In 1941 Morihei Ueshiba presented a special Enbu for the Imperial family at the famous Saineikan, the Imperial Guard Dojo, situated within the Kōkyo, Tokyo’s Imperial palace grounds. This is one of the highlights in the history of prewar Aikido
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
Ten years after the inauguration of Morihei Ueshiba’s first dojo in Tokyo, the Kobukan Dojo (皇武館道場) or Imperial Warrior training hall, Morihei was actually able to bring his new martial art within the Imperial Palace in the presence of the Imperial family. In this essay we are going to examine the locations and people connected with this important event in the history of Aikido.
Tokyo Imperial Palace and the Imperial Family
The Kōkyo (皇居) or “Imperial Residence” is the official residence of the Japanese Emperor and his household. It is situated within a large park in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district and includes the Kyūden (宮殿), the Emperor’s main palace, the Imperial Family’s own quarters and an array of administrative, cultural and religious buildings  . The Kōkyo’s area covers 3.41 sq km or 1.32 sq mi, one-third of the royal grounds in Versailles, but similar in size to New York’s Central Park. In 1990, it was estimated that the real estate value of the palace grounds would have been enough to buy the entire California real estate .
It was built in October 1868, on a portion of the site formerly occupied by Edo Castle. The castle had been vacated by the Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa and his followers after the end of the Shogunate and the start of Meiji Restoration, when Emperor Meiji moved his court to Tokyo from Kyoto Imperial Palace .
Edo Castle was burnt to the ground by a fire in 1873. The new Imperial Residence was rebuilt in 1888 and designed with a mix of Japanese and European architectural concepts typical of the age. With the exception of the Imperial Household Agency and the East Gardens, the rest of the Imperial Residence is normally off-limits for the general public .
At the time of our interest, the main figures in the Imperial Family were:
- Hirohito (裕仁) was the current emperor since 25 December 1926 as Shōwa (昭和) Emperor, which is the name of the era coinciding with his reign .
- Empress Kōjun (香淳皇后), born Princess Nagako, was the spouse of Hirohito and mother of Akihito (明仁), future Emperor Heisei .
- Yasuhito – Prince Chichibu (秩父宮雍仁親王), was the second son of Emperor Taishō (Yoshihito), a younger brother of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) and a general in the Imperial Japanese Army .
- Nobuhito – Prince Takamatsu (高松宮宣仁親王), the third son of Emperor Taishō, was a younger brother of Emperor Shōwa. Prince Takamatsu studied at the Imperial Naval Academy , where Morihei Ueshiba regularly taught Budo as a compulsory subject.
- Takahito – Prince Mikasa (三笠宮崇仁親王), was the fourth and youngest son of Emperor Taishō.
The Saineikan Dojo
The Saineikan Dojo is located in the East Gardens, the area where most of the administrative buildings are situated. The term Saineikan is composed of sainei, used in the works of Confucius to indicate a noble character, and kan, or hall . It was established in 1881 by the Imperial Guard (Kōgū-Keisatsu) as a form of early promotion for martial arts. It was the place where the first modern martial arts tournaments took place in the presence of the Emperor, giving them legitimacy and status .
In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake caused extensive damage to the Saineikan structures, to the point that the activities had to be moved to a temporary hall for a decade, when a new dojo was rebuilt. The 1933 Saineikan is the dojo we still have today .
Since its 1881 establishment, several noticeable budoka populated the Saineikan as teachers, students or fighters, people like Tesshu Yamaoka, Hakudo Nakayama, Junichi Haga, Kiyoshi Nakakura  and, of course, Morihei Ueshiba.
Ueshiba, Takeshita and the Imperial Family
How did a promising but obscure provincial Budo sensei end up teaching members of the Imperial family, as well as the contemporary establishment finest? When explaining Ueshiba’s formation and rise to fame, most Aikido literature suggests two main motors for Morihei’s development: a martial one, Sokaku Takeda, and a spiritual one, Onisaburo Deguchi. The problem with this approach is that Morihei more than likely would have stayed a talented and enlightened martial nobody without the extensive and continuative patronage he received from Admiral Isamu Takeshita.
Morihei Ueshiba was presented to Takeshita by Vice-Admiral Seikyo Asano. Asano was an Omoto-Kyo believer and met Morihei in Ayabe around 1922   . In Ayabe, Asano started training in Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu under Takeda and Ueshiba as Sokaku’s assistant instructor. He was taken by Ueshiba’s skills and helped him in establishing a series of top-level contacts within the Imperial Navy . Most importantly, Asano spoke of Ueshiba’s valence to Admiral Isamu Takeshita, formerly his classmate at the Imperial Naval Academy and a Budo expert. Asano suggested that Takeshita visit the Omoto-Kyo compound in Ayabe to watch one of Ueshiba’s classes  . The admiral went to Ayabe from Tokyo, assisted to a class in Morihei’s dojo and was conquered by the superior level of his martial talents . From that moment on, Takeshita, who previously sponsored Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi , would do his utmost to support the rise of Ueshiba’s new art .
Once back in the capital the admiral contacted Gombei Yamamoto – a former admiral and twice Japan prime minister (1913 and 1923) – and recommended Ueshiba sensei to him   . A private demonstration for a few selected ones was consequently held in Takeshita’s home , the first time that Morihei Ueshiba’s work went out from the Omoto-Kyo Headquarters and was exposed to the general public . As a result, a network of contacts sharing an interest in Morihei’s new method was created, involving military officers, government officials and wealthy businessmen .
Admiral Yamamoto was very impressed by Ueshiba’s performance and brought him to the Aoyama Imperial Palace . Ueshiba was commissioned to give a 21-day training course at the Aoyama Palace, attended by Imperial Guard members holders of at least 5th Dan in either Judo or Kendo . After a week, however, rumours started circulating in the palace that Morihei was an Omoto-Kyo spy (the first Omoto-Kyo Incident of 1921 was still an open wound) . Ueshiba took offence, packed and left the palace saying: “I’m returning to Ayabe to resume farming” .
It was Takeshita that mended the wound, persuading Ueshiba to go back to Tokyo and resume teaching. The admiral reassured Morihei that all “misunderstandings” had been cleared . Between 1926-7, as the demand for tuition increased, first Kiyoshi Umeda , then Ichizaemon Morimura, both wealthy businessmen, offered their residences in Tokyo as a temporary dojo and accommodation to Morihei Ueshiba  . In 1927 Ueshiba and his family moved permanently from Ayabe to Tokyo. The students kept coming and the dojo had to be moved elsewhere several other times until the Kobukan was finally established in 1931 . Besides Admiral Takeshita, Ueshiba’s students included admirals and generals such as Eisuke Yamamoto, Sankichi Takahashi, Gengo Momotake, Ban Hasunuma and Nobutake Kondo. Morihei started teaching at the Imperial Naval Academy (ca. 1927-28), Toyama Military Academy (ca. 1932-33), Military Staff College and Military Police Academy (ca. 1941-42)  .
In 1939, the Kobukan Dojo was given legal status and the following year the Kobukai Foundation was officially recognised. Admiral Isamu Takeshita was Kobukai’s first president  .
During his time teaching Budo at the Imperial Naval Academy, Ueshiba Sensei taught Nobuhito, Prince Takamatsu. The presence of the prince in the academy made the general atmosphere complicated, to say the least. Gozo Shioda has told the story of his only visit at the Naval Academy as an assistant for Ueshiba Sensei . To avoid being impolite to a member of the Imperial Family, Morihei had instructed Shioda to take flat falls, as not to raise his legs and risk hitting the prince or other royalty in the face with his feet . An unfortunate accident had previously happened: one of the naval students had been paired first with Prince Takeda, then with his wife, who was also training. The princess had thrown the student and his feet had come up, hitting her in the forehead and injuring her, much to Ueshiba’s embarrassment .
At that stage, several members of the Imperial family had joined Aiki: Prince Takamatsu, Prince Chichibu (brothers of Emperor Hirohito), Prince Higashikuni, Prince Takeda, Prince Rio and Prince Kitashirakawa (members of secondary lines of the imperial family)  . Prince Higashikuni and Prince Rio didn’t mind training publicly at the Ueshiba Dojo, while Morihei visited the Imperial Palace regularly to teach Prince and Princess Takeda . Shioda recalls accompanying Ueshiba Sensei to the Imperial Palace several times with the job of taking ukemi for the beautiful Princess Takeda: “I trained with her treating her like a fragile article. When she touched me even very lightly, I tried to leap and take a fall as far as possible” . Among the royalties, Prince Higashikuni, Prince Rio and Prince Takeda were the ones to practice Aiki the longest, that is for roughly three years .
The 1938 technical manual “Budo”, the second book published by Morihei Ueshiba and containing pictures from the Noma Dojo series, was produced as training support for Prince Kaya Tsunenori (賀陽宮恒憲王), first cousin to Empress Kōjun . Prince Kaya, therefore, was another royal studying Aiki with Morihei around 1937-8. Interestingly, the prince became Director of Toyama Military Academy, where Morihei was a Budo instructor, from 1942 to 1943 .
The Aikido Imperial Demonstration
Emperor Hirohito was aware of Takeshita’s passion for Aikido and asked the admiral: “Takeshita, are you still training Aikido?” . From what already explained, it would seem clear that the art of Ueshiba had attracted the interest of the Imperial family at its highest levels. Isamu Takeshita tried to arrange a private demonstration for the royals in the Saineikan dojo, but Morihei was not keen . Ueshiba initially declined to show his art saying: “In Aikido, the winner is decided in an instant. There is no way your opponent will get up and attack you again. If he does, it’s all false. I cannot possibly show such false techniques to the Imperial family.”  
Morihei’s comments were reported to the Emperor, who appreciated Ueshiba’s honesty and asked to watch a demonstration given in its usual format . The admiral suggested that Morihei show the royals his “lies”. In the end, Takeshita’s persistence won Morihei, who could not deny himself any further and accepted to demonstrate his Aiki in the Saineikan (1941) .
When the time finally arrived, Morihei Ueshiba was unlucky to be seriously ill with a bad case of jaundice  . He had been periodically experiencing liver problems since drinking large quantities of seawater for a bet as a young man . In the ten days before the Imperial affair, he was only able to drink water and had fits of severe vomiting that led to dehydration . However, he could not possibly cancel. As a consequence, on the day of the demonstration, he had become so frail that his students had to sustain him when walking from the car to the Saineikan dojo and help him in getting changed into his training uniform  .
Ueshiba sensei was accompanied to the Imperial Demonstration by two of his most trusted deshi, Tsutomu Yukawa and Gozo Shioda . The story of Shioda, later the famous founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, is widely known. Tsutomu Yukawa was amongst the Kobukan dojo senior students and Ueshiba’s favourite . He was originally one of Jigoro Kano’s leading students, a 3rd Dan in Judo when Kano dispatched him to the Kobukan with the following job: “Go and steal what you can from Ueshiba’s Aikijutsu!” . The plan didn’t work, since Tsutomu fell in love with Aikido and quit Judo and the Kodokan. Ueshiba appreciated his skills and his unusual physical power . Yukawa had no problems in lifting a mortar stone mill with one hand while on his back  and could bend a 5-inch nail with his bare hands. When Kisshomaru Ueshiba felt ill with pleurisy in 1941, Tsutomu Yukawa carried him by hand to the hospital. Morihei trusted Tsutomu and married his nephew Kiku to him . Also, in Ueshiba’s absence, Yukawa taught in several locations in Osaka including the Sumitomo Club, Asahi Newspaper and the Police Department  . Yukawa took ukemi in the Asahi News film taken in Osaka in 1935 . Only one year after the Saineikan demonstration (July 1942), Tsutomu Yukawa would tragically die in Osaka during a pub brawl gone wrong, when he was stabbed with a bayonet by a soldier .
Before reaching the Saineikan, Yukawa and Shioda were really worried about what they were seeing, as Morihei’s physical condition was terrible: “How can he possibly give a demonstration in this state? He will never survive” . When they arrived at the Saineikan and Ueshiba saw the Imperial family from a distance, he suddenly found an incredible reserve of inner strength and resolve and became 100% ready to play his part  . Shioda admits that he was stunned to notice this total change in Ueshiba and ascribes it to the fact that his sensei was a true martial artist always capable of giving his best no matter the external conditions .
As it turned out, Emperor Hirohito was actually not in attendance and was represented by his younger brothers, Princes Mikasa, Takamatsu and Chichibu. Admiral Takeshita took the role of speaker and described what was going on .
The enbu started with prolonged and remarkable formalities as a show of respect for the royals. To demonstrate before the Imperial family was a huge honour and everything had to be perfect and proper  . The allocated time for the enbukai was forty minutes, Yukawa was going in as a first assistant and Shioda should have followed for the second twenty-minute slot .
When the Imperial demonstration started, Tsutomu Yukawa got up and faced Morihei Ueshiba. However, he had misread the situation and decided to attack Morihei without full intention, having witnessed his teacher’s bad physical condition only minutes earlier and wanting to protect him   . In the presence of the Imperial family, on the contrary, Morihei Ueshiba had transformed into the maximum martial version of himself. Yukawa was thrown with lighting speed and landed awkwardly. He stayed on the mats, unable to get up . Gozo Shioda approached him and discovered that he had dislocated his shoulder    .
Shioda replaced him and took ukemi for Morihei for the whole enbukai. Having learnt from Yukawa’s painful misjudgement, Gozo attacked his teacher with all his power, landing and getting up quickly to engage Ueshiba again. The pinning techniques offered some sort of respite. Nevertheless, Shioda had to use all his available physical and mental resources to support his sensei’s most important demonstration ever by attacking without giving quarter for the entire 40 minutes .
Even though the Imperial demonstration turned out to be a striking exhibition of Ueshiba’s Budo , Morihei and both Yukawa and Shioda got high fevers from the demonstration’s extreme exertion and were confined to bed for a week  .
In the space of little more than a year, with WWII fully exploding, all the characters involved with the Imperial demonstration had to busy themselves with more worrying activities. The prewar era of Aikido was about to end.
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
All rights are reserved
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