Abe Sensei

Abe Sensei Interview

Originally published on

by Stanley Pranin

Editor: Abe Sensei, I think it was during a period of misogi training, before the war, that you first met Ueshiba Sensei. Is that right?

Abe Sensei: Yes, I met Ueshiba Sensei before the war. Before World War II, a professor of medicine at Tokyo University, Kenzo Futaki Sensei, had organized a “Misogi-Kai” (a group for the practice of purification exercises). Down in the Ise (site of the Imperial Family’s shrine to their ancestor, Ameratsu Omikami, the Sun Goddess) there was a “misogi dojo” and a wonderfully equipped dojo it was. After the defeat though, shrines and everything associated with the kami (gods) were suppressed and, of course, the Misogi Dojo went with all the rest. I’m afraid the offices of some sort of religious organization now occupy the site. That’s really a shame. Really too bad…

Futaki Sensei started Aikido after he was already over sixty years old and he was greatly respected by O-Sensei. He was, at that time, 65 years of age. I was just 25, then. Of course, Futaki Sensei was very healthy.

I recall a misogi-kai in 1941. The purification practices required us to eat three meals a day totaling about 4 cups of the thin gruel made of brown rice and to perform cold water douches to wash away impurities of both the body and the mind. We were working to achieve “chinkon” (tranquility of the soul). In the middle of the exhausting week there was supposed to be some entertainment. At that time, a certain sensei got up and said, “You youngsters have no discipline nowadays…” and then continued, “Anyone among the young guys who thinks he can (take me on) just step up here.” With that three people pushed their way to the front and immediately jumped to the attack. How it happened, I don’t know, but they all ended up being thrown. This time they took jo (fighting sticks) and were told to come from any angle they wanted… This time they were thinking, “This old grandpa sure talks big.” But again with no indication of how it was done, look to the left, look to the right, and all you could see were those three fellows flying through the air. Everyone was impressed by what wonderful techniques they were. We were terribly surprised by it all. Later we were told that some wonder-man named Morihei Ueshiba was teaching something called “Ueshiba Ryu Taijutsu” (body arts), and if we should ever run across this name we must, by all means, study the art.

That was all back in 1941. I felt that I really would like to try it, but at that time, no one had any idea where this Ueshiba Sensei was.

I first met Ueshiba Sensei at the Osaka Dojo of Bansen Tanaka Sensei. At that time I had no idea that it was the opening ceremony for the dojo. I was just passing by when I suddenly noticed a sign that read Morihei Ueshiba. I guess that it was some kind of (mysterious) guidance from O-Sensei; anyway, I went right in. That’s when I realized that the dojo had been open only the day before, and that the display, at the misogi-kai, was given by the same Ueshiba Sensei. When I mentioned it, I was immediately taken upstairs. There I asked Ueshiba Sensei, “How did you ever learn such a wonderful budo?” He answered, “Through misogi” Now, I had been doing misogi since 1941 and when I heard that Aikido cam from misogi, suddenly, “snap” the two came together. Then and there, I made up my mind that I had to dedicate myself to learning Aikido and stick with O-Sensei to the bitter end.

Sensei told me about the misogi he did during his stay in Hokkaido as one of the pioneer settlers of Shirataki Village.

Up there in the winter, in the middle of all that snow, even when there were 20 or 30 centimeters of ice on the river, I did misogi. I did “chinkon” in the snow, too. Every morning I went to the river and scooped up water with a large dipper and so even though the ice was this deep everywhere else, it was thin at my misogi spot.

Just listening to him gave me the chills.

So, O-Sensei practiced misogi even before he entered the Omoto religion. I wonder when it was that Ueshiba Sensei actually began this practice.

Well, I have never heard that exactly, but I have been with him on occasions when genuine misogi had taken place. There was a time when O-Sensei and I were invited to the place of a certain Shinto priest who lives deep in the mountains, up behind the city of Yokkaichi. This priest became a kyoshi (licensed instructor) when Sensei died. Anyway, there is a waterfall there. I have a picture of O-Sensei doing chinkon under the falls, which I still have at my home. Since he was nude, it was a little inappropriate to snap the picture, so I keep it displayed in a dark corner. (laughter)

Wasn’t Sensei somewhere around 75 years old at that time?

That’s right, and extremely healthy. His body had the flexibility of someone seventeen or eighteen years old. Even so, he had gradually lost weight (over the years) and he complained about how much his muscles were sagging. But, when he put his ki into them, “pop,” they became hard as steel.

Do you think that there was a significant difference between the techniques of that period and those of O-Sensei’s later years?

As far as the Aikido he practiced in his later years, even young girls, old people and children could do them. That is a big difference. I suppose you could say that it was a difference in the severity or the strictness of the training. Before the war, it was severity and strong technique, as opposed to the (kind of) techniques that invigorate our partners as we have now. In other words, those powerful techniques, at least in O-Sensei’s case, embraced more than just the power to injure someone. He had a realization (satori) of superb technique that gave life to his training partner. I think this is something truly splendid.

I believe that the reason that Aikido has become so popular today is precisely because it is not simply another martial technique. It goes beyond, and gives life. It is, in fact, a harmonious unification with the Great Universe – a really wonderful thing.

To what extent do you think that Ueshiba Sensei was influenced by the Omoto religion?

Do you mean influenced religiously by Omoto? That is hard to say. The greatest influences from this source are (the concept of) kotodama and the Kojiki. The brilliant Kojiki and the techniques that O-Sensei created were inseparably connected. When O-Sensei spoke about Kojiki, he was not speaking in terms of literary or scholastic explanations. For him, the Kojiki was read in terms of kotodama (the science of the intrinsic power of the spoken word).

In fact, the first time I ever spoke to Seagal Sensei, we discussed the Kojiki. He asked me various questions that pinpointed some of the Kojiki’s most pertinent parts – the kind of questions that most Japanese don’t know enough to ask about. I respect him for that. If one were to follow this kind of thought a little further, I think that it would tie in with Omoto.