“His sword raised to the attack,
The enemy flies at the man
he thinks before him.
But from the very start
I was standing behind him.”
1883 - 1969
Morihei Ueshiba Aiki Jutsu
Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba was born in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan on December 14, 1883. During his childhood, the Ueshiba family lived in Maizuru, Kyoto. The only son of Yoroku and Yuki Ueshiba’s five children, Morihei was raised in a somewhat privileged setting. His father was a wealthy landowner who also traded in lumber and fishing and was politically active. Ueshiba was a rather weak, sickly child and bookish in his inclinations. At a young age his father encouraged him to take up sumo wrestling and swimming and entertained him with stories of his great-grandfather Kichiemon who was considered a very strong samurai in his era. The need for such strength was further emphasized when the young Ueshiba witnessed his father being attacked by followers of a competing politician. He set out to make himself strong so that he could take revenge. He devoted himself to hard physical conditioning and eventually to the practice of martial arts, receiving certificates of mastery in several styles of jujitsu, fencing, and spear fighting.
Did you discover aikido while you were learning Daito-ryu under Sokaku Takeda?
“No. It would be more accurate to say that Takeda Sensei opened my eyes to budo.”
In spite of his impressive physical and martial capabilities, however, he felt very dissatisfied. He began delving into religions in hopes of finding a deeper significance to life, all the while continuing to pursue his studies of budo, or the martial arts. By combining his martial training with his religious and political ideologies, he created the modern martial art of aikido. Ueshiba decided on the name “aikido” in 1942 (before that he called his martial art “aikibudo”and “aikinomichi”).
On the technical side, aikido is rooted in several styles of jujitsu (from which modern judo is also derived), in particular daitoryu-(aiki) jujitsu, as well as sword and spear fighting arts. Oversimplifying somewhat, we may say that aikido takes the joint locks and throws from jujitsu and combines them with the body movements of sword and spear fighting. However, we must also realize that many aikido techniques are the result of Master Ueshiba‘s own innovation.
The technical curriculum of aikido was undoubtedly most greatly influenced by the teachings of Takeda Sokaku and his system of aiki-jūjutsu called Daitō-ryū. Although disputed by some, the ledger books of Takeda clearly show that Ueshiba spent a great deal of time training in Daitō-ryū between 1915 and 1937. He received the majority of the important scrolls awarded by Takeda at this time including the Hiden Mokuroko, the Hiden Ogi and the Goshin‘yo te. Ueshiba received his kyoju dairi certificate, or teaching license, for the system from Takeda in 1922. Takeda had not yet implemented a menkyo license, or highest level of achievement license, into his system at this time. He also received a Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryū sword transmission scroll from Takeda in 1922 in Ayabe. Ueshiba then became a representative of Daitō-ryū, toured with Takeda as a teaching assistant and taught the system to others under the Daitō-ryū name.
The basic techniques of aikido seem to have their basis in teachings from various points in the Daitō-ryū curriculum. A source of confusion is the different names used for these techniques in aikido and in the Daitō-ryū system. In part this is because Takeda Tokimune added much of the nomenclature after the period in which Ueshiba studied. In addition the names ikkajo, nikkajo, sankajo used in both Daitō-ryū and the early years of aikido, latter supplanted by terms such as ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, were really generic names translating to “first teaching”, “second teaching”, and so on. In Daitō-ryū these usually refer to groupings of techniques while in aikido they usually refer to specific techniques and joint manipulations.
On the religious side, Ueshiba was a devotee of one of Japan’s so-called “new religions”, Omotokyo. Omotokyo was (and is) part neo-Shintoism, and part socio-political idealism. One goal of Omotokyo has been the unification of all humanity in a single “heavenly kingdom on earth” where all religions would be united under the banner of Omotokyo. It is impossible sufficiently to understand many of O-sensei‘s writings and sayings without keeping the influence of Omotokyo firmly in min
Despite what many people think or claim, there is no unified philosophy of aikido. What there is, instead, is a disorganized and only partially coherent collection of religious, ethical, and metaphysical beliefs which are only more or less shared by aikidoka, and which are either transmitted by word of mouth or found in scattered publications about aikido.
“Aikido is not a way to fight with or defeat enemies; it is a way to reconcile the world and make all human beings one family.”
“The essence of aikido is the cultivation of ki [a vital force, internal power, mental/spiritual energy].”
“The secret of aikido is to become one with the universe.”
“Aikido is primarily a way to achieve physical and psychological self-mastery.”
“The body is the concrete unification of the physical and spiritual created by the universe.” And so forth.
At the core of almost all philosophical interpretations of aikido, however, we may identify at least two fundamental threads:
(1) A commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict whenever possible.
(2) A commitment to self-improvement through aikido training.
In the earlier years of his teaching, from the 1920s to the mid 1930s, Ueshiba taught the aiki-jūjutsu system he had earned a license in from Takeda Sokaku. His early students’ documents bear the term aiki-jūjutsu. Indeed, Ueshiba trained one of the future highest grade earners in Daitō-ryū, Takuma Hisa, in the art before Takeda took charge of Hisa’s training.
The early form of training under Ueshiba was characterized by the ample use of strikes to vital points (atemi), a larger total curriculum, a greater use of weapons, and a more linear approach to technique than would be found in later forms of aikido. These methods are preserved in the teachings of his early students Kenji Tomiki (who founded the Shodokan Aikido sometimes called Tomiki-ryū), Noriaki Inoue (who founded Shin’ei Taido), Minoru Mochizuki (who founded Yoseikan Budo), Gozo Shioda (who founded Yoshinkan Aikido) and Morihiro Saito (who preserved his early form of aikido under the Aikikai umbrella sometimes referred to as Iwama-ryū). Many of these styles are considered “pre-war styles”, although some of the teachers continued to have contact and influence from Ueshiba in the years after the Second World War.
Later, as Ueshiba seemed to slowly grow away from Takeda, he began to implement more changes into the art. These changes are reflected in the differing names with which he referred to his art, first as aiki-jūjutsu, then Ueshiba-ryū, Asahi-ryū, aiki budō, and finally aikido.
As Ueshiba grew older, more skilled, and more spiritual in his outlook, his art also changed and became softer and more circular. Striking techniques became less important and the formal curriculum became simpler. In his own expression of the art there was a greater emphasis on what is referred to as kokyū-nage, or “breath throws” which are soft and blending, utilizing the opponent‘s movement in order to throw them. Many of these techniques are rooted in the aiki-no-jutsu portions of the Daitō-ryū curriculum rather than the more direct jujutsu style joint-locking techniques.
Onisaburo Deguchi‘s spiritual influence
After Ueshiba left Hokkaidō he came under the influence of Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual leader of the Ōmoto-kyō religion in Ayabe. In addition to the effect on his spiritual growth, this connection was to have a major effect in introducing Ueshiba to various elite political circles as a martial artist. The Ueshiba Dojo in Ayabe was used to train members of the Ōmoto-kyō sect. He was involved in the first Ōmoto-kyō Incident, an ill-fated attempt to found a utopian colony in Mongolia. Although Ueshiba eventually distanced himself from both these teachers, their effect on him and his art cannot be overstated.
The real birth of Aikido came as the result of three instances of spiritual awakening that Ueshiba experienced. The first happened in 1925, after Ueshiba had defeated a naval officer‘s bokken (wooden katana) attacks unarmed and without hurting the officer. Ueshiba then walked to his garden and had a spiritual awakening.
“...I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe.
At that moment I was enlightened: the source of budo is God’s love - the spirit of loving protection for all beings... Budo is not the felling of an opponent by force; nor is it a tool to lead the world to destruction with arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.”
His second experience occurred in 1940 when, “Around 2am as I was performing misogi, I suddenly forgot all the martial techniques I had ever learned. The techniques of my teachers appeared completely new. Now they were vehicles for the cultivation of life, knowledge, and virtue, not devices to throw people with.”
His third experience was in 1942 during the worst fighting of WWII, Ueshiba had a vision of the “Great Spirit of Peace”
“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter - it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”
In 1927, Ueshiba moved to Tokyo where he founded his first dojo, which still exists today under the name Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Between 1940 and 1942 he made several visits to Manchukuo (Japanese occupied Manchuria) to instruct his martial art. In 1942 he left Tokyo and moved to Iwama in the Ibaraki Prefecture where the term “aikido” was first used as a name for his art. Here he founded the Aiki Shuren Dojo, also known as the Iwama dojo. During all this time he traveled extensively in Japan, particularly in the Kansai region teaching his aikido.
Morihei Ueshiba died on April 26, 1969.
Ueshiba was posthumously awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure.
Ueshiba is remembered by his pupils as a master of the martial arts whose studies transcended technical matters to include a moral and philosophical view of the world based around harmony in the face of aggression. The many branches of aikido in existence today virtually all trace their lineage back to him.
Many stories exist about Ueshiba’s martial skill. It is said for example that he was able to escape a tight ring of students that surrounded him with swords and attacked simultaneously. Many of these students would later say they had not even seen him go by them. Another story is that he was able to knock someone off their feet with the force of his kiai.
There is debate in the aikido world over some of these sensational stories; some dismiss them as myth generated around a genuinely brilliant but human martial artist, whereas others believe that Morihei Ueshiba truly achieved such feats.
To this day, Ōmoto-kyō priests oversee a ceremony in Ueshiba’s honor every April 29th at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama.
Over the years, Ueshiba trained a large number of students, many of whom have grown into great teachers in their own right. Some of them were uchideshi, or live-in students.