Yoichiro Inoue: Aikido’s Forgotten Pioneer by Stanley Pranin


“That such an important contributor to the development of the art has been given such short shrift in aikido histories is an inexcusable omission”

Noriaki (Yoichiro) Inoue (1902-1994)

Morihei Ueshiba is universally recognized as the founder of aikido. Historians of this martial art mention to varying degrees the significant roles of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and the Omoto religion in providing the basis for Ueshiba’s technique and spiritual beliefs, respectively. Similarly, the founder’s debt to such benefactors as Admiral Isamu Takeshita, Kenji Tomita, Kinya Fujita, and others who assisted him over the years is clearly acknowledged. Several of Ueshiba’s early students including Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei, and his son Kisshomaru are also widely known for their contributions in spreading the art in the postwar period as the heads of their respective organizations. In contrast, the name of Yoichiro Inoue is mentioned only occasionally as one of Morihei’s early students who also happened to be his nephew. That such an important contributor to the development of the art has been given such short shrift in aikido histories is an inexcusable omission and one that I hope to right through the article that follows.

Because of a lack of historical context presented in Morihei biographies published thus far, one is easily left with the impression that the founder made several major life decisions that proved key to the subsequent birth of aikido primarily on his own initiative. I refer specifically to such important events as his stay in Tokyo in 1901 with the intention of becoming a merchant, his relocation to Hokkaido as a settler in 1912, and his precipitous move with his entire family to the Omoto religious community in Ayabe in 1920. The reality of the matter is that the wealthy Inoue family of Tanabe to which Yoichiro belonged played a significant part in all of these major life choices of the young Ueshiba. The Ueshiba-Inoue family link is an undeniable fact of history and the names of Zenzo and his son, Yoichiro, as well as Zenzo’s younger brother Koshiro emerge with conspicuous frequency in connection with Morihei Ueshiba from around the turn of the 20th century through 1935.

The Inoue Family

Zenzo Inoue

Yoichiro’s father, Zenzo, was born in Tanabe about 1861. He was the patriarch of the Tanabe Inoue family and it appears that he inherited his wealth from his father Isuke. Zenzo married Morihei’s eldest sister, Tame, about 1889 and together they had eight children, the fourth of whom was Yoichiro. Yoichiro was born in Tanabe in 1902 making him Morihei Ueshiba’s junior by 19 years. Zenzo owned a great deal of property in Tanabe and elsewhere and was involved in various manufacturing activities.

Zenzo and his younger brother Koshiro relocated to Tokyo around 1887 at the urging of their father Isuke. They both achieved success in business, but Zenzo later returned to Tanabe leaving the business ventures they had established together in the hands of Koshiro. At a later date, Zenzo operated a clothing business in Kyoto as well. At various points in his career Koshiro was involved in the soapware business, metal goods and paper manufacturing and sales. According to his son, Koshiro made his fortune during the Sino-Japanese War period when he provided a range of products of necessity that were in short supply. Eventually, Koshiro would become one of the top ten of Japan’s highest taxpayers and a mentor of Konosuke Matsushita, founder of the Matsushita group of electrical appliance companies.

Morihei works for Koshiro in Tokyo

Koshiro Inoue

Apart from the marriage of Zenzo and Tame, the first recorded instance of the involvement of the Inoue family in the affairs of Morihei occurs when the 19-year-old Ueshiba relocated to Tokyo in 1901. Since it is known that Morihei was apprenticed to Koshiro to assist in the latter’s businesses in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, it would appear obvious that this career decision was taken jointly by family members including Morihei’s father, Yoroku and Zenzo.

As fate would have it, Ueshiba stayed in Tokyo for less than a year under the tutelage of Koshiro. Nonetheless, this period is significant in terms of Morihei’s development in the martial arts. It was at this time that he underwent his first formal training in Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu jujutsu under Tokusaburo Tozawa. Morihei returned to Tanabe later in the year after falling ill with beriberi, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 in the diet common to Japan at that time.

Entering the Japanese Imperial Army

In 1903, Morihei married Hatsu Itogawa and in December of the same year joined the 61st Army Infantry Regiment of Wakayama, just prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. It was during his period of army service that Morihei commenced a study of Yagyu-ryu jujutsu which he continued practicing occasionally even after his return to Tanabe following his discharge in 1906. Although Morihei’s study of this jujutsu school was more extensive than his earlier exposure to Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu jujutsu, the exact nature of his study and what if any effect it had on the later development of aikido remain unknown.

Judo for restless youths

The years after his discharge from military service were difficult ones for Morihei as he found himself already in his late 20s, married and still unsettled on a career. For his part, Morihei’s nephew Yoichiro Inoue proved to be a rebellious youth whose unruly behavior would soon get him expelled from school. Around 1911, Yoichiro’s grandfather Yoroku, with the support of Zenzo, decided to invite a young judo instructor named Kiyoyuki Takagi who was traveling in the area to come to Tanabe. Their idea was to use judo practice as a means of channeling the youthful energies of their sons Morihei and Yoichiro and his brothers. Yoichiro recalls his grandfather as a very kind, charitable man of great physical strength who had a love for the martial arts. It is worthy of mention that Takagi later became a famous judo instructor achieving the rank of 9th dan.

Morihei, the Inoue brothers along with other neighborhood youths spent a year or two practicing judo in their free time until the departure of Takagi from Tanabe. It should be kept in mind that Takagi, although a large, powerful young man, was only about 17 years old at that time and Morihei was some 11 years his senior. Yoichiro states that Morihei was distracted by other responsibilities and did not practice judo consistently while Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, says that his father trained enthusiastically. My personal impression is that Yoichiro–who was physically present–is correct about Morihei being at times distracted as will become evident in the paragraphs that follow. Further, no less an authority that Sadateru Arikawa points out that there was no trace of judo techniques in Morihei’s aikido.

Colonizing Hokkaido

During the period of 1910-11, Morihei strongly supported the efforts of noted botanist Kumagusu Minakata who opposed the government’s new policy of consolidating existing shrines in a given area. He was very active as one of Minakata’s lieutenants in the campaign against this policy that he perceived as a way to enrich corrupt politicians and businessmen. Despite this flurry of activity in support of a political cause, the solution to Morihei’s lack of direction in life lay in a decision to join in the effort to colonize Hokkaido, the sparsely-settled northernmost island of Japan.

After the Meiji restoration, the Japanese government placed great emphasis on the development of resource-rich Hokkaido and offered incentives such as cheap land to settlers. Morihei was among those seduced by the lure of adventure and ended up spending seven years in Hokkaido. In aikido histories published thus far, Morihei is portrayed as the leader of a group of settlers from Tanabe who became known as the “King of Shirataki,” a reference to the name of the village hewn from the wilderness by the Tanabe group. However, the history of the Shirataki years must be revisited as new research paints an entirely different picture of the circumstances of the colonizers from Tanabe. Here, too, the Inoue family plays a pivotal role.

Yoichiro stated in an interview that his family owned businesses in Tanabe, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Hokkaido. Moreover, one of Yoichiro’s sisters points out that Zenzo lived with his wife Tame in Hokkaido prior to the departure of the Tanabe group for Shirataki. The time frame would likely be sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century. This coupled with the fact that both Zenzo and Koshiro owned property in Shirataki makes it clear that the Inoues were active participants in the development of the northern island probably in some way connected with their various business interests. Also, Zenzo is reported to have provided funding for the group of settlers from Tanabe.

A more believable picture of the expedition to Hokkaido based on such evidence emerges where Zenzo, as the wealthy patriarch of the Inoue family, arranges with his father-in-law Yoroku, and perhaps other Tanabe elders for the dispatch of volunteers to Hokkaido. In this context, the young and passionate Morihei was probably chosen to fulfill various leadership functions under the guidance of Zenzo, Yoroku, and company.

Morihei appears to have enthusiastically embraced the colonization effort. Kisshomaru reports that Morihei was also strongly influenced by Denzaburo Kurahashi, a farmer-soldier (tondenhei) who had already spent time in Hokkaido and filled Morihei’s head with tales of its great potential. Morihei fiirst traveled to Hokkaido in 1911 with Kurahashi to scout out a suitable area for the establishment of a settlement. It is not known whether Zenzo or others might have accompanied them to Hokkaido on this occasion.

Map of Hokkaido with Shirataki shown by red dot

An area in the Okhotsk region known as Yubetsu was chosen as a suitable site to settle. The Tanabe colonists would found a village named Shirataki located about 30 miles inland from the Sea of Okhotsk in the northeasternmost part of Hokkaido. Today, there are some 26 municipalities in this region with a combined population of 350,000 that has been steadily decreasing since reaching a peak in 1960.

Morihei and the Tanabe contingent actually departed from Wakayama to settle this area in March of 1912. The group consisted mainly of second and third sons of farmers and fishermen who could not expect to receive an inheritance. In this regard, Morihei was the exception as Yoroku’s only son. The initial group was followed later by other settlers from Tanabe and other areas of Japan. All participated in the clearing of the land and building of the village. The first years proved full of hardships because of the severity of the weather and poor crop harvests. With time, however, lumbering, dairy farming, and the cultivation of peppermint, rice and other crops began to take hold and the village knew a certain degree of prosperity.

Yoichiro to Shirataki with the Ueshibas

Back in Tanabe, the ill-behaved Yoichiro had benn entrusted to the Ueshiba family by Zenzo. Kisshomaru once stated in an interview that Yoichiro spent part of his early years in the Ueshiba household and then rejoined them at the age of 12. With Morihei already in Hokkaido, Yoichiro was presumably overseen by Yoroku and his wife Yuki, together with Morihei’s wife Hatsu who had recently given birth to a baby girl. When interviewed years later, Yoichiro recalled how he came to leave for Hokkaido:

“When I was in the fifth grade of elementary school [about 1914], I went on strike! My teachers had a hard time handling me. My father thought I was unmanageable and sent me to Hokkaido to let me run loose. I would not have gone otherwise. I became well-behaved after I went to Hokkaido…. Ueshiba’s parents went with me.”

Since there is only anecdotal information on the various travels of parties to and from Tanabe to Shirataki, we can only make educated guesses about the time-lines involved. Morihei’s wife Hatsu and daughter Matsuko and his parent eventually made the trip to Shirataki with Yoichiro in tow as did Zenzo and Tame. It may be that all of them journeyed together. The year is probably 1914. According to the late Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Yoroku actually moved his family register (koseki) to Shirataki, so it is clear the elder Ueshiba went with the intention of staying.

Given that the total number of Ueshiba and Inoue family members in Shirataki during these years comes to at least nine, the image of the 31-year-old Morihei as the “King of Shirataki” in charge of the entire Tanabe group seems quite an exaggeration. Rather, an accumulation of evidence points to a more realistic picture of a joint effort on the part of prominent citizens of Tanabe including Zenzo and Yoroku to organize a settlement operation carried out with the participation of Morihei and other young Tanabe residents. It would be probably be fair to assume that Morihei was placed in charge of various tasks because of his great vigor and talent for dealing with people and due to the influential roles of Zenzo and Yoroku in the Hokkaido venture.

Encounter with Sokaku Takeda

Sokaku Takeda in Osaka, 1939

Once in Shirataki, Yoichiro would soon be an eye-witness to an event directly related to the later development of aikido. In 1915, Morihei participated in a private seminar conducted by a jujutsu expert named Sokaku Takeda in the nearby town of Engaru. Yoichiro accompanied Morihei on this occasion and describes what happened in these words:

“It happened when I was thirteen. My uncle, Takeda Sensei, myself, and several others met in the reception room of the Hisada Inn. It was there I first found out about Daito-ryu jujutsu…. Since I was young I just watched the training. Usually they didn’t allow other people to observe their practice, and you had to pay even if you were only watching. That’s how secretive Takeda Sensei was in his teaching. He never showed his techniques. If someone came to watch, he would take him and throw him out; therefore, there were absolutely no peek holes in the dojo. I don’t think Sokaku Sensei could have made a living without having at least ten students.

One was not allowed to sit cross-legged while observing. I am now sitting cross-legged here with you, but in those days I would sit in seiza [formal position] wearing a hakama [pleated skirt]. I thought while I watched the lesson that this martial art school was different, and I didn’t want to learn it. When I met Takeda Sensei and he told me to practice with him I refused, saying I didn’t like his type of training. He said to me, “Little boy, do you want to practice with me?” I answered, “I don’t want to be taught by an old man like you!” But he didn’t get angry with me. He said, “Oh, I see. Do I look that old?” “You are an old man without any teeth!” I replied.”

In this passage one gains a glimpse of the rather irreverent character of the teenage Yoichiro, a trait that he would retain into old age and that was one of his most endearing characteristics. It also provides confirmation of the presence and participation of Inoue at this event that would bear so significantly on the path chosen by Morihei.

It is a well-known fact that Morihei became obsessed with learning Daito-ryu jujutsu from Sokaku. He soon convinced Takeda to relocate to Shirataki and live in his home to gain easy access to Daito-ryu instruction. Kisshomaru states that Sokaku taught Morihei and about 15 employees in Shirataki. Yoichiro’s father Zenzo and uncle Koshiro both owned property in Shirataki by this time and Zenzo actually lived there as we have seen. It is likely then that Morihei’s study of Daito-ryu along with Yoichiro and the «employees»points to the former’s involvement in Inoue business activities.

Zenzo and Yoroku fund sons’ Daito-ryu study

Sokaku soon established permanent residence in Shirataki due directly to his connection with Morihei and the extended family of Ueshibas and Inoues present in the village. There are numerous bits of evidence that taken collectively support this view. Probably the most convincing fact is that an undated entry in one of Sokaku’s ledgers (shareiroku) contains the signatures of Zenzo Inoue and Yoroku Ueshiba. A reasonable guess would be that the entry was recorded in 1915 or 1916. These ledgers record payments made to Sokaku for jujutsu instruction although no amount is indicated in this particular case.

Therefore, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it was Zenzo and Yoroku who financed Morihei’s study of Daito-ryu as asserted by Yoichiro:

“Morihei said he wanted to study the art, and so my father and Ueshiba’s father in Tanabe discussed the idea and built a dojo in Shirataki and Takeda Sensei was invited to teach…. They sent money to Takeda Sensei every month, although I don’t know how much. Our fathers certainly gave him what he needed for the rest of his life. My father also thought that it would be nice to have a budo man from our family. Ueshiba’s father did it out of affiection towards his child. There was no problem with money since my father owned a lot of real estate and was also actively engaged in business in Tokyo. I suppose the amount of money they sent was insignifficant to them. They had that kind of relationship with Takeda Sensei.”

It seems that the Inoues and Ueshibas went back and forth between Shirataki and Tokyo-Wakayama in connection with business matters. For example, we find Yoichiro in Tokyo sometime in 1915 or 1916. He stayed at Zenzo’s Tokyo house and was perhaps involved in the Inoue family business. Also, Yoichiro reports a visit by Morihei to Tokyo during this same time frame:

“In 1915 or 1916 when my uncle [Morihei] visited Tokyo, he came to my house in Kaya-cho all dressed up in formal wear. When my family asked him why he had dressed so formally to come to see them he said that he was finally going to become a jujutsu teacher! We all laughed about a farmer becoming a teacher of jujutsu. We then decided to practice on the second floor of our branch store. My older brother was alive then. Another younger brother of mine, who just recently died, was also alive. We all practiced together. My brothers enjoyed the practice a lot. The four of us, all young men, practiced at the house in Tokyo for about one week. I told them clearly that the art was just Daito-ryu.”

As a side note, it should be mentioned that Yoroku, Morihei and Zenzo contemplated for a time the idea of having Yoichiro and Matsuko marry since Morihei did not at that point have a male heir. [Kisshomaru was born in 1921.] I was told this by a member of the Inoue family and the story was confirmed by Morihiro Saito’s wife who in later years was very close to Hatsu Ueshiba. Neither of these two seemed interested in the proposition and the idea was abandoned.

The Great Shirataki Fire

The progress made by the Shirataki village settlers suffered a devasting setback in May 1917 when some eighty percent of the homes and structures in the surrounding area were destroyed by fire. This included the Ueshiba home. The villagers were in the habit of starting “controlled fires” to more quickly clear the land, but on this occasion strong winds pushed the fire out of control. The disaster led to the return of many Shirataki residents to Tanabe. Among them were Morihei’s parents, and Zenzo and Tame who were expecting their last child. Morihei, however, stayed in Shirataki and there proved to be a silver lining to the fire in that the village quickly recovered from the disaster as the task of clearing the forest was greatly facilitated.

Yoichiro’s discovery of Omoto

Leaving things in Hokkaido for a moment, another event of fundamental importance to the future of aikido occurred in Tokyo around 1917. The Omoto religion–whose driving force was now the colorful and charismatic Onisaburo Deguchi–was engaged in intensive recruiting efforts in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas. The Omoto religion was a so-called “new religion,” one of a number of Shinto-based sects that sprang up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Japan. It was started by a poor farm woman named Nao Deguchi in the early 1890s. Onisaburo later married Nao’s daughter and became the “co-founder” of the Omoto religion.

Onisaburo Deguchi

Yoichiro apparently first learned about the religion when he attended a lecture given in Ueno probably in 1917. There is some discrepancy regarding the exact year and circumstances of Yoichiro’s initial exposure to the religion. Nor is it known if he actually saw or met Onisaburo on this occasion. Likewise, there is only anecdotal information concerning Yoichiro’s first visit to the Omoto in Kyoto Prefecture. In any event, his involvement with the religion clearly predates that of his uncle Morihei.

Aikido writers thus far have asserted that Morihei first became acquainted with Omoto in 1919 as he was rushing back to Tanabe from Hokkaido when notified that his father was near death. Considering that Yoichiro and his family were already informed about the relgion as early as 1917, Morihei certainly had prior knowledge of Omoto while still in Hokkaido. It should also be mentioned that Morihei’s elder sister Tame, Yoichiro’s mother, was a devout Konkokyo believer. The central deity in this older Shinto sect is “Konjin” viewed as the parent god of heaven and earth and the god of love. In Omoto, the main deity is “Ushitora no Konjin,” a god probably related to the Konjin of Konkokyo. Even though Shirataki is a relatively remote location, there were several waves of settlers from other prefectures in addition to the Tanabe group who would have brought news of happenings in other parts of Japan. Also, as we have noted above, there was a fair amount of travel to and from Shirataki on the part of its residents.

Morihei departs Shirataki

As we have seen, the great Shirataki fire, even though of devastating proportions, did not break the will of all of the village residents. Morihei remained for about two-and-one-half years after the disaster. He was even elected to the 12-member village council of Kami Yubetsu in June 1918. In this regard, he was following in his father Yoroku’s footsteps as the elder Ueshiba had served as a member of the Tanabe town council for many years.

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