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Flame Of The Founder: Still Burning Strong

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #96 (Summer/Fall 1993)

“Morihei Ueshiba & Aikido” videotapes

I recently returned from spending two weeks in Los Angeles where we completed editing the six tapes of our new “Morihei Ueshiba & Aikido” video series. As will be clear from reading the advertising elsewhere in this issue, Aiki News has completely re-edited its extensive library of films of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba into six polished, professional videotapes. We believe that through the medium of these videos newcomers to aikido will have an excellent opportunity to discover first-hand the genius of O-Sensei. Moreover, long-time practitioners will appreciate the finest presentation of the founder’s aikido technique — in literally hundreds of scenes ever compiled.

We decided to present the films of O-Sensei from the Aiki News archives in chronological order so viewers could follow the founder’s technique from his early 50s to just before his passing at age 85. The techniques are arranged according to type so as to provide a sense of continuity. Titles identify the location and year of each section of footage. Also included at periodic intervals throughout the programs are quotations of O-Sensei that describe his philosophy. Another special feature that we believe will add a further dimension to these rare videotapes is the inclusion of audio recordings of the actual voice of Morihei Ueshiba, with subtitles providing English translations. Finally, original music was created to enhance the silent portions of the films.

I must say it was quite an emotional experience to view the completed tapes and know that another generation of aikidoka will have direct access to the techniques and philosophy of the founder. These videotapes are so dense in content that many viewings will be required to absorb their essence.

Preserve aikido’s cultural context

Since I am on the subject of the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, I would like to bring up an issue that I am sure has escaped the attention of most practitioners. Regular readers of Aiki News will have quite an accurate picture of the major events in the founder’s life from having read the many historical articles we have published over the years. It is, for example, quite clear that the principal philosophical influence on the founder were the teachings of Onisaburo Deguchi, the extraordinary leader of the Omoto religious sect of which O-Sensei was a member for many years. As a consequence of this association, the founder’s way of expressing himself was heavily colored by the symbols and imagery used by Onisaburo.

To be more specific, the Shinto-based Omoto drew upon the Kojiki and other ancient texts, the kotodama - a belief holding that sounds have an intrinsic value capable of affecting reality - and various other esoteric systems. Those who were close to O-Sensei or had an opportunity to hear him speak know that it was difficult to follow his conversation on religious matters and sometimes virtually impossible to guess his meaning. O-Sensei’s lectures were filled with allusions to kamisama or deities, events and places mentioned in ancient Japanese literature, and other difficult-to-interpret references. Most Japanese, even his closest followers, make no attempt to explain the founder’s philosophy except in the most general terms.

For example, I once took a list of questions about a lecture of O-Sensei we had transcribed to three separate persons who had spent a great deal of time with him. Across the board, the interpretations of each person on each point were different! I finally understood the degree of difficulty confronting any serious researcher of the founder’s philosophy.

I was reminded of the unnoticed problem to which I alluded above while we were preparing audio recordings of the founder for the new videotapes. Most of the published quotes attributed to Morihei Ueshiba have an unauthentic ring to them. By “unauthentic ring” I mean that the quoted words of the founder are often presented devoid of the Shinto-Omoto references that he was so fond of employing. Perhaps, this is done in an effort to make the philosophy of aikido more accessible to postwar Japanese and the general public who have little knowledge of such esoteric subjects. Nonetheless, I submit that this strategy has its own risks as it is quite possible to make a sage say anything one wants - even something quite contrary to his actual beliefs - through selective editing. This is doubly the case in a situation where there is no published scholarly study in any language of the founder’s philosophy and terminology to provide a basis for interpretation of his thinking.

In the case of aikido the situation is compounded further when one attempts to translate the founder’s words from the Japanese. Great care must be taken not to violate the spirit of O-Sensei’s philosophy in seeking to serve up a “palatable text” which can be easily digested by westerners. It is important to respect the meaning of the original Japanese terms employed by the founder and to provide a cultural and historical context in which to frame his remarks. Think about how extensive the use of Japanese terms is in aikido practice. It is not a coincidence that we have preserved this nomenclature and by so doing we affirm the origin and identity of our art.

All of the above is strong reason for the use of a major portion of Aiki News’ resources over the past nineteen years to establish the technical and philosophical basis of aikido and make it accessible to interested persons the world over. We will of course continue our efforts in this regard and, in particular, plan to intensify our research into the complex subject of the Omoto religion. At the same time, we also find our energies extending to such areas as other classical martial arts which are so much a part of Japanese culture and as such antecedents to aikido. Moreover, we will be exploring the possibilities of the application of aikido ethics to psychology and the topic of conflict resolution in future issues. And, last but not least, we continue to welcome your comments and suggestions as they play a major role in shaping the direction of this publication.