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Daito-Ryu and Omoto: The Two Pillars of Aikido

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #94 (Winter/Spring 1993)

Onisaburo Deguchi, Morihei Ueshiba, and Sokaku Takeda

The figure of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, is an elusive one for chroniclers of martial arts history. This is the case despite the fact that there are still hundreds of first-hand witnesses to his life and work, including his son and successor, Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru. Ueshiba. Ueshiba’s life, which reads like an adventure novel — unfolded in a cultural and religious setting quite foreign to modern Japanese.

In particular, a clear understanding of the crucial roles played by Sokaku Takeda and Onisaburo Deguchi in Ueshiba’s development is essential in order to grasp the spiritual and technical evolution which culminated in the creation of modern aikido. Takeda was the disseminator of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu in twentieth century Japan, and Onisaburo Deguchi was the leading light of the influential Ornoto religion. Takeda’s art provided the physical basis for Ueshiba’s expression — in the form of martial techniques—of the universal spiritual insights gleaned from Onisaburo’s religious teachings.

Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu

During the past five or six years we have given serious attention to the influence of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu on modern aikido. Prior to that time, little information on this subject was available, even in the Japanese language. Early portrayals of the historical connection between the two arts were biased against Daito-ryu and painted Sokaku Takeda in a negative light. Through numerous interviews of the present Daito-ryu Headmaster Tokimune Takeda and most of the leading Daito-ryu shihan we have been able to present alternate viewpoints concerning the relationship between Sokaku Takeda and Morihei Ueshiba which has in turn led to a more objective understanding of historical events.

To summarize our findings, Daito-ryu aikijujutsu is clearly the most important technical influence on aikido, as most aikido techniques have obvious counterparts in the Daito-ryu curriculum. Morihei Ueshiba was one of Sokaku Takeda’s most skilled students and taught Daito-ryu as a certified instructor from 1922 through the mid-1930s. Ueshiba gave out numerous transmission scrolls identical in content to those awarded by Takeda except that in later years references to Daito-ryu and Sokaku were absent from these documents.

The personal and professional relationship between Takeda and Ueshiba was a tumultuous one and the two grew progressively apart over time. In the latter years of their association, prior to Takeda’s death in 1943, Ueshiba went to great lengths to avoid direct meetings with Sokaku. Later in his life, Ueshiba did not emphasize the role of Daito-ryu techniques in shaping modern aikido and would sometimes speak disparagingly of Sokaku Takeda to his intimates. Successors of the Daito-ryu tradition, for their part, while acknowledging Morihei’s aikijujutsu background and the subsequent wide acceptance of aikido, tend to regard the aikido founder as somewhat of a rebel who modified the school’s technical curriculum in pursuit of commercial success.

Today Daito-ryu, though small in numerical terms compared to aikido, is nonetheless Japan’s most vigorous classical jujutsu school. Its survival into the next century is guaranteed despite the demise of most of its technical brethren after the Meiji period. Part of the renewed interest in Daito-ryu is certainly due to the attention being lavished upon the art as the progenitor of modern aikido by the martial arts media.

Apart from a number of independent dojos such as that of Yukiyoshi Sagawa, the major Daito-ryu groups include: Daito-ryu Aiki Budo, the main school under Headmaster Tokimune Takeda; Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Kodokai, based on the teachings of Kodo Horikawa; Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Takumakai, the organization following the methods of Takuma I lisa; and Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Roppokai under Seigo Okamoto, a leading student of Horikawa.

On October 4th, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sokaku Takeda was observed in a large demonstration held at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo [see photos in the “Heard in the Dojo” section of this issue]. Sponsored by the Tokyo Shimbukan Dojo under Soke Dairi Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei, this event served as a show of unity by the Daito-ryu world and the main school, the Kodokai, and the Takumakai all provided demonstrations on the same stage, a rare if not unique happening. Later, at the reception, Katsuyuki Kondo, Yusuke Inoue, and Hakaru Mori, respective leaders of their schools, publicly affirmed their intentions of maintaining mutual good relations and working harmoniously toward the future growth of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu.

Omoto Religion

The Omoto sect was one of the most successful of Japan’s so-called “new religions” [shinko shukyo]. It had some two million worshipers at the time of its brutal suppression in December 1935 by the Japanese military government. Originally established by an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi in the late nineteenth century, it was the charismatic Onisaburo Deguchi who was largely responsible for development of the Omoto organization and the formulation of its doctrine.

Ueshiba’s introduction to the religion came about quite by accident in December 1919 while he was on his way home to Tanabe from Hokkaido to see his gravely ill father. He detoured to Ayabe for several days to seek prayers for his father’s recovery and it was at that time that he met and was enthralled by Onisaburo. Following his father’s death, in the spring of 1920 he moved to Ayabe with his family despite much opposition. Onisaburo took Ueshiba under his wing when he discovered the latter’s considerable martial skills and encouraged him to give instruction to interested members of the sect. This led to the opening of the “Ueshiba Juku” [private school] where Ueshiba continued his personal training while teaching on a small scale.

In 1922, Sokaku Takeda spent five months in Ayabe teaching Omoto believers in Ueshiba’s home. Takeda and Deguchi, both such important figures in Morihei’s personal development, regrettably, but not surprisingly, experienced an intense dislike for each other and this surely was the cause of great stress for Ueshiba.

Ueshiba was to later share a great adventure with Onisaburo when he accompanied his master to Mongolia in 1924 as a bodyguard. The small party of Japanese became embroiled in local politics and narrowly escaped with their lives. This experience further cemented the relationship between Onisaburo and Morihei and the venture into the jaws of death was to have a profound spiritual effect on the future aikido founder.

Ueshiba’s close association with the Omoto religion continued following his move to Tokyo in 1927 until 1935. Onisaburo even went so far as to instigate in 1932 the establishment of the Budo Senyokai, a nationwide Omoto-affiliated organization expressly created for the propagation of Ueshiba’s aikijujutsu. Following the Second Omoto Incident in 1935, Ueshiba was constrained to distance himself from the activities of the outlawed church but his devotion to Onisaburo never diminished. After World War II, Ueshiba resumed his cordial relations with the Omoto religion and frequently visited its headquarters in Kameoka and Ayabe.

In retrospect, it was the doctrine of Onisaburo which Morihei received personally from his master and through his readings of Deguchi’s Rekai Monogatari [Tales of the Spirit World] that provided the spiritual basis for the humanistic vision permeating aikido. Aikido’s uniqueness among modern Japanese martial arts resides precisely in this ethical emphasis and Omoto’s significant contribution must be recognized.

Though the momentum of the hugely successful Omoto church was broken as a result of the Second Omoto Incident, the religion was revived after the war by Onisaburo under the name of Aizenen. Following Onisaburo’s death in 1948, his wife Sumiko and later his daughter Naohi assumed leadership of the sect and its name reverted to Omoto. Into the 1960s the religion recorded some 200,000 members throughout Japan.

In recent years, as is invariably the fate of large, structured organizations, some groups have broken away from the main church to pursue independent ways. One group called the Aizenen, headed by a grandson of Onisaburo, Yasuaki Deguchi, emphasizes the study of Deguchi’s voluminous Reikai Monogatari. Aiki News met with Mr. Deguchi recently, and he spoke extensively of his grandfather and the history of the religion from a first-hand perspective. We will soon be devoting a portion of our energies to documenting the early history and activities of the Omoto religion, particularly as it relates to the spiritual principles underlying aikido.

Aikido’s success story now overshadows Daito-ryu and the Omoto religion, both of which remain relatively obscure phenomena in modern Japan. Nonetheless, as practitioners of Morihei Ueshiba’s art and followers of his ethical principles we are morally bound to acknowledge his antecedents and, by so doing, we may, in however small a way, begin to return the great debt aikido owes to these sources.