Aikido Journal Home » Articles » An Overview of Aikido History Aiki News Japan

An Overview of Aikido History

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

The article below is excerpted from Takemusu Aikido: Background and Basics,” by Morihiro Saito

It is difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of modern aikido without an understanding of its extraordinary founder, Morihei Ueshiba. This innovative man presents a challenge to historians not simply because he lived in an earlier age very different from our own-he was unusual even for his time and cultural context. His esoteric views were heavily influenced by the doctrines of the Omoto religion and are barely comprehensible to modern Japanese. The challenge faced by foreign aikido devotees who hope to absorb the founder’s philosophy is made even greater by the formidable barrier of the Japanese language. The task would be seemingly hopeless were it not for the aikido techniques themselves, which offer everyone an avenue of approach to the essence of the art, irrespective of language or culture.

The man who was to become the founder of aikido was born in the seaport town of Tanabe, in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, on December 14, 1883. His father, Yoroku, was a man of considerable means who served for many years on the local town council. Anecdotal evidence of Yoroku’s great physical strength survives and some have speculated that Morihei’s father was a skilled martial artist in his own right.

Yoroku was overjoyed at the birth of Morihei, his only son, after first having three daughters. Morihei was sickly as a child, and his father went to great lengths to improve his son’s health and encouraged him to build up his frail body. Morihei’s education continued only up through the first year of middle school. At age seventeen, he left home to become a merchant in Tokyo with the assistance of wealthy relatives and worked in a stationery business. It was during his brief stay in Tokyo that he had his first formal martial arts training at a Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu school where he practiced in the evenings.

Morihei was forced to leave Tokyo after less than a year when he fell ill with beriberi. He returned to his native Tanabe where in time he recovered fully. Morihei’s experience in Tokyo made it apparent that he was not cut out to become a merchant. Japan was building up its military might prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, and being more the adventurous type, Ueshiba joined the army in 1903. Morihei’s affinity for martial arts became clear particularly during bayonet training where he proved to be one of the most adept of the soldiers.

During his military service Morihei also had an opportunity to train in a branch of the Yagyu school, possibly the Yagyu Shingan-ryu, near Osaka where he was stationed. The extent and content of his study of this classical tradition remains a subject of speculation. It is known, however, that even after his discharge from the army in 1906, he occasionally traveled from his native Tanabe to Sakai where the Yagyu-ryu dojo was located.

The next several years in Morihei’s life back in Tanabe were restless ones as he sought a new direction in life. For a short time he dabbled with judo, when his father brought in a young instructor from the Kodokan Judo Headquarters to teach the local youth. However, Morihei did not intend to remain in Tanabe forever. At that time the Japanese government was providing incentives to encourage the settlement of the underdeveloped island of Hokkaido. Tempted by the prospect of a new adventure, Morihei organized and led a party of fifty-four families to Hokkaido in 1912. The group eventually settled in the remote area of the northern part of the island that was to become the village of Shirataki.

The colonists’ Spartan life in Shirataki was centered on farming, lumbering, and mere survival in the harsh Hokkaido winters. Morihei seemed to thrive under the severe conditions of this isolated region. He served as a leader to his compatriots from Tanabe and helped new families to get established. He even participated in local politics by serving a term as a county councilman. But the most significant event during these years, at least in terms of the development of aikido, was Morihei’s meeting with an eccentric, but highly skilled jujutsu teacher, named Sokaku Takeda.

Takeda had some years earlier taken up residence in Hokkaido, where he frequently traveled about conducting jujutsu seminars. Morihei first met Sokaku in February 1915 in the town of Engaru. Although the thirty-two-year-old Ueshiba was already quite skilled as a martial artist, he was no match for Takeda, who was then in his prime. The future founder of aikido was fascinated by the powerful and intricate techniques of Sokaku’s art, known as Daito-ryu jujutsu. Morihei devoted a great deal of time and resources to learning Daito-ryu and even invited Sokaku to live with him so he could receive personal instruction. Ueshiba spent a large amount of money to study under Takeda and was assisted by his father who provided funds to allow Morihei to meet expenses.

Morihei became one of Sokaku’s top students and sometimes accompanied him on teaching tours around the island. During his stay in Hokkaido, Ueshiba received a first-level transmission scroll from Takeda and gained considerable skill in the art. The Daito-ryu curriculum he studied consisted of several hundred jujutsu techniques with complex maneuvers, joint-locks, and pins. Takeda also demonstrated an ability called “aiki,” in which he controlled the mind of the attacker, thus neutralizing his aggression. He was also an expert in the use of the sword, shuriken, and iron-fan, among other weapons. The techniques of Takeda’s jujutsu would later form the basis for virtually all aikido movements and its contribution to Morihei’s art cannot be overstated.

Morihei’s life in Shirataki and his training in Daito-ryu came to an abrupt end in December 1919 when he received a telegram with the news that his father, Yoroku, was gravely ill. He was requested to return to Tanabe immediately. Morihei hastily set his affairs in order and left his modest Shirataki home and all its furnishings to Sokaku. He departed, never to return, and rushed to his dying father’s side.

On the long journey back to Tanabe, Morihei happened to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler who spoke enthusiastically of the healing powers of an extraordinary religious leader named Onisaburo Deguchi. Swayed by a desire to meet Onisaburo to have him pray for the recovery of his father, Morihei impetuously detoured to a small town called Ayabe, the center of the Omoto religion, located near Kyoto. The charismatic Onisaburo left a lasting impression on Morihei, who ended up spending several days in Ayabe before resuming his journey to Tanabe.

Yoroku had already passed away when Morihei finally reached home. Morihei was psychologically shattered by the death of his beloved father and struggled to come to terms with his loss. His behavior in the months following his father’s death was abnormal and a cause for concern among his family and friends. A few months later, unable to forget his encounter with Onisaburo Deguchi, Morihei made the decision to relocate to Ayabe to seek inner peace in an ascetic life within the Omoto precincts.

Ueshiba began life anew in the community of Omoto believers with his wife, Hatsu, and eight-year-old daughter, Matsuko. He enthusiastically embraced the simple life of the sect members and soon became part of Onisaburo’s inner circle of supporters. Deguchi was impressed with Morihei’s martial arts skills and encouraged him to instruct interested Omoto believers. This led to the opening of the “Ueshiba Private School” in his home, where Morihei taught Daito-ryu jujutsu.

In 1922, Morihei received a visit from his teacher Sokaku Takeda, who arrived with his family and stayed for nearly six months. Onisaburo took an instant dislike to the eccentric and suspicious Takeda, and Morihei was placed in an uncomfortable position between the two. Although Takeda’s character was scarcely compatible with the community of religious believers, he did teach many members of the sect in Ueshiba’s home and awarded formal teaching certification to Morihei at the end of his stay.

Onisaburo Deguchi had many grandiose schemes in his efforts to expand the influence of the Omoto religion. One of the most extraordinary was a plan to establish a utopian religious nation in Mongolia. Accompanied by a small group of close companions that included Ueshiba, Onisaburo set out for the continent in February 1924. To accomplish his goal, Onisaburo cast his lot with a rebel military commander active in the region. This turned out to be an ill-fated decision as he and his Japanese cohorts were soon captured and arrested by the Chinese authorities. All members of Onisaburo’s party were sentenced to death and only survived when the Japanese consulate miraculously intervened at the last moment. Several photos of Deguchi and his companions during their detention survive as a testimony to their harrowing experience.

After his return to Japan, Morihei settled back into life in Ayabe. His Daito-ryu students included a number of naval officers, the most prominent of whom was Admiral Seikyo Asano, also a devout Omoto believer, and gradually word of Morihei’s martial arts prowess began to spread. Asano spoke highly of Ueshiba to his navy colleagues and encouraged another Admiral, Isamu Takeshita, to make a special trip to Ayabe to observe Morihei’s art. Takeshita was extremely impressed and soon arrangements were made for Morihei to conduct demonstrations and seminars in Tokyo. Ueshiba’s patrons also included retired admiral and two-time prime minister Gombei Yamamoto.

Ueshiba’s connection with the Omoto religion proved a liability from the standpoint of many of his prominent supporters, including Takeshita. Nonetheless, his exceptional jujutsu skills and charisma made him a popular instructor among the Tokyo military and political elite and he made several trips to the capital between 1925 and 1927. Finally, after discussing the situation with Onisaburo, and with the latter’s approval, Ueshiba decided to move his family to Tokyo to pursue teaching full time.

In the first years after establishing himself in Tokyo, Ueshiba taught in the private residences of several of his patrons. His students consisted mainly of persons of high social standing-military officers, politicians, and members of the business elite. Admiral Takeshita, who was a devotee of the martial arts and at one time served as the president of the Sumo Association, was a particularly active supporter. Takeshita studied Daito-ryu for more than ten years and held classes in his own home. He went to great lengths to introduce Ueshiba and his art in the appropriate social circles and it is unlikely that the founder of aikido would have succeeded to the extent he did in Tokyo without the Admiral’s backing.

Ueshiba’s art, which went under several different names during the early Tokyo years, gradually grew in popularity. Finally, in 1931 through the efforts of Takeshita and others, sufficient funds were collected to open a permanent training facility, the Kobukan Dojo. It was situated in Shinjuku, a bustling commercial district of Tokyo, on the same site as the present Aikikai world headquarters. Among Ueshiba’s live-in disciples and students during the Kobukan period were such well-known practitioners as Yoichiro Inoue, Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, Tsutomu Yukawa, Shigemi Yonekawa, Rinjiro Shirata, and Gozo Shioda.

As a result of his many contacts with naval and military officers, Ueshiba was engaged to provide martial arts instruction at various military institutes such as the Toyama school for army officers, the so-called “Nakano Spy School,” the Naval Academy, as well as other locations. Actual instruction was often delegated to senior students from the Kobukan as the demands on Ueshiba’s schedule increased.

For a part of this period Ueshiba actively taught the techniques of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, as Takeda’s art was sometimes referred to, and he awarded transmission scrolls bearing the name of this school. However, Morihei’s relationship with the demanding Takeda had become strained and he gradually distanced himself from his former teacher. He seems to have had no further direct contact with Takeda after about 1935, although the techniques of Daito-ryu in modified form still constituted the majority of Ueshiba’s technical repertoire. The name most frequently used to refer to his art during the prewar years was “aiki budo.”

During all of this time Ueshiba maintained close ties with the Omoto religion and Onisaburo. In fact, the Omoto’s “Society for the Promotion of Martial Arts,” established under the auspices of the sect at Onisaburo’s instigation, was specifically created to promote Morihei’s martial arts activities. Branch schools were set up all over Japan and training sessions were held, usually in conjunction with Omoto chapters. This organization operated between 1931 and the end of 1935 when the Omoto church was brutally suppressed by the Japanese military government.

By the late 1930s, Japan’s military had become heavily involved in China and many parts of Southeast Asia. Most of Ueshiba’s finest young instructors and students were conscripted into service. This depleted the ranks of the Kobukan Dojo and by the time the Pacific War had begun there was little activity at the dojo. In 1942, after falling ill with a serious intestinal disorder, Ueshiba retired to the village of Iwama in Ibaragi Prefecture where he had purchased land some years earlier. Away from the frenzied life in war-torn Tokyo, he engaged in farming, training, and meditation.

These years in Iwama proved critical to the development of modern aikido. Free as never before to pursue his budo studies with full concentration, Morihei immersed himself in intensive training and prayer in an effort to further perfect a martial art dedicated to achieving the peaceful resolution of conflict.

By the time the war ended, many Japanese were poverty stricken and spent most of their energy on survival and securing food. The founder had few students in Iwama at this time, since his prewar disciples had been scattered all over Southeast Asia and many were still to be repatriated. In the summer of 1946, a young man employed by Japan National Railways quietly enrolled in Ueshiba’s dojo. Morihiro Saito showed no particular promise or exceptional ability, but he was destined to become one of the founder’s closest students and, in many regards, his technical successor.

After spending several years in seclusion at Iwama, the founder began a serious study of the sword and staff-known in aikido as “aiki ken” and “aiki jo.” He regarded an understanding of the use of these weapons as fundamental to the proper execution of open-handed techniques. In fact, Ueshiba’s conception of the aikido curriculum was that of a comprehensive system that included training both with and without weapons. For most of this period, young Saito was Ueshiba’s training partner, and he was exposed to many techniques and insights which the founder did not generally teach.

During this phase of his life in Iwama, the founder also formulated the concept of Takemusu Aiki, that is, the spontaneous execution of infinite techniques in a manner completely appropriate to the specific circumstance.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Ueshiba ventured out more frequently from his secluded country home in Iwama. He would spend several days in Tokyo, then return to Iwama, or visit friends and students in places such as Osaka and Wakayama. He received many invitations and it was difficult to predict where he would be from one day to the next or when he would stop at the Aikikai headquarters in Shinjuku to conduct a class.

Many students who began training after the war and who actually had an opportunity to see the founder teach and demonstrate were inspired by his energetic yet graceful movements, as well as by his ethical views on martial arts. Ueshiba was by nature an optimistic man and would often show a light-hearted side when teaching or demonstrating. At other times, especially when talking about the deeper meaning of aikido both in class and more informal settings, the contemplative side of his nature would be revealed. Always spontaneous, the founder would sometimes become angry if he saw students engage in dangerous practice or fail to display a sufficiently serious attitude while training. All of these facets of his character left lasting impressions on those with whom he came into contact.

In his later years, as his health began to gradually decline, Ueshiba spent much of his time in Tokyo. No longer able to move as quickly or freely as he could when he was younger, the founder’s aikido underwent a transformation. Many of his techniques became abbreviated and he would throw his young and powerful students with a rapid gesture, or the flick of a hand, sometimes without even touching his partner. Because this phase of Ueshiba’s life corresponded with the first stage of aikido’s growth internationally, the image of a little old man with a white beard waving his hand in front of a charging attacker dominates in the minds of many students and teachers of the art. The founder’s aikido in the last years of his life can be understood as a natural development of his previous experience, but as Ueshiba himself was fond of pointing out, his abilities at this stage were the product of more than sixty years of training. The wide exposure he received through his public demonstrations and the later availability of films has spawned many imitators.

The founder of aikido breathed his last on April 26, 1969, his death the result of liver cancer. He was succeeded by his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, who assumed the title of “Second Doshu.” The Aikikai Foundation, the postwar continuation of Ueshiba’s Kobukai Foundation, today enjoys a preeminent position in the world of aikido. More than half of the national and regional aikido organizations maintain affiliations with the Tokyo-based headquarters, which operates abroad as the International Aikido Federation.

Other forms of aikido are also practiced today. Yoshinkan Aikido, established by Gozo Shioda, emphasizes a strong, prewar style of the art; Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, created by Koichi Tohei, is a health system with aikido techniques that stresses the concept of ki; Tomiki Aikido, formulated by Kenji Tomiki, incorporates a form of competition; and Yoseikan Aikido, founded by Minoru Mochizuki, is a comprehensive system blending elements of aikido, judo, karate, and kenjutsu.

The future of aikido looks bright as the art enters its maturity. There are many instructors both in Japan and abroad with more than thirty years of teaching and training experience. Literally hundreds of books have been published on the art in scores of languages and many creative applications of aikido have been used in law enforcement, psychology, physical therapy, and numerous other fields.