“Did Morihei ever injure or kill anyone? Here is what we know…,” by Stanley Pranin

Morihei Ueshiba at Kobukan Dojo c. 1936

A recent blog on Aikido Journal that touched upon the subject of competition in martial arts resulted in a rather animated discussion. One reader wrote an interesting comment from which I will quote a few of lines:

“… [O-Sensei’s] art and attitudes changed over the course of a lifetime. He lived in a time when defending one’s well-being against an opponent was not a voluntary act, and he no doubt maimed and killed a number of human beings. I have no doubt that in his later years he would frown on competition just as other masters of his era did, but this is a different era. In his younger years, he joined the military and went to war; he injured human beings and took lives. Aikido philosophy is no doubt heavily influenced by that fact.”

[Excerpt slightly edited. -Ed]

I had quite a strong reaction, especially to the part of there being “no doubt” that Morihei had “maimed and killed a number of human beings.” The voice inside me protested that this was simply not true. Then I thought about it for a while and realized that some readers of Morihei’s biography might conclude that such incidences may have taken place.

So let’s take a look at what we know about Morihei on this subject during his early years. As far as injuries go, this would presumably refer to various fights that Morihei had participated in as a young man. Kisshomaru refers to various altercations in which Morihei was involved as a youth in Tanabe. The accounts are few and vague and no serious injuries, and certainly no deaths, are mentioned.

By the time he reached his twenties, Morihei was a powerful young man with a certain amount of martial arts training under his belt. There is no record of him having seriously injured anyone at that point in time either, although I suppose that the possibility cannot be ruled out. The period we are referring to here is approximately 1900-1910, which includes a hiatus during which he served in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War.

Morihei was apparently a model soldier known for his physical prowess and stamina. Some earlier writings that contain biographical information on O-Sensei refer to him having experienced action in Manchuria and being a brave soldier. Perhaps during that time he may have been a participant in engagements on the battlefield. There is a brief mention of his wartime battlefield experience in the “Remarkable Japanese” article series published in the old Aiki News, but no details are given. Morihei may have seriously injured or killed enemy soldiers at that time. At least this is the initial impression I had when I started my research.

However, some years later, Morihei’s son, the Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, had the following to say about his father’s military service:

“My father didn’t participate in actual battle [in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05]… At that time only sons were valued highly and it was the custom to try not to send them into actual battle. I think that is the reason. Although it is said that his activities were recorded, I doubt that they really knew how he moved around in detail. What I heard from my father is that he took part in a mopping-up operation. The old records in Tanabe City in Wakayama Prefecture say that my father received the Eighth Order of Merit for going to the front.”

Quote from “Doshu and Daito-ryu School Speak Their Minds! (2)”

If Morihei did indeed see action on the battlefront and killed enemy soldiers, it may have been that Kisshomaru chose not to mention these stories since it might reflect negatively on Morihei’s later philosophical thinking and the ethical aspect of aikido that later emerged. Thus, the history of Morihei’s military service and what he actually did or did not do is not known with any certainty.

After 1910, Morihei was preoccupied with preparations for relocating to the northern island of Hokkaido to begin a frontier life along with several dozen families from his native town of Tanabe. The party from Tanabe actually settled in the area that would become the village of Shirataki starting in 1912.

Life in Hokkaido presented a fair amount of danger due to the severe weather conditions in the winter, and the fact that many lawless types were present there and roamed the countryside as bandits. Many of these were escaped prisoners or indentured workers who were attempting to eke out a survival in an unforgiving land.

A number of anecdotes about physical encounters in Hokkaido survive as told by Morihei or related by his son repeating what he was told by his father. Morihei apparently dispatched would-be attackers on several occasions without difficulty, if these stories are to be believed. Morihei was a short, but powerful man and was even more formidable because of the strength he developed from constant hard, physical labor in the Hokkaido wilderness.

Starting in 1915, Morihei met Sokaku Takeda and began intensive training in Daito-ryu jujutsu. Although already a martial arts adept by that stage, Morihei’s skills improved by leaps and bounds under the expert guidance of Sokaku. He would have been more than equipped to deal with dangerous situations as a result of his training.

After living in Hokkaido, the next period of Morihei’s life was spent mostly in Ayabe living among believers of the Omoto sect. It was then that he opened his “Ueshiba Juku,” his first dojo using part of his personal residence. He was tested by various strong men and military officers on repeated occasions, and seemingly was never bested.

One particular episode is mentioned in Aiki News #12 where Morihei is challenged by a large kendoka. The main ended up seriously injuring his shoulder after Morihei evaded his attack and the swordsman went crashing into a wall. Most of these experiences would have taken place in his home dojo or other facility or outdoors. During Morihei’s years of involvement with the Omoto religion, he did participate in a hair-raising adventure when he accompanied Onisaburo Deguchi and his party in Mongolia for several months in 1924.

Onisaburo’s band became embroiled in regional warfare and were in the middle of various military engagements, but probably not as direct participants. In any event, they were captured by one of the dominant regional armies and sentenced to death. They were only saved at the last minute through the intervention of Japanese authorities. Since Morihei went along as Onisaburo’s bodyguard and the party was there ostensibly to set up a free religious colony, they did not act in a military capacity. He surely saw violent situations at close hand, but the details of his activities in Mongolia are scarce.

After returning to Japan, Morihei soon began his professional teaching career in Tokyo and later Osaka, and was challenged from time to time. However, these were not violent encounters, but rather confident martial artists testing Morihei’s skills in a controlled setting.

There is an incident recorded in 1941 where Morihei gave a special demonstration in front of members of the royal family. He was very ill with jaundice but nonetheless gave a lengthy exhibition of his skills. One of his uke, Tsutomu Yukawa, purposely attacked Ueshiba rather meekly in deference to his weak condition. Morihei became upset and threw him very hard right at the beginning of his performance. This resulted in a shoulder injury to Yukawa who had to immediately withdraw. This is an episode related by Gozo Shioda who was Morihei’s other partner during the Imperial demonstration.

I don’t recall episodes from the postwar period where Morihei was the cause of injuries to his students or outsiders. Even listening to the stories of Morihei’s students from the prewar period, the consensus was that, though training was spirited, injuries were few and not serious in nature, and not caused by Morihei Ueshiba.

The situation with Morihei’s teacher, the famous Sokaku Takeda, is entirely different, and a subject to be addressed on another occasion.


  1. Jamie Yugawa via Facebook:

    This is an interesting subject. One person who I spoke to who was an interpreter during O sensei’s visit to Hawaii confirmed that very subject. O sensei confided that he and other solders attacked enemy solders with swords in close combat during sneak attacks in enemy foxholes. He felt great regret when speaking of this personal event.

  2. Yet the Japanese are reticent about discussing uncomfortable things, like their actions in WWII. i’ve heard a story about O Sensei seriously injuring a challenger during his stay with Omoto at Ayabe. “oral tradition” told in response to “why are there no matches in aikido?”

    The story, if you haven’t heard it, runs like this:

    One day a wandering kendoka who went by the name God-sword came to Ayabe. he used a bokken as a walking stick. At the time O Sensei had been given the duty of greeting visitors and washing their feet. he was in the process of this duty when the visitor asked, “do you know a fellow by the name of Ueshiba? i’ve come to teach him a lesson.” O Sensei introduced himself and a match was arranged. when God-sword attacked strongly O Sensei threw him against something hard irreparably damaging his shoulder. O Sensei regretted that he had ended his challenger’s pursuit of martial arts. so there are no matches (shiai) in aikido, because shiai (probably a different kanji) also means death.

    Wow. O Sensei as an infiltrator at the siege of Port Arthur! Poor Pyotr Muzhik, born to serfdom and trained by every Russian army to servile submission, would have been completely outmatched by young Japanese aspiring to live up to the samurai spirit. Musashi had something to say about that. something like ‘you see an entrenched enemy, but the (man) within sees himself cut off with the whole world against him…’

    • Thanks, Chuck. I was able to dig up the source of this story. It appears in Aiki News #12 as part of the series titled “Remarkable Japanese.” Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Kelly Purdue says:

    Just listening to your lectures and I got the impression that while O’Sensei had studied some martial arts he had not attained any real mastery in anything.Yet you mention in this essay “Starting in 1915, Morihei met Sokaku Takeda and began intensive training in Daito-ryu jujutsu. Although already a martial arts adept by that stage,”…did I misunderstand ?

    • Good question. Morihei had studied several martial arts before Daito-ryu. He practiced Tenshin Shinyo-ryu Jujutsu under Tokusaburo Tozawa in Tokyo in 1901, but only for a few months. Then, during his term of service in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War, Morihei began the study of Yagyu-ryu Jujutsu (probably Goto-ha Yagyu Shingan-ryu) in Osaka. He continued learning this art intermittently after his discharge for several years, traveling from Tanabe up to Osaka to study when he had time.

      Morihei was quite an imposing physical specimen, even though short in stature. He picked up martial arts very quickly and was possessed of great physical strength. Training in the army also hardened his physique and helped him develop his martial skills. So when Morihei met Sokaku Takeda in Hokkaido in 1915, he was already quite accomplished and Sokaku quickly recognized his potential. That’s why I chose to describe Morihei in that way.

  4. I have added a few sentences and clarifications to this article after reviewing your comments which prompted me to look at some old documents published in the early days of Aiki News, the predecessor to Aikido Journal. This interaction with readers is good for me because you help me to remember things and go back and recheck the available sources. Thank you all!

  5. warren jones says:

    When in Japan many years ago, I was fortunate to have an interview arranged by Makiyama Sensei with Shioda Sensei in his suburban dojo and was told by Shioda Sensei that one of O Sensei’s responsibilities with the Omoto organization was that of an enforcer (i.e., to keep people in line). He, however, did not elaborate on how much enforcing was used, nor relate any incidents. However, if you read Shioda Sensei’s autobiography, he does tell of an incident when O Sensei was challenged by a judoka of high rank and did formidable damage to the judoka’s hip (i.e., breaking it) with a well-timed punch as the judoka attempted to grab him and execute a hip throw. It is possible that other incidents occurred, especially it one reads between the lines in a passage from O Sensei’s diary when he states that “I must get him before he gets me.”

  6. Gustavo Durón says:

    I read your blog with great interest and I remembered something I read about O Sensei.
    In the Book “a life in Aikido”, kisshomaru Ueshiba talks about some anecdotes of his father during his time in Mongolia. They were told by Naohi Deguchi, Onisaburo deguchi’s granddaughter:
    “when they were surrounded by enemy troops…… every time they were confronted with perils of death, Ueshiba Sensei would inmediately try to jump in and take action. My grandfather told me that every time this happened, he had to give Ueshiba Sensei a hard look to bring him to his senses.
    Later, O Sensei told his son: “So many times I wanted to throw the people who deceived Master Onisaburo, even more than those who were open enemies”.
    Some time after that, they were established in a village named Hirauma. There, Ueshiba Sensei used to teach jujutsu, despite the weather, to the mongolians. Mongolian’s fierce, martial demeanor made them to come and challenge him. One day, he began his technical demonstration quite modestly but, as more people came, he felt he should show them his real strength… He grabbed the weak point of a man’s wrist and applied his full power- the man turned blue and collapsed. This caused a real problem, the Mongolians had not idea that what they saw was a jujutsu technique; they tought Ueshiba Sensei had simply decided to break his arm. They felt he was evil and decided to kill him once night fell and no one was looking.

    This anecdotes show that O Sensei was a regular human, with the same weak points as any other human being, but he struggled and conquered these weakness with patience, dedication and training. Tradition and admiration have turned O Sensei into a flawless, perfect, imponent being far away from the real man he surely was. If I put myself in that time and that places, I do not doubt that he fought, harmed and even killed someone during the numerous challenges he had.
    I truly admire him but, I try to see the same image that Kisshomaru Ueshiba had from his father: I great man with great fisical and spiritual strength, but with great defects (as everyone), who developed himself beyond the limit and changed the world.

  7. What about the episode concerning the boxer “piston” Horiguchi. I don’t remember when it occurred but what I remember is that Horiguchi had both his arms broken by O Sensei, isn’t it ?

  8. Only in today’s weird world do we hear of “martial artists” who can’t fight or survive a conflict situation, but pretend to “teach” because of an obscure title or name dropping.

    In the real world, the dynamics of conflict are not very easy to predict, or at times to control. You unleash what “the whole universe” (read: natural intuition) enables you to respond with at the time and this faster than the speed of thought. Or else you can be severely injured or killed. Defence, real defence, cannot be lukewarm or thought out. Or based on quaint theory.

    As for the attacker, he has crossed a line and come what may, has adjudged his own fate thereby. You don’t set out to steal a horse then expect not to get shot at. Play the game and take your chances, but in the universe the end game is entirely predictable. If the opponent has not crossed a line and you are engaging, then it is you who’ve crossed that line of transgression, and you have and are entering into the realms of criminal behaviour. This goes for all attackers, invaders, infringers, manipulators and other hubristic fools who initiate aggression. Lots of hot air and fiddling with the idea of signing a piece of paper to “ratify” this or that, making excuses and spinning lies, alters nothing. Nor does rewriting history. Such may temporarily fool a few people, but cannot alter the immutable laws of cause and effect that run the universe. Not by one atom.

    The world is littered with the graves of individuals and empires that chose to live by the sword. They are now extinct. Christ, and others like him, cautioned about such consequences. Yet a lot of zealous followers fail to live by this precept and invoke his name for war instead. Interesting that even today nobody seems to get it.

    If you do transgress, you will discover the hard way from the exacting consequences that will and do inevitably follow. If not sooner then later on. Unless a person is really thick, they will gain some measure of understanding sooner than their final breath.

    It behooves us all to gain understanding in regards whilst young, alive and able to implement reasonable harmony in our daily responsibilities.

    The laws of the universe have nothing to do with “belief”. The universe operates to exact laws, some who had insight repeatedly pointed out. To propose that a surviving budoka somehow did some form of nice magic that left his attempted destroyers unharmed is in the realms of idiocy, nay, lunacy.

    However skillful means such as Aikido/jutsu can indeed be refined through training to approximate this ideal.

    Chaos has its own way, but always returns to roost back to the warped intention that unleashed it. Observers of this phenomenon over aeons then made man made laws in as close to that image as possible and necessarily developed jurisprudence (compassionate justice), a vital social navigation tool in the face of human imperfection.

    Any reasonable person will feel regret at his attacker’s fate. Whatever that may be.

    Any reasonably intelligent person will always strive to refine his art to be less harmful and yet, of course, remain effective.

    True wisdom is to develop the skills that lead to making the rendering of gratuitous violence and resulting suffering as impossible as it can be made to be impossible.
    In any real situation of violence both sides get hurt. The self-acclaimed winner always comes off worst in the long term.

    Observing and learning from this gives rise to understanding of the immense responsibility involved in the often unavoidable processes of defence. Something not only not to be taken lightly but which should be studied beyond deployment and into the inevitability of consequences.

    The basis of Ueshiba’s philosophy is not new, or indeed impractical, but offered in a new paradigm from one who did his research. He did not waffle theory in a monastery hidden away somewhere, but tested it in the field of action. Facing life’s excremental circumstance frontally, Budo is not an easy path, because self-deception and miscalculation in the field, the final nature of true testing, means that you will not live to pass on quaint theories. Aikido can evoke a social science for a sustainable humanity, rediscovered. The easier lessons (than that of battle) of dojo training are no less valuable and can be indeed applied in the human world of now. At least we should try. If we fail in this regard we risk making ourselves slowly and painfully extinct as species, because convenient fantasies about moral principle only last for brief windows before the real universe catches up.

    I think this one is a no brainer. If you don’t start trouble there will usually be less need to watch your back. That’s a great start.

    If people who choose to be violent and hurt others succeed, in so doing, to compromise themselves, that’s not our lookout. If you want to visit them in the hospital or at their gravesite and offer prayers, that is nice.

    Learning the hard way is uncomfortable. That’s life. We are all free to learn from the mistakes of others. The easy way.

    As for a master of peace not having understanding its opposite, or not having some measure of field experience, that’s in the realms of fantasy.

    Titles do not achieve competence. Experience does.

    Ueshiba got it! Violence is ugly. So his sage advice was, “Let’s not go there when numerous alternatives exist and even more can be researched and discovered”.

    The deeper you understand the path of destructive aggression, the greater the passion you may develop to stop others from taking that same path.

    Morihei Ueshiba did this.

  9. Of course Ueshiba sensei killed some enemies in Mongolia. It was his duty to prevent Onisaburo Deguchi been killed. And the only way possible was to defeat the enemies. Shioda sensei’s book Aikido Shugyo mention the importance of stabbing a sword, a lesson learned from Ueshiba, who tested it in in Mongolia. So, one cannot imagine to stab someone without killing. Self-defense is not something bad or unfair.

  10. I really enjoyed your earlier blog on the “spiritual writings” of O Sensei, and their sanitized sources. In light of your findings regarding his history and lectures as a teacher, wouldn’t that have implications for his history as a soldier and martial artist? He’s now regarded as a highly peaceful man, but as a young man he was a soldier who was famed for his work with the bayonet. He met Deguchi later in his life and his reported enlightenment was, I thought, closer to his 40s or 50s. His stories to his son – well, a number of modern soldiers I work with chose to not give their sons or anyone outside of the military the full story of their deployment.

    While we have no confirmed kills reported, which is truly more likely? A soldier who was (according to John Stevens and Shirata Sensei) eager to sign up for military service and then chose to never do anything lethal? A teacher who would injure his student out of frustration during an important demo but never anyone else? The “hell dojo” during the early years was a place of quiet meditation where no one ever got injured? Sokaku Takeda, a man not known for his gentleness who would have been overseeing Morihei’s lessons and workouts only taught gentle, harmless techniques to this one student and there was never a training “accident” during Morihei’s practice?

    His trip with Deguchi; I could see Morihei torn to uphold this belief system and still protect his spiritual mentor. I could also believe that a blood thirsty man would not be readily welcomed into Deguchi’s inner circle nor welcome to teach at their compound.

    He was a great martial artist who had a very useful understanding of combat. He was someone who I could believe got sick of violence and couldn’t see the point or future of lethal combat. But, do we really need to make him a saint/diety? Why can’t he be human?

Speak Your Mind