Kobukan Dojo Era (Part 1) by Stanley Pranin

Formal portrait of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba taken inside the Kobukan Dojo c. 1935

Formal portrait of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba taken inside the Kobukan Dojo c. 1935

Part 2 of this article is available here


In April of 1931, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, opened a private dojo in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo called the “Kobukan.” This dojo served as the center of the founder’s activities for more than a decade and is intimately related to the subsequent birth of aikido, Japan’s spiritual martial art.

During the Kobukan period, Morihei Ueshiba rubbed shoulders with the elite of Japanese society associating with luminaries from military, political, business and religious circles. Though not politically motivated himself, Morihei taught and interacted with many of the leading figures of the times, men who had deep respect for his incredible martial skills and who would shape Japan’s destiny as it hurtled toward war on the continent and in the Pacific.

In this short span of time, Morihei juggled a seemingly impossible teaching schedule that had him on the move all throughout the Tokyo and Kansai areas each month. His activities and achievements during this time span are so numerous and so fundamental to the emergence of modern aikido that that this topic deserves special scrutiny. To that end, we propose to divide our study into two parts.

The first section appearing in this issue of Aiki News will cover Morihei’s activities in Tokyo leading up to the opening of the Kobukan Dojo, the actual launch of the dojo, its most significant figures, the search for Morihei’s successor, the Budo Senyokai, expansion to the Kansai area, and finally the Second Omoto Incident and its aftermath.

Part two to be published in Aiki News 132 will discuss Morihei’s military and political associations, aiki budo in Manchuria, the establishment of the Zaidan Hojin Kobukai, the Dai Nippon Butokukai and the “naming” of aikido, the wartime uchideshi, and Morihei’s technical and grading systems.

Morihei’s activities from 1925-1931

The Kobukan Dojo was established after Ueshiba had spent about six years instructing in various temporary locations in the Tokyo area. His ties to Tokyo came about in large part due to the efforts of Admiral Isamu Takeshita, a long-time martial arts enthusiast. The relationship between Takeshita and Ueshiba began as a result of the introduction of another naval officer, Rear Admiral Seikyo Asano. Asano was a believer in the Omoto religion and began to practice Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu with Morihei in Ayabe in 1922. Thoroughly engrossed in the study of Morihei’s Daito-ryu, Asano recommended him to Takeshita, his classmate at the Naval Academy in Tokyo.

Admiral Isamu Takeshita
Admiral Isamu Takeshita (1869-1949), patron and
avid student of Morihei Ueshiba

Takeshita journeyed to Ayabe in 1925 to view Ueshiba’s budo and left totally convinced that Ueshiba was an exceptional martial artist. Upon Takeshita’s return to Tokyo he presented a glowing recommendation of Ueshiba to retired Admiral Gombei Yamamoto—also a two-time former prime minister—and this led to a demonstration before a select audience at Takeshita’s residence. Henceforth, Admiral Takeshita played an active role in promoting Ueshiba’s activities among the elite of Tokyo society. Morihei made a number of trips to Tokyo from Ayabe to give seminars. This resulted in many military officers, government officials and wealthy persons becoming devotees of Ueshiba-style Jujutsu.

After Morihei’s move to Tokyo in 1927, he taught assisted by his nephew Yoichiro Inoue in a succession of temporary locations. Training took place first at Shiba in Shirogane, then Mita Tsuna-cho, followed by Shiba Kuruma-cho, and finally, in 1930, Mejiro. Morihei’s reputation had spread by word of mouth to the point that no more students could be accommodated in these small training facilities. Under these circumstances, a permanent solution was called for.

Soon donations were collected from Ueshiba’s circle of patrons to build a full-time dojo. Among the wealthy contributors to the dojo fund was a certain Koshiro Inoue who was related to Morihei by marriage. Koshiro’s brother Zenzo had married Morihei’s eldest sister Tame in the late 1800s in their native town of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture. The couple had eight children the fourth of whom was a boy named Yoichiro. Yoichiro’s uncle Koshiro built his fortune in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in the 1890s around the time of the Sino-Japanese War. Yoichiro—about whom we shall hear more later—was of course also Morihei’s nephew and his closest student at this time. Yoichiro would frequently tap Koshiro for funding for Morihei’s budo activities and Koshiro is said by surviving relatives to have made a large donation toward the building of the Kobukan Dojo.

Jigoro Kano
Jigoro Kano, Founder of judo (1860-1938)

After collecting sufficient donations and with the assistance of the wealthy Ogasawara family, Morihei succeeded in purchasing a plot of land in the Ushigome district of Shinjuku. The move to Mejiro was a temporary measure while construction of the new dojo was being completed. It was during the Mejiro period that judo founder Jigoro Kano made a special visit to observe a demonstration by Morihei. Highly impressed, Kano sent two of his top judo students—one of whom was Minoru Mochizuki—to engage in intensive training under Ueshiba. Another memorable event from the Mejiro period was the visit of General Makoto Miura who came to the Mejiro dojo to challenge Morihei. Miura had been a student of Sokaku Takeda some 20 years earlier and considered Morihei an upstart who had strayed from the Daito-ryu path. However, the General was powerless against Morihei’s technique and ended up becoming a long-time student and supporter.

Kobukan Dojo opening

Before describing the grand opening of Morihei’s Tokyo dojo, mention must be made of a rather unusual event that took place just prior to the inaugural ceremony. Morihei’s Daito-ryu jujutsu instructor, the famous Sokaku Takeda, taught a seminar at the new dojo from March 20 to April 7, 1931. This is known because an entry bearing Morihei’s name and seal appears for these dates in Sokaku’s enrollment book (eimeiroku). Certainly, Sokaku had prior knowledge of the opening of Morihei’s private dojo because the two maintained a correspondence over the years. However, none of the circumstances of his visit to the Kobukan Dojo on this occasion are known. Sokaku visited Morihei periodically from the 1920s until the mid-1930s, sometimes without prior warning. The relationship between the two had become strained in recent years as Morihei had struck out on his own as a budo instructor. Morihei had been certified as a Daito-ryu aikijujutsu instructor in 1922, but the financial arrangement between the two remained somewhat vague and this proved to be a bone of contention. At this period of his career Morihei was well into the process of modifying the techniques of Daito-ryu into the more flowing, less jujutsu-like movements that would characterize his later aikido.

Enrollment book of Sokaku Takeda
Entry from enrollment book of Sokaku Takeda dated April 7, 1931

The official opening ceremony took place later in April 1931 after Sokaku had left Tokyo and was attended by many dignitaries including several high-ranking army and navy officers. There is a rare group photo that preserves a record of those present on that occasion. Among the vip’s in attendance were Admiral Isamu Takeshita, General Makoto Miura, Rear Admiral Seikyo Asano, Admiral Sankichi Takahashi, Dr. Kenzo Futaki, Harunosuke Enomoto, and retired Commander Kosaburo Gejo. Some of Morihei’s uchideshi and students who were present were Yoichiro Inoue, Hisao Kamada, Minoru Mochizuki, and Hajime Iwata. Morihei’s wife Hatsu and son Kisshomaru were also on hand. Fittingly, a horizontal calligraphy brushed by Onisaburo Deguchi—Morihei’s spiritual mentor— that reads “Ueshiba Juku” is on display in the dojo tokonoma. This same calligraphy was displayed on the wall of Morihei’s first school, the “Ueshiba Juku,” located in the Ueshiba home in Ayabe in the early 1920s.

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