Screencast: Focus on History — “Morihei Ueshiba’s Ill-starred Mongolian Expedition,” by Stanley Pranin

“If you have read anything about aikido history, you’ll remember that this expedition failed, and Onisaburo and his party — including of course, Morihei — were captured and nearly executed by the Chinese authorities.”

In this screencast, Stanley Pranin tells the fascinating story behind a rare photograph of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba taken in 1924 in Mongolia. The fact that this photo has survived is nothing less than a miracle!

Duration: 6:17 minutes

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Transcript of screencast

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

Today, we have a fascinating historical photo that many of you will seeing for the first time.

Let me give you some background. This photo was taken in 1924 in Mongolia. The man on the right is a 40-year-old Morihei Ueshiba. Do you recognize him?

The other man is Masazumi Matsumura. Matsumura was, incidentally, one of the scribes who helped to take dictations of Onisaburo Deguchi’s lengthy account of his spiritual experiences that was published under the title of “Reikai Monogatari.” This work consists of 81-volumes and is usually translated into English as “Tales of the Spiritual World.” This massive collection is considered one of the sacred texts of the Omoto religion. Morihei had a complete collection of Reikai Monogatari in his personal library and and is said to have read the entire text.

Now, back to our story of the photo.

Both Morihei and Matsumura were among Onisaburo’s party that secretly traveled to Mongolia with the stated objective of “fulfilling Omoto’s ultimate ideal of spiritually unifying the East Asian continent and then the rest of the world.” It was obviously a grandiose scheme.

There was very much a political and military aspect to Onisaburo’s Mongolian Expedition and he had close ties with the Japanese Kwantung Army –sometimes referred to as the “Kanto Army” — which had a growing presence on the continent. It was this army group that played a major role in the establishment of the Manchukuo–the Japanese-controled puppet government of Manchuria, that lasted from 1931 to 1945. Puyi –known as the “Last Emperor”– was the titular head of the government.

If you have read anything about aikido history, you’ll remember that this Mongolian Expedition failed, and Onisaburo and his party — including of course, Morihei — were captured and nearly executed by the Chinese authorities.

Now, let’s take a look at the photo. Notice that both men are dressed in Chinese clothing. They even adopted Chinese names during their stay. Morihei used the name “Wang Shou Kao.” Sorry I don’t speak Chinese!

Also, there is something very odd about the photo. This picture was taken somewhere in the middle of Mongolia. But the party had a photographer along with them despite the fact that they traveled through wilderness and a lot of rough terrain. Onisaburo was very conscious of the promotional potential of this grand adventure and took steps to document aspects of the trip. I have personally seen 20 or so photos taken on this expedition, and Morihei appears in several of them.

Now notice that both men are in meditative poses. Look in particular how Morihei’s fingers are interlocked. This is the form of a special meditative practice very popular within the Omoto religion called “chinkon kishin.” The kanji mean literally, “Calming the spirit and returning to the divine.” The popularity of chinkon kishin was one factor in its tremendous growth in the late 19 teens and early 1920s of the Omoto sect. A number of offshoots of the Omoto religion also incorporated this chinkon kishin into their rituals.

Morihei performed this form of meditation throughout his life, and it was an important part of his misogi, or purification, practice.

The subject of chinkon kishin and the Omoto religion is vast and very relevant to aikido history.

On a personal note, I believe I was the person to have first discovered this photo. I found it buried in a collection of thousands of photos in the Omoto archives back in the mid-1990s. It was glued in a photo album among many and had no identifying caption. Had it not been for the fact that I knew what Morihei looked like as a young man, and something about the Mongolian Expedition, I don’t think this amazing photo would ever have been discovered.

Shortly thereafter, it was one of my greatest pleasures to be able to present a copy of this photo to the Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the Founder’s son, who had never seen it.

Well, I think I’ll finish up my comments on this amazing historical photo here.

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


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  1. It looks like one of the Nine Esoteric Hand Seals (Kuji-in/mudra) from the Tantric Buddhist tradition/Shugendo.

  2. Aikiseeker says:

    Intresting, but even more amazing is the survival of another photo, the one where all of Onisaburos party are chained and brought out for a photo before execution, obviously their photographer had to be chained too, so who took the photo,and then handed back to Onisaburo as farewell present?:).. Anyway, thank you Stan for another great video on focus of aikido history.

  3. Without seeing the thumbs and the index fingers it looks like the Mudra for the diety practice of Fudo-Myoo from Tendai.


  4. George Ledyard says:

    Not surprising there was a photographer… back in the day the imperial powers often attached an intelligence person to all sorts of non-military expeditions to document the territory. Bet someone made maps…

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