Why is Kisshomaru arguably the most important figure in aikido history, apart from his famous father Morihei Ueshiba, the art’s founder? Let me outline in brief the scope of his imprint on modern aikido within the context of the Aikikai system, the art’s dominant political entity.
When I met Kisshomaru Sensei in 1963 in Southern California during his first foreign visit, he appeared to be a rather shy, modest gentleman, possessed of a journeyman’s skills in the art. His soft-spoken teaching approach seemed designed to inculcate the basics of the art as taught at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo during this early time frame.
Kisshomaru was vastly overshadowed by the charismatic Koichi Tohei–parenthetically, his brother-in-law–who had already conducted numerous seminars abroad, especially in Hawaii, and was just beginning his foray into the mainland USA. Kisshomaru, by contrast, was seen primarily as the founder’s son and manager of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, being mostly occupied with administrative tasks. His role as an Aikikai instructor was seen as de rigueur given his position as Morihei’s son, but he was in no way regarded as a technical standout or gifted teacher in a league with Tohei.
When Koichi Tohei resigned from the Aikikai in May 1974, his absence left a huge void that had to be quickly filled for the Aikikai to maintain its prominence as the world’s premiere political body. It was at this point that Kisshomaru stepped forward to assume a leading role in all matters aikido-related, and began to actively reshape the Aikikai according to his vision while casting off Koichi Tohei’s heavy mantle.
Kisshomaru’s new activism took several forms. He worked systematically to standardize the aikido curriculum, and his efforts could soon be seen in the new generation of junior instructors, young men in their 20s and 30s, whose techniques began to closely resemble those of Kisshomaru. This was perhaps no more apparent than in the grooming process of his second son, Moriteru, as the successor to his position as aikido’s doshu. Moriteru’s technique became virtually identical to that of his father, and his pedagogical approach became likewise similar. Besides serving as the model for the young crop of Aikikai instructors, Moriteru’s education would insure the propagation of Kisshomaru’s technical and pedagogical legacy far into the future.
The last half of the 1970s and 80s also saw the publication of numerous technical books authored by Kisshomaru that laid out a formal curriculum that would form the basis for technical instruction within the Aikikai network. His son Moriteru began appearing in these texts as well, initially in a supporting capacity, and later in a more prominent capacity. These books played a strong role in promoting a common teaching approach among teachers and federations within the Aikikai system.
In a similar vein, Kisshomaru worked to create an official version of aikido history, starting with his biography of his father titled “Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido” in 1977. In addition to providing a great deal of previously unpublished material on his father’s life and the early years of aikido, Kisshomaru’s work staked out the official stance of the Aikikai on a number of sensitive historical issues. These included the following:
- the influence of Sokaku Takeda and Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu on the formation of aikido
- a Morihei-centric version of the founder’s involvement in the Omoto religion
- the minimizing of the extensive connections of early aikido to right-wing political and military figures and institutions
- the obscuring of the respective roles of Morihei’s nephew Yoichiro Inoue, Kenji Tomiki and Koichi Tohei in the evolution of the art
Kisshomaru skillfully appropriated the image of the founder disseminated by the Aikikai in the service of the organization’s views and goals for the greater aikido community. Morihei’s image served as proof of the unquestionable legitimacy of Aikikai authority, while retaining an opaque quality that resisted close analysis or alternate interpretation. Little by little, a form of “political correctness” took hold within the Aikikai system that discouraged independent historical research and publications of findings that fell outside the scope of acceptable boundaries in the portrayal of Morihei’s life and art.
During the late 1970s through 1998, I interviewed Kisshomaru Sensei for publication on about 12 occasions. I was able to witness first-hand the evolution of the Doshu’s thinking on various historical matters, and to identify sensitive areas that, for personal or organizational reasons, he chose to avoid or downplay.
Kisshomaru’s outwardly soft demeanor concealed a politically shrewd mind that he used in good stead in the furtherance of Aikikai organizational aims. During the last decade or so of his life, Kisshomaru created conditions whereby political rebels who had sided with Koichi Tohei on his split from the Aikikai could return to the good graces of the mother organization. His attitude of forgiveness where deep-seated wounds lingered will no doubt accrue to his credit on analysis by future aikido historians. Kisshomaru also had the foresight to accept various independent and desenfranchised federations into the Aikikai fold, in those instances where their size and cohesiveness met the necessary criteria.
By the 1990s, Kisshomaru’s status as the aikido world’s predominant figure had become cemented within the Aikikai sphere of influence. The unassuming, bespectacled son of Morihei Ueshiba had transformed himself into a force in his own right, and begun to receive fawning treatment wherever he went. Now an elegant, grandfatherly-like figure, he wielded unquestioned authority in all matters concerning the governance of the art within the Aikikai dominion. Kisshomaru’s stamp had been firmly impressed on aikido, and its future influence guaranteed for at least the next two generations through his son Moriteru, and grandson Mitsuteru.