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Morihei Ueshiba and Onisaburo Deguchi

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by Stanley Pranin

From Japanese Wushu Magazine

Two individuals stand out as the major influences on Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido, during his formative years. The first, Sokaku Takeda, was the subject of the article appearing in last month’s issue. The second, Onisaburo Deguchi, will be the focus of this essay.

If Sokaku Takeda can be said to have provided the technical basis for the later development of Aikido techniques, it was Onisaburo Deguchi who offered the key spiritual insights which struck a responsive chord in the religiously-oriented Morihei. It was the religious vision of the Omoto Sect that was to form the basis for the ethical framework of aikido. First, I will present an overview on the Omoto religion.

ON THE OMOTO RELIGION

The upsurgence of the Omoto religion in the beginning of this century was the product of the efforts of two charismatic figures. The first, its foundress, was an illiterate, peasant woman named Nao Deguchi (1836-1918). The other was the eccentric and energetic Onisaburo Deguchi who masterminded the rise to prominence of this powerful and unorthodox religious sect.

Nao Deguchi led a destitute and tragic life losing her husband and several of her children at an early age. In 1896, at the age of 56, pushed to the brink of dispair, she fell into a trance state and became possesed by a benevolent spirit. The unschooled Nao began taking dictation that she herself was unable to read. Her writings contained revelations concerning the spirit world and a continuous stream of social criticism. Mankind was urged to adopt a new morality and revitalize its social institutions. Her vision was based on a universal God who regarded all human beings as equals, a belief in direct opposition to state Shinto centered on the divine figure of the Emperor.

Nao had already begun to gather a following when Onisaburo appeared on the scene in 1898. He was keenly interested in shamanism and had also undergone a series of trance experiences during which it was revealed that his spiritual mission was to become a savior of mankind. Onisaburo eventually married Nao’s daughter, Sumiko, adopted the family name of Deguchi, and became the dynamic force behind the explosive growth of the young Omoto religion.

Centered in Ayabe near Kyoto, the Omoto Sect flourished in the first two decades of the twentieth century. By the time Morihei Ueshiba made his first visit at age 36 to the religion’s headquarters its followers already numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

MORIHEI DEPARTS HOKKAIDO

In December 1919, Ueshiba, then a resident of Shirataki-mura in northern Hokkaido, received a telegram requesting his immediate return to Tanabe, his hometown, due to the critical condition of his father. While on the train passing through the Kansai area, Morihei apparently struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who spoke enthusiastically of the Omoto religion. He talked of the wonderful teachings of this sect, of miracle cures and of its charismatic leader, Onisaburo Deguchi. The emotionally distraught Morihei decided on the spot to make a detour to Ayabe where he ended up spending several days. While seeking prayers for his father’s recovery, he quickly fell under the spell of the sympathetic Onisaburo.

MOVE TO OMOTO CENTER IN AYABE

Upon Morihei’s return to Tanabe he found that his father had already passed away. Understandably, the death of his father left him in a state of depression and, in an effort to find a spiritual direction, he decided to move with his family to the Omoto center Ayabe in the spring of 1920.

Under the tutelage of Onisaburo Deguchi Ueshiba engaged in farming and spiritual training. The enthusiastic and hard-working Ueshiba quickly won the confidence of Onisaburo. Having learned of Morihei’s martial skills, the Omoto leader encouraged him to provide martial arts instruction to followers of the religion. This led to the opening of his first dojo, the “Ueshiba Juku,” where he taught his form of Daito-ryu jujutsu. Ueshiba’s reputation grew steadily and the ranks of practitioners in the Ueshiba dojo swelled to include naval personnel from the port city of Maizuru. It is easy to imagine the pride that Onisaburo must have felt in having such a skilled martial artist in his midst. A photograph of Ueshiba inside his dojo reveals his massive, tank-like physique and his tremendous physical strength is almost palpable.

We covered the visit of Sokaku Takeda to Ayabe in 1922 in the last issue in some detail. Suffice it to say that this five-month period of intensive training under the demanding Takeda considerably deepened Ueshiba’s grasp of Daito-ryu techniques. It also had the effect of creating a gulf between the two which was never completely overcome.

ADVENTURE IN MONGOLIA

Ueshiba was to put his martial abilities to the test two years later in February 1924 when he accompanied Onisaburo as his bodyguard on an ill-fated journey to Mongolia in an effort to found a utopian colony. They narrowly escaped with their lives on this occasion as they enmeshed themselves in the political and military struggles of that region and ended up on the losing side. Deguchi, Ueshiba and the rest of their party were thrown into prison and had resigned themselves to what appeared to be a certain death. There is a famous photo of the party standing in shackles outside their prison. It was only the intervention of the Japanese consul in Mongolia which saved Onisaburo and company. They were deported and sent back to Japan under the surveillance of the Japanese police.

Following his return from Mongolia, Ueshiba was gradually enticed away from Ayabe to teach his jujutsu style in Tokyo by a number of prominent persons including Admiral Isamu Takeshita and former prime minister Gombei Yamamoto. After several visits to Tokyo for instructional seminars, he moved there with his family in 1927. This was by no means the end of his association with the Omoto religion or Onisaburo Deguchi. In fact, such was Onisaburo’s continuing esteem for Morihei that he arranged for the establishment of the Budo Sen’yokai in 1932 under Omoto auspices. The organization’s first chairman was, naturally, Morihei Ueshiba. Dojos sprang up especially in areas with large concentrations of Omoto believers and classes were conducted regularly in Ayabe, Kameoka and the small town of Takeda in Hyogo Prefecture. Takeda was the site of a special dojo where many of the strongest budoka practiced. Instructors from Ueshiba’s Kobukan dojo in Tokyo including Noriaki Inoue (Ueshiba’s nephew), Gozo Shioda and Rinjiro Shirata were dispatched there regularly to teach.

ONISABURO ESTABLISHES THE BUDO SEN’YOKAI

The activities of the Budo Sen’yokai ended due to the Second Omoto Incident which occurred in December 1935. Much of Omoto property was destroyed and the religion suppressed by the military government. Onisaburo was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace and lese majeste. Ueshiba was forced into hiding and thereafter until the end of the war he could not openly associate with the religion. Ueshiba’s actions in distancing himself from the religion during this tumultuous period were criticized by certain elements within the sect. However, open support of the Omoto religion in this political climate would have invariably destroyed all he had worked to build.

Group photo taken in Ayabe c. 1932 beneath the Budo Sen’yokai banner. Second row left standing: Morihei Ueshiba, Sumiko Deguchi, Onisaburo Deguchi. Seated between Onisaburo and his wife his Yoichiro Inoue, Ueshiba’s nephew.

Nonetheless, when aikido began to be taught to the general public in the 1950s Ueshiba maintained frequent, open ties with the Omoto and would periodically visit Ayabe. Still today, Ueshiba is regarded with pride by the Omoto religion and prominently mentioned in its writings.