Murihei Ueshiba (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 or Ōsensei, “Great Teacher”.
The son of a landowner from Tanabe, Ueshiba 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 Sokaku, the founder of Daitō-ryū aiki-jūjutsu. On leaving Hokkaido in 1919, Ueshiba 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 experienced a spiritual enlightenment, 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. In the aftermath of World War II the dojo was closed, but Ueshiba continued training at another dojo he had set up in Iwama. 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.
Morihei Ueshiba was born in Nishinotani village (now part of the city of Tanabe), Wakayama Prefecture, Japan on December 14, 1883, the fourth child (and only son) born to Yoroku Ueshiba and his wife Yuki.
The young Ueshiba was raised in a somewhat privileged setting. His father Yoroku was a rich landowner and minor politician, being an elected member of the Nishinotani village council for 22 consecutive years. His mother Yuki was from the Itokawa clan, a prominent local family who could trace their lineage back to the Heian period. Ueshiba was a rather weak, sickly child and bookish in his inclinations. At a young age his father encouraged him to take up sumo wrestling and swimming and entertained him with stories of his great-grandfather Kichiemon, who was considered a very strong samurai in his era. The need for such strength was further emphasized when the young Ueshiba witnessed his father being attacked by followers of a competing politician.
A major influence on Ueshiba’s early education was his elementary schoolteacher Tasaburo Nasu, who was a Shinto priest and who introduced Ueshiba to the religion. At the age of six Ueshiba was sent to study at the Jizōderu Temple, but had little interest in the rote learning of Confucian education. However, his schoolmaster Mitsujo Fujimoto was also a priest of Shingon Buddhism, and taught the young Ueshiba some of the esoteric chants and ritual observances of the sect, which Ueshiba found intriguing. His interest in Buddhism was sufficiently great that his mother considered enrolling him in the priesthood, but Ueshiba’s father Yoroku vetoed the idea. He went to Tanage Higher Elementary School and then to Tanabe Prefectural Middle School, but left formal education in his early teens, enrolling instead at the a private abacus academy, the Yoshida Institute, to study accountancy. On graduating from the academy, he worked at a local tax office for a few months, but the job did not suit him and in 1901 he left for Tokyo, funded by his father. Ueshiba Trading, the stationery business which he opened there was short-lived; unhappy with life in the capital, he returned to Tanabe less than a year later after suffering a bout of beri-beri. Shortly thereafter he married his childhood acquaintance Hatsu Itokawa.
In 1903, Ueshiba was called up for military service. He failed the initial physical examination, being shorter than the regulation 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m). To overcome this, he stretched his spine by attaching heavy weights to his legs and suspending himself from tree branches; when he re-took the physical exam he had increased his height by the necessary half-inch to pass He was assigned to the Osaka Fourth Division, 37th Regiment, and was promoted to corporal of the 61st Wakayama regiment by the following year; after serving on the front lines during the Russo-Japanese War he was promoted to sergeant. He was discharged in 1907, and again returned to his father’s farm in Tanabe. Here he befriended the writer and philosopher Minakata Kumagusu, becoming involved with Minakata’s opposition to the Meiji government’s Shrine Consolidation Policy. He and his wife had their first child, a daughter named Matsuko, in 1911.
Ueshiba studied several martial arts during his early life, and was renowned for his physical strength during his youth. During his sojourn in Tokyo he studied Kitō-ryū jujutsu under Takisaburo Tobari, and briefly enrolled in a school teaching Shinkage-ryū. His training in Gotō-ha Yagyū-ryu under Masakatsu Nakai was sporadic due to his military service, although he was granted a diploma in the art within a few years. In 1901 he received some instruction from Tozawa Tokusaburōin in Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū jujutsu and he studied judo with Kiyoichi Takagi in Tanabe in 1911, after his father had a dojo built on the family compound to encourage his son’s training. In 1903, after his return from the war, he was also presented with a certificate of enlightenment (shingon inkyo) by Mitsujo Fujimoto of Jizu temple, who had been Ueshiba’s childhood teacher.
In the early part of the 20th century, the prefectural government of Hokkaidō, Japan’s northernmost island, were offering various grants and incentives for mainland Japanese groups willing to relocate there. At the time, Hokkaidō was still largely unsettled by the Japanese, being occupied primarily by the indigenous Ainu. In 1910, Ueshiba travelled to Hokkaidō in the company of his acquaintance Denzaburo Kurahashi, who had lived on the northern island before. His intent was to scout at a propitious location for a new settlement, and he found the site at Shirataki suitable for his his plans. Despite the hardships he suffered on this journey (which included getting lost in snowstorms several times and an incident in which he nearly drowned in a freezing river), Ueshiba returned to Tanabe filled with enthusiasm for the project, and began recruiting families to join him. He became the leader of the Kishū Settlement Group, a collective of eighty-five pioneers who intended to settle in the Shirataki district and live as farmers; the group founded the village of Yubetsu (later Shirataki village) in August, 1912. Much of the funding for this project came from Ueshiba’s father and his brothers-in-law Zenzo and Koshiro Inoue. Zenzo’s son Noriaki was also a member of the group. Poor soil conditions and bad weather led to crop failures during the first three years of the project, but the group still managed to cultivate mint and farm livestock. The burgeoning timber industry provided a boost to the settlement’s economy, and by 1918 there were over 500 families residing there. A fire in 1917 razed the entire village, leading to the departure of around twenty families. Ueshiba was attending a meeting over railway construction around 50 miles away, but on learning of the fire travelled back the entire distance on foot. He was elected to the village council that year, and took a prominent role in leading the reconstruction efforts. In the summer of 1918, Hatsu gave birth to their first son, Takemori.
In Hokkaidō, the young Ueshiba met Takeda Sokaku, the founder of Daitō-ryū aiki-jūjutsu at the Hisada Inn in Engaru, in March 1915. Ueshiba was deeply impressed with Takeda’s martial art, and despite being on an important mission for his village at the time, abandoned his journey to spend the next month studying with Takeda. He requested formal instruction and began studying Takeda’s style of jūjutsu in earnest, going so far as to construct a dojo at his home and inviting his new teacher to be a permanent house guest. He received a kyoju dairi certificate, or teaching license, for the system from Takeda in 1922, when Takeda visited him in Ayabe. He also received a Yagyū Shinkage-ryū sword transmission scroll from Takeda. Ueshiba then became a representative of Daitō-ryū, toured with Takeda as a teaching assistant and taught the system to others. The relationship between Ueshiba and Takeda was a complicated one. Ueshiba was an extremely dedicated student, dutifully attending to his teacher’s needs and displaying great respect. However, Takeda overshadowed him throughout his early martial arts career, and Ueshiba’s own students recorded the need to address what they referred to as “the Takeda problem”.
In November 1919, Ueshiba learned that his father Yoroku was ill, and was not expected to survive. Leaving most of his possessions to Sokaku, Ueshiba left Shirataki with the apparent intention returning to Tanabe to visit his ailing parent. En route, however, he made a detour to Ayabe, near Kyoto, intending to visit Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the Ōmoto-kyō religion in Ayabe (Ueshiba’s nephew Noriaki Inoue had already joined the religion and may have recommended it to his uncle). Ueshiba stayed at the Ōmoto-kyō headquarters for several days, and met with Deguchi, who told him that, “There is nothing to worry about with your father”.On his return to Tanabe, Ueshiba found that Yoroku had died. Criticised by family and friends for arriving too late to see his father, Ueshiba went into the mountains with a sword and practised kenjutsu for several days; this almost led to his arrest when the police were informed of a sword-wielding madman on the loose.
Within a few months, Ueshiba was back in Ayabe, having decided to become a full-time student of Ōmoto-kyō. In 1920 he moved his entire family, including his mother, to the Ōmoto compound; at the same time he also purchased enough rice to feed himself and his family for several years. That same year, Deguchi asked Ueshiba to become the group’s martial arts instructor, and a dojo—the first of several that Ueshiba was to lead—was constructed on the centre’s grounds. Ueshiba also taught Takeda’s Daitō-ryū in neighbouring Hyōgo Prefecture during this period. His second son, Kuniharu, was born in 1920 in Ayabe, but died from illness the same year, along with three-year-old Takemori.
Ueshiba continued to teach his martial art under the name “Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu”, at the behest of his teacher, Takeda Sokaku. Takeda visited Ueshiba in Ayabe to provide instruction, although he was not a follower of Ōmoto and did not get along with Deguchi, which led to a cooling of the relationship between him and Ueshiba. However, Deguchi encouraged Ueshiba to create his own style of martial arts, “Ueshiba-ryū”, and sent many Ōmoto followers to study at the dojo. He also brought Ueshiba into the highest levels of the group’s bureaucracy, making Ueshiba his executive assistant and putting him in charge of the Showa Seinenkai (Ōmoto-kyō’s national youth organisation) and the Ōmoto Shobotai, a volunteer fire service. His close relationship with Deguchi introduced Ueshiba to various members of Japan’s far-right; members of the ultranationalist group the Sakurakai would hold meetings at Ueshiba’s dojo, and he developed a friendship with the philosopher (and later war criminal) Shūmei Ōkawa during this period, as well as meeting with Nissho Inoue and Kozaburo Tachibana. Deguchi also offered Ueshiba’s services as a bodyguard to Kingoro Hashimoto, the Sakurakai’s founder.
In 1921, in an event known as the First Ōmoto-kyō Incident (Ōmoto jiken), the Japanese authorities raided the compound, destroying the main buildings on the site and arresting Deguchi on charges of lèse-majesté. Ueshiba’s dojo was undamaged, however, and over the following two years he worked closely with Deguchi to reconstruct the group’s centre, becoming heavily involved in farming work and serving as the groups “Caretaker of Forms”, a role which placed him in charge of overseeing Ōmoto’s move towards self-sufficiency. His son Kisshomaru Ueshiba was born in the summer of 1921.
Three years later, in 1924, Onisaburo Deguchi led a small group of Ōmoto-kyō disciples, including Ueshiba, on a journey to Mongolia at the invitation of retired naval captain Yutaro Yano and his associates within the ultra-nationalist Black Dragon Society. Deguchi’s intent was to establish a new religious kingdom in Mongolia, and to this end he had distributed propaganda suggesting that he was the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Allied with the Mongolian bandit Lu Zhankui, Deguchi’s group were arrested in Tongliao by the Chinese authorities—fortunately for Ueshiba, whilst Lu and his men were executed by firing squad, the Japanese group were released into the custody of the Japanese consul. They were returned under guard to Japan, where Deguchi was imprisoned for breaking the terms of his bail. During this expedition Ueshiba was given the Chinese alias Wang Shou-gao, rendered in Japanese as “Moritaka” – he was reportedly very taken with this name and continued to use it intermittently for the rest of his life.
After returning to Ayabe, Ueshiba began a regimen of spiritual training, regularly retreating by himself to the mountains or performing misogi in the Nachi Falls. As his prowess as a martial artist increased, his fame began to spread. He was challenged by many established martial artists, some of whom subsequently became his students after being defeated by him. In the autumn of 1925 he was asked to give a demonstration of his art in Tokyo, at the behest of Admiral Isamu Takeshita; one of the spectators was Yamamoto Gonnohyōe, who requested that Ueshiba stay in the capital to instruct the Imperial Guard in his martial art. After a couple of weeks, however, Ueshiba took issue with several government officials who voiced concerns about his connections to Deguchi; he cancelled the training and returned to Ayabe. Ōmoto-kyō priests still oversee the Aiki-jinja Taisai ceremony in Ueshiba’s honor every April 29 at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama.
In 1926 Takeshita invited Ueshiba to visit Tokyo again. Ueshiba relented and returned to the capital, but while residing there was stricken with a serious illness. Deguchi visited his ailing student and, concerned for his health, commanded Ueshiba to return to Ayabe. The appeal of returning increased after Ueshiba was questioned by the police following his meeting with Deguchi; the authorities were keeping the Ōmoto-kyō leader under close surveillance. Angered at the treatment he had received, Ueshiba went back to Ayabe again. Six months later, however, and this time with Deguchi’s blessing, he and his family moved permanently to Tokyo. Arriving in October 1927, they set up home in the Shirokane district. The building, however, was too small to house the growing number of aikido students, and so the Ueshibas moved to larger premises, first in Mita district, then in Takanawa, and finally to a purpose-built hall in Shinjuku. This last location, originally named the Kobukan, would eventually become the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. During its construction, Ueshiba rented a property nearby, where he was visited by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo.
During this period, Ueshiba was invited to teach at a number of military institutes. He accepted an invitation from Admiral Sankichi Takahashi to be the martial arts instructor at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, and also taught at the Nakano Spy School, although aikido was later judged to be too technical for the students there and karate was adopted instead. He also became a visiting instructor at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy after being challenged by (and defeating) General Makoto Miura, another student of Takeda Sokaku’s Daitō-ryū. Takeda himself met Ueshiba for the last time around 1935, while Ueshiba was teaching at the Osaka headquarters of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Frustrated by the appearance of his teacher, who was openly critical of Ueshiba’s martial arts and who appeared intent on taking over the classes there, Ueshiba left Osaka during the night, bowing to the residence in which Takeda was staying and thereafter avoiding all contact with him. Between 1940 and 1942 he made several visits to Manchukuo (Japanese occupied Manchuria) where he was the principal martial arts instructor at Kenkoku University. Whilst in Manchuria, he met and defeated the sumo wrestler Tenryū Saburō during a demonstration.
The “Second Ōmoto Incident” in 1935 saw another government crackdown on Deguchi’s sect, in which the Ayabe compound was destroyed and most of the group’s leaders imprisoned. Although he had relocated to Tokyo, Ueshiba had retained links with the Ōmoto-kyō group, and should probably have expected to be arrested as one of its senior members. However, he had a good relationship with both the local police commissioner Kenji Tomita and the chief of police Gīchi Morita, both of whom had been his students. As a result, although he was taken in for interrogation, he was released without charge on Morita’s authority.
In 1932, Ueshiba’s daughter Matsuko was married to the swordsman Kiyoshi Nakakura, who was adopted as Ueshiba’s heir under the name Morihiro Ueshiba. The marriage ended after a few years, and Nakakura left the family in 1937.
The 1930s saw Japan’s invasion of mainland Asia and increased military activity in Europe. Ueshiba was concerned about the prospect of war breaking out, and became involved in a number of efforts to try and forestall the conflict that would eventually become World War II. He was part of a group, along with Shūmei Ōkawa and several wealthy Japanese backers, that tried to broker a deal with Harry Chandler to export aviation fuel from the United States to Japan (in contravention of the oil embargo that was currently in force), although this effort ultimately failed. In 1941 Ueshiba also undertook a secret diplomatic mission to China at the behest of Prince Fumimaro Konoe. The intended goal was a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek to establish peace talks, but Ueshiba was unable to meet with the Chinese leader, arriving too late to fulfil his mission.
From 1935 onwards, Ueshiba had been purchasing land in Iwama in Ibaraki Prefecture. In 1942, having acquired around 17 acres (۶٫۹ ha; 0.027 sq mi) of farmland there, 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. During all this time he traveled 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 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, however, Ueshiba delegated most of the work of running the Hombu dojo and the Aiki Federation to his son Kisshomaru, choosing to spend much of his time in prayer, meditation, calligraphy and farming. He still travelled extensively to promote aikido, however, even visiting Hawaii in 1961. He also appeared in a television documentary on aikido: NTV’s The Master of Aikido, broadcast in January 1960.
In his later years, he was regarded as very kind and gentle as a rule, but there are also stories of terrifying scoldings delivered to his students. For instance, he once thoroughly chastised students for practicing jō (staff) strikes on trees without first covering them in protective padding. He 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 became ill. He led his last training session on March 10, and was subsequently 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 Enyu Daidoshi” ; parts of his hair were enshrined at Ayabe, Iwama and Kumano. Two months later, his wife Hatsu also died.
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 is unusual among the martial arts for its heavy emphasis on protecting the opponent and on spiritual and social development
Ueshiba developed aikido after experiencing three instances of spiritual awakening. The first happened in 1925, after Ueshiba had defeated a naval officer’s bokken (wooden katana) attacks unarmed and without hurting the officer. Ueshiba then walked to his garden and had a spiritual awakening.
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 peace 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, Ueshiba had a vision of the “Great Spirit of Peace”.
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 Peace, the power of love.
The technical curriculum of aikido was undoubtedly most greatly influenced by the teachings of Takeda Sokaku. The basic techniques of aikido seem to have their basis in teachings from various points in the Daitō-ryū curriculum. In the earlier years of his teaching, from the 1920s to the mid-1930s, Ueshiba taught the Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu system; his early students’ documents bear the term Daitō-ryū. Indeed, Ueshiba 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 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), 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 in the years after World War II.
Later, as Ueshiba seemed to slowly grow away from Takeda, 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, the martial art that Ueshiba 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 circular. Striking techniques became less important and the formal curriculum became simpler. 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. Ueshiba 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.
Medal of Honor (Purple Ribbon) (Japan), 1960.
Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, 1964.
Order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan), 1968.
Morihei Ueshiba, The Secret Teachings of Aikido , Kodansha International, ISBN 978-4-7700-3030-6
Morihei Ueshiba, Budo: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido, Kodansha International, ISBN 978-4-7700-2070-3
Morihei Ueshiba, The Essence of Aikido: Spiritual Teachings of Morihei Ueshiba , Kodansha International, ISBN 978-4-7700-2357-5
IR MEISEI KAI is an AIKIDO style which is working in Iran under supervision of MEISEI KAI Shishiya Shihan. This style in officially accepted and recognized by Iran Martial Arts federation.