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Morihei Ueshiba and the Omoto Religion

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Aikido is known internationally as one of Japan’s modern martial arts enjoying a reputation as a unique, ethically-based self-defense discipline. The Omoto sect was one of the most significant of the so-called “new religions” of Japan in the early part of the 20th century. At the height of its influence in 1935, it had nearly two million adherents before its brutal suppression at the hands of the existing military government. While Aikido and Omoto are not normally associated together in the public’s mind, there exists an inseparable link between the two due to the close personal bond between their two central figures, Morihei Ueshiba and Onisaburo Deguchi.

Morihei Ueshiba was a devoted disciple of Onisaburo Deguchi and long-time member of the Omoto Sect. Onisaburo—a towering figure in Japanese society in the first half of the 20th century—was Morihei’s spiritual mentor. His teachings and consistent support of Ueshiba were key factors in the latter’s development of aikido. The characters of these two giant figures are a study in contrasts. Moreover, it is fascinating to ponder aikido and Omoto as twin cultural phenomena and understand why aikido continues to spread worldwide while the dynamic appeal of Omoto of the prewar years has waned.

Omoto Overview

For those unfamiliar with the Omoto religious sect, I would like to provide a brief overview. The Omoto religion is a product of the combined efforts of two charismatic figures, one an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi (1837-1918), and the other, a flamboyant genius, Onisaburo Deguchi (1871-1948), under whose guidance the sect was propelled into national promience before its suppression in 1935.

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 that 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, Nao 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, Nao 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.

Nao’s 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 local following in and around Kyoto, when in 1898, Onisaburo Deguchi appeared on the scene. Born Kisaburo Ueda, Onisaburo was an autodidact with a keen interest in shamanism who also had a series of trance experiences during which it was revealed that he had a spiritual mission to fulfill as a savior of mankind. Onisaburo was extremely intelligent, very eloquent and given towards flamboyant behavior.

Onisaburo married Nao’s daughter, Sumiko, in 1900, and the two joined forces in spreading the faith. They were remarkably successful in the early 1900s through their proselitizing and publishing activities and built a powerful nationwide network by the time Nao died in 1918.

Omoto’s overwhelming success proved its undoing as it became a constant source of irritation to the Japanese government. 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. The Omoto was attacked and repressed by police troops in the so-called “Omoto Incidents” of 1921 and 1935 with Onisaburo and many sect leaders being tried and imprisoned.

The Second Omoto Incident effectively broke the back of the Omoto sect even though Onisaburo was eventually vindicated and released from prison in 1942. Omoto failed to regain its earlier vitality in postwar Japan and its membership has declined steadily, in part due to the absence of a leader of Onisaburo’s stature and its splintering into several factions.

Its sad fate notwithstanding, Omoto is certainly one of the most important of Japan’s “new religions” and the sect has spawned the creation of numerous other derivative religions, the most famous being the Seicho no Ie founded by Masaharu Taniguchi.

Morihei and Omoto

A study of Morihei’s association with Onisaburo Deguchi and the Omoto religion makes it apparent that his rise to a position of prominence in Japanese martial arts circles owes a great deal to his connection with the sect. Let us briefly trace the highlights of Morihei’s career during the period of 1919-1935 when he was deeply involved with the Omoto, calling particular attention to his close relationship with Onisaburo Deguchi.

In December 1919, Morihei, then a resident of Shirataki-mura in northern Hokkaido, received a telegram requesting his immediate return to his hometown of Tanabe as his father was in critical condition. While on the train passing through the Kansai area, Morihei apparently struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who spoke enthusiastically of the Omoto religion. The stranger talked of the wonderful teachings of this sect, of miracle cures, and of its charismatic leader, Onisaburo Deguchi. The emotionally distraught Morihei decided on the spot to make a detour to Ayabe where he ended up spending about a week. While seeking prayers for his father’s recovery, he quickly fell under the spell of the charismatic Onisaburo.

Upon Morihei’s return to Tanabe he found that his father had already passed away. Understandably, the death of his father left him in a state of depression and, in an effort to find a spiritual direction, he decided to move with his family to the Omoto center in Ayabe in the spring of 1920.

Having made a sizable donation to the sect from his father’s estate, Morihei and his family began a new life in Ayabe among the community of Omoto believers. He focused his energies on farming and spiritual training under the guidance of Onisaburo. Morihei’s devotion to the Omoto spiritual leader was absolute.

Early on, Onisaburo recognized Morihei’s fine qualities as a person and tremendous talent as a martial artist. Having quickly earned his master’s trust, Morihei soon became a member of the inner circle surrounding Onisaburo. After a few months, Deguchi encouraged Morihei to begin teaching the techniques of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu he had learned from Sokaku Takeda to selected members of the Omoto community. He opened up a small dojo out of his Ayabe home dubbed the “Ueshiba Juku.” Onisaburo brushed a beautiful calligraphy with the same characters that hung in the dojo.

As one of Onisaburo’s most trusted aides and enjoying his newly acquired reputation as a skilled martial artist, Morihei was introduced to many prominent people who were associated in some way with the sect. At this point in time in the early 1920s, Omoto’s star was rising rapidly and Onisaburo held court among the steady stream of believers and visitors who flocked to Ayabe.

Morihei’s status as a leading Omoto disciple and constant exposure to higher-ups of society played an important role in his maturity as a man and growth as a martial arts instructor. He had occasion to instruct a broad range of people from simple farmers to military officers older than himself. This served to elevate his standing within the sect and establish a network of connections in military and political circles that would later prove invaluable to his success.

To keep a perspective, mention must be made of the fact that Morihei’s initial involvement with the sect coincided with the most tragic period of his life. Between late 1919 and the summer of 1921, he lost his father, mother, and two infant sons. Such heavy personal loss brought him to the brink of despair. Morihei clung to the religion even more tightly out of a personal need for spiritual solace. Onisaburo’s private counsel was a much-needed salve to soothe his inner turmoil.

In 1924, Morihei was chosen as one of three trusted confidants to accompany Onisaburo on a secret mission to Mongolia. Since Onisaburo was free on bail in the aftermath of the First Omoto Incident, he risked arrest by attempting to leave Japan. Also, the true purpose of the trip to Mongolia included a plan to establish a new independent nation. The Mongolia-Manchurian region was a hotbed of political and military activity with Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and other foreign interests vying for political and economic control. For the above reasons, only the most trustworthy of Onisaburo’s aides were selected to accompany him on this highly risky adventure.

As fate would have it, Onisaburo and members of his party were arrested by regional military authorities and scheduled for execution. Only the last minute intervention of the Japanese consulate prevented them from meeting their end. The rigors of the Mongolian expedition and this brush with death deepened the personal bond between Onisaburo and Morihei, one that would never weaken.

When Morihei began his teaching activities in Tokyo starting in 1925, Onisaburo encouraged him to strike out from the relative tranquility of life in Ayabe to embark upon a new career as a professional martial arts instructor in bustling Tokyo. This new opportunity emerged when a certain Admiral Isamu Takeshita—a martial arts aficionado—learned of Morihei’s skills through the introduction of colleague Seikyo Asano, a lieutenant commander and Omoto member who was one of Morihei’s enthusiastic students at the Ueshiba Juku.

After Morihei had established a solid base in Tokyo and opened a successful private dojo in 1931, it was again Onisaburo who boosted Morihei’s career in a dramatic way through the creation of the Budo Senyokai in 1932. This Omoto-affiliated association promoted the practice of Morihei’s budo by organizing martial arts training sessions in Omoto branches all over Japan. Overnight, the scope of Morihei’s teaching activities and the number of students training in his system multiplied many times over. His prestige in martial arts circles grew as a consequence.

Morihei’s close links with Onisaburo and the Omoto religion were abruptly shattered when the militarist government launched an early-morning surprise raid on the sect’s facilities in December 1935. Onisaburo, his wife Sumiko, and scores of Omoto leaders were arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Morihei—who also had been scheduled for arrest—escaped a similar fate only because of his close connection to police higher-ups in Kyoto.

This second attack on the church was designed to “leave no trace of Omoto” and had far-reaching consequences for Morihei both professionally and personally. The Budo Senyokai network of affiliated dojos was immediately disbanded. Morihei could no longer openly associate with Omoto believers or display images or symbols connected with the religion. The incident and its aftermath caused Morihei great personal stress as his life had been centered on the Omoto for some 15 years and he still held Onisaburo in the highest esteem.

Morihei was hurt deeply on a personal level as well. Many of the sect leaders thought it highly suspicious that Morihei escaped arrest given his prominent status within the sect and leadership role in the Budo Senyokai. Some regarded him as a “Judas,” a traitor to the Omoto cause. The suppression of the Omoto and negative attitude of its leaders toward Morihei kept him from further association with the sect until after World War II ended.

Morihei was not to meet Onisaburo for more than a decade when the Omoto leader was in retirement in Kameoka and in poor health. The aikido founder gradually resumed his relationship with the Omoto sect and his many friends and acquaintances from before the war. Following Morihei’s death in 1969, part of his hair was enshrined in the family grave in Ayabe, a testimony of Morihei’s unceasing devotion to the faith.

Morihei’s Omoto Affiliation: A Double-Edged Sword

As we have seen, Morihei’s association with Onisaburo and the Omoto involved a great deal of risk to him both personally and professionally. Although Onisaburo spoke of grandiose themes such as the need for societal reform, equality among peoples, the brotherhood of the world’s religions, and peace and cooperation among nations, his actions invoked the ire of government authorities at every turn. Onisaburo was a master propagandist and skilled in manipulating the mass media. He invested large resources in numerous publishing ventures and even purchased the Taisho Nichinichi Shinbun, one of Japan’s major dailies, in 1920. It was, in particular, the success of Omoto’s publishing activities and the creation of a multitude of auxiliary organizations, some of which had a paramilitary character, that made the sect ripe for government intervention.

Morihei was present in Ayabe during the government raid on Omoto premises in February 1921 known as the “First Omoto Incident.” He accompanied Onisaburo on his adventurous mission to Mongolia in 1924 which almost led to his execution at the hands of a firing squad. Again, in December 1935, when the “Second Omoto Incident” took place, Morihei was targeted for arrest and narrowly escaped imprisonment.

In this sense, Morihei’s affiliation with the Omoto religion was indeed a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Onisaburo’s creation of the Budo Senyokai helped spread Morihei’s art and influence far beyond what he could have accomplished on his own. Furthermore, a large number of his students of the prewar period were Omoto believers or associated with the sect in some way.

To counterbalance this, the Omoto was widely viewed as an extreme religious cult whose widespread activities made it a threat to society. The sect had a severe stigma attached to it in many circles. By way of illustration, one of Morihei’s most important patrons, Admiral Isamu Takeshita, disliked the religion. When Morihei first began teaching activities in Tokyo in the mid-1920s, Takeshita and others encouraged Morihei to distance himself from the sect in order to become more widely acceptable to the distinguished people he had begun teaching. Loyal as he was to Onisaburo, Morihei refused to heed this advice yet still managed to garner a dedicated following based on his abilities and personal charisma.

In 1935, when the Second Omoto Incident occurred, Morihei was labeled a criminal by the authorities because of his association with the sect. In addition to the physical danger he was in, Morihei suffered great embarrassment as he was forced to remain in hiding for nearly a month. Those who knew him personally understood that Morihei was not the type of person to act in such a way as to antagonize the authorities, but nevertheless he was tainted by his connection to the Omoto.

Aikido and Omoto: Contrasting Destinies

Both Morihei and Onisaburo were, in their own ways, out to change the world. Both succeeded to varying degrees. Onisaburo challenged Japan’s prewar political establishment head on and stood as a vocal opponent against the nation’s aggressive policies both domestically and abroad. He spoke out against the unhappy fate that awaited a country bent on warfare and conquest. History ultimately proved him correct, but he paid a high price personally as his health was broken during his seven years of imprisonment and his actions ultimately sacrificed the future of the Omoto to achieve his ends.

Morihei’s aikido achieved prominence much later as it spread throughout Japan and abroad following the war. Although he and Onisaburo shared a similar spiritual and moral vision, Morihei’s implementation of these ideas through aikido have posed no threat to the power structures of the societies in which the art has been introduced. It is the harmonious nature of aikido itself that has insured its success and dissemination on a wide scale. Its non-political approach and adherence to a high moral standard has assured its broad acceptance. It is somewhat of an irony that much of the attention focused on the Omoto religion today is directly traceable to aikido’s historical connection with the sect.

Stanley Pranin
February 2005
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA