“Decoding Morihei Ueshiba’s Technical
Evolution,” by Stanley Pranin
“Today’s Aikido practitioners miss the obvious when
puzzling over the correct execution of techniques”
Anyone attending a seminar conducted by Morihiro Saito Sensei during his active years will have noted him frequently referring to a small illustrated manual. In fact, Saito Sensei would often open this booklet to the page illustrative of his teaching point and walk from student to student showing the technique in question for a brief moment. He would repeat over and over, “O-Sensei! O-Sensei!,” as if to validate his technical explanation with the stamp of approval of the ultimate authority—Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of aikido. What is this modest technical compendium that Saito Sensei consulted constantly and held in such high regard?
The book is entitled simply Budo and was privately published in 1938 during the Kobukan Dojo era by Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. In the postwar period, Budo was virtually unknown outside of the inner circles of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo until its “re-discovery” was announced in November 1981 in the magazine Aiki News. During an interview I conducted shortly before the article appeared, Zenzaburo Akazawa, a prewar disciple of Morihei Ueshiba, produced a copy of the rare technical manual. Akazawa stated that only a few hundred copies of Budo were distributed and that it served as a training aid and fund-raising device during the difficult years of the prewar era.
Contents of Budo
Budo measures 18 x 26.7 cm and contains 50 pages divided into two parts. The first section consists of a one-page composition titled “Dobun” (Essay of the Way), followed by 26 doka (songs or poems), a two-page table of contents, and an eight-page essay titled “The Essence of Techniques.” The second part presents 50 techniques demonstrated by Morihei Ueshiba in 119, 5.3 cm square photographs. The technical material covered includes preparatory exercises, basic techniques, knife (tantodori) and sword-taking techniques (tachidori), sword vs. sword forms (ken tai ken), mock-bayonet (juken) techniques, and finishing exercises (shumatsu dosa). Budo is the only work on aikido -— Ueshiba’s art was actually called aiki budo at this stage — in which the Founder personally appears demonstrating techniques. Ueshiba’s training partners in the book are his son Kisshomaru, Gozo Shioda—who would later create Yoshinkan Aikido—and a third man named Okubo about whom little is known.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of Budo were alluded to briefly in a 1987 interview I conducted with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of the Founder. He remarks, “Budo was published as a textbook when my father was teaching Prince Kaya. For that reason, a staff officer came to take pictures. My father didn’t give this book as a license, but presented it to those intellectuals who practiced very hard at the dojo and to those by whom he was helped in his daily life.” (see Aiki News 79, p. 35, January 1988) The specifics of the association between the Founder and Prince Kaya are not known.
From a technical standpoint, Budo offers numerous insights into the prewar martial art of Morihei Ueshiba. It provides a capsule view of those techniques that Ueshiba considered the basics and the way they were executed in the mid-1930s. The technical descriptions offered are succinct and highly instructive. As Budo was published in 1938, the techniques covered represent a transition phase between the Daito-ryu aikijujutsu Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda and modern aikido. Several basic techniques covered in the manual — for example, ikkyo, iriminage, and shihonage — already bear a close similarity to those taught by the Founder in the postwar period in Iwama. It was during these years — roughly 1945-1955 — that Ueshiba reached a level of mastery such that he could spontaneously execute techniques in any situation. This he called “Takemusu Aiki,” the Aiki that spawns infinite techniques.
Surprising to some will be the large number of techniques included in Budo that are performed with weapons. Fully one-third of the book features techniques executed using the knife, sword, spear and mock-bayonet. There are a number of identifiable influences that bear on the inclusion of these weapon techniques. One is the fact that Ueshiba was at the very time of the compilation of Budo experimenting with the sword techniques of the Kashima Shinto-ryu school. The manual includes several suburi movements derived from Kashima paired-sword (kumitachi) practices. Ueshiba, together with Zenzaburo Akazawa, formally enrolled in this 500-year-old classical tradition based in Kashima, Ibaragi Prefecture in 1937. Although Ueshiba never actually practiced at the Kashima dojo, instructors from the school visted Ueshiba’s dojo once a week for about a year to teach a few students including Akazawa and Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru. Ueshiba would keenly observe these special training sessions and then practice on his own with students such as his son and Akazawa who had taken lessons with the Kashima teachers. Ueshiba would continue his experimentation with these sword arts through approximately 1955. These constitute the root forms for the aiki ken techniques which were subsequently systematized into their present forms by Morihiro Saito in Iwama.
The inclusion of bayonet techniques no doubt reflects the fact that Ueshiba was contemporaneously teaching at various military institutions including the Army Toyama School of which Prince Kaya later served as superintendent. Such bayonet practices were de rigueur in Japanese army infantry training up through World War II. As a young man, Ueshiba himself practiced bayonet forms intensively during his military training as a foot soldier during the Russo-Japanese War.
Budo was privately published by Ueshiba in a limited edition and was not distributed through any commercial outlet. In fact, in the publication note at the end of the book, the indication “Not for sale” appears in bold type. From anecdotal information we know that only a few hundred copies were printed. Kisshomaru also mentioned in an interview that he still had in his possession quite a number of uncirculated copies of Budo. Based on this and the scant number of known surviving copies, it is safe to assume there was only a single printing.
Budo remained almost unknown in the aikido world until the early 1980s when it was first mentioned in Aiki News and later in other publications. For example, when Morihiro Saito, an 8th dan at the time was shown a copy of the book, he had been totally unaware of its existence. A number of other high-ranking aikido shihan who saw the book for the first time were likewise surprised to learn it existed.
An English translation of Budo by John Stevens which featured a general historical introduction by Kisshomaru Ueshiba was published by Kodansha in 1991. The historical circumstances surrounding its publication are not discussed in this edition. No Japanese reprinting of Budo has been forthcoming to date.
In summary, there are several reasons why the manual Budo is of great importance to aikido history. It is the only source of organized technical sequences demonstrated by Morihei Ueshiba replete with explanations. Another large collection of technical photos of Ueshiba taken at the dojo of the Kodansha Founder Seiji Noma also survives, but these photographs dating from 1935 have never been ordered or classified. Moreover, Budo provides clear testimony to the eclectic nature of Ueshiba’s technical system that included not only hundreds of empty-handed arts, but also numerous weapon-based techniques. Ueshiba’s fascination and experimentation with weapons training lasted most of his martial career. His training with the sword and staff, in particular, heavily influenced his understanding of the martial principles of body movement (taisabaki), entering (irimi), combative distance (maai), and timing.
Although Budo was published in 1938 during the middle phase of the development of aikido, it is surprisingly modern in the sense that the Founder had already distanced himself from the more rigid jujutsu techniques of the Daito-ryu school in favor of the flowing, circular movements which would come to characterize modern aikido as we know it today.
[The above text has been adapted from Stanley Pranin’s introduction to Morihiro Saito’s “Takemusu Aikido Special Edition: Commentary on the 1938 Training Manual of Morihei Ueshiba.”]
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