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Character Counts!

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #106 (1996)

All of the hoopla in the U.S.A. surrounding the infamous O.J. Simpson trial and the recent handing down of a verdict has caused me to reflect once again on the issue of character. Most agree that the pivotal event leading to the acquittal of Simpson was the revelation of the blatant perjury of an L.A. police detective who was a key witness in the trial. In this bizarre event, which fed a media frenzy for more than a year-and-a-half, the man who many are convinced committed a double murder walked free because another man was caught in the act of lying. Admittedly, this case represents an extreme example of the far-reaching consequences of an immoral act—in this instance, a bold-faced lie—exposed to public scrutiny.

Why do I bother to mention this in the context of aikido? The answer lies in the nature of aikido as a martial art. Aikido bills itself, so to speak, as a martial art with a spiritual core. That is, beyond self-defense skills, aikido promises its followers a path through which they may “polish” their spirits in order to become better people. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba even goes so far as to state that the main relevance of aikido in modern society is as a vehicle for developing better members of society more so than as a martial art, If one accepts this view—as I have come to over the years—then the character, integrity, and conduct of individuals, rather than their level of technical mastery, become the true measure of their stature in the art.

Given its lofty goal, aikido often attracts idealistic students who seek in their teacher a skilled martial artist and spiritual mentor all rolled into one, Much too frequently, however, these neophytes become enchanted with aikido to the point that they develop an attachment to their teacher that borders on devotion. They become “true believers” in the real sense of the term, for whom the sensei is incapable of any wrongdoing. Even when the commission of a wrongful deed is undeniable, these devotees are quite capable of rationalizing away such behavior by attributing it to some deeper, hidden agenda. Naturally, this concealed purpose is known only to the teacher, who is revered as a superior being.

My professional obligations, in part dictated by a desire to provide wide-based coverage of the major approaches to aikido, have required me to meet and enter into long-term associations with numerous well-known figures. Yet, I will be the first to admit that I find myself naturally drawn to those teachers I personally consider to exemplify the aikido ideal rather than to those whose main claim to fame is skill at techniques or longevity in the art.

Let me give you an example of an experience of mine to illustrate my point. There was one occasion some ten years ago when I was placed in an extremely awkward situation. I had been contacted by the head of a large European aikido organization who wished to obtain a copy of a historical document that had been published in a Japanese book. Unfortunately for all concerned, the document in question had been altered from the original and this fact became apparent to me during the course of my research. I had never intended to confront the person responsible for this dubious act due to his prominent status—to do so would have no doubt been suicidal on my part—so my first reaction was to ignore the request from Europe. A month or so later, I received a second letter from the same gentleman. He was quite perturbed—and rightfully so—at my failure to respond to his first inquiry and renewed his request. No longer able to ignore the situation, I settled on the idea of contacting the “assistant” of the author of the book containing the altered item to ask for advice about how to handle this predicament. Accompanied by a Japanese staff member, I went armed with a copy of both the original and falsified documents so that my claim could not be disputed.

The assistant, an elderly gentleman who has since passed on, was a master of the art of maintaining his composure and gave a magnificent performance that I will never forget. When I showed him the two documents side by side he smiled wryly and remained silent for what seemed an interminably long time. His incredible reply was, “Well, you see, both documents are authentic!” Absolutely dumbfounded, I looked right into his eyes. They seemed to sparkle with a glint of mischief. I then turned toward my companion who was equally astonished. The three of us found ourselves in the ridiculous situation of knowing his reply was absurd while also knowing that no one would challenge his statement. The whole scene struck me as hilarious and it was only a strong sense of decorum, Japanese-style, which prevented me from bursting into laughter.

One lesson I learned from this episode was that there was a different sense of values involved. For me, altering a historical document with the intent of misleading people was and is a reprehensible act. For some Japanese, however, such an act can easily be excused if the specific circumstances of the perpetrator seem to justify his behavior and if it seems that no one is particularly hurt by the deed.

One last episode to further illustrate the ripple effect that a dubious moral act can produce. This one involves the falsification of martial art lineages, a surprisingly common practice both in Japan and abroad. Several years ago an article was published in a leading Japanese martial arts magazine about a school which claimed to be teaching “authentic” Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. This article included a revisionist history of Daito-ryu complete with a genealogical tree in which the tradition handed down via Sokaku Takeda occupied only a secondary branch. Of course, the instructor of the school claimed to be the legitimate Daito-ryu headmaster, this despite the fact that Sokaku’s son and successor, Tokimune, was still alive.

In response to this nonsense, I wrote article that exposed the fact that this teacher had changed his version of the school’s lineage at least three times over a twenty-year period. Fortunately for the legitimate Daito-ryu schools that can clearly trace their lineage back to Sokaku Takeda, this pretender has since adopted a somewhat low profile and articles such as the one alluded to above have not reappeared. As a younger man such character lapses would invariably fill me with a sense of righteous indignation. How could people who set themselves up as examples for all to follow fall prey to behavior even a child could identify as morally wrong? Alas, life is not so simple, it seems, and other considerations often lead people to attach only secondary importance to moral issues. When asked about choosing an aikido teacher, I now advise young people to keep their expectations within reason. Aikido senseis are normal human beings with human frailties. Identify those areas where that person has something to teach you and be very cautious about attempting to emulate every facet of the teacher’s behavior in an effort to become a “clone.” Be attentive and skeptical and know that life’s most important lessons can be learned by looking within and drawing upon the accumulated experiences of a lifetime.