Onisaburo Deguchi?

Yes. On July 22, 1934 Onisaburo Deguchi held an opening ceremony for the Showa Shinseikai that was headquartered in the Servicemen’s Association [Gunjin Kaikan] in Kudan in Tokyo, chaired by himself and vice-chaired by Ryohei Uchida. Various Cabinet ministers, politicians, military officers, businessmen, industrialists, and scholars lent their support to this society and comprised its membership. The sixth item in this group’s charter includes the words, “To proclaim and propagate the Divine Imperial Way, and to strive toward the administration of a love of all humanity and a love of good (jinrui aizen).”

This idea was developed further and later evolved into the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dai Toa Kyoeiken), a movement that aimed to achieve a united Asia. The idea of that was that first Japan and Korea would “wed” and out of this union beget Manchukuo* as a “first son.” The idea was similar to the European Union being undertaken today. The Omoto religion itself had in mind to create a Mongolian Empire. You may recall that in the early 1924 O-Sensei traveled to Mongolia as escort and bodyguard to Onisaburo Deguchi.

*Manchukuo, the puppet state established by Japan during its 1932–1945 occupation of Manchuria.

O-Sensei in Manchuria

In 1942 a demonstration was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of Manchukuo* with participation by many of Japan’s leading martial arts exponents. Even among these, O-Sensei was regarded as something of a star. His ukes included Inoue, Yonekawa, Tenryu, and Tomiki.

Tenryu was the sumo wrestler who had led the ill-fated “Osaka Sumo Movement.”* He put considerable effort into that movement but in the end ran into financial difficulties and he had to send most of his students and followers back to Tokyo. He himself undoubtedly felt too ashamed to return to Tokyo, and instead he ended up being scouted by the Guangdong Army, which then sent him to Manchuria.

*Osaka Sumo Movement, a 1932 attempt to rally sumo wrestlers to secede from the Japan Sumo Association in an effort to reform a sumo world perceived as overly feudalistic.

In Manchuria, the Guangdong Army people told Tenryu that they wanted him to give them a victory in sumo in order to “earn the respect of the local Mongolians and incline them to pay the Japanese more heed.” Tenryu gave them that by winning against a Mongolian competitor in the local Ovoo Festival. This did indeed have the desired effect on the local population, who started listening to the Japanese more, and made Tenryu into something of a local hero.

Eventually, though, Tenryu started becoming a little too full of himself, so Ueshiba Sensei called him out. Tenryu really went after him, but before he could even engage, Ueshiba Sensei had already evaded him and applied a technique. I was there and saw the encounter with my own eyes.

Martial arts like judo and sumo generally begin with the competitors physically engaged using their preferred grips, so they tend to involve a lot of footwork. Aikido, in contrast, is mostly “handwork.” In aikido, you have to be already handling your opponent before any actual engagement takes place. This was one reason the military was more interested in aikido than in arts like judo and sumo.

When Sensei came to Manchuria he stayed at Mr. Tomiki’s house instead of a hotel, mainly because of his vegetarian dietary needs.

At Kenkoku University he was always accompanied and assisted by Mr. Inoue. The rest of us also learned a great deal from him during those times. Mr. Inoue was extremely skilled. At aiki he was probably even more skilled than Mr. Tomiki, in fact, because Mr. Tomiki actually came more from a judo background.

People who came to aikido from judo and kendo had slightly different nuances to their aikido, for example in their approach to evasion and sweeping. Judo is mostly concerned with the front and forwards, and doesn’t have much to do with the back and rearwards. Kendo has forwards and backwards and left and right. Aikido is 360?, including up and down. So you have to do both kendo and judo.

Kobukan Dojo Days

Would it be right to say that the Kobukan Dojo in those days was frequented by many people connected to the Japanese military?

Admiral Isamu Takeshita was the director (kaicho) at that time, so naturally there were not many ordinary civilians who were able to train there. The Kobukan Dojo itself was a kind of gathering place for many of high-ranking Army and Navy officers of the day. They all made their subordinates from the NCO ranks take ukemi for them. Also, at that time there were usually about ten uchideshi around. When I returned from Manchuria in 1940 I asked how much I should pay for the monthly tuition, but they told me not to worry about it since I was a student. As the food situation in Japan grew worse, though, I began bringing rice and whatever other food or supplies I could carry.

People were bringing tamagushi* to place on the dojo’s Shinto altar, and Sensei was receiving teaching fees from the naval academy and the military police, so the dojo was easily able to support ten or so uchideshi.

*Tamagushi, a sakaki branch with a strip of white paper attached, used as a sacramental offering and often accompanied by a financial donation.

Ueshiba Sensei generally wouldn’t teach ordinary people unless they had some particularly significant introduction. In my case, I was given special consideration because of my association with Kenkoku University. Also, I was from Hokkaido, where Ueshiba Sensei had also gone during his earlier pioneering efforts. Many of the things he talked about were familiar to me from my grandfather, so we connected in that way as well.

Around 1940 the Kobukan’s aikido teaching principles were summed up in a version of the Tora no Maki*, which O-Sensei often referred to when explaining aikido and its techniques. This text sums up many of the essential “secrets” of Japanese budo. After the war, however, it was banned by the GHQ.

*Tora no Maki, a classical text, popularized by legendary figure Kiichi Hogen, addressing the secrets of military strategy and tactics, including advice on perceiving reality, striving for harmony in various situations, and understanding opportunity and change. In modern Japanese the term “tora no maki” refers to any concise reference text stating essential facts, principles, etc. about a given subject.

That period must have been a very difficult time for O-Sensei, since despite the prophesies of the Omoto religion, in which he believed devoutly, his “trade” inevitably involved him with the military.

Yes, and under such circumstances he couldn’t very well talk to them about ideas like “aiki is ‘love’ (aiki wa ai nari)”; as military men, their thinking was focused on defeating the enemy quickly and definitively.

When I returned to Japan after the war, I went to Iwama to pay my regards to O-Sensei. He said to me, “Okumura, the gods are punishing us; we’ve got to correct everything.” He felt that the gods were rebuking Japan.

After the war, proceeding carefully in order to regain permission [to pursue aikido] from the GHQ, we reformulated what we were doing under in a volume titled Principles of Aikido (Aikido no Seishin). Together with the Founder we worked to create a new understanding of the spirit and principles underlying aikido. This new formulation has endured and is still the way we practice aikido today.

This Principles of Aikido was a remarkable work. It has even been honored with a decoration from the Pope in Rome. It contains ideas like “Aiki is love”; “fashion your own spirit in accord with the spirit of Heaven and Earth….” This speaks to the idea of perfecting the self, or in other words to “become something” or “bring something into being.”

From the Ashes of War

Since I was eventually conscripted into the Japanese mobilization of university students, at the end of the war I was interned for about three years in Siberia. After finally being repatriated to Japan in July 1948 I went to the Hombu Dojo but found nobody there. Kisshomaru Sensei was in Iwama. The whole Wakamatsu-cho neighborhood had been burned, but the Hombu dojo was one of the few buildings left standing. Every time an incendiary bomb fell in the area, Kisshomaru would go out to fight the fire, and through that the dojo had just barely managed to survive.

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