Morihei in Tanabe by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

“Unlike other periods in the life of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba, his
early years in Tanabe and family circumstances are not well documented.”


Historians, like scientists, are fond of coming up with theories. The scientist forms a hypothesis based on previous studies and his own observations and then proceeds to see how well his theory stands up to testing and experimentation. The historian, for his part, seeks to catalog facts and events and from them to glean an understanding of the actions and motives of the subjects of his research.

The minutiae recorded and cataloged by the historian serve as signposts that guide him through the maze of historical events and provide a means of testing out his hypotheses. An offhand comment by a relative, an old newspaper article or program, an object on display on the wall in the background of a photo, any of these seemingly insignificant details can hold the key to a new and important revelation.

Undated view of Tanabe ricefields

Unlike other periods in the life of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba, his early years in Tanabe and family circumstances are not well documented. Our principal sources of information on this period of Morihei’s life are the biography of Morihei Ueshiba published by his son Kisshomaru in 1977, later interviews and conversations with the author, and a few pages from the first biography of the Founder written by Kanemoto Sunadomari in 1969. To this can be added the recollections of members and relatives of the Ueshiba and Inoue families.

The information gleaned from the latter sources does not represent the aikido viewpoint, but has nonetheless proved valuable by shedding new light on Morihei’s early years and suggesting areas of discrepancy in the primary sources.

Given the limited data available on the Tanabe period, our main task here will be to recall the key events and influences on Morihei’s early years. We will also endeavor to identify those character traits and patterns of behavior that led to the formation of the man who would go on to create aikido.

Ueshiba Family Background

Undated fishing boat scene

In Japan of the Meiji Era, the family unit had a more decisive role in the life and career of an individual than it does today. With this in mind, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the major steps in Morihei’s life that prepared him for a career as a martial artist can be traced back to the influence of his immediate and extended families. This is the case early in his life when he tried his fortune as a merchant in Tokyo, on the occasion of his move to Hokkaido, and when he finally settled on a career as a martial arts instructor.

The Ueshibas

Morihei’s father, Yoroku, was born in 1843 and was a prosperous landowner who was engaged primarily in farming. He is reputed to have been a hot-tempered man of great physical strength with an interest in martial arts. Yoroku was also a prominent citizen of Tanabe and served on the Tanabe and Nishinotani village councils from 1892 to1910. Morihei’s mother, Yuki, was from the Itogawa family of Tanabe and was born in 1850. Interestingly enough, Morihei’s later bride, Hatsu, belonged to the same Itogawa family.

Yoroku and Yuki probably married in the late 1860s and their union produced a total of five children. Morihei was the only son and was born on December 14, 1883. His three older sisters were Tame, Hisano, and Chiyo. The last of the Ueshiba children was a daughter named Kiku.

A felicitous marriage

Chiyo Tanaka and Kiku Yodo, Morihei’s older and younger sisters

Before we proceed further recounting Morihei’s early years, we must make mention of an overlooked aspect of his family background that is pivotal to understanding the relationships that influenced his first decades.

About 1890, Morihei’s eldest sister Tame married a man from one of Tanabe’s wealthiest families named Zenzo Inoue. Zenzo built on the assets of a rich father and managed family business interests in several large cities including the developing region of Hokkaido. Zenzo had setup up a series of businesses in the Asakusa district of Tokyo in the 1880s with the assistance of his younger brother Koshiro. Zenzo later returned to Tanabe while Koshiro stayed in Tokyo to manage their businesses. Koshiro amassed great wealth during the time of the Sino-Japanese War mainly due to high demand for textile and other products he manufactured. Even today, Inoue descendents take pride in the the fact that Koshiro was a mentor of the famous Konosuke Matsushita.

The marriage of Zenzo and Tame cemented a bond between the Ueshibas and Inoues that would remain solid for several decades. They had a total of eight children, the 4th of whom was named Yoichiro. Yoichiro was a rebellious boy who caused headaches for his parents. He was sent to live with his uncle Morihei and his wife who at that time had no children. Yoichiro would later live in the Ueshiba household on two or three other occasions both in Tanabe and Hokkaido.

Zenzo Inoue in his later years

The fact that Morihei’s sister Tame was a suitable bride for the wealthy Zenzo provides another indication of the social status of the Ueshiba family. Besides being a village council member, Yoroku was a well-to-do man who lived with his family in a large farming house of about 100 tsubo (=3,550 square feet or 330 square meters). Although Yoroku was well off, Zenzo was extremely wealthy and this fact and the testimony of family members suggest that Zenzo had a prominent role in many of the joint family activities that ensued.

Boyhood in Tanabe

Morihei proved a sickly child and Yoroku, who loved his only son dearly, was very protective of his frail health. Though physically weak, Morihei was an intelligent boy with a good memory and a penchant for mathematics. His early education took place at a school attached to a local Buddhist temple (*terakoya*). Students were taught reading, writing, and basic mathematics. Since many of the textbooks used at these schools were written by priests, religious studies were also part of the curriculum. Morihei’s sister recalls that at about age seven or eight he studied the Chinese classics of Shingon Buddhism and displayed a keen interest in religious studies. It seems that Yuki, Morihei’s mother, wished for him to enter the priesthood. Yoroku, however, was of a different mind and opposed the idea.

Yoroku was always one to encourage Morihei to develop his body and one activity that served this end was the practice of harpooning that he was taught by local fishermen. Morihei spent a good deal of time on the ocean spearfishing. Kisshomaru is of the opinion that this training may be related to the founder’s later predilection for the spear (*sojutsu*).

As Morihei grew into his teen years he would frequently accompany his father making the rounds of local temples in the morning. At night, Yoroku would take him to the beach where Morihei would engage in sumo bouts with the sons of local fishermen in order to strengthen his body.

Kisshomaru describes one episode in particular that would have a profound effect on Morihei’s future course of physical training. It seems one day Yoroku was surprised in his sleep by a group of ruffians and this led to fisticuffs in Morihei’s presence. This violent event left a deep imprint on Morihei’s psyche and seems to have sparked his determination to transform himself into a man of strength.

Morihei’s teen years

In 1896, Morihei enrolled in the newly-opened Tanabe High School. However, he withdrew after only one year and entered a private abacus school with the aim of embarking on a career that suited his major academic strength which was mathematics. After graduating from the abacus school with high marks, Morihei landed a job at the local tax office as an auditor when he was about 16. It is difficult imagining someone like the founder who would later develop into a powerful physical specimen and martial arts expert manning a desk job and busying himself with calculations. Nevertheless, such was the case.

Morihei soon quit his tax office job to join alongside poor farmers who were protesting against the “Fishing Industry Law.” This involved a situation where wealthy fishermen had effected the passage of a law creating a monopoly that barred poorer fishermen from obtaining fishing licenses. Morihei’s principled stand at such a young age would not be the last time he would act impulsively in a way that would profoundly affect his career and the situation of those close to him.

To Tokyo to become a merchant

We have seen earlier how the Inoue family under the management of Koshiro had built a flourishing business in Tokyo in the last decades of the 19th century. In 1901, at the age of 17, Morihei set out for Tokyo with an eye to becoming a merchant. Considering the times and the personalities involved, the decision to move to Tokyo was quite likely a reached by consensus among members of the Ueshiba and Inoue families, especially, the two patriarchs, Yoroku and Zenzo. Parenthetically, the Inoues would later try a similar tact with Yoichiro. This attempt too was unsuccessful as Yoichiro also chose a career in the martial arts.

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