Morihei Ueshiba, commonly referred to as ‘O’Sensei‘, is credited as being the founder of Aikido in official sources, but two other characters – Takeda Sokaku and Onisaburo Deguchi – also played a central role. As such, it’s difficult to fully explain how Aikido came into being without an in-depth biography of all three. But a superficial look at Morihei Ueshiba and his life (at least Stan Pranin’s version of events) seems a good way of setting the scene before discussing the intricacies of Aikido. The following is a summary of what I know so far.
Morihei’s Early Years
Morihei tried a couple of martial arts before joining the army in 1903. Apparently he was recommended for a commission after somehow impressing his COs along the way, but instead decided to return to civvy street.
The story gets interesting after Morihei moved to Hokkaido with his family in 1912. It was around this time Takeda Sokaku, a man with a reputation for being a highly skilled warrior and swordsman, arrived in Hokaido and began holding seminars on something called the Daito-ryu. It was (and still is in some circles) claimed the Daito-ryu originated around 900 years ago. On the one hand, there aren’t any known records that confirm this lineage, and on the other it’s extremely unlikely Takeda alone conceived it, since he mastered an already developed body of knowledge and saw real combat at a fairly young age. Whatever art was being taught under the Daito-ryu, it was the basis from which Aikido started off, especially one of the styles I practice which is roughly 70% full contact swordwork (Aiki-Ken). In the other style I practice, which is loosely based on the Koichi Tohei version of Aikido, the strikes are taught much later in the syllabus.
Anyway, Morihei trained under Takeda for a while, and went on to teach the Daito-ryu himself up until the mid-1930s, or at least an evolving form of it. Although other students of Takeda received higher awards in later years, nobody else had trained under him longer than Morihei as far as is known.
On hearing of his father’s illness, Morihei sold his property to Takeda with the intention of returning to Hokkaido, but he was sidetracked, possibly by another relative, Yoichiro Inoue, into staying in Omoto for several days before finally arriving there.
The Omoto Affair
One of the places Morihei taught the was in Ayabe, which was heavily populated by followers of the (Shinto-based) Omoto religious sect, and that was led by an eccentric character called Onisaburo Deguchi. But this wasn’t the average religious cult. It was more a political movement leaning towards socialist, with 2 million followers during its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. It was strongly anti-government, but had connections in high places and a well-funded propaganda operation comparable to the mainstream media.
At any rate, Deguchi soon became another person to influence Morihei, and by all accounts the two men were highly loyal to each other, probably up until 1935. Although strongly pacifist, Deguchi provided the connections to massively expand the Daito-ryu, perhaps as another way to spread the sect’s teachings.
Sometime around 1922, Morihei was promoted within the Daito-ryu with a contract that said he must charge students 3 Yen and relay the proceeds to Takeda. Not only did this cause a split between the two men, it seemed he was already deviating from the canonical Daito-ryu teachings. There was one event in particular that most likely caused Morihei’s ‘spiritual awakening’:
In 1924, Deguchi, Morihei and several others secretly traveled to Manchuria in order to start a utopian colony, taking advantage of the political conflicts there to convert rebel militias. As history teaches us, conditions were already desperate enough in China for a revolution, as with Russia and Germany just a few years before, so the plan had a fair chance of succeeding.
But they were discovered by the Chinese authorities, and given the death sentence before their rescue by Japanese officials.
So, there we have it – the two central factors that influenced and possibly even led to the creation of Aikido. Very little of the Omoto’s ideology exists in today’s art, largely because Morihei’s beliefs were very personal and his own students had trouble understanding them, and partly because Koichi Tohei’s interpretation of Ki principles were much wider disseminated and broadly adopted in the years that followed.
The Establishment of Aikido as an Art
Morihei didn’t quite cut his ties with Deguchi or Takeda Sokaku, it seems. The Kobukan dojo, just prior to its opening in 1931, was visited by Takeda and representatives of the Omoto sect. The exact reason for the visits is unknown.
Morihei is known to have practiced and taught the Daito-ryu up until 1937, which is only five years before his variation of it, previously called ‘Aikijutsu’ and ‘Aiki-Budo’ became officially known as Aikido. By some accounts, early forms were much harder, more physically demanding and more direct, including strikes and substantial amounts of weapons training. It was likely the end of World War II strongly affected his ethics and outlook, and the results of that can be seen in the interview recordings that survive.
Morihei remained actively teaching until his death on 26th April 1969.