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Home > Interviews > Stan Pranin Sensei, August 2000
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

Stan Pranin sensei has been involved in recording the history and roots of aikido since 1974 through his aikido publication, Aikido Journal (formerly Aiki News). His experience includes extensive research into the life of aikido's founder Morihei Ueshiba sensei including his training in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu and his involvement in the Omoto religion. He continues to contribute to the aikido community through his publication and his website, www.aikidojournal.com. This interview was conducted at the Summer Camp in the Rockies.

AW: When did you start Aiki News?

SP: I began Aiki News in 1974. The first issue was published in April and it was built around a series of translations of Japanese newspaper articles. Some Japanese friends and I began to translate the articles one by one and mimeograph them off. We kept having people ask for copies so I thought, "Gosh, we have 17 in this series. Maybe we can build a newsletter around these." That series of articles in installments along with a little bit of local news was the beginning of Aiki News in Monterey, California.

AW: What was your intent in collecting such a series of articles?

SP: For some years, I had been interested in O-sensei as a person. I think had there been more material that was published in Japanese at that point, I might have just attempted to translate them. I don't think I would have been motivated to carry the research this far.

But at that point in time, there was almost nothing in Japanese, either. So, here was this very phenomenal teacher who had some wonderful, innovative ideas with an ethical dimension who had combined these two worlds of budo and philosophy which seemed like polar opposites. That ideal was very attractive to me so I wanted to find out more -- I wanted to find out what made the founder tick. I had a real hard time finding out that information at the beginning, so I just did it myself.

AW: You place a lot of importance on the history of aikido in your magazine with frequent mention of Daito-ryu and other historical aspects of aikido. Why do you feel the history of aikido is so important?

SP: The history is important in the same way that the genealogy of one's family would be important. Or, take a doctrine like the bible; you have all of this philosophy, both on the Judeo side as well as the Christian side, but it's also a very profound, historical document.

The history of aikido had not been systematically recorded. In 1977, the second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, published the founder's biography which is the first extensive biography of his father. But, certain very important areas were not really dealt with in-depth and certain people who had fallen out of favor with Aikikai were neglected or not even mentioned. I don't think it was something I could call a "balanced" biography although the book really is essential for anyone interested in the history of aikido.

I found the history for me to be a way of organizing a body of material and establishing its roots. It's like an anchor-point for the activity, the discipline, the family, and so forth. It gives you a tie to some focal point that can help you guide and give you a sense of belonging or the desire to want to contribute to that extended family.

Something else that I learned later on is that it's a very interesting tool to be able to evaluate a person you're talking with. If you can talk to them about past activities, you can quickly understand their viewpoints, biases, and level of truthfulness.

For example, one of the things I would often do was to ask a question to which I very well knew the answer. By the choice of words and the approach the other person would use, I could tell a lot about where they're coming from and maybe tailor my questions to make them feel comfortable or highlight their strong areas for them.

History is a very present activity, I have found. It's a very political activity, too.

AW: How do you feel about the political environment in aikido?

SP: I think the political environment in aikido is just an expression of human nature. Other areas I've been acquainted with have the same kind of factionalism and people who don't get along. Sometimes people of comparable skills just can't get along on a personal level.

Some people will say, "Aikido speaks about harmony, yet you see all of these teachers fighting and their organizations don't get along." I used to feel that way, but it came apparent to me that that sort of thing was normal. The sorts of things that O-sensei was talking about were the goals to be reached, but along the way, you're going to find some real, human behavior. There are certainly interesting aspects of human behavior there; it's very much a study in human nature.

AW: You cover a lot of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu.

SP: The reason why I cover that art is because it was imperative. O-sensei was involved in the art to a major degree so I had to research it, period. The same with the Omoto religion; O-sensei was very much involved in the religion and it was a key factor in his personal development. In a similar sense, the Daito-ryu training and the whole association with Daito-ryu people was absolutely essential to his formation. Daito-ryu aikijujutsu gave him the technical means to express himself and later develop aikido. That was the clay, if you will, used to create aikido techniques.

AW: Do you think it would help current aikido practitioners to go back and learn some of the Daito-ryu techniques?

SP: I think that's more a personal choice and depends on what a person is interested in. One could certainly study Daito-ryu and get a lot from it and say, "Oh yes, now I see where it came from and why," and "Isn't it interesting how he changed things."

I would recommend people, at least, observe it a few times just so they can see the roots. It would be instructive.

Opinions vary but if you come from the Daito-ryu side, one might say that aikido is an off-shoot of Daito-ryu. If you come from the aikido side, you might say that Daito-ryu is this king of crude, mechanical jujutsu sort of thing with no philosophy and that aikido is this highly refined, circular, moral thing and is far superior. You could say that if you didn't know anything about Daito-ryu.

I think I wrote once in an editorial that I don't find any spiritual superiority in aikido practitioners compared with those of Daito-ryu. In fact, I find many more things in common than different, really. The difference between a "do" and "jutsu" may be something a scholar writes in an essay but it doesn't have that much to do with present realities.

AW: O-sensei also reportedly studied a lot of other koryu arts outside of Daito-ryu.

SP: I would say that that's not true.

If you look at it historically, he went up to Tokyo in 1901 and spent about a year there. During this stay in Tokyo when he was training to become a merchant, he did a little bit of Tenjin Shinryo-ryu jujutsu. It was probably a "machi" dojo, in other words a small dojo in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. He would go there at night, but it was probably about three or four months total since he got very ill with beriberi and had to leave Tokyo and return to Tanabe. He was doing it while working very hard during the day and it was a very brief period of only a few months. It would be difficult to imagine that that had a strong, technical influence.

By the same token when he was in the army, he also began studying Yagyu-ryu jujutsu. There are some questions about what the actual name of the art was. O-sensei referred to it as Yagyu-ryu jujutsu, while [Kisshomaru Ueshiba] Doshu did some research and said it was Goto-ha Yagyu Shingan-ryu or similar name.

He was in the army at the time and also was sent to Manchuria for a part of the time. It was hard for me to imagine him going regularly while being in the army, so I don't know if his training was on the weekends or what. He apparently was enthusiastic about his training but there just weren't the circumstances to allow a detailed study.

He did, however, continue to study a little bit of Yagyu-ryu after he got out of the army, but he was in Tanabe which was a couple of hundred miles away and he had to go up by ferry! Again, maybe he went up three, four, or a half a dozen times, but it wasn't the sort of thing of an intensive study with someone year after year.

Now, he did have a makimono (scroll) as well -- however, it bears no seal. One can only speculate what that meant. Sometimes what happens is that a person would be told to prepare a makimono or have someone prepare it and, for whatever circumstance or reason, the teacher never gets around to signing it. Therefore, the scroll cannot be considered official.

So, it would appear that he did study this Yagyu-ryu form more than the Tenjin Shinryo-ryu jujutsu, but probably at the most he did a year or two.

The other art that he studied, but again not in very much depth, would have been judo. The first description of the teacher who was sent down from the Kodokan to Tanabe by O-sensei's father to teach Morihei and various relatives and friends gave the impression that this judo teacher was somewhat of an expert. It turns out he was 17 years old. I met his wife back in the 1980s and she told me this directly. He could have been a shodan, maximum. Also, O-sensei was involved with other things in this transition phase of his life trying to figure out what he was going to be doing as a career. One of the reasons, according to Doshu, that this judo person was brought in was to help him focus and channel his energies. But O-sensei ended up going to Hokkaido.

So, you have this very brief stint in Tenjin Shinryo Ryu, some training in Yagyu Ryu jujutsu while in the army, a smattering of judo, and then Daito-ryu. That's it. The impression that he studied many different arts other than Daito-ryu and mastered them is completely false.

AW: So all of this talk about him being a sword master or a yari (spear) master are unfounded?

SP: Well, take the yari for example. He received some juken (bayonet) training in the army, but so did I! I'm sure he did a lot more than I did, but in that context you're not doing a martial arts type of training. The yari was probably an extension of that bayonet training and whatever else he learned along the way. We know he did a lot of self-training during his Ayabe years at the Omoto. There are anecdotal evidence that he would use a yari in his practice, but there is no record of him having formal training.

Of course, he saw lots of martial arts. He would for many years perform at demonstrations. Later on in 1937, he actually formally joined a Japanese ryuha, the Kashima Shinto-ryu. In fact, he gave his keppan, his blood oath, along with that of Akazawa Zenzaburo. He apparently did not train but made arrangements with the headmaster of that art to have teachers come to the dojo. These teachers would visit the Kodokan and then O-sensei's Kobukan dojo. This went on for a year, year and a half with Ueshiba observing the training very carefully. Akazawa, Kisshomaru, and maybe a few other younger deshi would practice this art. The proof of the pudding is if you look at Saito Sensei's first kumitachi and the second one, they're virtually identical to those forms in the Kashima school. The discovery of the keppan and my interviewing the headmaster of that form told me the whole story.

AW: So it wasn't like he received a menkyo kaiden?

SP: No, he received nothing. But, he did formally enroll in the dojo and apparently did observe the training very well. Obviously, a lot of what he got from that was the raw forms that he used during the Iwama years in training to develop and express himself through the weapons.

AW: That's very interesting because so many people say that aikido is based on the sword arts and that all of the movements that we do are sword movements.

SP: I don't necessarily disagree with that. You have to remember that when we're talking about Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, this was just a sliver of Takeda Sokaku's knowledge; his major arts were the sword arts. So, although Takeda apparently did not teach a lot of sword, the whole sword mentality permeates his jujutsu. O-sensei certainly perceived it that way.

This is a very common view in Japanese martial arts. Many teachers of other arts based themselves on the sword in their thinking. As the saying goes, "The sword is the soul of Japan."

Less in a technical sense but certainly in a spiritual, symbolic sense, the sword is crucial to aikido -- not because I say so, but because O-sensei said so. Take a look at suwariwaza kokyuho; that whole movement and the use of the arm can be likened to raising and striking with the sword as an analogy. In Saotome Sensei's class yesterday, he did all of the arts based on this; it's the sword mentality and the sword feeling. It would be interesting to ask Saotome Sensei how he perceives it. I know that he did some Yagyu-ryu sword training too. I remember him in 1973 with those red leather-covered fukuro shinai. I tend to think that he would have a similar viewpoint.

AW: I'm sure you've heard these kinds of legends of O-sensei of his seeing the flash of the bullets before they were fired or jumping up onto the roof rafters and scurrying away like a ninja. What's fact and what's fiction?

SP: I think you're alluding to a certain book there. As far as seeing the spiritual bullets, O-sensei said things like that. Obviously, I'm not inside his head, but he was a very spiritual person. We can look at him from the 20th or, now, the 21st century viewpoint, but we have to put him into a historical context. This was a man who was involved heavily in the Omoto religion, a Shinto-based sect. His viewpoint took this as the basis. You need to refer to books like the Kojiki and the Nihonshiki to understand this thinking. It was these symbols and metaphors that people of this religion used to think about and how they understood the relationship between the universe and nature.

O-sensei would explain that he was a kamigakari (divinely-possessed person) or a vehicle for the expression of the kami, almost like an incarnation, that these superior spirits would take over his body and express himself through his aikido. That was how he explained all of the marvelous things he was doing. That was his cosmology.

As for him jumping up to the rafters and things like that, I don't know where that particular one came from. Doshu dismissed that kind of story and expressed disdain for that sort of silly thinking. And, to my knowledge, O-sensei did not tell that kind of stories.

AW: Let's say that O-sensei were alive today, if you could ask him one question, what would you ask?

SP: I don't think I know how to answer that in the sense that in an attempt to visualize that scene, I would be in a room with him, just listening. I'm a six-foot-one gaijin (foreigner) from a different culture. Normally, a person like me would never find himself in that situation. And even if I were to ask a question, the next two hours would be him talking about whatever he wanted and the conversation would no doubt be spontaneous on his part.

I don't think you'd get a straight answer to anything you asked, any way. He was not that kind of guy focused on facts and things like that. If you asked about his spiritual understanding, you would get a lecture about the universe in Shinto terms. And, of course, I wouldn't ask, "What year did you..." since it wouldn't mean anything! (Laughs.)

But, I would have loved to have met him. I missed him by just two months. I arrived just two months, almost to the day, that he died. I arrived either the day before or the day after his wife died. His wife died two months to the day after he passed away.

AW: You've had a lot of experience, obviously, both in America and in Japan in aikido dojos whether it be training or observing. What kind of differences do you see between Japanese and American dojo? Do you think these differences can be attributed to the Japanese and American societal differences?

SP: Yes, very much so. The comments I'm going to make now are generalities, of course.

Because the Japanese work ethic has people, especially the men, working from the morning to late at night -- often every night of the week -- and sometimes going into work on the weekends, it's not a society conducive to intensive martial arts training. So, what you get are people who might practice martial arts for relaxation, for a hobby, or as an excuse for social interaction.

Because real estate, especially in the cities, is so expensive, there are almost no store-front dojos like those we can find in America or perhaps in Europe. So, the number of professional dojos is minute in Japan. I would hate to have to attach a number to them, but certainly there are less than a hundred. Here in America alone, I would be surprised if there were less than 1500 or 2000 professional dojos, not to mention whatever other groups there may be.

When you have a dojo which is dedicated to aikido, which offers classes several days a week and, in some circumstances, several classes a day, and you have people who are maybe not working as many hours as the Japanese do and who are conscious about living in a violent society, you get a much more serious level of commitment.

Japan is not a violent society. There's no time for this sort of thing other than as a hobby, with a few exceptions. And, because of the economy, the possibilities, unless you're wealthy for other reasons, of opening up a professional, commercial venture and making a success out of it are almost nil.

Another thing is that, frankly, being an instructor of martial arts is not regarded very highly socially in Japan. If you were a father and your daughter was going to get married to a man who ran a dojo, you probably would not, at first blush, be delighted with that prospect. I'm not saying that it's regarded poorly, but it's not like being an engineer in a company or being a translator or something of high social status.

Here, if you're good at what you do and you're successful, people will judge you more on what you've done and what level of success you've attained rather than just dismiss you saying, "Well, he's a martial arts teacher." Although, even in America, the image may be somewhat tarnished because of the purely commercial nature of some martial arts schools, I don't think we would have quite as quite as strong a negative prejudice as they would in Japan.

Aikido will develop more abroad and has done so already in America and in Europe than in Japan because of the social and economic structures and because of the more serious level of commitment. There's no question in my mind.

AW: If you could change one thing in aikido in Japan, what would it be?

SP: Actually, I think I've actually done it through my work.

It wasn't my intent but it was a by-product to have them more conscious about their wonderful, cultural heritage. Aikido is a cultural treasure. Through our research, we've documented some aspects of that and disseminated it through our publications. It's still small-scale, but people who are seriously into aikido in Japan usually know about our work. They know what Daito-ryu is. They know who Takeda Sokaku was. They know something about the Omoto religion. They know who Tohei Koichi is. Tomiki. Mochizuki. They know about these things. Whereas, maybe thirty or forty years ago, unless they were really in the know, they wouldn't have this kind of background.

AW: I just wanted to say that, talking to people on the Internet, a lot of people have wanted to express their deepest compliments and appreciation for everything you've done for the art. And from me too, of course, for all of the energy that you've put into Aikido Journal as well as your website on the Internet -- I think it's wonderful.

SP: I really appreciate it; thank you very much. There's so much more to be done that I wish I could clone myself two or three times over -- a lot more stuff would get done! (Laughs.) We're just pushing hard and trying to get what we can out there.

I have a consciousness at this stage in my life -- I hope to have many more good years -- that life is a finite situation so I have to think now, "OK. I'm not going to be able to take all of these documents, photographs, stories, and knowledge with me so, what is really important and how am I going to ensure that it goes beyond me and that the next generation of people interested will have the material?" That's the big matter of concern I have now and I hope to put more and more energy into it in preserving the documents but also putting them into a form that's more accessible by other people like the Internet, probably more so than printed publications.

AW: Thank you very much for the interview.

SP: Thank you. Please come visit our website at www.aikidojournal.com..

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