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Interview with Shigenobu Okumura (1990)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #86 (Fall 1990)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Alex Fisher of the USA.

Aikikai Shihan Shigenobu Okumura has played a significant role in the post-war development of aikido. In this first of two parts, he talks about his early training in Manchuria and his war experiences, and emphasizes the importance of the concept of “Shu, ha, ri.”

We interviewed you last seven years ago in 1983 [AN#58-59]. At that time we didn’t have a deep enough knowledge of aikido history to fully understand everything that you told us. Since then we have met and talked to various people and I think we have made some progress in our research. Today, we would like to ask you some more questions. We understand that your mother began to practice aikido before you did.

Shigenobu Okumura, 8th Dan Aikikai Shihan
That’s right, in Manchuria. My mother studied with Hoken Inoue [present head of Shin’ei Taido] and Mr. Aritoshi Murashige. At that time I was practicing kendo and had not yet started aikido. Since I was in the fourth grade of elementary school then, it must have been in 1931 or 1932.

We knew that Inoue Sensei had been in Manchuria, but did not know many details regarding his stay. Also, the fact that Murashige Sensei spent time there is news to us.

It seems that Inoue Sensei was teaching at the Dairen Police dojo through a connection with the Dai Nihon Budo Sen’yokai and my mother began aikido because she was an official member of the Fujinkai (women’s society) of the Budo Sen’yokai. I went to see her practice but I didn’t find the art very attractive. Murashige Sensei and Inoue Sensei came to the dojo together. Murashige Sensei taught me how to swing a sword. He had actual experience in killing people with a sword. This all happened later, though. When I entered Kenkoku University, aikido was one of the subjects in the regular curriculum. In about 1940 Mr. Inoue and Mr. Shioda [Gozo Shioda, founder of Yoshinkan Aikido] visited as uke for Ueshiba Sensei.

Originally, Rinjiro Shirata Sensei was supposed to have come to be the aikido instructor at our university. However, when Shirata Sensei was drafted, he was replaced by Kenji Tomiki Sensei instead. In those days Tomiki Sensei was an instructor for the Kenpeitai (military police). In 1936 or 1937, Hideki Tojo was chief of staff of the Kanto army in China and took the lead in practicing aikido and was a benefactor although he and Ueshiba Sensei didn’t have direct contact with each other. Although Mr. Tojo never learned the art directly from Ueshiba Sensei, he knew it through Tomiki Sensei. When a military police school was established in Nakano, aikido became a subject in the school’s regular curriculum. In about 1941 I went there with O-Sensei.

Tomiki Sensei also taught at Daido Gakuin. In those days, even if you had graduated from a university in Japan, you could not become a public official in Manchuria unless you studied at Daido Gakuin for six months or a year learning Chinese as well as Manchurian history and culture.

We understand that there was a demonstration in Manchuria in about 1942 in which O-Sensei participated.

Top people from each of the Japanese martial arts gathered at the time of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the foundation of Manchuria and a demonstration was held. Ueshiba Sensei participated in this demonstration. It was Hideo Ohba Sensei who took ukemi for him. Mr. Fujimoto, who later died in Siberia, also took ukemi for him.

According to Fumiaki Shishida Sensei’s biography of Hideo Ohba [AN#85-6], Ueshiba Sensei got angry with Ohba Sensei because he attacked him quite strongly during the demonstration.

In aikido, performing partners usually have some kind of agreement. However, Ohba Sensei attacked Ueshiba Sensei seriously, which turned out to have a positive result. Apparently, a naginata teacher called Sonobe [Hideo Sonobe, famous master of Jikishinkage-ryu] praised Ueshiba Sensei and told him, “The demonstration you gave today was the best I have ever seen.” This remark made Ohba Sensei, who had been feeling that the whole world was against him, feel greatly relieved. At that time I was a student and I saw this demonstration. The demonstration was as serious as any I have ever seen. I could tell that it was not a prearranged demonstration at all.

Did Inoue Sensei also demonstrate on that occasion?

Yes. He also took ukemi for Ueshiba Sensei. Ueshiba Sensei’s demonstration lasted for more than 10 minutes, I believe. Ueshiba Sensei didn’t give any explanation as is done today. This was because the demonstration was held in the presence of the Emperor [of Manchuria] and other martial arts were to be demonstrated as well. At this demonstration Mr. Tenryu [famous sumo wrestler and student of O-Sensei] lumbered off the stage last, carrying the bokken since he was the most junior. I believe that Mr. Tenryu was a sumo teacher at Kenkoku University. In his later years Mr. Tenryu wrote about his aikido practice in his autobiography. The father of Mr. Fujita [present secretary-general of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo] worked for the Shim-buden [the Manchurian Budokan] at that time and he knows about everyone from those days. Among those who are still alive now, Mr. Fujita [father] is the person who knows the most about the Manchuria period. He has the best inside knowledge of how Tomiki Sensei came to be appointed to his position at Kenkoku University.

Would you tell us about the Dai Nihon Butokukai?

For judo, dan ranks were issued both from the Kodokan and the Butokukai, which at that time was located in Kyoto. A number of people had ranks from these two places, for example, Butokukai judo shodan and Kodokan shodan. Mr. Tojo combined both in 1942 or 1943 and thus aikido’s ranks started to be issued from the Butokukai as well. Mr. Minoru Hirai, who is now the head of Korindo Aikido, was then sent to the Butokukai as a representative of the Aikikai. Therefore, Mr. Hirai received his rank from the Dai Nihon Butokukai.

What about Kenji Tomiki Sensei’s 8th dan?

He received it directly from Ueshiba Sensei. When we were students at Kenkoku University, Tomiki Sensei was already 8th dan.

We understand that Hideo Ohba Sensei was known as Tomiki Sensei’s right-hand man.

I learned from Ohba Sensei when I was a student. Ohba Sensei usually worked as Tomiki Sensei’s assistant.

Ueshiba Sensei came to Manchuria from Tokyo once a year. Since I was born in Hokkaido, I came down to Tokyo and stayed there to practice and then went back to Hokkaido and then I returned to Tokyo for practice and went off to Manchuria. I am from Otaru in Hokkaido.

After the war I visited Tokimune Sensei of Daito-ryu in Abashiri [Hokkaido] and he kindly demonstrated techniques for me. He talked with me about Ueshiba Sensei then.

We understand that there were times when the art was called by various names such as “aiki bujutsu,” “aiki budo” or “Tenshin-ryu aiki budo.”

There was a budo dojo which was used exclusively for what we then called “aiki budo” in the Shimbuden. It was after 1943 that the “bu” was dropped. At the time when the Dai Nihon Butokukai was established and when we entered Kenkoku University, we still used to call the art “aiki bujutsu.”

There was also a time when the art was called “Ueshiba budo.” Shinsaku Hirata wrote a serial novel which appeared in the magazine Boy’s Club published by Kodansha. There was a scene in this novel where a boy called Hiroshi threw a huge Russian wrestler, using an art called “Ueshiba-ryu.” This novel was also published in book form. I found the book at a second hand book store but it cost too much at 28,000. Mr. Shinsaku Hirata was also an aikido student and was my senior at the Ueshiba dojo but he was killed in a traffic accident. In the section about the Showayugekitai (Showa flying force), Hirata wrote that Hiroshi, the main character of the story who was on the battleship Takachiho, was a master in Ueshiba budo. This book was published in 1931 or 1932. After I read Boy’s Club, I vaguely remember having been surprised to know that there was such a wonderful art other than judo. I had never seen the art then. Those were the days of militarism when popular cartoons such as Adventurer Dankichi and Nbrakuro were used to inflame the patriotism of young boys and to justify the expansionist policy of Japan.

We understand that Ueshiba Sensei had some contact with Mr. Seyi Noma [founder of the Kodansha publishing company].

He was also an enthusiastic practitioner. Mr. Noma practiced aikido as well as kendo at the Ueshiba dojo.

Aikido has had a fairly friendly relationship with kendo while it has had some differences with the world of judo. In my case, I started kendo before aikido. Therefore, my view on aikido is different from that of Kenji Tomiki Sensei. Tomiki Sensei started judo first. The movements we use when we pass each other or dodge an opponent’s attack in aikido have many elements in common with kendo movements. Aikido is more akin to kendo than judo. In judo, they grab each other’s arms.

Tomiki Sensei gave a lecture-demonstration in about 1940 at the Kodokan. Can you tell us something about that?

That’s right. What he said was that judo was being ruined. According to Tomiki’s theory, there are two kinds of judo, that is, rikaku taisei judo and kumitaisei judo. He felt that only one type of judo (that is, kumitaisei) was being practiced at the Kodokan. They hold on to each other’s arms while doing judo, but when the two opponents are separated, techniques do not work at all. Therefore, it is necessary to practice both judo and aikido to master true judo. This was the Tomiki theory. He said that modern judo was only half of real judo.

At Tomiki Sensei’s house there were always pictures of both Ueshiba Sensei and Kano Sensei on his desk.

That is interesting. In our magazine, we have been serializing Jigoro Kano’s autobiography. In our last issue, Jigoro Kano was critical of what the judo of that time had become.

The judo Jigoro Kano had in mind was more extensive. It seems that when he saw Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques, Kano Sensei remarked that this art was the ideal judo. He was not thinking of judo in terms of just kumitaisei but in much broader terms.

Mr. Murashige said that Kano Sensei paid for his tuition at the Ueshiba dojo for about three months. When he was asked by Kano Sensei if he had learned any techniques yet and he answered that he had not, he was told that his monthly fees would no longer be paid. Anyway, Mr. Murashige was also sent to the Ueshiba dojo from the Kodokan.

Although Mr. Minoru Mochizuki was a live-in student at the Ueshiba dojo, it was Mr. Murashige who later went to Manchuria. After the war Mr. Murashige went to Burma with Mr. Kuroishi. Sometime you should meet with Mr. Kuroishi. He graduated from Takushoku University.

Were you detained by the Russian army after the war?

Yes. I did not return to Japan until July of 1948. Last year I went to Siberia to visit the graves of my fellow soldiers. Russians still eat brown bread. I still believe that the source of the Russians’ energy is brown bread.

(The full article is available for subscribers.)

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