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Interview with Stanley Pranin

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by Joran Fagerlund

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The following interview was published in the Swedish publication Iwama Ryu News in 1998 and is posted here with the kind permission of J�ran Fagerlund.

Few people know as much about aikido history as Stanley Pranin. Furthermore, no one has been more important in the search of an accurate writing of aikido history. As editor-in-chief of Aiki News and Aikido Journal he has for more than twenty years documented the life of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido. Stanley Pranin is known for his sense of details and accuracy. Even though his research has got him in to trouble from time to time, since his discoveries sometimes have contradicted the official aikido history, his in-depth knowledge commands great respect throughout the aikido community.

Stanley Pranin summarized the “controversial” conclusions on the founder and his art, that he and the Aiki News staff has made over the years, in the editorial of Aiki News #98 (Spring, 1994):

“Morihei Ueshiba was an eccentric nonconformist who pursued a highly personal path in his development of aikido. Many of the opportunities afforded him in the first half of his life were made possible by the generosity of his loving father, Yoroku, and his considerable means. Ueshiba’s creation of aikido was viewed by the Daito-ryu school as an act of rebellion and show of disrespect towards Sokaku Takeda. Ueshiba was, on the other hand, loyal in the extreme towards Onisaburo Deguchi, and most of his ethical views on budo were derived from this Omoto leader’s teachings. O-Sensei expressed his visionary views on budo as a tool for peaceful resolution of conflict largely through the metaphors and symbols of the Omoto doctrine and this message has been simplified and altered with the elimination of this religious context as aikido has been popularized.

To continue, Ueshiba’s religious and ethical views assumed greater importance in his concept of budo due to the physical and psychological devastation Japan suffered during World War II. Aikido in its modern form developed during the founder’s intensive period of study in Iwama which spanned the period of 1942 through the mid-1950s. Ueshiba’s main impact on aikido during the postwar period was in a spiritual and symbolic sense, rather than technical. The major technical influences after the war and those primarily responsible for the dissemination of the art were Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and to a lesser extent, other second-generation senior instructors.

The aikido seen commonly today differs considerably from that developed by the founder during the Iwama years in the following respects. Atemi (strikes to vital points) have been de-emphasized or eliminated. The number of techniques commonly practiced has been reduced. The focus on irimi (entering) and initiation of techniques by tori [person executing the technique] has been lost, and the distinction between omote and ura blurred. Practice of the aiki ken, jo, or other weapons is infrequent or nonexistent. Aikido, although still considered as a budo by some, retains little of its historical martial effectiveness due to the soft, casual nature of practice and as such has been transformed into what could be better called a health or exercise system.”1

Iwama Ryu News met Stanley Pranin for a interview at the Iwama Dojo, at the end of May 1998, after a photo session with Saito Sensei for volume five in the Takemusu Aikido series.

What was your purpose when you started Aiki News in 1974?

What happened was, a few years earlier I got hold of some Japanese documents which was a newspaper series talking about the life of O-Sensei. And there was no English translation of it so with a Japanese friend I went through and translated the 17 articles. I showed this to some people and everybody wanted them, so we started making mimeographed copies of them, and started handing them out and people were very pleased. I’ve always liked writing and there were some events in the Northern California area so I thought “Well, let’s do a little newsletter.”

We used the O-Sensei articles as the main part and then just local area news. I wrote a little editorial and then sometimes people would send in articles. Then a Japanese sensei would come and we’d make an interview and put that in. It started from there. It was just a hobby. It was kind of a way of distributing the research that I have been doing just privately to a wider audience.

What would you say you have achieved with your work?

I got myself into lot of trouble! [laughter] I think that we’ve shown convincingly that historically there is a very important connection between Daito-ryu and O-Sensei and the Omoto religion and O-Sensei. To attempt to remove him from that context is to do a disservice and make it very difficult to understand who O-Sensei was and in what way he was original and what he accomplished. That, and we’ve been able to document historically Saito Sensei’s position in that context. Besides being talented, Saito Sensei happened to be in the right place at the right time. If he did not have the job on the railroad he wouldn’t be where he is today. If he had a nine to five office job, and a family, he could never have trained that seriously.

We discovered some historical things which are probably interesting only to people who like details. There was a strong connection between the Inoue2 family and the Ueshiba family, I’m talking about 70 or 80 years ago, A long time ago, that was very, very important in the early days of O-Sensei’s training. They promoted him and assisted him in many ways.

What would aikido history look like without Aiki News?

Read the Aikikai books or the Yoshinkan books and you’ll see. Doshu wrote a biography of O-Sensei which was published, I believe, in 1977 and it stayed in print for two or three years. It has a lot of really important historical information and information which also includes things from his experience of being his son.

However, you have to remember that O-Sensei historically had falling outs, quarrels, etc. with various people. Even though they where important people promoting his activities, or family members like the Inoues or the quarrel with Daito-ryu, there was a tendency just to want to ignore them. Even though they were important historically, years later, the Aikikai wanted to basically not mention these things. You can understand this from a standpoint of human nature. But, as a historian, if you eliminate Daito-ryu or the Inoue family you have a totally warped conception of what aikido is and how it came to be. You have to put O-Sensei in his historical context to understand how great he was or how significant the thing he did by creating aikido was. What is aikido? Is it a completely original martial art or is it just warmed over Daito-ryu, what is it? You cannot say unless you study these historical subjects. You have no basis for appreciating what he has done.

Did you have any idea how big Aiki News would be when you started?

No, I don’t think I knew what I was going to do. I had a dojo for a while. I was driven by the fact that I wanted to know more about O-Sensei. When I came to Japan the first time in 1969 I started looking for information and I got nowhere. Very few people wanted to cooperate with me. There was almost nothing in Japanese either. No one had done research. O-Sensei had just died and the Japanese didn’t seem to take research that seriously. So once I became interested and found out something then I found out more and it became more interesting and I wanted to continue.

What are your plans for the future with Aiki News?

To document every aspect of O-Sensei’s life I can. This means documenting Daito-ryu in depth. We’re going to publish an English translation of a biography of Onisaburo Deguchi this year. I want to publish as many volumes of this technical series with Saito Sensei as he would like to do. Some day I would like to do a technical series on Daito-ryu. There are several other senseis who have taken aikido to different directions, which I personally don’t practice but whom I admire and respect. I’d like to do some things with them because I think what they are doing is worthwhile. And then, in a few years I hope to write a biography of O-Sensei which will be serious, and since I’ll publish it myself there’ll be no editor to tell me I can’t do that, or it’s too long or too detailed. I’ll just do what I want to do. I’m thinking more of when I’m dead, of what I can leave behind.

Can you explain the more specific reason for the book series with Saito Sensei, which we’ve been shooting pictures for today?

As I tried to point out in some of my editorials and in Volume One of this series, Saito Sensei, largely because of a historical accident, had a very unique opportunity to study with the founder in more detail than anyone else. He received so much technical instruction directly from the founder and his mind is very methodical so he’s been able to classify it and explain it in a way that is much, much easier to understand. So, by preserving Saito Sensei’s techniques it’s the next best thing to preserving O-Sensei’s techniques. There is no other sensei I can work with that knows this subject to this depth, who can explain it clearly or who saw O-Sensei over a long period of time and could see the changes in his techniques.

We’re in the Iwama dojo right now. What is the importance of this place for the development of aikido, from your point of view as a historian?

It was probably the place where O-Sensei could relax the most, where he felt the most comfortable himself in his later years. He travelled to Tokyo, Osaka, Tanabe, and Shingu, but his house was here. His house in Tokyo became more the present Doshu’s house than O-Sensei’s house. Of course he could stay there but Iwama was home basically and when he was travelling, his wife, Hatsu, was here. She was not in Tokyo that much. From 1942 this was his home basically.

The dojo has kept this old flavor. It’s not a modern concrete building. The surroundings are very beautiful and you have got the shrine over there and for O-Sensei the spiritual aspect was very important. It’s a very special place and probably, after the war, the only home O-Sensei had. Perhaps the people in Tokyo view it differently, but that’s the way I see it.

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