Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba (1921-1999): An Obituary
Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Aikido Doshu, passed away on Monday, 4 January, 1999, at the age of 77. The cause of death was respiratory failure. The otsuya ceremony (watching with the body) was held at the Hombu Dojo, Tokyo, on Friday, 6 January, and was followed a day later by a funeral ceremony, also held at the Hombu Dojo. Both ceremonies were attended by well over 1,000 people, from Japan and the rest of the world. There was a similar large attendance at the Farewell Ceremony, which took place on 17 January at the Aoyama Funeral Hall in Tokyo.
A Life Dedicated to Aikido
Kisshomaru Ueshiba Kisshomaru Ueshiba was born at Ayabe on 27 June, 1921, the third son of Morihei Ueshiba and his wife Hatsu. Kisshomaru attended school in Tokyo and graduated from the Faculty of Politics and Economics at the prestigious Waseda University. From an early age Kisshomaru began to practise aikido and around 1941 he was designated as the successor to the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Then aged around 20, he became the nucleus of the young instructors at the Hombu Dojo and with colleagues such as Kisaburo Osawa, Kisshomaru pushed forward the practice of the martial art developed by his father, which, by 1942, had been designated as ‘Aikido’. During these war years, the Aiki Shrine was established in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture, and with it the Iwama Dojo. The Founder spent much of his time in Iwama, leaving his son to look after things in Tokyo.
In 1947 the Aikikai Foundation was established and a year later was officially recognised by the Education Ministry of Japan. Kisshomaru Ueshiba became General Director of the Hombu Dojo and established the organisational structure which still exists today. Regular practice was resumed at the Hombu Dojo in 1949 and it fell to Kisshomaru also to organise this. The postwar years saw the frenetic development of aikido both in Japan and overseas and this was also something for which Kisshomaru Ueshiba was largely responsible. Aikido clubs were created in cities, townships, companies and universities all over Japan. In 1958 Seigo Yamaguchi Shihan went to Burma to teach aikido there and he was followed overseas by other shihans, such as Hiroshi Tada, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Katsuaki Asai, Kazuo Chiba and Seiichi Sugano, who taught aikido as resident instructors in Europe, America and Australia. Although they were direct disciples of O Sensei, all these instructors answered primarily to Kisshomaru Ueshiba.
On April 26, 1969, the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, passed away and Kisshomaru Ueshiba became the second Aikido Doshu. As well as leading the regular instruction at the Hombu Dojo, Kisshomaru Ueshiba had begun visiting the fledgling overseas aikido organisations as early as 1963, with a visit to the USA and Hawaii. Thereafter, as the new Doshu, he intensified the pace of visits at home and overseas. The All-Japan Annual Demonstration had become a regular feature of the Japanese aikido calendar and the network of regional student federations, each with their own annual demonstration, had been completed in 1972, with the inauguration of the Chugoku-Shikoku federation.
The overseas expansion of aikido reached an important landmark with the creation of the International Aikido Federation in 1975. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba became the first Life-President of the Federation. The inaugural Congress of the I.A.F. was held in 1976 in Tokyo.
In addition to the instructional visits and demonstrations in Japan and the rest of the world, Ueshiba Doshu still found the time to write about aikido. The first book, called simply Aikido in English, was published in 1957 and I believe this is still in print. Aikido was followed by about a dozen more, including a two-volume biography of his father and a most elegantly produced and written work entitled Aikido Shintei (Aikido in its Essence).
In 1987, in recognition of his efforts to spread aikido, Doshu received the Blue Ribbon Medal from the Japanese government. This honour was the first of many to be bestowed by governments and institutions at home and abroad, culminating in 1994 with a visit to Pope John Paul II in Rome and the bestowal of the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure a year later.
By 1998, Doshu, who was then in his mid-seventies, was becoming increasingly frail and left much of the responsibilities for running the Hombu Dojo and the Aikikai to his son Moriteru, who had become General Director of the Hombu Dojo in 1986. Moriteru Ueshiba followed in his father’s footsteps undertook the tasks of instruction at the Hombu and the ambassadorial visits to aikido organisations in Japan and overseas. He also eventually succeeded his father as Chairman of the Aikikai. Ueshiba Doshu nevertheless summoned up the energy to be present at the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration in May 1998 and also to attend the I.A.F. 1998 Directing Committee Meeting, where, as President, he gave the opening & closing speeches and also participated in some of the discussions.
Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba entered a Tokyo hospital in December, 1998. Unfortunately, owing to his rapidly declining health, this was to prove the last of a number of such extended periods. Kagami-biraki was approaching and everybody who knew that Doshu had been hospitalised was hoping against hope that he would summon yet more of his extraordinary energy and pull through once more, but this was not to be. He passed away quietly at about 5.30 pm on January 4.
Aikido as an international family was the keynote of the ceremony which took place at Aoyama Funeral Hall on January 17, 1999, which was attended by many participants from overseas. The ceremony was similar to the actual funeral ceremony held on January 7. Priests chanted prayers and also a short biography of Doshu and then all the participants went up to the kamiza, where Doshu’s photograph and medals were displayed. We were given sprigs of sakaki leaves to present as tamakushi. (Sakaki is the cleyera ochnacea plant, which plays a central role in ancient Japanese mythology. It was used to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu out of the cave in the Kojiki. The sacred tree is decked with paper and given to the shinto deities as a tamakushi or sacred offering.) After this the participants gave a short greeting to Doshu’s wife and family as they filed out of the hall. The ceremony was a very simple and moving commemoration of a life totally dedicated to aikido.
Some Personal Recollections
I first met Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in April 1974, when he visited the United States. I was a student at Harvard University and practised aikido at the Boston dojo. One evening I went to the dojo, to be told that a very special event was to take place. I was still a beginner and had never met any high-ranking instructors apart from Mitsunari Kanai, the head of the Boston dojo and my own teacher, let alone the person in charge of the whole martial art and its organisation.
Doshu gave a class and the one thing I remember about his aikido was the enormous circular movements and the constantly airborne ukes. After this experience I met other high-ranking shihans like Osawa Kisaburo, who at that time was the General Director of the Hombu Dojo. I did not meet Doshu again until 1980, in Japan. I had come to live in Japan as an instructor at Hiroshima University and duly paid my first visit to the Hombu. I was taken to meet Doshu at his house, right next to the Hombu Dojo. At this time I could not speak Japanese and so the conversation had to be translated. Doshu was very kind and courteous and encouraged me to practise hard, but also to make my Japanese students study hard. He was very candid about the fact that when he had been a student at Waseda, he had not studied very much at all.
I have some vivid memories of Doshu’s practice. I do not remember exactly when it was, but on one occasion I was practising at the Hombu. The technique was nikkyo and suddenly there was Doshu right in front of me. I was clearly not doing the technique correctly and he motioned me to attack him. I was drawn into the movement and the technique was applied very slowly, delicately and firmly - exactly in the required spot. No words, no gestures, just a slight bow afterwards and a smile. I remember the precision of his technique and thought at the time that if Doshu had not begun aikido, he should have become a surgeon. On another occasion, the technique was suwari-waza-kokyu-ho. Again, Doshu approached and saw that something was wrong. I was invited to grasp his wrists and again, the slow, delicate, firm, indeed inexorable, movement, totally unforced and totally effective. I think this was one of the Friday evening practices at the Hombu. Doshu usually taught the Friday evening class and many Hombu shihans took this class. On one occasion I had Fujita Sensei as my partner. Practice with Fujita Sensei was and is always invigorating and on this occasion I distinctly remember Doshu coming and watching our practice. He stood, pondered for a few minutes and then wandered off with a slight smile.
In 1984, I had the pleasure of meeting Doshu again. This occasion was an I.A.F. meeting and I was told to appear at the Hombu Dojo at 9 o’clock in the morning. I was reminded by Moriteru Ueshiba to be sure to wear a formal suit and to bring some Hiroshima University meishi (business cards). When I arrived at the Hombu I was met by Osawa Sensei and told that I had to accompany Doshu on a formal visit to an extremely important person (whose name I will not disclose). A little later Doshu appeared and he, Mr Veneri (the newly-elected I.A.F. Chairman) and myself got into a car. We set off and were driving near the Japanese government’s state guest house, when I realised with a shock that I had left my wallet, containing money, alien registration card etc, at the Hombu. At that time the President of Korea was on a controversial state visit to Japan and was staying at the guest house. The police were out in force conducting random checks. In Japan it is a serious offence for foreign residents not to be in possession of the alien registration card and I was in a silent panic that the police would stop us, for they seemed to be flagging down an awful lot of cars. I was wondering whether and how Doshu would deal with the situation of being in a car with two foreign criminals (for Mr Veneri whispered that he also had forgotten his passport), but, luckily we were not stopped. Not a word was spoken but the relief was almost tangible. I am sure that Doshu sensed that something was amiss.
We were driven to the centre of Tokyo, but arrived too early for our appointment. We got out of the car and Doshu led us down some steps to a self-service coffee shop. He motioned us to sit down and then, to our astonishment, he took a tray and waited his turn at the counter. (I could imagine several Hombu assistants leaping forward at this point, but I think Doshu was at that moment very happy to be on his own.) He came back to table with three cups of coffee. He sat down and we had a conversation, language difficulties notwithstanding. We talked about sumo and Doshu admitted that he liked sumo very much. He was a fan of Chiyonofuji, who at that time was a famous sumo champion. Chiyonofuji was smaller than average and always had to use his abundant skill to overcome much heavier opponents. For this reason, he had shown some interest in aikido. I was very charmed at being able to talk to Doshu in such an informal setting. Because of his high office Doshu was usually surrounded by a phalanx of attendants and meetings were always rather stiff and formal. On this occasion we met Doshu as Kisshomaru Sensei and not as Doshu.
As an I.A.F. official, I met Doshu on many occasions after that and he was very happy that we were able to converse in Japanese. He always remembered me and talked about aikido friends we both knew. One of his great anxieties was the international development of aikido which he had done so much to promote, and on several occasions Doshu charged me with keeping the I.A.F. to the true Way, as taught by the Founder. Although the I.A.F. is a large organisation and I am sure that he did not intend to single me out alone, I felt this keenly, almost as a personal responsibility which he gave me, and one which it will be very difficult to discharge. I think he deeply felt the divisions and discord within the aikido world and grieved very much at the split between himself and Koichi Tohei, for example.
Aikido tends to be presented as a seamless garment, but the reality is somewhat different. Divisions have been endemic in the martial arts and the splits within aikido began to appear even in O Sensei’s own lifetime. However, I think that Doshu felt that discord somehow sullied the treasure which he had received from O Sensei and which he had made it his life’s work to pass on.
My last meeting with Doshu was in the summer of 1998 in Tokyo. We had an I.A.F. meeting and I went to pay a brief visit to his house. He invited me to sit down and wanted to have a conversation. Unfortunately time was short and it was very brief. When we finished, he thanked me for taking the time to travel “all the way” from Hiroshima to Tokyo.
Since I began to practise aikido around 1970, I never met O Sensei and I sometimes envy those aikido instructors and practitioners who knew him personally. Of course, Morihei Ueshiba will always be remembered as the Founder of the art, but I think that his son Kisshomaru will also be remembered as the person who transformed aikido into something which is at the same time a traditional martial art and also available for everybody, whether Japanese or foreign. He had the awesome responsibility of following in the footsteps of a genius: of inheriting from his father a precious gift and for developing and passing on this gift to others. I think that, more than any other person, Kisshomaru Ueshiba has been responsible for the vast international spread of aikido, for enabling people like myself - a student in England in the 1960s when I first heard about aikido, to practise the art and become a member of a huge international family. Of course, there are dangers in the rapid international expansion of an art which is steeped in Japanese tradition. I am sure that Kisshomaru Sensei was aware of the dangers and took a calculated, but enlightened, risk.