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The man who shaped modern aikido in his image

Aikido Dojo Kashin Roma
Pubblicato da in Letture · 13 Marzo 2016
In the Aikikai system, today’s world of aikido bears the stamp of  Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba more than any other person. There is no  other figure who has been more influential, not even the Founder Morihei  Ueshiba himself. I realize that, for many of the aikido faithful, this  will be a controversail statement. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all, aikido is a post-World War II phenomenon. Morihei  Ueshiba and his fledgling martial art were known primarily in martial  arts circles, not by the general public, prior to the war. What has  become aikido today has been shaped primarily by the Ueshiba family  through the auspices of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo system after 1955.

The arbiter of this process of dissemination and the content of  Aikikai aikido is none other than Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the Founder’s son.  In 1942, Kisshomaru assumed operational control of what would become  the Aikikai at the tender age of 21. Morihei had retired to Iwama, World  War II raged, and Tokyo would soon be bombed. Kisshomaru was thrust  into a leadership position for which he was ill-equipped while a  university student. He would continue uninterrupted as head of the  Aikikai, the world’s largest aikido organization, until his passing in  1999.

The Aikikai was barely functioning as an entity after the war until  around 1955. During that period, Kisshomaru was simply attempting to  hold the remnants of the aikido structure together until better times,  without much thought to the future direction of the art. In fact, he was  obliged to hold down a full-time job in a securities firm to support  himself and the rundown Aikikai dojo.

Later on, as aikido began to gather some attention among the general  public, it was Kisshomaru, in consultation with a group of elders and  peers, who gradually began shaping the policies that would lead to a  steady, if not spectacular, growth of aikido.
The Aikikai adopted a series of measures starting in the late 1950s  that would soon ensure its success. This included the establishment of a  growing network of branch dojos, and aikido clubs in universities and  businesses all over Japan. Furthermore, the Aikikai dispatched a stream  of Japanese instructors loyal to the mother organization to key  locations in major foreign countries. Many of them in turn created large  aikido organizations abroad.
In a technical sense, during the 1950s through 1974, Kisshomaru’s and  Koichi Tohei’s methodologies were dominant at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.  For many years they worked in tandem to shape the curriculum of the  headquarters school. Tohei had a strong influence with his stress on “ki  principles”, but otherwise there was considerable overlap in the  techniques taught and the two approaches were compatible. Moreover, the  two published a series of books in the early 1960s that appeared in  English and other European languages. These works presented a technical  and theoretical framework of aikido to a worldwide audience and  reaffirmed the position of the Aikikai as the central authority of the  art.

Although a larger-than-life figure in many ways, Morihei Ueshiba’s  postwar role was primarily symbolic, and he was not a decision-maker in  the affairs of the Aikikai. O-Sensei was rather irascible by nature and  often critical of Aikikai teaching practices. Consequently, he was  largely marginalized and encouraged to absent himself from the Hombu. He  spent much of his time traveling to meet with friends and students, and  at his country home in Iwama. In this way, he would be less of an  impediment to the smooth operation of the dojo.

Let’s fast-forward several decades later and turn our eyes to the  present state of the art. Obviously, I am focusing on the Aikikai  worldwide network which dwarfs the many smaller aikido organizations  that exist in size and influence.

Taken collectively, the Aikikai organization consists of several tens  of thousands of schools spread over all but the smallest countries of  the globe. To my knowledge, no accurate survey of actual numbers exists,  but let us adopt the arbitrary figure of one to two million  practitioners to give an idea of the art’s scope.

The curriculum followed in these schools is largely based on  Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s many technical books issued over a 40-year period.  Most were published by Kodansha, Ltd., Japan’s largest publishing firm,  in Japanese and English, and various European languages. Kisshomaru’s  son, the present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, has continued the unabated  production of similar books starting even before his father’s death.

The administrative policies of the Aikikai were formulated and  fine-tuned by Kisshomaru and his advisers over the years. This includes  the dan ranking procedures and accompanying fee structures which  constitute the main revenue stream of the organization.

In the 1980s and 90s, Kisshomaru developed an accommodating stance  toward the acceptance of outside organizations into the Aikikai fold.  This included the re-integration of groups that had earlier split with  the Aikikai at the time of the resignation of Koichi Tohei in 1974. This  is a policy for which he has been justifiably praised.

Another sphere of influence in which Kisshomaru was dominant is the  shaping of the image of his father, Morihei Ueshiba, for general  consumption. Through his widely read biography of Morihei titled in  English, “A Life in Aikido,” Kisshomaru set forth an official version of  the early history of aikido that has been used as the primary source by  many later writers.

Furthermore, Kisshomaru recast O-Sensei’s spiritual vision in a  language that was accessible to modern Japanese and an international  reading audience. This was accomplished by expunging most of the  esoteric Shinto imagery that Morihei used in his speeches and lectures.  Again, the vehicle was a series of books on Morihei’s aikido philosophy  published by Kodansha. In some cases, authorship was even attributed to  Morihei himself. Professor John Stevens has translated and edited most  of these publications in English.

I recall vividly meeting Kisshomaru Ueshiba in 1963 in Los Angeles on  his first visit to the USA. At that time, he was a bespectacled 42 year  old, with a quiet and unassuming manner. He taught and demonstrated in a  matter-of-fact way with little explanation. Nothing about him was  flamboyant or overstated.



I had periodical contact with Kisshomaru over the next 36 years and  interviewed him on more than ten occasions. I watched him transform into  a dignified, paternal figure. This process accelerated notably after  the departure of Koichi Tohei from the Aikikai in 1974. Kisshomaru  became an object of reverence, always to be accompanied by a doting  entourage. This august mantle was inherited by his son and present  Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba, and will no doubt be passed in due course to  his son Mitsuteru.




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