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Yasuaki Deguchi: The Omoto Religion and Aikido (07)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #103 (1995)

In this installment we continue our interview of Yasuaki Deguchi, grandson of the Omoto leader Onisaburo Deguchi. He talks about Morihei Ueshiba’s relationship with his grandfather, and describes some of the difficulties Onisaburo faced during the early days as leader of the Omoto religion.

Aikido Journal: I’d like to ask you about Ueshiba Sensei—the time he spent in Ayabe, his Ueshiba Juku, his travel to Mongolia, the Budo Sen’yokai (Society for the Promotion of Martial Arts), and the First and Second Omoto Incidents.

Would it be correct to say that Ayabe at that time was a sort of community in which everybody knew one another?

Yasuaki Deguchi: Yes, that’s how it was. But most of those people have already passed away. Mr. Itsuo Daikoku and Mr. Bansho Ashihara are both gone, for example.

Mr. Ashihara gave me copies of several newsletters, titled Budo, in which the Budo Sen’yokai is written about in detail. Apparently, there are only about five copies of it remaining in existence. The rest were among the materials destroyed during the Second Omoto Incident.

It is interesting that Ueshiba Sensei was not arrested by the police during the Second Omoto Incident, and aikido people have explained the situation in various ways. I think it will add balance if you could tell us your view of the story.

Yasuaki Deguchi
Even from the time I was an uchideshi (live-in student), Ueshiba Sensei and his nephew, Hoken Inoue, were not on good terms, to the point of speaking ill of one another. Mr. Inoue had left aikido to establish Shinwa Taido. The friction between the two of them was brought into their relationships within the Omoto religion, so that even Omoto volunteers who were learning budo took sides and were divided.

Mr. Inoue, however, had curried favor with the Omoto’s directors, and he also had the support of Naohi’s eldest son, Kyotaro, who was one of his students in Shinwa Taido. So only a few people, like myself, were learning aikido. The people in the Inoue faction often spoke ill of Ueshiba Sensei, saying things like, “Ueshiba Sensei ran away to save himself during the Omoto Incident.” Hearing talk like that really upset me.

I never heard about it from Ueshiba Sensei directly, but it’s said that Onisaburo deliberately sent Ueshiba Sensei away to spare him involvement in any trouble. I think that was probably what happened.

Onisaburo clearly predicted the trouble that was to come, so he purposely had certain people distance themselves from the Omoto religion. Ueshiba Sensei was one of those. Apparently he worked on the military authorities behind the scenes during the Incident, trying to help resolve things.

Anyway, Ueshiba Sensei liked Onisaburo, and it was probably because I was Onisaburo’s grandson that he took a kindly interest in me. He visited Omoto often in his later years and would call on me whenever he came to Kameoka.

When Ueshiba Sensei passed away, my father couldn’t get away to attend the funeral in Tokyo, so I went on his behalf.

I’ve heard that Morihei Ueshiba’s name appears in Onisaburo’s Reikai Monogatari (Tales of the Spirit World).

Yes, he’s mentioned in the Nyumoki (Record of Entering Mongolia), which is a special section within the Reikai Monogatari. While out of prison on bail in 1924 [after the First Omoto Incident], Onisaburo traveled secretly to Mongolia with three of his pupils, and the young Ueshiba was among them. In the Nyumoki, his name was “Moritaka Ueshiba” in Japanese or “Wan Shuko” in Chinese.

Why did they go to Mongolia?

Onisaburo’s goal was to establish a completely new kind of independent Utopian nation. They traveled around Mongolia leading a small army comprised of General Lu Zhan Kui and his soldiers. They educated and enlightened the people and worked miracles wherever they went. Eventually, however, they were captured by the troops of Chang Tso-lin in a place called Paintara [present-day Tongliao] and later miraculously escaped death. Onisaburo wrote the Nyumoki about this grand, dream-like adventure.

It was first published with the title Oni Mokuto Nyuki (Record of Onisaburo Entering Mongolia) in February 1925 under the borrowed penname, Koen Ueno. He probably hesitated to use his real name because he was facing trial at the time. This book was incorporated into the Reikai Monogatari as a special section called the Nyumoki in the spring of 1935.

Many of the people in the story were still living when Onisaburo wrote it, so he wouldn’t really have been able to fabricate any of the things in it. In fact, it probably contains good reference material about the young Ueshiba Sensei.

The group was taken prisoner in Paintara by the troops of Chang Tso-lin, and General Lu Zhan Kui and 137 of his officers and men were shot. Six Japanese, including Onisaburo and Ueshiba Sensei, were also forced into a line to be executed, but the executioner was toppled backward by the recoil of his rifle and their execution was temporarily stayed. While they waited, Onisaburo composed farewell poems one after another.

“Though my bones may bleach in a Mongolian field, I shall never lose the dignity of the splendid sons of Japan.”

“Leaving now for the heavenly kingdom, I will protect not only Japan but the entire world.”

“Far away from Japan, I’m going now to be a god in the Mongolian sky.”

Onisaburo composed such poems for the other five as well, and he was even calm enough to compose a kyoka (a comic tanka):

“Off to marry my princess, waiting for me in the heavenly kingdom, my enemy having played the matchmaker.”

Although I heard this from my mother, so I’m not absolutely certain of its validity, Onisaburo apparently once laughed and said, “Moritaka was the one who was most frightened when we were about to be shot.” It may be true, I think. Being a truly talented martial artist, Ueshiba Sensei’s sense of danger was probably sharper than the others.

Please tell us about the origin of the name “Onisaburo.”

Onisaburo’s real name was Kisaburo Ueda. He started calling himself Onisaburo after he became a member of the Deguchi family through his marriage to Nao Deguchi’s youngest daughter. At the time, however, eldest sons were legally prohibited from being adopted into a new family, so his name was still listed as Kisaburo Ueda in the official household register. The Omoto directors, who didn’t particularly care for the things Onisaburo said and did, used to scorn him by calling him Onisaburo instead of Kisaburo, because the kanji character for “Ki” in Kisaburo can also be read “Oni” to mean a kind of Japanese ogre or devil. However, among the Fudesaki [automatic writings inspired by the gods] penned by Nao Deguchi in 1903, there is a passage that says something like, “In the realm of the gods, we name you Onisaburo Deguchi.”

The Fudesaki were written using only cursive phonetic characters (hiragana), so we don’t know which kanji were meant to be used. The two kanji characters that Onisaburo chose can also be read “wani,” and I wonder if he was thinking of the scholar-administrator Wani, who is said to have brought the Confucian Analects and the Thousand-Character Classic to Japan from the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche [ca. AD 405]. Until recently, most Japanese people were familiar with the historical Wani, so Onisaburo was often mistakenly called “Wani-san.” Not many people could read his name correctly as Onisaburo. In any case, Onisaburo didn’t really care what he was called.

Furthermore, it’s my guess that there was another, hidden reason Onisaburo chose those two kanji characters. Onisaburo was the illegitimate child of his Imperial Highness Prince Taruhito Arisugawa [1835-1895], Governor General of the Eastern Japan Expedition around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Members of the Arisugawa family, like those of the Japanese Imperial family itself, often use the second of the two kanji [i.e. “Ni” or “Hito”] at the end of their name. I think Onisaburo was probably well aware of this when he chose that particular kanji for his own name. By the way, depending on how they’re interpreted, the kanji for “Oni” can mean “king among kings,” so it’s actually a rather haughty name.

There’s one more interesting twist on Onisaburo’s naming. In Esperanto (a language invented by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof for use as an international language and announced officially in 1892) Onisaburo’s name is spelled “ONISAVULO.” “ONI” in Esperanto means mankind, “SAV” means to save, and “ULO” means person. So in Esperanto, Onisaburo means “savior.” But Onisaburo didn’t know about Esperanto until 1923, so he wasn’t aware that his name had such a meaning in that language. I think it’s a rather mysterious coincidence.

Prior to World War II, the Omoto sect was suppressed by Japan’s military government because it was seen as critical of the Emperor and the government. Exactly what was it about Omoto that disturbed the Japanese government so?

In the First Omoto Incident Onisaburo was indicted for lese majesty and violation of the Press Law [laws repealed in 1947 and 1949, respectively. The Press Law of 1909 restricted freedom of the press in Japan, giving the home minister authority to prohibit at will the sale and distribution of periodicals and granted the army, navy, and foreign ministers the power to ban the publication of certain articles in periodicals] and in the Second Omoto Incident for lese majesty and disturbing the peace. The charge of disturbing the peace was a complete fabrication, but the lese majesty charge was probably unavoidable under the Imperial Constitution at that time. The Omoto believers used to whisper secret and risky things like, “The current emperor is false,” and so on, so we were always kept under careful scrutiny by the secret police.

Did Onisaburo riding a white horse have anything to do with it?

Yes. He rode a white horse when he went to Mongolia, too. Because the emperor also rode a white horse, it was looked upon as an act of lese majesty.

Onisaburo believed in a deity that was a creator of all, an absolute being. According to the Imperial Constitution, however, the only absolute being was the emperor, who was a descendant of Amaterasu O-Kami and a living deity. Now, you obviously can’t have two such absolutes existing together. It probably would have been okay if Onisaburo had kept his thoughts to himself, but he expressed his beliefs through his actions and teachings, so it was inevitable that he be indicted for lese majesty.

The expression “gyokusai,” meaning something like “to die a death of honor” was popular in Japan during the Second World War. It comes from a Chinese text called the Hakusuisho (Bei Qi Shu), and literally means, “rather than surviving like a tile, choose to die like a jewel broken beautifully, valuing honor and loyalty.” But Onisaburo rejected that, advocating “gyokuzen” instead. Gyokuzen means that “it is meaningless if you are broken, even if you are a beautiful jewel. You are born to be a human being, so live your life in a way that is as fulfilling as a jewel is lovely.”

In the imperial Japan in which Onisaburo lived, openly denying the power of the emperor as a living deity was a good way to get oneself “liquidated” in short order, and Onisaburo felt that that sort of thing was the real gyokusai. The two Omoto Incidents probably could have been avoided had Onisaburo refrained from revealing his true beliefs and feelings, but for him that would have been living life like the proverbial tile. However, unable to act and speak as openly as he would have liked, Onisaburo tried to communicate and teach his beliefs, and to fulfill his life like a jewel, through carefully prepared “performances.”

Onisaburo’s words always had double or even multiple meanings. For instance, the phrase “yamato damashii” or “Japanese spirit” was used frequently during the Second World War II to conjure images of valiant bravery and a gallant spirit supposedly embodied by the Japanese race. It was used as a sort of magic incantation to rouse the nation to fight the enemy. Yamato damashii is also emphasized in Onisaburo’s essays. He refers to it obliquely, for example, in a passage that reads, “Japan was established through humanity and justice, and the Japanese spirit is the heart of our nation” (from Michi no Shiori, Guideposts Along the Path).

However, another passage appearing in the same work identifies what Onisaburo really meant. He wrote, “The Japanese spirit is the spirit of fighting against those who crush peace, culture, liberty, independence, and human rights. It is the spirit that defeats an unreasonable and unjust devil and protects the rights of the weak.” Onisaburo wrote this in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, and it is noteworthy that even then he was already advocating independence and other human rights.

Onisaburo frequently wrote of Sumera Mikoto, a title of courtesy referring to the Emperor, in his essays. He admired Sumera Mikoto at every turn, and reading only those parts of his writings you might assume that he was an imperial absolutist. However, he always added the epithet “owner, teacher, and father of the world” before the word Sumera Mikoto. But in Onisaburo’s view, the only entity capable of fulfilling such conditions would have been the Creator of All in whom he believed. There was no way the Japanese emperor could be owner, teacher, and father of the world, so it’s clear that Onisaburo was deliberately wrapping the emperor in an invisible cloak, while really intending to praise the virtues of the chief deity in which he believed.

Not only did Onisaburo’s words have multiple meanings, but he wore many masks as well. On one occasion during an inspection march in front of the Omoto headquarters in Kameoka, a march which reflected Japan’s rapid descent into fascism, Onisaburo returned a salute to marching believers who were wearing military uniforms. In a valiant gesture he drew a military sword, but inside the scabbard, instead of a blade, there was a flag of goodwill, a symbol of peace. As he held it, a breeze suddenly struck up and it fluttered about. Onisaburo was showing a glimpse of what was really beneath his mask.

When Onisaburo first joined the Omoto religion, it was like a miniature Imperial system, with Nao Deguchi at the top. Indeed, many of the director-level believers thought of Nao as a living god and referred to her as “O-Kamisama” (Great Deity). For them, Nao’s Fudesaki were more absolute than the Imperial Constitution. Ignorant and unenlightened, they were incapable of interpreting the Fudesaki in any way other than literally.

For example, the words “It is dark here below” expressed Nao’s grief that ethics and morality were in decline, but they interpreted the passage literally and walked with lanterns in broad daylight. “Walk in the center of a road” in the Fudesaki meant “Stay on the right and human path,” but they interpreted it literally and walked straight down the middle of the road. They wouldn’t even give way when a cart was coming toward them, thinking that to do so would compromise the authority of the deity.

Another passage read, “Use the forty-eight characters of i-ro-ha,” [in other words the traditional Japanese phonetic syllabary, which begins with i-ro-ha], so they burned many of Onisaburo’s manuscripts, which had been written using kanji characters. And reading the words, “It is upside-down here below,” they walked on their hands to show their faith and devotion. That’s the kind of gathering of fanatical believers the Omoto religion was at that time.

Onisaburo needed to wear many different masks if he was to lead such a group of people. After Nao had passed away and Onisaburo’s position within the order was established, he turned to confront the awful authority of the state. Using his diversity of voices and masking his intentions, Onisaburo underwent a great deal of hardship as he strove to spread his idea of “gyokuzen.” Still, he was suppressed twice, probably because the authorities knew the real intentions that lay beneath his mask.

Onisaburo wrote many things that did not necessarily represent what he really thought, but I think he did pour his true intentions into the Reikai Monogatari.

[To be continued]

Yasukai Deguchi Profile

Born August 15, 1930; grandson of Omoto leader Onisaburo Deguchi. In 1952 he entered Waseda University, where he stayed five years, completing half his course. Afterwards he worked in a variety of positions. In 1953, under the pen name Kyu Nogami, Deguchi won the second Oruyomimono Best New Detective Story Writer’s award for his debut novel, Kyoto (Outlaw). He now uses the pen name Ryu Towada. He is an executive of the Aizenkai, and a chairman of the Reikai Monogatari Kankokai (Institute for the Publication of the Reikai Monogatari.) Author of Daichi no Haha (Great Mother) 12 vols., Kami no Katsutetsugaku (The Theology of God), Yogen to Shinwa (Prediction and Mythology), Deguchi Onisaburo no Nyumo Hiwa (Onisaburo’s Adventures in Mongolia), and others.