Historical photo: “Morihei at Death’s Door,” by Stanley Pranin

“Had this transpired, Morihei would likely have been imprisoned and tortured along with other leading church figures, and aikido would never have seen the light of day.”

This is a famous photo taken in 1924 in Tongliao (Payintala), Manchuria. Morihei appears with Onisaburo Deguchi and other members of their party in a Chinese prison, all in foot shackles. Morihei is third from the left with Onisaburo on his right. The story goes that the Chinese marched the Japanese prisoners outside of their cell and lined them up against the wall. All feared that there were about to be executed, and Onisaburo even had the presence of mind to compose the following poems:

Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese

I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world

Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia

But it turned out that the party had their picture taken instead!

The events leading up to Morihei’s near-death experience are very complex and difficult to sort out. The cover story for the journey of Onisaburo’s party to Mongolia via Manchuria was that he was on a divine mission to set up a utopian colony in this region that would be a safe haven for members of all religions living in harmony and mutual respect. Ever one to seek the limelight, Onisaburo arranged to be photographed as the party made its way forward, and several remarkable images remain including several in which Morihei appear. Behind this facade lay the maneuverings of rival Chinese armies and militia, the Kwantung Army, Japanese spies, secret societies, Russian interests, in short, a political and military ferment.

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