Category Archives: Aikido History

O’Sensei, Ocha-zuke, and that big stone step…

One of O’Sensei’s references for an ancient budo,  dedicated to protecting the way and people of a shrine, was Tsukahara Bokuden.  He most likely received a copy of Bokuden’s  The Hundred Rules of War when Hori Shohei put out a small edition in celebration of a Kendo tournament in December 1938. So he would have read these three paragraphs:

rule #50

  • If a Samurai is preparing to step onto the field of battle it is wise to avoid eating anything other than hot water poured over rice 1)…

…and the note by Hori Shohei: ‘It appears tea was not common…’

So I think it no coincidence that the meal O’Sensei so liked and that Hikitsuchi Shihan’s mother prepared so often for him…was green tea over rice: Ocha-zuke

rule #67

  • Samurai should, as a matter of course, engage in contests of strength. If you do not then your muscles will become slack 1)…

…and the note by Hori Shohei: “Before the Meiji Restoration when each [province] of Japan was its own domain, the peasants strengthened themselves with their day to day labor. They also tested themselves by lifting and carrying the large stones in front of the local shrines and did push-ups in order to build their muscles and thereby increase their overall strength. However beginning in the Meiji Era such feats of strength began to be ridiculed and the use of the rocks dwindled. Thus it is hardly a surprise that the youth of today are weak.”

…all of which puts Mitsugi Saotome Shihan’s memory of the huge stone step at Iwama that O’Sensei asked him to move… and then moved for him… in a much clearer light!!!

rule #95

  • It is important to understand that should the mirror in a Samurai’s heart be unclouded then the opponent will be clearly reflected in it 1)…

…which is so central to the practice of aikido, that we find, later, that when O’Sensei talks of the inspiring tradition of budo as love and protection, Tsukahara Bokuden is the forerunner and originator he most frequently names.

1) The Hundred Rules of War Tsukahara Bokuden  tr. Eric Shahan pp.115, 143, 195

…dojo eaves with black Mitsudomoe!!!…


December 14, 1940… Shufutsu-no-makimono…

Nidai Doshu writes, in A Life in Aikido, “There is a scroll I treasure recording a shufutsu conducted by O’Sensei, with Koun Nakanishi 1)  leading the ceremony and Yuiun Akiyama assisting, on December 14th, 1940.  Shufutsu is one of the most important Shinto ceremonies, in which those participating conduct misogi… in order to enter into communication with guardian deities.

“This shufutsu lists the forty-three guardian deities of Aikido:  Sarutakiko Omikami; Kunitsu Ryuo; Kuzuryu Daigongen; Tachikara no Mikoto; Ameno-murakumo-kuki-samuhara-ryuo-no-omikami and others; various names of Ryuo; Daigongen; Daitengu; and Daibosatsu….they are connected with the chronology of O’Sensei’s training and  development…  This ceremony commemorated those moments when  his human mind rose above its limits to touch something greater and  more enlightened.”  2)

We know from O’Sensei’s accounts that the shufutsu involved an hour of late night misogi, started around two in the morning…  which rather suggests that late night misogi was part of O’Sensei’s regular routine: along with late night training.

The ceremony marked a new beginning for O’Sensei, but it was also a  response to a personal crisis.  At a time when he was at the height of his powers, when sword moves and empty-handed moves felt to him as if he was channeling the divine, he was nevertheless aware that not only was the promise of the Omoto-kyo years – of his Omoto-kyo years – largely unfulfilled,  but far, far worse: the entire nation – including his many friends and sponsors in leadership positions – was being dragged into war on all fronts by the most bellicose factions of the Army. O’Sensei undoubtedly could see that his long-time Navy sponsors, and the civilian government which he advised 3) were time and again being out- manoeuvred in the complex politics arising from the constitutional independence of Army and Navy.

So in performing the shufutsu, O’Sensei was requesting divine advice, and support going forward.  He got both. The Dragon King


– installed in O’Sensei’s hara by a Shingon priest before he went off to fight in the Russo-Japanese War – and whom he regarded as an avatar of


– affirmed to him the Omoto-kyo world-view, and instructed him to get back to work, purifying the world and setting everything aright.

Then going forward from that time, the head of the Earthly kami


– whose avatar, the Tengu king


trains on Mount Kumara ascetic warriors going back to Minamoto no Yoshitsune – the reputed founder of Daito-Ryu – started coming to help O’Sensei in his daily training – especially, one might imagine, his late-night training, including his misogi practice.

And in the course of all this, O’Sensei tells us, he had one – or more (no singular/plural in Japanese) – enlightenment experience(s).

And he continued adding to the land he had purchased in the auspiciously named and located Iwama.

All of this, O’Sensei narrates in one of the talks he gave to the Byakko-kai in the late 1950’s, collected and published as Takemusu Aiki  4).  It is difficult language to translate, in part because Japanese makes no distinction between perfect and plu-perfect tense – so that the listener – and the translator – often has to deduce the chronology of events from context, phraseology and intonation.

But we can assume that – in his late night misogi practice – he marked the anniversary of the shufutsu of December 1940:  particularly as the first anniversary would have been right after Pearl Harbor (following on from the resignation of the Prime Minister O’Sensei was working for), and the second anniversary would have been shortly after his sudden – as Nidai Doshu recalls it – relocation to Iwama.  Indeed, Shufutsu – to the very same forty-three kami – is still part of the annual ireisai for O’Sensei held at the Aiki Jinja he built in Iwama. 5)

It is in this context that we should understand the account of his evolving training practice,  and of events after the move to Iwama, which O’Sensei presented to an Aiki-no-Tsudoi audience in the late 1950’s:

“Up till now,  aiki –  as budo – has been a thing of one kata after another, BUT  now that it has fundamentally forgotten all of that,  it has become a matter of where you put your spirit.  If you don’t have,  in your own heart, a heart of love, then there is no way you can produce these  magnificent waza that are about protecting the whole of creation:   in just the same way, we know, as our traditional Japanese kamae seigan, is very, very much a kamae of love. The inner truth of being without forms,  is that Japanese budo does not force the opponent into a series of moves:  it does not force him to be aite…  And the  [standard mental attitude and fundamental tactic of]  not resisting is so very much a gesture of the spirit – an act, as it were, in the spiritual world – that it has a [spiritual] name:  nenpi-Kannon-riki.  It is the innermost hidden secret [ – the gokui – ] of bu that there are no forms.  Bu arises  spontaneously from our deepest impulses, and it is fundamentally, and from the very outset, a matter of ki controlling everything.

“These things were  all  revealed to me in my training by


and then on December 16th, 1942, in the time between 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock in the morning, all the kami of Japan were good enough to show their presence and congratulate me on the advent of  [true]  Aiki.  [Which with] training in Yamato-damashii, and the swordsmanship of Sho-Chiku-Bai, and with the double-edged sword that unifies Heaven and Earth, using the movement of the heart, washes away the world’s impurities.  And in that regard, the very first thing [that had to happen,] was that the Great Pacific War had to be ended.  It’s a hard thing to talk about, but I had been blessed with the opportunity to make a great new beginning, and so I had retired – [after which I found] divine providence manifesting itself  from every possible direction – and  I  built in Iwama a 36 tatami Aiki-Jinja.  And soon after that, when the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which made me all the more resolute, His Majesty, with an Imperial Proclamation, ended the war. From that time, when you look at Japan, you see that everyone has been bound together with bonds of aiki and mutual concern.”  6)

The forty-three guardian deities were, of course, solemnly enshrined in the Aiki Jinja. And shortly after the end of the war, O’Sensei had the late night visions of training with a phantom swordsman that he talks about in that same talk to the Byakko-kai.

And he concludes:
“I understood that that was the deep meaning of religion. And I knew that the deep meaning of budo was one with religion.  And I cried tears of religious ecstasy. My heart was bursting with pious gratitude towards all things and all beings in the universe down to the very humblest of creatures – all of them manifestations of the working of the Unique Origin of the universe. And I began to sob.

“At that moment I stopped training in aiki. There was left only the sword method of Sho-Chiku-Bai  – which I had acquired at that time.

“This aiki is the misogi of the universe. The duty of the Way of the human-being.

“It gives rise to the great heart manifested by the Emperor Meiji who said: ‘consider as friends the peoples of the seas of all four directions’.” 7)

1) An important kotodama scholar, and friend of O’Sensei’s.  The concept of ‘takemusu aiki‘ derives from Koun Nakanishi’s thinking.
2) p. 268
3)  The second administration of Prime-minister Fujimaro Konoe. Born into the ancient and prestigious Fujiwara clan, Prince Fujimaro Konoe studied Marxist economics at Kyoto Imperial University, and in 1925 was instrumental in passing the bill for Universal Male Suffrage in Japan. Twice prime-minister, he was consistently out-manoeuvred by the
army – which was an independent branch of government under the Meiji constitution.  Shortly after failing to achieve peace with China, he was replaced by Hideki Tojo. Two months later, the navy – also an  independent branch of government – bombed Pearl Harbor, and Japan was at war “higashi ni, nishi ni“: to the East and to the West. Fujimaro is also remembered for refashioning wartime Japan as a one-party state – but this, too, can be seen as an – unsuccessful – attempt to curb the political power of the Army.
4) Partially translated in A Life In Aikido, pp. 40-43,  and by Peter Goldsbury here . A  complete French translation is in Takemusu Aiki vol. III,  pp.83-92.
5)  “On April 29th at 11 a.m. the “Aiki Shrine Festival” and the “Founder / Kisshomaru II Doshu Memorial Service”, were held at the Aiki Shrine in Kasama city (former Iwama town),Ibaraki Prefecture. Around one thousand four hundred people gathered for this event.
“The Aiki Shrine Festival began with Shufutsu (purification rite), follow by a festival Norito (festival chant). The Ueshiba family and various circles representatives offered Tamagushihouten (reverentially offering to God branch of sacred tree) in honor of the Founder / Kisshomaru II Doshu Memorial Service.
“After the festival chant dedicated for the ancestral spirits of the Founder / Kisshomaru II Doshu Memorial Service, the Ueshiba family, visitors related to Kisshomaru II Doshu and visitors representatives, offered Tamagushihoutei (reverentially offering to people branch of sacred tree). At the end, all participants recited the Amatsu Norito  (heavenly festival chant).”
– – – from the website of the Aikikai’s Ibaraki Branch Dojo,
retrieved January 23, 2016
6)  Aiki Shinzui, pp.129-130
7)  French edition of Takemusu Aiki vol. III,  pp.91-92

The model for O’Sensei’s vision…

When O’Sensei talked about the great founding swordsmen of antiquity, he listed three: Yagyu Jubei, Tsukahara Bokuden and Iizasa Ienao, all of whom spoke about, practised, and founded ryu where the arts of war were practised as a means of preserving peace…  The earliest of these was Iizasa Ienao, the founder, in 1447,  of the very oldest sword ryu that we know by name: Katori Shoden Shinto-ryu.  O’Sensei acquired a partial but detailed knowledge of Katori Shinto-ryu from Yoshio Sugino, and Aritomo Murashige, two 1930’s-era deshi who had studied Katori Shinto-ryu at the Kodokan before being sent to study with O’Sensei. In particular, we hear that O’Sensei was interested in Murashige’s bo-work, and there is a Katori Shinto-ryu bo vs. bokken kata where the bo begins with the typical first few moves of what we know as the aikido family of  jo-kata.  In 1995, Yoshio Sugino published a brief account of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Heiho – which has been folded into the recent English translation of his 1941 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Budo Kyohan.  It is hard to imagine that O’Sensei was unaware of the details of Iizasa Ienao’s period of intensive prayer and practice, culminating in the creation of Katori Shinto-ryu, and in fact he appears to have modeled his withdrawal to Iwama very closely on it – with success as we know. O’Sensei would have been unable to find a pre-existing shrine to withdraw to, as they were all under state control – but he did leave  deshi and dojo, retire to the hills above Kashima shrine, build a shrine, purify himself with prayers and misogi at 2.00 o’clock in the morning every night, then pray for peace in the world, and train… and he did receive a divine vision, following which, ‘the divinity and the person became one and the secret principles of heiho revealed themselves to him.’ Then he created his art, built a dojo close to the shrine and, eventually, taught many students.

* – * – *

…[Iizasa Iga-no-Kami] Ienao felt great sorrow and became pensive: “Although I was undefeated in several battles, the house of [my feudal master, Lord of our province,] Chiba has been extinguished by their destiny. With mere human strength nothing can be done about it.”

But after a time he was able to overcome his hopelessness. He visited the Katori Daijin –


– the god of bravery of our country, and became aware of the great virtue of the god. In doing so he decided to lock himself into the Katori shrine, and devote himself intensively to the training of budo. He donated 1000 koku from the village of Osaki and in the village of Otsuki Miyamoto he built the Shinpukuji temple. For its construction he made a donation of an area worth…1000 koku. Ienau dismissed his more than 50 vassals, and at the age of more than 60 he withdrew, completely alone, into the vicinity of the Katori-Jingu in Umekiyama next to the Bishamon-den… For 1000 days and nights he followed his deep desire; he cleansed his body and his mind, diligently devoted himself to…heiho…and toughened himself more and more. Every night at…2.00 o’clock in the morning…he read Shinto prayers…in order to cleanse himself in front of the divinity…and prayed for peace in the world. Afterwards, at the hour of…4.00 o’clock…he want back to the Bishamon-den and read prayers for Bishamon… Then, early in the morning once again he visited the shrine and then trained 1000 times with tremendous effort.

One night in his dreams he had the vision of the great Katori divinity…and he received a divine scroll from it. In addition, the divinity said: “Later you will be the teacher of all swordsmen of the whole country.”

Finally, he had found the special condition in which the divinity and the person become one and the secret principles of…heiho…revealed themselves to him. Thus he reached the highest step in …heijutsu…in his 70th year. From this, he created some hundred…kata…of…heiho…, built a dojo close to the Shimpukuji temple and taught many students.

– – – from Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Budo Kyohan, Sugino Yoshio and Ito Kikue,  tr. Izumi Mikami-Rott and Ulf Rott,  pp.31-32

Memories of O’Sensei (2)…

At six thirty in the morning, excepting those days where quite suddenly he has decided to make a teaching trip away from Tokyo,  Uyeshiba Sensei comes into the dojo. He is truly a “great master” [ – an “O  Sensei” – ], precisely because he never plays at being “Master” and never behaves as if he is in charge.  Already, our paths had crossed in the stairwell, where he was politely climbing the stairs with small steps, in his socks. He had stopped to talk with a Japanese student. He was smiling a lot,   open-faced, bright-eyed. He seemed to be quite amused. He is this way a lot. He looks at one and all with in jovial and sympathetic manner. He talks a lot. In the dojo, he talks all the time…

read more:

Memories of O’Sensei (1)…

He was small, but when he was in a room he filled it completely.  Speaking just for myself, it seemed to me that his physical body represented just a very small part of his being. He had none of the aggressiveness of a samurai, nor the severity, nor the air of intense concentration; he gave the impression that he had left all those things  far behind him. His sweetness and simplicity, on the one hand, and the absolute control he had of his adversaries – his effectiveness – on the other hand, formed not a contrast, but, paradoxically, a harmonious whole. I could, I fear, fill entire pages with my subjective impressions of the old Master, as could everyone who came near him, but, with all due respect to the lovers of anecdotes, it is no more essential to have known the Master in order to practise Aikido than it is to have had personal contact with Prince Gautama in order to be a Buddhist.

– – – J. Greslé,  cited in Les arts martiaux interiorisés ou l’Aikido de la sagesse,  by J-D. Cauhépé   and  A. Kuang   p. 36