Nov
04

Review of Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s “A Life in Aikido” by Robert Noha

Introduction

This is an important book on Aikido. It is a detailed biography of the founder of Aikido by his son and successor.

Moriteru Ueshiba, grandson of O Sensei and the current Doshu, summarizes the value of the book to Aikido practitioners in his preface:

“At present Aikido has spread to over 90 countries all over the world…given this wide dissemination, it is extremely important for Aikido to be correctly understood by its practitioners. In particular it is essential to trace the footsteps of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. The publication of this book, and its translation into English, are very significant in that regard.”

The translation is by Kei Izawa, fifth dan, practitioner since 1969, student of Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Chief Instructor of Aikikai Tanshinjuku in Lafayette, Colorado and by Mary Fuller, an Associate Professor of Literature at MIT, third dan and practitioner since 1992. She teaches and practices at the New England Aikikai.

Seji Noma, the founder of Kodansha Publishing Co., hosted O-Sensei in his dojo in the mid 1930s.

The book was originally published in Japanese by Kodansha in 1978.

Parts of the book in a previous translation were published in English in the Aikido Journal.

The book is currently available through Amazon and other outlets.

Contents

The book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter is subdivided into sections. Here is a brief summary of each chapter.

I. Attaining Heavenly Skills

The opening chapter focuses on the fact that Aikido was not created over many generations but was the creation of one person in the space of a single lifetime. This establishes the critical importance of the story of O Sensei’s life to understanding the teachings of Aikido itself.

“Aikido is not like the islands of Niijima and Shinzan, volcanoes that erupted from the ocean floor overnight. Rather it is like a mountain, built by the perseverance, self-sacrifice, and austerity of one generation. ” (page 19)

This chapter also establishes a pattern of passages from memoirs of people from various walks of life and periods in O Sensei’s life who share their impressions of him. They provide a broadly based perspective on O Sensei as he was at different points in his life. The passages also provide an opportunity to see how O Sensei positively touched the lives of these people.

Another theme that emerges here and is carried forward throughout is how hard O Sensei worked at everything he did, but especially his own training and the development and evolution of Aikido.

“There must have been an incredible amount of trial and error in the process of arriving at this level.” (page 24) This passage is from a memoir by a monk who studied with O Sensei shortly after the Second World War.

While the author is respectful of O Sensei, he also offers insight into his personal traits and some of the inevitable strains that occur between all fathers and sons.

“O Sensei’s unconcern for money and material things went beyond high-mindedness-at times you could even call it aberrant. O Sensei was my father by blood, and beyond that, my teacher, the founder of Aikido. I respected him deeply. But as a young man I was often angry with him when I saw my mother struggling to make ends meet.” (page 36-37)

II. Hard and Solitary Training: O Sensei’s Youth

This chapter covers the early years of O Sensei‘s life from his birth in 1883 to about 1912 when he lead a group of pioneers to Hokkaido. It discusses his parents and his early struggles to overcome his poor health and weakness as a child. It also describes the loving, almost indulgent upbringing by the standards of the day, by both his father and mother.

“O Sensei‘s parents raised him with great affection and high hopes. Times were different then, but you could probably also say he was somewhat overprotected.” (page 54)

It also chronicles his early interest in Shingon Sect Buddhism, social justice causes, an early attempt as starting a stationary business and service in the army during the Russo-Japanese War.

The chapter also describes his initial practice of martial arts before and during his army service.

The early image that emerges is of a person who intensely pursues training and study to achieve his goals and to improve himself and his community.

“O Sensei was rejected by the military because he did not meet the minimum height requirement…Once he returned home, O Sensei desperately tried to gain the missing half inch. He would go to the mountains and hang from the branch of a tree, climb steep trails, and jump over ravines to train his body…Perhaps as a result of his efforts, in December 1903 O Sensei was able to reapply for his military physical, and this time was accepted” (page 66)

III. New Frontiers in the North

This chapter describes O Sensei leading a group of settlers to Hokkaido the northern-most island in Japan. It details the hardships they encountered in settling a remote area of the country. They endured hunger, cold and a fire that destroyed the village in 1916.

“It (going to Hokkaido) demonstrates his determined pioneering spirit, and his willingness to meet and overcome hardship…I (Kisshomaru) always remember something he used to say: ‘I like to create something where there wasn’t anything before. Otherwise I’m not really interested.’ The more I think about it, this idea of creating something from nothing is one that he pursued for his entire life. The creation of Aikido is a perfect example” (page 86)

There is also a detailed account of a seminal event in O Sensei’s life, his meeting and training with Sokaku Takeda. The techniques of Daito Ryu taught by Takeda formed an important element in the creation of Aikido. The chapter provides information both on Takeda Sensei and their relationship.

“For O Sensei, Master Takeda was the man who opened his eyes to martial arts, and he showed him respect and deference until Takeda’s death in 1943.” (page 98)

IV. Enlightenment

This chapter highlights many of the events that were central to the creation of Aikido. It starts with the death of O Sensei’s father and his meeting with Onisaburo Deguchi, co-founder of Omoto. O Sensei was attracted to Omoto as he wrestled with his father’s death. His encounter and training under Onisaburo Deguchi both deepened his dedication to spirituality and encouraged him to build a bridge between his martial and spiritual interests.

There is a detailed description of Master Onisaburo, and O Sensei’s relationship with him as well as their many adventures together. This includes the trip to Mongolia in 1923 to establish a spiritual community based on the universality of all religions. The trip ended badly with them almost being executed as spies by the Chinese authorities. There is also a discussion of the first suppression of Omoto by the Japanese government.

We also see the beginning of O Sensei teaching a spiritual martial art that will eventually give birth to Aikido.

Perhaps of greatest interest to Aikido practitioners is that O Sensei’s divine martial arts skills begin to emerge. It concludes with a story well known in Aikido describing his encounter with a naval officer.

“He began to attack relentlessly, one strike following hard on the last one. But each time, O Sensei easily avoided being hit…Eventually, exhausted from his all-out effort, the officer simply fell over…The story continues, however. Immediately after this encounter, with the naval officer, O Sensei had an amazing experience…The ground started to tremble, and he saw thousands of dazzling golden rays falling from the sky…Then he felt soft, golden ki rising from up out of the earth to embrace him…O Sensei exulted inside: ‘This is a divine transformation!’ ” (pages 177-178)

V. The Path of Bu, the Path of Human Beings

In this chapter O Sensei begins to internalize his experience of enlightenment. We see the core teachings of Aikido begin to emerge.

“It is essential that these waza (techniques) be in harmony with the truth of the universe.” (page 188)

He also begins to establish himself as a prominent martial arts teacher. This includes his meeting Admiral Isamu Takeshita (someone of a similar stature to Colin Powell today) in 1925, who was instrumental in his moving to Tokyo to begin teaching, and Jigoro Kano the founder of Judo in 1930.

“Admiral Takeshita went to Ayabe to meet O Sensei, and was immediately taken with his evident mastery of ki, mind and body. He wasted no time in arranging for O Sensei to meet the former prime minister Gombe Yamamoto.” (page 192)

The chapter also describes the creation of the Kobukan Dojo in 1931 (this became the current Hombu dojo) and the Second Omoto Incident in December 1935. During the Second Omoto Incident many prominent members were sent to prison.

There is a detailed discussion of how O Sensei avoided going to prison through the help of his students who were high ranking members of the police force.

There are many entertaining and instructional stories of people’s encounters with O Sensei and his incredible martial skills.

Story from cadets at a military academy: “O Sensei asked, ‘Are you going to come at me one by one?’…four or five young men attacked O Sensei all at once …O Sensei left all the attackers on the ground. Nobody could lay a finger on him.” (page 209)

VI. Determination to Pursue the Path

In this chapter O Sensei goes through the Second World War. It includes his early involvement in teaching at various military schools and his withdrawal to his country home in Iwama as the war progressed. It also describes a secret mission in which he went to China to try and avoid war between China and Japan.

This chapter also describes the famous encounter between O Sensei and the sumo wrestler Tenryu. It provides Tenryu’s own account of his training with O Sensei as well as their initial encounter.

Tenryu “If you listened carefully everything O Sensei said was a truth. Each statement was teaching for the path” (page 261)

Of great interest in this chapter is how O Sensei even through the horror of the Second World War and its aftermath continued to train and evolve Aikido as a path to lead Japan and the world away from war and violence.

“The approaching end of the war brought tremendous loss, and those of us around O Sensei felt we had lost all hope…His passion was unquenchable, and so he was able to keep the torch of Aikido alight into the years following the war.” (pages 271 and 272)

VII. Harmony Among Heaven, Earth and Human Beings

In this final chapter the recovery from the war and the birth of the modern Aikido movement are detailed. It includes O Sensei’s continuing dedication to training until his death from cancer in 1969 and his son’s assuming a primary role in spreading the art. It also describes his one trip to the US in 1961 for the dedication of the Hawaiian Aiki-kai.

Personal Reflections

Having lived with the book for a couple of months I’d like to offer a few personal reflections.

A biography can have several goals. It provides interesting facts about the life and times of its subject. This book certainly does that. It is however also a personal memoir by its author of his father and teacher and as a direct participant in many of the events described. This gives a vividness to the account that brings them to life.

Because it is a personal account, there is room for scholars and historians to provide their perspective on O Sensei and his life. John Stevens has contributed two widely read biographies, Invincible Warrior and Abundant Peace. Given the depth and breadth of O Sensei’s life and teachings we can also look forward to additional contributions by scholars in the future.

For practitioners of Aikido a biography of the founder can also seek to address a basic question that will help directly with our training. Was O Sensei a unique person whose achievement cannot be realized by others or someone who through tremendous effort opened a path for us to follow? This book comes down on the side of following his path and emulating O Sensei as well as respecting him.

“Thanks to your help and support I have been awarded a medal of honor by the emperor. I receive this honor from the nation as a representative of all Aikido practitioners. I would like to suggest that we all join in focusing on Aikido, to contribute to the resolution of the world’s problems by building a true and harmonious path for the whole world to follow.” (pages 309-310)

Conclusion

The Aikido community owes a debt of gratitude to Kisshomaru and Moriteru Ueshiba, Doshu and the translators Kei Izawa and Mary Fuller for making this book available. Kodansha has done an excellent job at the production of the book including numerous photos.

With the publication of this book, The Secret Teachings of Aikido in 2007 and another volume of O Sensei’s lectures called Takemusu coming out next year, the deeper aspects of his teachings are becoming more available. Given the fact that the number of teachers who were his personal students gets smaller each year, the timing couldn’t be better.

Here are Doshu’s closing comments in the preface:

“The Founder said, ‘The objective of Aikido is polish one‘s mind and body and to produce an individual of high integrity.’ It is my wish that practitioners of Aikido will read this book, return to the fundamentals of Aikido, and apply in their daily practice the spirit of Wago ( harmony) which the founder advocated so strongly. It is my desire that with this publication, many more people may come to understand correctly the true core of Aikido.

A final quote from O Sensei:

“In Aikido, when one trains in the following manner, one‘s body will absorb the power of unchanging truth:

1. Train to harmonize one‘s mind with the movements of the universe.

2. Train to harmonize one’s body with the movements of the universe.

3. Train to harmonize the ki that connects mind and body with the movements of the universe.

Only those who are able to train in these three ways at the same time, not as a theory, but in the dojo and in their daily life, can be called practitioners of Aikido. (page 187)

Author Robert Noha

A Life in Aikido
The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba
By Kisshomaru Ueshiba
Preface by Moriteru Ueshiba
Translated by Kei Izawa and Mary Fuller
Published by Kodansha International, 2008
ISBN978-4-7700-2617-0
Cover Price $35.00, 317 pages

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Comments

  1. Clark Bateman says:

    Just a note that Amazon.com now has this book in stock for immediate shipment. Price currently is US$23.10 plus shipping. This book is a must in any Aikido library.

  2. Thanks for posting about his great book! I have recently been trying to get my hands on anything that will expand my still-limited knowledge on Aikido and it’s a good thing I came across your article. The principles behind Aikido are indeed worth learning and living by these principles is much more worthwhile. O Sensei’s life is truly amazing as he traveled down the path to integrity and harmony, overcoming every obstacle by sheer determination and clear focus on what he believed in. Such a great man indeed!

    Cheers!