Ueshiba Morihei Osensei: The founder and the father of modern Aikido
Osensei Morihei Ueshiba (植芝 盛平 Ueshiba Morihei?, December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969) was a martial artist and founder of the Japanese martial art of Aikido. He is often referred to as “the founder” Kaiso (開祖?) or Ōsensei (大先生/翁先生?), “Great Teacher”.
The son of a landowner from Tanabe, Ueshiba Osensei studied a number of martial arts in his youth and served in the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War. After being discharged in 1907, he moved to Hokkaidō as the head of a pioneer settlement; here he met and studied with Takeda Sōkaku, the founder of Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu. On leaving Hokkaido in 1919, Ueshiba Osensei joined the Ōmoto-kyō movement, a Shinto sect, in Ayabe, where he served as a martial arts instructor and opened his first dojo.
He accompanied the head of the Ōmoto-kyō group, Onisaburo Deguchi, on an expedition to Mongolia in 1924, where they were captured by Chinese troops and returned to Japan. The following year, he had a profound spiritual experience, stating that, “a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one.” After this experience, his martial arts skill appeared to be greatly increased.
Ueshiba moved to Tokyo in 1926, where he set up the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. By now he was comparatively famous in martial arts circles, and taught at this dojo and others around Japan, including in several military academies. In the aftermath of World War II, the Hombu dojo was temporarily closed, but Ueshiba had by this point left Tokyo and retired to Iwama, and he continued training at the dojo he had set up there. From the end of the war until the 1960s, he worked to promote aikido throughout Japan and abroad. He died from liver cancer in 1969.
After Ueshiba Osensei’s death, Aikido continued to be promulgated by his students (many of whom became noted martial artists in their own right). It is now practised around the world.
Iwama, 1942–1969: Ueshiba Osensei retires in farming town and invents Aikido
A small Shinto shrine surrounded by trees, with a stone tablet in the foreground
The Aiki Shrine in Iwama
From 1935 onwards, Ueshiba had been purchasing land in Iwama in Ibaraki Prefecture, and by the early 1940s had acquired around 17 acres (6.9 ha; 0.027 sq mi) of farmland there. In 1942, disenchanted with the war-mongering and political manoeuvring in the capital, he left Tokyo and moved to Iwama permanently, settling in a small farmer’s cottage. Here he founded the Aiki Shuren Dojo, also known as the Iwama dojo, and the Aiki Shrine, a devotional shrine to the “Great Spirit of Aiki”.
During this time he travelled extensively in Japan, particularly in the Kansai region, teaching his aikido. Despite the prohibition on the teaching of martial arts after World War II, Ueshiba and his students continued to practice in secret at the Iwama dojo; the Hombu dojo in Tokyo was, in any case, being used as a refugee centre for citizens displaced by the severe firebombing. It was during this period that Ueshiba met and befriended Koun Nakanishi, an expert in kotodama. The study of kotodama was to become one of Ueshiba’s passions in later life, and Nakanishi’s work inspired Ueshiba’s concept of takemusu aiki.
The rural nature of his new home in Iwama allowed Ueshiba to concentrate on the second great passion of his life: farming. He had been born into a farming family and spent much of his life cultivating the land, from his settlement days in Hokkaidō to his work in Ayabe trying to make the Ōmoto-kyō compound self-sufficient. He viewed farming as a logical complement to martial arts; both were physically demanding and required single-minded dedication. Not only did his farming activities provide a useful cover for martial arts training under the government’s restrictions, it also provided food for Ueshiba, his students and other local families at a time when food shortages were commonplace.
The government prohibition (on Aikido, at least) was lifted in 1948 with the creation of the Aiki Foundation, established by the Japanese Ministry of Education with permission from the Occupation forces. The Hombu dojo re-opened the following year. After the war, Ueshiba effectively retired from aikido.
He delegated most of the work of running the Hombu dojo and the Aiki Federation to his son Kisshomaru and instead chose to spend much of his time in prayer, meditation, calligraphy and farming. He still travelled extensively to promote aikido, even visiting Hawaii in 1961.He also appeared in a television documentary on aikido: NTV’s The Master of Aikido, broadcast in January 1960. Ueshiba Osensei maintained links with the Japanese nationalist movement even in later life; his student Kanshu Sunadomari reported that Ueshiba temporarily sheltered Mikami Taku, one of the naval officers involved in the May 15 Incident, at Iwama.
In 1969, Ueshiba Osensei became ill. He led his last training session on March 10, and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He died suddenly on April 26, 1969. His body was buried at Kōzan-ji, and he was given the posthumous Buddhist title “Aiki-in Moritake En’yū Daidōshi” (合気院盛武円融大道士); parts of his hair were enshrined at Ayabe, Iwama and Kumano. Two months later, his wife Hatsu (植芝 はつ Ueshiba Hatsu, née Itokawa Hatsu; 1881–1969) also died.
Development of aikido
Main article: Aikido
Aikido—usually translated as the Way of Unifying Spirit or the Way of Spiritual Harmony—is a fighting system that focuses on throws, pins and joint locks together with some striking techniques. It emphasises protecting the opponent and promotes spiritual and social development.
The technical curriculum of aikido was derived from the teachings of Takeda Sōkaku; the basic techniques of aikido stem from his Daitō-ryū system. In the earlier years of his teaching, from the 1920s to the mid-1930s, Ueshiba Osensei taught the Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu system; his early students’ documents bear the term Daitō-ryū. Indeed, Ueshiba Osensei trained one of the future highest grade earners in Daitō-ryū, Takuma Hisa, in the art before Takeda took charge of Hisa’s training.
The early form of training under Ueshiba Osensei was noticeably different from later forms of aikido. It had a larger curriculum, increased use of strikes to vital points (atemi) and a greater use of weapons. The schools of aikido developed by Ueshiba’s students from the pre-war period tend to reflect the harder style of the early training. These students included Kenji Tomiki (who founded the Shodokan Aikido sometimes called Tomiki-ryū), Noriaki Inoue (who founded Shin’ei Taidō), Minoru Mochizuki (who founded Yoseikan Budo) and Gozo Shioda (who founded Yoshinkan Aikido). Many of these styles are therefore considered “pre-war styles”, although some of these teachers continued to train with Ueshiba Osensei in the years after World War II.
During his lifetime, Ueshiba had three spiritual experiences that impacted greatly on his understanding of the martial arts. The first occurred in 1925, after Ueshiba Osensei had defeated a naval officer’s bokken (wooden katana) attacks unarmed and without hurting the officer. Ueshiba then walked to his garden, where he had the following realisation:
“I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time, my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe. At that moment I was enlightened: the source of budō [the martial way] is God’s love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings …
Budō is not the felling of an opponent by force; nor is it a tool to lead the world to destruction with arms. True Budō is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the harmony of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature”.
His second experience occurred in 1940 when engaged in the ritual purification process of misogi.
“Around 2am, I suddenly forgot all the martial techniques I had ever learned. The techniques of my teachers appeared completely new. Now they were vehicles for the cultivation of life, knowledge, and virtue, not devices to throw people with”.
His third experience was in 1942 during the worst fighting of World War II, when Ueshiba had a vision of the “Great Spirit of Peace”.:18
The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Harmony, the power of love.
After these events, Ueshiba Osensei seemed to slowly grow away from Takeda, and he began to change his art. These changes are reflected in the differing names with which he referred to his system, first as aiki-jūjutsu, then Ueshiba-ryū, Asahi-ryū, and aiki budō. In 1942, when Ueshiba Osensei’s group joined the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, the martial art that Ueshiba Osensei developed finally came to be known as Aikido.
As Ueshiba grew older, more skilled, and more spiritual in his outlook, his art also changed and became softer and more gentle. Martial techniques became less important, and more focus was given to the control of ki.
In his own expression of the art there was a greater emphasis on what is referred to as kokyū-nage, or “breath throws” which are soft and blending, utilizing the opponent’s movement in order to throw them. UUeshiba Osensei regularly practiced cold water misogi, as well as other spiritual and religious rites, and viewed his studies of aikido as part of this spiritual training.
Over the years, Ueshiba Osensei trained a large number of students, many of whom later became famous teachers in their own right and developed their own styles of aikido. Some of them were uchi-deshi, live-in students. Ueshiba placed many demands on his uchi-deshi, expecting them to attend him at all times, act as training partners (even in the middle of the night), arrange his travel plans, massage and bathe him, and assist with household chores.
There were roughly four generations of students, comprising the pre-war students (training c.1921–1935), students who trained during the Second World War (c.1936–1945), the post-war students in Iwama (c.1946–1955) and the students who trained with Ueshiba during his final years (c.1956–c.1969).
As a result of Ueshiba Osensei’s martial development throughout his life, students from each of these generations tend to have markedly different approaches to Aikido.These variations are compounded by the fact that few students trained with Ueshiba Osensei for a protracted period; only Yoichiro Inoue, Kenji Tomiki, Gozo Shioda, Morihiro Saito (25 years) and Tsutomu Yukawa studied directly under Ueshiba for more than five or six years. After the war, Ueshiba and the Hombu Dojo dispatched some of their students to various other countries, resulting in Aikido spreading around the world.