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Old 04-03-2003, 05:09 AM   #45
Peter Goldsbury
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I have been outside Japan and away from computers for a while. This will be a long post, I'm afraid, so apologies beforehand to those with more modest attention spans...

I suppose the title of the thread is meant to be provocative. One good answer would be, "Yes, but so what? It is a title, not a job description, which we can really give to anybody, but in aikido the custom has arisen of giving it principally to one man." Perhaps this would suffice, but Ted Ehara's posts are usually thoughtful as well as provocative and deserve a more detailed response. My personal view is that far too much significance has been given to the "O" prefix.

Ted Ehara writes: "The term O Sensei indicates a truly great teacher. This is someone who not only instructs, but inspires. It is a term that can apply to a teacher on any subject."

PAG: The problem here is that the term is taken out of its cultural context. In Japanese, the term shorn of the prefix would indicate a title, as much as a description of expected abilities, and with the prefix I think this is even more the case. I cannot think of a single case outside the traditional arts in Japan where a teacher has ever received such a prefix. So, it is indeed possible, but so improbable that the possibility is not worth considering.

Ted Ehara writes: "The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba has often been referred to as O Sensei. But is he really?"

PAG. The question is ambiguous. Does he really have the title, or does he really fit the job description? See previous comments.

Ted Ehara writes: "Some aikidoists say that there will never be someone as good in Aikido as its founder. If this is true, then Morihei Ueshiba should not be called O Sensei because he was never able to train someone up to his level."

PAG. Notice the hidden premises here. The provision that a teacher should be able to train someone to equal or surpass him/her has quietly been added to the job description/ title. In some respects the premise is obviously false. I teach my native language to non-native speakers, but if my students do not equal or surpass me in ability, I could never even aspire to have such a title. Thus, there is another hidden premise that aikido is teachable, as well as learnable. The two are not the same and the complexities involved in seeing something as a skill, in learning the skill, in teaching the skill, need to be unpacked and examined before we can then consider the extra conditions to be fulfilled for someone to have the "O" title.

Ted Ehara writes: "Personally, I think there are a group of aikidoists and I certainly am not in this group, who are as good or better in Aikido than its founder. They are not members of any one style or organization, yet their Aikido is as good or better than the founder's. If not on a general level, then in specific arts, especially areas that they have helped develop."

PAG. I certainly agree that there is a group of very good aikidoists, but I have no means of knowing whether they actually equal or surpass Morihei Ueshiba in ability. Moreover, I would not be surprised if aikidoists became more proficient, rather than less, and adapted aikido to suit the needs of the 21st century, rather than the 20th, as Ueshiba saw the art. But so much is taken for granted here. For example, how would one compare the relative skills of e.g., Inoue, Nakakura, Tomiki, Shirata, Shioda, Mochizuki, Tohei, or Saito?

Ted Ehara writes: "O Sensei was a human being who accomplished a great deal. He was able to do that by understanding his own humanity."

PAG. I am not entirely sure what is meant here. From what I have read of Ueshiba's own writings, if he believed he accomplished a great deal (and this is questionable), he believed he was able to do this by understanding his own divinity! He regarded himself as the instrument of other, divine, powers and if this is not understood, then a great part of what he himself thought he was doing is misunderstood. I am not really in a position to distinguish what his achievements really were from what he himself believed them to be.

Ted Ehara writes: "Some people have a self-effacing worship of the founder. Some writers have even placed him in a position of a divine being. They emphasize the mystical nature and enlightenment of the founder. This seems to be a path of self-deception. However taking this viewpoint, Morihei Ueshiba cannot be called O Sensei because in their estimation, he was never able to train someone up to his level."

PAG. I agree completely with the fact of bright-eyed adulation of O Sensei in certain circles—and dislike this custom very much, but I have found this to be more prevalent outside Japan than here. In my experience Japanese teachers of aikido living abroad are elevated on to much higher pedestals than their counterparts living in Japan. Here, being an aikido sensei is regarded as a somewhat unexciting job, with virtually no prospects. As for the divine, the Japanese have a much more fluid interpretation of this concept than some westerners, and, since he is dead, some of my Japanese aikido colleagues even regard O Sensei as a kami (= a 'divine' being, but without all the powers and trappings that we usually give to our pantheon). As a kami, he has about the same powers as those of his picture at the shomen of the dojo.

Ted Ehara writes: "Morihei Ueshiba was a person. A person who had powers that we all have."

PAG. Agreed. He himself never used the "O" prefix and his students generally avoided using it in respect of their own organizations. Thus Yoshinkan has a Kancho, which carries much more content as a 'job description' and title than (O) Sensei, and I know that K Tomiki never gave himself such a title. In the Aikikai, Morihei Ueshiba tends to be called "Kaiso" (this has been criticized by some as being too 'Buddhist') and his successors "Doshu". By what title was Tohei Sensei known?

In general, I am all for demythologizing where necessary, but I think that "O Sensei" in aikido is simply a title which has come to be reserved for the founder of the art. Thus, I think that in this thread Don Ehara is perhaps tilting at a windmill on a blustery day.

With very best wishes,

Last edited by Peter Goldsbury : 04-03-2003 at 05:12 AM.

P A Goldsbury
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