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On John Stevens’ Biography Of Morihei Ueshiba

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #77 (April 1988)

A copy of John Stevens’ long-awaited biography of Morihei Ueshiba, “Abundant Peace”, reached my hands belatedly last December. This is the third volume by this author I have read, the first being his highly-regarded work on the Aikido of Rinjiro Shirata and the other a biography of the famous 19th century swordsman and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka. I have long been an admirer of Mr. Stevens’ writing style which I believe strikes a happy-medium between the care and attention to detail of the scholar and the smooth-flowing, light touch of the popular writer.

Mr. Stevens’ credentials are impeccable. He is a long-time practitioner of Aikido, a Buddhist scholar, a fluent speaker and reader of Japanese, and the author of numerous books on various aspects of Eastern culture.

A writer attempting a biography of the Founder of Aikido has a fairly limited number of source works available and virtually all of them are in the Japanese language. Among the major works are the “Morihei” biographies of Kanemoto Sunadomari and Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, a short collection of the Founder’s edited speeches, and the newspaper published since the late 1950s by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The other extensive reference source are the articles and interviews published over the past 14 years in AIKI NEWS.

Equally important as founts of information would be the oral testimonies of the son and present Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba and the numerous close students and associates of the Founder. For information on Daito-ryu Jujutsu, the main technical influence on Aikido, Sokaku Takeda’s son, the present headmaster Tokimune Takeda Sensei is an essential source.

The author lists the above-mentioned works and several others in his bibliography so obviously he has consulted them. Moreover, I suspect that Mr. Stevens has obtained a large amount of his information concerning pre-war Aikido from his direct teacher, Rinjiro Shirata Sensei of Yamagata Prefecture.

“Abundant Peace” (translation of the Japanese characters for “Morihei”) is a fairly short work containing 129 pages with some 40 photos. Thus, the actual text amounts to a little over 100 pages. The publisher is Shambhala Publications, Inc. of Boston, Massachusetts. The book is divided into three main sections: Part I: The Man; Part II: The Martial Artist; Part III: The Message.

Having devoted most of my adult life to researching the life of Morihei Ueshiba, I confess that I eagerly read through this work searching for new bits of information and interpretations regarding the Founder of Aikido generated through Mr. Stevens’ research. The author does offer many new interpretations but very few new facts are recorded. Moreover, it was disturbing, especially in light of the certain success of this first English “Morihei” biography, to find that some of the historical errors contained in the two earlier biographies have been perpetuated along with the introduction of several new ones.

Particularly regrettable is the fact that Mr. Stevens did not interview either Morihei Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, or Sokaku Takeda’s son, Tokimune. Both of these individuals possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the lives of their fathers and have made themselves readily accessible to researchers. If the author had first discussed his theses with Kisshomaru and Tokimune, he could surely have avoided committing to paper so many unjustified pronouncements and have drawn conclusions more in line with known historical fact.

Moreover, Mr. Stevens is exceedingly harsh in his judgement of Daito-ryu and Sokaku Takeda. The latter is portrayed among other things as “ill-tempered, vain, and arrogant” and an “irascible little tyrant”. Also, the author states: “[Sokaku], in effect, extorted money from his best pupil [Morihei].” The Daito-ryu school is one of the most well-documented of the traditional martial arts with carefully kept records of Sokaku Takeda’s activities and students numbering into the thousands of pages. Mr. Stevens could have arrived at a more dispassionate view of Daito-ryu and Sokaku by consulting these records.

Apart from his lack of familiarity with Daito-ryu history, Mr. Stevens’ resorts to the use of quite fantastic terms to describe the Founder of Aikido and his exploits:

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