Ueshiba was not the Messiah. He was a very naughty boy.

Not Jesus.

With our Heretics podcast existing as a kind of permanent record online people can discover it at any time. Recently the Aikido Heresies episode we did has kicked off a couple of conversations. 

I think they relate directly to the Myth Busting post I did yesterday. That was all about Chinese martial arts, but the same thing applies to Aikido, perhaps on an even bigger scale.

One post from a listener goes as follows:

“So recently I came across some apparently very grim details of Morihei Ueshiba’s life history. Apparently he was in good terms with far-right activists and known war criminals (including the head of Unit 731; if you don’t know what it is, do yourself a favour and DON’T google it), and was a staunch nationalist supporter of the Emperor and the Imperial regime. 

   I have for long held to the opinion that Ueshiba was perhaps the most complex and misunderstood figures of 20th century martial arts, but now I’ve been really left to grapple with how his legacy and ideology should be correctly dealt with during our era.

   Is this more “ugly” side of Ueshiba well understood and interacted with among many Aikidoka, and what has been your solution to it?”

I see a lot of parallels between the myth-busting of martial arts and the things that are happening in modern times now in the US and UK as we unpick the uncomfortable truths of our relationships to slavery.

For example, almost all the big Downton Abby-style manor houses in the UK that have become the property of the National Trust (usually after the 2nd World War) and we all enjoy spending our Sundays visiting and enjoying the splendid gardens and architecture, were all built by fortunes made off the backs of the slave trade. And none of this is taught in our schools.

Statues like the one of the famous slave trader Edward Coulston in Bristol have been pulled down by angry crowds in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, which have spread to the UK. 

The question is how do we deal with this. Should we stop people bowing to photos of Ueshiba in Aikido dojos, for example?

I don’t know what the answer is. Walking the fine line between personal freedom and making right the sins of the past is a difficult job.

Personally, with Aikido I would look to the Aikido community to address this issue and come to terms with it.

As our friend Tammo notes:

“As a long standing practitioner of Aikido who also runs his own dojo, it was a shocked to hear these things and in the course of a year it completely changed my perspective of Aikido. Meanwhile I have come to terms with that and think I can see and value Aikido for what it is and what it isn’t.

The success of Aikido from roughly the 60s to the early 2000s (I would guess) seems to have been due to the huge efforts of myth-making around Ueshiba, modelling him into a saint-like figure… with a god-like martial ability and some strange esoteric practices which seem all very impressive. It seemed to work. Now I find it more interesting to get my head around general developments in eastern martial arts as a way to understand how different styles and branches are able to develop and become successful and why others don’t.”

In the Aikido episode of our podcast we established Ueshiba’s colonial activities in Manchuria, close ties to the leadership of, for instance 731, and (not war) but colonial crimes against the Ainu. As a member of the Kwantung army he is also associated with all of their atrocities on the continent. On that basis, I think it’s fair to say that Ueshiba was not a nice person.

4 thoughts on “Ueshiba was not the Messiah. He was a very naughty boy.

  1. There is so much negativity in the world…People are angry and want to tear things down. What’s the opposite of that?

    It’s not that people have to meet some great ideal or do some great thing, just lift someone when you can, help provide someone more options than they can see. Simple things bring greater freedom.


  2. I’m sure I began hearing the rousing chorus of classic music as I read that. Nice speech. I don’t think people in general have lived or live up to it though, sadly.


  3. “Walking the fine line between personal freedom and making right the sins of the past is a difficult job.”

    I understand the desire to make the world a better place, however, if we impinge freedom, we make the same mistake of those whom you are prone to condemn. Rather than whitewashing and trying to forget our past, we need to learn from it.

    With that is mind, remember that Japanese nationalism was born out of a desire to retain a national identity and independence. Where their values come in conflict with our 21st century sensibilities is when they begin fight fire with fire and build an Asian (Japanese) empire to compete with the Western empires. Violently enforcing their “Asia for Asians” philosophy on backward Korea, China and other nations surely seemed a justifiable line to walk at the time.

    Remember also that the entire world has practiced slavery and built empires since the dawn of time. Europeans and Americans had the courage recognize the inhumanity, to speak for justice, and eventually abolish slavery and begin abandoning rule by military conquest at great cost to our societies.

    Rather than condemning the choices of those in the past whose lives and conditions we cannot possibly understand, let us look to correcting the injustices of our own day and creating a better future. Slavery is still practiced in parts of the world. Exploitation is still rampant. Power mongers use governments and laws to gather power while curtailing the freedoms of their citizens and advantaging themselves. Let’s learn from those in the past, move forward with courage, and continue to advance the cause of freedom and liberty.


  4. I suspect that there are a great number of well-known martial-arts ‘names’ that if you knew their real history, you would cringe. I’m reminded of the number of eulogies and funeral services I’ve attended and was astounded at syrupy after-death histories, as compared to the questionable characters they were in real life.


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