In 1960, a vivacious young Japanese woman joined the old Aikikai Hombu Dojo and fell under the spell of the charismatic Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. Mariye (Yano) Takahashi gradually became a confidant of the Ueshiba family and the Hombu uchideshi forming bonds of friendship that continue to this day. Takahashi later sought a new adventure in America and ended up contributing significantly to the development of aikido in Southern California. Now an accomplished writer and university professor, Takahashi has contributed articles on a wide-range of topics for a variety of Japanese publications. In part one of this fascinating interview, Takahashi paints a vivid portrait of O-Sensei and offers an informed perspective on the founder’s Shinto-based belief system.
Mariye Takahashi and O-Sensei
I understand you were born in Manchuria. Would you start by telling us a few details about your family?
At the time my father was the president of Manchuria Antoo Zooshi, a paper factory in Manchuria which was a branch of the Ooji Paper Company. He was on friendly terms with a General of the Japanese Imperial Army, Yasunao Yoshioka, who was one of those responsible for establishing Manchukuo and the position of Puyi*, known as the last Emperor.
*Puyi (J: Fugi), installed as an infant as the last Manchu emperor in China, forced to abdicate in 1912 at the age of six. Puyi installed in 1932 as chief executive of the Japanese-sponsored state in Manchuria, a purely ceremonial position controlled by Japanese advisors.
As World War II expanded, the industries in Manchuria became increasingly important to Japan, and my father’s factory was one of those toured and inspected by Puyi. General Yoshikoka once came to our house for dinner with some of the officers under his command, and I remember when I went out to greet them in our guest room, he gave me some sweets wrapped in Japanese paper.
We eventually had to leave Manchuria as the war came to an end. I remember one of the only things we took with us was a hanging-scroll ink painting that General Yoshioka had done and given to my father. It’s still in the family, in fact, as one of our treasured heirlooms.
I believe your family went from Manchuria to Kyushu after World War II. Is that correct?
Yes, we had to relocate to my mother’s hometown of Fukuoka. That’s where I grew up.
When did you relocate to Tokyo?
When I was eighteen, after graduating from high school. I entered a university, but back then I don’t think I understood the potential inherent in the so-called “intellectual life,” and I tended to be more drawn toward things of a more spiritual nature. I was always seeking something in that vein, in that idealistic, righteousness way that young people tend to have, always letting my daydreams get ahead of me. What is interesting, though, is that ever since I was in middle school I’d been having this dream—or more than a dream, it was something I was actually quite certain of—that someday I would encounter some kind of “superhuman” individual, and that eventually I would reap great fruits from that encounter.
It happened that my elder brother Kazunari Yano was friends with Tetsuo Yoshizato (former Operations Bureau Chief of the Nishi Nihon News and an acquaintance of Kisshomaru Ueshiba). He was practicing aikido and he recommended it to me as something well-suited to women. That was in 1960, back when the old Hombu Dojo was still a traditional residential-style building. As soon as I opened the door, an uchideshi garbed in a splashed-pattern kimono and hakama came rushing out into the small foyer from the front room to greet me. It was Kazuo Chiba [currently of the San Diego Aikikai]. He didn’t have a samurai top-knot, but in all other respects I was sure that I’d run into a real samurai! He dropped into a formal seated bow, hakama pleated immaculately, hands on the floor in perfect form, and said: “Welcome….” I immediately thought to myself, “Oh my, this is it! This must be what I’ve been looking for! There must be something here for me….” (laughs)
When did you finally get to meet O-Sensei himself?
Back then he was still dividing his time between the Hombu Dojo and Iwama. I’d heard a lot of amazing things about him, but still I couldn’t guess what he might be like. I was keen at least to see what he looked like, so I went to the dojo every day hoping to catch a glimpse, but it turned out to be a couple of months before I was actually able to meet him. In the meantime, I went every day to the 8:00 am class (not the 6:30 am one taught by Kisshomaru). There weren’t very many people in that particular class, usually only about eight or so. It was taught by teachers like Nobuyoshi Tamura [currently in France] and Yasuo Kobayashi, and sometimes when there was an odd number of students one of the uchideshi like Yutaka Kurita [Mexico] or Mitsunari Kanai [Boston] would come out to practice with me. It was like a private lesson.
So you trained in the morning and went to your university classes in the afternoon?
Right, but I confess I didn’t attend class much at the Japanese university. I mean, I could get an “A” on the final exam after hardly attending a class at all, and that with my only average intellect. I thought the classes were too easy and unchallenging. Also, while in school, at least, I didn’t have that “searching for something” quality I mentioned earlier, so when I was with my friends the conversation tended to focus on things like fashion or the upcoming school dance or whatever. Still, somewhere inside me there remained that feeling of wanting to do something to cultivate the spiritual aspects of myself, and so I went off to practice aikido or whenever I had some free time, I studied Zen at Enkaku temple in Kamakura. In that respect, my personal lifestyle at the time had more to do with things like aikido and Zen than it did with being a university student.
And eventually you met O-Sensei?
Before talking about that I’d like to mention jusìt one thing: When you asked me to talk about my memories of O-Sensei, it occurred to me that doing so might actually be rather difficult. Talking about memories is something I’ve always considered more appropriate for conversations with one’s close friends and relatives; in this case, though, since I know it’s going to be printed, I have the urge to “straighten my collar” as it were, to make sure that what I say is accurate. This very morning, in fact, I prayed to O-Sensei, telling him that today I was going to talk about him and asking for his divine protection so I might do so properly. In any case, I’ll do my absolute best to avoid putting any of my own imagination into what I say.
Having said that, I’ll begin by saying that I truly believe that O-Sensei was indeed an incarnation of the deity of budo (budo no kami). It’s not a question of believing or not believing this, it’s just a fact that that’s what he was. For that reason, I sometimes think it may be impertinent or at least inappropriate to make definitive statements about O-Sensei, for example that his personality was like this or like that. “I understand it in such-and-such a way” is problematic because in that case you’re only talking about the knowledge you yourself have gleaned, which runs the risk of fixating your own position. Consequently I want to be very careful about what I say about him. In any case, I can say definitively and with complete self-assurance that O-Sensei was truly not just a “superhuman” individual, but literally a divine incarnation. Particularly from the vantage point of some thirty years later, I still can still feel very clearly the true nobility of his spirit.
Did you feel that way from the very first time you met him?
Indeed I did. You may wonder why I say with such conviction that O-Sensei, who usually conducted himself like an ordinary, good-natured sweet old man, was truly an incarnation of a deity of budo. I’m also sure some people will criticize me and say that I’m being absurd, that I’m unjustifiably putting O-Sensei on a pedestal, unconsciously idealizing and “canonizing” him, as it were, placing him somewhere outside the human realm. It’s a fact, though, that many of O-Sensei’s uchideshi and other pupils—people who had opportunities to witness firsthand the truly miraculous nature of what he did—invariably are convinced, without being influenced by mere hearsay, that his aikido was so sublime as to have been practically divine.
To the extent that he was a living, breathing human being he was of the same flesh and blood as the rest of us; but when it came to techniques and divine principles of aikido he was of a truly different order altogether. In part this must have been because of the severe budo and spiritual training he pursued avidly as a young man, but I also think he must have been born with a certain spiritual nature. There was an aura of sanctity that always surrounded his person and his work of aikido.
All human beings have a soul-like spirit. For most of us, though, the fact that our lives center so much around the material world tends to dull this spiritual sense considerably, and because we live our lives in a three-dimensional world we become bedazzled and bewildered by that world, causing our spirituality to atrophy even further. I may say that our human life has an abundance of materials. Even after our needs have been met, we tend to feel that there is not enough. When we turn ourselves to the human spirit, our attention must shift away for the excessively materialistic. According to the official record, O-Sensei was enlightened by being bathed in a golden light. Further, he was capable of representing a divine and mystical power, exalted far beyond the reach of ordinary men.
The divine power uses a specially “chosen” individual like O-Sensei as a medium. Aikido is the transmission of a sublimely divine principle that aims, in part, to help ordinary people like ourselves become more aware of our inherent spirituality through aikido.
Understanding him in this way, O-Sensei’s great achievement in aikido seems a very natural course of things. He himself had a personality so straightforward and pure that it could almost be considered charmingly childlike. I met him after he had experienced a mystical, spiritual union between god and man and become an increasingly spiritual persona, so I found O-Sensei to be quite different from ordinary people. One of the things I saw in O-Sensei’s aikido was the potential for people to grasp some more noble stratum than is ordinarily accessible to them. Just how far a person practicing aikido today can go toward O-Sensei’s level of achievement (both technically and philosophically speaking) will differ for each person, depending largely on the potential that individual has been born with.
What was it like for you at the Hombu Dojo in your early days there?
As a rank beginner I could hardly do anything. I couldn’t do the techniques. I couldn’t understand things. I suppose you could say I was more or less just there, existing. Kisshomaru Sensei once told me he remembered me being there all the time, so I must have been there a lot, despite being hardly able to do or understand anything. In the beginning, I found it rather unnerving to even go near O-Sensei; he was just so awesome that usually I just watched him from a distance, transfixed. I was always happy to see him, though. He was impressive and I had a kind of admiring longing for his presence.
After training for a while, I finally got a little more used to him and I was allowed to go to his room to bring tea or some little sweets for him. I could visit with him in his room from time to time. Whenever I came in he would greet me with a kind of pure-hearted, innocent cheerfulness. It was a great honor for me to be near him and I was like one of those charming young maidens (Miko) you see serving the Shinto deity at shrines. I remember one time he had an upset stomach and was refusing to eat anything for breakfast. One of the uchideshi told me to go see him, saying that he would probably eat if I were there beside him. When I got to his room he was laying there resting, but as soon he saw me his mood brightened quite a bit. A little later a student from the morning training who happened to be a doctor came in to examine him. He told O-Sensei his stomach was still at least as strong as a forty- or fifty-year old’s and not to worry.
O-Sensei looked happy to hear this and started murmuring something to the effect of “Hmm, I see….” When the wife of Kisshomaru Sensei brought him some chagayu and umeboshi,* he said, “Well, I suppose since Mariko (O-Sensei called me Mariko) is here I should eat a bit….” As long as I was there watching him he kept eating a little bit at a time, but whenever I moved away, to help straighten up the room or whatever, he would stop instantly! (laughs)
* Chagayu, soft rice gruel made with tea, often eaten by those weakened by illness. Umeboshi, pickled plums, a common side dish.
So, I sat there and said O-Sensei, please eat a lot of your chagayu, I am watching you. The doctor also said, “Please have it, it will be good for you.” Hearing that, my heart was at ease. I thought that if he didn’t eat, he would go someplace far away. I was praying that the doctor’s and my efforts would produce a tangible result in his health.
Often when I went to visit him we didn’t really talk much; I just sat and spent time with him. He often offered me nice things to eat, mikan (satsuma oranges) for example. If I didn’t eat the mikan on the table he always looked very disappointed, so I ended up eating a lot of them! Whenever I came in he always pulled out a cushion and told me to sit down, so I always plopped right down without even hesitating or having a second thought! It wasn’t that I hadn’t learned how to behave politely, it was just that he seemed to enjoy that kind of easy-going interaction so much. In that way O-Sensei was a very gentle, mild-mannered person; or perhaps I should say he has a combination of true purity of mind and wholehearted sincerity. I’m sure if you were to ask the gods themselves, “What kind of person is it desirable to be?” they would probably answer, “Someone like O-Sensei.” He truly was one of those special “chosen few.”
During your visits with him did O-Sensei ever talk to you about mythology or other spiritual matters?
No, not to me personally. But I do remember him speaking about such things in the dojo, or dropping a word or two about them now and then. They always struck me as being a lot like newspaper headlines, and nowadays I spend a lot of time writing, trying to put down the “stories” that go with them, so to speak, trying to come up with some answers. In that sense, I feel like O-Sensei left me with a good deal of homework. I always feel like smiling whenever I manage to arrive at some small personal understanding of one of those “assignments.”
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