By John Stevens
Shirata Rinjiro was born in 1912, the last year of the Meiji Period. The Meiji Period, (1868-1912) was the most tumultuous era of Japanese history, and the people from that period were noted for their energy, resolve, modesty, good manners, and breath of learning. Rinjiro was from samurai stock and traced his ancestry back to Sugawara Michizane (845-905), patron of literature and learning; after his death in exile due to court intrigue, Michizane was deified as Tenjin, one of the most popular of folk gods.
Even as a teenager, Rinjiro displayed great physical strength. He could easily toss around a 130-pound bale of rice with a single hand. In high school, Rinjiro was captain of the Judo team and also practiced kendo. His father was a fervent Omoto-kyo follower and acquainted with Ueshiba Morihei through the Deguchi Onisaburo connection. It was decided that Rinjiro should apply to become an uchi-deshi at the Kobukan Dojo in 1931. Rinjiro was 19 years old. The extremely talented Shirata became a star disciple of Morihei. He was soon serving as an assistant instructor, and was put in charge of the Osaka Dojo. In those days, there were many challengers who showed up announced at the dojo, and Shirata was designated to be the doorkeeper. Many tales are told of such confrontations, with Shirata coming out on the winning end. He would smile, and say, “How can you defeat non-resistance.”
In 1937, Shirata was called to the front. He never talked about the war except to say, “The Founder taught us that bushido is not learning how to die; it is earning how to live. On the battlefield I realized the truth of that belief.” He also told me, “It is due to the death, destruction and misery of the war that we have Aikido. Aikido must become the Art of Peace that brings the world together.”
After being held a prisoner of war in Burma, Shirata was repatriated in 1946. Although I did not hear it directly from him, evidently Morihei and Kisshomaru wanted Shirata to stay on as Chief Instructor at the Hombu Dojo. However, Shirata had family commitments back in Yamagata and had to decline. Shirata returned home, married, and raised three children. He worked as an insurance agent. From 1948 he taught small groups here and there in the Tohoku District. In 1969, he established his base in Yamagata. I meet him soon after that in 1974. He was sixty-six at the time. Over the years, I visited Yamagata from Sendai often to train with Sensei and discuss my many Aikido projects (and life in general.) When he finally retired from work at age 75, his Aikido reached a different dimension. The Classical Aikido we practice is based on the technical and spiritual transmission of the last five years of his life. Shirata Sensei died in 1993. He had been presented with a hand brushed 8th dan certificate directly form Morihei, and years later he was promoted to 9th and then 10th dan (posthumously) by Kisshomaru Doshu. Shirata Sensei acted as Chairman of the All-Japan Aikido Federation for some years.
Since Shirata Sensei was not at all a self-promoter, he stayed pretty out of the limelight. However, since many years at the annual All-Japan Aikido Demonstration, Shirata Sensei was the last shihan to demonstrate before the Doshu, many people got a chance to see him in action over the years.