Rinjiro Shirata, c. 1936
On May 29, 1993, the aikido world lost one of its most prominent shihan, Rinjiro Shirata, 9th dan. Shirata Sensei was among the most respected of present-day aikido teachers and was widely-known abroad through the book Aikido: The Way of Harmony by John Stevens, which featured his techniques.
Born on March 29, 1912 in Yamagata Prefecture to a family of Omoto believers, Shirata was accepted into the Kobukan Dojo of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba as an uchideshi in 1933. Known for his modest character and great physical strength, he quickly became one of the star pupils of the “Hell Dojo,” as the founder’s early school was called. Shirata later spent a short period teaching aiki budo in Osaka before being drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. He spent the war years stationed in Burma until his repatriation.
Shirata’s training was interrupted for several years due to the war, but he began actively teaching again in Aomori in 1959. In 1962, he received the 8th dan rank from the founder. At this time his teaching activities were concentrated in his native Yamagata. Shirata was awarded 9th dan in 1972 by Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and is one of only a handful of people ever to have achieved this rank. Shirata was also active in the International Aikido Federation following its establishment in 1976. He occupied several high posts and served on the technical council. He traveled to Honolulu in 1978 in connection with the IAF and to Chicago in 1984 at the invitation of Akira Tohei Sensei. On both occasions foreign practitioners responded enthusiastically to his skillful, yet gentle approach to teaching.
Devoted to the spread of aikido and one of the staunchest supporters of the Ueshiba family, Shirata was a regular participant over the years in major Aikikai-sponsored events such as the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration, the Iwama Taisai, and the Kagami Biraki New Year Celebration at the Tokyo Hombu Dojo.
To all of Shirata Sensei’s family and hundreds of students the staff of Aiki News would like to express its deepest condolences.
Aiki News would also like to sincerely thank Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and Seibi (Shigemi) Yonekawa, a close friend of Shirata Sensei from the Kobukan Dojo days, for writing these words in memory of Rinjiro Shirata Sensei.
Stanley A. Pranin
Memories of the Late Shirata Shihan
Shirata Shihan was one of the best of the founder’s uchideshi, and he will be difficult to replace. He was faithful to the founder and me, personally, rather than to the Aikikai. I would like to make it clear that the Aikikai is an organization to spread a fine Way, yet Shirata Shihan devoted himself not to the organization, but to the Way. He was devoted to the founder and the Way that the founder had established. Because of this, he did much for me and for aikido.
Shirata Shihan’s father was an Omoto believer, and he became the founder’s student around 1931. After that, he studied at the Hombu dojo in Tokyo, where his aikido improved enough so that he could teach it to others. Then he went to Osaka with O-Sensei as his assistant. Around 1936, Kenkoku University in Manchuria decided to adopt aikido into its curriculum and my father was appointed as an advisor. He recommended that Shirata become a professor there. But just then, the China Incident occurred and Shirata was called into the army. My father then recommended that Mr. Tomiki go instead.
After Shirata was demobilized he did not study aikido for some time. In those days we were not able to make a living just from aikido. Before the war, the students received no stipend from the founder. Instead, they often paid a great deal of money to him, because they were there to serve him and be trained by him. But after the war, the situation had changed, and students could not survive without pay. Thus, Shirata set out to make his own living.
Not long before the founder died, I asked Shirata for help. He agreed, and cooperated closely with me. This was about 1968, and for the last 20 years he did many things for me, in the belief that placing me at the head brought respect to the founder, and in the end would lead aikido to correct and pure development. Shirata made aikido prosper in the Tohoku district as well.
Shirata maintained a belief which is no longer commonly held by people these days. He believed that aikido was the Way that the founder had given to us. Shirata was different from the present younger members and the post-war shihan. I think it has been very valuable for modern young men to have been directed and encouraged by such a rare person. Shirata devoted himself to aikido until the day of his death. He was a fine person who has been and will always be a good example for aikido students.
Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba
To Rinjiro Shirata
You have gone and we are now living in two different worlds. On reflection, I long for those days of the distant past, fifty years ago, when we broke bread together as uchideshi. Those days are still fresh in my mind.
I first met you at the Kobukan dojo in Ushigome, where your relative brought you to enroll in the dojo. You were sitting in the middle of the large dojo, wearing haori and hakama, waiting for O-Sensei. Somehow, I trusted you deeply. I had been allowed to become an uchideshi that spring, so I was there to serve tea to you and O-Sensei. I still remember that cup of tea.
Because of the severity and toughness of the training, our dojo was known as “Hell Dojo,” but none of the uchideshi thought it was hell. It was full of joy and cheer. Every time Sensei showed us a new technique, we would try it out by applying it on each other as hard as we could—but only after the general public session was finished and Sensei had left the training area. Even when a technique was applied correctly, no one would cry out “It hurts,” or “I give up.” It was a competition of endurance for the sake of pride. You just laughed and remained calm. It was probably because of this intense, tough practice that we uchideshi made such good and rapid progress. Our hearts pounded with delight. Our dojo was far from hell; it was paradise!
Once you were teaching an elderly gentleman from Tsukiji. You were applying a technique—I think it was kotegaeshi—gently and softly, but still, it broke his right hand. Your techniques were truly incredible even in those days. From that time, your instruction started to change.
Time passed; I went to Manchuria in 1936 and you were drafted into the military the following year. I did not see you again for thirty years, until the founder passed away. You had been making efforts to develop aikido, and always expressed your hope that the world would become one through aikido. You practiced what you preached and I really think you were the hero among the uchideshi—one we can be proud of. I remember the day you enrolled, sitting in the middle of the dojo, wearing haori and hakama, and how I was able to catch a glimpse of your personality. My heart is full, and I pray for the repose of your soul.