The Founder of Aikido

O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba was born on December 14, 1883. As a youth he was poor in health, often sick, and lacked physical strength. His father, Yoroku, encouraged him to take up physical activities, such as sumo and swimming, to strengthen his weak body. However, it was only after he witnessed his father being attacked and beaten, that the necessity of becoming stronger, and a desire to protect his family and himself, was realized.

In 1901, aged 18, the Founder moved to Tokyo where he began the study of Jujitsu and Kenjitsu. He was married a year after moving to Tokyo, and later served in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. It was during his experiences as a Japanese infantryman that he began to work on his strength, and worked himself up to a rock-hard 180 pounds. He was only 5 feet 2 inches tall.

When he returned home, his father, still keen that his son should continue his martial arts training built a dojo and hired the Jujitsu Master Takaki Kiyoichi to teach him.

Sokaku Takeda

In 1912, aged 29, the Founder and 80 other villagers emigrated to Shirataki, Hokkaido, which at the time was being offered as virgin land by the government. For seven years as the leader of this new colony, he cultivated the land, served on the town council, and contributed to the development of the Shirataki region.

It was during this time that he met Sokaku Takeda, by chance, at a Hokkaido inn in 1915, when he was 32. It was this Jujitsu training that opened the Founder’s eyes to the deep meaning of the martial arts. The Founder received the highest certification in the Daito School from Master Takeda.

Onisaburo Deguchi

The death of his father in 1920 came as a great shock to him and, leaving everything behind in Hokkaido, he returned home, only to experience great psychological distress. The Founder sought guidance from the charismatic religious teacher Onisaburo Deguchi of the Shinto-derived Omoto Sect, and lived at the Omoto headquarters in Ayabe for eight years, practiced Shinto meditative and purification rites, as well as contributing to the development of this new religion.

During his stay at Ayabe, the Founder’s dedication to budo became single-minded, primarily due to Deguchi’s encouragement. Deguchi advised him to set aside a part of his residence at Ayabe and turn it into a dojo. The Founder took Deguchi’s advice seriously and opened the modest, 18 tatami Ueshiba Juku. Originally intended for the young men of the Omoto Sect, the Ueshiba Juku began to accept outside students after the name Morihei Ueshiba “The Budo Master of Ayabe” became widely known.

As the Founder’s fame spread, students began to come from Tokyo and other distant parts of Japan. Master Ueshiba had been thinking seriously about establishing his own, independent form of budo from around 1920, and in 1922 he proclaimed Aiki-bujutsu as a new martial art form. Aiki-bujutsu differed greatly from present-day Aikido, and retained the principles and techniques of older martial arts. However, the term Aiki-bujutsu was not immediately accepted, and people referred to the new martial art as Ueshiba-Ryu Aiki-bujutsu.

Experience of Sumi Kiri

The Founder’s fame continued to spread throughout Japan. In 1924-5, shortly after returning from an expedition to Inner Mongolia, a young naval officer in Ayabe challenged Master Ueshiba. It was after he defeated the officer, that the Founder experienced sumi-kiri, the clarity of mind and body. Master Ueshiba described his experience thus:

“Then, in the spring of 1925, if I remember correctly, when I was taking a walk in the garden by myself, I felt that the universe suddenly quaked, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one.”

The years 1924 and 1925 mark the beginning of the spiritual development of Aikido, for from this point on the Founder constantly advocated that “true budo is the way of great harmony and great love for all beings” and that every movement is the working of the unity of ki-mind-body.

In 1927 the Founder left Ayabe and moved to Tokyo. During the next three years he established a number of dojo in the Shiba district of Tokyo, and instructed many people in Aiki-bujutsu, including many high-ranking experts in other martial arts. Famous masters from other martial arts came to him, either to see his new budo for themselves, or to train under him. There were several masters who came to challenge Master Ueshiba, but were defeated, and some decided to stay and learn from the man who was becoming known as the greatest living budoka. Some even speculated he was the greatest living budoka of all time.

The Kobukan Dojo

In October 1930 Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo, saw Master Ueshiba’s art, acclaimed that it was the “ideal budo” and even sent some of his best students to him. In spite of attempts to be selective, the number of students began to grow, and the Founder had to face the need for a larger dojo. In 1930 he established a new dojo in Wakamatsu-cho, Tokyo. The new training center, called the Kobukan dojo, was completed in April 1931. The Aikido Headquarters now occupies the same site. This dojo came to be known as “Hell Dojo” for at this time Master Ueshiba was at the peak of his physical strength, and training was said to be very hard.

In 1936 the Founder decided that the time had come to make a clear distinction between the old martial arts and his own, because of the philosophical and spiritual emphasis he had incorporated into his own art. He abandoned the term bujutsu and renamed his art Aiki-budo.

In 1939 the Founder submitted an official request for his organization to be recognized as a juridical foundation under the name Kobukai. The approval of the request the following year made Aikido an officially incorporated body and marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Aikido. Membership grew and the name of Master Ueshiba became more widely known than ever.

Greater Japan Virtue Association

The outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941 and the increasing shift towards militarism in Japanese society could not but hinder Aikido’s growth. The number of Aikido students was greatly reduced as more and more young men were drafted into the Japanese armed forces.

One of the government’s attempts to mobilize the country for the war effort was an order to unify the diverse martial arts groups into a single body. This single body would be totally under the government’s control. In 1942 various traditions of judo, kendo and other martial arts joined together to form the Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association.

The Founder did not openly voice his objections to this government directive. Master Ueshiba was, in fact, a patriot in the true sense, believing one should be prepared to die for one’s country, and so chose not to protest the government’s wartime policy.

It appeared, however, that he was definitely unhappy that the new budo he had developed as distinct from other martial art forms was to be forced to become part of such an organization. To him, the directive had little to do with love for one’s country.

Strongly opposed to being merged to other groups as just another martial art form, he came to feel that the name Kobukan Aiki-budo suggested that it was merely the Kobukan style or branch of some broader art. He decided to proclaim the new name Aikido to identify his art as a unique and distinctive form of budo, and then entered the association under the new name. In February 1942, Aikido was officially recognized as the name of the Founder’s school.

The Foundations for Iwama

The idea to establish a spiritual centre for Aikido came to the Founder around 1935. Having established a firm foundation for Aikido in Tokyo, his desire to spread true budo in the world was being fulfilled, and he took delight in the success he had achieved.

Around 1935, making use of his small savings, the Founder began purchasing forestland in the countryside around Iwama. Farming was in his blood, as evident in his venture to colonize the Shirataki in Hokkaido, and he planned to cultivate the land and renew the quest for a spiritual budo.

However, his wish to return to working with the earth could not be easily realized, for as a renowned martial artist he was constantly being invited to various places and his busy schedule left him no time to pursue his real desire.

The wartime effort to organize all forms of martial arts under a single bureaucracy presented a unique opportunity. With events making it all but impossible to continue the normal events of Aikido, he was no longer needed to direct its growth, and as the war clouds darkened the number of his students began to decline and invitations to perform Aikido declined.

The order to join the Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association as part of the war effort was the last straw. Thus it was that the Founder proclaimed the establishment of Aikido and finally made his decision to retreat to Iwama where he could pursue his own path.

The Aiki Shrine

Aiki Shrine in Iwama

In settling in Iwama, the Founder had in mind three plans to realize his ideal of a true budo. First was to establish an Aiki Shrine that would symbolize the Way of ai-ki and the spirit of Aikido. Second was to construct an outdoor dojo permeated with the ki of nature where the ideal budo of Takemusu could be taught. Third was to realize his cherished dream of unifying agriculture with martial art. He sought to relate the budo training (take) that harmonizes with the protective life force (musu) to the work of farming through which the earth produces life-sustaining food.

The Aiki Shrine was conceived to pay homage to the 43 gods who protect and give procreative power to Aikido and to be the sacred centre for all Aikido practitioners who vow to promote the Way for all beings. The Founder strongly believed that his prowess in budo came not from himself but from gods that protected him and nurtured his ability.

The layout of the Aiki Shrine is based on the principles of kototama. The placement of the inner sanctuary, the hall of worship, and the entrance, are all in accordance with the three principles of the triangle, the circle and the square. These three signs are symbolic of the breathing exercise in kototama study. In the words of the Founder:

“When the triangle, the circle and the square become one, it moves in spherical rotation together with the flow of ki, and the Aikido of sumi kiri appears.”

The completion of the main sanctuary of the Aiki Shrine in 1943 was an occasion that brought tears of joy to the Founder, for the future of Aikido was established. The shrine is now a Mecca for all true students of the art.

Events after World War II

Construction of the outdoor dojo, the second part of the Founder’s plan, took place in one corner of his farm. But with the increase in students, it was necessary to build a small indoor dojo of 30 tsubo. This was completed in 1945, immediately after the Second World War.

During the three years after the war, the Hombu Dojo at Wakamatsu-cho was forced to curtail activities for a variety of reasons, including the ban on all martial arts imposed by the Allied Occupation Forces. All the activities were moved to Iwama, so that at a time when the general climate and mood towards martial arts was strongly negative, Aikido was able to endure because of its dojo at Iwama. Today it is called the Ibaraki Dojo, and is dedicated to the memory of the Founder.

After the war the martial arts went into decline for a time, and the future of Aikido was also in doubt. The Founder’s faith in his new Aikido prevailed, and he worked hard to establish a place for Aikido in post-war Japan.

On February 9, 1948, the Ministry of Education allowed the re-establishment of the Aikikai, with a revised charter. During that time, the main dojo in Tokyo was renamed the Ueshiba dojo, and World Headquarters of Aikido.

From 1950 onwards the Founder began to travel around Japan, giving demonstrations and teaching. As he reached his seventies, his superb technique flowed increasingly from his vastness of spirit, contrasting the fierceness and physical strength that characterized his earlier years.

The Founder came to place greater emphasis on the loving nature of Aikido. The first character of Aikido, “ai”, which means harmony, is read in the same way as the character meaning love. In his later years, the Founder stressed the equivalence of these two meanings.

The Hombu dojo of Aikido

In 1954 the Aikido headquarters was moved to Tokyo, and the Tokyo dojo took the official title of the Aikikai Foundation: the Hombu dojo of Aikido.

The first public demonstration of Aikido since the end of the war was held in September of 1956, on the rooftop of the Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. The demonstration lasted five days, and left a deep impression on the foreigners present. The Founder had always opposed such demonstrations, but he understood that Japan was entering a new era, and consented in order to further the development of Aikido.

As the Founder became older, he took a less active role in the management of the Aikikai, leaving his son, Kisshomaru, in charge of the instruction at the Hombu dojo. He continued to give demonstrations, and in January 1960, NTV broadcast “The Master of Aikido”, a program that captured the Founder’s techniques on film.

Later that year, Emperor Hirohito gave the Shijuhosho Award to the Founder. Only three people from the martial arts world had ever received this award before.

Completion of the new Hombu dojo

March 14, 1967, marked the ceremony for the construction of a new Hombu dojo in Tokyo. In December of that same year, a modern three-story building made of reinforced concrete was completed. One of the rooms was used by the Founder as a study and bedroom, which is known today as the Founder’s Materials Room.

On January 2, 1968, a commemorative ceremony was held in honor of the completion of the new Hombu dojo, where the Founder spoke about the essence of Aikido technique. Later that year, the Founder was to give his last demonstration of Aikido, at the Kokaido in Hibiya, in honor of the completion of the new building.

On January 15, 1969, the Founder attended the New Year’s celebration in the Hombu Dojo. Although he appeared to be in good health, his physical condition rapidly deteriorated, and O-Sensei passed away peacefully on April 26, 1969 at 5pm, aged 86.

About Takemusu Aikido South Africa

The Takemusu Aikido Association South Africa (TAASA), formally Iwama Ryu™ South Africa, is a free group of black-belted practitioners of Aikido based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our aim is to promote and spread the traditional teaching method of Morihiro Saito Sensei, direct student of the Founder of Aikido, to all communities in South Africa.