Morihei Ueshiba

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The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, was born on December 14, 1883, to a farming family in an area of the Wakayama Prefecture now known as Tanabe. Among five children, he was the only son. From his father Yoroku, he inherited a samurai’s determination and interest in public affairs, and from his mother an intense interest in religion, poetry and art.

In his early childhood, Morihei was rather weak and sickly, which led to his preference of staying indoors to read books instead of playing outside. He loved to listen to the miraculous legends of the wonder-working saints “En no Gyoja” and “Kobo Daishi,” and was fascinated by the esoteric Buddhist riturals. Morihei had even considered becoming a Buddhist priest at one time. He is often referred to as Kaiso (開祖), meaning “founder”, or ÅŒsensei, meaning “Great Teacher”, by some aikidoka.

Morihei Ueshiba was born in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan on December 14, 1883. During his childhood, the Ueshiba family lived in Maizuru, Kyoto. 

The only son of Yokoru and Yuki Ueshiba’s five children, Morihei was raised in a somewhat privileged setting. His father was a wealthy landowner who also traded in lumber and fishing and was politically active. 

Ueshiba was a rather weak, sickly child and bookish in his inclinations. At a young age his father encouraged him to take up sumo wrestling and swimming and entertained him with stories of his great-grandfather Kichiemon who was considered a very strong samurai in his era. 

The need for such strength was further emphasized when the young Ueshiba witnessed his father being attacked by followers of a competing politician.

To counteract his son’s daydreaming, Yoroki would recount the tales of Morihei’s great-grandfather “Kichiemon,” said to be one of the strongest samurai of his day, and encouraged him to study Sumo wrestling and swimming. Morihei became stronger and finally realized the necessity of being strong after his father was attacked and beaten by a gang of thugs hired by a rival politician.

School seemed to bore Morihei as his nervous energy needed a more practical outlet. He took on several jobs, but they too seemed to disillusion him. During a brief stint as a merchant, he finally realized he had an affinity for the martial arts. He greatly enjoyed his study of Jujutsu at the Kito-ryu dojo and Swordsmanship at the Shinkage Ryu training center. But as luck would have it, a severe case of Beri-Beri sent him home, where he later married Itogawa Hatsu.

After regaining his health during the Russo-Japanese War period, he decided to enlist in the army. Standing at just under five feet tall, he failed to meet the minimum height requirements. He was so upset that he went immediately to the forests and swung on trees trying desperately to stretch his body out. On his next attempt to enlist, he passed his examination and became an infantryman in 1903. During this time he impressed his superiors so much that this commanding officer recommended him for the National Military Academy, but for various reasons he declined the position and resigned from active duty.

Morihei returned home to the farm. Having grown strong during his time in the military, he was now eager to continue physical training. His father built a dojo on his farm and invited the well-known Jujutsu instructor Takaki Kiyoichi to tutor him. During this time, young Ueshiba became stronger and found he possessed great skills. At the same time he became more interested in political affairs. In the Spring of 1912, at the age of 29, he and his family moved into the wilderness of Hokkaido. After a few years of struggle, the small village started to prosper. Ueshiba had grown tremendously muscular, to the point that the power he possessed in his arms became almost legendary. 

It was during this time in Hokkaido that he met Sokaku Takeda, grandmaster of Daito-ryu Aiki Jutsu. After meeting Takeda and find himself no match for his teacher, Ueshiba seemed to forget everything else and threw himself into training. After about a month, he went back to Shirataki, build a dojo and invited Takeda to live there, which he did. 

Ueshiba is known to have studied several martial arts in his youth but he did not train extensively in most and even his training YagyÅ« Shingan-ryÅ« was sporadic due to his military service in those years. Records show that he trained in Tenjin Shin’yō-ryÅ« jujutsu under Tozawa Tokusaburō for a short period in 1901 in Tokyo; Gotō-ha YagyÅ« Shingan-ryÅ« under Nakai Masakatsu from 1903 to 1908 in Sakai, and judo under Kiyoichi Takagi 1911 in Tanabe. However, it was only after moving to the northern island of Hokkaidō in 1912 with his wife, as part of a settlement effort, that his martial art training took on real depth. For it was here that he began his study of Daitō-ryÅ« aiki-jÅ«jutsu under its reviver Takeda Sokaku. He characterized his early training thus:

At about the age of 14 or 15. First I learned Tenshinyo-ryu Jiujitsu from Tokusaburo Tozawa Sensei, then Kito-ryu, Yagyu-ryu, Aioi-ryu, Shinkage-ryu, all of them jujutsu forms. However, I thought there might be a true form of budo elsewhere. I tried Hozoin-ryu sojitsu and kendo. But all of these arts are concerned with one-to-one combat forms and they could not satisfy me. So I visited many parts of the country seeking the Way and training, but all in vain. … I went to many places seeking the true budo. Then, when I was about 30 years old, I settled in Hokkaido. 

On one occasion, while staying at Hisada Inn in Engaru, Kitami Province, I met a certain Sokaku Takeda Sensei of the Aizu clan. He taught Daito-ryu jujutsu. During the 30 days in which I leamed [sic] from him I felt something like an inspiration. Later, I invited this teacher to my home and together with 15 or 16 of my employees became a student seeking the essence of budo. 

Did you discover aikido while you were learning Daito-ryu under Sokaku Takeda? No. It would be more accurate to say that Takeda Sensei opened my eyes to budo.

Takeda Sokaku and Daitō-ryÅ«: The technical curriculum of aikido was undoubtedly most greatly influenced by the teachings of Takeda Sokaku and his system of aiki-jÅ«jutsu called Daitō-ryÅ«. Although disputed by some, the ledger books of Takeda clearly show that Ueshiba spent a great deal of time training in Daitō-ryÅ« between 1915 and 1937. He received the majority of the important scrolls awarded by Takeda at this time including the Hiden Mokuroko, the Hiden Ogi and the Goshin’yo te. 

Ueshiba received his kyoju dairi certificate, or teaching license, for the system from Takeda in 1922. Takeda had not yet implemented a menkyo license, or highest level of achievement license, into his system at this time. He also received a Shinkage-ryū sword transmission scroll from Takeda in 1922 in Ayabe. Ueshiba then became a representative of Daitō-ryū, toured with Takeda as a teaching assistant and taught the system to others under the Daitō-ryū name.

The basic techniques of aikido seem to have their basis in teachings from various points in the Daitō-ryÅ« curriculum. A source of confusion is the different names used for these techniques in aikido and in the Daitō-ryÅ« system. In part this is because Takeda Tokimune added much of the nomenclature after the period in which Ueshiba studied. In addition the names ikkajo, nikkajo, sankajo used in both Daitō-ryÅ« and the early years of aikido, latter supplanted by terms such as ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, were really generic names translating to “first teaching”, “second teaching”, and so on. In Daitō-ryÅ« these usually refer to groupings of techniques while in aikido they usually refer to specific techniques and joint manipulations.

From aiki-jÅ«jutsu to aikido: In the earlier years of his teaching, from the 1920s to the mid 1930s, Ueshiba taught the aiki-jÅ«jutsu system he had earned a license in from Takeda Sokaku. His early students’ documents bear the term aiki-jÅ«jutsu. Indeed, Ueshiba trained one of the future highest grade earners in Daitō-ryÅ«, Takuma Hisa, in the art before Takeda took charge of Hisa’s training.

The early form of training under Ueshiba was characterized by the ample use of strikes to vital points (atemi), a larger total curriculum, a greater use of weapons, and a more linear approach to technique than would be found in later forms of aikido. These methods are preserved in the teachings of his early students Kenji Tomiki (who founded the Shodokan Aikido sometimes called Tomiki-ryÅ«), Noriaki Inoue (who founded Shin’ei Taido), Minoru Mochizuki (who founded Yoseikan Budo), Gozo Shioda (who founded Yoshinkan Aikido) and Morihiro Saito (who preserved his early form of aikido under the Aikikai umbrella sometimes referred to as Iwama-ryÅ«). Many of these styles are considered “pre-war styles”, although some of the teachers continued to have contact and influence from Ueshiba in the years after the Second World War.

Later, as Ueshiba seemed to slowly grow away from Takeda, he began to implement more changes into the art. These changes are reflected in the differing names with which he referred to his art, first as aiki-jūjutsu, then Ueshiba-ryū, Asahi-ryū, aiki budō, and finally aikido.

As Ueshiba grew older, more skilled, and more spiritual in his outlook, his art also changed and became softer and more circular. Striking techniques became less important and the formal curriculum became simpler. In his own expression of the art there was a greater emphasis on what is referred to as kokyÅ«-nage, or “breath throws” which are soft and blending, utilizing the opponent’s movement in order to throw them. Many of these techniques are rooted in the aiki-no-jutsu portions of the Daitō-ryÅ« curriculum rather than the more direct jujutsu style joint-locking techniques.

Onisaburo Deguchi’s spiritual influence: After Ueshiba left Hokkaidō he came under the influence of Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the ÅŒmoto-kyō religion in Ayabe. In addition to the effect on his spiritual growth, this connection was to have a major effect in introducing Ueshiba to various elite political circles as a martial artist. 

The Ueshiba Dojo in Ayabe was used to train members of the Ōmoto-kyō sect. He was involved in the first Ōmoto-kyō Incident, an ill-fated attempt to found a utopian colony in Mongolia. Although Ueshiba eventually distanced himself from both these teachers, their effect on him and his art cannot be overstated.

The real birth of Aikido came as the result of three instances of spiritual awakening that Ueshiba experienced. The first happened in 1925, after Ueshiba had defeated a naval officer’s bokken (wooden katana) attacks unarmed and without hurting the officer. Ueshiba then walked to his garden and had a spiritual awakening.

In 1927, Ueshiba moved to Tokyo where he founded his first dojo, which still exists today under the name Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Between 1940 and 1942 he made several visits to Manchukuo (Japanese occupied Manchuria) to instruct his martial art. In 1942 he left Tokyo and moved to Iwama in the Ibaraki Prefecture where the term “aikido” was first used as a name for his art. Here he founded the Aiki Shuren Dojo, also known as the Iwama dojo. During all this time he traveled extensively in Japan, particularly in the Kansai region teaching his aikido.

Morihei Ueshiba died on April 26, 1969.

Legacy: Ueshiba is remembered by his pupils as a master of the martial arts whose studies transcended technical matters to include a moral and philosophical view of the world based around harmony in the face of aggression. The many branches of aikido in existence today virtually all trace their lineage back to him.

Many stories exist about Ueshiba’s martial skill. It is said for example that he was able to escape a tight ring of students that surrounded him with swords and attacked simultaneously.[citation needed] Many of these students would later say they had not even seen him go by them. Another story is that he was able to knock someone off their feet with the force of his kiai.

There is debate in the aikido world over some of these sensational stories; some dismiss them as myth generated around a genuinely brilliant but human martial artist, whereas others believe that Morihei Ueshiba truly achieved such feats.

To this day, ÅŒmoto-kyō priests oversee a ceremony in Ueshiba’s honor every April 29th at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama.

Ueshiba also had many uchideshi, or live-in students, many who have grown into great teachers in their own right. There are roughly four generations of uchideshi. A partial list follows

First (pre-war) generation
(c.1921–c.1935)
Second (war) generation
(c.1936–c.1945)
Third (post-war) generation
(c.1946–c.1955)
Fourth (and last) generation
(c.1956–c.1969)
  • Zenzaburo Akazawa (born 1920) since 1933
  • Masahiro Hashimoto (born 1910) since 1931
  • Takuma Hisa (1895–1980) since 1934
  • Noriaki Inoue (1902–1994) since c.1921, nephew of Morihei Ueshiba
  • Ikkusai Iwata (born 1909) since 1930, 9th dan Aikikai
  • Hisao Kamada (1911–1986) since 1929
  • Minoru Mochizuki (1907–2003) since 1930, 10th dan (received from the International Martial Arts Federation)
  • Aritoshi Murashige (1895–1964) since 1931
  • Gozo Shioda (1915–1994) since 1932, founder of the Yoshinkan Aikido
  • Rinjiro Shirata (1912–1993) since 1933, 9th dan
  • Isamu Takeshita (1869–1949) since c.1925
  • Kenji Tomiki (1900–1979) since 1926, was the first 8th dan awarded in aikido in 1942.
  • Shigemi Yonekawa (1910–2005) since 1933
  • Tsutomu Yukawa (1911–1942) since 1931
  • Tadashi Abe (1926–1984) since 1942, 6th dan
  • Minoru Hirai (1903–1998) since 1939, founder of the Korindo style.
  • Kisaburo Osawa (1911–1991) since 1941, 9th dan
  • KanshÅ« Sunadomari (born 1923) since 1942, 9th dan
  • Bansen Tanaka (1912–1988) since 1936, 9th dan
  • Saburo TenryÅ« (1903–1989) since 1939, he was a famous sumo wrestler
  • Koichi Tohei (born 1920) since 1939, only 10th dan awarded by Ueshiba and approved by Aikikai
  • Seiseki Abe (born 1915) since 1952, 10th dan
  • Sadateru Arikawa (1930–2003) since 1947, 9th dan
  • Michio Hikitsuchi (1923–2004) since 1951, 10th dan (verbally awarded by Ueshiba)
  • Yasuo Kobayashi (born 1936) since 1954, 8th dan
  • Yoshio Kuroiwa (born 1932) since 1954, 6th dan
  • Mutsuro Nakazono (born 1918) 7th dan
  • Shoji Nishio (1927–2005) since 1951, 8th dan
  • André Nocquet (1913–1999) since 1955, 8th dan, the first European uchideshi
  • Masamichi Noro (born 1935) since 1955, 6th dan, founder of kinomichi
  • Morihiro Saito (1928–2002) since 1946, 9th dan
  • Mitsugi Saotome (born 1937) since 1955
  • Hiroshi Tada (born 1929) since 1945, 9th dan
  • Nobuyoshi Tamura (born 1933) since 1953, 8th dan
  • Seigo Yamaguchi (1924–1996) since 1951, 8th dan
  • Kazuo Chiba (born 1940) since 1958, 8th dan
  • Terry Dobson (1938–1992) since 1960, 5th dan
  • Seishiro Endo (born 1942) since 1964, 8th dan
  • Gaku Homma (born 1950) founder of Nippon Kan and was the last uchideshi Ueshiba trained before he died.
  • Norihiko Ichihashi (1940–2001) since 1960, 8th dan
  • Shizuo Imaizumi (born 1938) since 1959, 7th dan
  • Mitsunari Kanai (1939–2004) since 1959, 8th dan
  • Yutaka Kurita (born 1940) since 1959, 6th dan
  • Koretoshi Maruyama (born 1936) since 1954, founder Aikido Yuishinkai International
  • Shuji Maruyama (born 1940) since 1959, 6th dan
  • Seijuro Masuda (born 1936) since 1962, 8th dan
  • Robert Nadeau (born 1937) since 1962, 7th dan
  • Kenji Shimizu (born 1940) since 1963, 8th dan
  • Roy Suenaka (born 1940) since 1961, 8th dan
  • Seiichi Sugano (born 1939) since 1959, 8th dan
  • Morito Suganuma (born 1942) since 1964, 8th dan
  • Akira Tohei (1929–1999) since 1956, 8th dan
  • Takeji Tomita (born 1942) since 1961, 7th dan
  • Yoshimitsu Yamada (born 1938) since 1956, 8th dan

Upon hearing of his father’s serious illness, Ueshiba sold off most of his property and left the dojo to Takeda. He would not to return to Hokkaido. On his journey home, he impulsively stopped in Ayabe, headquarters for the new Omoto-kyo religion. Here he met the master of the new religion, Deguchi Onisaburo. After being enthralled with Ayabe and Deguchi, he stayed three additional days and upon returning home, found that he had stayed away too long. His father had passed away. Ueshiba took his father’s death very hard. He decided to sell off all his ancestral land and move to Ayabe to study Omoto-kyo. For the next eight years, Ueshiba studied with Deguchi Onisaburo, taught Budo, and headed up the local fire brigade. 

A pacifist, Deguchi was an advocate of non-violent resistance and universal disarmament. He was noted to have said, “Armament and war are the means by which the landlords and capitalists make their profit, while the poor suffer.” It is intriguing that a man of this nature could become so close to a martial artist such as Ueshiba. However, it did not take long for Deguchi to realize that Ueshiba’s purpose on earth was ” to teach the real meaning of Budo: an end to all fighting and contention. “ 

The study of Omoto-kyo and his association with Onisaburo profoundly affected Ueshiba’s life. He once stated that while Sokaku Takeda opened his eyes to the essence of Budo, his enlightenment came from his Omoto-kyo experiences. During his early 40s (around 1925), Ueshiba had several spiritual experiences which so impressed him that his life and his training were forever changed. He realized the true purpose of Budo was love that cherishes and nourishes all beings. 

For the next year, many people sought Ueshiba’s teaching, among them Tomiki Kenji (who went on to make his own style of Aikido) and the famous Admiral Takeshita. In 1927, Deguchi Onisaburo encouraged Ueshiba to separate from Omoto-kyo and being his own way. This he did and moved to Tokyo. Ueshiba’s following had grown to the point that he was moved to build a formal dojo in the Ushigome district of the city (the present site of the Aikido World Headquarters). While the dojo was being constructed, many high-ranking instructors of other arts, such and Kano Jigoro, came to visit. They were so impressed that they would dispatch their own students to study under Ueshiba. 

In 1931, the “Kobukan” was finished. A “Budo Enhancement Society” was founded in 1932 with Ueshiba as Chief Instructor. It was about this time that students such as Shioda Gozo, Shirata Rinjiro and others joined the dojo. Up to the outbreak of World War II, Ueshiba was extremely busy teaching at the Kobukan, as well as holding special classes for the major military and police academies. For the next 10 years, Ueshiba became more and more famous and many stories began to appear in writing. His only son, Kisshomaru, being the “bookworm” that he was, did much of the writing and documenting of the evens of his life. 

In 1942, supposedly because of a divine command, he longed to return to the farmlands. He had often said that “Budo and farming are one. ” The war had emptied the Kobukan, and he was tired of city life. Leaving the Kobukan in the hands of his son Kisshomaru, he moved to the Ibaraki Prefecture and the village of Iwama. Here he build an outdoor dojo and the now famous Aiki Shrine.

Iwama is considered by many to be the birth place of modern-day Aikido, “the Way of Harmony.” Prior to this move, his system had been called Aikijutsu, then Aiki-Budo, still primarily a martial art rather than a spiritual path. From 1942 (when the name Aikido was first formally used) to 1952, Ueshiba consolidated the techniques and perfected the religious philosophy of Aikido. 

After the war, Aikido grew rapidly at the Kobukan (now called Hombu Dojo) under the direction of Kisshomaru Ueshiba. Morihei Ueshiba had become famous as “O Sensei” or “The Grand Teacher,” the Master of Aikido. He had also received many decorations from the Japanese government. Right up to the end of his life, O Sensei refined and improved his “Way”, never losing his dedication for hard training. 

In early Spring 1969, O Sensei fell ill and told his son Kisshomaru that “God is calling me….” He was returned to his home at his request to be near his dojo. On April 15th, his condition became critical. As his students made their last calls, he gave his final instructions. “Aikido is for the entired world. Train not for selfish reasons, but for all people everywhere.” 

Early on the morning of April 26th, 1969, the 86-year-old O Sensei took his son’s hand, smiled and said, “Take care of things” and died. Two months later, Hatsu, his wife of 67 years, followed him. O Sensei’s ashes were buried in the family temple in Tanabe. Every year a memorial service is held on April 29th at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama. 

Personal traits: Morihei Ueshiba regularly practiced cold water misogi, as well as other spiritual and religious rites. He viewed his studies of aikido in this light.

As a young man, Ueshiba was renowned for his incredible physical strength. He would later lose much of this muscle, which some believe changed the way he performed aikido technique.

Ueshiba was said to be a simple but wise man, and a gifted farmer. In his later years, he was regarded as very kind and gentle as a rule, but there are also stories of terrifying scoldings delivered to his students. For instance, he once thoroughly chastised students for practicing jō (short staff) strikes on trees without first covering them in protective padding. Another time, as students snuck back into the dojo after a night of drinking and brawling, he smashed the first one through the door over the head with a bokken, and proceeded to scold them.