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Interview with Kanshu Sunadomari (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #64 (November 1984)

he following is the first of a two-part interview of Kanshu Sunadomari Sensei of Kumamoto City, Kyushu which took place on August 15, 1983 in the office of the Manseikan Dojo.

All of your students seem very interested in the spiritual side of O-Sensei. I haven’t found this to be the case in Tokyo and I am very impressed.

This is because those who teach don’t explain the spirit of O-Sensei. It is a matter of teachers having a goal while teaching Aikido. In the Manseikan I teach techniques which focus on the spirit of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. I always talk about this and I emphasize and express the spiritual side of 0-Sensei in the “Mansei Newspaper” which is a monthly publication. Without this, Aikido has no value other than as an old-style martial art. The spirit during training must emerge through actual techniques not in the form of idealistic words.

I understand that you began to practice Aikido around 1942.

Yes, I did. I entered as an uchideshi around 1942 during the war before the name “Aikido” was used. My father became a member of the Omoto this connection that my brother wrote a biography of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei (“Aikido Kaiso Ueshiba Morihei” by Kanemoto Sunadomari, Kodansha Publishing Co., 1969). I was taken to the dojo by my brother. Ueshiba Sensei was sitting like an old samurai wearing a mustache in the manner of those appearing in story books. He was like an old warrior. I wondered if such a person could exist in the world. (Laughter) Then, I immediately became an uchideshi starting the next day. I didn’t think I would practice Aikido at all but there was something in him which attracted the spiritual part of me. When I was a child, I was taught a little by my older brother but I had never seen the actual practice of techniques. However, as soon as I met Ueshiba Sensei I wanted to enroll. In any case, I immediately entered the school without hesitation.

Since it was 1942 during the war, I would imagine there were few uchideshi.

Yes. In around 1942 everyone had entered into the armed forces. It was a situation where only a few people came around and left after a short while.

Was it true that there was only Hirai Sensei at the Kobukan Dojo besides O-Sensei?

Yes. At that time Hirai Sensei was handling clerical tasks as the general manager. Among those attending were Mr. Tohei and Mr. Osawa. And Mr. Seko who now handles the regular business in the Aikikai was also there. At that time, insofar as O-Sensei’s teaching outside the Kobukan Dojo was concerned, he mainly went to teach at the Military Police School located in Nakano in Tokyo. I went there with him once or twice a week. At that time, it seemed that they practiced several original arts at the Military Police School. At that time, we called them “Budo”. When I went there there was a man wearing Chinese clothes like a spy who had a military dog attack him and did a number of other things. I didn’t know much about the other budo. We just went to the dojo to train at a certain time and then went home.

You began in 1942, until about when did you remain in Tokyo?

Since I entered into the Army at the end of 1943 I only trained for a short period. Also, Sensei would often go to Iwama since he was building a dojo there. At that time, the war was worsening and anti-air raid groups were being established in town neighborhoods. O-Sensei became a leader of these groups. However, in reality I had to lead the group. That’s how it was in those days and we trained only a little in the mornings and evenings. I think that it was a lonely period for Sensei. Perhaps, rather than a lonely period, it was a period of spiritual transition for him. It seemed that he was in poor physical condition. One time when he went to the Military Police School to teach, he was not able to to do so and was sent home by car because he had a stomachache. After that when I had left the dojo, his condition became worse and it seems he became seriously ill. Apparently Sensei experienced a kind of spiritual release after he became seriously ill. In 1935 the (second) Omoto Incident occurred. Normally, Sensei would have been arrested because of the suppression of the Omoto religion. However, he was not arrested because the police administration insisted that Sensei was not the type of person guilty of such a crime (lese majeste) as he was teaching the police and in several other places. Thus, he was not able to teach his own true spiritual budo. In that regard, I think that it was a lonely period for Sensei. Since it was a period when the Omoto religion was suppressed, he had to separate himself somewhat from Omoto. Besides that, he had to teach for the military authorities in power at that time. I think it was a hard time for Sensei and that was the cause of his becoming ill.

What did O-Sensei himself think about the war?

In the Omoto we secretly called it a “losing war”. Omoto served as a model. In other words, the kind of incident which happened to the Omoto would also happen to Japan. Before the court decision against Omoto, its headquarters were completely destroyed by dynamite. At that point, we knew at Omoto that Japan would lose. If Ueshiba Sensei had been arrested his budo would have ceased to exist and the present Aikido would not have come into being. I think that the fact that O-Sensei was not arrested and continued teaching, even though for the military, was something ordered by the kami. When Ueshiba Sensei talked to me when I was a direct deshi he used to say, “In any case, this is the technique given by the kamisama”. If it is the mission assigned by the kamisama, it will be transmitted in some way. At the time of the Omoto Incident, Reverend Deguchi was heard to say in a loud voice during a trial with many persons present, “Ueshiba came here to say farewell.” A normal person would understand Ueshiba as committing a selfish act in which he had deserted and abandoned Omoto. But, I don’t take it to mean that. When Reverend Onisaburo Deguchi said in front of the many judges present, “Ueshiba came to say farewell”, it meant that Ueshiba was to work hard in society without any relationship to the Omoto religion. As a result, Ueshiba Sensei’s budo has a major mission from the religious point of view. I think that Morihei Ueshiba Sensei is the only budoka whose art was born as a result of his having received a divine mission. The techniques received as part of this mission were for the purpose of creating peace in this world through the Path called “Aiki”. When all of humankind embodies the law of heaven, peace will then come for the first time. This means knowing the spirit of heaven and earth and becoming conscious of the relationship between the spirit of loving protection of all things and all things. If this is done we will reach the stage where there is no enemy. For several years now I have been praying to the spirit of Aikido in the dojo shomen (front wall). The goals of Aikido are all expressed in this prayer.

About when did the ideal of O-Sensei you just described emerge?

It is also written in a book, but I think O-Sensei had already conceived this ideal by around 1921. He had an enlightenment experience where he was enveloped by a ray of light. It is said that he came to understand the singing of the birds. It is written that budo must be love. However, it is not easy to know how to proceed in order to embody this ideal in technique. The spiritual awakening of mankind is I think something that one may chance to experience in a fleeting moment where the feeling is, “Ann! I see!”. Man’s body must go through stages of development. It is the same as a baby who cannot suddenly grow up. There is a stage of shugyo (ascetic exercises) where the body can grow to this point. O-Sensei went through a process of shugyo until he created true Aikido and the people who learned at various times tend to think the periods they knew represent the true Aikido. Even someone as immature as myself has been teaching thousands of people in Kumamoto for 30 years and the persons who have trained at various times have adopted a similar viewpoint. People who learned with O-Sensei from the Taisho period (1912 to 1925) until his death only know the techniques of the respective times of their training and they only know his spiritual level of that time. The important thing is to research thoroughly the spiritual goal which is what Ueshiba Sensei was aiming at. If this spiritual aspect didn’t exist, there would be no further progress. Aikido would become merely a form of jujutsu.

In my case, I didn’t spend a long time with Sensei. I experienced a period during which I was weak when I came to Kumamoto. There were many people who resisted me and did not train cooperatively. There were hundreds of people. Before I applied a technique they resisted forcefully and so I couldn’t execute techniques. When I tried to apply a technique, they stopped my movements. I couldn’t apply techniques to that type of person. I experienced a type of competition-like period. How miserable a feeling it was not to be able to do effective techniques, a sinking feeling! It was a very valuable experience for me. When I thought about what to do in order to overcome this problem, the only solution was to focus on the spiritual aspect of O-Sensei’s Aikido. In other words, to unite with one’s opponent and eliminate enemies. What is harmony? The only way is to take out the power from one’s techniques. It is wrong to clash against your opponent using physical power. I kept this in my mind every day and have been trying to express the spiritual aspect of Aikido through techniques. This found expression in my pratice.

However, in training in other dojos, once the technique is applied, you are taught not to attempt to escape. If one goes to another dojo by himself people will not react in this way. You can’t stand around if your opponent has escaped from your technique. No matter how much your opponent manages to escape, you say, “Please go ahead” allowing them to do so and then you must apply a technique. As a result my technique has changed. Ueshiba Sensei said, “Techniques undergo changes.” Sensei clearly said that up to that point people used physical techniques but henceforth a spiritual technique should emerge. In spiritual techniques the world of the spirit must come first. There should be a goal in these techniques. One becomes able to perform spiritual techniques by pursuing this goal while executing one’s technique.

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