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Aikido Pioneers: Prewar Era

Book Summary:

The interviews contained in "Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era" have been meticulously edited from hundreds of hours of conversations conducted over a 30-year period with those closest to the Founder. These early devotees of the art offer an insightful portrayal of the character of the Aikido Founder, and a detailed description of his teaching and activities, spanning nearly half a century. More than 100 photos, many published for the first time, add an important visual dimension to the testimonies of the interviewees. This is an essential volume for those desiring to discover the roots of Aikido, a true cultural treasure of Japan.

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Review by: Robert Noha

"Reach out and touch O-Sensei"

Introduction

Like the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film "Rashomon," which shows multiple perspectives of the same event, this book of interviews provides 20 unique perspectives on the life and teaching of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido. The interviews were conducted by Stanley Pranin, editor in chief of the Aikido Journal.

The interview subjects range from his son and successor Kisshomaru Ueshiba and nephew Yoichiro Inoue to Tenryu, a famous sumo wrestler, and four students who founded their own systems of Aikido: Gozo Shioda; Kenji Tomiki; Koichi Tohei and Minoru Mochizuki.

This book is a priceless opportunity to learn about the life, times and teaching of the Aikido founder. It is especially valuable in that it provides details of the critical era before the Second World War when Aikido was becoming the art it is today.

Aikido Pioneers is a valuable addition to three recent books that also focus on O-Sensei and his teachings. The first is a biography of O-Sensei, A Life in Aikido by his son Kisshomaru. The other two are translations of lectures by O-Sensei done by John Stevens: The Secret Teachings of Aikido and The Heart of Aikido.

Interview Excerpts

The interview with O-Sensei’s nephew Yoichiro spans a period of O- Sensei’s life from the early 1900s when they practiced Judo together, until the mid-1930s. Like the rest of the book, it provides multiple perspectives as a family member, fellow practitioner and student/assistant in the very early days of Aikido.

Of great interest are interviews with two well known students sent from the Kodokan Judo Headquarters by Judo founder Jigoro Kano: Kenji Tomiki and Minoru Mochizuki.

Tomiki’s perspective is one of a university professor interested in adapting the teachings of O-Sensei to that of a modern competitive art.

Mochizuki shares fascinating stories about Judo Founder Jigoro Kano and 10th Dan Judo master Kyuzo Mifune as well as his experiences with O-Sensei.

Interviews with several pre-war students, who did not continue their training after the war, provide a perspective much like the majority of students today who practice for a limited period rather than a lifetime or to become an instructor.

There is one emotionally powerful interview with Shigemi Yonekawa who is one of the ukes in the 1935 Asahi News Film. He explains his reason for discontinuing his training:

Aikido Journal: In other words, it was not a matter of your doubting Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques, but rather a question of whether or not you could reach that level yourself.

Yonekawa: That’s right. There was a mysterious, infinite power in what Ueshiba Sensei had, although “power” is a misleading term. There are various levels among human beings. Ueshiba Sensei’s level was different. He had a power which naturally caused one to bow one’s head when standing before him. How do you develop this kind of thing? I didn’t understand that level of training.

Another interesting area are stories about O-Sensei’s incredible level of skill as a martial artist.

One example is provided by Tenryu, a famous sumo wrestler, who encountered O-Sensei at a martial arts demonstration in Manchuria.

Aikido Journal: Would you describe how you first happened to see Ueshiba Sensei?

Tenryu: Ueshiba Sensei said, “since you are all martial arts practitioners, if there is a man among you, come and test this old man”…I thought this old man was talking nonsense, and slapped his hand down as I grabbed it. But the moment I touched him I was startled. I felt as if I had taken hold of an iron bar. Of course…I immediately knew I had been defeated…and I fell down.

Tenryu went back to Japan with O-Sensei and trained with him for several months.

A second example is told by Kiyoshi Nakaura, who was for a time, O- Sensei’s son in law and designated successor.

Aikido Journal: We understand that Haga Sensei (a kendo colleague of Nakakura’s) tested Ueshiba Sensei on one occasion.

Nakaura: Yes…we both went to attack him, but we were thrown before we even grabbed him. Then we realized that what Mr. Ueshiba was doing was genuine.

Another area of great interest are stories relating meetings with Sokaku Takeda and Onisaburo Deguchi, the two biggest outside influences on O-Sensei and the development of Aikido.

This humorous encounter is also told by Kiyoshi Nakaura.

Aikido Journal: Can you tell us something about Sokaku Takeda Sensei?

Nakaura: Sokaku Sensei came to visit him (O-Sensei) at the Kobukan…I heard something that sounded like an argument…and went out of the dojo to find Takeda Sensei pushing a taxi driver into the gutter! It seems the driver had said something about money to Sokaku Sensei and so Sokaku got mad at him and pushed him into the gutter. So I apologized and paid the driver…

Gozo Shioda describes his view of the relationship between O-Sensei and Onisaburo Deguchi:

Aikido Journal: Did Ueshiba Sensei revere Onisaburo Deguchi as a divine being?

Shioda: Yes, he did…Ueshiba Sensei thought that he owed his power to Onisaburo Deguchi.

There is also a fascinating interview with a woman student, Takako Kunigoshi, who drew the illustrations for one of O-Sensei’s books-Budo Renshu.

In this exchange she describes working on the book Budo Renshu:

Aikido Journal: Did Ueshiba Sensei cooperate in preparing the book?

Kunigoshi: Yes…while we were working on the drawings, Sensei looked at them and gave them his personal approval…Ueshiba Sensei said “if you’re going to make a book of it, you have to do it properly.”

Summary

This book offers its readers a fascinating look at the founder of Aikido and its history by people who were there. It provides a multi-dimensional picture of O-Sensei by students from all walks of life.

It also gives people training in Aikido today a link to students who came before us.

The front and back covers are beautifully done with a large picture of O-Sensei and smaller ones of all the people interviewed. The design is by graphic artist Joao Tinoco.

Stanley Pranin deserves our gratitude for offering this window on Aikido history, as almost all of the people interviewed have passed away. Without his efforts their stories would be lost to us and future generations of Aikido students.

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