Interview with Peter Goldsbury – Part 2: The History of Aikido
This is the second part of my interview with Peter Goldsbury, 7th Dan Aikikai and former chairman of the International Aikido Federation. After discussing his beginnings in Aikido in the first part, we discuss here the history of Aikido, a subject that Peter Goldsbury knows particularly well since he is himself a professor of philosophy at the University of Hiroshima, and that he knows particularly well the Japanese language, the history of the country, of course, its religious specificity.
Guillaume Erard: How did you become one of the most respected Aikido historians ?
Peter Goldsbury: As I’ve gone through the university teaching system, I’ve learned a lot more about Japan and Japanese culture. One thing that I discovered – I learnt it gradually – is that the Japanese have a certain distinctive attitude to history. It’s very interesting that there’s a long tradition of historical fiction in Japan, like Shiba Ryotaro and Yoshikawa Eiji – with Miyamoto Musashi – for example. The fiction is fiction, but damn close to historical fact, actually. Shiba Ryotaro used to do lots of research about what he was writing about, and even though it turned out as fiction, the two are not much different. That influenced by thinking about O Sensei and also about Kisshomaru.
I told you I read the Aikido book when I was in America; it was basically a manual. The biography of O Sensei had not been translated at the time but I knew enough Japanese to read it. It’s a very interesting biography, but no one knew about it. Outside Japan people had no real clue about who O sensei was: the only way they learned about O Sensei was from the deshi. Now, there is an English translation by Kei Izawa, but Kisshomaru’s autobiography – Aikido Ichiro – has not been translated.
I was curious… If I go through the number of people I met and got to know who were O Sensei’s direct students they’ve talked. Stanley Pranin has spent a long time interviewing people to get enough data about the founder. But he’s never been placed in his own cultural context. It’s as if the founder came off the floating bridge of heaven and came among us and practice, taught in this very special unique kind of way and then eventually he passed away… Then Kisshomaru took it over and you’ve got the Aikikai… The popularization of Aikido after the war was due mainly to him, not to O Sensei.
So you have this tension between looking at Aikido as straight history and looking at Aikido as intellectual history – history of ideas, especially the history of ideas within Japan.
Morihei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba in front of the Hombu Dojo
I was fascinated by the fact that if you look at Aikido, it received its official name in 1942, which was a year after Pearl Harbor. O Sensei died in 1969, which was post-war Japan, but he was not really part of post-war Japan. Kisshomaru was part of post-war Japan and he fashioned Aikido in the image of post-war Japan, in some sense. To my mind, the development of aikido as a post-war martial art fits almost exactly the development of Japan as a post-war modern society. I think the two go together hand-in-hand, but nobody has really done much research on the fine details of that close connection. So, as I was reading – as I said I learned how to read Japanese – I eventually decided to study O Sensei in his own context.
I started doing research and I met Ellis Amdur. I knew Stanley Pranin, of course – I’ve known him for many years and we are good. He did his research on Takeda Sokaku – as did Ellis… And again, I have read over material. I have not yet been to Hokkaido go to the right places where Morihei Ueshiba lived, but I understood that there is a relationship between the place where he lived – Engaru – and the Kii peninsula where Tanabe was – where he came from. It was part of the same domain. I did a bit of study about that, especially about how Takeda Sokaku either invented or inherited Daito Ryu Aiki Jiu-Jitsu, all the various manifestations of that, his relationship with Morihei Ueshiba and – as you know very well – the Osaka period, when Takuma Hisa was one of his students… There is the famous photograph of the rice cakes being cut in that dojo with the young Morihei Ueshiba. There was also the Osaka episode of the Omoto.
Hisa Takuma and Morihei Ueshiba in 1936
Guillaume Erard: Is the study of Omoto really necessary to understand Aikido ?
Peter Goldsbury: I think you cannot really study Morihei Ueshiba without also studying Omoto. And that again is a very, very interesting part of Japanese cultural history : the way the Japanese regard religion and the different ways they regard it from people who have been brought up to be Christian or Muslim, for example…
I studied in some detail the rise of Omoto with Deguchi Nao. I also saw that the history of Omoto has the same problem as the history of other items in Japan: it is not really clear and there’s a lot of biased history. It is unfortunate that Stanley Pranin’s translation has some omissions: it is a translation of the book written by a Deguchi – which is fine. It is a biography of Onisaburo – but he is not really placed adequately, to my mind, in his historical context.
The study of the early history of Aikido, as the way from Takeda Sokaku to Morihei Ueshiba, puts you in the same period as midde-Meiji, Taisho, early-Showa: the gradual rise of Japan as a foreign power and the relations of Japan with America, France, England and the slide into war.
The biography [of Morihei Ueshiba] by Kisshomaru skates over this. I think that he probably had no option: he was writing a biography which was designed to show the continuity between the founder – as the creator of Aikido, the Aikikai, and now the present Doshu, the third. So, it is a kind of “history of aikido as an Iemoto” – hierarchical system of familial generations in traditional Japanese arts – I think. Looking at Japanese history, especially the history of nativism in Japan and also the history of new religions, you see the same conflict or tension between Iemoto as a system and other ways of transmitting truth – if you like.
Guillaume Erard: How important is the study of Omoto for understanding Morihei Ueshiba ?
Peter Goldsbury: In the other room I have lots of stuff written by Deguchi on Kotodama – the Japanese belief that mystical powers dwell in words and names. And, having seen that, now having read Takemusu Aiki – Takemusu is an ultimate martial art that could harmonize all living beings through free techniques spontaneously executed… (expression of total stupefaction) you know they fit together in a way that… Somebody who doesn’t know anything about this would think, “What’s he writing about ?”… Clearly he’s way up there and nobody understood: the Shihan, people like Isoyama Sensei, also, did not understand him. Well of course you wouldn’t if you haven’t been through that other area of training, which is in fact Chinkon and Kishin. O Sensei took this very seriously. The shamanism means a whole lot of stuff here which you won’t find in the biography. To get a clearer picture of how O Sensei thought and how he lived and how he thought about Aikido in his own cultural terms, I think you need to know. What has not been done, and has to be done at some point, is a much more detailed and annotated study of his writings within the context of Omoto. If you look at Reikai Monogatari – it has never been translated and I don’t blame anyone for not attempting to translate 81 volumes – it is obvious that Morihei Ueshiba used it: he read it and he noted it.
Guillaume Erard: Have you ever been tempted to formally get into Omoto ?
Peter Goldsbury: No. I mean, the Jesuits taught me enough about religion for the rest of my life. And so I have no desire to go back into a religion like Omoto, which is full of strange things happening.
Kisshomaru had no time for that sort of stuff. He admits it himself in the biography: “O Sensei had his own private devotional activities which he used to do, yes. We understand why but times have changed.” I don’t know how much Kisshomaru studied about Omoto. He must have done some study of it certainly, but, clearly, he was not an Omoto believer in anything like the way that his father was. It’s just not possible for Aikido practitioners in the world to go and practice Omoto in order to do Aikido properly.
Guillaume Erard: Have The religious aspect was also downplayed due to its link with the far-right. Could you develop the link between Omoto and the military ?
Peter Goldsbury: Aikido was formed in the time when Japan was fighting a major war in China. And the fact is that O Sensei taught in nearly all the military schools in Tokyo. Isamu Takeshita was the man who first got him involved, along with the Asano brothers. One of the Asano brothers was a very influential member of Omoto. His emphasis upon Chinkon and Kishin led to the first Incident: they were doing Chinkon and Kishin all over Ayabe and falling into swoons… I think the government authorities were very unhappy.
There was also a fairly well attested prediction that the world would end in 1921, which Deguchi Nao sincerely believed and prepared for… Of course, when it didn’t happen, she lost a number of followers and of course Onisaburo quickly disabused people of that kind of foolish thinking…
In some aspect, in a way, Onisaburo Deguchi did for Omoto what Kisshomaru did for Aikido (laughter)… Perhaps it’s not the most appropriate thing to say (laughter)… He popularized it, he brought it down from the mountains, so to speak, and made Omoto available for many many, many people in a way that Nao was very unhappy about it. And if you look at Omoto, you will find precisely the same kind of fragmentation as has occurred in the Aikido world.
People overseas learned about O Sensei’s work in teaching military. The “Budo” book that came out was written as a manual for soldiers. This is not really often realized (laughter). This book has been taken over. It has never been published by the Ueshiba family: the translation was made and Kisshomaru agreed to publish Budo Renshu in English, and John Stevens then published the Budo book in English. My own Japanese copy is due to the generosity of Stanley Pranin, who sent me a photocopy of his own copy.
Morihei Ueshiba on board of the warship Mikasa
Guillaume Erard: Is it true that these translations were watered down for political correctness ?
Peter Goldsbury: Yes. I’ve come to realize that if there are translations of what O Sensei said, it’s best to have a Japanese original side-by-side so you can actually see what’s happened. I’m aware – and you know yourself – that a language like Japanese and a language like English are rather different. So, I’ve seen interpreters struggle very much with that…
I also understood that the writings O Sensei that we have, the discourses, were put together by other people. The stuff that’s come out under Aikido Shinzui was put together by Arikawa Sensei and Fujita Sensei: they fitted them together; the original discourses are much more random.
Guillaume Erard: Does the “holier-than-thou” image of O Sensei sustain such close scrutiny ?
Peter Goldsbury: Yes (laughter). Yes—and I think that has to be accepted, I think you can’t get away from it. If you regard O sensei as a kind of saint, then you set him up in a way that allows devil’s advocate to ask: ” But why is he a saint ?” and he’s pulled off the pedestal. If you don’t put him on a pedestal to begin with, it’s much easier because then the virtues and vices can live together quite happily. If it’s taught he was a saint, then the vices aren’t allowed to be there, but they cause a problem, so you deny them or you try to explain them away or whatever…
Guillaume Erard: Do you regard Kisshomaru Doshu’s rewriting of history as a problem or a necessity ?
Peter Goldsbury: The truth can be doctored with the best of intentions… There’s a moral component here which I think is misplaced… In a sense Kisshomaru has got the wrong end of the stick: he was living in his father’s shadow, wasn’t ever allowed to blossom and never allowed himself to blossom, because it would have tarnished his father’s image. He only expressed some personal ideas gradually and I think that his output also increased gradually, in proportion… One of the contributions, and not the least, of Kisshomaru himself, is the humanistic nature of the discourses. But what he has done to my mind is to present – as he said in Aikido Ichiro – something good about Japanese culture : the art that he his father created is still something that the Japanese can look on and say: “We produced this.” And it’s up to non-Japanese to take it and use it or not as they wish…
I think Kisshomaru had an agenda. I’m not saying it was wrong or dishonest of him to have an agenda, he clearly needed to do something, otherwise post-war Aikido would go back to what it was pre-war: confidential and inaccessible… So he was the one who spread Aikido. And if you think about what he did in Japan initially – he resurrected the old dojos that were formally attached to the Omoto organization – he got the universities going. He also brought together the various groups – the Jieitai – I’m not quite sure when they appear but they came, and the All Japan Demonstration is a wonderful example every year of all the various interest groups that come and they do Aikido, they practice. And Kisshomaru kept all these together, as a sort of orchestral conductor.
Now I don’t know how much Morihei Sensei himself was a part of this. I suspect not very much, but we don’t know. There are conflicting stories about, for example: how devoted a member of Omoto he was ? On one hand, he was a card-carrying member; on the other hand, he was sort of separate and that was very convenient when we got to the Second Incident, that upset Inoue Sensei very much. So what was he? Well, we don’t know, because… there’s no written material. There’s no ‘archaeological’ evidence in the sense of what you would normally go through. And you have to admit it. It’s no use trying to fabricate anything, you have to accept we don’t know what he was like. If you’re an academic you go where the study leads you and then that’s what we are: we don’t know, we can’t judge, Just wait in the hope that there are more manuscripts or whatever…
In some sense Kisshomaru was very very clever, because he gradually produced, released material, as well as publishing himself. What he did was – as I said – fits: it fits the way the Japanese like to present themselves… Take for example the meaning of the Kanji “Bu.” I’ve heard explanations of “stopping” with “spears”, the peaceful interpretation, as against the warlike interpretation, which has a long history as well: even the Chinese were arguing about it… So, I’m not denying that there are two interpretations. I’m denying that one is any better than the other, that one should be preferred over the other simply because it’s part Aikido, for example.
Guillaume Erard: Do you worry about undermining the positive image that people have of O Sensei, and by extension of that of Aikido ?
Peter Goldsbury: Well… I don’t think you can… As an academic, the ideas go where where they go. If there are unfortunate consequences, then that has to be accepted. That is a matter of intellectual honesty. What I was taught, one of my very earliest Aikido teachers said is: “You must learn to be honest; you’re doing Aikido to be honest with yourself – your mind your body and whatever… seen as one whole thing.” Now I have become aware – and it’s not a very pleasant thing to happen – that there is a gap sometimes between what Aikido is thought to be and what it actually is.
Again, Omoto is a religion. People embrace religion for many, many reasons. One reason they might be thought to embrace religion is that it either makes them better in this world or offers to prepare for what’s going to happen in the next, if there is one. But the way they go about it… There is an interesting book that I just acquired, a history of religions, it’s called Field of Blood.” The lady who wrote it spent some time as a nun. There’s a major gap between what people present themselves as, or people would like to be, and the reality.
Aikido is promoted as a martial art which is deeper and more sophisticated than simply competition sports. To my mind, that is an unfortunate comparison because I don’t think you could argue that way to a person who’s done Judo for many years and actually learned the sophisticated Judo that Kano obviously knew. I don’t think it is very wise to make a comparison between Aikido as a non-sport and other sports, to the detriment of the latter.
Guillaume Erard: Does the morally questionable origin of Aikido undermine the interest of learning it today ?
Peter Goldsbury: Aikido has made a transition in a way that’s probably unique – a way that other martial arts haven’t had – from an art which was formed in wartime Japan.
In 1942, when the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai was changed and became an instrument of promoting Japan’s war aims, Aikido was made part of the group. And it seems to me that the art was formed into a device for enabling Japan to achieve the aims that she had in going to war in Asia.
Dai Nippon Butokukai
And then it changed. As I said, Kisshomaru was really a postwar Japanese: he is born in 1921, went to school and then went to Waseda – a good university – but really he matured at the time of the armistice in 1945. His education was rather precipitous, he was running the dojo, even when he was in high school, but when his father moved to Iwama and he was left in charge of the Hombu Dojo, he did what his father said and kept the Dojo alive. So eventually, Kisshomaru was the one who organized the business people to try to get Aikido resurrected as a legal entity. And that was pursued and so it’s a tax-free foundation basically and that’s how it works.
I don’t know, and nothing is really said in the biography, but I have a suspicion that part of that operation was a factor for Morihei Ueshiba in making the move to Iwama to get out of the situation precipitated by the Dai Nippon Butotukai in 1942. However, the precise reasons why Morihei got out of it are again open to interpretation I think.
Ceremony for the opening of the Aiki Shrine in Iwama
Guillaume Erard: So where is the spirituality that everybody talks about in Aikido ?
Peter Goldsbury: What Kisshomaru did is sort of steer a kind of middle course between the pre-war militarism of Shinto and real Shinto, and the rather softer eclectic moralizing that the Japanese do post-war. Aikido in some sense is a way of spiritual development but only in a very very health-related sense of spiritual. It’s not full-blown. Kisshomaru had what you might call a humanistic vision of some sort, where the Kami existed for those who found them useful. The Ueshiba family is Omoto; the ceremonies held in the Iwama shrine are Omoto ceremonies. So, there’s a connection but I don’t think it is a very strong connection at all and nothing like the connection that Morihei Ueshiba had, as far as I can see.
Because of the religious phenomenon of the Japan has, with the mixture… I’ll put it this way: for me, I wouldn’t do Aikido for that reason at all; I had enough spirituality before I started.
Aikido fits a certain model… I’m not a militaristic person anyway. Aikido is good to practice, but I then stop short of saying it will make a better person because, in my experience, the opposite has happened in many cases. So you got Aikido politicians… (sigh) And I’m not saying they are only existing in the IAF; in the Aikikai and in any organization you have politics to my mind. One of the problems with Aikido is you can’t practice it on your own. You need a partner, you need a group, and a Dojo. If you’re going to do it in the in the authentic Japanese way, you know, the classic japanese way. There must be a tatami, you must use Keikogi and Hakama and you must get Dan grades. Once you buy into all that, then the politics comes. To my mind the politics is necessary but politics has to be done in a good way.
Many thanks to Odilon Regnard for transcribing the text from the original audio