“Overlooked minutiae illuminate the Founder’s genius!”
This photo has enormous significance as a technical reference. Taken in 1938, it shows a much younger Morihei Ueshiba beginning to execute what we would today call shomenuchi ikkyo omotewaza. What will appear odd to many present-day aikidoka is the fact that the Founder is initiating the technique.
For most practitioners, common sense dictates that uke will initiate the encounter, with tori (= nage) responding. Yet if we consult O-Sensei’s 1938 Budo manual, we find the following description of the commencement of this technique:
Tori: Step forward with your right foot and strike directly at your opponent’s face with your right tegatana and punch his ribs with your left fist…
Uke: Receive your opponent’s right tegatana with your right arm.
One might be tempted to point out that this was the prewar version of the technique that was superseded in the modern era. This is certainly true. However, Morihei continued to teach shomenuchi ikkyo in this manner during the Iwama era following the war. It was the Aikikai — headed by Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei — that altered the practice of this core basic technique. In contrast, Gozo Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido continued to follow O-Sensei’s original teaching after the war.
What can we make of this seemingly counterintuitive approach of Morihei to one of aikido’s most important techniques? Think of it this way. If uke attacks using shomenuchi, it is symbolic of a sword attack. An expert wielding a sword can generate tremendous speed. If tori stands directly on the line of attack and waits for uke to strike, he will be late… and dead! So, in this situation involving a strike, O-Sensei clearly specifies that tori initiates the attack, which makes perfect sense from a martial standpoint.
Think of the further implications of this approach. Aikido is often described as a self-defense art. Normally, people think of this to mean that a person waits for an attacker to initiate, and then responds using a defensive technique. The problem with this view is that it fails to take into account the speed of an attack or the surprise factor, and the near impossibility of managing a successful response within such a limited time window.
Another dimension worth mentioning is that one might be called to action to defend or save a third party, perhaps a loved one, in a dangerous situation. You might call it an instance of “defense by proxy”, but it definitely falls within the scope of martial arts. It’s worthwhile taking the time to think things through both from the practical and moral standpoints before accepting truisms at face value.
The average practitioner might think that the detailed examination of old documents such as these is overkill. Yet, these exercises enable us to reconstruct the Founder’s thinking with regard to technical matters, and consequently give a deeper insignt into his larger martial arts philosophy.
There is one other interesting sidelight to the story that the above photo tells. At first glance, one might surmise that this photo appears in Morihei Ueshiba’s 1938 “Budo” book. O-Sensei looks the same, the uke is one of the three who appears in the old book. What’s going on here?
Those who are detail oriented may notice that the resolution of this image is much higher than the other photos published in “Budo”. Another thing is that the form factor of all the “Budo” photos is square, while this is rectangular. I am making an educated guess, but I believe that this is an unpublished photo that was not used in the “Budo” manual when it appeared.As a result of the detective work of one of my researcher colleagues, several more of these formerly unknown photos have been unearthed. To this day, I have seen about 15 of them, several appearing in John Stevens’ “The Secrets of Aikido”. This would suggest that the Ueshiba family has in its possession a collection of these rare, unpublished photos, until recently unknown.
Each of these wonderful images has a technical story to tell. It’s strange, rather miraculous, that we now have access to a few of them more than 70 years after the fact. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes my historical researach so enjoyable.
I would like to gratefully acknowledge Sakura Mai for having posted the images used in this article on Facebook.
The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.