Jan
05

Reply to criticism of “Towards A Reform of Aikido Technique” article by Stanley Pranin

“I can’t think of a scenario in which I would have challenged Koichi Tohei or Seigo Yamaguchi on or off the mat. It’s not the aikido way, and it’s not my way!

One reader took pains to comment on my recent article titled “Towards A Reform of Aikido Technique.” Having read my thesis, he states that I consider the aikido of the senior Aikikai instructors of the postwar era to be “unworthy.” He specifically mentions Koichi Tohei and Seigo Yamaguchi. The writer goes on to wonder aloud how I would personally have fared if I had attempted to demonstrate the “unworthiness” of the martial skills of these two instructors by challenging them on the mat.

I frankly scratched my head at reading these comments in response to my article. In fact, I doubted that the commenter was referring to the article in question because my thesis was totally misrepresented. Allow me to restate very briefly my viewpoint in simple terms to avoid further misunderstandings.

The thrust of my article is that the curriculum, teaching methodology, and spiritualism of Founder Morihei Ueshiba were largely rejected by the postwar figures most responsible for the dissemination of aikido in Japan and abroad. The four important teachers I mention by name are Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, and Kenji Tomiki. I discuss the martial arts background of each of these famous instructors and attempt to estimate the years of training they received under the Founder.

I further stated that, in the years following the war, the disillusioned Japanese frowned on the practices and policies of the nation’s recent militaristic past. This was equally true of the ideologies that supported them, including State Shinto. Morihei Ueshiba was heavily involved in the war effort and taught martial techniques and tactics at several military institutions. He was also a leading member of the powerful Omoto religious sect that had its roots in Shintoism.

This social climate affected the practice of postwar aikido in which training tended to be low-keyed and non-martial. Further, the use of atemi, kiai, and weapons were discouraged because of the image of militarism they conjured up and fear of possible reprisals from occupation forces who had initially banned the practice of Japanese martial arts. This observation refers specifically to the Aikikai, by far the largest aikido organization. Yoshinkan Aikido retained the practice of atemi and kiai, and Kenji Tomiki introduced a sport component in his approach centered at Waseda University.

In a like manner, I wrote that Morihei’s spiritual views were not embraced by any of the four leading teachers mentioned. They were considered to be incomprehensible, anachronistic and inappropriate for inclusion in a modern teaching curriculum.

At the end of the article, I point to the special case of Morihiro Saito who happened to live near Morihei’s country dojo in Iwama and have a job that permitted him to spend a great deal of time training and assisting the Founder in his daily life. During the Iwama period, Morihei was training intensively and focusing a great deal of effort on the study of weapons, mainly the ken and jo. Also, he was teaching an elaborate taijutsu system to the few students attending his country dojo attached to his home.

The four teachers mentioned above and who were active in Tokyo had little or no exposure to the Iwama training regime in the late 1940s and 50s. This is simply historical fact.

That I have long been personally captivated by O-Sensei’s techniques and spirituality and was also a long-time student of Morihiro Saito is irrelevant to my historical account of the specifics of that era. I have investigated the subject thoroughly and interviewed all four of the instructors on mulitple occasions. The Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba provided me with a great deal of information and confirmed much of what I have written. While in Japan, I conducted over 200 interviews with prominent aikido-related personnages.

I wrote nothing about the individual martial skills of any of these four teachers or Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei, all giants in their own rights. I alluded to their teaching methodologies, how they were different from that of the Founder and affected by the tenor of the times.

The commenter mentions the “superiority complex” of Iwama Aikido practitioners. I cannot refute this. I would only point out that practitioners at the Hombu Dojo, and schools of the Ki Society, Yoshinkan Aikido, and Tomiki Aikido all have similar views of their systems and founders, and consider their aikido practice to be “superior.”

In closing, I can’t think of a scenario in which I would have challenged Koichi Tohei or Seigo Yamaguchi on or off the mat. It’s not the aikido way, and it’s not my way.

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Comments

  1. Gys Bruins says:

    Well put Stan. In true spirit, you observed, blended and redirected.

  2. Well written reply.
    But this part is a bit suggestive:
    ” This was equally true of the ideologies that supported them, including State Shinto. Morihei Ueshiba was heavily involved in the war effort and taught martial techniques and tactics at several military institutions. He was also a leading member of the powerful Omoto religious sect that had its roots in Shintoism”.
    There is a distinct difference between Shinto (with its many different ways in which it is being expressed) and State Shinto. While we can state that Omoto kyo has its roots in Shinto, it is incorrect to suggest that it has roots in State Shinto.

    As for the “superiority complex” that each style seems to have, I recognize it, but feel it is more part of the problem that Aikido faces, then part of the solution.

    Thanks for the article,
    Tom Verhoeven

    • Tom,

      Your comments are appreciated. The key word is “Shinto” rather than “State Shinto.” Anything Shinto-related was lumped together and tainted by the war experience.

    • Sean Fogarty says:

      Tom,

      I’ve said much the same thing, but what is the difference in commonly-spoken Japanese as I can’t find it. The nearest I’ve come is between shrines called jinjya (神社) and shrines called miya (宮) which I tend to translate as state shintoh shrine. Japanese also doesn’t have proper (e.g. capitalized) nouns as European languages do. I’m thinking that the Founder of aikidoh didn’t teach as we’d expect to be taught, perhaps more by example, in a different manner to suit each individual student (in which sense Koichi Tohei’s might actually have been closer than Saitoh’s standardizations), and in a very hard to understand manner with oblique religious references as rumour has it . . .

      – Sean

  3. Barney Clark says:

    Excellent reply, Stan. Temperance and thoughtfulness come across as much as the straight forward evidence. We all bow to your extensive knowledge and anyone questioning you should show the respect deserved by a man of letters like yourself. Keep writing your interesting work, it is a brilliant addition to all our practice.

  4. Tom Everett once had a kid ask him in a similar vein “Are you as tough as Bruce Lee?” Tom’s reply was, “Tougher. I can stomp him any day. He’s dead.” The realistic answer is from Kano Sensei, “On any day, anybody may win.” Or going back to Yagyu, ‘With all my training, I feel I have gained an advantage. I might beat 7 out of 10 opponents.’ The better question would have been to take a look at freestyle skills.

    This is not so much to say “This is bad. This is good.” It is, rather, to see if given uke’s from schools unaffiliated with the respective teachers, those teachers would actually do as they taught their students.

    For example, I see that Tohei would sometimes back up in freestyles. Just as expected when he did his attackers would start to pile up on him and he would have to extricate himself by superior speed/skill/strength. Frank and Bob found that problematic in their students. So they developed Frankenstein Walk as a training tool. What did Tohei do for his students to help them when ukes began to pile up?

    Thinking about Saito Sensei, clearly kihon waza is not very adaptable to multiple person situations. But is that teaching style consistent with what he did and what is necessary in randori? My personal opinion is, mostly. Further, the better you understand kihon waza, the more sense ki-no-nagare and randori makes. Saito Sensei said as much.

    Eventually, everybody trains as they are inclined and will choose accordingly. Bob Frager once said in my presence at a workshop, “O Sensei was like the ocean. Everybody brought their cup. If you want to know the ocean you have to look in all the cups.” Saito Sensei said something similar, encouraging people to train widely, ‘but only save the good stuff’*.

    The difficulty is that now there are many of us with much more training time than our teachers’ teachers, but none of us (as far as I know)
    approach the skill of O Sensei. This should not be a surprise as he was regarded as uniquely talented even in pre-WWII Japan.

    - chuck
    * I’ve given you my riff on “style”? Style is that which is easily perceived as distinctive to a particular teacher. The easiest things to see are mistakes. So, collecting various styles tends to be collecting idiosyncratic mistakes…

    • As always, very insightful, Chuck!

    • “What did Tohei do for his students to help them when ukes began to pile up?” with all due respect to Frank and Bob, the Ki Society has very specific practices and exercises to reduce randori pile up (totally preventing would really be in the hands of of the level of skill of the individual). Iwao Tamura Sensei, 9th Dan Ki Society, was a particularly excellent example as a student of Todei Sensei in high level of these skills in randori.

  5. Dennis Chua says:

    Cheers! No worries Stanley! Keep up the good work! Some people are just so afraid to admit the truth that they refuse to see the light and start misinterpreting. I myself have new found respect for Iwama aikido and am so happily challenged and frustrated to be relearning this art. For nay sayers, come and try “Iwama” style so that you may find out for yourself. Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a challenge to a fight but a challenge or a dare for you to find out the difference. I have forgone my years of training from another style, ate my humble pie and started to learn this art from scratch. Happy new year!

  6. great reply, well put, the original article was great, this just compounds it, your articles and aikido journal inspire me more everyday.

  7. Nico Poppelier says:

    Well put indeed: I fully agree with the statement that the “teaching methodology, and spiritualism of Founder Morihei Ueshiba were largely rejected by the postwar figures most responsible for the dissemination of aikido in Japan and abroad.”

    I also believe that aikido would never have developed and spread as it has, if the keepers of the aikido legacy would have stuck to the Founder’s spiritualism.

    I look forward to follow-up articles.

    • Nico,

      I agree with you fully. It would not have been appropriate. We tend to focus on the Japanese side because of our involvement in aikido. However, non-Japanese of my parents’ generation would certainly not have taken kindly to the inclusion of Shinto trappings in aikido.

      That being said, I believe we have enough distance now nearly 70 years after the war to be able to learn about more about what Morihei said about aikido and how such knowledge might help our individual understanding of the art.

      • VMJMurphy says:

        “I also believe that aikido would never have developed and spread as it has, if the keepers of the aikido legacy would have stuck to the Founder’s spiritualism.”

        Now there’s a point for discussion. I rather suspect that the O Sensei who, according to Homma Sensei, would loudly berate Tokyo for not teaching HIS Aikido would tend to agree …

  8. Jorge L. LOPEZ says:

    Well said Pranin Sensei.

    There is actually a difference among Iwama Aikido as taught by SAITO family and the others.

    But there are some questions we all should ask ourselves, such as:

    1. Who was the student that lived besides O’Sensei the longer. By far, the answer is Morihiro SAITO Shihan. Not only as an aikido practitioner, but also in real life situations.

    2. Who has studied and investigated aikido history deeper than you? Nobody.

    So, if you are a serious aikido practitioner you should listen to YOU, and “test” Iwama Aikido a little bit. Then come to your own conclusion.

    It is easy to comment or criticized in writing. There is no mystery. Iwama Aikido exists. You can try it.

    The idea is not to find out which one is best, but which one gets closer to a real BUDO. And find your own way…!!!

  9. Rick Post says:

    Sensei Pranin,

    Although I am relatively new to Aikido, I certainly enjoy your writing style, demeanor, etc., and I’m looking forward to meeting you in March when I attend your seminar.

    Understanding history is very important to following “any” path. The rules are always better understood if we know why they were implemented in the first place. Precedents
    are designed to be a guide for similar future decisions; history can be used similarly in my opinion.

    Personally I enjoy reading your many articles very much.

    Thank you,
    Rick Post

  10. Well handled. Other sites would have deleted the posts and denied the poster access. I almost wish we had identifiable standards we could test and compare. My experience is that no one refers to themselves as spiritually bankrupt to martially incompetent. To have a discussion with such a person, if you show superior martial skill then you are accused of being less spiritual; to demonstrate strong inner development is to be accused to being out of touch and having nothing to do with the real world. One local menkyo Kaiden holder in Aikido openly disparages any use of atemi or Kiai, but teaches the weapons kata of Saito Sensei – his students don’t see the contradiction.

    How did an art that opposes competition really become more fractured and competitive than some other openly competitive arts? In opposing competition, we have discarded any idea of “good sportsmanship.” Our spiritual side is riff with Holier than Thou.

    Or put another way: “How many Aikido students does it take to change a light bulb?”

    “Just one. But a hundred people will stand around saying, Yes, but in MY dojo we do it this way…”

  11. Facebook comment transferred to Aikido Journal blog…

    Robin Karlsson

    Dear Stan-sensei,

    The point over which argument arise, again and again, is probably the following paragraph to which I offer my humble reflections.

    “Some 60 years later, a large number of practitioners within the Aikikai system are still being formed using this teaching approach, which is not martial in nature and does not reflect the vision of aikido conceived by the art’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei.”

    As far as I’m aware the founder’s vision was simply the realisation of unconditional love towards ALL things in the world and the universe which in turn will of course lead to world peace and a society were things are fair, balanced and prosperous.

    His tools were rigorous physical exercise to build, forge, clean, cleanse your own temple (body) as well as rigorous mental and spiritual practice to build, forge, clean, cleanse your soul, spirit and ego.

    The tools are not the vision.

    So the point over which argument always arise, are we dancing or fighting, are we doing this or that, this system is better than the other, is simply moot. Are you using the tools available to build, forge, clean, cleanse your temple, soul, spirit and ego for a higher good and the benefit of all? If yes, you’re reflecting the founder’s vision. If no, you’re not doing his aikido.

    If people use a variation on the founder’s tools, then fine, I don’t really give a poo. If they use the variations and get hit on the nose, get stabbed, get their fingers or arms cut off or get shot – then maybe they were just in over their heads and didn’t realize that what they were training was in fact not martial like the founder’s technique and should have trained something different or even simpler should have acted accordingly: different.

    The founder’s techniques were martial because that’s how he was taught, it was needed in that era, and he found value to keep things sharp and right up at the edge. Because it’s at the decisive moments in life, when you’re up on that very edge and the sharpness of the blade that threatens you glisten that change happens. Suddenly you’re wide awake with all your senses and in direct contact with your higher self. I’m confident that was his point with a martial type of training, shinken, to be put at that edge often, and be able to walk away safe from harm, humbled and with more love and gratitude in the heart.

    Thank you for your awesome work and for allowing me to express my views!

    Robin

    ————————-

    Stan’s reply:

    Thank you very much for the well-thought out comment. I stand by comment as written. Note, that this does not imply that Morihei’s art was superior to that of Kisshomaru, Tohei, Shioda, Tomiki, or any other. There are many schools of aikido that consider O-Sensei more of a figurehead. Their immediate sensei is, in the eyes of students, the founder and the ultimate authority, not O-Sensei.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone chooses their own inspiration.

  12. Well handled, Stanley, both in the original article and in the response. Springing as I do from Yoshinkan roots I have frequently had questions about much of the practice of Aikido by Aikikai representatives. Saito sensei, with his emphasis on “kenjotai setsugo”, “sword, stick and body tied together” or “ittai”, forming one entity, was always an exception to my sometimes critical and jaundiced eye. It is important for me to remember that not all teachers have the same goal for what they teach. Some teach graceful paired dancing; some realistic street self-defense based on O-Sensei’s teaching; some deep moving meditation; some flexibility and physical cuture; some historic techniques. The list is almost endless. Some teach to a standard of O-Sensei’s techniques, some to the desires of the students, some to their own idiosyncrasies. Why a student enrolls or joins varies even more and may well change during his or her years of practice. I agree with your historical conclusions (as I have for more years than I care to remember!) and marvel that your article was misinterpreted, and yet….. It is very difficult for the young to escape from the competitive paradigm, that of “who can beat up whom”. To learn to examine facts while not introducing competition or conflict is hard for the young of all ages.

  13. ken wakeman says:

    Wow! Where to start?

    Thank you for taking my comment seriously Pranin Sensei, and sorry to have caused confusion and offense.

    My comment concerning you testing those sensei out on the mat was definitely out of line. What I was intending to convey was that these teachers having had many years of at least intermittent instruction by O-Sensei, considered themselves to be representing the art of aikido on behalf of the founder. This was something that they were renowned for being able to “back up” on the mat. I honestly don’t think they would agree with you that Saito Sensei’s aikido was more “true” or “representative” than their own. This is what i meant when i said that every student of O-Sensei had to “interpret” aikido for themselves. No one could duplicate what O-Sensei did, and i don’t think that sticking to a style that looked more visually like what O-Sensei did during one particular era has any certain relevance (not that it is a bad thing either).
    As such i take issue with the insinuation that Aikikai aikido is “less O-Sensei’s aikido” than is Iwama.

    I hope that clears things up a little!
    Thanks,
    Ken

    • I would like to suggest that you carefully re-read the section of the article talking about the lengths of time and circumstances of study of the 4 teachers mentioned and consider the implications.

  14. The word “challenge” caught my eye. Whatever for? Challenging runs counter to the whole Aikido attitude that O’Sensei sought to promote. Surely challenging is contentious and primitive and would prove exactly what, I’m not sure. Politics perhaps? Politics has vitiated the advancements that Morihei spent a life developing and has degraded Aikido severely as a viable Budo. Not only is a contest of egos/wills/gorillas not the Aikido way, it departs entirely from what Aikido stands for: The opposite of the pathology of destructive “proving,” which in the end proves nothing but all lose scenarios. I don’t know what more it will take to expose/reveal/make plain the tremendous quantum leap Morihei made in bringing forth to fruition a-non-contentious Budo which is more effective in both real survival and self-improvement than the destructive contentive fighting ways.

    For example, in the event of multiple attackers for which the kihon waza are the most superlative tools on the planet. What has happened to Aikido? I dread to think what many may be practicing and still calling it Aikido. Where is the “Constructive Budo,” of Morihei Ueshiba and does anyone at all have a clue what he meant? Constructive Budo is not an “archaic concept,” nor is it the “skill” to be ineffective at all! There is still a faint semblance of the path to the mountaintop remaining, getting fainter each day someone who thinks they know better deviates loudly to another dead end. The valid Path of Aikido is found in the basic techniques and the principles which activate them.

    There is nothing” arcane” about high levels of excellence and what works impeccably has nothing to do with ancient times or modern times, but now, this moment in training so you can capture now-this-momemt in emergency. Putting in the work daily pays dividends. nothing else. As the old guy stated: “There is no time and space for Ueshiba of Aikido, only the universe as it is.” But maybe this will be considered an “arcane concept” as well by closed minds.

  15. Why no Mochizuki Sensei on your list?

    • Minoru Mochizuki operated on a smaller scale than the four mentioned and his art went variously as “Yoseikan Budo” and “Yosekan Aikido” and is a composite system.

  16. Just thanks, Stan. Your response was exactly what I would have expected. Your work is much appreciated.

    And a very Happy New Year!

    Best regards

    Vincent

  17. Pascal Verhille says:

    What if Stanley Pranin had challenged Koichi Tohei and Seigo Yamaguchi?

    Winner: Stan by Knock-out in the third round (“kiaied” atemi), and probably at the beginning of the first round (guillotine choke) against Kisshomaru Sensei.

    From France, Happy New Year to all !

  18. When you share ideas openly in this format you always run the risk of people putting their own slant on your work or completely misunderstanding what you wrote. Keep up the great work Stanley , the rest of us benefit greatly from what you do.

  19. Thanks again Stanley for showing this interesting article and keep some thread of aikido schools alive. The author who said “unworthy” regarding these teachers sounds arrogant. I have been thrown by Tohei and he was strong as an ox! His system to me seems to me the most spiritual. But all systems are good and no one is the ‘the’ best.. I even practice krav maga and Brazilian jujitsu but aikido has a unique place in my heart.

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