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Iwama: Birthplace of Aikido

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #130

Aiki Shrine in Iwama

Ask even a beginning aikidoka who the founder of aikido is and most will be able to identify Morihei Ueshiba as the originator of the art. This is probably due to the fact that a photo of Ueshiba hangs on the shomen of most aikido dojos worldwide and sooner or later every aikidoka hears the founder’s name mentioned. Were one to extend this line of questioning to include intermediate and advanced practitioners and ask when and where Ueshiba developed his aikido, few would be able to give an accurate answer.

Actually, the truth of the matter is that the flavors of aikido that enjoy popularity today owe much more to Ueshiba’s direct students such as Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Gozo Shioda, Kenji Tomiki, and Minoru Mochizuki than to the founder. The reasons for this have to do mostly with the events of World War II and its aftermath. At the time aikido began its first tentative steps as a modern budo in the early 1950s, Ueshiba was already in his 70s and most considered him to be in retirement in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. Thus the tasks of establishing dojos, creating organizations, formailizing curricula and grading, and the dispatch of teachers within Japan and abroad were left mainly to those enumerated above.

Ueshiba’s background

Before describing the circumstances of the birth of aikido in Iwama, let us look briefly at Ueshiba’s background up until the point where his connection with this Ibaragi farming community begins. Morihei Ueshiba was born in the seacoast town of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture on December 14, 1883. He was from an upper middle-class family and his father served on the Tanabe town council for many years. Morihei received a formal education up through middle school. At the age of 19, he moved to Tokyo in pursuit of a career as a merchant but returned to Tanabe after less than a year and soon abandoned the idea of entering the business world.

Morihei finally found his calling when he led a group of colonizers from his hometown to the wilderness of northeast Hokkaido in 1912. There the group from Tanabe established a small village called Shirataki. In 1915, Ueshiba met the famous jujutsu expert Takeda Sokaku in a nearby town. Fascinated with Sokaku’s expert martial arts skills that far exceeded his own, Morihei devoted himself to Daito-ryu aikijujutsu training for the next five years becoming of one of Takeda’s top students.

After spending a total of seven years in Hokkaido, Ueshiba left Hokkaido upon receiving news that his father was critically ill back in Tanabe. On his return to Wakayama, Morihei detoured to the town of Ayabe near Kyoto where he met Reverend Onisaburo Deguchi, the co-founder of the Omoto religion, to pray for his father’s recovery. Soon thereafter in 1920, Morihei settled in the Omoto community with his family and became a staunch supporter of Onisaburo and the religous sect. Deguchi in turn encouraged Morihei to cultivate his martial skills by giving instruction to members of the religious sect.

With Onisaburo’s blessing, Morihei relocated to Tokyo from Ayabe in 1927 to begin to disseminate his aikijujutsu on a full-time basis. After spending several years teaching the elites of Japanese society from various temporary locations, Morihei finally opened his own dojo in Shinjuku ward in Tokyo in 1931. The Kobukan Dojo served as Ueshiba’s base of operation and its students consisted mainly of prominent persons from military, political, and business circles and those having a connection with the Omoto religion. He also taught self-defense classes at several military institutions in the greater Tokyo area including the Toyama Army School. At this point in time, the focus of Morihei’s teaching was mainly Tokyo where he had built up a strong network of highly-placed connections that opened up many opportunities for him to expand his activities.

Zenzaburo Akazawa in front of home where
Budo Senyokai sessions held (1999)

Iwama and the Budo Senyokai

The inconspicuous village of Iwama situated in a farming area of Ibaragi Prefecture seems an unlikely candidate for the birthplace of aikido. Yet today the website of the Iwama Town Office proudly claims aikido as one of the community’s main attractions and remarks that foreigners who have come from abroad to learn the art can frequently be seen on town streets. Iwama is located between Tsuchiura and Mito on the Joban line—the railroad connecting Ueno with Sendai—and today has a population of only 16,750. 70 years ago when the initial events linking aikido with Iwama occurred it was a farming village of only a few thousand.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Morihei Ueshiba’s involvement with the Omoto religion provided the nexus for his connection with Iwama. In 1932, an association for the promotion of martial arts called the Budo Senyokai was established under the auspices of the Omoto religion. This organization was created on the initiative of Onisaburo Deguchi who had set up a series of other auxiliary groups to appeal to different segments of Japanese society. This approach worked well and, by the early 1930s, the Omoto sect had more than a million adherents from a wide range of economic and social levels.

Morihei had been a member of the inner circle of the Omoto sect since the early 1920s. He was somewhat of a “poster boy” for the Omoto as Onisaburo was fond of welcoming talented people from different walks of life into the religion with an eye toward their potential for promotional purposes. Ueshiba was regarded as a consummate martial artist—even serving at one time as Onisaburo’s bodyguard—and an important asset to the Omoto sect that was so often courting the displeasure of government authorities.

The Budo Senyokai created a network of martial arts study groups that held class sessions in conjunction with the Omoto chapters operating throughout the country. Although in theory a number of martial arts were included in the curriculum, the main focus was on Morihei’s aikijujutsu as is evidenced by the fact that he was the association’s first chairman and most of the training involved Ueshiba’s aikijujutsu. The creation of the Budo Senyokai provided Morihei with a ready-made All-Japan network of affiliated groups thus enabling him to build a student base much more rapidly than before.

The Omoto chapter in Iwama was among those that started aikijujutsu training sessions. The person in charge of training there was a man named Yoshikatsu Fujisawa. Fujisawa had undergone a brief training stint in the town of Takeda in Hyogo Prefecture where the Budo Senyokai conducted intensive practice seminars. The training in Iwama was conducted in the home of the town postmaster, Mitsunosuke Akazawa, father of Zenzaburo, the latter one of Ueshiba’s prewar uchideshi.

One person who participated in the Budo Senyokai training in Iwama was a young man named Shigemi Yonekawa who happened to be a relative of the Akazawas. Yonekawa soon became an enthusiastic pupil of aikijujutsu and entered Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo as an uchideshi later in 1932. In an interview in conducted in 1979, Yonekawa describes his introduction to aikijujutsu:

“… I was asked if I might not be interested in participating in a martial arts seminar [in Iwama] and so I decided to attend. Before attending this seminar, I had had some experience taking breakfalls in judo. So I helped out at the seminar under the mistaken impression that it would be a lot of fun. I practiced for four or five days but was totally out of my element. The teacher handled me with great ease and I was so impressed by the uniqueness, subtlety, and depth of this art that I knew I wanted to learn it.

When I talked to Mr. Fujisawa he told me to come with him and be his assistant. We traveled around Ibaragi Prefecture and when we arrived in Tokyo he introduced me to Ueshiba Sensei. I was told that the fastest way to learn the art would be to become an uchideshi. Then I requested Mr. Akazawa’s help and he asked Ueshiba Sensei’s permission on my behalf. That’s how I joined as an uchideshi.”

Shigemi Yonekawa as Morihei Ueshiba’s uke in Noma Dojo, 1935

Yonekawa went on to become one of Morihei’s top assistants and earned a permanent place in aikido history by serving as Ueshiba’s uke in the famous series of technical photos taken in 1935 at the private dojo of famed Kodansha founder Seiji Noma.

The Akazawa home where training took place is still standing in Iwama today and is used for town Omoto gatherings. On display are photos of the foundress Nao Deguchi, Onisaburo and his wife Sumiko and the interior looks much the same as it did some 70 years ago when it was used as a make-shift dojo for Budo Sen’yokai training sessions.

Aikijujutsu training in Iwama came to an abrupt halt in December 1935 when the Japanese government brutally suppressed the Omoto religion in the notorious Second Omoto Incident. Many of the top Omoto leaders including Onisaburo and his wife were imprisoned and some, notably Hidemaro Deguchi, tortured. Morihei escaped incarceration only due to the intervention of one of his students who happened to be the Osaka prefectural police chief at that time. Even Zenzaburo’s father Mitsunosuke was detained for several weeks.

Preparing a retreat in Iwama

Although the Budo Senyokai practice sessions had been suspended, Ueshiba’s connection with Iwama had been firmly established. In the late 1930s, Morihei began discussing the idea of building an outdoor dojo away from Tokyo to serve as a training facility. He had been teaching at the Toyama Military School for army officers and at various other military institutions for a number of years. However, Ueshiba was limited as to the type of training he could conduct. He wanted to set up a dojo in a setting removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo where he could engage in more realistic practice. Mitsunosuke Akazawa mentioned earlier—whose son Zenzaburo was then one of Ueshiba’s uchideshi—assisted Morihei in the purchase of about 4 or 5 hectares of land in Iwama and plans were made to construct an outdoor training facility. Ueshiba began visiting Iwama as the open-air dojo was being constructed starting about 1939.

Parallely, the advent of the Pacific War led to the rapid depletion of members of Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo as his young students were inducted one by one into military service. By 1942 there were only a handful of students practicing in the Kobukan Dojo.

Even though there were few students at his dojo, 1942 was a hectic year for Morihei as he was conducting classes at several military institutions simultaneously. In earlier years, Ueshiba had been assisted by his leading uchideshi who helped him teach by making the rounds to the various military facilities. Now few were left to assist in this capacity. The Pacific War was in full swing and the first bombing raids on Tokyo had begun. Although originally conceived as a retreat for intensive budo training, Morihei’s land in Iwama now offered a refuge for him and his wife to escape the dangers of Tokyo.

Morihei began to plan his move to Iwama in stages. He built a 36-mat dojo as a private training facility and also a small shrine dubbed the “Shinden,” both completed in 1942. This shrine was dedicated to a budo deity and ceremonies presided over by Omoto priests, further evidence that Morihei’s faith in the Omoto religion had not wavered despite the occurrence of the Second Omoto Incident. As a further important step toward his retirement to Iwama, Morihei appointed his son Kisshomaru—then a 21-year-old Waseda University student—as the Dojo-cho of the Kobukan Dojo and turned over most administrative responsibilities as well. Kisshomaru was assisted in the operation of the the dojo by Minoru Hirai who later went on to create Korinkai Aikido.

Founder Morihei Ueshiba, 1942

“Retirement” to Iwama

The founder became quite ill toward the end of 1942 with an intestinal ailment and this may have affected the actual timing of his withdrawal to Iwama. The contrast with his hectic life in Tokyo was dramatic as rural Iwama had only a few thousand residents. As Ueshiba recovered from his illness, he began to devote his time to farming, training and meditation. His few aikido students consisted mainly of local youths and members of families of Omoto believers who still had to keep a low profile after the crushing blow dealt the religion in 1935. Freed for the first time in many years from heavy teaching duties, the founder could at last pursue his personal training and ascetic activities without distraction. He made the Iwama dojo and the surrounding fields into a training laboratory. There Morihei experimented with endless variations of techniques while continuously making refinements, and further expanding his awareness and ability to perceive his opponent’s intent.

Morihei would rise before sunset each morning to pray and chant. This ritual was part of his misogi training and one of his ways of connecting with the divine world. The founder never imposed his religious beliefs on students. However, as a personal matter, aikido represented for Morihei a bridge between Heaven and Earth and a tool to be used for driving evil from the world and achieving harmony among peoples.

End of World War II

The war effort progressively sapped the strength of the highly-militarized Japanese economy. With shortages of many basic goods and dangerous living conditions, many fled to the safety of rural areas to avoid the devastation occurring in Japan’s larger cities. With the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the economy lay in shambles and the Ueshibas in Iwama had to go to great lengths to make ends meet as did virtually the entire Japanese population. The overriding concern on most people’s minds all over the nation was procuring enough food to eat.

Although Ueshiba had taught tens of thousands of students prior to the war, the aftermath of the conflict left him severed from all but a handful of his former disciples. The practice of martial arts had been prohibted by the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ), but this edict was unevenly enforced even in urban areas and was of little consequnece in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. During the early postwar period, Morihei called his country residence the “Aiki En” to de-emphasize his martial arts training activities in deference to the GHQ ban.

Left to right: Hatsu Ueshiba, Kisshomaru, Morihei Ueshiba, Koichi
Tohei, Kisshomaru’s wife, Sakuko, Morihiro Saito, c. 1953

As Japanese soldiers were gradually repatriated after the war, a number of Ueshiba’s former students came to visit and train with their teacher at his Iwama retreat. Among the well-known figures from the Kobukan era who joined in training with the few locals at the dojo were Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei, and Minoru Mochizuki. Also, Morihei’s son Kisshomaru often practiced in Iwama, and a young Tadashi Abe who later spread aikido in France was an uchideshi during this period.

As Ueshiba was ensconced in Iwama training with a small coterie of disciples and there was virtually no activity at the old Kobukan Dojo in Tokyo in the late 1940s, Iwama became the official headquarters of the Zaidan Hojin Aikikai when the foundation was set up in 1948. It would remain so until headquarters status was returned to Tokyo about 1956 by which time activity at the Shinjuku Dojo had fully revived.

Morihiro Saito enrolls in the Iwama Dojo

In 1946, a skinny lad of 18 named Morihiro Saito summoned up the courage to seek out Ueshiba at the Iwama Dojo. To the local youth, the aikido founder seemed like a mysterious recluse with strange physical powers. Saito was born in a nearby village in 1928 and became fond of martial arts at an early age. He had dabbled in judo, kendo, and karate before meeting Ueshiba. Saito described his initial encounter with the founder in these words:

“It was during the hot season and I arrived in the morning. O-Sensei was doing his morning training. Minoru Mochizuki directed me to where O-Sensei was practicing with several students. Then I entered what is today the six-tatami room of the dojo. While I was sitting there, O-Sensei and Tadashi Abe came in. As O-Sensei sat down Abe immediately placed a cusion down for him. He really moved fast to help O-Sensei. Sensei stared at me and asked, “Why do you want to learn aikido?” When I replied that I’d like to learn if he would teach me, he asked, “Do you know what aikido is?” There was no way I could have know what aikido was. Then Sensei added, “I’ll teach you how to seve society and people with this martial art.”

I didn’t have the least idea that a martial art could serve society and people. I just wanted to become strong!"

Morihiro Saito in front of old Aiki Shrine, c. 1953

Saito soon became a staple of the dojo and progressed quickly. As a result, he was allowed to participate in early morning sessions normally reserved for uchideshi. His job with Japan Railways proved a stroke of good fortune as far as his aikido training was concerned. Saito’s work schedule of twenty-four hours on and twenty-four off left him free to spend a great deal of time with the founder. Other students did not have this sort of flexibility in their work schedules. The widespread poverty of Japan in these years made it increasingly difficult for them to continue practicing aikido. If they spent time training or helping Ueshiba with farm chores, it was time away from their own work and families. One by one, students were compelled by circumstances to abandon aikido training until only a handful continued to attend morning practice.

Seeing Saito’s devotion toward training, Ueshiba gradually began to rely on him more and more in his personal life. Much of the time Saito spent with Ueshiba involved helping the founder with farming and work chores. In the end, only Saito was left to serve the founder on a regular basis. Out of gratitude for his assistance, Ueshiba presented Saito a parcel of land on his own property on which to build a house. Even after his marriage, Saito’s passion for training continued unabated. In fact his young bride began to serve the Ueshibas too, and personally looked after Ueshiba’s elderly wife, Hatsu.

Hiroshi Isoyama

There is one other young man who joined the Iwama Dojo shortly after the war who would go on to prominence in the aikido world. A native of Iwama, Hiroshi Isoyama joined the Ueshiba dojo at the age of 12 in 1949. He trained regularly in the Ueshiba dojo for nine years, first in the children’s class and then with the adults. In a recent interview, Isoyama recalled the rigors of training in the early days before the Iwama dojo had tatami mats. He appears in many of the old photos from the 1950s as a thin lad often together with Morihiro Saito.

Morihiro Saito in center with Hiroshi Isoyama to his right

Isoyama left Iwama in 1958 when joined the Air Self-Defense Force. Throughout his long military career, Isoyama taught thousands of students in the Japanese armed forces as well as American personnel stationed at military bases in Japan. He has attained the rank of 8th dan and is currently a technical councillor for the International Aikido Federation. Since retiring in Iwama, Isoyama travels frequently within Japan and abroad to instruct.

Birth of modern aikido

The founder’s teaching methods in during Iwama period were very different from his approach during the prewar years. Earlier in his teaching career, Morihei’s custom was to merely show techniques a few times while offering little explanation. This was the traditional method of martial arts instruction where students had to do their best to “steal” their teachers’ techniques.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ueshiba engaged in extensive private training during the day. Morihiro Saito served as his training partner most of the time. The founder was especially absorbed in the study of the aiki ken and jo. One of the main influences on his study of the ken was the Kashima Shinto-ryu sword school. In 1937, Ueshiba even formally joined the Kashima school along with Zenzaburo Akazawa. Instructors from this ryuha paid weekly visits to the Kobukan Dojo where they taught the Kashima curriculum over a one to two-year period.

Although he did not personally participate, Ueshiba would regularly observe the sessions that consisted primarily of weapons training. The large number of weapons techniques contained in Ueshiba’s 1938 training manual Budo provides further evidence that the aikido founder had an abiding interest in this subject starting around the mid-1930s.

The postwar Iwama years were extremely important to the development of modern aikido. Ueshiba began to systemize his techniques into related groupings and cover the same techniques over and over again in practice. He would moreover teach techniques starting with the basics and progressing to advance levels. The founder stressed that every little detail must be correct in the performance of a technique. It was also around this time that he started using the term “takemusu aiki.” This concept represents the highest level of aikido where one becomes capable of executing spontaneous techniques perfectly suited to the nature of the attack. In fact, it can be argued that the birth of the modern form of aikido coincided with the emergence of the concept of takemusu aiki during the Iwama period.

Founder training with Morihiro Saito in Iwama Dojo, c. 1956
Photo courtesy of André Nocquet

Overseeing the Iwama Dojo during the founder’s absence

The founder began to travel to Tokyo and Kansai frequently starting in the mid-1950s while his wife would normally remain in Iwama. As the mainstay of the Iwama Dojo, Morihiro Saito assumed responsibility for most of the teaching duties when Ueshiba was absent. Saito also maintained close ties with Koichi Tohei and would often substitute for the latter at his private dojo in Utsunomiya when Tohei made his frequent trips to Hawaii to teach.

With the development of aikido clubs at many Japanese universities in the late 1950s, numerous student clubs arranged to hold annual gasshuku at the Iwama dojo. Saito would usually teach these university groups and the founder appeared pleased to have student groups train at his private dojo. This is a tradition that continues even to this day.

After the founder’s death on April 26, 1969, Saito became chief instructor of the Iwama Dojo and also the guardian of the nearby Aiki Shrine. Morihiro Saito served Ueshiba devotedly for 24 years and has continued following the same training path since Ueshiba’s passing. Saito’s emphasis has been on the preservation of the founder’s teaching methodology that consists of an extensive curriculum incorporating both taijutsu and bukiwaza.

Aikido Mecca

Starting around 1970, the first foreign aikidoka were accepted as uchideshi in the Iwama Dojo. From that time forward, literally thousands of foreigners from scores of countries have spent anywhere from a few days to several years living and training in Iwama. One of the consequences of this phenomenon has been the development of numerous instructors trained in what has become known as "Iwama-style" aikido. Many of these Iwama-trained people have returned to their native countries and begun teaching this unified approach to aikido emphasizing taijutsu and bukiwaza as organized by Morihiro Saito. Interestingly enough, the presence of so many foreigners at the Iwama Dojo over the years has led to a recent increase in the number of young Japanese uchideshi as well.

Present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba on left flanked by former
Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Aiki Taisai

In 1970, the year following the founder’s demise, a new tradition had its beginning in Iwama. Every year on April 29—a national holiday formerly celebrating the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito—a service commemorating the passing of Morihei Ueshiba is held in front of the Aiki Shrine. This service is hosted by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and organized by Morihiro Saito and the Iwama Dojo. The ceremony inside the Aiki Shrine is conducted by Omoto priests dressed in their traditional sky blue and white garb. The “Aiki Taisai” has grown in size over the years and this year’s event was attended by some 900 people. Practitioners from all over Japan and foreign students from abroad come to pay their respects and witness the Omoto service remembering Morihei Ueshiba.

Iwama was indeed a special place for Morihei Ueshiba. It served as a refuge during the stressful times of World War II and provided the perfect setting for years of intensive training and introspection. The oft alluded to concept of “takemusu aiki” was a product of Ueshiba’s training during the Iwama years. So it was with his focus on weapons practice as an integral part of the aikido curriculum. Certainly, the argument can be made that since Morihei Ueshiba was continuously refining his aikido he was at his peak at the end of his life. Yet many who knew and trained with the founder in his late 60s and 70s point to the Iwama period as his prime. From all accounts, Morihei’s physical vigor, technical precision, and spiritual awareness during these years were truly amazing. This view added to the fact that the founder set up Iwama as his private training and spiritual retreat make a convincing case for considering Iwama as the birthplace of aikido.

Concluding remarks

I first visited Iwama in July 1969 together with William Witt who would soon become the first foreign uchideshi at the Iwama Dojo. I had trained with Morihiro Saito Sensei at his Sunday class at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo the summer following the founder’s passing and was curious to visit Iwama. It was not until the summer of 1977 that I was able to arrange my life such that I could return to live and train in Iwama. I spent a total of 4 1/2 years practicing at the Iwama Dojo before relocating to Tokyo. Over the years I have attended the Aiki Taisai on about 15 occasions and regard it as one of aikido’s most important unifying events.

My research work has afforded me the opportunity of interviewing people such as Morihiro Saito, Zenzaburo Akazawa, Shigemi Yonekawa, Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei, Sadateru Arikawa and the late Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba over a 25-year span. All of these and numerous others have provided invaluable insights on the importance of Iwama to the development of postwar aikido.

At one point in time, the Iwama Dojo and Morihei Ueshiba’s home in Iwama were in danger of being torn down and the property sold. Fortunately for the aikido world, this sad fate has apparently been averted and these historical structures and the Aiki Shrine remain intact as a monument to the genius of Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei.

Stanley Pranin
August 2001
Las Vegas, Nevada