Historical photo: “The amazing chameleon photo of O-Sensei from 1922,” by Stanley Pranin

As a researcher of aikido history, this photo is one of the most fascinating documents I have ever come across. First of all, a little background. This photo was shot about 1922 inside Morihei’s home situated near the Omoto precincts in Ayabe. Morihei is seated in seiza inside the “Ueshiba Juku,” his home dojo that marked the beginning of his career as a martial arts teacher.

Immediately obvious is Morihei’s powerful physique and stern expression that convey a strong impression even 90 years after the fact. You will notice to Morihei’s left a sword stand holding three blades, certainly an appropriate accessory for a martial arts dojo. Then behind the displayed swords are a placard with kanji characters. This is where the intrigue begins…

What is written? The characters read: “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu.” This, as you will recall is the precursor art to aikido that Morihei studied under Sokaku Takeda Sensei in Hokkaido beginning in 1915. If this is the dojo where Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido, taught, why is this “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu” placard on display there?

A fair question. You see Morihei was openly teaching Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu in his “Ueshiba Juku” because aikido had not yet come into being. In fact, he was a certified Daito-ryu instructor. Morihei was just beginning his transitional phase, technically speaking, that would culminate many years later with the creation of aikido. Also, Sokaku Takeda had recently visited Morihei in Ayabe, and they agreed that Ueshiba would use the name “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu” to refer to his art.

Ok, but what is this bit about a “chameleon photo”? Ah, this is the interesting part! To my knowledge, this photo has been published in books and newsletters at least five times. Here’s the kicker. The photo appears in four different versions!

Four versions? Yes, the Daito-ryu placard first disappears altogether in the first publication of the photo. Then it reappears with the “Daito-ryu” characters missing, leaving only the “Aikijujutsu” characters. What’s a poor aikido historian to do? Then, the original photo you see here appears for the first time. Next, some of the characters are again omitted, but not in the same way as the first altered photo. Finally and miraculously, the unretouched photo again resurfaces, hopefully to remain intact. Strange workings of the kamisama?

Not exactly. From a historian’s standpoint, all of these “miraculous events” can be explained. Briefly, Morihei had a falling out with his teacher Sokaku Takeda that would lead to his distancing himself from his teacher. As a result of this, there has always existed a certain tension between the aikido and Daito-ryu camps despite a surface cordiality.

This reticence to give due credit to the significant influence of Daito-ryu on modern aikido has existed for many years, and was not surprisingly inherited by the Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. These shenanigans with this famous photo took place in the period of the 1960s through the 1980s when Daito-ryu’s role in the evolution of aikido was little known. I believe this explains the psychology behind the photo tinkering. Now, I don’t believe it would be possible to do such a thing since the relationship between Morihei Ueshiba and Sokaku Takeda has been well documented.

Early in my career, I published one of these altered versions of the photo perfectly innocently, and it got me into quite a pickle!

Anyway, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story!”


  1. Kevin Chung says:

    WOW! Very cool, thank you.

  2. Stan,

    Love these last few pics, keep ’em coming!

  3. Cool picture

    Was O sensai really as big as the photography or a photoshop touch up.

  4. …and, unlike the case of an infamous birth certificate, Photoshop was yet to be…

  5. Wagner Bull says:

    Who knows the real origin of the “WAY” ?

    For sure, it was not the Takeda family either.

    The farthest I could reach was that a monk called Daruma from India, went to China to teach Buddhism and because he had had political problems with the Emperor he decided to go to a existing temple called : ” Shaolin “.

    There.. he taught Buddhism and then martial arts to the monks and the WAY was historically registered!!!

    From there, it went slowly to the east probablly by walking , riding and sailing, and…after hundred of years, later finally reached Japan.

    Then , it the XX Century, it came to America by steam moved ships and airplanes very fast, but a lot was distorted and full of championships and with the , “I want to be the number one with this stuff” proposals .

    So…..most practicioners have not a clear idea of what it really is.

    A important part that can not be forgotten is that specially due to Morihei Ueshiba family and its efforts is that most of us westerners ended up studying this training of using martial arts to reach the illumination. This is a historical fact that nobody can deny. It is true the Daito Ryu came first before Aikido, but it was on the back of Aikido that Daito Ryu became international also known.

    Anyway, what really matters nowadays and what always has been the most important, is that one should focus in the real essence of this fantastic knowledge that is how to feel “ki”, produces Ki, and uses it to improve health, longevity and wisdom, and of course..become stronger in martial arts .

    So , it is a good idea to go after Ai Ki DO. ( A Way to become united with ki).

    Ah… of course……. this ability can be learned by doing movements, doing special exercices, meditations..or simply…receiving if for granted from the kamis but in any case, it must took first a lot, really a lot of years of efforts.

    Wagner Bull

  6. Thanks to Aiki News and you (now Aikido Journal) we can get this information. History is extremely important for people who want to completely study an art. I bought all the Aiki News magazines (from # 1, a small photocopy!) from you in 1986 when you were still in Tokyo. Until today they are one of the most precious documents I have in my possession. Thank you very much.

  7. The truth is what we are ready to accept!

  8. Dan Penrod says:

    Hey Stan,

    Isn’t it a curious thing that… considering how many students Sokaku Takeda taught (thousands, right?)… Morihei Ueshiba was such an enigma. Even among Takeda’s most prominent students (Tokimune, Hisa, Horikawa, Sagawa, Yoshida, Matsuda, etc…) you don’t hear of any similar stories or controversy.

    First, presumably there was this financial contract between Takeda and Ueshiba, regarding payment per student, which created a financial debt or burden that Ueshiba found unsustainable. I wonder if any of Takeda’s other senior students were held accountable to similar debt agreements, resulting in similar dysfunctional relationship between Takeda and his students. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that it was this financial liability that caused Ueshiba to distance himself from Takeda, both by geographically as well as by changing the name of his art.

    Second, I get the impression that Takeda was particularly fond of Ueshiba considering how long they knew each other and the accounts of Takeda living with Ueshiba for different extended periods of time. But maybe this long-term relationship was less friendship and more financial… But again, we don’t hear of similar stories with Takeda’s other senior students, moving frequently or changing the name of their arts.

    Third, It appears that Ueshiba had charisma and political capital unrivaled by any of Takeda’s other students… contributing in no small way to the explosion of aikido practioners all over the world today.

    Morihei Ueshiba was truly an enigma in the history of Daito Ryu.

    • Very perceptive comments, Dan. The important thing to remember is that none of the other top students of Sokaku Takeda operated on such a large scale as Morihei. Also, many of Morihei’s students were military personnel taught in an institutional setting. This would make it almost impossible for him to meet any obligations to Takeda Sensei, as such circumstances were not envisioned in the very simple agreement that existed between the two. It’s quite a fascinating history, don’t you think?

  9. Wagner Bull says:

    Ecclesiastes 1:9

    ” 9 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. ”

    Wagner Bull

  10. Norm Heller says:

    In reply to Shayjal’s question about Osensei’s size. Osensei was barely 5 feet tall. When I was physically near him it was surprising at how short he was. I’m not tall either being 5′ 7″. When Osensei was on the mat teaching and throwing students he looked huge. He looked bigger than anybody else. There were other foreigners practicing who were tall. Terry Dobson was there though not much taller than me. He was very thick bodied and strong. Osensei made him look smaller and this was in the last year of Osensei’s life. The strength and power that exuded from Osensei was incredible. Words really can’t describe it. When he smiled he lit up the whole dojo. When he was stern everyone was nervous. We didn’t want to make any mistakes either in waza or etiquette. I still can’t believe my marvelous good fortune in being able to attend trainings that Osensei gave at Hombu Dojo.

    • Norm,

      As your comment amply illustrates, you had an incredible opportunity to study at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo while O-Sensei was still active. I would like to encourage to write down your recollections of this period, including observations such as the above, and perhaps any photos from the era. This would be a wonderful gift to readers! Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

  11. Ivo Huisman says:

    Stan – this is a remarkable and incredibly valuable legacy you have created for the Aikidoka world. The right man at the right place with the right energy……wonderful……THANKS. Furthermore – I am looking forward to AIKIDO PIONEERS POSTWAR ERA!! Kind regards. Ivo

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