“Interview with Hiroshi Isoyama,” by Stanley Pranin

“It’s pointless to perform an atemi unless your strike
is the kind of strike that would have a real effect.”

Hiroshi Isoyama entered the Iwama Dojo of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba as a boy of 12. He is one of a few rare individuals—another being Morihiro Saito—to have been exposed to the founder during the period of maturation of modern aikido. Isoyama is passionate about his study of aikido and this dynamism is reflected in his explosive technique. Now retired after a long career in the Air Self Defence Force, Isoyama is devoting full time to his pursuit of training and teaching. He is becoming increasingly well-known internationally as well and has frequently traveled abroad in recent years.

Aikido in Iwama Following the War

Aikido Journal: Please tell us how you got your start in aikido.

Isoyama Sensei: It was back in 1949, which as you know was a very difficult time for Japan. My family ran an inn. Various kinds of people came to stay there, including members of the yakuza, and given that fact, I thought it would be foolish not to learn some kind of martial art. It happened that the local aiki dojo (it wasn’t called “aikido” yet, and the dojo would come to be called the “Aiki Shuren Dojo”) had just begun children’s classes, so I went with some other kids from the neighborhood to join. I was twelve at the time.

O-Sensei was still living in Iwama then?

Yes, it was only after about 1955 that he gradually started making trips away from Iwama. O-Sensei taught the evening children’s classes.

Was the instruction the same as that at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo?

I don’t know what the instruction in Tokyo was like then, but he used to go up and take hold of the wrist of all of the students individually and teach them that way. He himself didn’t take ukemi, but he would do whatever the technique was -shomenuchi ikkyo for example—to each person on the mat individually while everybody watched. He never gave any particularly detailed explanations.

There were no tatami mats in that dojo, so the training could be quite painful. That was one reason it was difficult to get people to come train. After a number of years they finally did put tatami in the dojo, but we had been doing it on the wooden floor for so long that at first we had trouble adjusting. If you happened to smack your head on the wooden floor it would make a big noise, but the pain never seemed to penetrate your whole head. After we put the tatami in, though, the pain would hit you right to the core. Naturally, the way we took ukemi changed when we moved from the wooden floor to the tatami mats.

Who was at the dojo back then besides Saito Sensei?

Early photo taken in Iwama in mid-1950'sin front of Aiki Shrine. Isoyama is second from right while Morihiro Saito is second from left.

There were people the late Takeo Murata, Sakae Shimada (present Ibaraki Prefectural Federation chairman), and Sachio Yamane. In any case, as I said there were not many people training there at the time. Also, Kunio Oyama, who later became a student of professional wrestler Rikidozan, and people like that were there as uchideshi.

I understand that you eventually joined the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Yes, I joined the Air Self-Defense Forces and was sent to Chitose in 1958.

Did you form an aikido club there in Chitose?

Yes. At first my only students were members of the American military police, but eventually I was asked by the commander of the garrison to teach members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces as well. I learned English then, too, out of necessity.

During your recent visit to Los Angeles did you teach in English?

Yes, entirely in English! What else?! (laughs)

Sporting a handlebar mustache during his early years inthe Air Self Defense Force.

Since many of your students among the American military police must have been much physically larger than you, did you have to come up with new ways to make your techniques work on them?

I certainly did. Practicing with people like that is completely different from working with people who are smaller than you. Doing even something like ikkyo against a much larger opponent is very difficult, especially in terms of the way you have to enter and the timing you have to use. Training with people like that was a great experience from which I learned a lot.

My kataguruma and gansekiotoshi techniques, for example, started out with me trying to teach koshinage. When I tried to do koshinage on some of the taller men I found that they could just step over me; no matter how I tried the technique, I couldn’t manage to throw them because the height difference meant I couldn’t get my hips into a good position in front of theirs. Then I had the idea to try putting them across my shoulders instead of across my hips, and that’s how I started using those techniques. I wasn’t trying to be rough or flashy, I was just trying to get the techniques to work. Necessity is the mother of invention!

There in Chitose there were many wrestlers and boxers and the like who came to make fun of what we were doing. Because of the wartime draft, there were all kinds of different people in the American military. Normally during aikido practice you enter and apply your technique as your opponent is moving in with his attack, but when I did that many of them would complain that they weren’t ready yet; they wanted me to let them get a good hold or choke on me and then see if I could still do my techniques. Normally in practice the opponent will strike from the front and then move around behind nage so uke doesn’t have a chance to apply his attack fully. But that didn’t convince them and they wanted to first get me in a tight hold and then challenge me to try to move out of it.

In other words, you had to perform under the most difficult possible circumstances.

There was one fellow, a wrestler who had placed sixth in the Helsinki Olympics, who rolled onto the ground and wrapped around me from behind so that I couldn’t use my hands or feet, and from that position challenged me to try to move. The only part of my body that was still free was my head, so I snapped my head backwards into his face and struck the bridge of his nose with the back of my head. This is prohibited in wrestling, of course, but such rules don’t apply to budo. As I struck his face I gave a shout and used the momentary opening to get away. I told him, “That’s how budo is!” and he was convinced. That sort of thing happened on a daily basis.

Did you ever talk to your American students about the founder, Morihei Ueshiba?

Yes. I even took some of them to Iwama to meet him. They couldn’t believe it when they saw me being thrown all over the mat by O-Sensei. They said, “How can someone like you, who can throw all of us so easily, be thrown around like that by an old man?!” I replied, “That’s what I’d like to know!” (laughs) I explained that aikido had nothing to do with one’s age. They asked if they could try holding onto O-Sensei themselves and one of the most lively came up and was downed and pinned the instant he tried. They couldn’t figure out how they’d been controlled like that; they just knew they had.

Last time I went to the United States I met one of those former MPs who had been my student. I hadn’t seen him in forty years. After earning his shodan he had returned to the U.S., graduated from a university in Boston, and later served as an officer in Vietnam. After that he joined the FBI where for many years he was involved in studying and teaching arrest techniques, or what we would call “taihojutsu” in Japanese. He used the Internet to help me look up some of the others who had also been my students back then. It’s really wonderful how aikido builds relationships like that. Even if they’re cut off for a while, still they have a way of coming back to you again.

Budo as the Undercurrent of Aikido

How would you say that your emphasis on the importance of budo in aikido developed?

Since I’m in the position of teaching aikido, I feel I have to keep myself oriented in one consistent direction. People practice aikido for a variety of reasons—to keep in shape or stay healthy or what have you—but it is clearly “budo” that is the undercurrent running beneath aikido. There’s no problem with people practicing aikido simply as a good way to stay in shape, but I think they still should also cultivate the kind of vigilance that strives constantly to avoid showing openings to potential opponents. This is an important underlying aspect of budo, and I think neglecting it or allowing it to become too minor a part of your training will result in a divergence from the real spirit of aikido.

The founder’s thinking changed over the years between the time he started teaching aikido and later in his life, so naturally the kinds of movements he used also changed. There are very few people who had direct contact with him over the span of several decades, so in many ways it’s like that old story of the three blind men all feeling different parts of an elephant and giving different descriptions of what an elephant is. In that sense, I wonder if there is anyone at all who understands O-Sensei’s greatness completely.

Some people were in contact with O-Sensei when he was spreading aikido purely as a budo; others only began learning from him once his thinking had evolved to emphasize aikido as “a way of harmony”; still others learned from him at various periods later in his life. All of these will have different viewpoints and interpretations, and I don’t think it’s possible to say that any of these is better than the others.

I also think there are differences depending on the age of the learner. Younger people naturally sought a stronger kind of aikido, while those who were older may have been drawn to aspects such as harmony and spirit, and so these are what each absorbed from O-Sensei. Issues like these make it very difficult to talk about aikido in clear-cut terms.

As you know, O-Sensei never wrote much about aikido in books, although some of this techniques are recorded in Budo. Sometimes I’ve wondered why he didn’t write more about aikido, but on the other hand, I think I might understand: his thinking gradually evolved, and he may have felt that anything he wrote in his younger years would potentially end up being contradictory to his thinking later on. The same is true of his techniques: if he had said anything definitive about them at any point, he might have ended up contradicting himself later on as he evolved.

Another difficulty is that different people have tended to interpret O-Sensei’s words in different ways, even though he may have actually said the same thing to all of them. People then end up expressing their own interpretation as if they had absorbed all of what he meant, leading in turn to small variances and eventually to misunderstandings.

When O-Sensei taught he never gave any particularly detailed explanations. One reason was that the many people who came to practice aikido under him were all individuals of a certain higher standing in society, for example military officers, politicians, high-ranking practitioners of other martial arts, people from the financial sector, the heads of private enterprises, and various others all well-established and respected in their fields. Giving too much detail to people like that, for example teaching them things like “this is the way you do a proper bow” and so on would have been regarded as condescending and offensive.

During practice O-Sensei often spoke in honorific language to individuals of higher social standing and us regular students alike. I was very moved by that attitude and way of interacting with people.

One example might be the debate about atemi, which hardly exists any longer as part of most aikido technique. What are your thoughts on the use of atemi, from a combative perspective?

Doing atemi simply for the sake of doing atemi results in nothing but empty form. It’s pointless to perform an atemi unless your strike is the kind of strike that would have a real effect. An atemi doesn’t necessarily have to be a deadly blow, but it should be capable of doing a certain amount of real damage. Also, if you want to think seriously about atemi, you also have to think about kicks.

Karate, for example, has excellent striking and kicking techniques. I would say that most karate movement is predominantly straightline, while aikido tends to emphasize more circular or spherical movements. Both of these have strengths and shortcomings and I don’t think you can say unconditionally that one is better than the other. In any case, if you’re going to use strikes and kicks as atemi in aikido you need to think constantly about how to incorporate them in a way that takes the timing and other characteristics of aikido movement into consideration.

The Weapons Controversy

The use of weapons in aikido is another issue about which there are a number of differing views. Do you think weapons have a role in aikido training?

I definitely think they do. Techniques like tachidori (sword-disarming techniques) and jodori (staff-disarming techniques) are included as part of dan-level testing, and people who have been doing only empty-handed techniques won’t be able to perform these, will they?

Also, if you don’t have a strong command of weapons techniques yourself, there is no way you’ll be able to respond correctly when your opponent has a weapon. Do you think you’d be successful if a kendo expert challenged you to try doing aikido’s tachidori against his sword? Or if a practitioner of Muso-ryu jo gave you the chance to try taking his jo away, would you be able to do it so easily? I doubt it.

I think weapons techniques are extremely important, but I also think it’s dangerous to practice them only shallowly; if you’re going to practice weapons techniques, then practice them properly and thoroughly. This is one reason I don’t think there’s much need to practice things like tachidori and jodori in so many variations. Tantodori (knife-disarming techniques), too, is something I’ve practiced against a live blade, but only with a couple of variations. All you need is one or two techniques, and if you’ve really mastered those then I think you’re as well-equipped as you can be for defending yourself against such things. Of course, whenever weapons are involved there will always be an element of danger.

Since we can’t actually practice with live blades in the dojo we use wooden swords (bokuto) instead, but if you want to make your training as effective as possible it’s essential to think of the bokuto as a live blade, not just a stick. That includes making your attacks fast and decisive and filled with intent. You won’t be able to cultivate the proper degree of seriousness if you’re cutting in a way that is only for the purpose of taking ukemi. It’s a good idea to keep this sort of thing in the back of your mind when you’re training with weapons.

It’s often said that there are no matches in aikido. I think there are several dimensions of meaning to this, but O-Sensei once said, “Victory and defeat are merely relative, whereas aikido seeks not relative but absolute strength. Therefore, aikido is training daily to ‘win before fighting’.”

What do you think was the founder’s vision for weapons techniques? For example, according to Morihiro Saito Sensei, the founder trained with weapons a great deal and consequently Saito Sensei’s aikido contains many weapons techniques. On the other hand, others point out that the founder didn’t teach weapons at the Hombu Dojo, and in fact got angry if people there did practice with them.

I think it’s probably true that O-Sensei didn’t teach weapons techniques at the Hombu Dojo. That may have been because he didn’t have that much time to train there. When he was back in Iwama he had plenty of time for that sort of thing, and those of us who were there were indeed taught weapons like the ken and jo. So what Saito Sensei says is correct, and so is the comment that O-Sensei would get angry if people practiced weapons at the Hombu Dojo. In fact, I’ve seen O-Sensei get angry myself, although that was because people were doing paired sword practices (kumitachi) even though they couldn’t even do solo sword swinging (suburi) very well yet. I think O-Sensei felt that if his students were going to do sword, they should do it properly, and he got angry if he saw them just swinging their swords as if they were in some samurai drama.

Once for a demonstration with Saito Sensei-I think when I was about a sandan-I asked O-Sensei if I could use a live blade for our tantodori demonstration, but he rejected the idea. I think he had a clearer understanding of my real ability than I did at the time and knew it wouldn’t be a good idea. A while later I did use a live blade at another demonstration that O-Sensei couldn’t attend, and of course I injured myself. I felt so foolish, and it took injuring myself like that to figure out why he had denied my request the first time.

There are people who practice other martial arts along with their aikido, for example by mixing it with iaido or karate. Some study karate to figure out ways to deal with punches and kicks, while others do kendo to learn more about that kind of cutting and striking.

I think it’s fine to do that kind of thing to a certain extent, but I also think if you push it too far to the front of your training it’s likely to turn your aikido into mere fighting. In the end what it amounts to is an attitude challenging other forms of budo by thinking about how to get the better of them or win against them.

But I think what is more important is to remember O-Sensei’s admonishment to “win before fighting.” He is known to have even said “even nuclear bombs don’t frighten me,” based on the thinking that you simply have to prevent your opponent from dropping them in the first place, which is what is more important. This lack of fear comes not from knowing one’s power to retaliate in a conflict, but rather from a spiritual orientation that leads you toward solutions that avoid conflict in the first place. Weapons are unnecessary where there is no conflict, nor will you be attacked when you are in such a place. O-Sensei said, “Our training each and every day is a true battle.” He also said, “Never fear another style (ryuha), no matter how great or large; but then also never despise or make light of a lesser style, no matter how small.” And also, “Aikido has it’s own goodness, and there are good things about other styles.”

It is a fact that after the war most of the people teaching aikido, O-Sensei included, stopped teaching weapons, but I think the important issue is to try to see how O-Sensei himself evaluated and understood the practice of weapons.

I think he probably felt that there was a necessity for weapons techniques. That’s why he joined the Kashima Shinto-ryu and studied other styles as well. This is nothing but guesswork on my part, but I think O-Sensei regarded weapons as an essential element of aikido if it is to be practiced as a budo.

Indeed, in the past when people thought about budo they tended to think of it as “composite” or “comprehensive” budo (sogo budo), which naturally would have included the study of weapons.

Yes, but it’s also important to think about how we understand the purpose of our training. If our training aims merely at becoming strong on a surface level, then weapons become nothing but murderous tools. I think it is more important, whether you’re using a sword or a jo or something else, to pursue your training in a way that will help you improve yourself as a person and cultivate a better sense of humanity. In other words, the goals of your training are the more important issue when considering the role of weapons.

For O-Sensei the goal seemed to be to use the weapon as a channel or conduit through which to draw in the energy of the universe. I think that sort of thing played an important part in his use of weapons.

He often performed an exercise called nijuhappogiri (cutting twenty-eight times) in which he would cut seven times in each of the four directions as a way to dispel wickedness and evil (jaki) in the surrounding space and also to clear such wickedness from his own heart or spirit. I think it is fine to swing the sword if you are doing it in that sense.

In his later years O-Sensei seems to have been “possessed” by some deity (kami). For example, he is known to have said when scolding one of his students that “this isn’t Ueshiba scolding you, it’s the kami!”

Yes, I’ve often heard that, but I think what he meant was that he personally was not scolding the student out of anger, but rather that he had scolded them from the broader viewpoint-the “larger eye” if you will-of the kamisama, in order to help them grow. In that sense, I’m not sure it’s quite right to say that O-Sensei felt he was “possessed by the gods”; it was rather the people around him who interpreted his actions that way. That’s what I think, anyway.

Another thing I would mention about O-Sensei’s greatness is that while he himself was an ardent believer in the Omoto faith, he never once told his students that they should become believers, too. I think that says something about his truly high caliber.

Budo practitioners in the old days tended to be the kind of people who studied not just one thing but many. O-Sensei himself felt it his life’s mission to put together his own unique style of martial art, so naturally he was a very enthusiastic about studying things.

It’s impossible to make something new without a certain amount of inspiration, isn’t it?

There have been a number of attempts to create new forms of budo following the war, but most of them have not lasted more than one generation past their founding. There are very few that have remained so solidly as aikido has. Even the judo that we have today is completely different from the judo that was left by founder Jigoro Kano.

I think it’s difficult to fully understand O-Sensei’s originality without studying the background of his studies, particularly the budo that he learned and his involvement in the Omoto religion.

Yes, no matter how much you approach it on a surface level. For example, we tend to imagine that O-Sensei got involved in the Omoto religion because he felt drawn to it after coming up against a “wall” in his practice of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, but this understanding is probably rather simplistic and I think the reality is probably much deeper. I think aikido is a piece of traditional culture, in the form of a budo, that is worth passing on to future generations. And because what is worthwhile in it is its inherent spirituality, it would be a mistake to limit our training to grasping only the technical aspects. It’s important to train in a way that takes into account the spiritual and the technical alike.

Learning From Injuries

I understand that you were injured a number of years ago.

Yes, to the extent that I could not even move at all. I had a knee injury, but I ignored it and did too much and ended up injuring my lower back as well.

Rehabilitating yourself after such an injury must have been very difficult without a strong will.

There was a renowned joint specialist at Tokyo Women’s Medical College near the Hombu Dojo who told me I probably wouldn’t recover, that the only thing I could do was avoid moving my back as much as possible to prevent the injury from worsening. I believed what the doctor had told me and did my best to avoid moving that part of my body, but gradually the condition worsened anyway, and because I wasn’t using it at all this one leg started getting weaker and thinner. I could barely even make it to the toilet without a walking stick.

After continuing like that for about two years I started to wonder whether by following the doctor’s advice I wouldn’t actually end up completely disabled. That’s when I decided I’d better take things into my own hands and started working on various ways to heal myself, including finding ways to put certain loads on the muscles to help build them up again. I kept repeating the process over and over for about two years. I believed in myself and my body’s capacity for self-healing.

Have you continued doing any special exercises?

Yes, because I know it’s all over if one day I think there is nothing left to do. Aikido is the same way, in fact; if you reach a point where you’re satisfied with what you have done, where you think nobody can surpass you, then that’s where you stop. O-Sensei often said that “training (shugyo) continues until the day you die. I think this is an important attitude to take, and one that can be applied to everything.

It’s also important to realize that, for example, no matter how famous or well regarded a medical doctor might be, he has not personally experienced your condition himself and so can’t know about it entirely, can’t understand the real nature of the pain. It’s for that reason, in fact, that as soon as I’ve improved a little more and can walk a little better, I would like to use my experience somehow to be of even a little help to others who are experiencing the same kind of pain.

International Aikido Federation

Instructing at his Fujishiro Dojo, May 1999.

During the era of the late Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, aikido spread greatly abroad, and it was about twenty-three years ago that the International Aikido Federation was created. I understand that you were one of the ones active in that, so I wonder if you would share your thoughts about the importance of this organization.

I think Japan seems to have the slightest interest in the International Aikido Federation when it should be the country that shows the most interest. One reason may be that we are too blessed with aikido in this country, by which I mean there are so many aikido teachers here that you can still do aikido without making any particular efforts to join such a federation. It may be that we are jaded in that respect. What we must remember, though, is that there are plenty of countries in the world where people do not have such easy access to aikido teachers and facilities. I think our number one task should be to build such an organization into one that can support those people being able to practice aikido without having to spend much money.

The organization of aikido in Japan is very vertical, with the Zaidan Hojin Aikikai and the Doshu at the top, then the various shihan on the next rung down. The IAF, on the other hand, is organized along a more horizontal, more democratic model. Getting these two to mesh well must present some subtle difficulties from time to time.

It’s true, because the Japanese organization is so strongly vertical the way of thinking tends to be completely different. In Japan there seem to be quite a few strong teachers who are confident and independent and figure they can still keep practicing without having to become a member of such an organization. That would be fine if it were just within Japan, but given the international nature of aikido I think there is a need to gradually strengthen the role of what is now a weak organization in order to have a place for activity that can contribute to proper understanding of aikido among the many people practicing it around the world. There is no point and nothing to be gained if only the numbers of people practicing aikido increase while we let an understanding of the aikido spirit get weaker and weaker. If we let that happen aikido will become something other than what O-Sensei envisioned. What we need is not an organization that will restrain individual action through some hierarchical or other structure, but rather one that will promote relationships of mutual friendship among its members.

The more aikido spreads the more different groups there are to be associated with. Right now the one with the greatest involvement is the World Games, an international athletic event held every four years for various sporting activities not included in the regular Olympic Games organized by the GAISF starting in 1985. There are many different categories of membership in the World Games, and since it wouldn’t be good if the Aikikai itself was to become a member of that, the IAF has instead.

If you’re talking only about aikido, then it’s true that there is little need for extra organizations standing between dojo and direct interaction with the Hombu. But thinking about the kind of thing I’ve just mentioned, perhaps such an organization is actually necessary.

Especially in Europe, where there tends to be more government involvement.

Yes, France is particularly like that. For example, only individuals recognized by the French government are authorized to give out dan and kyu rankings.

Things definitely seem to take on a political coloring in such cases.

This essentially has nothing to do with aikido, particularly since aikido has no competitive matches and is clearly different from the various sports. However, if you start emphasizing the fact that aikido is different it becomes isolated, then stops growing, and finally starts to fall apart.

My idea would be to have foreign aikido practitioners come to Japan to spend between two and five years at the Hombu Dojo practicing and learning Japanese and so on, then dispatch them to teach at various local dojo (as is the case with many of the young Japanese teachers), and after about eight years in Japan have them return to their native countries. This would allow them a chance to understand the Hombu Dojo’s thinking, objectives, and ways of doing things, and also help them become bridges across the language barrier once they return home. From an international perspective, if there were such people then it would be easier for people to place their trust in the Japanese side and things would go more smoothly in the various countries where aikido is being practiced. Right now the linguistic and cultural barriers are considerable.

None of the non-Japanese currently practicing at the Hombu Dojo are uchideshi (live-in students) but instead live outside and commute to the dojo (except for those under Saito Sensei in Iwama, where there is still a real uchideshi system). In part this may be simply because the Hombu Dojo is a little short-handed and lacks facilities. It would be ideal if there were some more effort at the Hombu Dojo to extend and improve the lodging facilities there so that people coming from abroad to practice aikido could live more inexpensively.

It is relatively easy to run a dojo as a professional aikido teacher abroad, so we need to make a system that can help cultivate people who want to do that; otherwise we run the risk of falling behind the times.

The key seems to be to strengthen the relationships between the Hombu Dojo and those people abroad, especially since from a purely organizational perspective alone Europe will be dominant because of their political skills. Cultivating people and human resources is important.

I remember reading somewhere a long time ago the idea that “communication equals control,” and that whoever controls communication will dominate. In that sense, I wonder whether dispatching information from the Hombu Dojo to dojos around the world directly, without going through the filters of the various organizations, would help strengthen the Hombu Dojo organizationally.

An Unbroken Line

Now that we have come to the third generation of Doshu, what are your thoughts on the succession of aikido under the lineage-based iemoto system?

Different people have different views about that, so it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations. This may be a Japanese way of thinking, but there is an urge to maintain an unbroken lineage, to maintain and protect something that serves as a center. The iemoto system is something found in all kinds of Japanese traditions, from the tea ceremony to kabuki, and represents the transmission of these along a single consistent path. And since budo, too, is a path, I think having that kind of system may be important to its transmission.

Also, there seem to be those who view aikido as a combative system and feel for that reason that it should be succeeded by someone who is technically strong. But being technically strong is not all there is to being a true successor to a tradition like aikido. The successor also has to have clear, solid thinking, and even if he is relatively young he must be able to serve as a strong center and stand watch with a clear view from his vantage point at the top. He also has to be able to teach effectively. These qualities are very important, because if the center becomes shaky then the whole tradition becomes shaky. People like myself and others who were students of the original founder feel it is our duty and obligation, to both the founder and the Second Doshu, to do our best to support this Third Doshu so that he can fulfill his role smoothly.

What are your thoughts on the contribution to aikido made by the Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba?

Forgive me for relying on an often-used expression, but I like many others would say that it was O-Sensei who pioneered and created aikido and Kisshomaru Sensei who spread and promoted it. While O-Sensei tended to teach only certain select individuals, it was Kisshomaru Sensei who worked to make aikido more widely accessible, and who internationalized and organized it. It was also for these good efforts that he received the Third Order of Merit from the Japanese government. What is important now is to see what sort of efforts the third Doshu makes to consolidate the tradition. Aikido will probably continue to spread even if there are no further efforts to spread it, so the issue now is how the tradition can be consolidated as it continues to grow.

It seems that aikido underwent certain technical changes under the leadership of former Doshu Kisshomaru…

That’s another issue about which it’s not really possible to make sweeping generalizations. After all, even O-Sensei changed considerably between the time he was young and his later years. Kisshomaru Sensei himself was quite vigorous in his younger days, and only later, after undergoing surgery, did he begin using less strenuous movements. Even I’m that way; my technique now is considerably different from the technique I was doing when I was much younger. Whenever I demonstrate these days, all the guys I used to practice with back then always kid me about how soft and gentle I’ve become! I think the technical changes under Kisshomaru Sensei were in that same vein. I think what’s more important is to truly give your all, to do your best and put your whole spirit into it, whether you’re doing your daily training or giving a demonstration. Differences are bound to appear depending on how you view aikido-whether you view it as a budo or a way to health and physical conditioning or simply as a form of movement. Naturally in my dojo we pursue aikido according to my view of it.

One part of that, by the way, is that I take the phrase “practical aikido” as my motto, by which I mean I think of aikido as something that is not only practiced in the dojo, but that can be extended and put to use in daily life. That in turn leads to an attitude of living each and every day as if it is precious. Aikido that is only in the dojo seems to lead only to issues of who is more or less skilled, who is stronger or weaker. What is more important is what kind of person you are and how you act as a member of society. After all, even if you are a yudansha of whatever rank, if you can’t somehow contribute something to society then your aikido practice has little meaning. If you can’t put aikido’s spirit of harmony to use in your daily life-whether as a student or in your family or at your job-then I don’t think you can say that you are practicing true aikido.

With film star and 7th Dan aikidoka Steven Seagal in Los Angeles, 1998

To conclude, what does aikido mean to you now?

Probably what I feel most glad about when I do aikido is that it has allowed so many people to open their hearts and come together in friendship. I think about all those who have gone before me, about those who are still young, and I think how remarkable it has been to meet so many people and make so many friends. They’re all from so many different walks of life that there has been so much for me to absorb from them. I think that is probably one of the most important things about continuing to practice aikido. O-Sensei was surrounded by so many impressive people because he himself was a great man. I can hardly say the same of myself and feel I’m still lacking in so many ways, but I hope by continuing to interact with so many people through aikido I will be able to improve myself little by little. I also hope that my efforts can help as many people as possible come to understand the goodness of aikido and live happier lives because of it. That, I think, is one way I can repay the debt of gratitude I owe to O-Sensei and Kisshomaru Sensei.

Translated by Derek Steel

This interview originally appeared in Aikido Journal Number 119 available in the Aikido Journal Store


  1. Bruce Baker says:

    It is SO VERY IMPORTANT the STUDENT studies … not just what you teacher
    teaches or what you practice in class but one must go deeper into what is hidden within the practice.

    What I like about this article .. is how one must find a way to make Budo work! It is not set in stone…

    Indeed … when or if you are injured or your body does not allow you to fall and roll as mine does … what you have learned must be adapted so it is still effective for WHAT YOU CAN DO. Once you study other martial arts, or watch what other’s teach .. remember … put it to memory .. what is not allowed is often most effective when your life is at stake if or when you must ever fight for your life. What I am saying is … PRACTICE SAFE.. but store information … knowing is half the battle.

  2. Arup Datta says:

    Thank you Mr Pranin, for an excellent article. What comes through is that aikido is such a wonderfully evolving art, without the ego of other attacking win-lose sports. As a nascent student and follower of aikido in india, I cannot help but marvel at the simplicity of the O-Sensei. The liquidity of this art is what drew me to it.

  3. My Gibeaut says:

    Thank you for republishing this interview Pranin Sensei. I think I have a better perspective now on the dissemination of Aikido world wide. For now, I’m just working as hard as I can on one toe of a very gentle elephant. But it’s good to be reminded that with proper focus, this elephant can become a great warrior, as well as a real crowd pleaser!

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