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Founder of Aikido (07): Self Education and Independence

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by Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Aiki News #36 (May 1980)

We would like to thank Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba for his kind permission to publish these chapter summaries.

This chapter concerns the Founder’s attempts to define his future role in society, near the beginning of his psychological and physical evolution from weakness to strength.

When the Founder entered the newly-established (1896) Tanabe High School, he was groping in the dark with respect to his future. The priesthood which his mother wanted him to pursue was neglected and budo had not yet come into his life, and his physical frailty seemed to rule out farming or fishing. According to his sister Kiku, he was interested in physics and mathematics at this time, and may have been considering a teaching career.

His mathematical leanings and his inclination toward striking out on his own are both reflected in his persuading his family to let him quit high school after only one year and enroll in the Yoshida Abacus Research Institute, a local private school with an excellent reputation in its field.

Endowed with a quick hand, an excellent memory, and the ability to calculate quickly in his head, he quickly became an outstanding student. He may well have had the makings of a calculating genius, and it is interesting to speculate that he later put this talent to use in his aikido. It is not merely “Divine Technique” resulting from rigorous training and austerities, but perhaps this intellectual element as well, which best explains his ability to perceive the opponent’s movement completely and instantaneously, and then to choose the best possible response in evading the attack.

After achieving top grades at the Yoshida Institute, the Founder got a job with the tax office as an accounting specialist. One day a tax official from Tokyo, a Mr. Akabane, happened by the office on an official audit. He was greatly impressed by the Founder’s efficiency and offered to arrange a transfer to one of the Tokyo offices. Although a transfer to Tokyo was the first step toward advancement for any government employee, the Founder politely refused the offer. However, according to his sister Kiku, Mr. Akabane’s words may have moved him to the realization that his destiny was somehow bound up with going to the big city, and apparently the Founder once said that this was what he owed Mr. Akabane.

It was at about this time, at the age of 17, that the Founder became involved in the “Sulfur Affair,” a movement by the hard-pressed local fisherman to protest the grievances they were suffering from the harsh and sometimes corruptly inequitable enforcement of a strict new “Fishing Industry Law.” Filled with sympathy for the fishermen and with indignation at the fact that some of the wealthiest fishermen were using political influence to block the licensing of their poorer competitors, the Founder disregarded his own interests, as he often did later in life when moved by a principle. He quit his job at the tax office to work on the protest movement, which he pursued with great boldness. On one occasion when a local official appeared on Oki-no-Jima, an island in Tanabe Bay where the fishermen were having a meeting, “If you make any complaints, I’ll throw you into the area that the Founder had cast away any lingering shadows of his boyhood weakness.

Nevertheless, his participation in the ill-fated protest movement undoubtedly exacerbated feelings of humiliation and inferiority, which emerged in constant showers of self-criticism: “Why do you have to be so young!”, “What were you doing wasting your time at some low-level, paper-pushing tax job!” and even “Why do you have to be a five-foot shorty!” were among his outbursts at himself.

At this time he made a firm decision to go to Tokyo. His father, despite the inconvenience which he had undoubtedly suffered, as a city council member, from his son’s activity in the “Sulfur Affair,” gave him some money and said, “Do whatever you want with this.” So at the age of 18, in 1904 [actually 1901], Morihei set off for Tokyo, alone.

After a couple of months as a live-in apprentice to a merchant, followed by a modest but successful half-year selling stationery items and school supplies from a push-cart, the Founder came to realize, as he told Mr. Takashi Sanji, “That my personality was destined to do ‘Musha Shugyo’ [austere Martial training by travelling and training with as many teachers as possible].”

After a full work-day, he studied jujutsu at night with Mr. Takisaburo Tobari [actually Tokusaburo Tozawa] at a dojo for the study of Kito-Ryu [actually Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu], located in the area of Asakusa Nanamagari. (Later, in life, the Founder would recall this teacher by the name of Tokusaburo Tozawa, but my investigations reveal no one by that name teaching jujutsu at that time. So I think that he must have had a slip of memory. Mr. Tobari was a well-known teacher in Asakusa, and, pending further investigation, I have put his name into the record.)

Despite the respectable pedigree of this Kito Ryo, tracing back to a “Yawara” system founded in the time of the fourth Tokugawa shogun, the Founder had some doubts about both the efficacy of the techniques and the spiritual training that this ryu could offer. After a while, he also took up kendo in an Iidabashi dojo of the Shinkage Ryu, but this association seems to have been very brief and to have left only the vaguest of memories.

Perhaps as a result of the unhealthy city food the Founder contracted a severe case of beriberi, and when the time came for his physical examination for military conscription, he turned his business over to his employees and bought a first-class ticket home. Kiku recalled,”He just suddenly popped in empty-handed and said, I went up to Tokyo with only one kimono and I have returned… with only one kimono. At that he and his father both burst out laughing.”

(Translated from Japanese by Stanley A. Pranin and Midori Yamamoto)