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Introduction to the Omoto Religion

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #41 (October 1981)

Our featured interview in this issue of AIKI NEWS is a translation of a highly informative conversation held with Mr. Bansho Ashihara, a long time member of the Omoto Sect, one of the so called “new” religions of Japan, who was in close association with O-Sensei during the early 1930’s in Ayabe (Kyoto Prefecture). Mr. Ashihara was in charge of the publication of a magazine entitled “Budo” published by the “Budo Enhancement Association”, an organization founded with the support of the Omoto religion. He regularly attended the classes taught by Ueshiba Sensei mainly for Omoto members in Ayabe and would record notes of the Founder’s lectures regarding various martial arts and spiritual related matters. These notes as compiled by Mr. Ashihara were periodically published as articles in the above- mentioned magazine bearing O-Sensei’s signature. (Mr. Ashihara kindly supplied us with copies of the only known extant numbers of this rare magazine and we will be publishing O-Sensei’s articles in the near future in this publication.)

Mr. Ashihara is a highly articulate man with deep religious convictions and is one of the most respected leaders in the continuing Omoto movement. He has provided us with many relevant insights into this important period of Aikido history as well as valuable background information regarding the spirit and teachings of the Omoto religion.

In order to better enable readers to place the contents of the interview with Mr. Ashihara in context, we would like to provide a glimpse into the nature of the Omoto religion and its connection with the Founder’s spiritual development.

The Omoto religion is a product of the combined efforts of two charismatic figures, one an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, and the other, a rather precocious and impetuous young man, Kisaburo Ueda (who later changed his name to Onisaburo Deguchi following his marriage to Nao’s daughter, Sumiko, in 1900).

Nao Deguchi led a destitute and tragic life losing her husband and several of her children at an early age. She was a devotee of the new religion of “Konkokyo” which worshiped a folk god named Konjin. In 1896, at the age of 56, pushed to the brink of despair by a life of unspeakable misery, she entered into a trance state lasting about two weeks. She was reported to have been possessed by a benevolent spirit who preceded all other gods in origin, power and universality.

Although illiterate, she began to take dictation from this sublime spirit in a script she herself was unable to read. Her character, especially after the initial trance experience became extremely bizarre and she was confined to her room as a lunatic.

Her writings proved full of revelations concerning the spirit world and contained a continuous stream of social criticism. Mankind was urged to mend its ways and create new structures of social justice while developing a new value system. Moreover, her vision was based on a universal God who regarded all human beings as equals. This ideal was, naturally, in conflict with state Shinto which placed the imperial family at the center of worship and revered the Emperor as the highest god.

Nao had begun to gather quite a following when in 1898, Onisaburo appeared on the scene. He was an autodidact with a keen interest in shamanism who also had a series of trance experiences wherein it was revealed that he had a spiritual mission to fulfill as a savior of mankind. The joint efforts of Nao and Onisaburo were remarkably successful and the movement began to gain momentum to the point where it became a constant source of irritation to imperial authority whereupon it began to be attacked and persecuted culminating in the two well known “Omoto Incidents” of 1921 and 1935 with Onisaburo ending up in jail. As we have alluded to above, the heart of the matter was the universalist and humanistic approach of Omoto teachings which regarded all human beings as brothers and equals and which stood in stark contrast to the ultra nationalistic stance of the prevailing imperial establishment which imposed its view of Japan as the “land of the gods” on the nation.

Morihei Ueshiba was about 36 years old when he first encountered Onisaburo Deguchi (1919) in Ayabe when diverted from his journey home to Tanabe from Hokkaido at news that his father had been taken seriously ill. After meeting a member of the Omoto sect on the train, Ueshiba decided to make a quick detour to the Omoto Center in Ayabe to meet the “gifted” teacher, Onisaburo and pray for his father’s recovery. Upon his arrival in Tanabe, he found that his efforts were in vane for his father had already died. However, he was so impressed with Onisaburo that shortly thereafter he relocated his family to Ayabe where he proceeded to engage in farming and spiritual training under the tutelage of Deguchi. It was at this time (in the early 1920’s) that he began to teach an early form of what is today known as Aikido with the encouragement of Onisaburo who recognized his extraordinary physical prowess and martial skills. He called the art he was teaching at that time “Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu”.

Ueshiba accompanied Onisaburo on an ill-fated journey to Manchuria in an effort to found a Utopian colony in February 1924. They narrowly escaped with their lives on this occasion, and shortly after their return to Japan, Ueshiba was invited to establish himself in Tokyo to teach his budo at the urging of various influential people who were to become his patrons. O-Sensei continued to maintain contact with Onisaburo and Omoto and was elected the first president of the Budo Enhancement Association created in 1932 under the auspices of the religious sect making regular visits to Ayabe.

This is the background setting for the Aikido related topics covered in the interview with Mr. Ashihara. Readers interested in further details regarding the relationship between Aikido and Omoto are invited to peruse the back issues of this publication where the subject is taken up on a number of occasions.