Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba

Biography is compiled based on the materials from:

Takemusu Aikido: Background and Basics, by Morihiro Saito and Budo by Morihei Ueshiba

Photos are reproduced from Takemusu Aikido and Traditional Aikido books, if other source not specified .

Morihei Ueshiba is known as one of the world’s greatest martial artists for his creation of aikido, the synthesis of his profound spiritual insight into the nature of the universe. Aikido is much more than just another fighting style, it is a holistic approach to life that Morihei described as “a divine path inspired by gods that leads to truth, goodness, and beauty”.

Morihei Ueshiba was born on 14 December 1883 in the seaport town of Tanabe, in present-day Wakayama prefecture. He was the fourth child and the eldest son of a widely respected farmer, who had served on the local council for many years.

Ueshiba was rather weak and sickly as a child, and his father encouraged him in more physical pursuits and taught him sumo and swimming.

Ueshiba went to Tanabe Higher Elementary School and then to Tanabe Prefectural Middle School, but left formal education in his early teens, enrolling instead at a private abacus academy to study accountancy. On graduating from the academy, he worked at a local tax office for a short time. But in 1901 or 1902 and left home to become a merchant in Tokyo. After less than a year he had to leave Tokyo as he fell ill with beriberi. But this period was very important for young Ueshiba because during this period he began his study of martial arts learning Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu and Tenjin Shinyō-ryu jujutsu.

In 1903 Morihei Ueshiba joined the army, where he received hand-to-hand combat training, including bayonet and rifle instruction. During his military service Ueshiba also had an opportunity to learn Yagyu-ryu jujutsu – traditional Japanese martial art with a large comprehensive curriculum of weapons, and grappling techniques. He continued to attend Yagyu-ryu dojo even after his discharge from the army in 1906, and was granted a Menkyo Kaiden – a Certificate of Transmission in 1908.
After the military service Morihei Ueshiba returned to Tanabe, where he learned Kodokan Judo.

In the part of the 20th century, the prefectural government of Hokkaido was offering various grants and incentives for mainland Japanese groups willing to settle there. In 1912 Morihei Ueshiba organized and led a group of fifty-four households (over 80 people) to Hokkaido. They settled at Shirataki, near the village of Yobetsu, a site chosen by Ueshiba on an earlier trip. The area was then a wasteland, and colonists had to struggle against appalling weather and poor soil conditions. Their life was centred on farming, lumbering, and survival in the harsh Hokkaido winters. Morihei did his utmost to ensure the success of the venture and has gained influence in this new community serving as a leader to his compatriots from Tanabe. He participated in local politics by serving a term as a county councilman.

During his Hokkaido period Morihei Ueshiba made the acquaintance of Sokaku Takeda, a highly skilled master of Daito-ryu jujutsu. Ueshiba was fascinated by the powerful and intricate techniques of Daito-ryu jujutsu, and devoted a great deal of time and resources to study under Takeda. The Daito-ryu curriculum he studied consisted of several hundred jujutsu techniques with complex maneuvers, joint-locks, and pins. Takeda also demonstrated an ability called “aiki,” in which he controlled the intent of the attacker, thus neutralizing his aggression. Takeda was also an expert in the use of the sword among other weapons, however, it would seem that Ueshiba's focus was on Daito Ryu. The techniques of Takeda’s jujutsu would later form the basis for virtually all aikido movements and its contribution to Morihei’s art cannot be overstated. Ueshiba was one of Takeda’s top students and sometimes accompanied him on teaching tours around the island. During his time in Hokkaido, Ueshiba received a first-level transmission scroll from Takeda.
At the end of 1919 Ueshiba received the news that his father was seriously ill. Morihei hastily set his affairs in order and departed to Tanabe leaving most of his Shirataki possessions to Takeda. On the way to Tanabe Ueshiba heard about the healing powers of Onisaburo Deguchi, an extraordinary leader of Omoto religion. Swayed by a desire to meet him, Morihei detoured to a small town called Ayabe near Kyoto, where the centre of Omoto religion was at that time. The charismatic Onisaburo Deguchi made a deep impression on Morihei, who ended up spending few days in Ayabe before resuming his journey to Tanabe.

Ueshiba’s father had already passed away when Morihei finally reached home. A few months later Morihei Ueshiba decided to relocate to Ayabe to seek inner peace and ascetic life within Omoto precincts. He soon became part of Onisaburo’s inner circle of supporters. Deguchi was impressed with Morihei’s martial arts skills and encouraged him to instruct interested Omoto believers. This led to the opening of the “Ueshiba Private School” in his home, where Morihei taught Daito-ryu jujutsu.
In 1922, Morihei received a visit from his teacher Sokaku Takeda, who arrived with his family and stayed for nearly six months and awarded formal teaching certification to Morihei at the end of this stay.

Onisaburo Deguchi had many grandiose schemes in his efforts to expand the influence of the Omoto religion. One of the most extraordinary was a plan to establish a utopian religious nation in Mongolia. Accompanied by a small group of close companions that included Ueshiba, Onisaburo set out for the continent in February 1924. To accomplish his goal, Onisaburo cast his lot with a rebel military commander active in the region. This turned out to be an ill-fated decision as he and his Japanese cohort were soon captured and arrested by the Chinese authorities. All members of Onisaburo’s party were sentenced to death and only survived when the Japanese consulate miraculously intervened at the last moment.

After his return to Japan Morihei tried to resume his former life by uniting the practice of martial arts and farming. He became interested in spear techniques and continued his intensive practice of swordsmanship and jujutsu.
His Daito-ryu students included a number of naval officers, including Admiral Seikyo Asano, also an Omoto believer. Admiral Asano spoke highly of Ueshiba to his navy colleagues and encouraged another Admiral, Isamu Takeshita, to make a special trip to Ayabe to see what Daito-Ryu was all about. Takeshita was extremely impressed and soon arrangements were made for Morihei to conduct demonstrations and seminars in Tokyo in the fall of 1925. Ueshiba’s patrons also included retired admiral and two-time prime minister Gombei Yamamoto. Ueshiba also spent twenty-one days teaching the martial arts at the Crown Prince’s Palace.

Between 1925 and 1927 Ueshiba made several trips to Tokyo to teach military and political elites. Finally, with Onisaburo’s blessing, Ueshiba decided to relocate to Tokyo and establish himself as a teacher of martial arts.

In the first years after establishing himself in Tokyo, Ueshiba taught in the private residences of several of his patrons. His students consisted mainly of persons of high social standing-military officers, politicians, and members of the business elite. Admiral Takeshita, who was a devotee of the martial arts and at one time served as the president of the Sumo Association, was a particularly active supporter. Takeshita studied Daito-ryu for more than ten years and held classes in his own home. He went to great lengths to introduce Ueshiba and his art in the appropriate social circles and it is unlikely that the founder of aikido would have succeeded to the extent he did in Tokyo without the Admiral’s backing.
In 1930 Morihei obtained his villa in Ushigome, Wakamatsu-cho, and began construction of a new dojo. In 1931 his dojo called Kobukan was completed at the same site where Hombu Dojo stands today. Among Ueshiba’s live-in disciples and students during the Kobukan period were such well-known practitioners as Yoichiro Inoue, Kenji Tomiki, Minoru Mochizuki, Tsutomu Yukawa, Shigemi Yonekawa, Rinjiro Shirata, and Gozo Shioda. The next few years were extremely busy ones for Morihei Ueshiba, as he was teaching not only at the Kobukan, but in many other dojo that had started up in Tokyo and Osaka.

As a result of his many contacts with naval and military officers, Ueshiba was engaged to provide martial arts instruction at various military institutes such as the Toyama school for army officers, the so-called “Nakano Spy School,” the Naval Academy, as well as other locations. Actual instruction was often delegated to senior students from the Kobukan as the demands on Ueshiba’s schedule increased.

In 1932 the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Martial Arts was founded and in 1933 Morihei became its president. By the mid-thirties Morihei had become famous throughout the martial arts world.

For a part of this period Ueshiba actively taught the techniques of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, as Takeda’s art was sometimes referred to, and he awarded transmission scrolls bearing the name of this school. However, Morihei’s relationship with the demanding Takeda had become strained and he gradually distanced himself from his former teacher. He seems to have had no further direct contact with Takeda after about 1935, although the techniques of Daito-ryu in modified form still constituted the majority of Ueshiba’s technical repertoire. The name most frequently used to refer to his art during the prewar years was “aikibudo.”

In 1941 Morihei Ueshiba presented a special Enbu for the Imperial family at the Imperial Guard Dojo, situated within the Kōkyo, Tokyo's Imperial palace grounds.

Between 1939 and 1942 Ueshiba performed several aikibudo demonstrations in Manchuria, the very last one happened in presence of Manchurian Emperor Pu Yi.
With the outbreak of the Pacific War most of Ueshiba’s finest young instructors and students went to the front. As a result, it was little activity at the Kobukan dojo. In 1942, after falling ill with a serious intestinal disorder, Ueshiba retired to the village of Iwama in Ibaraki Prefecture where he had purchased land some years earlier. Away from the frenzied life in war-torn Tokyo, he engaged in farming, training, and meditation.

These years in Iwama proved critical to the development of modern aikido. Free as never before to pursue his budo studies with full concentration, Morihei immersed himself in intensive training and reflection to further perfect a martial art dedicated to achieving the peaceful resolution of conflict.

After the war all Japanese martial arts were banned by occupation forces, and remote Iwama village was a place where Morihei Ueshiba preserved and further developed his martial art by that time already known as Aikido. During the years of seclusion at Iwama, the founder began a serious study of the sword and staff, known in aikido as “aiki-ken” and “aiki-jo.” He regarded an understanding of the use of these weapons as fundamental to the proper execution of open-handed techniques. Ueshiba’s conception of the aikido curriculum was that of a comprehensive system that included training both with and without weapons. For most of this period, young Morihiro Saito was Ueshiba’s training partner, and he was exposed to many techniques and insights which the founder did not generally teach.

During this phase of his life in Iwama, the founder also formulated the concept of Takemusu Aiki, that is, the spontaneous execution of infinite techniques in a manner completely appropriate to the specific circumstance.
From the beginning of the 1950s, Ueshiba Began to travel around Japan in response to invitations to teach, lecture, and give demonstrations. Many students who began training after the war and who actually had an opportunity to see the founder teach and demonstrate were inspired by his energetic yet graceful movements, as well as by his ethical views on martial arts. Ueshiba was by nature an optimistic man and would often show a light-hearted side when teaching or demonstrating. At other times, especially when talking about the deeper meaning of aikido both in class and in more informal settings, the contemplative side of his nature would be revealed. Always spontaneous, the founder would sometimes become angry if he saw students engage in dangerous practice or fail to display a sufficiently serious attitude while training. All of these facets of his character left lasting impressions on those with whom he came into contact.

The first public demonstrations of martial arts since the end of the war was held by Aikikai in 1956 in Tokyo. It lasted five days and made a deep impression on the foreign dignitaries present. Morihei had initially opposed giving such public demonstrations but consented to further the development of aikido. After that a series of large public demonstrations had place.
In his later years, as his health began to gradually decline, Ueshiba spent much of his time in Tokyo. He took a less active role in the management of the Aikikai, leaving his son Kisshomaru Ueshiba in charge of the instruction at Hombu Dojo, but still continued to give demonstrations. No longer able to move as quickly or freely as he could when he was younger, the founder’s aikido underwent a transformation. Many of his techniques became abbreviated and he would be seen to throw his young and powerful students with a rapid gesture, or the flick of a hand, sometimes without even touching his partner. Because this phase of Ueshiba’s life corresponded with the first stage of aikido’s growth internationally, the image of a little old man with a white beard waving his hand in front of a charging attacker dominates in the minds of many students and teachers of the art. The founder’s art in the last years of his life was the product of more than sixty years of training and contemplation. The wide exposure he received through his public demonstrations and the later availability of films has spawned many imitators.
In 1961 Ueshiba went to the United States on the invitation of the Hawaii Aikikai.
In 1969, Ueshiba became ill. He led his last training session on March 10 and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He died on April 26, 1969. His ashes were buried in the cemetery of the Ueshiba family temple in Tanabe, and strands of the founder’s hair were enshrined at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama, the Ueshiba family cemetery in Ayabe, and at the Kumano Grand Shrine.
Morihei Ueshiba received several rewards from the Japanese government in recognition of his contributions to martial arts.