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Interview with Moriteru Ueshiba

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #118 (Fall/Winter 1999)

Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba

Editor Stanley Pranin: When did you first begin to pursue aikido with an eye to your future as inheritor of the tradition?

Doshu: It was only once I’d become a university student that I began to pursue it with real consistency. I had to go to school, though, so I could only practice a couple hours a day, in the morning or evening, depending on my class schedule. I suppose I got in about two hours per day on average. During spring vacations and the like I did an extra hour, for example practicing an hour in the morning and two hours in the evening, or vice versa. Even after graduating the pace stayed about the same until I was almost thirty. Around 1979 my father fell ill for a while, and from that point on the teaching duties began shifting my way gradually.

Would you say that your father Kisshomaru had the greatest influence on you?

He used to teach every morning and on Friday evenings, so I was always at those classes. I went to classes by the other teachers, too, but I had lived all my life under the same roof as my father, so the training I received under him undoubtedly influenced me the most.

Was there ever anything in particular that your father emphasized in talking to you about aikido history?

Moriteru Ueshiba, left, as
a boy in old Hombu Dojo c. 1961

He didn’t really talk much about that sort of thing to me. Most of what I ever heard him say about it I picked up after I began training more regularly under him and when I accompanied him to seminars, lectures, and demonstrations. He never sat me down while we were at home and said, “Moriteru, it’s like this….” or “Moriteru, these are the things I want you to know…”
In any case, from the time I was born I lived together with my grandfather, the founder of aikido, and my father, the previous Doshu, so I’m sure I’ve been influenced by them both in many ways, even if they never spoke to me specifically about such things. I was born and raised in an aikido environment, in all its aspects, technical and otherwise.

What kind of training did your father give you specifically?

I trained along with everyone else, so there was never any time when he called me aside to give me alone any special training. He always did make a point to give me certain pieces of advice while I was out on the mat, for example, to always perform my techniques cleanly and carefully, to keep my hips down, and to make my movements large. But in terms of how to do nikyo or sankyo or what have you, I’d been seeing and experiencing those techniques since I was small and already understood them, so I never received any particularly detailed instruction about them. Mostly what I was taught had to do with the larger main points like those I just mentioned.

Also, I have to say although my father was also my teacher, when we went home at night I think our relationship was just about like that between any other father and son. (laughs)

Did that include the kind of “rebellious” stage that most teenagers go through at one point or another?

Well, no, in fact I never went against my father like that, but apparently I was something of a terror in elementary school. (laughs) I used to get into all kinds of mischief, and my mother was forever being called in to the school to account for something I’d done. So I suppose any rebellious urges I may have had got channeled outside instead of going against my father.

How do you view your father’s role in the history of aikido?

Aikido exists because somebody created it, but the fact that it exists in its present form is in great part due to the cumulative results of the ongoing efforts my father made all his life based on his understanding of the founder’s intentions. I think it is largely due to those efforts that aikido has taken the form it has now, and that it has become so popular and well-regarded throughout the world today.

Looking even further back, in the process of formulating aikido the founder travelled extensively and pursued many different types of training, and he was able to do that largely thanks to the backing and support of my great grandfather Yoroku, who let him walk on his own path and helped him do it. My grandmother also supported him, in her own fashion, as his wife. So for the aikido we have today, we owe a great deal to the cumulative efforts of many different people.

Doshu at Budokan, c. 1995

At the same time, there have also many fortuitous conditions, for example, the fact that the Hombu Dojo escaped destruction during the war. I would also mention the efforts of those who worked to have the Aikido Hombu Dojo legally recognized as a non-profit foundation (zaidan hojin) even before the war. It was first recognized as such in 1940, as the Zaidan Hojin Kobukai, and based on that was later recognized by the Ministry of Education as the Zaidan Hojin Aikikai (Aikikai Foundation) in 1947.

So aikido exists today through a combination of all of these factors: its creation by the founder, my father’s efforts as doshu, the survival of the dojo during the war, the establishment of aikido as a non-profit foundation, as well as the support the founder received from his parents, wife, and many others.

I’ve heard stories of the desperate efforts your father Kisshomaru made to save the dojo from the fires that engulfed much of Tokyo during the war.

I think only about five other buildings in this area managed to survive. Even the building right next door was burning, so they formed a bucket brigade in a frantic effort to keep the flames from consuming the dojo as well.

Everything would have had to have been started from square one again if the dojo had been destroyed then, so it is quite significant for the development of aikido that it was spared.

Yes, I think so. I remember when I was small, there was not yet much activity at the Hombu Dojo. For a time my father was actually in Iwama instead. He married there, and starting around 1949, he worked for about seven years at a company called Osaka Shoji. He had no other choice. Even if you have a dojo, you can’t make a living if nobody is coming to train, which was largely the case after the war. So, he took a job as an ordinary company employee during the day and taught only in the mornings and evenings. As things gradually began to stabilize, he was eventually influenced by various people to leave the company and take up aikido full time. I think it was deemed most proper for the son of the founder to assume a position of leadership, especially since it would help stimulate membership growth.

Doshu with father Kisshomaru at
All-Japan Demonstration, 1998

We’ve just had our 37th Annual Aikido Demonstration [at the Nippon Budokan], but demonstrations back then were held in places like the rooftop of Takashimaya department store. I remember going there with my grandmother to watch one of them.

Also, I believe my father enthusiastically encouraged many of the university students training at the Hombu Dojo to form aikido clubs back at their schools, so gradually aikido dojos began to appear in many parts of the country as those students graduated and returned to their hometowns.

Encouraging the formation of university aikido clubs seems to have been an important element in spreading aikido. Did you yourself ever train at a university club?

No, I was busy training at the Hombu Dojo, so I didn’t have any particular interest in training at a university club. Of course it also had to do with the fact that I was too busy enjoying myself doing other things. (laughs)

I’ve heard you were a member of your university’s calligraphy club instead.

(Laughs) Ah, that I was… I wanted to improve my handwriting, but I must confess I didn’t pursue it that seriously. I was in the calligraphy club, but actually I spent most of my time doing things with my friends and so on, just like any university student. (laughs)

When did you first start travelling abroad to teach aikido?

The very first time was in 1975, when I went with Mamoru Suganuma Shihan to accompany Doshu around Europe. The atmosphere of the training in each place we went was different depending on the teacher hosting us. In any case, it was my first time abroad, so everything was quite new to me. I remember being particularly impressed, for example, that our hotel in Rome had been built in such a way that it actually incorporated some ancient ruins. I also remember thinking how beautiful the sea in Cannes was. To tell the truth, most of my memories and impressions from that trip had more to do with it being my first time abroad than with the aikido training. We were only there for twenty-five days, but it was still a pretty packed schedule.

I’ve heard your English is quite good…

I would hardly say that! I used to speak a little, but actually I have the feeling it’s gotten worse! (laughs)

There are those who say that empty-handed technique (taijutsu) is the basis of aikido, while others assert that aikido is a so-called “comprehensive budo” (sogo budo) that includes the use of weapons. What is your view?

It is certainly true that founder often trained with weapons like the ken (sword) and jo (short staff) and explained that these were aikido; but most of my training has been under my father, the previous Doshu, so I am more inclined to go with the interpretation he espoused throughout his life, which is that empty-handed technique is the foundation of aikido.

Doshu at inauguration, September 1999

This is not to say there is anything wrong with training with the ken and jo, and people interested in pursuing them should by all means do so. There’s no reason to prohibit such things. It’s perfectly fine if people want to use these as part of their own training, but I think it is a mistake to insist that they are [the basis of] aikido.

Did you ever have an opportunity to train under the founder?

Many people have asked me that question. I know it would sound good and fit the image for me to be able to say “Yes, I had a lot of special training under the founder,” but that’s just not the case. (laughs) I was around him from the time I was small, so I watched him quite a bit. I lived under the same roof with him and often watched him train, and I also attended his morning classes, but I don’t think there was anything special about my training under him. Sometimes the founder would teach the whole class, but there were just as many times when my father would be teaching and the founder would only come in for a while to add his own general explanation about whatever the class was doing. That was about the extent of my training under him. Sometimes during the morning classes he used to call me over to have a friendly chat, as grandfather and grandson, but he never told me to get out on the mat and practice.

Did you ever find him a little frightening?

Not particularly. I can imagine that his students may have found him that way given their teacher-student relationship, but I was just his grandson and he never really lost his temper with me the way he might have with others. In fact, I don’t think he ever got angry with me about anything, even when I was small and used to sit there and hit him on the head for fun. I don’t remember it, but they say I used to do that! (laughs)

The Ueshiba family’s relationship to the Omoto religion goes back nearly eighty years. What significance does Omoto have for the family now?

Obviously my grandfather was highly influenced by the Omoto sect in the process of creating aikido, and particularly by Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei. My father was brought up in that environment, but I don’t think he was ever influenced by it to the extent that his father was. He was always conscientious to maintain and observe the various associated rites and functions, but he didn’t visit Omoto all the time the way my grandfather did, and I don’t either.
The founder himself had an Omoto shrine built, and when he passed away a lock of his hair was enshrined there in the traditional manner. Whenever we hold the Taisai (lit. “great festival,” an annual ceremony commemorating the passing of the founder), we have the Omoto priests associated with that shrine come to perform the rites, but this tradition is based on the founder’s relationship with Omoto, not the Ueshiba family’s. In fact, the Ueshiba family temple is still Kozanji in the city of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture, and that is where the founder’s ashes are interred. Morihei Ueshiba himself happened to have been influenced a great deal by Omoto in the process of formulating aikido, so that relationship remains to an extent; but I think the relationship with Kozanji as the ancestral family temple is the deeper of the two.

Doshu at All-Japan Demonstration, c. 1998

During the 1970s there were a number of people who left the Aikikai organization for various reasons, but who have later wanted to come back and have been allowed to do so. It seems to me that that kind of broad-minded acceptance was something the former Doshu Kisshomaru felt to be extremely important. As someone very close to him, I wonder if you can tell us anything about the background of that attitude on his part?

The founder always said that “there is no expulsion (hamon) from aikido.” There are those who have left the Aikikai, but it was never because anyone told them to leave. My father had the same attitude. If people who have left the organization eventually want to come back, there is no reason to prevent them from doing so. The only caveat might be that those who have left the organization for a time and then returned will inevitably have some influence on those who have stayed on the entire time. But aikido is not about eliminating or removing the other, it’s about building harmony, about bringing people together. These are the very basis of aikido, and this was undoubtedly the kind of thinking that formed my father’s response as Doshu to such situations.

By now aikido has been practiced outside of Japan for over forty years, and among those practitioners abroad there are quite a few who began their study under an Aikikai teacher in Japan, but who have since formed their own independent groups. But there are also those who have come to Japan wanting to develop closer ties with the Aikikai. How do you think such situations should be handled?

Under the traditional Japanese way of thinking, the most correct approach would be to go through the Japanese teacher who taught them originally, but for some groups past circumstances have made this impossible.

The Aikikai now includes an International Affairs Department. People wishing to develop or re-develop such a relationship with the Aikikai should submit their request, along with all the relevant information, to that department, after which we will be able to see what can be done. Each case is different, of course, but as long as the proper process is observed, I think most such groups will be able to return to the Aikikai.

What is the significance for the Aikikai of the International Aikido Federation that was created in 1975?

The people who organized the International Aikido Federation are still around, so you should probably ask them instead of me, but in general I think the most obvious purpose was to assist the smooth development of aikido abroad. That was twenty-four years ago, and the aikido world is considerably wider now than it was then. In the interim, the ease with which we can now exchange information, for example using the Internet, as well as the development of much more accessible transportation networks, have made the social background of today completely different from the social background that existed back then.

The International Aikido Federation is organized on a Western model based on democracy and so emphasizes the importance of lateral relationships. In contrast, the Aikikai is a non-profit foundation that is based on a more traditional family -or lineage- based iemoto system with a strongly vertical structure. How do you think these two different organizations—one structured horizontally, the other vertically—can be reconciled in such a way that they can work together successfully?

The differences you mention do indeed present some difficulties, but even if there are some occasional ripples in the relationship, I think things generally go fairly well between the two and there are not so many truly serious disputes.

There are many non-Japanese who have the idea that a “democratic” organization is one in which everyone gets to cast their vote in the process of making decisions about important issues. But wouldn’t it be more correct to understand the International Aikido Federation as being under the umbrella of the Aikikai, and that just as dan rankings are overseen not by the Federation but by the Aikikai, it is actually the iemoto that serves as the foundation and has overall control of everything?

The Aikikai is, of course, the foundation, but that is not to say that it makes all of the decisions all of the time regardless of what the other side wants. Essentially the Aikikai is a collective of people who originally came together based on their shared interpretation of aikido as it was created by Morihei Ueshiba, people who were members of the organization that developed under him. That group of people was subsequently recognized by the Japanese government as a legal entity called the Aikikai.

The activities of the Aikikai happen to include activities abroad, and the International Federation represents an establishment within that of a horizontal structure with its own rules, regulations, and officials. Naturally, decisions within such a horizontal organization are handled by majority rule, and in fact their by-laws specify that they must be. That means there are inevitably instances in which things are not handled as the Aikikai feels they should be. If you create an organization and give it its own by-laws, that is naturally going to happen.

Nevertheless, as I first explained, the Aikikai is still essentially an organization comprised of people who agree on the aikido created by the founder and have come together as a way of respecting and preserving it.

Aikido is one of the few modern budo that still maintains the iemoto system. It is also one of the few among those in which the official successor to the system actually continues to practice the art. What do you think is the significance for aikido that this iemoto system is still used?

Aikido is not the kind of martial art in which there is competition to determine superiority, but rather one that strives to realize an essential ideal of forging respect among people. The question is, how do we go about organizing and expanding it to achieve that ideal in a coordinated manner? The answer—and this is not something that I personally have decided—is that the most natural approach is to base that organization on the iemoto system that has such a long tradition in Japan. I doubt there are very many Japanese who would question this or find it strange; it just seems very natural to us. Even when I’m asked by a non-Japanese why this should be so, all I can say is that it just seems to be part of our heritage, something that is simply part of us, like DNA. I guess there are things like this that can’t be explained very well. (laughs)

Yes, as you say, it does seem very natural, and most Japanese seem to accept it as so. What about your eldest son? Does he have an interest in eventually succeeding you as doshu?

He has been born and raised so far in the same environment I was, and in fact he even appeared in the 37th Annual All-Japan Aikido Demonstration, which this year also included a mourning for my father’s passing. At the moment he’s still in his third year of high school, but I think he has become much more interested in aikido than I was at that age, and he seems to be doing a good job of pursuing his training. (laughs)

Doshu at All-Japan Demonstration in 2000

Looking at the history of aikido, in addition to being strongly influenced by the Omoto-kyo, it seems to have enjoyed considerable support from quite a few individuals of high social status. While the founder was resident in Ayabe he had contact with people like Seikyo Asano and Admiral Isamu Takeshita, and later, through that network, with people like Gombei Yamamoto and other political leaders of the day. Many of these pre-war connections continued to a certain degree in the postwar period, with people like Kenji Tomita and Kin’ya Fujita becoming directors of the Aikikai shortly after the war. Former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu would be another one. Please tell us your view on the kinds of roles people like these have played in the development of aikido.

The prewar and postwar periods were different eras for aikido. Particularly before the war, aikido was hardly known in the world and it was only through the kind of support you describe that the founder was able to come to Tokyo. I think the fact that people like that supported Morihei Ueshiba so strongly attests to their opinion that he truly did have something wonderful to offer. As you say, those kinds of relationships also continued after the war. Mr. Kaifu was introduced to aikido through a connection between my father and Mr. Yoshimasa Miyazaki.

Did Mr. Kaifu ever actually practice aikido himself?

Yes, back during the days when we still had the old wooden dojo. Obviously these days he is quite busy with his involvement in government, so I imagine it would be difficult for him to train now. Both before and after the war, Mitsujiro Ishii [a former higher-up in the Asahi News organization who was active in promoting aiki budo and Daito-ryu aikijujutsu before World War II] was handling the directorship of the Aikikai, and Sunao Sonoda, a former cabinet minister, came to practice every day from about 1955 through the late 1960s. I believe he also served as the first chairman of the All-Japan Aikido Federation. If you look at the old programs from demonstrations and events back then, you will find the names of people like Ishii Sensei and Sonoda Sensei. Ishii’s grandson also trained here for a long time.

The fact that aikido has had that kind of backing was of course largely due to the wonderful personality of Morihei Ueshiba and the aikido that he created. Those relationships led to many positive things and eventually, I think, to positive influences on society. I would also mention that it was my father’s subsequent efforts to understand and disseminate the intent of aikido that helped it continue from there, eventually to be embraced by so many people as it is today.

Shigenobu Okumura Shihan once stated in an interview in a previous issue of Aikido Journal that Kisshomaru’s three great contributions to aikido had been its organization, transmission, and theorization.

I would agree. Aikido exists today not only because of the person who created it, but also because of the steady efforts over many years of others who have helped develop it. That is why my father was even honored with an award by the Japanese government for his service as doshu in that regard.

What kinds of aspirations do you have as the third Doshu of the aikido tradition? What dreams for the future of aikido do you hope to realize?

Ah, I get asked that a lot! (laughs) Aikido was created by one man, then developed and spread by another; what, then, am I to be for aikido? My answer is that what I can do for aikido will not be on such a grand scale. I think my role has more to do with creating and maintaining a path that the many people who have helped bring aikido to this point—as well as those who are just discovering it—can continue walking together, a path that allows them to continue practicing together with a spirit of friendship and solidarity.

Doshu with Aikido Journal Editor
Stanley Pranin following interview

When I was small, aikido was still hardly known to most people, but that has changed and there are now considerably more people who have at least heard of it. Since it has come that far, the task now is to continue to pursue and hand it down in a clear and ordered form that accurately reflects the essence of what it is. So rather than stating that I want to do such-and-such with aikido, or that aikido has to be such-and-such a way, I think it is more important that I simply help to maintain an environment in which we can continue doing what we are already doing so well.

Has your lifestyle changed at all as a result of assuming the role of doshu?

Not that much. Before my father’s health declined we used to divide up the teaching commitments in Japan and abroad, but for the last two years of his life he was mostly unable to travel abroad, so I started going in his place. In that sense not much has changed for me, since I’d already started taking over some of those duties. Still, although what I do hasn’t changed, the sense of responsibility that goes with being doshu is certainly much heavier, so it feels completely different in that respect.

I can imagine. But given your personality, I doubt you’ll be the kind of leader who sits up on a cloud, but rather the kind who is friendly and easy to talk to and get to know.

(Laughs) Yes, I hope so! My father’s face at forty-eight was a lot more stern than mine is now at that same age. Of course, he was actually more easygoing than his expression tended to suggest, mostly I think because he was simply brought up in a different, harder era.

The environment of the war years must have had a lot to do with that. There seems to be a difference between people who experienced that era and those who didn’t.

To be sure, people of his generation tend to have a certain austerity about them.

Well, I don’t suppose I’ve been able to give you the kind of answers you might have been hoping for. There are probably people hoping I would say things like, “Yes, as the founder’s grandson I trained diligently from the time I was very small!”, but unfortunately I could never get away with statements like that. (laughs)

On the contrary, I appreciate your frankness, as I’m sure most of our readers and others in the aikido community will as well. Thank you very much for sharing your time and thoughts with us!

Translated by Derek Steel