Early in my career as a researcher into the life of Morihei Ueshiba, I was misled by two prevailing myths concerning the history of aikido. The first was that Daito-ryu jujutsu was merely one of a number of older martial arts that influenced the technical development of aikido. This proved to be a misrepresentation of historical fact in that Daito-ryu was, technically speaking, by far the predominant influence on aikido. The second myth was that Morihei Ueshiba had something akin to a “star” status within the Omoto religion that placed him almost on a par with Onisaburo Deguchi, and that he was somehow a “non-member” member of the sect. (1) This view, too–in retrospect absurd on its face–proved easily refutable after a cursory research into Morihei’s involvement in the religious sect. Both of these viewpoints were promoted by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in the postwar years to enhance perceptions of Morihei’s status and originality as the founder of aikido, by downplaying the pivotal roles played by Sokaku Takeda and Onisaburo Deguchi in Morihei’s career.
In this article, I will focus on the events surrounding the launch of Morihei Ueshiba’s career as a martial artist on opening his “Ueshiba Juku” in 1920, and the role of Onisaburo Deguchi, co-founder of the Omoto religion, in introducing the aikido founder as a “martial art kami (deity)” to the rapidly growing Omoto religious network.
Morihei in Hokkiado
First, a bit of background information. Prior to Morihei’s relocation to Ayabe in 1920, he had lived in a remote area of Hokkaido for seven years as a settler, together with a group of families from his hometown of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture. From the standpoint of the development of aikido, the most notable aspect of his stay in Hokkaido was Morihei’s meeting with famous jujutsu master, Sokaku Takeda, and his subsequent training in Daito-ryu jujutsu. Morihei trained intensively in Daito-ryu under Sokaku for a period of about five years. In other articles and books, I have made a case for the substantive role of Daito-ryu in the evolution of Morihei’s martial techniques that would eventually culminate in modern aikido.
Morihei’s abrupt departure from Shirataki village in Hokkaido, soon to be followed by his relocation to Ayabe, came about as a result of his receipt of a telegram containing news of the serious condition of his father Yoroku back in Tanabe. Hastily departing, on his way home, Morihei detoured to spend a few days at the center of the Omoto religious sect in Ayabe, in the vicinity of Kyoto, to pray for his father’s recovery. There, Morihei met and was captivated by the personality and spirituality of Onisaburo Deguchi, charismatic leader of the religion.
Arriving too late to see his father before his passing, Morihei fell into a state of depression and displayed a bizarre pattern of behavior for several weeks. His psychological distress at the loss of his father led him to impulsively decide to move with his family to Ayabe in search of inner solace among the community of Omoto believers.
Rapid growth of Omoto and the 1921 Reconstruction Theory
Ayabe in the spring of 1920 was bustling with activity amidst the explosive growth of the religion and its burgeoning influence on Japanese society. With significant amounts of money flowing into its coffers due to the thousands of new converts, the religion purchased large plots of land in Ayabe and nearby Kameoka in 1919. It would undertake a number of large-scale construction projects in furtherance of church expansion plans in these towns. Then in the fall of 1920, the Omoto acquired the Taisho Nichinichi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, for use in proselytizing the sect’s widespread activities.
Despite its rapid growth, there was a serious rift between factions within the Omoto religion. At the center of this division was a man named Wasaburo Asano. Asano had abandoned a distinguished academic career to join the Omoto religion. He was promoting an apocalyptic vision including a series of catastrophic events predicted to occur in Japan in 1921 based on his interpretation of the prophecies of Nao Deguchi, the illiterate peasant woman who founded of the Omoto sect. The so-called “1921 Reconstruction Theory” (Taisho Junen Setsu) prophesized major social upheaval in Japan, followed by entry into a full-scale war with the United States. Not surprisingly, such extreme rhetoric from within the powerful Omoto religion led to close scrutiny of sect activities by government authorities.
This Wasaburo Asano is a key actor in our story of the establishment of the Ueshiba Juku due to his prominence within the sect, his extensive contacts in naval circles, and the activities of his older brother, Seikyo, as a student and supporter of Morihei Ueshiba. Wasaburo enjoyed great prestige as top-level scholar and a former professor of English at the Naval Academy. He eventually developed a keen interest in psychic phenomena and abruptly cut short his academic career to become a member of the Omoto sect in 1916. Wasaburo quickly rose to a position of second-in-command in the sect just below that of Onisaburo Deguchi himself. The faction that Wasaburo headed was at odds with the supporters of Onisaburo’s views that favored a more conservative approach to interpreting Nao’s prophecies, without mentioning a specific deadline for their fulfillment.
Wasaburo’s joining the religion was a coup for Onisaburo because of his lofty reputation in the academic world, and also his strong connections to influential naval officers as a result of his tenure at the Naval Academy. In addition, Wasaburo’s elder brother Seikyo, a high-ranking naval officer–who later became a Vice-Admiral–also joined the sect due to his brother’s influence and relocated to Ayabe. The two Asano brothers cemented a powerful link between the Omoto and the Imperial Japanese Navy, from whose ranks the sect drew many members.
Onisaburo was fond of surrounding himself with people of high social standing from various walks of life. This included not only military officers, but politicians, businessmen, artists, scholars like Wasaburo Asano, and the focus of this article, an exceptional man of budo.
Enter Morihei Ueshiba
This is where Morihei Ueshiba enters the picture. Soon after his arrival at Ayabe in the spring of 1920, Morihei became accepted as a member of Onisaburo’s inner circle. This was attributable to several factors. Obviously, Onisaburo realized early on that Morihei’s talents as a martial artist made him an excellent choice to serve as one of his personal bodyguards. For similar reasons, Morihei was perfectly suited as a martial arts instructor for the community of Omoto believers, specifically for younger members who formed the backbone of the various auxiliary groups that Onisaburo was fond of forming. Morihei also possessed extraordinary physical strength that impressed all with whom he came into contact, making him an ideal candidate as a leader.
It turned out that Morihei would prove useful in yet another way. Vice-Admiral Seikyo Asano whom we mentioned above went on reserve status in 1920 following a distinguished naval career and moved to Ayabe. He would soon become a devoted student of Morihei’s Daito-ryu and use his influence to spread the word of his teacher’s prowess within navy circles which included many officers who were martial arts aficionados. This strengthened Onisaburo’s “in” within the naval world, potentially providing a buffer against repercussions by the increasingly antagonized government for some of the sect’s more extreme practices that made it unpopular.
Morihei’s usefulness did not end here. Having just spent seven years on the frontier in Hokkaido, Morihei had ample experience as a community leader, and a good understanding of infrastructure building and agriculture. This knowledge would be invaluable to the sect as it undertook farming activities on a scale designed to feed the large number of members that had gathered in and around Ayabe and nearby Kameoka, the site of its administrative headquarters. Moreover, he would organize and head an Omoto fire brigade that also ended up serving the town of Ayabe.
Finally, Morihei as a person had some fine personal qualities that Onisaburo quickly spotted. He was in his own right very charismatic, totally devoted to Onisaburo and his agenda, and thus a trustworthy lieutenant to serve at Deguchi’s side not only as a bodyguard, but as a confidant.
Opening of Ueshiba Juku
In any event, shortly after his arrival in Ayabe, Onisaburo encouraged Morihei to move into a residence near the sect’s headquarters, and devote a portion of it to setting up a home dojo. Here, he would teach his martial art to members of the local community consisting mostly of Omoto believers. Various Omoto higher-ups also joined in the training. Onisaburo even had his daughter Naohi (later Omoto’s Third Spiritual Leader) practice in Morihei’s dojo.
Onisaburo promoted Morihei shamelessly, praising his extraordinary skills as a martial artist and superhuman strength. Given his quirky nature, Onisaburo would also incite strong men and martial artists who happened to show up to challenge Morihei by boasting how there was a local budo man with a big head who ought to be “taken down a notch or two!”
Morihei’s new home dojo is said to have occupied an 18-tatami mat space. Onisaburo brushed a calligraphy for Morihei with the characters “Ueshiba Juku,” which was proudly displayed on one wall. Later, a vertical placard was added bearing the kanji “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu,” as can be seen in a photo of the interior of Morihei’s “Juku” dating from around 1922.
As we have seen earlier, enrollment in Morihei’s home dojo was not limited exclusively to Omoto members. Vice-Admiral Asano’s enthusiastic endorsement of Morihei led to a continuous stream of naval officers coming from the nearby naval base at Maizuru, curious to observe Morihei’s art and practice Daito-ryu. It is not known exactly when Seikyo began training under Morihei, but it is recorded that he went on reserve status in the fall of 1920, around the time of the opening of the Ueshiba Juku. Also, Seikyo received a kyoju dairi certificate—an advanced level recognition in Daito-ryu–from Sokaku Takeda in September of 1922 which suggests that he began training under Morihei shortly after his arrival. The Vice-Admiral continued his practice in Ayabe for several years.
Also worthy of note is the fact that one of Morihei’s nephews, Yoichiro Inoue, a devout Omoto believer then only 18 years old, was among the regulars of the Ueshiba Juku. Since Inoue would have been the most experienced practitioner in Daito-ryu, having studied under Sokaku Takeda and his uncle Morihei in Hokkaido, it is likely that he was called upon to instruct at the Ueshiba Juku during Morihei’s absence.
Kisshomaru mentions Inoue’s name in passing as a member of the Ueshiba Juku and as a later “eminent master of martial arts” without citing the blood connection. The young Inoue would go on to become one of the most important instructors to assist Morihei during his early years teaching in Tokyo and Osaka. Much later, Inoue had a parting of the ways with his uncle that accounts for Kisshomaru’s reluctance to credit him for his early role in spreading Aiki Budo, the name of the art used by Morihei during the 1930s. Inoue would establish his own school called Shinwa Taido, later renamed Shin’ei Taido, after World War II.
An interesting aside in connection with the roster of students purported to have practiced at the Ueshiba Juku is the error made by Kisshomaru in his biography of Morihei. Together with Seikyo Asano, Kisshomaru cites the name of Vice-Admiral Saneyuki Akiyama as among the famous people who practiced at Morihei’s dojo. This Admiral Akiyama was a naval hero who distinguished himself during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) as a strategic genius. Akiyama did indeed develop a deep interest in religion toward the end of his life, and even became a member of the Omoto religion. The problem is that he died in February 1918, more than two years prior to the opening of the Ueshiba Juku.
Since Kisshomaru’s 1977 biography is considered one of the most authoritative sources on Morihei’s life, it is puzzling that such an obvious mistake could have found its way into the final text, especially given the fact that it was edited and published by the prestigious Kodansha Publishing Company. At the very least, it reflects a desire to seed the roll of Morihei’s students at that time with still another famous name. [Read more]