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.”
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.