“If Morihei was complicit in wartime activities, should this affect our acceptance of his aikido philosophy?” by Stanley Pranin

“Would knowledge of an extensive involvement on his part
affect your current view of his philosophy of aikido?”

Morihei Ueshiba in 1942

That Morihei was heavily involved in Japan’s wartime efforts is an historically verifiable fact. He associated with many of the elites of the prewar era, including numerous military and political persons of influence. He also taught combat skills to young men being prepared for battle at several leading military institutions for lengthy periods. You may wish to refer to my essay “Kobukan Dojo Era — Part 2” for an introduction to Morihei’s activities in this regard. Peter Goldsbury and Ellis Amdur have also contributed excellent research into the subject of Morihei Ueshiba’s participation in war-related activities.

Equally certain is the fact that Morihei’s was profoundly affected by the disastrous consequences of Japan’s defeat in World War II. He turned his focus inward even as the war was in full progress with his retirement to Iwama in 1942 to enter a period of deep reflection. This phase of Morihei’s life has a great deal to do with significant changes in the Founder’s thinking, and the evolution of the philosophy underpinning modern aikido.

The writings of Japanese authors–especially Morihei’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba–and those who have based themselves on their published works, have treaded very lightly in treating the subject of Morihei’s wartime involvement. While calling attention to Morihei’s abundant associations with Japan’s power elite, there is no hint of his being complicit in any way in any of the irreproachable actions committed during this tumultuous period. As if to counterbalance his involvement in such activities, there is only a brief reference to Morihei’s participation in an unsuccessful, secret peace initiative instigated by Prince Fumimaro Konoe, who had been Japan’s Prime Minister twice during the period of 1937-1941.

Morihei is said to have traveled to the continent–meaning China–together with Tsutomu Yukawa, one of his students, at some unspecified time shortly after Japan invaded Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The purpose of this trip was to enter secret peace negotiations with Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, the brief description of Morihei’s trip, though tantalizing, is very vague. Konoe had already resigned in October 1941 and his political clout was greatly diminished due to his inability to rein in the Japanese military.

Morihei is known to have made a trip to Manchukuo-the Japanese puppet government of Manchuria–in the summer of 1942, accompanied by Tsutomu Yukawa. Whether this is the occasion referred to is uncertain, but Konoe’s influence is, at that point, questionable. Without additional research, it is difficult to make any conclusive statement about Morihei’s supposed part in this peace tentative.

With this brief introduction as a backdrop, I would be very interested in getting the reaction of the aikido community concerning Morihei’s military-related activities in the prewar period. Would knowledge of an extensive involvement on his part affect your current view of his philosophy of aikido? I know we have some very smart, articulate people in our readership, and I would love to hear your opinions on this sensitive issue.


  1. War and religion are emotive and irrational subjects. They are usually symbiotic, co-dependant pathologies. Everyone responds differently in accordance to what they believe to be right, slaves to their own predictable irrationality.

    Ueshiba would not be Robinson Crusoe in this regard. When the propaganda is “protect your nation” everyone tends to rally and miss the salient point that real protectors do so at the border. Not by travelling a long way to invade the homes of the defenceless!

    Nearly everyone’s means of livelihood is somehow tied in to the predation of weaker more defenceless “others,” and so, in denial, we make a choice of staying blind in case conscience should rear its head and keep us materially poor. We opt for spiritual poverty instead. We sell our souls in effect.

    Although I do recall historical quotations of him complaining bitterly about “madmen who seek aggression as a means…”. Everyone tends to swallow elitist “them and us” propaganda when madmen are at the helm of any nation. Madmen often lie credibly. Who has already forgotten the WMD’s? Although they did not exist, they were soon carried there by the people who used them with rhetoric that their WMDs and torture were somehow good and came with “god’s blessing! ” Of course!

    I would say the disgust at the abuse of power served to reinforce Morihei’s philosophical awakening to that, to get best results as a humanity, armies and military are intended as protectors from invasion by the mad and not by the criminally invasive lackeys acting blindly for the mad.

    Murder en masse of an imagined “enemy” has always been with us as a species. And sadly will no doubt continue to be each time mental aberration, fear and greed for other people’s property reaches a peak. These combined with lack of skill tend to give rise to violence as a means, be it a common street thug, or the “highest authorities,” and all betwixt expediently behaving criminally.

    Then all the dummies will again line up to go get themselves killed while committing “righteous” atrocities on the way before being carried back in a body bag. That grown men could be so dumb belies belief, but they keep doing it because of skilled sales spiels rendered by the afflicted.

    Like the rest of us, Ueshiba at some stage woke up to the fact he was being duped and that’s why he feigned illness and retreated to become hermit. This would indicate that he saw through the “madmen who seek destruction” as he called them and did not want to be complicit.

    Hence, his evolving philosophical concerns of, “nurture, care and protect all life in one family,” etc. Now all we’ve got to do is to get these nice rhetoric about “love each other instead of harm each other,” be it from Ueshiba or Buddha or Jesus or whomever, and take them from the realm of hot air, and put them into practice.

    It takes more than one to lose the plot so that violence can arise. Heal that disease, respond differently rather than insanely, and we are on the way to the harmonising of intention, which is followed by harmonised action which tends to get less harmful results.

    We may become human yet! Who knows?

  2. From Facebook…

    Tim Haffner: “Since these experiences shaped his perspective and led him to deeper contemplation of a higher order Budo, all I can express is gratitude for this phase of his life.”

    Niko Huffman: “I’m more of the opinion that it just is what it is. Clearly those experiences affected him greatly (as they do, in one way or another, most everyone who directly experiences war). If he had not had those experiences, or had reacted to them differently, his philosophy would likely have been different, but it’s impossible to say how. As far as acceptance of aikido philosophy being affected by whether or not he was complicit in wartime activities…?

    I’m not generally a strong proponent of war and violence, but I certainly have more respect for peace and harmony preached by someone who has experienced or participated in war and violence personally than by those whose abhorrence of it is based solely on principles and arbitrary opinion they’ve inherited from parents, or religion, or wherever. “I believe violence is bad because that’s what I was taught by [insert entity here].” is a lot different from “I believe violence is bad because I’ve seen it first-hand.”

  3. Alister Gillies says:

    Narcissistic tendencies, whether physical or psycho-spiritual or at an individual or national level, are something that is almost always at the root of self-delusion; they also prompt humanity to wake up, sometimes in the most painful way.

    It seems to me that this is part of the maturation process, both of individuals and nations. The lot of most of us is a modicum of narcissism – we learn by our mistakes – but in extreme cases it results in great suffering and destruction.

    It is a tendency that is commonly found in many performance related arts, sports, professions, martial arts, religious sects and political activism. Given the associations that Morihei Ueshiba had in his early career, it is very likely that he would have been profoundly affected by narcissism in a most detrimental way.

    His retirement to Iwama was probably a necessary corrective and self-imposed cleansing shugyo: “Aikido is for correcting one’s self, and not for correcting others.”

  4. In Hagakure there is a vignette in which a group is choosing someone for an important task. There was one individual who was particularly suited to the task, but in disgrace. An influential member of the group said, “I favor him BECAUSE he has made a mistake…”

    We weren’t there. Any resemblance we may have to the products of Japanese culture and education ca. 1940 is purely superficial if not accidental. Isn’t there a saying to the effect that we need teachers because we couldn’t live long enough to make all those mistakes?

    This is not to say either that fighting for your country (beliefs and religion) is a mistake. Plants fight. They just do it in slow motion. Conflict is an essential part of our poor world. O Sensei was an exceptional martial artist and evolved a practical and teachable system for dealing with internal and external conflicts. Our challenge is to maintain its validity.

  5. At the time, with American soldiers occupying Japan, a number of things had to be publicly done for Aikido to survive. In particular, I wonder if the Jo would be an Aikido weapon if O Sensei had not had his enlightenment or if Japan had won the war. Tanto work also seems to have been heavily modified between pre and post war systems.

    The real question is can we handle knowing O Sensei was human? My dad was brought up being taught the names of uncles killed in Okinawa, and Kawahara Sensei was a young child living in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped. Dad was initially against me learning a Japanese art; in time he came to have a great respect for Kawahara Sensei as a person. I am quite far removed from the emotional pain of WWII – lying about events to myself and my students is not going to help us to remember the hard lessons of war, what we should never forget.

    Some of the work of this site has been about setting the record straight – some students have gone beyond merely sanitizing O Sensei to blatantly reinventing him whenever reality (O Sensei himself ) has become inconvenient. American politics have become all about marketing. I would like this site to be a source of truth.

    While sanitizing the man and his art, we have created a pale shadow that is at times too martially questionable to live up to his vision of a vehicle for peace. Our historical pasteurization has helped to create a generation of students who are largely unaware of Aikido’s martial capabilities. Are those students really closer to the Founder who knew violence and made a choice, by making a generation of people who are ignorant of combat and history and cannot make a choice?

  6. There was a common belief among visionaries that Japan had the mission to organize Asia under the leadership of one governemnt, the Empire. Ueshiba Sensei saw himself as a contributor.

    Many great historical leaders and saints would be stopped and treated as criminals by today’s standards.

    How can we avoid being complicit in public and private legal organized crime? Do we know what banks do with our savings? Do we know where the profits from our investments come from? Do we know what our taxes are being used for? Do we know what our students will do with what we taught them?

    What would America would be if the Independance War had failed?

    What would the world be today if Napoleon and/or Hitler had succeeded, if Japan had won the Pacific War?

    History is written by the victors. In this dualistic world, is right always succeeding and wrong failing?

    Patrick Augé

  7. Steve Earle says:

    The question rests on all kinds of assumptions regarding the moral “wrongness” of Japan in taking the country to war. Remember that the way the war is now remembered is largely through the eyes of the victors–this true in Japan as well as elsewhere. While Japan’s decision to enter into a war that they could not possibly win was misguided, and while they were responsible for horrendous atrocities–as was the U.S. (Hiroshima and Nagasaki for starters), they were not necessarily morally wrong in responding to the pressures and provocations being exerted upon them at the time; most other modern states under similar circumstances would probably have responded in a similar way. Ueshiba was a product of his time and his culture; he would doubtlessly have viewed the circumstances of his day through the same set of lenses as the rest of his countrymen.

    More importantly, Ueshiba is the founder of a martial arts lineage that continues to evolve, both technically and philosophically. Digging up dirty laundry on the founder is neither here nor there; what matters is whether or not aikido contributes to the betterment of its practitioners and the betterment of humanity. Which is to sat that the moral responsibility is on us, not the founder.

  8. Peter John Still says:

    The story doesn’t begin in the late ‘thirties – – – the philosophical precursor to aikido is the art O’Sensei was developing in O-Moto-Kyo dojos and the early Kobukan – itself in spirit and in daily practice an O-Moto-Kyo dojo (see, for example, Shirata Sensei’s recollections of those times). Consider then O’Sensei’s position after the two O-Moto-Kyo ‘incidents’, after his so narrow escape. I would suggest that in photographs from the late thirties he is visibly an unhappy man, not at peace with himself, so that the retreat to Iwama is perfectly believable as a genuine emotional and spiritual crisis, that also made him physically sick. And, of course, he then pursued a return to his ideals, and an independent re-creation of the conditions he had known in Ayabe : in wary despite of first the Japanese wartime government, and then of the American occupation.
    In short, in respect to his late thirties teaching activities, he became what any jurist would recognize as “a reformed character”, and out of that reformation came aikido philosophy as we know it.
    The more pertinent question would be “would a closer knowledge of the activities of the O-Moto-Kyo affect your current view of his philosophy of aikido?” – and the vexing – possibly fruitless – question of what we can call Left and what we can call Right in the politics of such a different and historically distant culture?

  9. Chris McMahon says:

    I believe the international political and military climates of this period have to be taken into account here.
    O’sensei, like countless men of this era, had a strong obligation to enter into military service.
    Especially considering the colonial ambitions of other, much larger nations (Russia, USA, German etc) that were putting a foothold into what was essentially Japans doorstep. Japan as a whole had a fear of invasion themselves.
    O’sensei spent his impressionable early adult years in a military system that had defeated the Russian Empire (decisively) and therefore in a system of high morale and colonial expansion to create geographical buffers and secure natural resources.
    Like the vast majority of Japan, O’sensei had a deeply ingrained sense of extreme civic duty and this translated into his involvement in the training of Officers and the elite of society. The access to these very people must have exposed O’sensei to information in regards to atrocities that were being committed in the name of His beloved country, such as the Nanjing incidents.
    O’senseis involvement in the Omoto-kyo religion, which was trying to influence Japanese society towards a less militaristic one also indicates he had started to steer away from being a man of war.
    His withdrawal from society when Japan was at its peak of military success shows that His conscience was driving a man of pure nature that saw the road that Japan was taking was not the one he loved in his younger years of protection only of Japan itself.

  10. I believe I can place myself in O Sensei’s position to a point, anyone who has trained people who will have to use what you have taught them; hopes (at least I did), that what was imparted is used in a way that will not destroy or harm another unless their life is in danger.
    When I was young I trained to learn how to defeat an enemy. This carried over for many years while improving what I had learned. Then when I started to train others and heard the feedback as to what had happened in actual altercations I started to examine myself and where I was going with my art. True they were never defeated but it began to weigh heavy on my own conscience.

    Every student as well as I who had hurt another person became a burden for me to carry on my conscience, no matter what the reason. After a few of those, I started to reevaluate myself and the art I taught. I began to change my art from what it was to a kinder way of still defending myself from harm and began to teach a new way of Aiki. I lost some students in the transition, but they were the ones who only wanted to learn to harm and not spare the person. I came to realize that Aiki is the sword that can take life, but more it is the art that gives life.
    I believe O Sensei also had that same revelation. The military, spy schools, right wing groups… he left all of that and found (like myself.) peace within and changed his way of thinking. So no, it would not change my thoughts about him.

    Alex R.
    Aikido Arts Institute

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