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Morihei Ueshiba & Onisaburo Deguchi

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #95 (Spring/Summer 1993)

If Sokaku Takeda can be said to have provided the technical basis for the later development of aikido, it was Onisaburo Deguchi, leader of the Omoto sect, who offered the key spiritual insights that struck a responsive chord in the religiously oriented Morihei. This second installment in a series of essays on Morihei Ueshiba by Aiki News Editor-in-Chief Stanley Pranin focuses on the relationship between the aikido founder and Onisaburo, which had a major bearing on the spiritual thinking of Morihei and the ethical framework of aikido.

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 was destitute throughout the first part of her life and had faced the tragedies of losing her husband and several of her children at an early age. In 1896, at the age of 56, pushed to the brink of despair, she fell into a trance and became possessed 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 that was in direct opposition to the state Shinto religion which was 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.

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

In December 1919, Ueshiba, then a resident of Shirataki-mura in northern Hokkaido, received a telegram requesting his immediate return to his hometown of Tanabe as his father was in critical condition. 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, and he ended up spending several days there. While seeking prayers for his father’s recovery, he quickly fell under the spell of the sympathetic Onisaburo.

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 in Ayabe in the spring of 1920.

Under the guidance of Onisaburo Deguchi, Ueshiba engaged in farming and spiritual training. The enthusiastic and hard-working Morihei quickly won Onisaburo’s confidence. 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 in his private residence, the Ueshiba Juku, where he taught the Daito-ryu jujutsu techniques he had learned from Sokaku Takeda. Ueshiba’s reputation grew steadily and the ranks of practitioners in the tiny 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 [see photo, p. 38, AN94]. Sokaku Takeda’s visit to Ayabe in 1922 was covered in some detail in the last issue [AN94]. 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. However, because of the mutual dislike of Onisaburo and Sokaku, the latter’s impromptu visit to Ayabe also resulted in a strain in the relationship between Morihei and his jujutsu teacher that was never to be healed.

Ueshiba 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 where they attempted to establish 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 by firing squad. The often published photograph of the party standing in shackles outside their prison vividly portrays their situation. Only the intervention of the Japanese consul in Mongolia was able to save 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 style of jujutsu in Tokyo by a number of prominent persons, including Admiral Isamu Takeshita and former prime minister Gombei Yamamoto. After several visits to the capital to give instructional seminars, he moved there with his family in 1927.

This by no means meant 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 Senyokai in 1932 under Omoto auspices. The organization’s first chairman was, not surprisingly, Morihei Ueshiba. Dojos sprang up all over Japan mainly in areas with large concentrations of Omoto believers and classes were conducted regularly in Ayabe, Kameoka, and the small town of Takeda. Takeda was the site of a special dojo where many of the strongest martial artists practiced. Instructors from Ueshiba’s Kobukan dojo in Tokyo, including Noriaki Inoue, Hisao Kamada, Gozo Shioda, and Rinjiro Shirata, were dispatched there regularly to teach.

The activities of the Budo Senyokai ended abruptly as a result of the Second Omoto Incident which occurred in December 1935. Much Omoto property was destroyed and the religion was brutally suppressed by the military government. Onisaburo was arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace and lese majesty. Ueshiba was forced into hiding for a brief period and, 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 that he had worked to build.