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.

In any event, Morihei remained in Tokyo for only about a year and did not find the business world to his liking. Noteworthy of his stay in Tokyo was the fact that he began his formal martial arts training when he enrolled in the Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu school of Tokusaburo Tozawa (1848-1912).* Morihei’s practice was relatively short–only a few months–and he soon contracted beriberi at which time he returned to Tanabe to recuperate.

* Kisshomaru speculates that Morihei’s teacher was actually Takisaburo Tobari, a well-known instructor of Kito-ryu jujutsu. This has proven to be an error and we have been able to corroborate the existence of Tozawa at that time in Asakusa. This mistake has been repeated in many books over the years some of which are still in print and therefore I have felt a need to note it here.

Off to War

Back home in Tanabe, Morihei soon recovered from his illness. In 1903, he married Hatsu Itogawa, a member of the same local family as his mother Yuki. Intermarriage among relatives was quite common at this time especially in rural areas. This was presumably an arranged union that would eventually bear four children.

This time frame corresponded with a significant moment in Japanese history. Japan had gained political and military influence over Korea during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and had recently become concerned with Russian activities in China, especially Manchuria. Japan also had designs on Manchuria that pit it squarely against the Russians. By 1903, anti-Russian sentiment in Japan was on the rise. While attempting to negotiate agreements to protect its interests on the continent, Japan went about preparing for war.

The oldest surviving photo of Morihei Ueshiba as a soldier in the Japanese Imperial army c. 1905. Morihei is standing last row third from the left.

A patriotic fervor gripped the nation and many young men began volunteering for military service. Morihei, who was still looking for a direction in life, was among those who wished to serve his country and embark on a path of adventure. Just married and without children, Morihei joined the 37th Army Infantry Regiment of Wakayama in late December 1903. He apparently had difficulty being accepted into military service because he was slightly under the minimum height requirement. Kisshomaru relates that Morihei did all sorts of stretching and hanging exercises in an effort to gain the additional height needed to enlist. After several months of trying to pass the entrance exam he was finally inducted

Morihei’s military career lasted some three years. He became very muscular and physically fit and excelled as a soldier. Morihei was particularly skilled in bayonet practice and eventually became a training instructor. He was later sent to Manchuria, but it is not clear whether he saw front-line action or served in a support role where he was not in physical danger. In later life, Kisshomaru explained that he had doubts about the story of Morihei having seen action in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War because usually those sent to the front were not the first sons–and thus successors–of the families providing soldiers.

As a side note, one of the persons involved in the peace settlement of the Russo-Japanese War mediated by Theodore Roosevelt known as the Portsmouth Treaty was a certain Isamu Takeshita. Takeshita was at that time a commander in the Japanese Imperial Navy and was serving as a military attaché and translator in Washington, D.C. Commander Takeshita would some 20 years later become one of Morihei’s most important patrons and students and played a key role in introducing the aikido founder into military circles.

During his years of military service, Morihei managed to enroll in a Yagyu-ryu jujutsu dojo in Osaka and commence training in this classical art that may also have included some weapons training. [Kisshomaru equivocates about whether Morihei enrolled in the Yaguy-ryu school before, during, or after his military service]. Since he was on active duty and spent part of his tour in Manchuria, it is not clear how long or to what degree he studied this art. Morihei did maintain ties with this school even after leaving the army and returning to Tanabe. It seems that his involvement with the Yagyu school continued from 1904 to 1908 at which time he received a transmission scroll. However, this scroll lacks a seal from Morihei’s Yagyu-ryu teacher and there is some doubt as to what level of proficiency he may have actually achieved.

From Kisshomaru’s account, Morihei’s had a favorable record during his army stint and reached the rank of sergeant. He was recommended to go on to the Army Toyama School to become an officer. However, after carefully thinking over his future, he decided against a military career. As an only son there was certainly the expectation on Yoroku’s part that Morihei would succeed him as head of the family.

Restless years

Morihei arrived home to Tanabe in 1906 after his discharge from the army. As Kisshomaru points out, the founder had failed in his attempt to become a merchant and had opted against a military career in deference to his father’s wishes. Thus he found himself without a clear direction on what occupation to pursue.

Morihei’s behavior became very erratic and his family feared that he was headed for a mental breakdown. During this period, he would be the victim of fits of depression and lock himself in a room immersed in prayer. Or he would go up into the nearby mountains and engage in ascetic practices and fasting.

Kumagusu Minakata

In 1909, Morihei found an outlet for his energies in a political cause with religious dimensions. The government attempted to carry out a proclamation concerning the merger of minor shrines (*jinja goshi*) that was opposed locally by the famous biologist Kumagusu Minakata (1867-1941). The effect of this government drive was to consolidate and thereby eliminate thousands of smaller shrines all over the country. Another aspect of this policy involved the development of forested areas on lands owned by the shrines.

Minakata was even arrested at one point during the protests that often bordered on violence. Kisshomaru calls the founder’s role in this affair that of a “warrior general.” This may have to do with the fact that Morihei was a physically strong, impulsive type of person at this time. He appears to have spearheaded many of the actual actions taken against the government policy under the direction of Minakata. Without more research, I would be hesitant to aggrandize the role of Morihei in this instance as has been done in connection with his part in the colonization of Hokkaido.

Training in judo

Another activity became a part of Morihei’s life beginning in 1911. Yoroku was always looking for ways to channel his son’s interests in positive directions. An excellent opportunity presented itself when a judo teacher by the name of Kiyoichi Takagi (1894-1972) happened to visit the Tanabe area. Yoroku took advantage of the occasion to persuade Takagi to remain and teach his son. Given the fact that Yoichiro Inoue was living in Morihei’s home at that time and also practiced judo, it is likely that Zenzo Inoue also had a role in arranging the judo training and setting up a dojo. For a time an active dojo operated where Morihei, Yoichiro, and other locals trained under Takagi.

Kiyoichi Takagi

It has been pointed out that Takagi later became a famous judoka who achieved the rank of 9th dan. The implication seems to be that Morihei received judo instruction from a top-level expert. The truth of the matter is that Takagi was only 17 years old at that time and, even though possessed of a powerful physique, still would not have developed a high-level of technical sophistication at such a tender age.

It is difficult to know how seriously Morihei studied judo, but it did serve to at least partially channel his abundant energy. It also complemented his earlier training in Yagyu-ryu jujutsu. Considering that Morihei was so emotionally unsettled during this period, the fact that he was actively engaged in planning the Hokkaido colonization project, and since it is hard to identify any trace of judo in his later art, it may be concluded that his study was not that deep.

Tanabe and the settlement of Shirataki

In aikido circles, the story of the colonization efforts in Hokkaido of a group of settlors from Tanabe is well-known. In this context, Morihei is portrayed as the driving force behind the settlement of what would become Shirataki by the group from his hometown. He is also described as the central figure of life in the fledgling village who led community activities, provided funds for poorer residents, and served as a sort of advisor.

Although he surely did play a prominent role in the colonization effort, this view of the founder seems to be rather an exaggeration. Let us briefly examine what is known about the involvement of the inhabitants of Tanabe in the settlement of Hokkaido prior to Morihei’s appearance on the scene. The first major drive to colonize this frontier took place shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1869. Incentives were offered by the new government to Japanese who wished to seek out a new life in what was primarily a wilderness area.

As early as 1891, a group of about 350 settlors from Tanabe relocated to Aibetsu-mura, Ishikari-gun. The town of Aibetsu is located only about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the site of Shirataki where Morihei and his compatriots later settled. The Aibetsu settlers established the Kinpo farm, an agricultural operation that continued until about 1941.

In addition, Zenzo Inoue appears to have lived in Hokkaido with his wife Tame for an unknown length of time prior to 1912, the year when Morihei and the group of local settlers left Tanabe. Zenzo apparently set up a factory in Hokkaido although no specifics relating to the type of business or its location are known.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba writes that a certain Denzaburo Kurahashi, a former soldier-farmer (*tondenhei*) who had previously lived in Hokkaido, appeared in Tanabe and generated a lot of interest among local residents including Morihei. Kurahashi urged them to launch another expedition to create a new settlement in an uninhabited area of Japan’s northernmost island.

As can be gleaned from the above, Morihei was not among the first in Tanabe to embrace the idea of relocating to Hokkaido, but rather was part of a tradition that had seen its start at least 20 years earlier. In fact, many regions of Japan contributed to the colonization of Hokkaido due to the government push to exploit its vast resources and to provide a buffer against Russia which was active to the north of this region. The choice of the site that later became Shirataki seems obviously related to the proximity of the earlier settlement in Aibetsu.

Yoichiro Inoue at about age 23

Given the influence of Yoroku and Zenzo on key decisions earlier in Morihei’s life and Zenzo’s long-standing interest in Hokkaido, it is likely that Morihei was encouraged by his extended family to join the colonization effort. After all, he still had not settled on a career and had engaged in a number of activities that brought embarrassment to his family.

It should be noted also that Zenzo, Tame and several of their children moved to Shirataki after the initial settlement was established. Moreover, it is clear that Morihei had his father’s support in this venture since Yoroku and Yuki relocated to Hokkaido too. The elder Ueshiba even moved the family register to Shirataki, an obvious indication he intended to stay permanently. Yoichiro Inoue, about 11 years old at the time and a member of the Ueshiba household, accompanied Morihei’s parents and baby daughter Matsuko to Hokkaido.

Brief return to Tanabe

Morihei spent seven years in Hokkaido from 1912 to the end of 1919. It was there that he met for the first time Sokaku Takeda and began training in Daito-ryu jujutsu, the art that would provide the technical basis for aikido. Morihei’s return to Tanabe was prompted by the critical health condition of Yoroku who had returned to his hometown about two years earlier.

Even though the timing of Morihei’s departure from Shirataki was abrupt, he was actually planning to move back to Tanabe anyway. There had been a devastating fire that razed Shirataki in 1917 that destroyed most of the town including the Ueshiba home. Shortly thereafter, Morihei’s parents and most of the Inoues moved back to Tanabe. In July 1919, Morihei made a trip down to his hometown with his wife and daughter during which time a dojo opening ceremony was held. Morihei’s idea was to succeed his father as head of the family and teach Daito-ryu jujutsu in Tanabe. Had Yoroku lived longer, Morihei’s career would having taken an entirely different turn.

When Morihei finally arrived in Tanabe early in 1920 after a week-long detour to meet Onisaburo Deguchi of the Omoto religion, Yoroku had already passed away. Morihei again fell into a state of depression owing to his father’s death and the feelings of guilt he was experiencing not having been at his father’s bedside when he passed on. What little spiritual solace he had was due to the powerful attraction of the personality of Onisaburo whom he could not forget.

Morihei moved his family to Ayabe, a community populated mainly by Omoto believers, in the spring of 1920. He wished to be near Onisaburo and to pursue a spiritual path through a study of the doctrine and practices of the sect. Morihei’s stay in Ayabe and involvement in the Omoto religion has been well documented and it bears a strong relationship to the later founding of aikido.

Later visits to his hometown

Following Morihei’s stay in Ayabe he moved to Tokyo in 1927 to pursue a career teaching Daito-ryu aikijujutsu as a certifed instructor of Sokaku Takeda. Yoichiro was very much a part of this process of establishing a teaching base in Tokyo and his uncle Koshiro was a frequent contributor when funds were needed.

Statue of Morihei Ueshiba erected in Tanabe park

In the following years, Morihei made occasional trips to Tanabe to visit relatives and conduct training seminars. Some of the trips to Tanabe and other towns in Wakayama Prefecture were in connection with the activities of the Budo Senyokai (Society for the Promotion of Martial Arts), an Omoto-affiliated organization that he headed and that ceased to exist after 1935.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, his visits to his birthplace were infrequent mainly due to the hardships created by the Pacific War and its aftermath. Finally, starting about 1955 while having his primary residence in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture, Morihei began to travel about with some regularity. By the 1960s he was dividing his time between Iwama and Tokyo and making frequent excursions to the Kansai region. His usual circuit included visits to Osaka, Tanabe and Shingu.

Today in Tanabe, some relatives of the Ueshibas and Inoues still remain, although many family members have dispersed to far-flung locations throughout Japan. Despite the great distance in years separating Morihei’s boyhood in Tanabe from the present, both extended faimilies remain cognizant of the widespread success of aikido and the roles of Morihei Ueshiba and his nephew Yoichiro Inoue in its creation.

Stanley Pranin
Las Vegas, Nevada
November 2002


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