Iwama: Birthplace of Aikido by Stanley Pranin

Aiki Shrine in Iwama

Aiki Shrine in Iwama

“The inconspicuous village of Iwama situated in a farming area of Ibaragi Prefecture seems an unlikely candidate for the birthplace of aikido.”

Ask even a beginning aikidoka who the founder of aikido is and most will be able to identify Morihei Ueshiba as the originator of the art. This is probably due to the fact that a photo of Ueshiba hangs on the shomen of most aikido dojos worldwide and sooner or later every aikidoka hears the founder’s name mentioned. Were one to extend this line of questioning to include intermediate and advanced practitioners and ask when and where Ueshiba developed his aikido, few would be able to give an accurate answer.

Actually, the truth of the matter is that the flavors of aikido that enjoy popularity today owe much more to Ueshiba’s direct students such as Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Gozo Shioda, Kenji Tomiki, and Minoru Mochizuki than to the founder. The reasons for this have to do mostly with the events of World War II and its aftermath. At the time aikido began its first tentative steps as a modern budo in the early 1950s, Ueshiba was already in his 70s and most considered him to be in retirement in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. Thus the tasks of establishing dojos, creating organizations, formailizing curricula and grading, and the dispatch of teachers within Japan and abroad were left mainly to those enumerated above.

Ueshiba’s background

Before describing the circumstances of the birth of aikido in Iwama, let us look briefly at Ueshiba’s background up until the point where his connection with this Ibaragi farming community begins. Morihei Ueshiba was born in the seacoast town of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture on December 14, 1883. He was from an upper middle-class family and his father served on the Tanabe town council for many years. Morihei received a formal education up through middle school. At the age of 19, he moved to Tokyo in pursuit of a career as a merchant but returned to Tanabe after less than a year and soon abandoned the idea of entering the business world.

Morihei finally found his calling when he led a group of colonizers from his hometown to the wilderness of northeast Hokkaido in 1912. There the group from Tanabe established a small village called Shirataki. In 1915, Ueshiba met the famous jujutsu expert Takeda Sokaku in a nearby town. Fascinated with Sokaku’s expert martial arts skills that far exceeded his own, Morihei devoted himself to Daito-ryu aikijujutsu training for the next five years becoming of one of Takeda’s top students.

After spending a total of seven years in Hokkaido, Ueshiba left Hokkaido upon receiving news that his father was critically ill back in Tanabe. On his return to Wakayama, Morihei detoured to the town of Ayabe near Kyoto where he met Reverend Onisaburo Deguchi, the co-founder of the Omoto religion, to pray for his father’s recovery. Soon thereafter in 1920, Morihei settled in the Omoto community with his family and became a staunch supporter of Onisaburo and the religous sect. Deguchi in turn encouraged Morihei to cultivate his martial skills by giving instruction to members of the religious sect.

With Onisaburo’s blessing, Morihei relocated to Tokyo from Ayabe in 1927 to begin to disseminate his aikijujutsu on a full-time basis. After spending several years teaching the elites of Japanese society from various temporary locations, Morihei finally opened his own dojo in Shinjuku ward in Tokyo in 1931. The Kobukan Dojo served as Ueshiba’s base of operation and its students consisted mainly of prominent persons from military, political, and business circles and those having a connection with the Omoto religion. He also taught self-defense classes at several military institutions in the greater Tokyo area including the Toyama Army School. At this point in time, the focus of Morihei’s teaching was mainly Tokyo where he had built up a strong network of highly-placed connections that opened up many opportunities for him to expand his activities.

Iwama and the Budo Senyokai

Zenzaburo Akazawa in front of home where Budo Senyokai
sessions were held in 1932

The inconspicuous village of Iwama situated in a farming area of Ibaragi Prefecture seems an unlikely candidate for the birthplace of aikido. Yet today the website of the Iwama Town Office proudly claims aikido as one of the community’s main attractions and remarks that foreigners who have come from abroad to learn the art can frequently be seen on town streets. Iwama is located between Tsuchiura and Mito on the Joban line—the railroad connecting Ueno with Sendai—and today has a population of only 16,750. 70 years ago when the initial events linking aikido with Iwama occurred it was a farming village of only a few thousand.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Morihei Ueshiba’s involvement with the Omoto religion provided the nexus for his connection with Iwama. In 1932, an association for the promotion of martial arts called the Budo Senyokai was established under the auspices of the Omoto religion. This organization was created on the initiative of Onisaburo Deguchi who had set up a series of other auxiliary groups to appeal to different segments of Japanese society. This approach worked well and, by the early 1930s, the Omoto sect had more than a million adherents from a wide range of economic and social levels.

Morihei had been a member of the inner circle of the Omoto sect since the early 1920s. He was somewhat of a “poster boy” for the Omoto as Onisaburo was fond of welcoming talented people from different walks of life into the religion with an eye toward their potential for promotional purposes. Ueshiba was regarded as a consummate martial artist—even serving at one time as Onisaburo’s bodyguard—and an important asset to the Omoto sect that was so often courting the displeasure of government authorities.

The Budo Senyokai created a network of martial arts study groups that held class sessions in conjunction with the Omoto chapters operating throughout the country. Although in theory a number of martial arts were included in the curriculum, the main focus was on Morihei’s aikijujutsu as is evidenced by the fact that he was the association’s first chairman and most of the training involved Ueshiba’s aikijujutsu. The creation of the Budo Senyokai provided Morihei with a ready-made All-Japan network of affiliated groups thus enabling him to build a student base much more rapidly than before.

The Omoto chapter in Iwama was among those that started aikijujutsu training sessions. The person in charge of training there was a man named Yoshikatsu Fujisawa. Fujisawa had undergone a brief training stint in the town of Takeda in Hyogo Prefecture where the Budo Senyokai conducted intensive practice seminars. The training in Iwama was conducted in the home of the town postmaster, Mitsunosuke Akazawa, father of Zenzaburo, the latter one of Ueshiba’s prewar uchideshi.

One person who participated in the Budo Senyokai training in Iwama was a young man named Shigemi Yonekawa who happened to be a relative of the Akazawas. Yonekawa soon became an enthusiastic pupil of aikijujutsu and entered Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo as an uchideshi later in 1932. In an interview in conducted in 1979, Yonekawa describes his introduction to aikijujutsu:

“… I was asked if I might not be interested in participating in a martial arts seminar [in Iwama] and so I decided to attend. Before attending this seminar, I had had some experience taking breakfalls in judo. So I helped out at the seminar under the mistaken impression that it would be a lot of fun. I practiced for four or five days but was totally out of my element. The teacher handled me with great ease and I was so impressed by the uniqueness, subtlety, and depth of this art that I knew I wanted to learn it.

When I talked to Mr. Fujisawa he told me to come with him and be his assistant. We traveled around Ibaragi Prefecture and when we arrived in Tokyo he introduced me to Ueshiba Sensei. I was told that the fastest way to learn the art would be to become an uchideshi. Then I requested Mr. Akazawa’s help and he asked Ueshiba Sensei’s permission on my behalf. That’s how I joined as an uchideshi.”

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating atemi prior to executing technique. Noma Dojo, 1936

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating atemi prior to executing technique. Noma Dojo, 1936

Yonekawa went on to become one of Morihei’s top assistants and earned a permanent place in aikido history by serving as Ueshiba’s uke in the famous series of technical photos taken in 1935 at the private dojo of famed Kodansha founder Seiji Noma.

The Akazawa home where training took place is still standing in Iwama today and is used for town Omoto gatherings. On display are photos of the foundress Nao Deguchi, Onisaburo and his wife Sumiko and the interior looks much the same as it did some 70 years ago when it was used as a make-shift dojo for Budo Sen’yokai training sessions.

Aikijujutsu training in Iwama came to an abrupt halt in December 1935 when the Japanese government brutally suppressed the Omoto religion in the notorious Second Omoto Incident. Many of the top Omoto leaders including Onisaburo and his wife were imprisoned and some, notably Hidemaro Deguchi, tortured. Morihei escaped incarceration only due to the intervention of one of his students who happened to be the Osaka prefectural police chief at that time. Even Zenzaburo’s father Mitsunosuke was detained for several weeks.

Preparing a retreat in Iwama

Although the Budo Senyokai practice sessions had been suspended, Ueshiba’s connection with Iwama had been firmly established. In the late 1930s, Morihei began discussing the idea of building an outdoor dojo away from Tokyo to serve as a training facility. He had been teaching at the Toyama Military School for army officers and at various other military institutions for a number of years. However, Ueshiba was limited as to the type of training he could conduct. He wanted to set up a dojo in a setting removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo where he could engage in more realistic practice. Mitsunosuke Akazawa mentioned earlier—whose son Zenzaburo was then one of Ueshiba’s uchideshi—assisted Morihei in the purchase of about 4 or 5 hectares of land in Iwama and plans were made to construct an outdoor training facility. Ueshiba began visiting Iwama as the open-air dojo was being constructed starting about 1939.

At the same time, the advent of the Pacific War led to the rapid depletion of members of Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo as his young students were inducted one by one into military service. By 1942 there were only a handful of students practicing in the Kobukan Dojo.

Even though there were few students at his dojo, 1942 was a hectic year for Morihei as he was conducting classes at several military institutions simultaneously. In earlier years, Ueshiba had been assisted by his leading uchideshi who helped him teach by making the rounds to the various military facilities. Now few were left to assist in this capacity. The Pacific War was in full swing and the first bombing raids on Tokyo had begun. Although originally conceived as a retreat for intensive budo training, Morihei’s land in Iwama now offered a refuge for him and his wife to escape the dangers of Tokyo.

Morihei began to plan his move to Iwama in stages. He built a 36-mat dojo as a private training facility and also a small shrine dubbed the “Shinden,” both completed in 1942. This shrine was dedicated to a budo deity and ceremonies presided over by Omoto priests, further evidence that Morihei’s faith in the Omoto religion had not wavered despite the occurrence of the Second Omoto Incident. As a further important step toward his retirement to Iwama, Morihei appointed his son Kisshomaru—then a 21-year-old Waseda University student—as the Dojo-cho of the Kobukan Dojo and turned over most administrative responsibilities as well. Kisshomaru was assisted in the operation of the the dojo by Minoru Hirai who later went on to create Korinkai Aikido.

“Retirement” to Iwama

Morihei Ueshiba in 1942

The founder became quite ill toward the end of 1942 with an intestinal ailment and this may have affected the actual timing of his withdrawal to Iwama. The contrast with his hectic life in Tokyo was dramatic as rural Iwama had only a few thousand residents. As Ueshiba recovered from his illness, he began to devote his time to farming, training and meditation. His few aikido students consisted mainly of local youths and members of families of Omoto believers who still had to keep a low profile after the crushing blow dealt the religion in 1935. Freed for the first time in many years from heavy teaching duties, the founder could at last pursue his personal training and ascetic activities without distraction. He made the Iwama dojo and the surrounding fields into a training laboratory. There Morihei experimented with endless variations of techniques while continuously making refinements, and further expanding his awareness and ability to perceive his opponent’s intent.

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