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Look Mum! No Hands!

by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #115 (1998)

Everyone loves a mystery. If Elvis showed up in a UFO to explain the pyramids, Stonehenge, crop circles and the Kennedy assassination we would have to go out and find some more mysteries to keep us enthralled.

This may be why no one has hired a private investigator to look into some of the mysteries of Morihei Ueshiba’s life, before all remaining witnesses die and any existing documentary evidence is lost. What would we talk about in the pub after training if the stories of O-Sensei’s wondrous works turned out to have perfectly pedestrian origins? What if, instead of levitating or teleporting himself to the second floor of the dojo, as claimed in various reports, he actually climbed the stairs, while his credulous students were looking the other way?

One story that should be amenable to research is the one about Ueshiba’s great escape from a firing-squad. The late Gozo Shioda claimed to have witnessed this, whereas Koichi Tohei, in a recent Aikido Journal interview, said it was all a lie. Who should we believe?

Shioda was not given to mystery-mongering; he was quite skeptical of the spiritual dimension of aikido and had no interest in the Omoto religion. It is hard to see what motive he could have had for fabricating an incident that, if true, amounts to a miracle.

For those unfamiliar with this prewar story, Ueshiba is supposed to have told some military marksmen he was not afraid of guns, whereupon they invited him to prove it by becoming a human target at their rifle-range.

When Shioda and the other students failed to dissuade their sensei from this suicidal act they were convinced he would be killed and even began to privately discuss funeral arrangements and who would take over the dojo.

Ueshiba miraculously survived being shot at (twice) by a team of soldiers, though it had occurred so quickly that Shioda and the others did not see what happened. One moment Ueshiba was in front of the firing squad and the next, after the shots were fired and the smoke had cleared, he was behind them. Afterwards, he said he had only to identify the best shot and avoid his bullet to avoid all of the others; it had been relatively simple, and he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Before the experiment, a document was drawn up absolving the marksmen from any responsibility in the event of Ueshiba’s death, his chop and fingerprint were affixed, and the document was handed over to the authorities.

So the story goes.

Which raises the question as to whether there is an official report of this incident anywhere in Japanese archives? What about other witnesses to this miracle? If any are still alive their stories could be compared. Or will this remain a mystery, to be told and retold throughout the aikido world, without any effort to establish its veracity?

I was intrigued by a follow-up story in which an armed challenge to O-Sensei had a very different ending. When another marksman took aim at him O-Sensei suddenly decided not to go through with it. He recognized something about the man that was evidently lacking with the previous group and realized he would have been killed.

It may be difficult if not impossible, to get to the bottom of these stories, but there is another “O-Sensei miracle” that is apparently being reproduced by others quite regularly at the present day.

This is the art of throwing without touching, in which one or more attackers are flung backwards in the direction they came from, without physical contact. If we are to believe the videos, books and magazine articles, there are several “masters” doing this in various parts of the world.

One could be forgiven for regarding this as obvious fraud, but O-Sensei is certainty shown doing this in some of the old films. He walks along a line of kneeling students and simply thrusts his hand at each one of them, whereupon they fall over backwards without being touched.

I am sure most aikidoka share my reluctance to label O-Sensei a fraud, but this kind of thing is uncomfortably similar to acts by others who we would probably put in that category without hesitation.

TV evangelist Benny Hinn, for instance, waves at people or touches them lightly with his fingertips and they, too, fall over backwards. His throwing-without-touching is supposed to be part of a process of divine healing, and even those with spinal problems are thrown onto their backs, only to get up “cured.” The stage at Hinn’s “crusades” is littered with redundant wheelchairs and discarded crutches.

Hinn’s ministry brings in $100 million a year, so his motivation may be suspect but it is still difficult to avoid a comparison with O-Sensei. They both throw people without touching them, or with a very light touch of the fingers, and they both wear white!

Another contemporary example of remote-control throwing is given by Kozo Nishino who runs the Nishino-ryu Kokyuho dojo in Tokyo. An aikidoka and ballet dancer, Nishino performs feats that are even more impressive than Ueshiba’s. In a video he is surrounded by eight men, but flings them all to the ground, just by looking at them and waving his arms, before they can lay a finger on him. A group of female students in his dojo fall like dominoes when he simply extends his hand in their direction. In an outdoor demonstration in Saipan he stands, hands calmly holding the ends of his black belt while “expert karate men” rush at him, only to fly backwards, dear of the ground, after merely touching his chest He does not move or make any effort to get out of the way.

Nishino’s dojo is packed. He produces sophisticated videos, books and magazines, featuring testimonials from authority-figures including an MIT professor, a medical doctor and a Zen priest. He is nattily dressed and looks much younger than his 60-odd years.

According to his book, Nishino quit medical school to become a ballet dancer and eventually taught dancing and choreography (significantly?) at the famous Takarazuka school. He researched the inner secrets of great ballet dancers and found the main one to be “whole-body breathing.” He went on to develop his own system and teaches a two-hour exercise routine that looks rather like tai-chi.

Nishino started aikido at the age of 50 and made it to 6th-dan in six years. His book says he discovered the secret of “ki power.” A fascinating sideline (in the book) is that if someone hits him, he feels nothing, but the attacker develops a bruise in the same area of the body.

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