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O-Sensei’s Spiritual Writings: Where did they really come from?

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Recently, due to the publication of a series of books whose authorship has been attributed to Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, I have felt compelled to weigh in on the subject of what O-Sensei actually did write during his career as a martial artist. The answer is in brief, “almost nothing.”

Works attributed to him—both before and after the war—were based on his spoken words and lectures rather than on texts that he had composed himself. They were transcribed and edited primarily by his son, Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and by several trusted students having varying degrees of literary skills. This is especially the case after World War II. Much of what we think of as the spiritual writings of Morihei is based on material published in the “Aikido Shimbun” of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo starting in 1959 and continuing following his passing in 1969. What was published in the “Aikido Shimbun” as “Doka” (Songs of the Way) were actually culled from heavily edited transcriptions of tape-recorded talks and lectures given by O-Sensei inside the dojo and elsewhere.

To understand the rationale for the editing of Morihei’s remarks, one must take into consideration the times and psychology of the Japanese during this period. World War II had recently ended, and much of the population were either direct participants, or deeply affected by the war and its outcome. Japan had acquired the stigma of a defeated nation, and many Japanese wished to distance themselves from all things associated with the conflict and those that had led the country into it.

During the early postwar period, subjects related to Japan’s military and political institutions, State Shinto, and the heavy destruction wrought upon the country were topics many Japanese chose to avoid due to the painful associations they held. Moreover, Morihei’s active role in teaching at numerous military installations during the 1930s and early 40s was a subject that the Aikikai chose to mention only in passing for understandable reasons.

Given Morihei’s tendency to speak using religious terminology and concepts and the difficulty modern Japanese had in interpreting his meaning, the decision-makers at the Hombu Dojo chose to edit O-Sensei’s words in an attempt to make them more palatable to the postwar generation. Another important consideration in this decision was the fact that the effort to disseminate aikido on foreign soil was in full swing. It was thought that foreign enthusiasts of the art would be incapable of understanding such religious imagery anyway, and that some might take offense considering that many early practitioners abroad were themselves war veterans, or adversely affected by the war.

I first became aware of the discrepancy between what had been published under the name of Morihei, and his actual way of speaking when, little by little, recorded tapes of his talks and interviews found their way into my hands in the course of my research.

Early on while residing in Japan, I attempted to have one of these tapes transcribed by educated native speakers on three occasions. The result was the same in that each of them in turn abandoned their attempt due to their inability to understand O-Sensei’s words and determine the appropriate kanji, or Chinese characters, to render difficult terms and concepts.

When I at last produced a transcription and translation of a somewhat easier text of a radio interview of Morihei, we faced a similar problem though on a smaller scale. In an effort to clear up several difficult passages, we approached three persons versed in the subject matter who were close to O-Sensei to aid us in deciphering their meaning. The amazing thing was that every answer on every point of each of the three authorities was different! From that point on, I fully understood the difficulties confronting anyone who attempted to make sense of Morihei’s words.

It is my opinion that there is only one published text that faithfully preserves the content and flavor of O-Sensei’s actual speech. The book is titled “Takemusu Aiki,” edited by Hideo Takahashi of the Byakko Shin Kokai. This Japanese-language book consists of transcriptions of a series of lectures given by Morihei before members of this religious group. Mr. Takahashi was very diligent in transcribing Morihei’s speech and visited the founder periodically in Iwama for help in determining the correct meaning of O-Sensei’s words.

With the permission of Mr. Takahashi, a colleague Sonoko Tanaka—a black-belt student of Morihiro Saito Sensei—and I translated the first four chapters of “Takemusu Aiki.” It was a daunting task, and Sonoko did a good deal of background reading, especially on the “Kojiki,” before undertaking the translation. Below are the links to our translations of these chapters of “Takemusu Aiki.”

Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 1

Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 2

Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 3

Takemusu Aiki, Chapter 4

These English translations represent our best efforts to faithfully render the original Japanese. There are a copious amount of notes accompanying the translations to provide further explanation of difficult passages. We were asked to stop our translation work at this point due to the intervention of the Aikikai.

There are a few other sources of faithful transcriptions and translations of Morihei’s spoken words. These consist of the aforementioned radio interview as well as two other interviews transcribed from audio tapes and translated with English subtitles. Here are the links for the video presentations available at Aikido Journal that contain the original recordings of O-Sensei and their translations:

Morihei Ueshiba: “Way of Harmony”

Morihei Ueshiba: “Divine Techniques”

Morihei Ueshiba: “The Founder of Aikido”

In recent years, Professor John Stevens, a Japanese scholar and high-ranking aikidoka, has published a series of volumes on aikido through the Kodansha Publishing House. Several of these books bear the name of “Morihei Ueshiba” as the author. I confess not to have reviewed these works carefully, but Professor Stevens himself has alluded to the difficulty of translating various passages attributed to the founder. Other considerations such as the requirements of the publisher to enhance the saleability of the published works undoubtedly came into play when making editorial decisions.

I wish to make a few observations here. Professor Stevens’ earlier translations were based on materials already published in Japanese, mainly “Doka” appearing in the previously alluded to “Aikido Shimbun.” As I have pointed out, these passages were extensively edited to purge the text of Shinto imagery and difficult-to-understand passages. Professor Stevens latest work, “The Heart of Aikido: The Philosophy of Takemusu Aiki,” is a rather loose translation of the Japanese lectures edited by Mr. Takahashi.

Personally speaking, I don’t have any objection to the presentation of Morihei Ueshiba’s spoken word and philosophy in the above-described manner. Given the extenuating circumstances of the aftermath of World War II and the desire to spread aikido beyond the shores of Japan, it is difficult to fault the Aikikai in their decision to proceed in this manner.

At the same time in fairness to readers, I feel it incumbent upon anyone who publishes a work attributed to Founder Morihei Ueshiba to clarify the source of the original Japanese, and any modifications to these texts and the reasoning behind such editorial determinations. I believe this holds true for translated texts as well, particularly given the difficult subject matter.

In conclusion, the published books containing quotations attributed to Morihei Ueshiba available in various Western languages are based on “sanitized” Japanese versions of Morihei’s words. They have been edited and simplified with an eye to presenting text accesible to modern readers, but are devoid of many of those terms and metaphors actually used by the founder of aikido which failed to match the tenor of the times.

A serious attempt to faithfully transcribe, edit and annotate the corpus of recordings of O-Sensei’s speeches and lectures has yet to be undertaken. Readers of the currently available materials should bear this in mind when researching the philosophy of the aikido founder.