“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 TheoryAyabe 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 AsanoThis 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 JukuIn any event, shortly after his arrival in Ayabe, Onisaburo encouraged Morihei to move into a residence near the sect’s headquarters, and devote a portion of it to setting up a home dojo. Here, he would teach his martial art to members of the local community consisting mostly of Omoto believers. Various Omoto higher-ups also joined in the training. Onisaburo even had his daughter Naohi (later Omoto’s Third Spiritual Leader) practice in Morihei’s dojo.
Onisaburo promoted Morihei shamelessly, praising his extraordinary skills as a martial artist and superhuman strength. Given his quirky nature, Onisaburo would also incite strong men and martial artists who happened to show up to challenge Morihei by boasting how there was a local budo man with a big head who ought to be “taken down a notch or two!”
Morihei’s new home dojo is said to have occupied an 18-tatami mat space. Onisaburo brushed a calligraphy for Morihei with the characters “Ueshiba Juku,” which was proudly displayed on one wall. Later, a vertical placard was added bearing the kanji “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu,” as can be seen in a photo of the interior of Morihei’s “Juku” dating from around 1922.As we have seen earlier, enrollment in Morihei’s home dojo was not limited exclusively to Omoto members. Vice-Admiral Asano’s enthusiastic endorsement of Morihei led to a continuous stream of naval officers coming from the nearby naval base at Maizuru, curious to observe Morihei’s art and practice Daito-ryu. It is not known exactly when Seikyo began training under Morihei, but it is recorded that he went on reserve status in the fall of 1920, around the time of the opening of the Ueshiba Juku. Also, Seikyo received a kyoju dairi certificate—an advanced level recognition in Daito-ryu–from Sokaku Takeda in September of 1922 which suggests that he began training under Morihei shortly after his arrival. The Vice-Admiral continued his practice in Ayabe for several years.
Also worthy of note is the fact that one of Morihei’s nephews, Yoichiro Inoue, a devout Omoto believer then only 18 years old, was among the regulars of the Ueshiba Juku. Since Inoue would have been the most experienced practitioner in Daito-ryu, having studied under Sokaku Takeda and his uncle Morihei in Hokkaido, it is likely that he was called upon to instruct at the Ueshiba Juku during Morihei’s absence.Kisshomaru mentions Inoue’s name in passing as a member of the Ueshiba Juku and as a later “eminent master of martial arts” without citing the blood connection. The young Inoue would go on to become one of the most important instructors to assist Morihei during his early years teaching in Tokyo and Osaka. Much later, Inoue had a parting of the ways with his uncle that accounts for Kisshomaru’s reluctance to credit him for his early role in spreading Aiki Budo, the name of the art used by Morihei during the 1930s. Inoue would establish his own school called Shinwa Taido, later renamed Shin’ei Taido, after World War II.
An interesting aside in connection with the roster of students purported to have practiced at the Ueshiba Juku is the error made by Kisshomaru in his biography of Morihei. Together with Seikyo Asano, Kisshomaru cites the name of Vice-Admiral Saneyuki Akiyama as among the famous people who practiced at Morihei’s dojo. This Admiral Akiyama was a naval hero who distinguished himself during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) as a strategic genius. Akiyama did indeed develop a deep interest in religion toward the end of his life, and even became a member of the Omoto religion. The problem is that he died in February 1918, more than two years prior to the opening of the Ueshiba Juku.
Since Kisshomaru’s 1977 biography is considered one of the most authoritative sources on Morihei’s life, it is puzzling that such an obvious mistake could have found its way into the final text, especially given the fact that it was edited and published by the prestigious Kodansha Publishing Company. At the very least, it reflects a desire to seed the roll of Morihei’s students at that time with still another famous name.
A guess as to the source of this error is that Morihei–keenly aware of the exploits of the famous naval officer (2)–dropped Akiyama’s name in conversations over the years. Kisshomaru may have remembered hearing Akiyama mentioned by his father, and erroneously assumed that he was a student at the Ueshiba Juku due to his known association with the Omoto religion. Also, Morihei was famous for speaking off the cuff and jumbling historical facts, so it is even conceivable that Ueshiba himself was the source of the mistake. In any event, this error persists to this day in both the Japanese-language original and translated versions of the Morihei biography.
First Omoto IncidentBarely a few months after opening the Ueshiba Juku, the bustling activity within the sect precincts in Ayabe came to an abrupt standstill due to the occurrence of the so-called “First Omoto Incident.” The Omoto’s wide-scale and often provocative activities, especially the publication of material concerning the 1921 Reconstruction Theory advocated by Wasaburo Asano, and the unending stream of Omoto propaganda emanating from the recently acquired Taisho Nichinichi Shimbun, brought it under close government scrutiny and constant surveillance.
Finally, on February 12, 1921, a contingent of more than 100 police, prosecutors, and inspectors raided the sect’s Ayabe headquarters early in the morning. In the aftermath of the raid, Onisaburo, Asano, and one other Omoto higher-up were arrested and charged with lese-majesty and violation of the Press Law. Government agents sought unsuccessfully to find incriminating evidence and overall had a weak case against the Omoto. Nevertheless, they undertook to destroy several of the sect’s shrines and other buildings thus severely disrupting life in Ayabe. The Omoto would eventually recover from this traumatic episode only to become the victim of a second persecution 14 years later at which time Morihei would barely escape arrest.
To be sure, the government crackdown had an effect on attendance at the Ueshiba Juku. Apart from the disruption caused by the police raids and interrogation of sect leaders, visits from the naval officers that had been coming to train from Maizuru ceased likely due to the scandalous nature of the accusations against the religion. For the next three or so years, most of the attendees at the Ueshiba Juku consisted of local Omoto believers.
Sokaku Takeda appears in AyabeIn April of 1922, an event occurred affecting the operation of the Ueshiba Juku that to this day remains shrouded in controversy. Morihei’s jujutsu teacher, Sokaku Takeda, suddenly arrived in Ayabe at Morihei’s home. Ueshiba family and Omoto sources claim that Sokaku arrived unannounced and uninvited. In contrast, Sokaku’s son, Tokimune, states that Morihei invited Sokaku to come because he, being a small man, was having difficulties handling the powerful young naval officers who came to train at the Ueshiba Juku. There are theories to support both sides of the argument which would warrant a separate discussion that we won’t pursue here.
During Sokaku’s stay, it appears that Morihei and Sokaku had discussions concerning the changes made by Ueshiba to Daito-ryu techniques, and it was decided that Morihei would henceforth call his art “Daito-ryu aikijujutsu” as opposed to the “Daito-ryu jujutsu” designation used up to that point. This is important in the sense that the use of the term “aiki” was introduced for the first time to refer to Morihei’s art and later became incorporated as part of “aiki-do,” the name adopted in 1942 and used to this day.
Suffice it to say that Sokaku stayed through September of that year and took over teaching duties at the Ueshiba Juku while living with several members of his family in Morihei’s home. At the end of his stay in Ayabe, Sokaku awarded Morihei a kyoju dairi teaching certification and a Shinkage-ryu sword transmission scroll. It is clear that Onisaburo disapproved of Sokaku’s presence among the community of believers, and pressured Morihei to get him to leave Ayabe by offering monetary and other gifts. For his part, Sokaku disliked religion and openly made his disdain known while in Ayabe.
Mongolian ExpeditionThere was a hiatus of several months in Morihei’s teaching at the Ueshiba Juku starting in February 1924 as he and several others from Onisaburo’s inner circle accompanied the sect leader on an ill-fated expedition to Mongolia. Ostensibly, Onisaburo and his party traveled to Mongolia in an effort to establish a Utopian colony. In reality, this excursion was intricately interwoven with Japanese efforts to gain military and political control over Manchuria and Mongolia. In this sense, because of his high-profile status, it appears that Onisaburo served as a pawn in these schemes carried out by interests of the Kanto army and right-wing groups active in this region. For Onisaburo, Morihei and members of their party, the Mongolian expedition turned out to be a nightmarish adventure during which they were captured by rebel forces and nearly executed. Events surrounding this episode were widely reported and sensationalized in the Japanese media due to the controversial nature of the Omoto sect and the ever flamboyant behavior of Onisaburo Deguchi. All the publicity surrounding the Mongolian adventure had the effect of reviving interest in the sect’s activities on the return of Onisaburo’s party to Japan. Kisshomaru states that the naval officers from Maizuru resumed coming to the Ueshiba Juku to study under Morihei.
After the harrowing adventure in Mongolia–apparently a life-changing experience for Morihei–he entered a deeply introspective period where he contemplated the meaning of life and death and his future course. It is during this time frame that Morihei recalled an enlightment experience in Ayabe where he responded to a challenge from a naval officer who was a kendo expert. Morihei was able to see his opponent’s movements as flashes of light thus enabling him to easily evade every attack attempt. This episode is recounted in various forms in a number of Kisshomaru’s books mentioning the early career of his father.
Morihei’s teaching duties at the Ueshiba Juku also gave rise from time to time to invitations to teach at branch locations, mainly in the Kansai, San’yo and Kyushu regions. He kept an enrollment book (eimeiroku)–also a practice adopted by Sokaku Takeda–on these trips to record the names of the students he taught, a few pages of which still survive. The aikido branch dojo in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, for example, traces its origins back to the Ayabe period.
Seikyo Asano introduces Morihei to Admiral TakeshitaAt this point, it would be instructive to elaborate on the key role of Vice-Admiral Seikyo Asano in introducing Morihei to powerful naval figures who contributed greatly to the futherance of his career. One of Seikyo’s classmates at the Naval Academy was a man named Isamu Takeshita. Takeshita was not known for his war exploits, but instead served as a military attache during a good portion of his naval career. He was a linguist, and traveled and lived abroad on numerous occasions. Takeshita participated as a translator-advisor in negotiations leading to the Portsmouth Treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese war. He was a fluent speaker of English and became close to President Theodore Roosevelt, acting as a go-between for Roosevelt and judo founder Jigoro Kano to arrange for a jujutsu teacher to be sent to Washington, DC to teach the American President.
Seikyo persuaded Takeshita–by then an Admiral and a dyed-in-the-wool martial arts enthusiast–to travel to Ayabe to see Morihei demonstrate in 1925. The impression Morihei’s demonstration left on Takeshita was profound, and he returned to Tokyo totally convinced that Ueshiba was truly a martial art genius. He presented a glowing recommendation of Morihei to retired Admiral Gombei Yamamoto—a two-time former prime minister—that led to Morihei being invited to Tokyo to give a demonstration before a select group of attendees at Takeshita’s residence. This, in turn, led to offers for Morihei to conduct a series of seminars for various groups of elites in Tokyo. Henceforth, Admiral Takeshita played an active role in promoting Morihei’s activities among the cream of Japanese society.
Morihei didn’t immediately relocate to Tokyo partially due to sensitivies on the part of some of the powerful interests in Tokyo who felt prejudice against him because of his connection with the Omoto sect. He made several trips to the capital for seminars for the next two years, and finally in 1927 with Onisaburo’s blessing, moved his family to Tokyo after the constant urging of Admiral Takeshita and other supporters in Tokyo. Although it is not noted in books on aikido history, his nephew Yoichiro Inoue moved to Tokyo with him and accompanied Morihei wherever he went as his assistant. Inoue was present at most of the major events that occurred in this time frame and can be seen in many photographs, usually unidentified.
Interestingly enough, the anti-Omoto bias sometimes expressed in postwar era writings on aikido has a counterpart in an anti-Morihei sentiment that has existed within the ranks of the Omoto religion since the time of the Second Omoto Incident of 1935. In various Omoto studies, little acknowledgement is given to Morihei’s prominent role in the sect during its heyday of the 1920s and 30s apart from an occasional mention of him as the founder of aikido. Part of this has to do with the events of the second government crackdown when Ueshiba escaped arrest and incarceration, a fate suffered by many of the top members of the sect. This was due to Morihei’s connections within the Osaka Police Department who sequestered him when the police sought to arrest him. Another reason for this bias is the fact that Yoichiro Inoue–also known later as Hoken and Noriaki–became estranged from his uncle in later years but remained very active in the Omoto sect after World War II. In fact, there existed two groups within the Omoto practicing aikido techniques for many years, one loyal to the Ueshiba family tradition, and the other practicing as Shin’ei Taido under Inoue Sensei. Naohi Deguchi’s son, Kyotaro, who authored one of the important biographies of his grandfather Onisaburo, was a student of Inoue. His work only mentions Morihei in passing.
Aikido as a global phenomenon has surpassed the Omoto religion many times over in terms of the number of adherents. Nevertheless, the role of this much maligned religious sect in the launching of Morihei’s career as a martial artist, and the subsequent birth and spiritual emphasis of aikido cannot be overstated. As with the case of Daito-ryu and Sokaku Takeda, the impact of the Omoto religion and philosophical views of Onisaburo Deguchi on Morihei’s spiritual development have been downplayed in an effort to boost Ueshiba’s image as the founder of aikido. Morihei’s establishment of the Ueshiba Juku in Ayabe more than 90 years ago at the behest of Onisaburo Deguchi marked the beginning of his career as a professional martial arts instructor. It also represented a milestone along the path leading to the creation of modern aikido.
Las Vegas, April 2011
(1) “O-Sensei’s Fame Spreads,” by Kazuhiko Ikeda: “Thus [Morihei] sold all his possessions in Tanabe including his house and land and with his wife, Hatsu, moved to Ayabe. He built a home on the outskirts of the city of Hongu and called on Deguchi at the Omoto Headquarters everyday. At that time, Ueshiba was strongly attracted by the personality of Deguchi and deeply respected him as a spiritual guide. He became a personal follower. However, this is not to say that Ueshiba became a member of the Omoto sect. In particular, he did not identify with some of the individuals who gathered around Deguchi.” [italics added]
“The Birth of Aikido,” by Kazuhiko Ikeda: “During that period O-Sensei was greatly influenced by Deguchi in religious matters and integrated this perspective into his martial art-oriented mind. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Ueshiba embraced the Omoto doctrine wholeheartedly, but rather that the thoughts expressed by Deguchi stimulated a religious sentiment in Ueshiba.” [italics added]
(2) “On the Martial Ways of Japan – The Training of Unification of Body and Spirit,” by Moritaka [Morihei] Ueshiba. “As the Baltic fleet of Czarist Russia was approaching our national waters, the hardships faced by Admiral Togo and his men, including Shimamura and [Saneyuki] Akiyama, were more than words can express. They were almost unable to eat or sleep. Their one thought was to beseech the “kami” to preserve this imperial nation. One night Captain Akiyama had a vision of the Baltic fleet in a single line heading north in the Tsushima straits between western Japan and the Korean Peninsula. When the later related his dream to his commanding officer, Admiral Togo realized that the enemy fleet must be going to pass that way and so it was that our nation’s plan of battle was decided [by this dream].”
The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.
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