Ikkusai Iwata contrasts the Eastern and Western concepts of happiness and desire, explains the importance of centripetal force in aikido technique and speaks of his mission to carry out O-Sensei’s hope for world peace, in this second part of our interview with the oldest active uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba.
Hajime Iwata, c. 1931
I understand that you were in Shanghai when World War II ended. How did you respond?
On August 15, 1945, we were told to listen to the radio because some important news was going to be broadcast. We discovered that it was the Emperor’s speech announcing the end of the war. I was disappointed, because we had been fighting for the liberty of the Asian peoples, although we were not wise in our way of fighting. We thought that we could never be defeated as long as we believed strongly in victory. But we had to face the reality of defeat. I thought at that time that it was a defeat of the East by the West. I also felt that the kami were being unfair. But soon I began to realize that blaming them was meaningless, and that it was necessary to analyze the reason for our defeat. We Japanese have our strong points, and foreigners have their own strong points as well. So I thought that we should reflect on the cause of our defeat objectively and from a broader point of view.
I think that East and West are different from each other both historically and ethnologically.
Yes, we can say that Eastern peoples are agricultural races, while Westerners are hunting races. Westerners had to survive by hunting because of the natural environment. Since Easterners have always lived in areas belonging to temperate, subtropical, and tropical zones, they have been able to eat vegetarian diets, grow agricultural products, and thus are agricultural races, dependent on the weather for good crops. Their livelihood is dependent on the weather. As a result, their ideas about happiness differ from those of Westerners.
What is happiness then? I wonder what happiness is? I think happiness is something that is felt in our hearts. To say this more concretely, happiness can be expressed by division; the numerator is the object of human desire, and the denominator is human desire. If the result of the division is positive, then we are happy. On the contrary, if we get a negative result, and we are only 80% happy, I doubt that we will feel happy.
The larger the result of this division, the happier we feel. Thus, I conclude that if one wishes to be happy, one must increase the numbers of the object of desire. In the East, both Buddhism and Confucianism have taught people to reduce the denominator [desire].
In the West, people try to increase the numerator, if their desire [the number of the denominator] increases. This is a fundamentally different approach to the pursuit of happiness. Am I wrong? Eastern teachings tell us to reduce our desires, that means to be patient. Lao-tzu and Confucius also taught the same thing. They teach us to learn to be content, that is, to be patient. For a long period of time, Easterners have been brought up with the ideas of Buddhism and Confucianism to suppress their desires.
Westerners, on the other hand, do not easily suppress their desires. In this point, we can see the difference between Eastern and Western civilizations. I think this is the cause of the differences. Desire grows infinitely. There is a saying from a Chinese book called Gokansho. In Japanese it is Ro o ete shoku o nozomu (Avarice knows no bounds). In 3rd-century China there was a country called Ro, which was blessed with an abundance of goods, and excellent people. Because of this wealth, a general named Soso wanted to conquer it, but as soon as he had done so, he began to lust after the neighboring country of Shoku, because it seemed even richer to him. Our wants increase infinitely in this way.
Because of this, wars occur. Many lives have been sacrificed to attain the desires of conquerors. Many people have been victimized, and have lost their lives. This is a common event in human history. I believe that we must stop sacrificing people; if we drop atomic and hydrogen bombs it will be the end of the world. This is why Ueshiba Sensei insisted on a goal of world peace. We must negotiate with one another to achieve understanding. We must create world peace by depending not on power, but on reason.
When you first became O-Sensei’s student, was he already teaching such ideas?
Before I answer your question, I would like to mention the Japanese situation during World War II. At that time Japan had little land and poor resources, while the population was continuing to increase. There were less than one hundred million people then. Assuming that the population would increase in the next ten years at the same pace, it would become impossible for us to survive. One koku and one to (old Japanese measurements; one koku is 180 liters, one to is 1800 liters) of rice was needed each year per person to live on. However, the amount of arable land was not increasing. As the Japanese population increased, the farm lands were not sufficient to support all the people. To solve this problem, the Japanese were forced to look abroad. They began to immigrate to foreign countries. Or, as another option, they considered trade with other countries. But at that time, Japan rejected this notion. Even now, we can see the trade friction between Japan and America, and some people are saying that the situation is similar to that of pre-war days. In about 1931, Japan inclined toward the policy of obtaining land in foreign countries. Japanese politicians exercised their power only for themselves. I think we can still see this tendency today. But there was a movement to reform Japanese policy at that time. The group called “Sakurakai,” which consisted of young military officers, gathered to discuss the reform of Japan. Among the members were Shumei Okawa, Nissho Inoue, and Kozaburo Tachibana. They said that they needed to reform Japan. I don’t mean [they were planning] a revolution. Their meeting place was the Ueshiba Dojo. Few people know this. Ueshiba Sensei had the enthusiasm to create sincere techniques and to use them for Japan’s sake. So it was a time when people who wanted to do good for Japan came to his dojo.
You teach at several universities, don’t you?
Yes. The other day when I was teaching at Chubu University, I asked the students, “Who are your parents; who is your mother?” They all seemed to think it was a strange question as the answer was too obvious. So I told them that if they didn’t understand the real answer they wouldn’t be able to understand real aikido. I told them that the Earth is our mother. Since our mother is the Earth, we all share a joint heritage. We must study the stream of that heritage. This study is related to the study of centripetal and centrifugal forces.
I have been practicing aikido for more than 50 years, and I have begun to consider where the original point of movement is, and what the unifying movement most important to general movements is. The answer to this is circular, or spherical motion. When we practice spherical motions, the centripetal and centrifugal forces occur automatically. And the pivotal points of these movements are naturally located at the center. However, it doesn’t mean that everything comes to the center; our eyes are in front, we don’t have eyes in the back. So we can only see what is in front; without a mirror we can’t see what is behind. The word “see” does not just refer to seeing with our eyes. In Japanese, there are two meanings of the word miru, “to see.” One is to see physically with our eyes; the other is to see psychologically with our spirits. For example, there is in Japanese “Kannon,” a goddess. The character kan means to see, while on means sound, so Kannon means “to see sound.” In this case, kan refers to seeing something spiritual. Also there is another word meaning “to see,” the Japanese shisatsu (inspection). We tend to see only in front of us in the physical sense, but if we try to see using kan, we can see behind us as well. I told my students that unless they study this principle closely, they would not be able to understand aikido.
In performing aikido, if we use centrifugal force, and when we hold or grab our opponent’s hand, it causes us to move in unison with the opponent’s movement. If we use centripetal force, we can lead him and turn. As a result, our body is balanced. For centrifugal force, since we have to follow our opponent, we become off-balance and lose zanshin. When there is only one opponent, you will still be able to fight, but if there are many, you will not be able to fight at all with centrifugal force. So I told my aikido students that they must use centripetal force, not centrifugal force.
Is iriminage a technique which uses centripetal force?
I think everyone is practicing iriminage using centrifugal force, and it seems to be effective as long as they are practicing techniques cooperatively. But in reality it is not effective. It is not good to rely on centrifugal force. We must use centripetal force.
When you perform aikido, I notice that your hands are in the same positions as O-Sensei’s are in photographs from both before the war and his last years. Is this due to your way of breathing?
Yes, it is. But there is a limit to this kind of breathing. When Japan went to war against the United States, it was said that we had not only a firm conviction in victory, but also a firm belief in it. But in believing, there is a limit, as there is a limit to everything, both spiritual and physical. So we must strive for harmony between the spiritual world and physical world. I think the secret of aikido exists in this harmony.
If you go straight in you will collide with your opponent. But if you lead his movement into your own, your movement will become a lever, and your shoulder will act as a fulcrum. Ki can be extended by means of this lever, without physical strength.
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