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Exclusive Interview with Stanley Pranin

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by Paul Swainson

Published Online

Stanley Pranin started Aikido in 1962 at the age of 17. His first dojo was a Yoshinkan dojo run by a man named Virgil Crank. Since that day Aikido has always been part of Stanley Pranin’s life. His writings on Aikido and its historical beginnings, and its founder Morihei Ueshiba will be appreciated for many years to come and prove invaluable to those practicing and researching this unique Budo.

MI: How are you today Mr. Pranin? Mi Magazine really appreciates you taking the time out for this exclusive interview. Let us start by asking what rank in Aikido are you Mr. Pranin?

SP: I have a 5th dan awarded by Saito Sensei in 1983 or 84.

MI: This year’s Aiki Expo is not far away, how do you feel when you are there among thousands of people knowing you started it all?

SP: Well, it is overwhelming, but it is not the kind of situation where you can sit back and contemplate on what is going on at the time. There are always little problems to fix and people asking you questions, and running from room to room and it is very much a whirlwind of activity. Although afterwards when you sit down and watch the videos, you think, “Well, that was quite an accomplishment and it seemed like a lot of people had a good time and probably a few lives were changed.” It really is a satisfying feeling at the end of it all.

MI: Do you plan to take the Expo to other countries in the future?

SP: I think we will be moving it around within the States, possibly Canada. I feel it would be a little more complicated if we took it to another country. The laws and the cultures are different and I would have to rely very heavily on someone in that country to do a lot of the legwork and that I feel would be difficult. I don’t completely exclude it as a possibility; it is something I would hesitate outlaying before actually committing to. I also would lose control over a lot of the aspects of the event that I can handle here within the States and I know the culture and laws already here.

MI: How many people are you expecting this year?

SP: I am hoping to get between 700 - 1000 attending, you never know, but I think we will do much better than Las Vegas because there is very little martial arts activity here (Aikido Journal Office is based in Nevada) by comparison whereas southern California is a Mecca for martial arts so hopefully we’ll get quite a bit more. Click here for Expo details.

MI: Will you be participating in any of the demonstrations?

SP: No, I really don’t have the time to prepare for something like that, however I have toyed with the idea of doing it. I just want to concentrate on making the event run well itself.

MI: What is your opinion on Aikido today?

SP: Well, I have written a lot of editorials on that. I think that there is a lack of leadership in that when an activity is founded it is usually founded by a very passionate, highly motivated, charismatic individual. Then when an organization forms around that person you tend to get people who are more interested in running an organization and doing the things organizations do. They create by-laws and preserve the traditions, which means the art that they were exposed to directly, whereas other people who had access to the founder may have received quite different instructions. You tend to get a kind of change to the situation of inertia where change is resisted. The organization becomes a goal in itself and it all tends to become more bureaucratic. In that sort of a situation it is certainly understandable. If you think of Aikido as something vital in your daily life and you want to prepare yourself physically, physiologically and spiritually for a violent encounter or to just deal with your daily life, I think we have to be constant seekers. The type of atmosphere, the type of thinking and the type of focus that an organization typically emphasizes might not be the optimum one for personal development, so I fortunately through what we do with the website and the activities that we are doing which are independent of an organization means I don’t have to deal so much with that.

If I ever were to begin teaching Aikido actively again I am not really sure that I would join any organization or attempt to give ranking. Basically I think that there’s a kind of a status quo, which is satisfactory, but borders on mediocrity. In terms of technique and the direction, there’s not really a forward dynamic thinking that I can see that comes out of the organization, so one of the purposes of the Expo is to create a situation, of a dynamic mix of people from different kinds of Aikido and other arts who can get together. By just being in proximity with a diverse mix of people like that and being able to see their techniques, feel their techniques, tends to be really stimulating. If you look at O’sensei’s background, he did a lot of cross training too, so those who criticize the Expo for venturing into other areas which aren’t related to Aikido should maybe look back at the history and see what O’sensei and his teacher Sokaku Takeda did and their personal training.

MI: Would the development of Ueshiba Sensei’s Budo have been different had he not had his Satori (mystical experiences)

SP: Well, one can only speculate. I did not meet O’sensei; I arrived in Japan two months to the day after his death, so what I know of the founder is what I have understood from talking with people who have been close to him and reading a lot and thinking about the subject. You have to understand that his so-called enlightenment is portrayed as a one time thing, but when you look at the way he was particularly in his later life, where he is going in and out of this enlightened consciousness, and would talk as though he were a vehicle, and he was channeling for the Kami or the Deity and he adhered himself in those terms, so when you see O’sensei, let’s say on the mat doing Aikido or you see someone who is channeling for a higher energy, I tend to view that there may have been something that stuck out in his mind that he talked about. I think that there may have been many experiences that brought him closer to the universal spirit and that he went in and out of that consciousness and maybe even remained in that unconsciousness for long periods of time especially as he grew older and contemplated those things more.

You know we talk as though we understand what we mean by Satori and if I were to ask you, or you ask me or we ask ten other people to describe what we are talking about when we say Satori I think we would get some pretty different opinions. So words like that I tend to handle kind of lightly because I really don’t know what people mean or what images it might conjure up in their own consciousness. It is quite hard to say but perhaps it was around 1925 but it is very hard to pin down a date and you know it could be a difference of experiences and he had enlightenment like experiences in Mongolia, also when they were captured/arrested and prepared for execution. So I tend just to listen to the stories but there’s not much I can do with it, as an historian.

MI: What changes occurred later on to throw open the doors to the wider public?

SP: I would recommend that readers take a look at an editorial I did titled “Is O’sensei really the founder of modern Aikido?” Basically to answer that question you have to look at how Aikido developed within Japan and spread around the world after the war and you will find that O’sensei played a rather small role in the process. Of course he influenced the people who did pass his teachings on and he was there as a source of inspiration. The people who actually did the leg work and the instruction were for the most part people like Shioda Sensei, his son Kisshomaru Sensei, Tohei Sensei and some of the early Shihan’s who traveled Japan and other countries around the world.

MI: There seems to be a marked contrast between Tomiki Sensei’s and Shioda Sensei’s emphasis and approaches. Would you throw some light on this?

SP: I have also written some editorials regarding Tomiki Sensei and Shioda Sensei and they go into quite some detail. Basically Tomiki Kenji Sensei was influenced a lot by O’sensei but also a lot by Kano Jigoro the founder of Judo, and as well as being an excellent martial artist he was an academic. A lot of what Tomiki Kenji Sensei did later on with the art was based on the Judo model much more than what O’sensei was teaching.

O’sensei was rather unorganized in terms of teaching so Tomiki Sensei wanted to codify things in a manner similar to what Kano did, the latter also being an educator. Tomiki Aikido developed it into a form that had competition, which took place in the late 1950’s and part of it was that he wanted to give the Aikido club the status of a normal university club. In order to do that the administration dictated that a competitive form would have to be developed. So part of this creation of the sport system and the system of competition was due to him wanting to have a more beneficial status within the Waseda University, so you have to factor that into consideration also. I don’t know if he would have developed a system like that had he not had that pressure from the university administrators. Only the old timers within the Tomiki Organization could answer that, but I know that to be a fact.

O’sensei and his pre-war teachings first and foremost influenced Shioda Sensei and Shioda Sensei did not study very much after the war from O’sensei, so it developed into Yoshinkan Aikido, which took place after he went off on his own. Shioda Sensei had to do things like teach large groups of people and that caused him to modify and codify his teaching methodology to deal with such situations. Again, nonetheless there are interviews with him where I have touched on that.

MI: You have been to Japan many times and have first hand experience training on the mats there. Would you say that there is more of a focus on technique or in the principles of Aikido?

SP: Well, the technique I see as being taught in a larger organization is in a somewhat static state, in other words unchanged. The principles tend to be things you will find in the introduction of books and maybe in pamphlets and they are generalized feel good superficial statements. That with very few exceptions, you are not going to see a teacher talking about the principles of Aikido and going deep into philosophy in an actual training session. You are going to find that teaching will be 6 - 10 techniques and some will explain more than others and most will just demonstrate it a few times and have you practice. Now if there are a few individuals that actually know things, they will talk about these various things, but they are generally people who have been really influenced by O’sensei and for the most part it is hard physical training. In a situation where the status quo is being preserved, in which you will tend to see the student being developed, being clearly identifiable to the teacher, you will most likely not see too much of innovation take place.

MI: Was it a big difference when you went to Japan to train?

SP: Yes, it was a big surprise when I went in 1969; it was a big surprise in many regards partially because there was so little interest in O’sensei.

MI: Did that surprise you that there was not much interest in the founder?

SP: Yes, you know I expected that the founder of Aikido being such a giant and talented charismatic individual, that there would be lots of people studying his background and exploring his technical development and learning from that and I had a hard time trying to talk with people and they just didn’t seem interested. Even by that point in 1969, institutionalization I think had set in, to a certain extent. You had at the Honbu Dojo (where I was) different camps around teachers especially around Tohei Sensei. People who attended his classes tended not to attend other Shihans’ classes, things like that went on. I mean people were stronger in the sense that they were well trained and had different cardiovascular conditioning but they were not strong technically. They were just moving and thrashing around a lot. They were physically conditioned and with a bit of maturity in techniques.

Part of the reason for the state of Aikido today is that good strong skilled attacks are never emphasized, so when we practice in the dojo it is unlike anything we would encounter in a violent situation. I am certainly not recommending violent attacks but I would recommend people learn well-controlled energetic attacks and that they venture into areas where they are not just in a completely controlled environment. You have to get out of that and we have what you call randori, I mean you have people coming and grabbing with two hands and are waiting to be thrown and it’s not very realistic.

MI: You have met nearly every important person who had trained with O’sensei, and some of the biggest names in Aikido. Were there times when the person you interviewed overwhelmed you?

SP: Well communicating and interacting with O’sensei’s nephew Noriaki (Yoichiro) Inoue was one of the highlights. It was so intense and so hard to get to meet with him but once we broke the ice he was a very attentive person and I was able to have a lot of quality interaction with him and he gave me so much important historical information which allowed me to make breakthroughs in my research. I also spent a lot of time with Saito Sensei and especially during a five-year period where I traveled with him. I have also had some meaningful interactions with Tohei Sensei on a number of occasions and my Shodan and Nidan examinations were done in front of him, so I know about him, his background and history.

MI: The writings you have done covering all aspects of Aikido have really helped everyone understand more about the art we practice. Do you think they have made people sit up and want to learn more about Aikido?

SP: I really wished there were other researchers out there. We’ve done a great deal but it’s impossible to do everything and in a lot of the interviews I conducted, my Japanese was at a much lower level and I didn’t have the knowledge to ask really deep questions. Fortunately, a lot of people we were able to interview were at different times and some even with a ten-year separation, so my interviews got better and deeper. If there were other researchers around they would tend to turn up something different but that’s what research is like. I mean I cannot prescribe what everyone who does Aikido should do. All I can say is that my interests are in those directions and they motivated me to do this research and these are the results of my findings. If there is something of use to people then feel free, but I would not attempt to dictate what people should do.

MI: Do you think when one reaches a certain level in Aikido it becomes a very personal journey and the need to find one’s own identity becomes stronger?

SP: Well, again I wouldn’t presume to prescribe what people should do and that’s my personal feeling whether within the Japanese martial arts tradition or not. Even in martial arts you have the concept of Shu, Ha and Ri where you first learn something in a very rote manner and little by little as you reach a much more advanced level you begin to separate yourself from that tradition and then finally in the last stages you go off and do something on your own where you’re innovating.

But of course what you have learned through your early studies is ingrained within you and it’s a part of what you do to go off and create something new. That whole concept is really mainstream Japanese culture. It is a completely natural thing to do and it is what O’sensei did and what his teacher Sokaku Takeda did. Anybody who would tend to demand or force tradition onto someone who has an independent spirit can demand all they want but I think it is a natural part of human behavior. On the other hand, you’ll find some people who will dabble in scores of traditions never having obtained even an intermediate level and then go off and do something of a hodge podge, and I think that would be obvious if you saw them move or heard them talk. So if you have learned something very well or several things very well then I think it is most appropriate to do something that has your personal stamp, but if you are going to come up with something completely different then come up with a new name and then you won’t have to worry about people accusing you of bastardizing the predecessor art.

MI: Would it help Aikido and particular students practicing Aikido, if perhaps they were to write essays for each grading on historical, technical and practical issues?

SP: Well, I do know of some schools that have essays as part of grading, but I am not sure to what extent there might be historical questions in there. I know some people who like myself are interested in history will perhaps talk about it and maybe recommend that students read a particular article or a book.

MI: I have read in places the importance of Daito-Ryu to Aikido and in other places I have read that its role in the development of Aikido was of little significance, would you say that these views are political?

SP: I think they are political. I know much more about what you are describing than I care to talk about. There are individuals in high places who at various periods have attempted to very much de-emphasize Daito-Ryu and its role in the development in Aikido. You know I understand the reason for this as well, and I am not saying I would feel or act any differently if I were in their shoes. Nonetheless there have been conscious efforts made to minimize the perceived role of Daito-Ryu in the evolution of Aikido, and it is the same thinking that has been applied to people like Tohei Sensei, Tomiki Kenji Sensei and Noriaki (Yoichiro) Inoue who fell out of favor with the main organization. The winners rewrite history and the conquerors rewrite history and those who are operating the organization will differ in their view on history because they have the political power and the ability to communicate with a lot of people and very often their viewpoints will tend to win out because there is no real competing viewpoint.

One of the things we were able to do through our research and now with the advent of the internet is to put out information which is available to anyone and we have to be very careful with our documentation and we have gone to the source wherever possible so I am not really concerned that people will be able to develop a convincing argument against some of the strong stances I have taken because those stands I have taken have developed over very long periods of time and they are not all my thinking. A lot of it is, but a lot of it is from people who were there, who were personal witnesses to these historical events, which I was then able to corroborate with other people. That’s why I feel very confident on some of the more complicated issues.

MI: Was there ever times during your research that you thought you were getting in too deep and that certain people higher up would not take too kindly to research like this?

SP: Yes, there were many times like that. When we began delving into Daito-Ryu seriously there were lots of under currents and people made it very clear that they were not pleased with the direction of our research. We received a lot of criticism. But people are stuck with the truth and it is very well documented and if they want to attack the documentation and come up with more accurate information, then I for one would be very pleased as that would help me in my further research. But at this late stage I cannot see that happening as it is very hard to research these areas now in any direct sense as most of the people with that information have now died. So anything people do now will be derivative of previous work.

It’s really a sad thing that for someone as important as O-Sensei, that so little historical research been done on him. It is like when you want to understand about your parents and grandparents you may need to go back further into genealogy and things like that. My mother for instance is an amateur genealogist and she has a database with around 1500 people in it and she will offer some of her relatives a print out of her findings and some people are totally uninterested. Yet these are their ancestors. Others are delighted to get the information, and they have data of their own that they will contribute. It just depends what people are interested in. If the information is out there and it is accessible and you’re interested then good, but I would never condemn someone or say that someone is not doing Aikido properly just because they don’t display an interest in history. With many people that interest may come about a lot later perhaps after 10-15 years. Then they might ask “Well. my teacher studied with this teacher, and I want know a little more about that.” “And that teacher was his teacher,” and so on and so forth. Younger people tend to be less interested in history than those who are mature, but it’s natural for people to want to know their roots.

MI: In your book titled Aikido Masters Volume 1, Shioda Sensei said today’s Aikido was dimensionless, empty of content and nothing more than an imitation of the real thing, how did you feel when he said this to you?

SP: I just kept nodding my head pretty clearly. I mean if you ask me of the condition of Aikido today my views are very similar to Shioda Sensei’s and to have someone of that stature say that, well it’s not just me with the viewpoint. And I have countless conversations with people who for many years have been involved with Aikido who express a great deal of frustration with the lack of direction, the lack of passion and inspiration. People are comfortable with the status quo. Fewer people will be dissatisfied with the status quo and will want to push themselves to find new frontiers and learn new things and place themselves in situations where they are not comfortable, where they are not top dog and they have to learn something dramatically new or appear awkward or embarrassed. That’s not comfortable for a lot of people, but you know doing things like that will help you grow.

I mean the training before the war I don’t think was that much more intense than it is perhaps perceived. It was just the society they were living in, with the military government and the whole society being geared up towards conscription and war. In that sense, there was tension in the environment. In terms of dojo training, it might have been a little rougher but the people who we think of as being top people figures before the war such as Tomiki, Shioda and Tohei and people like that, I don’t think their training was in anyway particularly more intense, I mean they had direct contact with O’sensei in that time that’s for sure.

The difference is that the postwar society we live in is not filled with so much tension and also the number of activities competing for our time and interests are so much more, with T.V, DVDs, video games, computers and hundreds of different sports and hundreds of different martial arts. There is also the way martial arts is portrayed in the media with its unrealistic qualities and impossible feats, one guy beating up forty guys, all these impossible scenarios. Young people who tend to go to the martial arts are heavily influenced by images like that. It’s the times we live in.

MI: So lastly Mr. Pranin where in your opinion do you see Aikido in the future?

SP: Well I don’t think there will be any amalgamating into the development of Aikido. I think you’ll find that the most talented people who are invited to seminars, that write books and make DVDs will push and direct where Aikido heads, but there’s not going to be any one unified direction. It will just be spread out across the spectrum. There will be new hybrid arts created and those competing for the interest of people who want to learn martial arts, and there will be people who will show no loyalty to any organization or schools and will simply look at the dojo, how clean and safe it is, the instructor and what books and DVDs he or she has, and their choice will be based on those factors regardless of what organization they represent.

MI: Thank you very much for taking the time to share with us your thoughts and opinions on Aikido and related topics. It cannot be underplayed the importance of the research Mr. Pranin has done. He has helped us understand what it is we do when we step on the mat of our dojo.

Mr. Pranin has an extensive database that covers every aspect of Aikido and can be found at www.aikidojournal.com and has some of the best Aikido footage around. This year will also see Aiki Expo and more information on that and ticket availability can be found on the aikido journal website along with the guest instructors from all over the world.

This interview was originally published in 2005 on the MI Magazine website.