An Overview of Aikido History, by Stanley Pranin


“Morihei immersed himself in intensive training and prayer in an effort to further perfect a martial art dedicated to achieving the peaceful resolution of conflict.”

It is difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of modern aikido without an understanding of its extraordinary founder, Morihei Ueshiba. This innovative man presents a challenge to historians not simply because he lived in an earlier age very different from our own-he was unusual even for his time and cultural context. His esoteric views were heavily influenced by the doctrines of the Omoto religion and are barely comprehensible to modern Japanese. The challenge faced by foreign aikido devotees who hope to absorb the founder’s philosophy is made even greater by the formidable barrier of the Japanese language. The task would be seemingly hopeless were it not for the aikido techniques themselves, which offer everyone an avenue of approach to the essence of the art, irrespective of language or culture.

Youth in Tanabe

The man who was to become the founder of aikido was born in the seaport town of Tanabe, in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, on December 14, 1883. His father, Yoroku, was a man of considerable means who served for many years on the local town council. Anecdotal evidence of Yoroku’s great physical strength survives and some have speculated that Morihei’s father was a skilled martial artist in his own right.

Yoroku was overjoyed at the birth of Morihei, his only son, after first having three daughters. Morihei was sickly as a child, and his father went to great lengths to improve his son’s health and encouraged him to build up his frail body. Morihei’s education continued only up through the first year of middle school. At age seventeen, he left home to become a merchant in Tokyo with the assistance of wealthy relatives and worked in a stationery business. It was during his brief stay in Tokyo that he had his first formal martial arts training at a Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu school where he practiced in the evenings.

Tokyo and military service

Morihei Ueshiba at about age 22 as infantry soldier

Morihei Ueshiba at about age 22 as infantry soldier

Morihei was forced to leave Tokyo after less than a year when he fell ill with beriberi. He returned to his native Tanabe where in time he recovered fully. Morihei’s experience in Tokyo made it apparent that he was not cut out to become a merchant. Japan was building up its military might prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, and being more the adventurous type, Ueshiba joined the army in 1903. Morihei’s affinity for martial arts became clear particularly during bayonet training where he proved to be one of the most adept of the soldiers.

During his military service Morihei also had an opportunity to train in a branch of the Yagyu school, possibly the Yagyu Shingan-ryu, near Osaka where he was stationed. The extent and content of his study of this classical tradition remains a subject of speculation. It is known, however, that even after his discharge from the army in 1906, he occasionally traveled from his native Tanabe to Sakai where the Yagyu-ryu dojo was located.

The next several years in Morihei’s life back in Tanabe were restless ones as he sought a new direction in life. For a short time he dabbled with judo, when his father brought in a young instructor from the Kodokan Judo Headquarters to teach the local youth. However, Morihei did not intend to remain in Tanabe forever. At that time the Japanese government was providing incentives to encourage the settlement of the underdeveloped island of Hokkaido. Tempted by the prospect of a new adventure, Morihei organized and led a party of fifty-four families to Hokkaido in 1912. The group eventually settled in the remote area of the northern part of the island that was to become the village of Shirataki.

Hokkaido and Sokaku Takeda

Sokaku Takeda c. 1910

Sokaku Takeda c. 1910

The colonists’ Spartan life in Shirataki was centered on farming, lumbering, and mere survival in the harsh Hokkaido winters. Morihei seemed to thrive under the severe conditions of this isolated region. He served as a leader to his compatriots from Tanabe and helped new families to get established. He even participated in local politics by serving a term as a county councilman. But the most significant event during these years, at least in terms of the development of aikido, was Morihei’s meeting with an eccentric, but highly skilled jujutsu teacher, named Sokaku Takeda.

Takeda had some years earlier taken up residence in Hokkaido, where he frequently traveled about conducting jujutsu seminars. Morihei first met Sokaku in February 1915 in the town of Engaru. Although the thirty-two-year-old Ueshiba was already quite skilled as a martial artist, he was no match for Takeda, who was then in his prime. The future founder of aikido was fascinated by the powerful and intricate techniques of Sokaku’s art, known as Daito-ryu jujutsu. Morihei devoted a great deal of time and resources to learning Daito-ryu and even invited Sokaku to live with him so he could receive personal instruction. Ueshiba spent a large amount of money to study under Takeda and was assisted by his father who provided funds to allow Morihei to meet expenses.

Morihei became one of Sokaku’s top students and sometimes accompanied him on teaching tours around the island. During his stay in Hokkaido, Ueshiba received a first-level transmission scroll from Takeda and gained considerable skill in the art. The Daito-ryu curriculum he studied consisted of several hundred jujutsu techniques with complex maneuvers, joint-locks, and pins. Takeda also demonstrated an ability called “aiki,” in which he controlled the mind of the attacker, thus neutralizing his aggression. He was also an expert in the use of the sword, shuriken, and iron-fan, among other weapons. The techniques of Takeda’s jujutsu would later form the basis for virtually all aikido movements and its contribution to Morihei’s art cannot be overstated.

Morihei’s life in Shirataki and his training in Daito-ryu came to an abrupt end in December 1919 when he received a telegram with the news that his father, Yoroku, was gravely ill. He was requested to return to Tanabe immediately. Morihei hastily set his affairs in order and left his modest Shirataki home and all its furnishings to Sokaku. He departed, never to return, and rushed to his dying father’s side.

Omoto religion and Onisaburo Deguchi

Portrait of Onisaburo Deguchi c. 1935

Portrait of Onisaburo Deguchi c. 1935

On the long journey back to Tanabe, Morihei happened to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler who spoke enthusiastically of the healing powers of an extraordinary religious leader named Onisaburo Deguchi. Swayed by a desire to meet Onisaburo to have him pray for the recovery of his father, Morihei impetuously detoured to a small town called Ayabe, the center of the Omoto religion, located near Kyoto. The charismatic Onisaburo left a lasting impression on Morihei, who ended up spending several days in Ayabe before resuming his journey to Tanabe.

Yoroku had already passed away when Morihei finally reached home. Morihei was psychologically shattered by the death of his beloved father and struggled to come to terms with his loss. His behavior in the months following his father’s death was abnormal and a cause for concern among his family and friends. A few months later, unable to forget his encounter with Onisaburo Deguchi, Morihei made the decision to relocate to Ayabe to seek inner peace in an ascetic life within the Omoto precincts.

Ueshiba began life anew in the community of Omoto believers with his wife, Hatsu, and eight-year-old daughter, Matsuko. He enthusiastically embraced the simple life of the sect members and soon became part of Onisaburo’s inner circle of supporters. Deguchi was impressed with Morihei’s martial arts skills and encouraged him to instruct interested Omoto believers. This led to the opening of the “Ueshiba Private School” in his home, where Morihei taught Daito-ryu jujutsu.

Sokaku visits Ayabe

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