The Life of O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba - Part 1

by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Second Doshu

Editor's Note: O-Sensei's son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, recounted O-Sensei's life story, in his first book Aikido, which was one of the first books on Aikido translated into English. This is the first installment. Photos courtesy of the Aikikai Foundation from the book, The 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Ueshiba Morihei, Founder of Aikido Memorial Photo Collection.

Life of O-Sensei

Birth of Aikido


The Founder's love for budo was so strong that in his young days he never failed to visit or invite any man of budo who came to his home province and ask them for instruction. His pilgrimages to various traditions of martial arts originated from his driving hunger to know. The first teacher that the Founder studied under in his teens was Tokusaburo Tozawa of Kito Ryu Jujutsu.

The next was Masakatsu Nakai of the Goto-Ha Yagyu Ryu of Jujutsu who lived in Sakai City at that time. The Founder has said that vestiges of this study are utilized in Aikido hand motion and footwork. He was about twenty when he studied under Nakai.

When he joined the 61st Regiment of the Japanese Army in 1903, his study stopped for a while. He returned from Manchuria after the Russo-Japanese War and was stationed at Hamadera. He again visited Nakai to study during his free time. Nakai was a descendant of the Yagyu family, famous for its sword tradition, and is said to have been a toughly built man, although he was only a little over five feet tan. He was also a man of fine warrior spirit. The Founder obtained a certificate from this ryu in July 1908.

The Founder later obtained a certificate from Sokaku Takeda of the Daito Ryu of Jujutsu in May. 1916. This period of study had a deep relationship with the birth of Aikido, as will be explained later. Then in 1924 or 1925 the Founder was absorbed in the study of the spear. The author, as a child, felt like crying when he saw his father taking such great pains in his study. He was probing innumerable body changes and motions. It is clear that this became the basis of his movements in using a club, stick, or staff, and also of Aikido ENTERING (IRIMI).

The Founder thoroughly studied old jujutsu, particularly intensely during the period from 1910 to 1925. Had he stayed in any one "ryu" or tradition, Aikido would not have been born, because while Aikido makes use of elements of the old traditions, it is a dynamic part of modern society.


The First Gleam of Budo in a Child's Mind

Founder Morihei Ueshiba was born in Tanabe, Kii Province (now known as Wakayama Prefecture), a south-central peninsula of the Japanese main island, in November 1883.

Until he was 14 or 15 years old, the Founder looked quite weak with his short, thin body, but he was strong and his behavior was quite different from others. He had already had a general interest in budo since he was around ten.

When he was just twelve, his father, Yoroku, a member of the local council, was the main caretaker of the village. The so-called Toughs of the town, the hoods of his father's political opponents, would come to his house to negotiate. Sometimes they would rough up his father quite severely. The Founder said that seeing this happen so frequently seared a deep sentiment into his mind. He swore to become strong no matter what it would take, and throw out his father's attackers.

Young Days as a Soldier

In 1901 when he was 18, the Founder took the first steps in the direction of achieving his driving ambition. He had come to Tokyo because he wanted to be a great merchant. He spent busy days working on a wholesale street, and studied jujutsu of the Kito Ryu at night. Some- times he went to hear political speeches, as well. However, within a few months he developed heart beriberi and had to return home.

On this occasion, he made up his mind to build a strong body and after recovering began walking two and a half miles every day. This continued for ten days. Then twenty. Eventually he began running. He slowly gained physical strength and became capable of lifting two straw bales of rice, while previously he had not been able to lift even one. By the time he was
about twenty he began to look quite different.

Although he was still short his body was much stronger than ordinary people's. But the Founder was not satisfied only to be strong. He went to Sakai to study Yagyu-Ryu jujutsu. During this time he was involved in fishery and boundary problems of his village, and helped in solving them. Through this work he became well known locally. It was also about this time that he became involved in so many activities that more than once he was a headache for his father.

The Founder was full of youthful vigor. He had an unyielding spirit. If others did twice as much as ordinary people, he would do four times. If others carried 80 pounds, he would carry 160 pounds. His quick temper found good opportunities for expression in the rice-cake-making contests of his village.

In these contests a large scoop of a special type of cooked rice is placed in a huge stone mortar or bowl. Then a large sledge, something like a wooden mallet with elongated head, is used to pound the cooked rice. An assistant constantly turns the rice over on itself as it is being pounded. Gradually the rice is transformed into a rubber-like substance which is laid out in flat cakes to cool before eating. The weight of the sledge with its awkwardly-shaped elongated head, and the force and frequency of the kneading means that making the cake requires a great deal of strength.

In these contests the Founder eagerly matched himself against other strong young men-four, six. Then ten. All were defeated. Finally the Founder broke the pounder. He would go to other places to pound rice and again broke many pounders. People eventually had to politely refuse the Founder's offer to help make rice cakes for fear he might break more of them. Instead, they served tea and pastries, in the Japanese way reserved for honored guests, to keep him away from the rice-cake-making area.

When the situation between Russia and Japan became threatening he wanted to become a soldier and joined the Wakayama Regiment. He showed his excellent ability in all stages of physical training, and while only a common-foot soldier, was noticed by the commander of the regiment.

He was only 157 cm tall (5'2") but he had a tank-like structure and weighed more than 81 kilogram (180 lbs). He played second to no one in his troop when it came to heavy gymnastics, running and carrying. As Japan was at war, training was twice as hard as usual. Many soldiers dropped out. The Founder used to march at the head of the troops carrying two or three persons' heavy equipment. He was considered a valuable man in the battle of Manchuria and prevented a crisis among his troops more than a few times.

Hence when he was discharged from military service he was requested by his officer-in-charge to volunteer for regular service and enter the military academy. He received several visits from his company commander, battalion commander, and regimental commander, all trying to persuade him to reenlist.

Although he refused to enter the academy, he did not want to return to an ordinary life. Therefore the vigorous and spirited young man became a community leader in his village of Tanabe and managed the activities of his district. Kiyoichi Takagi, then just a third grade holder in judo, visited the Founder's hometown. The Founder put together a group at the Young Men's Club of the town and had Takagi teach. Takagi later became a judo 9th dan holder. The Founder himself studied judo with great diligence.

But then, perhaps because of the fatigue resulting from his military life, the Founder had to stay in bed for about half a year, He suffered from severe headaches and some strange disease. His parents were very worried. Finally, however, he completely recovered. In the spring of 1910, he applied to become a settler in Hokkaido, the northern frontier of Japan at that time. He greatly anticipated the change of air and the opportunity to work in an undeveloped land.

The Founder went to Hokkaido in March of 1911 as leader of a group of pioneers from his area and started developing the land centering around Shirataki, Mombetsu Country, of Kitami Province. Having regained his health and renewed his spirit, and being in his vigorous thirties, he devoted himself to performing his duties. His physical condition improved greatly. He became a horseback rider and would go back and forth in the mountains and fields on business, occasionally braving storms. In this way his heavy training also included developing a resistance to severe cold. Being adventurous in this way, he was elected a member of the council of Kamiyubetsu Village, Shirataki in 1911.

He helped and encouraged Mayor Urataro Kaneshige on behalf of the settlers, and was in contact with the Governor's Office of Hokkaido. He organized an association for the realization of the Sekihoku Line, aiming to lay a railroad into the district, and was recommended to preside over the association. His sincere efforts won public approval, and in 1912 the inhabitants of Shirataki (an area about 25 square miles) gave him a full vote of confidence for his activities and respectfully called him the "King of Shirataki".

Caretaker of Settlers

Sokaku Takeda, a master of the Daito Ryu of Jujutsu, was in Hokkaido. At this time the Founder's land development work had made much progress and he had a great desire to study with Takeda. At the age of 32 he met Master Takeda at the Hotel Hisata in Engaru in 1915 and was told, "You have potential and exceptional ability. So I will teach you." He became a student.

Daito Ryu Jujutsu has a long history, traditionally claiming to have been started by Prince Sadazumi, the sixth prince of Emperor Seiwa of the ninth century , and has been developed and preserved up to the present. Its theory is deep and the number of its techniques is great.

Master Sokaku was quite an expert even though he was short ; the Founder had great respect for him. Thus after they met he had an unexpected one-month stay at Hotel Hisata to study with Takeda. Later , in 1916, the Founder invited Takeda to his home, received instruction, and took care of him, including cooking for him and bathing him. The Founder eventually built a new house for his teacher. Takeda was a man of violent spirit and very severe with students who were studying under him, This made no difference to the Founder. He forgot his food and sleep, and concentrated all his energy into their study. This fact has a deep relationship with present-day Aikido.

The Founder's study of the Daito Ryu started in 1915. In 1916 he got the precious certificate signifying his having mastered all his studies. Over that period it was less than one hundred days that he actually studied with Takeda personally. The rest of the time he studied and trained by himself.

For the budo he studied at that time he had to pay the teacher three hundred to five hundred yen for each technique (one yen then being equal to about half a dollar). In addition to that, the Founder had to work hard cutting wood and carrying water for his teacher before receiving the lesson. Thus he spent almost all the capital that he had received from his parents.

To be continued.