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Interview with Rinjiro Shirata (1)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #62 (July 1984)

The following interview of Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, 9th dan of Yamagata Prefecture is the first of a two-part series and took place on June 4, 1983 in Shirata Sensei’s home.

Rinjiro Shirata

Although the history of Aikido is very important, we are sorry to say that there aren’t many items published concerning the pre-war period.

There are almost no publications except “Budo Renshu”, yet there was something called a “mokuroku”, the mokuroku of Daito-ryu. It deals with “ikkajo” and such techniques. It is a scroll with the same contents as “Budo Renshu”. In 1938, “Budo” was given to all people involved with Aikido.

Was the “mokuroku” the scroll you read at the “Budokan” Aikido demonstration?

No, it isn’t. I read a poem called “Ueshiba Sensei o tatou” (In Praise of Ueshiba Sensei), which praises Ueshiba Sensei as a kami incarnate. Both Ueshiba Sensei and Goi Sensei were deeply involved with spiritual matters, so they knew each other very well. That’s why Goi Sensei wrote this poem in praise of Ueshiba Sensei himself. It was published in the memorial photo album (page 99). They met after the war.

Are you also a direct acquaintance of Goi Sensei?

No, it was through Ueshiba Sensei. After I read the poem in praise of Ueshiba Sensei I began to admire Goi Sensei. I felt that Goi Sensei was the person who best understood the divineness of Ueshiba Sensei.

I understand that Ueshiba Sensei’s views concerning the spiritual world were heavily influenced by the Omoto religion.

Well, yes, I think Omoto influenced him a great deal. Although you may have already learned by reading the memorial photo album or the stories about Ueshiba Sensei, he persistently pursued his study of Budo. Since he wasn’t able to realize his goal, he joined Omoto and achieved enlightenment. However, he wasn’t satisfied with that so he by himself went to places like Nachi and Kurama (Wakayama Prefecture and Kyoto, respectively) to engage in ascetic practices. As a result he was initiated into the secrets of Budo.

Are you personally an Omoto believer?

Yes, my father was also a believer. Ueshiba Sensei and my father met through their involvement in Omoto. This led to my father wishing me to train in Aikido. I entered the dojo during the Kobukan period. It was either the end of 1931 or the beginning of 1932.

How old were you at that time?

Since it was the beginning of the Kobukan period I must have been 18 or 19. At that time there were Akazawa Sensei and Yonekawa Sensei. Their seniors were Iwata Sensei, Yukawa Sensei and Kamata Sensei (See photo album page 43).

Would you describe the atmosphere of the dojo at that time?

The atmosphere of the dojo at that time was completely different from that of the present dojo. There was an altar and a hanging scroll in which “Takehayasusanou no ookami, futsunushi no ookami” and “Takemikazuchi no ookami” were written in the center. The wife of Onisaburo Deguchi was named Sumiko and she was the second successor of the Omoto religion. The husband of their daughter (Naohi) the third successor was named Hidemaro and he wrote the characters using his fingers. They are the names of three budo kami. Ueshiba Sensei venerated those three kami very much. That was placed in the highest position of the altar and Sensei would go there and recite Shinto prayers. Ueshiba Sensei was always with the kami. I think he had been involved in these practices for a long time before that. We memorized prayers naturally. We did the knee-walk naturally by following his example.

From your viewpoint, Sensei, when was 0-Sensei at his highest level of development, before or after the war?

He was at his best in the later years of his life, perhaps. I believe he reached his highest level of development after the Iwama years. When I entered the dojo it was about three years after Ueshiba Sensei came to Tokyo from Kyoto. It was right in the middle years of his “shugyo” (ascetic training). Everyday was “shugyo”. In fact, Ueshiba Sensei’s training was much longer than ours. It seemed that through training his energy was activated.

Do you think that Ueshiba Sensei’s attitude toward budo changed a great deal as a result of the war experience?

It can be said that he changed after the war. Aikido was originally for the purpose of harmony so I think that he felt even more keenly about this. After we lost the war he faced reality and pursured his studies of budo further. In any case, it was a period where one had to establish oneself. In our period there were many dojo “busters” who came to challenge us.

Was Tenryu …

Tenryu was not a dojo buster but he challenged 0-Sensei wondering what kind of a strange old man he was. But he was soundly defeated. He entered the dojo only because he was defeated. It was not a period where one did Aikido because he wanted to, like nowadays. Those who were actively involved in martial arts would join a dojo because of losing a match. One wouldn’t have to join a dojo if he won. It was a period where one had to win in budo. We uchideshi (live-in students) absolutely had to win when those people came. If we didn’t beat those people who thought they could easily handle us even though there was no way they could defeat 0-Sensei, they would make light of us. The budo world used to be like that. You absolutely could not lose. That’s why our dojo used to be called the “Hell Dojo”.

I understand that the training of the pre-war uchideshi was quite different from that of the general students.

There wasn’t any special training for uchideshi. If there was, it was the “Budo Promotion Association” period in Takeda.

In that dojo there were only people like uchideshi. There weren’t any special classes exclusively for uchideshi. We never practiced techniques in any specific order. It was not a practice where we were taught. As I told you before, Ueshiba had his own training. Therefore, he practiced techniques as he wanted. That was his training. Ueshiba Sensei’s way of explaining techniques was first of all to give the names of karoisama (deities). After that, he explained the movement. He told us, “Aikido originally didn’t have any form. The movements of the body in response to one’s state of mind became the techniques.

How could beginners at that time learn basic techniques?

They learned techniques starting with the “ikkajo” of Daito-ryu Jujutsu from the uchideshi. Techniques like ikkajo, nikajo, shihonage…. There wasn’t any iriminage. There were techniques which, on later reflection, can be considered as the antecedents of iriminage. Iriminage was a technique originally developed by 0-Sensei. Sensei’s techniques were always changing. The techniques which had their origin in Daito-ryu were transformed into Aiki and as he trained himself gradually his techniques changed. That’s why the technique Tomiki Sensei learned, the techniques we learned, the techniques Shioda Sensei learned and the techniques Murashige Sensei learned before that were completely different. Sensei sometimes said to me, “Shirata, my techniques have changed. Look!” So I watched him. They became circular in a way completely different from the previous techniques. The person who systemized and perfected those techniques is the present Doshu.

It seems that you have preserved 0-Sensei’s sword as it was before the War.

He didn’t teach us the sword directly. He practiced it by himself. We learned it by watching him. When I was an uchideshi Ueshiba Sensei used to invite a Katori Shinto-ryu sensei to learn the sword. 0-Sensei would sometimes study it for a certain period. (Note: The ken is expressed through the body and body movements are expressed through the ken. This means that subtle changes in breathing (kokyu) coming from ki lead to changes in ki and these in turn become the movements of the body. These movements then become taijutsu which becomes the ken.)

0-Sensei in his later years used the ken to explain techniques. Did he do the same during training before the War?

Yes, he used the ken when we practiced shihonage before the War. He said that the ken and body are the same and the same was the case for the jo. We were taught that the mind is the source and the movement of the body is expressed through the hands which becomes the jo. Thus, the jo is an extension of the mind.

What did teachers of other budo think of 0-Sensei’s ken?

I think that they thought it was very unusual. Teachers at that time studied all of the first-rate budo. Hakudo Nakayama Sensei and Sasaburo Takano at that time studied the first-rate martial forms. They practiced all of the forms of the old schools as well as the present Kendo. Among those forms, there resides the spirit of the founder of those schools. The expression of the spirit becomes the technique. If 0-Sensei looked at the techniques of those first-rate schools, he understood their spirits.

Did you ever have a chance to see Sokaku Takeda Sensei?

Yes, I met him two or three times. However, I rarely talked to him. Although he was small he was well-built. His eyes were piercing.

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