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Interview with Kisshomaru Ueshiba

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #30 (August 1978)

This article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jason Wotherspoon of Australia. The following interview took place on May 30, 1978 in Shinjuku, Tokyo at the home of Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. The subject of the interview was Doshu’s recently published biography of his father, O-Sensei. Those present at the interview were Doshu, Aiki News Editor, Stanley Pranin, and interpreter Midori Yamamoto.

Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba at his home in 1978

Editor: When was the first edition of your book The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba published?

Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba: At the end of September… September 28, 1977.

About when did you begin to write the biography?

I can’t say for certain when I actually began to write it. It’s been nine years since my father died. About two or three years after his death I gradually began to organize the materials. Then around the beginning of 1976 I set about the task seriously and asked for help from the publishing company. I did it during one stretch of time. Anyway, before that I had gone to Hokkaido, all around Wakayama, to Ayabe and Kameoka, that area, and also over to Tajima. I went here and there in search of traces of my father. For me, especially, it was the first time I had been to Hokkaido where I went high up into the mountains. I paid a visit to the shrine in Shirataki village. Even the people of the village didn’t realize that there was a connection between the shrine and Morihei Ueshiba. I went and asked the village headman for help in removing the nailing - though it was discourteous to disturb the shrine - since no one was living there and the outer shrine was nailed shut. When we went inside, sure enough, there was something written about a donation made by Morihei Ueshiba on such and such a date. So we came up with some new material and little by little the book began to take shape.

According to the preface of your book, at Shirataki you met an old man who moved from Tanabe to Shirataki with your father, didn’t you? I would imagine you heard a great number of precious anecdotes when you listened to the old man’s stories. Would you talk about that?

That was a man named Takeda. The man died shortly after I met him. My father organized a Settlers’ Association in Tanabe and the group went to Hokkaido. My father was the group leader and Mr. Takeda was one of the members. He was a young man, probably in his teens, I guess. He remembered those days since he went there with my father and shared both the joys and hardships. After aikido became popular, many people who practice aikido went all the way to Shirataki intending to explore the roots of aikido. They would never fail to look up Mr. Takeda to hear stories of those days, so he developed a style of storytelling. Though the stories were repetitive, it was quite interesting.

What was Mr. Takeda’s first name?

If you look at the Aiki Shimbun, you’ll find it there… in one of the old issues of the Aiki Shimbun.

Is the Shirataki of today still small or has it become large?

Shirataki today is in the process of becoming a depopulated area. As for any future development, well, it would be rather difficult… I would guess the population is decreasing. You begin to have frost in late September or early October, so it’s a cold place. Nonetheless, it’s quite a nice spot. There is even a hot springs. I went there around September and thanks to the village headman, the council leader and some of the village dignitaries held a banquet in my honor. It was really wonderful.

They gave you quite a reception, didn’t they?

Yes, they certainly did. In the stories I mentioned before that Mr. Takeda told me, he pointed out the land that belonged to my father. He said that my father cultivated quite a large amount of land that he had bought from the government. And according to him, my grandfather, who was a long-time council member in the village of Tanabe, was quite well-to-do. That’s why my father, the founder of aikido, could do as he pleased and moved to Hokkaido backed by my grandfather’s money. Takeda said to me, “You’re grandfather was a great man. Because of this, your father was free to do aiki as he did. Your grandfather gave his son whatever money he wanted.” I had heard about these things before but, it was the first time I heard them directly from someone who actually experienced them. When they traveled from Tanabe to Hokkaido they went from Aomori via the Kampu ferry (present Seikan ferry). There was no railroad to Shirataki. You had to go from Asahikawa in the direction of Abashiri to get there. So they went by horse- drawn carriage. He told various stories of hardships such as the time their carriage overturned in the snow when the horses became excited. I guess it must have been difficult in those days.

Did you ever visit Hokkaido with your father?

No, I didn’t. That was the first time I ever went to Hokkaido.

I see.

My father was in Hokkaido before I was born. After he left Hokkaido, I was born in Ayabe, in Kyoto prefecture. He never visited Hokkaido again. However, he went to Mongolia after that around 1924 and during the war he went to Manchuria. Also, he went to Hawaii after the war, but he never returned to Hokkaido.

O-Sensei visited Mongolia and Manchuria. Did he also go to Peking?

Yes, he did. He went to Peking, but it wasn’t like present Peking. It was a long time ago, around 1940 or 1941, and it was around 1924 or 1925 that he visited Mongolia. It was really a long time ago. The area was infested with bandits. Those were really hard times.

They certainly were. In your preface you mention that O-Sensei urged you to write his biography beforehand. Would you talk a little more about that, please?

There have been one or two other biographies written about my father. But always the authors have been caught up in their subjective viewpoints. They contain passages which have been dramatized to a certain extent. So my father often asked me to write an accurate biography based on accurate materials. However, it was difficult for me to begin to work on the biography while my father was still living, so I postponed it. After he passed away, I considered it an urgent task, but I couldn’t do it immediately. Well, it took about eight or nine years. I believe I wrote the book having gathered as many materials as possible. I think there are people who view Morihei Ueshiba in a number of different ways, each according to his own image. However, this biography was gradually pieced together based on accurate materials and, moreover, using the things I saw and heard as a nucleus.

It really is an excellent book. Even though you gathered and arranged the materials beforehand, you wrote the book in just a little over a year, so I would imagine there was a one- or two-month period during which you devoted yourself completely to the book.

Yes, the biography took quite a long time to write. I have written altogether about 11 or 12 books dealing with aikido techniques. This must be about the twelfth book. Among the books I’ve written, the first one, which I wrote nearly twenty years ago entitled Aikido, and this one are the ones that took the longest. The first book I wrote also took a long time.

Why is it important for those who aspire to learn aikido to study O-Sensei’s biography, or to put in another way, the path the Founder walked?

I think it is a fine thing to study aikido, or make the decision to study aikido and continue to practice whether it’s because you find aikido a wonderful thing or because you consider it exactly suited to your needs. And I think it’s proper and necessary to practice keeping firmly in mind the origin of aikido. However, today you often find people who will start off running after having tasted only a little. They have no idea what aikido is about. If people think that aikido is merely moving the arms and legs and if it begins to develop into a form which bears little resemblance to original aikido, it would be most unfortunate. That would injure aikido. So, it’s important to realize the hardships that Morihei Ueshiba endured to create his art. It goes without saying that the physical aspect of aikido is important. However, the main thing is not only moving your arms and legs. It’s a matter of the spirit, a matter of the heart. If this spiritual training isn’t expressed in the body’s movements, then it isn’t the true thing. It is wrong to think you are doing aikido because you can throw your opponent or knock down your opponent or because you are strong.

For example, in judo and karate there are strong people. There are also strong people in Sumo. In aikido, too, there are strong people. However, true aiki is not merely having a strong body, it is not simply muscular strength. It is the unification of the mind and body. If a spirit which remains unperturbed whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances is not cultivated, then a person cannot be called strong as a man. So if one practices understanding how O-Sensei created this path, from what viewpoint of humanity, of life itself he departed, then one won’t misunderstand the true aikido path as it should be. That’s why I’d like everyone to actively read things like this biography.

There’s one more thing I’d especially like to say. There are many people who idolize Morihei Ueshiba as “almighty” or as a kami (a divine being). I think it’s a fine thing as long as it inspires hard training. However, as long as he’s a human being, he cannot be almighty. So I think the most important thing in aikido is to cultivate your own individuality, or rather, better individual characteristics through one’s own aiki training having an understanding of the efforts made by the Founder to construct the aiki path.

In the first chapter of your biography you also mentioned the fact that it’s dangerous to regard O-Sensei as a kami and his techniques as divine.

Well, to some extent, his technique was “divine technique.” It was truly incredible. In Japan, generally speaking, it is believed that kami dwell in everything. Japanese Shinto is not monotheistic. So, in that sense, naturally O-Sensei is a martial arts’ kami, an aiki kami. That’s fine, that’s one way of looking at it. But I think it’s extremely dangerous to regard anyone as “almighty.” It can be carried to an extreme just like it was during the “Greater East Asia War” (World War II) when Japan regarded herself as a “divine nation.” What is important is not that kind of attitude but to realize the true nature of aikido keeping in mind the hardships the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, endured to forge his path and how he paved the way for us.


(Transcribed by Kei Fukushima, translated by Stanley A. Pranin and Midori Yamamoto.)