Screencast: Focus on History — “Morihei and the Young Bucks of the Aikikai,” by Stanley Pranin”

“Learn what happened to the early uchideshi system and why”

In this screencast, Stanley Pranin analyzes a rare historical photo in which a number of the junior Aikikai instructors from the 1960s appear formally with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. He talks about each individual, and the uchideshi system which was replaced by the modern apprentice system.


Hi, I’m Stanley Pranin, and welcome to another episode of “Focus on History”

Today we’ll look at another historical photo that tells a fascinating story with several parallel threads. This picture was taken inside the Aikikai Hombu Dojo about 1965. First, let’s mention who appears in the photo. They are, from left to right: Minoru Kurita, Kenji Shimizu, Mitsugi Saotome, Mitsunari Kanai, Akira Tohei, then Wakasensei Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Shuji Maruyama, and Nobuyuki Watanabe. In the center seated is, of course, Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

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These young men were members of the Aikikai’s staff of junior instructors during this period. Four among them would later relocate abroad–all to the United States–and start a new phase of their careers as official representatives of the Hombu Dojo teaching in the USA.

Allow me to give a brief introduction of each of them in turn:

First, Minoru Kurita entered the Aikikai at the age of 17 in 1960 as an uchideshi at the urging of his older brother, Yutaka Kurita who preceeded him. The younger Kurita was one of the main uke for Morihei during the mid to late 1960s. Closely aligned with Koichi Tohei, Kurita left the Aikikai after the death of O-Sensei. He later founded an independent school called the Seikikai which is headquarted in Saitama Prefecture in Japan.

Kenji Shimizu joined the Aikikai in 1963 having come from a judo background. Being physically powerful and very talented, he quickly became one of the strongest of the junior instructors and a favorite uke of O-Sensei. In the mid-1970s, Shimizu parted ways with the Aikikai and established a private dojo in Tokyo called the Tendokan. A few years later, he began regular trips to Europe to teach aikido. Shimizu has an especially large following in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Mitsugi Saotome began his aikido training at the Kuwamori Dojo in Tokyo in the mid-1950s, and entered the Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi in 1961. He was a member of the corps of young instructors that served the Founder until his death in 1969. Saotome relocated to the USA in 1975, and later founded the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba organization headquartered in Florida. He remains active.

Mitsunari Kanai was accepted as an uchideshi at the Aikikai in 1959, being a school mate of another uchideshi, Kazuo Chiba. One of the group of junior instructors to go abroad, Kanai left the Aikikai for the USA in 1966, and settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He was one of the most important figures in the early development of aikido in North America.

Akira Tohei began training in Tochigi Prefecture under Koichi Tohei–no relation–in 1946. He began his practice at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in 1956. Tohei became an instructor at the Aikikai and outside dojos in 1963. He left Japan in 1972 to teach aikido in Chicago, Illinois as an Aikikai representative. He continued in this capacity until his passing in 1999.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of the Founder, was then known as “Wakasensei” and taught regularly while administering the Hombu Dojo. He left a strong technical stamp on postwar aikido and was a formative influence on many of the junior instructors of the Aikikai. Kisshomaru oversaw the daily operations of the dojo and the growing Aikikai organization. Following O-Sensei’s passing, Kisshomaru became the Second Doshu, and directed the Aikikai until his death in 1999. He is succeeded by his son, Moriteru, the Third Doshu.

Shuji Maruyama entered the Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi around 1959. He trained there for several years until being dispatched to Akita as the Aikikai representative. After two years in northern Japan, he returned to Tokyo before being sent to the USA in 1966 whereupon he settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When Koichi Tohei resigned from the Aikika in 1974i, Maruyama opted to follow him, but eventually established an independent aikido organization called the Kokikai in 1986. He is now based in Nagoya, Japan, and regularly visists his affiliated dojos in the USA.

Nobuyuki Watanabe joined the Hombu Dojo about 1963, later becoming a member of the teaching staff. Watanabe taught at the Aikikai for many years and is well known for his “no touch throws” that he has displayed at demonstrations and on television.

Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, seated in the center of this photo, appears formally dressed in kimono as was his practice. During the 1960s, the Founder divided his time between Tokyo and his country home in Iwama. He also indulged in frequent travels to teach and socialize, especially to the Kansai area where he was born and raised. Thus, Morihei’s presence at the Aikikai was unpredictible, and he did not teach at the Hombu Dojo on a fixed schedule. Nonetheless, O-Sensei was such a powerful presence that he profoundly affected these young instructors who were of a particularly impressionable age.

This would be a good opportunity to mention something about the changeover at the Aikikai from the traditional uchideshi system to the modern apprentice system for developing professional instructors. This change took place around 1963. Formerly, the uchideshi or live-in students actually lived in the Hombu Dojo together with the Ueshiba family. Although it proved to be an effective system to develop skilled young aikido instructors, it was a huge burden on the Ueshiba family who bore most of the expenses and inconveniences of this communal life. The growing popularity of aikido made it impractical to continue in the traditional way, and thus the uchideshi system was abandoned.

Thus, people like Kanai, Maruyama, Kurita, and Saotome who appear in this photo actually lived in the Ueshiba family residence which was attached to the Ueshiba Dojo. The others including Shimizu, Aikira Tohei, and Watanabe–who joined later, lived outside and commuted to the dojo. They began to draw a small salary as well.

Another point worth stressing is the fact that many of the best young instructors were sent abroad during this period as the Aikikai wished to stimulate the development of the art in foreign lands. In addition to the four instructors in the photo who departed, people such as Nobuyoshi Tamura, Seiichi Sugano, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Kazuo Chiba, Katsuaki Asai, and others left the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for foreign countries to spread the art. This resulted in a major depletion of the teaching staff and the continual need for new personnel to replace them.

Well, that winds up this presentation where we take you back to an earlier era of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and acquaint you with a number of the individuals who were instrumental in the spread of aikido, both in Japan and abroad.

Thanks for joining me on another episode of “Focus on History.” See you next time!


  1. I have a question.
    I am new to all this! I will start Kokikai Aikido within a week.
    My Question is, Is the Kokikai org. a completely independant organisation or is it aligned with another.

    • Kokikai is an independent organization headed by its founder, Maruyama Sensei. It is not aligned or affiliated with any other school or organization.

  2. Stan-

    I know that both Saotome Sensei and Kanai Sensei lived with the founder for a long period of time but I’m not sure of the others in the photo. Can you tell me which of the pictured instructors actually lived with the Ueshiba family. I have been told that some “uchideshi” had their own home and came to the dojo daily to train.

    Would you comment on what you know on the subject.


  3. Alex R. says:

    I remember when Kanai,Sensei first came over to America. He stayed for a time at our dojo (We had a small living quarter above the dojo. He also visited my parents home for some home style american cooking..) and I helped him with his English, and he would teach me iaido and aikido. He left for the New York Aikikai then Boston. I believe that Maruyama Sensei was first in Cleveland in 1966 – 67 because I remember visiting him with Tohei Shihan when he was on a tour of the U.S.A. But he then came to stay at our dojo the same as Kanai Sensei had. At that time, I was teaching at U of P in Philly and I turned the class over to Maruyama Sensei. Maruyama Sensei. is known to have a nice katana collection. I can share how he found some of his swords. While Maruyama Sensei was with us he and I would spend time together. I took him to a flea market and showed him a store that had katana for sale. They were in a barrel and sold for $26.00 or a little more depending on what the vendor wanted. Sensei bought a few of them. (Ah if I only knew then. I was 17 at the time.) He then moved to Philly and started his career. Hope you don’t mind me adding a little of my old memories to the thread.

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