Morihiro Ueshiba, Morihei’s Forgotten Successor

Ueshiba Morihei - Nakakura Kiyoshi

It is not a typo, we didn’t mix Morihiro Saito and Morihei Ueshiba. In 1932 Kiyoshi Nakakura married Matsuko Ueshiba, the founder’s daughter, and was legally adopted by Morihei into the Ueshiba family as Morihiro Ueshiba, thus becoming his officially designated successor


Nakakura’s Raise to Fame

Kiyoshi Nakakura was born on September 24, 1910, in the Kagoshima Prefecture, from a farming family. Tetanus brought away his father when he was only 5 years old. Kiyoshi started practising Kendo from early childhood and his energetic temperament soon caused him to excel in it. He made up his mind to become a professional budoka and in 1927 joined the Daidokan Dojo, where for two years he eagerly dedicated himself full-time to Kendo training under the guidance of Kanehiro Maruta sensei.

Maruta was a very strict old-fashioned teacher that didn’t turn a blind eye to mistakes. One day Nakakura inadvertently stepped on a shinai and his teacher hit him hard with it, then told him: “How could you step over a shinai which stands for a real sword? Someone like you will never be able to become any good however much you practice or for however long. Quit now and go home!” [1]. Nakakura asked for forgiveness and after apologising to the shinai, was left standing in the corridor with it raised above his head for the duration of the class. He was then pardoned and sent back to the students’ dormitory. No matter how hard it was, he stuck with it and graduated in 1929, after which he was hired as a Kendo teacher at the Daitosha Kogyo Office in the Fukuoka Prefecture.

Nakayama Hakudo
Hakudo Nakayama

The occasion of a school field trip to Tokyo later in 1929 offered the 19-year-old Nakakura the opportunity to meet with the leading swordmaster Hakudo Nakayama. The reason for it was to antagonize his old teacher Maruta who, while Nakakura was still at the Daidokan, had boasted that he would easily defeat Nakayama and ended up instead defeated by him in a Kendo challenge. Once he heard that Nakakura was Maruta’s student, Nakayama received him in his dojo, even though he had no recommendation letter. He also invited him to join training after getting one of his students to lend Nakakura the necessary Kendo gear.

After training, Nakayama asked Nakakura of his current occupation and was told that he taught Kendo in school. Nakayama proceeded to advise him to change plans: “You are still young and that’s a waste of your time. Don’t you want to come to Tokyo to practice?” [1]. Kiyoshi went back to his school in the Fukuoka Prefecture, resigned and left right away without taking care of anything else (he had not given sufficient notice). On the same night, he took off without anyone knowing, with just his Kendo gear in his pack. He walked for two hours to reach the nearest train station and caught the early morning service to Tokyo. Kiyoshi had thus moved to Tokyo, where, thanks to the financial support of his grandfather, he was ready to join Nakayama sensei’s famed Yushinkan Kendo Dojo.

Hakudo Nakayama was nicknamed the “god of Kendo”. His school, the Yushinkan, had become known for a trademark hard-style and aggressive type of training. It wasn’t unusual for some of the students to be conveyed on a stretcher by the end of a session. Nonetheless, the dojo was very popular and full of students. [2]

Not much time after entering the dojo, Nakakura asked his sensei to have a match, which Nakayama laughed away. Kiyoshi had never been beaten before and had great self-esteem and no fear of the Tokyo practitioners. In the Yushinkan dojo, there was already someone with similar temper and skills: his name was Junichi Haga. Haga agreed to have that match with Nakakura, with the intent of giving that country boy a wake-up lesson. The session became rough and ended in a fight with no victors. Nakayama sensei had to step in to separate the two litigants. [1]

Nakakura Kiyoshi 01
Kiyoshi Nakakura

Twice a year, the Yushinkan Dojo organised a grading match. In the first of these in which Nakakura took part after entering the Yushinkan, he defeated 16 opponents in a row. In autumn 1930 he was part of a 3-member team that entered the Kodansha Yusho Shiai, a sort of contemporary all Japan championship. The Yushinkan’s team included Junichi Haga, Kiyoshi Nakakura and Isao Kamuro. They reached the finals and won defeating the Imperial Guard (Kogu Keisatsu) team. After this triumph, Nakakura went from victory to victory for the following 10 years, when WWII disrupted every aspect of life in Japan. [2] The trio composed by Kiyoshi Nakakura, Junichi Haga and Gorozo Nakajima became known as the Samba Garasu, or the Three Crows, a Japanese equivalent of the Three Musketeers [3]. In April 1931 Nakakura was invited to join the Imperial Guard and he accepted. Following a streak of prestigious tournament wins, his name became more and more famous.

Morihei Needs a Heir

Around the same time, Morihei Ueshiba had officially inaugurated his Kobukan Dojo in Wakamatsu-cho, Tokyo, and was becoming one of the prominent names in contemporary Japanese Budo, as his 1932 appointment as chairman of the Budo Senyokai (Society for the Promotion of Martial Arts) clearly shows. Ueshiba had started having thoughts about the future of his life work and wanted to find an heir that could be groomed as his successor in Aikibudo. Hatsu had given him a daughter, Matsuko (b. 1910), and three sons, of whom Takemori (b. 1917) and Kuniharu (b. 1920) had died in their infancy [4]. Kisshomaru was born in 1921 and at the time was only a 10-year-old boy whose future could not be pledged. He also had not appeared to be particularly interested in Budo training. Morihei turned to find an heir outside of his family.

Morihei’s daughter Matsuko was still unmarried and Ueshiba considered arranging for her a suitable husband that could also continue the family martial tradition. It has to be understood that this was common practice at a time when parents picked a marriage candidate based on elements other from personal feelings. In 1936 Ueshiba would also arrange the marriage of his niece Kiku to Tsutomu Yukawa, one of his best students [5]. Potential candidates for Matsuko were all prominent personalities of the Budo society, starting from Ueshiba’s own foremost students. It would seem that Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki and Yoshio Sugino were considered and/or approached [6].

It has to be remembered that over the years Ueshiba had developed a keen interest in the study of sword techniques. His newly established Kobukan would have a separate Kendo section [7] and, later on, Morihei would also formally enrol in Kashima Shinto Ryu along with his student Zenzaburo Akazawa (May 1937). They both signed a blood oath (keppan) which still remains. [8]

Ueshiba Morihei - Akazawa Zenzaburo - Hatsu - Matsuko 1938
Matsuko Ueshiba with her parents and Zenzaburo Akazawa (1938)

In 1932, through Hakudo Nakayama sensei Morihei Ueshiba met Nakayama’s top Kendo student Kiyoshi Nakakura. As explained above, Kiyoshi was taking the Budo world by storm thanks to his fast-growing Kendo fame. The two teachers discussed the marriage and, finally, Kiyoshi was chosen to marry Ueshiba’s daughter. It was October 1932 and the wedding was officiated in the presence of Nakayama sensei, who represented Kiyoshi’s family. Admiral Isamu Takeshita was also in attendance. At the same time, Ueshiba adopted Kiyoshi as his son, a common enough custom in Japan, and designated him as his Aikibudo successor. Kiyoshi took the name of Morihiro Ueshiba.

In Kiyoshi’s own words, this is the origin of the name Morihiro: “Two Chinese characters, each from the names of two masters, were used for my name, Morihiro. One was “Haku” (can also be read “hiro”) from my master, Hakudo Nakayama, and “Mori” (can also be read “Sei”) from a famous master named Seiji Mochida. Therefore, when I was in the Kobukan I was known as Morihiro Ueshiba. Some old-timers still call me Mr Ueshiba“. [1]

Interestingly, Morihei picked his successor in the person of a kendoka that had no Aikibudo or any koryu jujutsu background. However, Nakakura refers that Ueshiba used to say “Aikido is closer to Kendo than it is to Judo“. Nakakura started an intense training regimen that included both Aikibudo and Kendo practice. During the following years, he eagerly trained in Aikibudo at the Kobukan under Ueshiba’s guidance, while directing a Kendo and Iaido club within Kobukan itself. He was referred to as Waka Sensei. Around that time Rinjiro Shirata joined the Kobukan, whose main active members were Yoichiro Inoue, Hisao Kamada, Hajime Iwata, Yoshio Sugino, Zenzaburo Akazawa, Shigemi Yonekawa, Tsutomu Yukawa, Masahiro Hashimoto, Kaoru Funahashi and Minoru Mochizuki. Normally there were two morning and three evening sessions, while the uchi-deshi had the mats to train to their heart’s desire at all other times during the day.

Junichi Haga, Kiyoshi’s fellow Kendo wonder, used to visit him often at the Kobukan, and always paid his respects to Ueshiba, although he was never taught Aikido directly by him. Nobuyoshi Tamura didn’t particularly like Haga’s ways with the founder: “At that time, I understand that he was a Kendo instructor of the Imperial Guard. He often visited the Aikikai and was invited to meals by O-Sensei. He said that he thought O-Sensei must have been a phoney because he was hospitable to a young man like himself. It seems that there was a time when he decided to make the rounds drinking in Shinjuku late one night and even asked Mrs Ueshiba to lend him O-Sensei’s clothes, since it would have been inappropriate for him to go out in his Imperial Guard uniform.” [9]

At one stage, Nakakura and Haga had the brilliant idea of testing Morihei’s martial skills – something that in those days wasn’t unheard of. The two of them planned to attack him by surprise in the dojo before practice started. They had a go at Morihei together, one striking from the front and the other from the back; Ueshiba effortlessly evaded their coordinated strikes and threw Nakakura, then pinned Haga on the tatami. [1] [7]

Historical Kendo

In July 1934, Nakakura left the Imperial Guard and dedicated even more time to train in Aikibudo, despite the fact that he kept teaching and competing in Kendo. He took a teaching position as a Kendo instructor at Hitotsubashi University and competed in some prestigious tournaments, such as the Saineikan Kendo Taikai. This was organised by the Imperial Guard Kendo Club and was structured with progressive elimination bouts in order to select the 5 strongest kendoka. They would then proceed to compete with each other to decide the champion and the best kendo fighter in Japan. In 1935 Nakakura reached the final round of 5 and was crowned champion after 4 straight wins. [2]

It was Kiyoshi Nakakura that introduced Ueshiba to a good friend of his, Hisashi Noma, who started coming to the Kobukan. Noma was a young up and coming kendoka of the time, a former member of the Yushinkan Dojo. He was also the son of Seiji Noma, founder of Kodansha, the publishing company that later would print most Aikido best-sellers. Hisashi manifested an interest in taking photos of Morihei’s trending Aikibudo techniques and in 1936 a photoshoot was arranged in Noma’s private Kendo dojo, producing 1100 photographs. Shigemi Yonekawa, Gozo Shioda and Kisshomaru Ueshiba took ukemi for Ueshiba, then 52 years old [10]. A selection of these shots was used in “Budo”, Ueshiba’s instruction manual produced in 1938 for internal use and never made available to the general public until the 1980’s.

The Plan Falls Apart

In 1937, after 5 years of hard training in the Kobukan, however, Nakakura gave up Aikibudo and returned to Kendo. Why did that happen? It surely depended on a combination of factors. The first and foremost one was of a technical nature, as candidly admitted by Nakakura: “I was practising both Kendo and Aikido. Although I was practising Aikido, I found Mr Ueshiba to be superhuman and felt that I would never be able to master the techniques he was doing and so would not be able to succeed him. I felt that I should not cling to the position as his successor. Then I went to see Nakayama Sensei and told him that I did not think I would be able to succeed him and would like to leave the Ueshiba family. Nakayama Sensei said that he understood but told me to wait since he himself would go and talk to Mr Ueshiba. It was just before I left the Kobukan. I departed in 1937″. [1]

Ueshiba Morihei - Deguchi Onisaburo
Morihei Ueshiba, Sumiko Deguchi and Onisaburo Deguchi (1932)

Besides the above, it has also been suggested that Kiyoshi Nakakura did not particularly sympathise with his father-in-law’s Omoto-Kyo beliefs and eventually grew tired and embarrassed by the relative political issues. Those exploded with the 1935 Second Omoto Incident, when Onisaburo Deguchi, Omoto-Kyo No. 1, was arrested and the Ministry of Internal Affairs ordered that Ueshiba be seized as well. The Kobukan had Omoto-Kyo shrines and several calligraphic works by Onisaburo Deguchi on display on the main wall, that Ueshiba took in special consideration. Nakakura went and tore them down, then proceeded with burning them, while Ueshiba was in Osaka risking arrest. At that time, Kenji Tomita, a student of Ueshiba and future cabinet minister, was the chief of the Criminal Law Bureau. Tomita knew that Ueshiba had nothing to do with the Omoto-Kyo high treason charges and made sure that Ueshiba was not arrested. [1]

More importantly, the marriage with Matsuko did not work out, as demonstrated by the fact that the couple had no children. Be as it might, in 1937, the marriage ended with a divorce and Nakakura left the Ueshiba family and Aikibudo to return to full-time Kendo. Morihei Ueshiba was therefore left without his chosen heir and started to consider the option of selecting Kisshomaru as his successor.

Kiyoshi Nakakura went ahead to become one of the 20th century’s world foremost sensei in Kendo and Iaido. He was awarded the 9th Dan in both disciplines and became director of the All Japan Kendo Federation (1963) and International Kendo Federation (1979). He passed away on February 9, 2000.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited

Nakakura Kiyoshi 02


[1] Pranin Stanley and Yamanaka Hideo, Interview with Swordmaster Kiyoshi Nakakura, 1987 (Retrieved 01/06/2020)

[2] Nakakura Sensei Tsuito Kikaku, Kendo Nippon, 2000 (Retrieved 02/06/2020)

[3] La Historia del Kendo in Peru y en el Mundo, Kendo Peru (Retrieved 02/06/2020)

[4] Hatsu Ueshiba, Aikido Journal, 2011 (Retrieved 03/06/2020)

[5] Pranin Stanley, “Ueshiba Family Tree: The Line of Succession”, Aikido Journal, 2014 (Retrieved 03/06/2020)

[6] Ciechanowicz Bartosz, O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba: The Samurai in the Service of Peace, Independently Published, 2020, pages 56-57

[7] Stevens John, Invincible Warrior: Pictorial Biography of Morihei Ueshiba, Shambhala Publications, 1997

[8] Skoss Meik, Kashima Shinto-ryu, Aiki News, vol. 21, no. 1, 1993 (Retrieved 03/06/2020)

[9] Chierchini Simone, 10 Famous Aikido Challenges, Aikido Italia Network, 2015 (Retrieved 03/06/2020)

[10] Pranin Stanley, Historical Photo: Enter the Noma Dojo and Prepare to Be Amazed, Aikido Journal, 2011 (Retrieved 03/06/2020)


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