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Founder of Aikido (08): Idol Among the Soldiers

by Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Aiki News #37 (June 1981)

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

Morihei in army c. 1904

The Founder was a bit less than 5 feet 1 inch (about 155cm) tall and enjoyed robust health and weighed nearly 165 pounds from the time he was twenty years old throughout the prime of his life. To the eyes of his disciples he seemed to have a formidable appearance, but this was an illusion caused by his high level of development in body, mind and Ki. The Founder rarely complained about things, but he sometimes vented his vexation about his height by saying, “I wish I had even a small amount of Kichiemon-san’s height!” Kichiemon was the Founder’s great-grandfather who was well over 6 feet (about 180cm).

His resentment of his height began with an experience at his conscription examination. The minimum acceptable height was 5 feet 2 inches tall. Kiku recalls that the Founder clenched his fists and ground his teeth, “What! 1/2” short makes me useless to the nation?” After pleading with the examiner and refusing to leave, he was offered a position as an auxiliary transport soldier to which he replied, “What? This is unpardonable! You want me to be a mere transport soldier!” He very much wanted to be the officer at the head of the entire army, putting the enemy to rout. When he got home he began doing everything he could to make himself taller - such as hanging from trees. He was often seen around midnight doing Yamabushi-like training (Yamabushi were itinerent mountain priests). There was even a rumor that he was a tengu (a long-nosed goblin said to dwell deep in the mountains).

In December of the following year, 1903, his enthusiasm and effort finally paid off when he was accepted into the reserves. He entered the 37th Regiment of the Osaka 4th Division, which was called the “Kishu Regiment” because its soldiers were mostly from Wakayama Prefecture, formerly known as Kishu.

At the time he entered the army, Rev. Mitsujo Fujimoto from the Jizoji Temple gave him certification that he had attained spiritual enlightenment. He also made “Daigensui Meio” (chief deity of the “Meio” section of the Pantheon) the Founder’s guardian deity. Later the Founder exultantly said, “The priest moved the deity into my guts.” The Founder also believed in “Amenomurakumo Kukisamuhara Ryujin Daio” during most of his lifetime.

Having finally gotten his wish as far as joining the army was concerned, the next four years, until his discharge in 1906, reveal an outstanding record of work and he left the service with the rank of sergeant. Anyone who has ever been in the military knows how difficult it is to be promoted from a common soldier to a non-commissioned officer and yet he was able to reach this rank in only 3 years. So I can easily understand how the Founder felt when he would happily say that it was because he was a “Soldier Kamisama.”

The following story was recorded by Mr. Sanji Kishi as it was told to him by the Founder. “Boy, I really got around then. I would jump up before the bugle called, grab my rifle, and do all the clean-up chores for the whole group, single-handed. Jobs which everyone disliked, cleaning the toilets or shining shoes, I’d do them first thing. If some clothes were torn, I’d stitch them up. I was a real stickler for cleanliness. On maneuvers or forced marches, if there were any stragglers, I’d take their packs and continue marching with 2 or 3 people’s loads on my shoulders. I guess I was born with fast legs as well. On a 25 mile march, after half way, I was at the point. The officers carried light loads, so for the last stretch I used to race with the platoon leader. He was really fond of me and took me under his wing. When he saw I was trying to increase my height by hanging from a bar in the drill field during my free time, he said, “O.K.! I’ll lend you a hand.” And he’d push me up by the butt so I could reach it. At night when I was out there hanging, he never turned me in although it was against regulations. He praised my efforts instead.”

The Founder’s exceptionally fast promotions were an example for others to emulate. He would also share the small cash gifts which his father sent to him with his fellows at the canteen. On visiting days when his wife Hatsu would call his name at the main gate of the drill field, the guard would snap to attention and salute, then let her go on into the base in the rickshaw in which she had arrived. All in all, he was very popular. But still, the real reason for his promotion seems to be his skill at bayonet technique. This skill was proof of the gradual surfacing of what must be called his innate, natural disposition toward budo skills.

While in the service, the Founder would spend his leave days away from the base doing shugyo (ascetic discipline) at the Yagyu-ryu dojo of Mr.Masakatsu Nakai. Mr. Nakai was related to the Yagyu family and was praised as a jujutsu man of high standing. Kodokan Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, and the halberd master Chubei Yokoyama were among those who have studied under him. The Founder was diligent in his attendance and he reached a menkyo license rank. However, the question is exactly when did he study? There are 3 possibilities: He either entered the dojo before he joined the army, while he was stationed in Osaka, or after he was discharged.

Before joining the army he traveled to Osaka on vacation and he may have joined the dojo at that time. After his discharge, during the several years before he went to Hokkaido, he could have made frequent visits to the Nakai Dojo. However, my guess is he joined while still in the service, when his regiment was stationed in Osaka. Or, possibly, he joined before entering the army on his trips to Osaka and then, after his enlistment, he spent his leave days training at the dojo. Be that as it may, that the Founder’s skill with the bayonet was the result of his training in both jujutsu and kendo is without a doubt.

After being promoted, the Founder taught bayonet training to the regulars in place of the training officer. And when the Russo-Japanese War started, he was not sent to the front because the regimental commander decided he should stay with the regiment and train new recruits.

However, it angered the Founder to be surrounded by preparations for a departure that he alone would not be making. Time and again he requested to be allowed to join his unit and finally he was sent to the front. His old friend, Captain Takezawa, had him assigned to his unit where he served as a staff sergeant in the 2nd Battalion’s 4th Osaka Division, 61st Wakayama Regiment.

During this time, he took part in many battles and would reminisce about them saying, “I became able to see the enemy’s bullets as they came flying in. So it was easy for me to escape them.” Whether it was intuition or a reflex caused by directly sensing the enemy’s ki, he said quite clearly, “I could see them very well.”

Later when he traveled in Mongolia with the Rev. Deguchi Onisaburo, they were attacked by a band of outlaws. The Founder faced a Mauser rifle, but just an instant before the bandit fired, he said he saw a flash of white light as a sign of the bandit’s intention and was able to dodge the bullet. This flash of intuition (known as the instant of “sen”, or initiative, in budo) seems to go back to his battlefield experiences during the Russo-Japanese War. Perhaps due to the life-death situation, his “heijoshin” or “everyday mind” cleared and what he faced struck his psyche in an absolute way. His opponent’s barest indication or intent was perceived in his mind’s eye. He seems to have found the clues to the innermost workings of ki his own while on the front lines of battle. And so, I think I can say that those four years in the military can be seen as being the decisive moment that set him firmly on the road of budo.

After his promotion to sergeant, both his division and regimental commanders encouraged him to stay in the service by recommending him for entry into the Toyama Military Academy (the Army Officer’s Preparatory School), but he decided to resign from the military. The Founder later said, “At the front, I’d seen how undisciplined a lot of the officers could be. So the thought of joining their number didn’t appeal to me.” The truth of the matter was that he resigned as a result of a letter his father sent to the regimental commander entreating that his only son not again be sent to the field of death.

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