The famous/infamous “True Demonstration” was held in Manchuria during the summer of 1942. The occasion was the 10th Anniversary of the foundation of Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet government of Manchuria, headed by Pu Yi, the “Last Emperor” depicted by Italian film-director Bernardo Bertolucci in an immortal movie
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
On September 18, 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria, in northeastern China, an event that many historians consider to be the first step towards the opening the World War II Asian front. On February 18, 1932, Japan declared Manchuria’s independence from China and proclaimed the establishment of Manchukuo, the “Great Manchu Nation”.
The purpose of this move was to establish a bridgehead from which to launch a future invasion of China. Japanese agents removed Pu Yi, the former emperor of China, from his residence in Tianjin and brought him to Manchuria, where he was destined to act as a head of state. In 1934 Pu Yi was officially crowned Emperor of Manchukuo.
Manchukuo and Budo
Once they took control of the region and established their puppet government, the Japanese authorities launched a political-cultural colonization program in Manchuria. The arts of Budo were utilised as part of the larger effort to strengthen this control. What would later be known as Aikido (at the time Aiki Budo) was also part of it.
Kenji Tomiki, one of the most titled students of Morihei Ueshiba, moved to Manchuria in March 1936 thanks to an introduction provided by Ueshiba. Tomiki first taught at the Daitong College (Daido Gakuin). His classes were intended for members of the Kwantung army and the Imperial Household Agency. Kenkoku University was built in 1938 to show the strength of Japanese domination.
With the opening of Kenkoku University in 1938, Tomiki became part of the new university’s teaching panel, directing the Aiki Budo and Judo program – now part of the standard curriculum. In his position he was seconded by Hideo Ohba, his assistant and friend for several years.
Although living in Japan, between 1939 and 1942 Morihei Ueshiba was invited several times to teach and hold demonstrations at Kenkoku University, assisted by Tomiki and Ohba, and was appointed martial arts consultant. In 1941 Ueshiba also became a consultant to the Manchurian Shin Buden Martial Art Association.
These are the words of Hiroshi Tada (at the time 12 years old) about this episode:
“(…) Then when I went to Manchuria in 1941 (it was actually 1942, NdR), it was the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Manchu state. There was a meeting of Budoka from all over Japan. There was a large demonstration at the Hall of Martial Arts in front of the Last Emperor of China. I heard that the demonstration that Ueshiba Sensei gave that time was incredible. I was supposed to attend too, but my mother and my sister talked too much and we missed it. But my cousin saw it.“
What happened on August 11, 1942? Why did this demonstration become famous and renamed the “True Demonstration”?
In a biographical article on Hideo Ohba (written by Fumiaki Shishida, a pupil of Kenji Tomiki and a professor at Waseda University, article reported in Paul Wildish’s “Hideo Ohba – The Aikido of Quiet Taste“) we can read the following story.
“It was Hideo Ohba who took ukemi for Ueshiba for the demonstration. He later talked about this event as follows: “Since the Emperor of Manchuria was in an exalted position at that time like the Emperor of Japan, I thought I should not take ukemi for Ueshiba in the way I usually did. If Ueshiba Sensei were a true master, he could freely handle a true punch, thrust or grab. Therefore, I decided to attack him seriously.
When we stood on the platform, I saw many martial arts masters present in the large dojo of the Shimbuden. When I glanced at Ueshiba Sensei, his beard was sticking out towards me, his hair was standing on end and his eyes were glittering. I thought to myself that he was indeed a true master. Then I concentrated on taking ukemi for him, thinking how different it was to face a master. After the demonstration, we bowed and sat in the corner of the dojo and were supposed to walk over to the seats where the masters were sitting. However, I heard someone thunder, ‘You idiot!’ Ueshiba Sensei was short-tempered. He couldn’t wait until we returned to our seats. He shouted at me in that way in front of everyone.
Until then, I thought he was a wonderful and truly great master, but his shout made my spirit pop like a bubble. We sat down. Ueshiba Sensei didn’t even smile. He was in a bad mood. So I felt tiny.
Who do you think showed up then? It was Hideo Sonobe who was said to be without peer in Japan or anywhere in the use of the Naginata. She came all the way up to where the masters were sitting while Iai and Naginata kata were being demonstrated one after another. She said, “Mr. Ueshiba I have never seen more wonderful techniques than what you showed today. They were fantastic!”.
Ueshiba Sensei, who had been in a bad mood, asked her what part she liked. He asked me to find a place where they could talk and we all went down to the basement of the Shimbuden and they discussed the theory of martial arts for two hours. While I was listening to their discussion Ueshiba Sensei asked her what she liked and she replied that she liked the ‘connections’ (tsunagari) between techniques. However, I didn’t understand these connections.
I understood that the Dai Nihon Butokukai then was having a hard time trying to decide who they should choose as the best swordsman of that year and had asked Sonobe Sensei for her opinion. When I heard Sonobe Sensei tell Ueshiba Sensei that she had never seen such wonderful techniques even though she had seen him demonstrate often, I decided to learn Naginata in order to search for these connections.”
Hideo would always recount this story to his students when he was in a good mood. One time I asked him the following question, “Sensei, when you attacked Ueshiba Sensei seriously, could he execute techniques like he usually did in his regular demonstrations?” Judging from the fact that he was scolded on that occasion, the answer was obvious. I asked this question because I wanted to confirm it. He answered, “Ueshiba sensei seemed to have a hard time executing techniques smoothly.”
I think that Tomiki sensei was critical of the fact that Ueshiba’s demonstrations became gradually softer. Tomiki’s belief was that such softness was a way of making the person throwing look good, and was different from how martial arts should be. This demonstration of Ueshiba and Ohba received the highest praise from a top martial artist because of Ohba’s serious attacks, and the fact that he refused to participate in a prearranged performance the way he normally would have. I think that behind this fact lies an important hint as to what aikido should be. There seem to be some people within the Japan Aikido Association who see that their kata demonstrations are different from the flowing demonstrations of other schools, and try to change them in that direction. However, things should be the opposite. I think what is important is that we should master each technique perfectly as did Ueshiba Sensei, and then try to achieve a connection or flow between techniques. Hideo’s experience taught us not only the limitation of Ueshiba’s techniques (one cannot throw someone in a dance-like manner), as well as his incredible mastery, but also how a demonstration should be.
During the “True Demonstration”, therefore, it happened that Hideo Ohba changed the rules and, above all, the spirit of the game of what should have been a “normal” demonstration of martial arts, characterized by a broadly established format and a “demonstration-like” spirit. Ueshiba found himself to have to pubicly deal with extreme attacks, in a context in which instead he was supposed to demonstrate his art for propaedeutic-didactic purposes. Shigenobu Okumura, who attended the demonstration, recalls it with the following words: “At that time I was a student and I saw this demonstration. The demonstration was as serious as any I have ever seen. I could tell that it was not a prearranged demonstration at all”.
What Ohba had set in motion deeply enraged Ueshiba, who remained black with anger until he was soothed by the words with which Hideo Sonobe praised him. It would seem realistic to assume that the demonstration format normally chosen by Ueshiba was designed to show how Ueshiba himself, first of all, wanted his Aiki to be perceived and considered. Ohba’s rude and random attacks had forced him to do and show something other from it, and he had to do it with a mastery different from his Aiki. The irony is that, despite the praise of Hideo Sonobe, which certainly pleased him, during the “True Demonstration” Ueshiba was forced to put into practice what he had no intention of doing and/or proposing in his current development of budoka. From this episode it seems to be fair to deduce that the Aikido that Ueshiba was still formulating required an uke to some extent cooperative. In his eyes, the “True Demonstration” turned out to be completely false, because even though Ueshiba had been able to get brilliantly away with it, it was not what he wanted to do when his art was presented and taught.
Shortly after his return to Japan from this last trip to Manchuria, Morihei Ueshiba left Tokyo, soon to be enveloped in the war, and retired to Iwama, a fundamental stage for the development of modern Aikido.
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
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