Did Kisshomaru “Invent” Morihei’s Aikido World Harmony Dream?


Even though the Aikido community at large is convinced that the genesis of Aikido philosophy and its peaceful message sits entirely on Morihei Ueshiba’s capable lap, it would appear that we also have a lot to thank Doshu Kisshomaru for having it…

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

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As it often happens, people tend to consider disciplines as finite products, often forgetting the long struggle experienced by their initiators to get to where – generations later – we find the product of that effort.

Morihei’s Journey

Where did Morihei Ueshiba’s effort start, when his story as a budoka took off in 1901, at the time where he moved from Tanabe to Tokyo and started up a small stationery shop? Even though he lasted in the capital for less than a year – the 18 years old contracted beri-beri and had to go back to Tanabe to recover – Morihei’s sojourn in Tokyo offered him the opportunity to start his first martial training in Shinyo Tenjin-Ryu Jujutsu and to train a little in the Yagyu Shinkage-Ryu Jujutsu Dojo. When in Tanabe, he did Judo for a few months under a junior Judo teacher sent by Kodokan under Morihei’s father request.

Ueshiba Morihei 1903
Morihei Ueshiba around 1903, while serving in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

He then joined the army, where he underwent basic training. That included juken (bayonet) instruction, just like any soldier in his time. He fought in the Russo-Japanese war from in 1902-03 and was then sent to Manchuria in 1905. Discharged by the army in 1907, he embarked in the enterprise of establishing a pioneer colony in Shirataki, Hokkaido, where he transferred with colonists from Tanabe thanks the financial support from his father, Yoroku Ueshiba, a wealthy gentleman farmer and a local politician.

It was in Hokkaido that Ueshiba met Sokaku Takeda and Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu. It is not misleading to say that, at that stage, even though he was already a skilled fighter, Morihei was still trying to find his feet both as a human being and a martial artist. The importance of his encounter with Takeda can never be emphasised enough: Takeda was Ueshiba’s maker, both in the invaluable teachings he was able to pass onto him and in the life example of what Morihei wanted not to be. Sokaku was an old-school man, his ways were steeped in 19th-century culture and way of life; he intrinsically considered and treated anybody as an enemy and actually killed an untold number of people while duelling around the country.

Morihei was instead the product of an age of changing cultures: he had much of Takeda’s ways, but he was never like him and never happy to be just like him. He wanted more, as a young man he already aspired to build a better place to live in with his relatives and followers – as the Shirataki adventure demonstrates and the later Mongolian expedition with Onisaburo Deguchi confirms. His frequentations of Omoto-Kyo are further testimony of spiritual depth.

Morihei had been brought up in the old culture, however, and that never failed to resurface in the course of his entire life. For example, when he started teaching Daito-Ryu Aikijutsu – and after that what at the time he would call Aiki-Budo –  although he didn’t require a blood oath (seppan) from his students, to be accepted in the dojo they had to provide two recommendations from someone relevant or important. Ueshiba was interested in preserving transmission secrecy, just like in the old Koryu traditions. It is quite clear that at the time he had no inclination whatsoever to utilise his art for moral or pedagogical purposes and to spread it outside of a clearly defined golden circle. He taught a fighting art for initiated people and thought of himself as a master fighter, not as a philosopher.

ueshiba Ayabe 1933
Morihei Ueshiba in Ayabe (1933)

His reputation as a formidable sensei filled his dojo with influential people and made him engage with high-calibre players of contemporary Japan. His desire to do something to improve the world manifested again and made him get involved with the right-wing political nationalist movement. Their program was to improve Imperial Japan’s international status and bring about universal peace and order – the Japanese way. This cultural stance is the one that ultimately threw Japan in a terrible war. Ueshiba was in the thick of it, and eventually, he realised the errors of his way.

In 1942 Morihei was sick and disillusioned about many things he had believed in. The horrors of WWII kept piling up around him and made him experience a profound life crisis. Around 1935 Ueshiba had purchased land and a small farm in Iwama, in the Ibaraki Prefecture [1], and this is where he did retire to reconsider his life and his martial training. However, pivoting didn’t happen overnight. In his 1957 interview [2], Ueshiba himself sheds some light on the above:
Since I myself taught martial arts to be used for the purpose of killing others to soldiers during the War, I became deeply troubled after the conflict ended. This motivated me to discover the true spirit of Aikido seven years ago, at which time I came upon the idea of building a heaven on earth.

Having realised to be a part of the problem made him greatly suffer. He retired from public teaching and left honours and titles and fixed his abode in Iwama, where he dedicated himself to growing rice and raising silkworms, probably aided by a small number of uchi-deshi and soto-deshi. His altered state didn’t go away in a bit: his own words reveal us that it took him about 8 years to come out of his existential crisis and find a new way ahead for himself and for his martial training.

In a 1974 interview [3], Kenji Tomiki, one of Ueshiba’s main prewar students, significantly calls this new way a “change of heart”, and points out how this corresponded to taking finally and completely distance from Sokaku Takeda’s shadow:

“(…) We can say there was a great change based on a “change of heart” (kokoro no tenkan). And that is where we find the relationship between the character of Sokaku Takeda Sensei and Ueshiba Sensei. This Takeda Sensei was a martial artist in the old sense: when he saw a person he saw an enemy. If I were to try to give an example I would tell you that if a person happened to come to visit him he would “greet” them by instantly grabbing the steel chopsticks from the brazier and shouting, “Who is there?” He would storm out to the entry hall. He was like someone from the “Age of the Warring Countries” (Sengoku Jidai, 1482-1558), who saw his seven proverbial “enemies” in every group of people. He was a man of deep distrust, whose personality never revealed the slightest suki, or vulnerable point. If you happened to ask even a small question he would bellow, “Dare you doubt my technique, kid!” That’s how violent his temperament was!”

Empty-hand techniques in Aikido come from armed techniques, as a skilled observer can easily find out. Armed techniques were a thing of the past, devised to kill an enemy, and no amount of literature can change that. In Iwama, over the years, Ueshiba abandoned a vision of martial arts as aiuchi, or mutual strikingwhere one or both duellists could end up dead (a vision he had mastered), and like Yamaoka Tesshu before him, he embraced ainuke, a martial and philosophical concept where confrontations end without anyone – attacker or defender – getting hurt. This is the stepping stone of his Budo of Love: Aikido philosophy started to take shape.

Ueshiba Morihei - Ueshiba Kisshomaru 01

Kisshomaru’s Role

In a 2000 interview [4], Kazuo Chiba sensei, uchi-deshi at the Hombu Dojo from 1958, when asked by the interviewer to offer his opinion on Doshu Kisshomaru’s contribution to Aikido responded:
I think the most valuable work he did was the popularization of Aikido throughout the world through disciples he cultivated. To begin with, this was against O-Sensei’s will. He finally accepted Kisshomaru Sensei’s wish to introduce Aikido to the public. As I have said earlier, again, as a martial artist, O-Sensei was not interested in the popularization of the art. He was very much interested in his own art and passing it on to a small number of people, sort of elected people. That was how he did it before the war. So I think the Second Doshu had great difficulty to persuade O-Sensei, to make him understand the importance of popularization of the art after the war, and he succeeded”.

This popularization started with Aikido’s first public demonstration ever given by Kanshu Sunadomari on October 23, 1953 in Kyūshū. Sunadomari in his later years calls it “immature and unskilled” [5]. In the above-mentioned interview [4], Chiba reports that “O-Sensei strongly objected to it”.

Chiba also recalls that by the time himself and other uchi-deshi were ready to go teaching the art overseas, O-Sensei had come to terms with the idea that Aikido had to be disseminated. Chiba also explains Morihei’s feelings about it:
“(…) You see, to begin with, a martial art is something very personal, sort of a deep love affair. There are a lot of sacrifices and pains, studies and so forth, you know; it’s not an ordinary life. You have to have dedication, commitment, and faith in what you do. And you don’t talk about it to anybody! It’s something very personal. I understand the feeling of doing demonstrations as really shameful, it seems to me. I feel that way. I don’t even talk…I hate talking about Aikido to anybody! (…) Mainly O-Sensei was very pleased when we were going out overseas because his religious belief was world peace, and through Aikido he dreamed to realize, to cultivate this dream to be realized”. [4]

Ueshiba Kisshomaru 03
1952, Ueshiba Kisshomaru at the age of 31 years in front of the Kobukan (Copyright Guillaume Erard)

At one time, Ueshiba seemed to be caught within a rock and a hard place: culturally, he didn’t feel like opening his art to the public, but psychologically he had started to feel that Aikido could become the way to accomplish his dream of world peace. According to Chiba, that understanding was largely helped by the Second Doshu’s perseverance. Did Kisshomatu actually “invent” Morihei’s world harmony dream?

Hard to say, therefore let’s stick to the facts.

1942: Morihei retires to Iwama and Kisshomaru, Aikido No.2 in absence of other warfighting senior students, is left to run Tokyo’s Hombu Dojo on his own. He is 21 years old and a student of Economics and Political Science at Waseda University. His father gives him this direct instruction: “Kisshomaru, you must hold your own to the end in the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo and defend it to the last (to the death NdR)” [6]. Kisshomary takes Morihei’s words at heart and keeps the Hombu Dojo open even under the Allies 1945 firebombings. The Hombu Dojo is the only building to survive in Wakamatsu-cho, although it suffers roof damage and people that lost their home occupy it: that little training that was still taking place was over.

At the end of August 1945, Japan surrendered. According to Peter Goldsbury in “Transmission, Inheritance, Emulation 10” [7]more or less at this time Kisshomaru Ueshiba, accompanied by a friend, visits the Imperial Palace. He encounters confusion and desperation; nobody was able to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened. Now and then Kisshomaru has the intuition of bringing Aikido outside of Japan, to show the victors that Japanese culture is not based exclusively on evil warmongering only.

Japan slowly starts to heal. At the beginning of the ’50s, the situation is starting to improve, however, very few people have seen Aikido in action and virtually nobody has even heard of it. Kisshomaru, then in his early thirties, while his father is in Iwama fully dedicated to his martial studies, is the driving force behind a major policy change for the Aikikai: it is time to open Aikido to the general public. Hombu Dojo instructors are dispatched to teach in newly formed university Aikido clubs, in an attempt to build an Aikido presence at a community level. The mid-fifties see the Aikikai organising small scale enbukai to attract new members in Japan, while the first large scale demonstration was held in 1956 on the roof of the Takashimaya Shopping Center.

kuroiwa-aikikai-hombu-1959
Hombu Dojo, 1959: right to left Morihei Ueshiba, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Masamichi Noro, Yoshio Kuroiwa, Kazuo Chiba

In 1952 the first instructors to be dispatched abroad were sent to France and the United States. Only a few years after his intuition, Kisshomaru had managed to put in motion the adventure of Aikido worldwide diffusion. In the ’60s, several Hombu Dojo uchi-deshi left Japan in what it came to be Kisshomaru’s largest push at spreading Morihei’s art across the globe. Even though all these instructors brought with them the name and the works of Morihei Ueshiba, they had been mainly instructed and prepared for their international duties in Tokyo by Kisshomaru himself. None of them had actually spent any significant time with Morihei in Iwama.

Conclusion

I owe the inspiration for most of the above to a two-hour conversation with Giorgio Veneri, conversation left for posterity in a 1998 interview he gave me, while travelling together back from a Northern Irish seminar I had organised. I am reporting it to you as my conclusion, I believe no further explanation is required.

“(…) The main developer of Aikido has been Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, like the originator of Christianity wasn’t Jesus, but Saint Paul. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba has been the organiser, the one who canonised the forms and gave Aikido meaning and direction. (…) O’Sensei created Aikido, and as the originator, he left us an idea. He didn’t explain much and, while he left writings on the spiritual part, he didn’t put down much about Aikido techniques. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s task was to expound on this idea. To do so, his life was devoted to the work of his father, rendering him unable to step out of the shade of that giant. He also was the recipient of criticism on Aikido people wouldn’t have dared utter to his father.” [8]

Ueshiba Kisshomaru 01

Notes:

[1] Ciechanowicz Bartosz, O`Sensei Morihei Ueshiba: The Samurai in the Service of Peace, Independently published, 2020, page 65

[2] Anonymous, Interview with Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshomaru Ueshiba, 1957, https://aikidojournal.com/2016/09/24/interview-with-morihei-ueshiba-and-kisshomaru-ueshiba/ (Retrieved 19/05/2020)

[3] Pranin Stanley, Interview with Kenji Tomiki, 1974 https://www.tomikiaikido.ie/waseda-university-professor-kenji-tomiki-aikido (Retrieved 26/05/2020)

[4] Bernath Peter & Halprin David, An Interview with T. K. Chiba Shihan, 2000, https://www.aikidosphere.com/kc-e-interview-pt-1 (Retrieved 03/05/2020)

[5] Sunadomari Kanshu, Enlightenment through Aikido, Blue Snake Books, page 46

[6] Erard Guillaume, Biography of Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Second Aikido Doshu, 2014 – https://guillaumeerard.com/aikido/articles-aikido/biography-of-kisshomaru-ueshiba-second-doshu-of-aikido/ (Retrieved 26/05/2020)

[7] Goldsbury Peter, Transmission, Inheritance, Emulation 10, 2008, http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?t=15066 (Retrieved 19/05/2020)

[8] Simone Chierchini, Interview to Giorgio Veneri – My Point of View on Traditional Aikido (1998) https://simonechierchini.com/2011/01/05/giorgio-veneri-my-point-of-view-on-traditional-aikido/ (Retrieved 10/05/2020)

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
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