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Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshomaru Ueshiba

by Stanley Pranin

From Japanese Wushu Magazine

Second Aikido Doshu
Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Our article on aikido for this issue of Wushu focuses on Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. As the son of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, Kisshomaru succeeded his father as Doshu upon the former’s death in April 1969. As we will see, the role of Kisshomaru Sensei in the postwar development of aikido has been one of extreme importance, and the present image and status of the art both in Japan and abroad is directly related to his efforts. It goes without saying that various other prominent aikido sensei such as Gozo Shioda, Kenji Tomiki, Koichi Tohei, and Morihiro Saito to name only a few have made significant contributions to aikido’s prestige, but Kisshomaru Sensei as “Doshu” and the major decision-maker of the “mainstream” of aikido has been in a position to leave a strong personal stamp on the art.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba was born in Ayabe in Kyoto Prefecture on June 27, 1921 as the fourth child and third son of Morihei Ueshiba. The founder was at the time living with his family near the main grounds of the Omoto Center in Ayabe where he was an active believer and supporter of the religion. He also trained a few students in a small dojo which formed part of his home called the “Ueshiba Juku.” It was here that the famous Daito-ryu teacher Sokaku Takeda came and spent several months in 1922. Kisshomaru Sensei still has a boyhood memories of this colorful period in the development of aikido.

Morihei Sensei moved with his family to Tokyo in 1927 where Kisshomaru completed most of his formal education. Asked in an interview in 1983 when he began training in the martial arts, he responded: “There is a Japanese proverb which says, ‘A shop boy near a temple will chant a sutra untaught.’ In just the same way, I had already begun my practice when I was a boy without even realizing it…. By around 1936 it had become my duty to take sword ukemi for my father when he went places to give demonstrations. I practiced a little kendo… and [also] old-style Kashima Shinto-ryu.” Already, in the 1938 training manual entitled “Budo” published by Morihei, his son appears in many of the technique photos as his uke.

After completing high school, Kisshomaru enrolled in Waseda University from where he graduated with a degree in economics in 1942. It was also at this time, early in World War II, that Kisshomaru was entrusted with the operation of the Kobukan dojo by the Founder who retired to the village of Iwama in Ibaragi Prefecture. By that time, the dojo was nearly empty of students and Kisshomaru’s duties were largely administrative. It was, parenthetically, also in 1942 that the term “aikido” was officially adopted in compliance with the policy of name standardization of the Dai Nihon Butokukai. Besides the depletion of its enrollment due to the war effort, the dojo building was in physical danger due to the bombardment of Tokyo. On one occasion while still a student of Waseda University, Kisshomaru, with the assistance of several neighbors, barely succeeded in saving the dojo from burning down in the fire-ravaged area of Shinjuku.

Immediately after the conclusion of the War the practice of all martial arts was prohibited by the Allied General Headquarters and Kisshomaru opened the doors of the dojo to some 100 persons left homeless in the wake of the devastating conflict. He spent part of his time in Tokyo and part in Iwama during this period. When practice did resume in Tokyo on an informal basis, few showed up since the major concern of most people was mere survival. But by 1948, the Zaidan Hojin Aikikai, the successor of the Kobukai Foundation, was established and little by little the dojo revived.

Having a wife, two children and several hungry uchideshi to feed, Doshu was at that time employed full-time at a securities company and taught aikido classes in the morning and evening. His father remained ensconced in Iwama training a few close students, among them Morihiro Saito. As practice in Tokyo gained momentum, Kisshomaru started to direct part of his efforts toward the spreading of aikido to a public almost totally ignorant of the art. A major turning point was a large demonstration held in the Takashimaya Department Store in 1956 where for the first time, not only the Founder, but senior instructors as well as demonstrated. Kisshomaru authored his first book appropriately entitled “Aikido” in 1957 and others followed at regular intervals. The growth of aikido continued steadily and dojos sprang up in cities and schools all over Japan. The name “aikido” began to be familiar to the general Japanese public who could by now at least identify it as a martial art.

The Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in action
at Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1967

The next major frontier in the dissemination of aikido were foreign countries. Kisshomaru began sending young, talented teachers abroad to set up dojos and, though preceeded by Koichi Tohei, he himself traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 1963. This author remembers vividly participating in a class taught by Doshu during that initial tour at a YMCA in Los Angeles.

By the mid 1960s, large numbers of trainees crowded the mats of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo along with scores of foreigners who streamed to Japan to train in the mecca of aikido. The founder, although now in Tokyo much of the time, was already in his eighties and Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei were the major figures at the dojo. Following the death in 1969 of “O-Sensei” as Morihei Ueshiba came to be known, a rift between the new Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Chief Instructor Tohei gradually developed, and the latter left the Hombu to establish his own school in 1974.

By the mid 1970s aikido had grown to the point that Doshu and the senior figures of the Aikikai felt the time ripe to create an “International Aikido Federation.” National federations were recognized in numerous countries and the overall organization came under the control of the Zaidan Hojin Aikikai. Doshu became busier than ever, his duties taking him to many cities in the U.S., Europe and even South America.

In 1977, Doshu’s long-awaited “Biography of Morihei Ueshiba” was published by Kodansha and is generally considered the most authoritative work on his father’s life. It was, moreover, around this time that his own son, Moriteru, began to be groomed to become the “Third Aikido Doshu.” This process continues today as the younger Ueshiba’s responsibilities mount in preparation for the day of his succession. [The present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba assumed the position of leadership upon his father’s death in January 1999.]

Doshu’s approach to aikido emphasizes, technically speaking, soft, rounded movements. He once related to me that the character “maru” in his first name was symbolic of his view of the “circular” essence of aikido technique. In philosophical terms, Doshu himself eloquently summed up his thoughts regarding the art created by his father with these words: “The movements of aikido are in perfect accord with the movements of the spirit. If one talks about spiritual matters or throwing his opponent without harming him after having struck and kicked him, it’s not convincing. In aikido, we strengthen the body and mind through soft movements which are in harmony with nature.”

Doshu remains extremely active giving countless demonstrations and lectures in Japan and abroad. He regularly teaches at the Aikikai Hombu three days a week and, word has it, is working on a major new book which will be a personal statement on his philosophy of aikido.

This article first appeared in Japanese in the Chinese martial arts magazine titled “Wushu” about 1988.