“The role of this much maligned religious sect in the launching of Morihei’s career, and the subsequent birth and spiritual emphasis of aikido cannot be overstated.”
Early in my career as a researcher into the life of Morihei Ueshiba, I was misled by two prevailing myths concerning the history of aikido. The first was that Daito-ryu jujutsu was merely one of a number of older martial arts that influenced the technical development of aikido. This proved to be a misrepresentation of historical fact in that Daito-ryu was, technically speaking, by far the predominant influence on aikido. The second myth was that Morihei Ueshiba had something akin to a “star” status within the Omoto religion that placed him almost on a par with Onisaburo Deguchi, and that he was somehow a “non-member” member of the sect. (1) This view, too–in retrospect absurd on its face–proved easily refutable after a cursory research into Morihei’s involvement in the religious sect. Both of these viewpoints were promoted by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in the postwar years to enhance perceptions of Morihei’s status and originality as the founder of aikido, by downplaying the pivotal roles played by Sokaku Takeda and Onisaburo Deguchi in Morihei’s career.
In this article, I will focus on the events surrounding the launch of Morihei Ueshiba’s career as a martial artist on opening his “Ueshiba Juku” in 1920, and the role of Onisaburo Deguchi, co-founder of the Omoto religion, in introducing the aikido founder as a “martial art kami (deity)” to the rapidly growing Omoto religious network.
Morihei in Hokkiado
First, a bit of background information. Prior to Morihei’s relocation to Ayabe in 1920, he had lived in a remote area of Hokkaido for seven years as a settler, together with a group of families from his hometown of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture. From the standpoint of the development of aikido, the most notable aspect of his stay in Hokkaido was Morihei’s meeting with famous jujutsu master, Sokaku Takeda, and his subsequent training in Daito-ryu jujutsu. Morihei trained intensively in Daito-ryu under Sokaku for a period of about five years. In other articles and books, I have made a case for the substantive role of Daito-ryu in the evolution of Morihei’s martial techniques that would eventually culminate in modern aikido.
Morihei’s abrupt departure from Shirataki village in Hokkaido, soon to be followed by his relocation to Ayabe, came about as a result of his receipt of a telegram containing news of the serious condition of his father Yoroku back in Tanabe. Hastily departing, on his way home, Morihei detoured to spend a few days at the center of the Omoto religious sect in Ayabe, in the vicinity of Kyoto, to pray for his father’s recovery. There, Morihei met and was captivated by the personality and spirituality of Onisaburo Deguchi, charismatic leader of the religion.
Arriving too late to see his father before his passing, Morihei fell into a state of depression and displayed a bizarre pattern of behavior for several weeks. His psychological distress at the loss of his father led him to impulsively decide to move with his family to Ayabe in search of inner solace among the community of Omoto believers.
Rapid growth of Omoto and the 1921 Reconstruction Theory
Morihei in Ayabe c. 1921
Ayabe in the spring of 1920 was bustling with activity amidst the explosive growth of the religion and its burgeoning influence on Japanese society. With significant amounts of money flowing into its coffers due to the thousands of new converts, the religion purchased large plots of land in Ayabe and nearby Kameoka in 1919. It would undertake a number of large-scale construction projects in furtherance of church expansion plans in these towns. Then in the fall of 1920, the Omoto acquired the Taisho Nichinichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, for use in proselytizing the sect’s widespread activities.
Despite its rapid growth, there was a serious rift between factions within the Omoto religion. At the center of this division was a man named Wasaburo Asano. Asano had abandoned a distinguished academic career to join the Omoto religion. He was promoting an apocalyptic vision including a series of catastrophic events predicted to occur in Japan in 1921 based on his interpretation of the prophecies of Nao Deguchi, the illiterate peasant woman who founded of the Omoto sect. The so-called “1921 Reconstruction Theory” (Taisho Junen Setsu) prophesized major social upheaval in Japan, followed by entry into a full-scale war with the United States. Not surprisingly, such extreme rhetoric from within the powerful Omoto religion led to close scrutiny of sect activities by government authorities.
Wasaburo Asano (1874-1937)
This Wasaburo Asano is a key actor in our story of the establishment of the Ueshiba Juku due to his prominence within the sect, his extensive contacts in naval circles, and the activities of his older brother, Seikyo, as a student and supporter of Morihei Ueshiba. Wasaburo enjoyed great prestige as top-level scholar and a former professor of English at the Naval Academy. He eventually developed a keen interest in psychic phenomena and abruptly cut short his academic career to become a member of the Omoto sect in 1916. Wasaburo quickly rose to a position of second-in-command in the sect just below that of Onisaburo Deguchi himself. The faction that Wasaburo headed was at odds with the supporters of Onisaburo’s views that favored a more conservative approach to interpreting Nao’s prophecies, without mentioning a specific deadline for their fulfillment.
Wasaburo’s joining the religion was a coup for Onisaburo because of his lofty reputation in the academic world, and also his strong connections to influential naval officers as a result of his tenure at the Naval Academy. In addition, Wasaburo’s elder brother Seikyo, a high-ranking naval officer–who later became a Vice-Admiral–also joined the sect due to his brother’s influence and relocated to Ayabe. The two Asano brothers cemented a powerful link between the Omoto and the Imperial Japanese Navy, from whose ranks the sect drew many members.
Onisaburo was fond of surrounding himself with people of high social standing from various walks of life. This included not only military officers, but politicians, businessmen, artists, scholars like Wasaburo Asano, and the focus of this article, an exceptional man of budo.
Enter Morihei Ueshiba
This is where Morihei Ueshiba enters the picture. Soon after his arrival at Ayabe in the spring of 1920, Morihei became accepted as a member of Onisaburo’s inner circle. This was attributable to several factors. Obviously, Onisaburo realized early on that Morihei’s talents as a martial artist made him an excellent choice to serve as one of his personal bodyguards. For similar reasons, Morihei was perfectly suited as a martial arts instructor for the community of Omoto believers, specifically for younger members who formed the backbone of the various auxiliary groups that Onisaburo was fond of forming. Morihei also possessed extraordinary physical strength that impressed all with whom he came into contact, making him an ideal candidate as a leader.
It turned out that Morihei would prove useful in yet another way. Vice-Admiral Seikyo Asano whom we mentioned above went on reserve status in 1920 following a distinguished naval career and moved to Ayabe. He would soon become a devoted student of Morihei’s Daito-ryu and use his influence to spread the word of his teacher’s prowess within navy circles which included many officers who were martial arts aficionados. This strengthened Onisaburo’s “in” within the naval world, potentially providing a buffer against repercussions by the increasingly antagonized government for some of the sect’s more extreme practices that made it unpopular.
Morihei’s usefulness did not end here. Having just spent seven years on the frontier in Hokkaido, Morihei had ample experience as a community leader, and a good understanding of infrastructure building and agriculture. This knowledge would be invaluable to the sect as it undertook farming activities on a scale designed to feed the large number of members that had gathered in and around Ayabe and nearby Kameoka, the site of its administrative headquarters. Moreover, he would organize and head an Omoto fire brigade that also ended up serving the town of Ayabe.
Finally, Morihei as a person had some fine personal qualities that Onisaburo quickly spotted. He was in his own right very charismatic, totally devoted to Onisaburo and his agenda, and thus a trustworthy lieutenant to serve at Deguchi’s side not only as a bodyguard, but as a confidant.
Opening of Ueshiba Juku
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