Morihei Ueshiba and the Omoto Religion, by Stanley Pranin

Onisaburo Deguchi, c. 1920

Aikido is known internationally as one of Japan’s modern martial arts enjoying a reputation as a unique, ethically-based self-defense discipline. The Omoto sect was one of the most significant of the so-called “new religions” of Japan in the early part of the 20th century. At the height of its influence in 1935, it had nearly two million adherents before its brutal suppression at the hands of the existing military government. While Aikido and Omoto are not normally associated together in the public’s mind, there exists an inseparable link between the two due to the close personal bond between their two central figures, Morihei Ueshiba and Onisaburo Deguchi.

Morihei Ueshiba was a devoted disciple of Onisaburo Deguchi and long-time member of the Omoto Sect. Onisaburo—a towering figure in Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century—was Morihei’s spiritual mentor. His teachings and consistent support of Ueshiba were key factors in the latter’s development of aikido. The characters of these two giant figures are a study in contrasts. Moreover, it is fascinating to ponder aikido and Omoto as twin cultural phenomena and understand why aikido continues to spread worldwide while the dynamic appeal of Omoto of the prewar years has waned.

Omoto Overview

For those unfamiliar with the Omoto religious sect, I would like to provide a brief overview. The Omoto religion is a product of the combined efforts of two charismatic figures, one an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi (1837-1918), and the other, a flamboyant genius, Onisaburo Deguchi (1871-1948), under whose guidance the sect was propelled into national promience before its suppression in 1935.

Nao Deguchi led a destitute and tragic life losing her husband and several of her children at an early age. She was a devotee of the new religion of Konkokyo that worshiped a folk god named Konjin. In 1896, at the age of 56, pushed to the brink of despair by a life of unspeakable misery, Nao entered into a trance state lasting about two weeks. She was reported to have been possessed by a benevolent spirit who preceded all other gods in origin, power and universality.

Although illiterate, Nao began to take dictation from this sublime spirit in a script she herself was unable to read. Her character, especially after the initial trance experience, became extremely bizarre and she was confined to her room as a lunatic.

Nao’s writings proved full of revelations concerning the spirit world and contained a continuous stream of social criticism. Mankind was urged to mend its ways and create new structures of social justice while developing a new value system. Moreover, her vision was based on a universal God who regarded all human beings as equals. This ideal was, naturally, in conflict with state Shinto which placed the imperial family at the center of worship and revered the Emperor as the highest god.

Nao Deguchi, 1837-1918

Nao had begun to gather quite a local following in and around Kyoto, when in 1898, Onisaburo Deguchi appeared on the scene. Born Kisaburo Ueda, Onisaburo was an autodidact with a keen interest in shamanism who also had a series of trance experiences during which it was revealed that he had a spiritual mission to fulfill as a savior of mankind. Onisaburo was extremely intelligent, very eloquent and given towards flamboyant behavior.

Onisaburo married Nao’s daughter, Sumiko, in 1900, and the two joined forces in spreading the faith. They were remarkably successful in the early 1900s through their proselitizing and publishing activities and built a powerful nationwide network by the time Nao died in 1918.

Omoto’s overwhelming success proved its undoing as it became a constant source of irritation to the Japanese government. The heart of the matter was the universalist and humanistic approach of Omoto teachings which regarded all human beings as brothers and equals and which stood in stark contrast to the ultra nationalistic stance of the prevailing imperial establishment which imposed its view of Japan as the “land of the gods” on the nation. The Omoto was attacked and repressed by police troops in the so-called “Omoto Incidents” of 1921 and 1935 with Onisaburo and many sect leaders being tried and imprisoned.

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