Category Archives: Articles

“…in Susanoo-no-Mikoto…”

When we look at Japanese politics 1866-1945, it is so, so easy to simply pick out the similarities to Western-style politics and ignore everything else that is so very different – and hard to understand. And it is so, so easy, too, for that matter, to make judgements in hind-sight: as if a politically active person in 1924 could know where a new Emperor and a politically resurgent army could take the nation, its institutions, and the unluckily adjacent areas of Eastern Asia.

But to the celebrated but hypothetical ‘cultural anthropologist from Mars’, it would be clear  that in the late nineteenth century context  of sudden top-down, forced ‘Westernisation’ – which included the religious and the spiritual – one of the most prominent social contradictions would be that between the impulse to Westernise, and nostalgia for the established affective life of the culture…

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A change of optic:

Aikido is a gem of many facets – sometimes it seems that every one of O’Sensei’s students remembered a different teacher, and of course, many, many different styles have been preserved and developed – but here is one facet that clicked into focus for me recently:

what if O’Sensei spent his time away from Iwama and Tokyo coherently pursuing what he felt to be his “mission in life”?…

what if he spent his time away from Iwama and Tokyo creating and nurturing a network of dojos run by Omoto-Kyo, ex-Omoto-Kyo and Ko-Shinto believers ( hand-picked deshi,  some of them raised, almost, as members of his family) – - – and ex-Kamikaze pilots, too (!) – often with his own name on the sign -  in places – and close to shrines…

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…late in 1942…

“….On August 7, after consultations with the appropriate judges, [Judge Takano] released [Onasiburo, Sumiko and Isao] on bail, and they appeared in the outside world for the first time in six years and eight months….

“My cousin Yasuaki Deguchi…writes in ‘Founder of a New Religion’….’To the followers who came to see him, he would say with emphasis, “There will be no divine help in this war,” “This war is a war between devils, so do not get involved”….’

“….even now he did not hold back from his outspoken remarks. ‘On the day I left prison, Japan’s defeat in the war began,’ he said.

“On August 7, 1942, the day Onisaburo was released, American forces landed on Guadalcanal, and the first naval battle of the Solomon Islands began….

“He would say, ‘They did all this to Omoto and don’t even come to apologize. So Japan will be attacked by the foreign enemy and will be beaten.’….’God dislikes killing. Omoto will not cooperate in the war.’

“….Telling soldiers leaving for service overseas, ‘Fire your guns into the air,’ he would give them advice according to their respective destinations….To troops leaving for the front, Onisaburo issued special amulets on which were written the words, ‘Victory to the Enemy’….

- – - – from The Great Onisaburo Deguchi,  Kyotaro Deguchi,  tr. Charles Rowe, publ. Aiki News, pp. 285-9

…earlier in 1942…

“…by 1942, [the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai] became literally a part of government organization and it was managed under the direct and joint supervision of ministry of education, ministry of health, ministry of navy, ministry of army and ministry of interior. The headquarters of DNBK located in Heian Shrine was moved to the ministry of health. As a result of this governmental authority, DNBK controlled All Student Soldier Physical Education Promotion Association, Kodokan, Nippon Kobudo Association, All Japan Kendo Federation…

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…1942-1948 – Ubuya…

“It may be that, at the time, we [this young people's class in Iwama] were the only existing Aikido class in Japan – perhaps even in the world.”
- – - Kazuaki Tanahashi,   Aikiweb interview

“In 1946 when I was admitted into Aikido, the site of the Iwama Dojo with an area of more than 20,000 tsubo was just a forest of Japanese oak trees, dotted with the Aiki Shrine,  Dojo,  and a farm. The location of the Dojo almost eluded detection. The local neighbors had not the foggiest idea of what was going on inside the Dojo and would not dare approach it.”
- – - Morihiro Saito Shihan,  Traditional Aikido,  vol.5,  p.20

“For seven years, Ueshiba O’Sensei hid away in the mountains, and said not a word: he was silent. But by his silence he was teaching, making something very great, by saying nothing.”
- – - André Nocquet Shihan, Maître Morihei Ueshiba: présence et message  p.97


…close to the source: Ame-no-Torifune…

Shrine Shinto instructions for Ame-no-Torifune…

….from Kami No Michi The Way of the Kami, by Yukitaka Yamamoto Guji pp.117-121, and Shinto Norito a Book of Prayers,  by Ann Llewellyn Evans pp.128-132.

O’Sensei’s relationship with Tsubaki O-Kami Yashiro in Mie Prefecture is well documented, and there are some beautiful reminiscences recounted in Susan Perry’s  Remembering O-Sensei.

Seiseki Abe Shihan lineage instructions for Ame-no-Torifune…

…from Shaun Ravens Sensei,  courtesy of a post by jgrowney on Aiki-web.

It seems overwhelmingly likely that O’Sensei experimented in various dojo and over the course of his life-time, with the sequence of kotodama, and with the kami  invoked during furitama. One might guess, too, that he finessed these aspects of Ame-no-Torifune to suit particular students and lineages.

It also seems worth mentioning that the kotodama should be thought of as pairs of syllables, with the first of each pair co-inciding with the inward pull of ki-energy and of the arms. Do not let the mind migrate to thinking of the syllables as starting with the outward movement.

Memories of O’Sensei (2)…

At six thirty in the morning, excepting those days where quite suddenly he has decided to make a teaching trip away from Tokyo,  Uyeshiba Sensei comes into the dojo. He is truly a “great master” [ – an “O  Sensei” – ], precisely because he never plays at being “Master” and never behaves as if he is in charge.  Already, our paths had crossed in the stairwell, where he was politely climbing the stairs with small steps, in his socks. He had stopped to talk with a Japanese student. He was smiling a lot,   open-faced, bright-eyed. He seemed to be quite amused. He is this way a lot. He looks at one and all with in jovial and sympathetic manner. He talks a lot. In the dojo, he talks all the time.

I have already stated that “he is truly a Great Master”, and that is why I’d like to make a distinction between him and all the other “Masters” I’ve seen and glimpsed, by calling him, with every bit of humility I possess: “This dear old Gentleman, so completely open-hearted and profoundly happy.”  Why should I go along with the obsequious convention of bestowing on him a title to which, absolutely, he is entitled, but which is a platitude? I prefer to express the profound affection which I feel by sometimes calling him “The Dear Old Gentleman who is very much enlightened”,  and sometimes  “The very dear Old Gentleman who is gently poking fun”…  ( but the very next day he was transformed into “The very dear Old Gentleman full of laughing sympathy”)…

So he comes onto the mat without ostentation or unusual ceremony. This morning, I would say of him, on the whole, that he is  “the very dear Old Gentleman who is being a little waggish”.  He takes up a position in the middle of the mat, and after the bows, before the characters “AI-KI-DO” painted on a strip of cloth, he does his daily chanting,  completely oblivious of his audience.   He is filled with the rhythms and rituals of his very personal Shinto, and he performs them without flourish. Then he turns to face his students, and quite simply sits on the ground, takes off his socks, and begins to rotate his ankles, and tap on his feet, to encourage good blood-flow in his limbs. He manipulates his toes, because he thinks he could use that,  looking at everyone with a smile,  and talking all the time.

Everyone makes the same gestures as he does, without any ado. Then, standing up, the “very old man so dear to us all” performs the “rowing” movements which we think we know so well. But, I have it on good authority from an older,  long-time student: his movements are  completely different from what we are doing – and what we think we’re doing. I can confirm it, because it over time became very clear to me, that for him it was nothing to do with “a warm-up exercise” that mimics the movements of rowing, but something completely other than that, and bearing no relationship to that.  At the very least, the odd angles and the very special rhythm of his movements showed me clearly that this “Very old man, so very powerful, so very fast”,  was not at all thinking of the same things as we were during these exercises…

But let’s move on, as he does, to what’s next.

Everything that we are used [in France] to doing as “warm-ups”,  he does too,  but not as “warm-ups”, and not necessarily every day, and not systematically. And when the “So impressive and so very serious old Gentleman”  stands up, and does a whole variety of “arm movements”, these, too, are anything other than physical preparation.

After what I would call the “establishment of a particular state [of mind and body]” – not wanting to be more precise, because I would like to stay objective, and thus visual – the “Very simple old man” has his disciples, old and young, attack him:  running at him threateningly and trying to grab him.  Standing, the Master shifts his torso,  and with it,  his legs and arms. He only grabs hold when he is going to pin a solitary attacker.  Against multiple partners, attacking together, this tactic of throwing without taking hold allows him complete freedom of movement. His hands – always free – continue their motion after his partner falls, gestures which are astonishing in their apparent lack of function. Uyeshiba Sensei  envelopes the air, makes one volume of space after another round and  spiraling;  in this way, he is always in motion, and able to precede the next attack, welcome it, and sweep in a different direction than the preceding, without ever allowing a moment of dead time – of standing still – to intervene.

Beyond techniques, beyond the movement of hands, the Art of Ueshiba Sensei is simple. His perfectly controlled defence, perfectly tailored to the power and skill of his partner, seems to be an embodiment of kindness.

His face stays calm and smiling, while his circling movements swirl like a cyclone… because it is the image of a cyclone that seems best to define Aikido, both in its accumulation of natural forces, and in the swirling deployment of Kokyu,  or “Breath”.

So what is the Old Master doing?  He makes it clear to one and all, to even the greatest experts, that he is not in the least impressed by their superlative skills in Aikido – the Aikido that he himself taught them. He has gone beyond that, the “tremendously skilful Old Gentleman”, and he shows  them that.  What he shows, with his tai-sabaki  of small, very fast steps, and by his lightning gestures,  are living forms:  flashes of  lightning, a leaf caught in a whirlwind, the taking flight of a bird/hand that is suddenly in your face,  a branch that is suddenly next to your leg, sweeps your leg out from under you,  and throws you to the ground – or a different branch that is pointing at your throat and forces you off-balance when you try to strike at nature itself. For if you do that,  nature itself strikes you down, using your own inability to face up to what is real.

Even though,  at this point in the class,  everyone on the mat is trying to imitate the Old Master – who is chuckling to himself, quietly and affectionately -  no-one comes close to managing it.  There is not a Master in existence who could truly “be” like the Master. Everyone tries hard to copy him – and that’s all they are doing, whereas they would all have to be able to – and know how to – recreate in their own way the inspired conjuring of the “Grand old Artist” who, with his limbs, embodies Nature itself, so very amused by our efforts against it.

And when he has played his tune for long enough – twenty minutes or three quarters of an hour after he stepped onto the mat, the “still young Artist” gives you to understand that he salutes you and wishes you good luck…  With everyone bowing very, very low, the “Old Gentleman who’s enjoying himself, and for whom there is no drama, ever”,  puts on again his socks with the big toe separated from the other toes – - – and exits the dojo.

And there is the greatest paradox yet:  “He who was capering, laughing as you fell on the mat”,  is accompanied and almost completely supported on the stairs by one or two long- standing students who seem to believe completely in their utility here… and “He is completely in agreement with them.”

The Aikido of “self-defense” stems from the idea of using that which seems to be dangerous and harmful, to disarm the attacker or to put him at our mercy. That is the Aikido of all the experts, ever since Ueshiba Sensei created this Art of Peace which pacifies the attacker because the practice of this Art has already pacified the one he is attacking.

But what inspired the oeuvre of Ueshiba Sensei was something greater still. It can be summed up in this way:  Imitate Nature itself, which simply toys with anyone who would disturb it, and in particular anyone who would trample it in their haste to move too quickly towards their goal… To articulate and illustrate this thesis, [O'Sensei] used in particular to  exercise his skills on attacks that an uke would launch “all-out”. At this level, his teaching was elevated far above the Aikido of “self-defence”.  It became a moral exposé and a penetrating critique of our way of life founded on more and more speed in the service of a desire to seize, to have, and to strike.

So that every time he motioned a student to attack, it was a new Aesop’s fable -  or maybe one by the Frenchman, La Fontaine – which he then transmuted into gestures on the theme of the moment.  But, just as when we read those moralizing poets, we were far more absorbed in the astonishing variation and in the immediate and obvious, than in the deeper lesson. But it is the deeper meaning of these infinite variations that we have to tease out:  and here it is, as it appears to me:  “Nature will trip you up in the direction you are weakest,  the one you are least aware of,  because you have no time to think of it in your hurry to grab quickly or strike hard.  These lessons of human morality, [O'Sensei] would bestow on us smiling, and even laughing openly.  So let us remember this:  as ethics,  or as an art of self-defence, Aikido is never dramatic. Let us never forget that. This, the masterpiece of Ueshiba O’Sensei is peaceful and happy, and in his every gesture the old Sage would tell us that the more profound truth, the one that lies beneath the ephemeral, is happy and benevolent.

- – - Dr. Pierre Warcollier in the Revue Aiki-Do,  in the series Les Cahiers du Budo, 1965,  cited in  Les arts martiaux interiorisés ou l’Aikido de la sagesse, by J-D. Cauhépé and A. Kuang pp. 36-40

- – – – – – – – – – Lessons from Fire – – – – – – – – – – -

by Jolene Starr

In my search for a cure for the interminable depression that had consumed most of my energy for the past four years, I finally turned to shamanism.  Shaman and his assistant Lori, took me up toward Bogus Basin to perform a shamanic healing ceremony with me.

On the drive up, Shaman discussed the details of how the ceremony would proceed.

“We’re going to build a fire,” Shaman said.  “Fire is cleansing. It can burn away sadness, anger, grief. You can have a conversation with the fire. Let the fire know what you would like it to do. But also listen to the fire. There will definitely be times where the fire will talk to you. Sit back and absorb what the fire has to say.”

We had gained about 1500 ft in elevation when Shaman pulled off the main road onto a dirt road. He drove a short distance, then parked.  “This is it,” he said…

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There are many swords in aikido…

…the Itto-ryu that Takeda Sokaku Sensei practised:  which is in almost every aikido movement, and which creates the body and  sensitivities on which aikido is based (the relaxed shoulder from a  well-performed chiburi – or from 1,000 cuts, the experience of isshin with aite – or with one’s fellow members in a battle phalanx – , the constant and egoless contact of “sticky swords”,  the centered body – with arms protecting armpits – moving from the hara, the ki-musubi of tsuka and hara mushin…distant-mountain-gaze…)   …and indeed… and by good fortune…  the Iai that Nishio Shoji Shihan learned and practised was in the Itto-Ryu tradition.

…Yagyu Shinkage Ryu with its basic kamae of  hanmi  (or hito-emi), which O’Sensei valued as the physical manifestation of the ki of katsujinken 1) – all the more so because the initial kihon solo exercises of the clan-related Yagyu Shingan Ryu Jujutsu, in which he held a menkyo, use a 90 degree “in-yo hanmi” and various sword-swinging movements as exercises in relaxation, ki-flow, and sensitization to ten-no-kokyu and chi-no-kokyu 2).   Yagyu Shinkage Ryu had been the official sword ryu of the Ando clan who ruled Tanabe,  so the ‘play’ sword of O’Sensei’s childhood would have been derived from this ryu.  Later he would have studied it formally as an adjunct to Yagyu Shingan Ryu;  he apparently taught it in Ayabe;  and then in the early years of the Kobukan studied it informally with Commander Kosaburo Gejo – who was one of the top swordsmen of the official lineage.

…the Kashima Shinto Ryu that O’Sensei investigated,  I would guess, partly because he had already adopted some of the bo forms of the related Katori Shinto Ryu – which students of his had studied at the Kodokan – and partly  for its primordial and Shrine-centered status – indeed in a 1932 interview 3), he is already talking about attaining “the way of the Gods” as foundational for aiki-jujutsu.  The enshrined KAMI at Kashima Shrine is recorded in the Kojiki as using te-gatana, and performing feats of internal strength that Daito-Ryu traditionally regards as the earliest manifestation  of  the lineage and  O’Sensei would also have been drawn to its long-standing tradition – going back to Choiisai Ienao – of members avoiding the service of corrupt Daimyo,  and for the high ideals exemplified by Bokuden’s concept of mutekatsu 2) …

from both of which last ryu he developed…

…the kata of Sho-Chiku-Bai,  as exercises in the three flavors of ki-feeling that he felt arising in aikido…and in sen-no-sen  ki-musubi

…and Aiki-Myo-Ken: which is a way of talking about the phantom sword that is present to an empty-handed swordsman doing his sword movements as Tai-jutsu – and especially when he does them with a heart of katsujinken.

..and   …and…

1)  and, indeed, O’Sensei is reported as saying: “Both Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi and Tsukahara Bokuden, and every expert and famous swordsman from ancient times down to the present day agree on this: the way of thinking that sees budo as a blessing and gift of  the kami, and says that we should endeavor in keiko to have a bright spirit. ” – - – Aiki Shinzui,  p.62
2) Yagyu Shingan Ryu Heiho,   Osano Jun,  pp. 34-54
3)  in  Shinrei no Hiyaku – Genshutsu no Chojin,   interview by Kanzou Miura,  translated by Christopher Li on the Sangenkai website.

There are many swords in aikido (3)…

It is unclear how much O’Sensei investigated the martial teachings associated with the family of his friend,  Takaharu Kuki,  head priest of the three mountain shrines of Kumano -  and a well-regarded scholar of ko-shinto – but it is likely, at the least,  that the esoteric, associated on-myo-do (in-yo-ho teachings)  were a topic of conversation.

This  familial  Kukishin-ryu is descended from the primordial “eight Kyoto ryu“  [Kyo-Hachi-Ryu],  centered around Kurama Mountain,  just outside Kyoto – home to the legendary tengu, and to the king of the  tengu:  Sojobo.    To these same primordial ryu, because of geography,  most of the old traditions in the area around Tanabe, where O’Sensei grew up, would  have belonged.  As it turns out, it is common for ryu of this Kurama-dera tradition to have a concept of “aiki” – as Ellis Amdur has documented – and, actually,  Itto-ryu,  too,  via Chujo-ryu, is of this lineage.

This means that,  if O’Sensei at all investigated the  esoteric, ki-flow traditions of Kukishin-ryu at the Kumano shrines,  he was  investigating – and he would have known this – the roots of the Itto-ryu body and movement so central to Takeda Sokaku’s art.   And he would have been doing this, too, when he introduced kendo instruction to the Kobukan in the early thirties:  old-style  kendo being rooted in Itto-ryu – and particularly Hokushin-Itto-Ryu.

Now, traditionally – and Ellis Amdur,  for instance,  received such information inter alia  from the current soke of the Kukishin-ryu -  the Kurama-dera tradition is regarded as one of the three primordial,  original ryu of Japanese martial arts  – all three being composite ryu   – in traditional Japanese thinking:  a central kenjutsu  surrounded by  a whole constellation of adjunct arts.

And when O’Sensei on the one hand, studied Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (possibly, also,  as an adjunct to Yagyu Shingan Ryu),  and when he arranged, on the other hand,  for two selected Kobukan students to study Kashima Shinto Ryu in the late thirties, he was actually studying the swordwork – and associated ki-flow -  of the two other primordial traditions.

All of which  makes sense of the sometimes-repeated assertion that O’Sensei studied “all” the Japanese martial traditions.

(Indeed, for a while O’Sensei owned or rented a property at the foot of Mount Kurama – and made training trips up the mountain with students such as Tenryu and Shioda Shihan – and at this same time he already owned land in the uplands above and North-West of Kashima Shrine, and had an outdoor dojo there… we are talking about Iwama.  And it was a local Omoto-kyo luminary – who had hosted the local Budo-Senyokai dojo – who helped him buy that land. And it was that luminary’s son who got to study Kashima Shinto-Ryu along with O’Sensei’s own son…)

All this, we can see  as an attempt to go deeper than the art he had learned from Takeda Sokaku – by digging further into the past… but more widely, too…