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Interview with Kisshomaru Ueshiba: The Early Days of Aikido

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #77 (April 1988)

Sensei, I would like to briefly verify several historical points. To begin with, when Morihei Ueshiba Sensei first came to Tokyo at the age of 17 or 18, was the Inoue family involved in some way?

Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba

It seems that he went to Tokyo depending on the support of the Inoues. I’m referring to a relative of Mr. Noriaki Inoue in Tanabe. Shortly after coming to Tokyo my father suffered from beriberi. So he didn’t have a very good experience when he came to Tokyo as a young man. Since he liked martial arts, it seems he trained in a dojo although for a very short time.

Would you talk about your father’s army experience and training in Yagyu Shingan-ryu?

While he was in the army he rose to the rank of sergeant. At that time he practiced Yagyu Shingan-ryu with Masakatsu Nakai on Sundays along with his juniors and acquaintances. But that was only once a week.

Was this after he came back from the front during the Russo-Japanese War about 1905?

That’s right. I understand that although he was a non-commissioned officer in the army he was held in high regard. According to my mother he would enter the gate of the garrison while riding in a rickshaw. Normally doing such a thing would have upset the others. That’s how much his fellow soldier were devoted to him.

How long did your mother Hatsu stay in Hokkaido?

She was already there when Shirataki was destroyed by the big fire so I think she went around 1913. I believe she returned to Tanabe six months to a year before my father.

I think that Yoroku Ueshiba [Morihei’s father] and Zenzo Inoue [father of Noriaki Inoue] went all the way up to Hokkaido too.

Yoroku did go there but I didn’t know that Mr. Inoue’s father went there also. Yoroku gave up his job as a member of the Tanabe village assembly and became a registered resident of Hokkaido. He went there with the intention of taking everything with him. [Yoroku actually returned to Tanabe after a short stay.]

In the payments received ledger kept by Sokaku Takeda Sensei it is recorded that Morihei Sensei left his house to his teacher when he left Hokkaido for Tanabe at the time of his father’s illness in 1919. That document still exists.

I understand that my father did give it to him. He said that he gave all of his assets including his registered seal to Mr. Takeda saying he could do anything he wanted with them. I don’t know what happened to the house after that. When I went to Hokkaido the last time the house was gone and there were cultivated fields on the site. There was a shrine behind the fields and I discovered the name of Morihei Ueshiba written there.

We understand that Morihei Ueshiba Sensei moved to Ayabe two or three months after his father Yoroku passed away and was asked to start a martial arts dojo by Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei.

He was not asked to start a dojo in the beginning. My father had disposed of most of his assets in Tanabe at that time. While in Ayabe his daily life had to change into that of a consumer. He had to have enough money to live on. However, since my father had already sold most of his assets when he moved to Hokkaido, it seems relatives provided him with money. When I inherited the assets in Tanabe they were in my mother’s name. And what’s more they were in her maiden name of "Hatsu Itogawa" rather than "Hatsu Ueshiba". So he went back to Tanabe only a few times.

It seems that my father donated some money to the Omoto religion when he moved to Ayabe. I think that that was why the Omoto people thought they had to do something for my father and allowed him to build a house on Omoto land at the foot of Mt. Hongu. Since my father had studied martial arts under people like Sokaku Takeda, Masakatsu Nakai and Tokusaburo Tozawa when he was young, he had a certain level of ability. He was fond of martial arts from the very beginning and so when the family moved to Ayabe they set things up so he could train in the house. It was a small dojo consisting of 14 or 16 tatami mats. There were four large sliding doors in the house and beyond them a shrine. I used to be scolded for poking holes in the sliding doors. (Laughter) A sign reading "Ueshiba Juku" (Ueshiba School) was written by Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei in 1920 and the dojo opened. The sign was always located next to the dojo front display. In 1921 when I was born, my name "Kisshomaru" was written by Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei. He chose the name right after being freed from prison. [Deguchi was imprisoned in the aftermath of the First Omoto Incident].

Were the students practicing at the Ueshiba Juku Omoto believers only?

He didn’t accept the general public or publicize the dojo. He was just giving a little instruction to Mr. Deguchi’s close associates and various higher-ups of the religion. My father was the type of person who acted on things and so he may have clashed with those who were merely talkers. I understand that when various problems occurred and my father would show up, that type of person would avoid him. I think that Mr. [Noriaki] Inoue was with my family in Ayabe from the beginning. He arrived around 1921 or 22. Before that he was in Hokkaido. His mother was the eldest sister of my father. I understand the Inoue family was really good at making money and was wealthy in those days. My parents took Inoue into their home when he was little. They sent him back to his parent’s home and once again received him when he was 13. Although my father went to Hokkaido without saying anything to Inoue he apparently came about one or two years later. Since he was with my father since he was a boy, Inoue really knows a lot about him. He began practicing with my father at the age of 13 and I think Inoue’s movements are similar.

In those days, quite a number of people came to the Omoto center. It seems that having my father among the Omoto believers was something of a feather in Mr. Deguchi’s cap. He would say something like, "We’ve got a great martial artist here. Would you like to see him?" Mr. Deguchi really liked my father and they went to Mongolia together. The name of Ueshiba became widely known as a martial artist. Various Omoto members started asking him to teach here and there and he went to places like Kumamoto [Kyushu], and Shingu in Wakayama. It was somewhere around 1925 or 26 that my father went to Shingu. Mr. [Michio] Hikitsuchi was not there at that time. He began studying under my father around 1953 or 54. There was a man named Kubo who was the owner of a camera shop before Mr. Hikitsuchi’s time. Mr. Kubo and several others got together and held seminars. I understand that it was through this connection that Mr. Hikitsuchi entered the dojo.

Was Mr. Kubo an Omoto believer?

Maybe he was. At that time Omoto believers kept very close ties. My father also went to Tokyo many times. This was because Seikyo Asano was deeply charmed by him and told his collegue at the Naval Academy, Isamu Takeshita, about my father. The was the first time that Morihei Ueshiba went out from the Omoto and was exposed to the general public.

Sokaku Takeda Sensei was using the name "Daito-ryu Jujutsu" for his art. Was it at Onisaburo Deguchi’s suggestion that "Aiki" be added and the art should be called "Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu", or was the "Aiki" added by the Daito-ryu?

Since I was just a boy I cannot say anything definite. According to the documents, the art was called "Daito-ryu Jujutsu" through the first half of 1922. Then it was called "Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu" starting in the latter part of 1922 after Sokaku Sensei had gone to Ayabe. Mr. Deguchi said to my father that his art was "aiki" and also talked to Sokaku Sensei about this matter. Then he got permission to change the name. The condition was that the art should be called only "Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu". Nobody alive today knows the truth about this matter. Most of the people from that period have already passed away or were only children and too young to know about it. That’s why I have no choice but to believe what my father told me. When my father came up to Tokyo he used to call the art "Ueshiba-ryu Aiki Budo".

People like Kenji Tomiki who was a member of the Waseda University Judo Club came to Ayabe to practice because they heard of my father from Mr. Takeshita. Mr. Tomiki told me the following: "What I studied at that time was Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu, not Aikido. So I don’t understand present-day Aikido". So then I suggested to him that he should stop calling his art "Aikido" and call it "Tomiki Style" instead. Mr. [Shigenobu] Okumura and Mr. [Rinjiro] Shirata know all about this. Mr. Tomiki enrolled in the dojo in 1925. He went all the way to Ayabe to train.

My Aikido is not the same as the Daito-ryu of Mr. Takeda. My Aikido stresses the spirit [kokoroj]. In Aikido the spirit is important. My father created Aikido as a martial way or martial art which did not include competition. He put a broad interpretation on the idea of kata (form) placing instead emphasis on the pursuit of the highest spiritual plane. This is why Aikido became what it is today. In a sense, there is something in Aikido which corresponds to Zen. Aikido involves a complete change of thinking patterns. I think Einstein too had a flash of brillance. The same was the case for Mr. Tonegawa [Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in 1987]. Only Aikido in the world of budo does not have a system of competition. Also, its training method is in harmony with the workings of society. Morihei Ueshiba was a martial arts genius. We must do our best to bridge the gap between his flash of genius and society.

It is sometimes said that when Sokaku Takeda Sensei left Ayabe he received 4,000 Yen from Onisaburo Deguchi through Morihei Ueshiba as a parting gift. But no one had that much money in those days.

In Sokaku’s book of payments received it is written that Morihei Sensei paid him 100 Yen. Since the date [September 15, 1922] is the last one for Takeda’s stay in Ayabe and the amount is the largest, it is rumored that Morihei Sensei gave only 100 Yen of the 4,000 Yen to Sokaku Sensei. What do you think of this?

I don’t know anything about it. Can you imagine anyone paying that large amount of money which is equivalent to about 10,000,000 Yen [about $78,000] in today’s money for something like this concerning the martial arts? My father did tell me that Mr. Deguchi had given Mr. Takeda some money to have him leave as soon as possible. But I can’t believe that amount. If it were 400 Yen it would sound more plausible. If you print something preposterous everything else sounds phony. If you don’t know about something it’s better not to write nonsense. I think probably some Omoto believers said something like, "Onisaburo Deguchi told Morihei Ueshiba to send Sokaku Takeda home and gave him some money." I think this may have been the basis for the rumor which spread. It is true that Deguchi told my father to ask Takeda to leave. Onisaburo Deguchi didn’t think that Sokaku Takeda Sensei was that important.

My father didn’t practice Daito-ryu that long. It seems that Takeda Sensei’s teaching method was to instruct several classes each limited to a week or ten days. I think that this method is what we would call a "seminar" today. It’s not the kind of practice method we use today. Probably my father studied under Sokaku for a maximum of about three months altogether. He had a job and sometimes he was away. There was no way he could have practiced much with Sokaku Sensei.

Did Morihei Ueshiba Sensei’s attitude towards the Omoto religion and Onisaburo Deguchi change after their return from Mongolia.

Not at all. He supported them wholeheartedly. When he came up to Tokyo, government repression of the religion was really strong. He was told by many people that he should cut his ties with Deguchi and they would help him to expand his activities. However, my father stubbornly refused their advice. Wherever he went he would say that Deguchi Sensei was his master. I don’t know how Mr. Deguchi’s mind may have changed later but my father’s devotion to him was absolute. I know because I saw it directly.

Did you meet Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei after the Second Omoto Incident in 1935?

Yes, I did and so did my father but I don’t think they talked to each other very long. This took place after the war.

Your father was active in the Omoto-sponsored Budo Sen’yokai (Budo Promotion Association) in the early 1930s. Were any other arts taught besides Aikido?

No, only Aikido. Make no mistake about this. Aikido was taught within the context of the Budo Sen’yokai and therefore Morihei Ueshiba became its first president. Later the next president was Hidemaro Deguchi [husband of Onisaburo’s daughter, Naohi]. In those days, my father would go to a branch dojo of the organization and teach for a week or ten days.

Can you tell us something about Ueshiba Sensei’s connection with the dojo of Kodansha founder Seiji Noma?

He said he was going to teach there but stopped going after two or three visits saying he didn’t like it.

How long did it take to shoot the famous series of technical photographs in the Noma dojo about 1935?

I guess it took about two or three days. Mr. Noma’s son Hisashi had a Leica camera which was worth about 1,000 Yen in those days and he and his assistants took the photos. The main ukemi was Mr. [Shigemi] Yonekawa.

We understand that Morihei Sensei had personal contact with swordmaster Hakudo Nakayama during this period.

Hakudo Nakayama and Sasaburo Takano Sensei were men of influence in the Kendo world in those days. Nakayama Sensei operated a dojo in Hongo which was really thriving. Although Hakudo Nakayama was not a believer, he visited the Omoto center, too. Nakayama Sensei and my father came to know each other at the Omoto headquarters.

There was a large martial arts’ demonstration held around 1935 I believe. It seems that Takeshita Sensei participated in that demonstration representing either Daito-ryu Jujutsu or Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu.

He must have. Mr. Takeshita was fond of the martial arts. But I can’t imagine him actually giving a demonstration. I mean an admiral giving a demonstration in front of the public in those days… The separation of social classes, especially before the war, was very strict.

It seems that the emperor was not actually present at the demonstration that the founder gave at the Sainenkan dojo on the imperial palace grounds.

It’s my understanding that someone was present in his place. My father gave a demonstration then. It was a kind of an "attraction".

Did he participate in this demonstration through the connection with Admiral Takeshita?

I don’t know too much about that point. However, I think that it was through the authorities involved. I believe that Yukawa, Shirata, Shioda and some others took falls then. Mr. Yukawa often got injured since he was stiff but he was strong. [Yukawa suffered a shoulder injury during this demonstration.] I think that the demonstration in the Sainenkan dojo was held around 1942. Mr. Yukawa passed away about 1943. My father was in Manchuria at that time and I received the wire about his death. I had Mr. Hirai go there then.

About what year did Takeshita Sensei pass away?

I don’t know… maybe around the end of the war. He never came to Hombu Dojo after the war. I think he used to come to the dojo until around 1935. When he was in Takanawa, he gathered people in his little living room and practiced there until 1938 or 39.

Would you speak about the main technical influences on your father’s Aikido?

It is true that in those days my father studied the ken [sword], jo [staff], yari [spear] and unarmed techniques [taijutsu] from Mr. Nakai in the Kansai area near Osaka. It is also true that my father was very influenced by him. Later on, Mr. Shiho Otsubo of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu used to come to our house in the old days. When he saw my father’s movements one day, he was surprised and said: "You must have studied Yagyu-ryu somewhere." Daito-ryu also had a great influence on Aikido as did Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu Jujutsu. Two practitioners of the Kashima Shinto-ryu sword school named Iida and Aoki used to come to our dojo on their way back from teaching at the Kodokan Judo headquarters. I studied with them. My father would watch us practice and then after they had left we would train together saying how in "Aiki" we should do it this or that way. When I asked Mr. Yoshikawa [present headmaster of the Kashima school] about this he said that there must have been three students from his school who taught at our dojo. The third man didn’t come so often so I don’t remember him. I believe that Mr. Iida was the owner of an inn and Mr. Aoki was a farmer. Mr. Aoki had a powerful grip and was the stronger of the two but Mr. Iida was more practical.

Who trained with them?

I did. The Founder would sit beside us and watch us practice. We practiced on Sundays at a specific time. They didn’t teach during the general practices.

It seems that the names of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei and Zenzaburo Akazawa Sensei appear in the enrollment records of the Kashima Shinto-ryu with their blood oaths [keppan].

Probably Akazawa signed instead of me since it would be funny for a father and son to sign together. We practiced for about one year. My father never taught the ken in a systematic manner either. He began to practice this weapon as it is now being done in Iwama around 1955. Before that he mostly practiced unarmed techniques. He would show his swordwork a little to some people, but it was much later, around 1955, that the ken was done in regular practice. My father would get angry if he saw someone practicing the ken. He would say this: "You shouldn’t practice the ken when you’re a beginner. You’re not entitled to hold a ken unless you are physically well trained."

We found a little influence of the Kashima school in the Founder’s ken. How about his jo?

My father had practiced various types of jo arts before he began training at the Nakai Dojo. He was better at using a longer weapon. He would use a long-handled spear and he was better with a bo [stave] than with a jo. It was in later years when he become older that he used the jo.

Did he begin his practice of this weapon while in the army?

That’s right. Also, when he lived in Ayabe he would often practice the jo and ken in the garden. I think that it was something of his own that he didn’t learn from any master at all. Once he thrust a long-handled spear into an apricot tree with a loud shout. He lost the tip of the spear. When we moved to Tokyo we cut the spear in half because it was too much trouble to transport in one piece. What a pity! (Laughter) I imagine you’ll find the other half of the spear in Iwama!

On another subject, it is true that a Korean named "Choi" who founded "Hapkido" studied Aikido or Daito-ryu?

I don’t know what art it was but I understand that there was a young Korean of about 17 or 18 who participated in a seminar of Sokaku Takeda Sensei held in Asahikawa City in Hokkaido. It seems that he studied the art together with my father and would refer to him as his "senior".

If that’s the case the art must have been Daito-ryu.

I’ve heard that this man who studied Daito-ryu had some contact with my father after that. Then he returned to Korea and began teaching Daito-ryu on a modest scale. The art gradually became popular and many Koreans trained with him. Since Aikido became popular in Japan he called his art Hapkido [written in Korean with the same characters as Aikido], Then the art split into many schools before anyone realized it. This is what my father told me. I once received a letter from this teacher after my father’s death.

We have been attempting to document the history of Aikido before the war. I think that the history of the Aikikai after World War II up to the present day has not been systematically recorded. We think that in the near future we would like to ask you detailed questions about events which happened starting from the date of the establishment of the Aikikai Foundation in 1948 until the present time.

Since this information has not been properly recorded yet, it is not in a form appropriate for publication. Since I participated directly in all of the things which have happened over the years I’m very familiar with them. I myself experienced them and saw them with my own eyes. I also suffered. Since I have not systematized this information yet please wait a little longer. A lot of people are involved and so there would be some difficulties.