Ueshiba’s Martial Arts Career Before Aikido Was Born


If we were to believe a priori to the websites of various Aikido organizations around the world, O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba would have studied “different martial arts during his lifetime” [1] and received “certificates of mastery in different styles of jujitsu, fencing and combat spear” [2] and so on. Are we sure that this is true? Or is it the umpteenth post-mortem fabrication?

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

Regardless of where you turn when surfing the web, but also when consulting publications of celebrated Aikido authors, Morihei Ueshiba is presented almost universally as an expert Master of many arts, a fine connoisseur of multiple styles and often also as the holder of certificates and rank in numerous combat disciplines. He is the Invincible Warrior, isn’t he? Are we really sure that things stand as such? Or is it the umpteenth post-mortem manufacturing?

One assumption is certain: Morihei Ueshiba was the absolute master of one art, his own, Aikido. It is also easy to deduce how his level in it has remained unreachable over the years, and that not even his most famous and gifted students have achieved a depth in Aikido vaguely comparable to that of its founder.

However, the official hagiography has built a series of stories about the martial experiences of Ueshiba pre-Aikido – as if to explain and justify any future outcomes – which does not stand up to serious scrutiny. There is significant evidence that Ueshiba’s martial arts career before Aikido was much less glamorous than normally presented to the public, and to ascertain the above it is sufficient to examine his biography with an open mind and a judgement free from the almost religious fanaticism that accompanies the reverence of O’Sensei by his now distant followers.

The general perception of Ueshiba as a specialist in multiple Budo arts arises from the publications produced by his son Kisshomaru and from those that refer to them. For example, in his book “Aikido”, published in 1985, Kisshomaru Ueshiba describes his father’s martial path in these terms: “The Master’s love for budo was so strong that in his young days he never failed to visit or invite any men of budo who came to his home province and ask for instruction. his pilgrimages to various sect of budo originated from his driving hunger to know“. [3]

In the same book, the Second Doshu also informs us that “The first teacher that the Master learnt under in his teens was Tokusaburo Tozawa, of Kito Jujutsu sect. The next was Masakatsu Nakai of the Yagyu sect of encing, who lived in Sakai at that time“. [3]

We will talk shortly about Ueshiba’s studies in Kito-Ryu and Yagyu-Ryu, specifying times and duration. In truth, until the age of 17 there is no source confirming a formal involvement in Budo by Morihei who, it must be remembered, lived in the rural village of Tanabe, and not in the rich cultural and martial world typical of the capital. Ueshiba had rather shown that he was a teenager with a restless and problematic soul, for example by changing school a couple of times before finding something that attracted his interests [8]. Among other things, it would appear that he had expressed a desire to become a Buddhist monk [5] [6]. Morihei had grown up in a privileged environment: his father Yoroku, a wealthy landowner of uncertain Samurai descent [9], had always been close to him, supporting the youngster in his decisions and trying to direct what was at the time a rather weak and sick child. [5] [8]

It was Yoroku who first exposed Morihei to Budo, telling him warrior stories of his ancestors – his great-grandfather Kichiemon was a samurai of some reputation in his period [5] – and making him discover Sumo and swimming as a training pastime. According to some sources, Yoroku also trained his son in their family trademark art, called Aioi-ryu Jujutsu. [4] According to other sources, however, Aioi-ryu was only one of the various ways in which Morihei called his art when he stopped using the name Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. [4] [15]

From the above it would not seem to emerge that in Tanabe the young Morihei had acquired any particular knowledge in Budo that set him apart from any other teenager of his society and historical period.

His story in Budo began to take a more defined form in 1901, when the 18-year-old Morihei moved from Tanabe to Tokyo [12], funded by his father, and started a stationery business. City life, difficulties in running the company and a beriberi infection led to the failure of this initiative, which remained on its feet for less than a year; after which Ueshiba returned to his father in Tanabe to recover his strength after the illness. [7] According to John Stevens, Morihei announced his return to Yoroku with the following words: “Well, I left Tanabe penniless and came back penniless!” [8]

Tenjin Shinyo Ryu Jujutsu Gokui Kyoju Zukai, by Iso Mataemon and Chiharu Yoshida. The book is dated August 13, 2001 and is an exact reprint from 1894

During those months in Tokyo, however, he had the opportunity to formally practice Tenjin Shinyo-Ryu Jujutsu in a private dojo led by Takisaburo Tobari [8]. Kisshomaru Ueshiba claims that it was that Kito-ryu who could hardly have practiced as a teenager in Tanabe [3]. It would also seem that Morihei somehow attended the Yagyu Shinkage-Ryu dojo [6] [7]. It would seem illogical, however, that during that limited period of time, the last part of which he spent in the throes of a debilitating disease, the teenager Morihei could have become an expert on Tenjin-Ryu or Yagyu-Ryu. Some even question the fact that he had participated in Yagyu’s training, claiming that Ueshiba had instead just watched a few classes.

Strictly speaking, the first concern of Ueshiba, who was young and inexperienced but with a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders, would have been the stressful one of running his company. We can imagine that he went to practice in the evening, how he could and when he could.

In 1902 Ueshiba was therefore once again permanently in the village of Tanabe, where family care and good food restored his health and energy, to the point that during that year he married Hatsu Itokawa, whom he had known since childhood [8].

According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba [3], Morihei moved to Sakai in 1903 to follow the teachings of Yagyu-Ryu. However, Kisshomaru himself informs us that during the same year, and before his military enlistment, Ueshiba was the protagonist of a series of enterprises in his village, in which he would have distinguished himself for his remarkable physical strength and a pronounced eccentricity [3]. According to John Stevens, however, Ueshiba started following Nakai sensei in Sakai during military service [8]. As it were, Tanabe and Sakai are more than 100 km apart: in a time when transportation was still at a pre-modern level, it is difficult not to hypothesize that Ueshiba’s formation was limited, at most, to some sporadic blocks of sessions.

Morihei Ueshiba around 1903, while serving in the Japanese imperial army during the Russo-Japanese war (copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

Shortly thereafter, Morihei’s interests shifted again. The geopolitical situation had changed and Japan had restored its international status as an emerging power in Asia. In 1903 the conflict with Tsarist Russia broke out and the country was crossed by a nationalist wave: to explain the level of the above, let’s note that the Japanese government bequeathed 55% of the national budget to armaments [8]. Morihei, like many other young people, ran to enroll, except that he was discarded, because his stature was less than the minimum requirement (150 cm). [7] The refusal almost drove him mad and he withdrew on the mountains to follow a regime of physical discipline that required, among other things, to hung for long periods from the branches of a tree with weights attached to his legs. The plan was, of course, to gain those few centimeters that would allow him to be drafted, which occurred on the second call, in 1904. [7] [8]

Time for another focal point: Morihei Ueshiba was then 21 years old, and his career in martial arts, as anyone can easily deduce, had not been particularly brilliant up to that point.

In 1904 Ueshiba was therefore drafted as a reservist. However, thanks to his tireless efforts and his determination to excel, he made himself known by his superiors for a series of physical feats and obtained respect [3] [7] [8] and subsequently a promotion first to corporal and then to sergeant. [7]

Morihei was sent to Manchuria, where he stayed for 18 months. However, according to John Stevens [8], it would seem that he never saw the front: the action of his father, who had a certain political influence, would have meant that the son was never sent to the front-line under enemy fire. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, on the other hand, depicts his father as a hero of the battle of Manchuria, and describes him as decisive in saving his unit [3]. William Gleeson, then, describes Morihei [7] as intent on fearlessly charging enemy lines and attributes to him at this point the (pre)vision of those golden bullets that would have indicated to him the arrival of real bullets – episode instead occurred (?) in 1924 during the Mongol adventure of Deguchi and Ueshiba, and then repeated in Ayabe in 1925 during a challenge with a naval officer [1]. In 1907 Ueshiba was discharged and returned to his father in Tanabe.

During his 3 years of military service, Morihei undoubtedly displayed unusual physical abilities [3]. According to John Stevens, he was able to keep up with the officers on horseback during 40 km marches, regularly prevailed in Sumo fights, was one of the best with the bayonet and had a very hard head, which he reinforced after having hit his skull 100 times a day against a stone slab [8].

Yagyu Shingan Ryu, historical photo of uncertain dating (Copyright Dr. Micheal Russ)

Ueshiba’s martial skills had undoubtedly increased, considering the circumstances in which he found himself and his dedication to the service. As part of his military training, he had received instruction on the use of the juken (bayonet), similarly to his fellow soldiers, although it appears that the juken was congenial to him. William Gleeson attributes to his skill as a juken and sword instructor the fact that he was not risked on the front-line [7].

During the draft period, Morihei trained in Yagyu-Ryu jujutsu, attending when he could during his leaves. Obviously, he was unable to receive teachings during the 18 months he spent in Manchuria, so his formal training, again, had to be very limited. On returning to Tanabe he resumed Yagyu’s training, and probably went to Sakai a number of times between 1907 and 1908, when he obtained a Yagyū Shingan-ryū Shoden-level license to transmit the art [3] [12]. The makimono received by Morihei Ueshiba in 1908 was for the lower level of transmission of the curriculum (Shoden), but the document does not bear the official seals of the school and the master’s signature, so there are doubts about its authenticity and official status. [10]

Let’s have another focal point: in 1908, the 25-year-old Ueshiba had certainly increased his physical skills in a remarkable way, and somewhat had also improved his martial ones, making the most of occasional visits to provincial specialists and of the opportunities offered by military training. He had certainly never received ongoing formal training and was by no means an expert on any Budo.

Between 1908 and 1911 Morihei remained in Tanabe. His psychological condition deteriorated to the point that he was prey to a depressive form. He absented himself for days in the mountains, where he dedicated to periods of fasting and asceticism, characterized by ablutions of frozen water and obsessive individual waepons training [8]. Those outbursts of anger that characterized him later on and which he calmed through the recitation of uninterrupted Shinto prayers, began to appear. [7] [8]

At this juncture Yoroku, worried about what was happening to his son, contacted the Kodokan and asked them to send a Judo instructor. The Kodokan sent Kiyoichi Takagi [3] [7] [11], who would later become one of the pillars of Judo and a 9th Dan [11]. In 1911, therefore, Takagi began teaching at the Ueshiba farm; to facilitate things and motivate Morihei, Yoroku built a family dojo, converting a barn for the purpose. Takagi introduced Ueshiba to modern Judo and for a few months Morihei trained with passion, recovering strength and emotional stability [7]. According to Kisshomaru Ueshiba, however, at this point Morihei fell ill and was bedridden for six months [3]; the chronology of this period, however, is not at all clear.

In any case, Morihei seems to have experienced a few months of formal Judo teaching by Kiyoichi Takagi. Although in the future Takagi would have become a great teacher, having been born at the end of 1894, in the period in question should not have been more than 17 years old [12]. Once again, faced with a scrutiny of the sources, it is difficult to argue that Morihei was able to become a Judo expert thanks to this short formative period.

Morihei Ueshiba in front of a building in Shirataki, Hokkaido – 1913 (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

Another change of scene. At this point Ueshiba and some of his village elders embarked on the project of colonizing a depopulated area in Hokkaido, where today the village of Shirataki stands. On March 29, 1912, a group of 52 families set off on what was seen as a promised land and a chance for a new start [8]. During his stay in Hokkaido, Morihei Ueshiba continued with a very strong individual training regimen aimed at strengthening his muscular and internal energy [3] [8]. He also devoted himself very hard to the organizational and administrative management of the colony.

While in Hokkaido, Ueshiba finally had the martial encounter of his life, the one with Sokaku Takeda. Morihei came across Takeda at the Hisada Inn in Engaru, towards the end of February 1915. [13] It was the beginning of a stormy relationship full of events and meanings that lasted for about twenty years. This relationship totally changed Morihei’s life, in addition to his martial skills. In 1922, Takeda awarded Ueshiba a certificate of transmission in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu of Kyoju Dairi level, the equivalent of assistant instructor. Together with the dubious certification in Yagyū Shingan-ryū, it is the only formal qualification held by Ueshiba, that also appears to be in the Kashima Shinto-ryu books in the 1930s (complete with a keppan), but does not seem to have ever had formal training in art, and much less certifications in it [16].

The meeting with Takeda was initially a clash, or a challenge, as often happened at that time to verify the skills or otherwise of a teacher. This was what occurred, as reported by André Nocquet: “He was told that it was master Takeda, coming from such school. He saw his work and asked him immediately if he could fight against him. There, something extraordinary happened, the small body of Ueshiba was thrown around sixty times in a few minutes. He had found his master and began to work with him“.  [14].

Sokaku Takeda

Again, it appears quite evident that Ueshiba, in 1915, turns out to be a beginner in the presence of Takeda, who plays with him by projecting him a few dozen times.

This long analysis, therefore, led us to the following conclusions, based on what (little and confused) is known about the life story of the young Morihei: before devoting himself body and soul to Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu under Sokaku Takeda, he had trained for a few months in Tenjin Shinyo-Ryu, he had received occasional teaching in Yagyu Ryu jujutsu, and had practiced Judo for a few months. This was Morihei Ueshiba’s entire martial career outside of Daito, as far as it is currently known. The fact that Morihei has studied, practiced and achieved mastery in a large number of martial disciplines would seem to be a complete fabrication.

The same analysis, moreover, would seem to indicate that the pre-Daito Morihei was the perfect receptacle for Sokaku Takeda’s martial teaching, having Ueshiba demonstrated on repeated occasions, and under a high level of stress, to be endowed with an extraordinary physical strength and a total determination in pursuing his goals, once identified. From a young age, Ueshiba had also discovered and applied the invaluable benefit of individual practice, which combined with his physical power and a remarkable personal ability in exploiting mitori geiko (collecting information through observation), allowed him to grasp and employ for his own purposes all the visual information he could get hold of. Although he was not a great master of any martial art, he was a student doted with great strength, determination and tools that made him capable of learning. He was also independent, and endowed with character and spirit of initiative, to show that his incredible adventures and sometimes questionable future initiatives were not isolated cases, but precise indications of his energetic and stormy character.

Why don’t we read any of these conclusions in the official biographies of the founder or on the websites of the Aikido organizations worldwide and, consequently, of their dojos? Why is preferred instead attributing to Morihei simplified and unfounded skills as a master of other disciplines? It would seem evident that this is a conscious form of concealment and censorship of the debts of the Aikido movement in its entirety towards Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. To date, hundreds of Aikido dojos of all styles organize courses on Iai, Jodo, Kenjitsu seminars, etc., all in search for explanations and confirmations regarding the Aikido that they are practicing. How many Aikido dojos organize Daito-ryu seminars for the same purpose? And why they don’t do it, considering how the direct descent of one from the other is an indisputable and unequivocal fact? Is it because Sokaku Takeda was bad and ugly and Daito-ryu an archaic and violent art? Allow me to doubt it.

Morihei Ueshiba in his Ayabe dojo, 1922 in front of a scroll bearing the inscription “Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu” (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

The discussion on the genesis of Aikido – that is whether Ueshiba has cloned Daito or not, as they have always maintained on that side of the barricade, or if he has reinterpreted it in a completely original sense, as they taught us aikidoka to say – remains and will likely remain open ad aeternum. However, it seems crucial to face it once all the cards are clearly visible on the game table.

Note

[1] Morihei Ueshiba, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morihei_Ueshiba (Retrieved on 23/06/2020)
[2] Rasheed Georges, Aikido: The Way of Harmony, Self-published ebook, 2018
[3] Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Aikido, 1985, Hozansha Pubblications
[4] Hisa Takuma, Daito-ryu Aiki-budo, 1942 https://aikidojournal.com/2020/01/08/daito-ryu-aiki-budo/ (Retrieved on 22/06/2020)
[5] Stevens John, The Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, in Aikido and the New Warrior, edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, 1985, North Atlantic Books
[6] Ueshiba Kisshomaru, A Life in Aikido: The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba, 2008, Kodansha International
[7] Gleason William, The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido, 1995, Destiny Books
[8] Stevens John, Abundant Peace – The Biography of Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido, 1987, Shambala Publications
[9] See Comments by Peter Goldsbury in http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-20343.html (Retrieved on 24/06/2020)
[10] Goto-Ha Yagyu Shingan-Ryu, Aikido Journal, 2011 http://aikidojournal.com/2011/08/27/goto-ha-yagyu-shingan-ryu/ (Retrieved on 24/06/2020)
[11] Kiyochi Takagi, Aikido Journal, 2011 https://aikidojournal.com/2011/08/27/kiyoichi-takagi/ (Retrieved on 25/06/2020)
[12] Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Introduction, in Ueshiba Morihei, Budo -Teachings of the Founder of Aikido, 2013, Kodansha America
[13] Pranin Stanley, “The love-hate relationship between Morihei Ueshiba and Sokaku Takeda”, Aikido Journal, (-), http://members.aikidojournal.com/morihei-ueshiba-and-sokaku-takeda-by-stanley-pranin/ (Retrieved on 26/06/2020)
[14] Erard Guillaume, Interview with André Nocquet, 8th Dan pioneer of Aikido in Europe, 1988, http://www.guillaumeerard.com/aikido/interviews/interview-with-andre-nocquet-8th-dan-pioneer-of-aikido-in-europe (Retrieved on 26/06/2020)
[15] Summary of the Isamu Takeshita’s Diary, Translated by Fumiaki Shishida, Shishida Lab, 2011 https://sites.google.com/site/fshishidalab/kenkyuu-no-hiroba/kagakukenkyuuhitouseikahoukokushouroku (Retrieved on 26/06/2020)
[16] Skoss Meik, Kashima Shinto-ryu, Aiki News, vol. 21, no. 1, 1993 https://www.koryubooks.com/library/mskoss3.html (Retrieved on 26/06/2020)

Copyright Simone Chierchini – ©2020
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