Every aikido dojo has a picture of Morihei Ueshiba (O-Sensei) mounted on the front wall of the dojo. As an old man, the venerable founder exudes compassion and enlightenment. At Ikazuchi Dojo, we have a fantastic picture of O-Sensei in his late 70s or early 80s, smiling, but with a piercing gaze. This is how I, and most aikido practitioners, have come to know O-Sensei – a man near the end of his life, at the height of his wisdom and understanding.
Stan Pranin Sensei, founder of Aikido Journal, recently gave me the opportunity to view a portion of his archives. It’s breathtaking in scope. I began looking through his vast collection of Morihei Ueshiba photos and came across one that captivated me. Instead of seeing an old man, I found a strong, focused man in the prime of his life with an intense and steely gaze. I came to learn that O-Sensei was 45 when the photo was taken.
I asked Stan about the photo and he shared the story behind its acquisition. Stan was training directly under Saito Sensei in 1979 and on a visit to Saito Sensei’s home, he showed Stan the 1928 O-Sensei portrait. Stan was blown away and asked permission to take the photo to be reproduced. Saito Sensei agreed.
Stan gave the photo to his assistant at Aiki News to take to a photo laboratory. Stan was stunned when his assistant returned to inform him that something had happened on the train and she had lost the photo. Stan had no idea what to tell Saito Sensei. He said it was the most embarrassing moment of his life and he couldn’t muster the courage to tell Saito Sensei what happened. He never mentioned the photo or its loss to Saito, who in turn, never asked for its return.
Years later in the 1990s, Stan was interviewing the son of Tsutomu Yukawa, a man that studied under O-Sensei in the 1930s. Stan asked if he had any pictures of his father or of O-Sensei. He presented Stan with four photos, one of which was a copy of the 1928 Ueshiba portrait. Stan personally saw to the restoration and reproduction of the photo.
Shortly after, Stan traveled to Iwama and returned a copy of the photo to Saito Sensei – only it was in better condition than the one Saito had given him. He apologized for taking so long to return the photo (over a decade), but Saito Sensei seemed only grateful to see the photo again. I asked Stan if he ever told Saito Sensei that he had lost the original photo. Stan said he couldn’t. He was just too embarrassed. We had a good laugh over that.
Almost every aikido dojo I’ve visited has a picture of the venerable founder, Morihei Ueshiba, mounted on the shomen (front wall / center of the dojo). The picture always features Ueshiba as an old man in his late 70s-early 80s, at the peak of his wisdom and accomplishments. It’s a great way to remember and honor O-Sensei.
However, with access to high quality portraits of the founder in his 40s and 50s, I wonder if there’s a place for a younger O-Sensei not just in the dojo, but at the shomen. In his prime, Ueshiba projects vitality, unlocked potential, and the promise of profound creation. The 1928 photo captures O-Sensei when he had just moved to Tokyo to dedicate himself full time to the martial arts. He had yet to create aikido, but would soon embark upon a profound journey developing the art.
When I look at the picture of O-Sensei in his 80s at Ikazuchi Dojo, it evokes a feeling of peace and security – as if I’m practicing under his watchful and protective gaze. However, when I look at the picture of Ueshiba in his 40s, I connect with him in a totally different way. I imagine him telling me “Here we are in our 40s. You know what I did from this point forward. What will you do to build upon that? Get to work!”
Should the portrait on the shomen only show O-Sensei after aikido was formally created? Only after he fully completed the period of reflection that led to the philosophy underpinning modern aikido? Does it matter? Are there other reasons to only use photos of him in his later years on the shomen? I don’t have an answer or even a strong opinion, but am intrigued to hear the community’s insights. Please leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts.
Special thanks to Stan Pranin Sensei of Aikido Journal for providing us with this beautiful portrait and the opportunity to have a dialogue about the founder, especially during a critical time when he was focused exclusively on his battle with cancer.