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Founder of Aikido (13): The Big Fire and His Father’s Death

by Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Aiki News #42 (November 1981)

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

O-Sensei and his group expected to have a hard go of it in Hokkaido at first, and for a few years crops were poor, but after 1913 their life settled down thanks to the increasing income from lumbering. At the insistence of the ever active Ueshiba, the Shimizu Company moved their lumbering section from Setose to Shirataki and from that time until the great fire in 1917, they produced nearly 35.4 million board feet of lumber. The lumber industry held the number two economic position (next to farming) as a source of income and there seemed to be boundless potential yet to be developed. There were many by-products of the industry as well and many of the farmers from Shirataki made their living working in the lumbering industry during the winter months.

The growth of new towns in the Shirataki-Futamata area resulted from the lumber industry in which about 500 to 600 people were active, and as a result, stores and shops began to appear as the entire village became active in trade and business. The growth of the area was quite rapid. In 1912, before the original 110 families came to the area, the four districts of Shirataki, Shiyubetsu, Kami-Shirataki, and Oku-Shirataki, had a population of zero. By 1914 there were 144 households. Then 162 in 1915, 275 in 1916, 371 in 1917, and 532 by 1918. It was certainly a case of “from nothing to something”.

At the town council election in Kami-Yubetsu vilage on June 2, 1917, O-Sensei ran as a dark horse candidate, and, against a field of experienced incumbents, was elected to the first twelve-member council from the Shirataki district. Now at the age of 35, he was now able to realize in an official capacity his desire to devote himself to “the welfare of his country.” Thus he became the representative of Shirataki in both fact and name. He could have become the mayor of the village and might have even become a prominent figure in Hokkaido’s political and economic future, but instead he chose to leave when he heard of his father’s illness. However, before leaving, there were a few particular events that took place during his last years in Shirataki.

The first was a gigantic fire that broke out on May 23rd, at about 9:00 a.m., in 1917. This part of the year was an important time for farming. By late spring, the last of the snow has disappeared and the annual burning of the stubble in the fields marks the beginning of the agricultural year. During those continuously sunny days the immigrants were in the fields, some tending the field fires that had been burning for two or three days already, while others began the plowing in the fully burned areas. A little after 8:00 a.m. the sky began to darken and a strong, northeasterly wind began to blow. The workers rushed to put out their fires, but some of the sparks were already being spread by a stiff breeze. In no time, the flames had spread to the surrounding forests of Kamishiyubetsu and Oku-Shirataki and a huge forest fire was suddenly blazing, completely out of control.

The flames were blown directly toward Shiyubetsu, Kami-Shirataki, and Shirataki village, right through the reclaimed areas. In a moment’s time, the entire village of Shirataki was in flames. Some 250 houses (80% of the total) were destroyed. Three people were killed and 25 others suffered various injuries. A total of more than 1,100 people lost their homes and most of the farmland was damaged. The land on which Ueshiba and his group had spent so much effort, building “something from nothing,” was reduced to a pile of ashes.

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