The Founder Morihei Ueshiba, a God?
Reflections on the Anniversary of Japan’s Surrender to the US Coalition.
By Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho

August 15th, 2005

Forward
I have written the following article for students not born in Japan or raised in the Japanese culture. For one raised in the Japanese culture, topics in this article that might be a source of controversy, are merely common sense and utterly ordinary. In this article I discuss the concept or concepts of God, which historically is an extremely difficult subject. I want everyone to understand that I am not favoring one concept of God over another; I am simply attempting to analyze the source of some of the myths and the reality I know about the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.

In this article, I am not against any religion or faith. If I am against anything, I am against people who have used a concept of God destructively for their own purposes.

I understand it is dangerous to enter into the arena of discussion about religion; and I respect the fact that many people have very strong opinions and beliefs. I am not a religious scholar by any means, and I do not profess to understand completely all of the religions in the world. I wish only to express my opinion on this particular subject; an opinion I have developed through my direct association with the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, and through extensive travel to many countries with many different cultures.

The same as people everywhere, the Founder Morihei Ueshiba began his day by washing his face and brushing his teeth. From this point however, the Founder’s morning was a departure from most. After his morning toilet, the Founder would dress in his best dress kimono and hakama, prepare the sambo (ceremonial tray used in Shinto ceremonies) by placing small dishes of salt and rice, and a small cup of ceremonial omiki (ceremonial sake) upon it and head with a brisk walk toward the Aiki shrine…

Once every month, the Founder would prepare for a special ceremony at the Aiki Shrine by skillfully pounding sticky rice into special round flattened cakes called kagami mochi. He did this himself, positioning the heavy stone usu (mortar) and swinging ably the heavy wooden kine (mallet) until the rice became smooth and malleable enough to shape into cakes. These cakes were carefully carried to the Aiki shrine as a special offering to his gods.


The Founder on his way to Morning Prayer at the Aiki shrine.

The time that the Founder spent preparing for and participating in his ceremonies at the Aiki Shrine was special; his actions always seemed pure and precise and full of vigor and purpose. He was different at these times than he was during his other daily activities…
He was different during these times, but I am very sure, that he remained a human being. I am also sure that the time he spent dedicated to his activities at the Aiki shrine before his gods brought much joy to his heart and soul.

After all of these years, I still remember making the mochi for the monthly ceremonies. One time in particular, I remember that as we placed the steaming mochi rice into the stone usu for pounding, steam poured upward from the hot rice, temporarily leaving me unable to see my own hands to ready the rice for pounding. Since I was using both of my hands to hold the usu, I could not wave the steam from my eyes. Without thinking I tried to blow the steam from my view.

I heard the Founder yell out at me, “Ikan” (which means in Japanese NO! NOT GOOD!). Usually during our normal daily routines, if the Founder became angry, you would hear about it for awhile until he had time to calm down. I readied myself for a stern lecture. This time however we were preparing for the special monthly ceremony at the shrine, and the Founders demeanor was quite different. I was very surprised, when the Founder continued in a soft gently voice in his local Tanabe city dialect, “We are making an offering for the gods, and it is best not to blow on the mochi with our breath.” His gentleness surprised me, and as a result I have remembered my impropriety to this day.

I also remember another special encounter I had with the Founder. When I lived at Iwama with the Founder, the area that has now become a parking lot used to be the Founder’s vegetable garden. Where the uchideshi kitchen stands now, stood a grove of bushy bamboo. It had become time to enlarge the garden and the bamboo needed to be cleared. Since my list of daily chores was long, it was almost nightfall before I thought to begin clearing the bamboo. I had heard from other students that the Founder was not going to teach practice that evening, and since clearing the bamboo had been a direct order from the Founder, I decided to play hooky from practice and get the job done.

As I worked, at about the time practice should have ended, the Founder called me into his living quarters. On my way I learned that the Founder HAD taught practice that evening and that I had been missed. I was more than a little nervous as I entered his living quarters, and prepared myself for the worst. I entered his living room and sat in front of him nervously. He said to me, “You must attend ji-san’s class.” (Ji-san is a nick name for old man; a term he used at times to refer to himself). “What were you doing?” “O Sensei ordered me to cut down the bamboo.” I said very respectfully. He replied “Bamboo can be cut down any time, but you will not be able to attend ji-san’s practice forever. I do not know when it will be that the gods will call me, but it will not be too long now.”

I had been expecting a vigorous reprimand, and was startled once again by his kindness. He was very gentle and took his time with his explanation. In the martial art world of teaching, verbal explanations are rare. It is much more common for an instructor or senior student to yell commands or reprimands, and leave the junior student to think about his errors on his own.

In the last few years of his life, the Founder sometimes fell prey to spontaneous bursts of anger, and everyone was fearful of his outbursts. Eventually high ranking shihan or shidoin quit coming to visit the Founder at Iwama all together. Fearful of his wrath, if a shihan did venture to Iwama to visit they would ask the late Morihiro Saito Shihan, who lived on the premises, about the Founder’s mood and state of being before asking for an audience. If he was not in good sorts, they would leave quietly without seeing him, stopping only for a moment at the dojo altar to leave a gift of sake and a donation on their way out.

In those last years, even at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, when I would arrive with the Founder as his otomo (attendant), the staff would ask me first how the Founder was feeling that day. If I told them the Founder was not in a good mood, shihan and administrators alike would disappear. Everyone was afraid of the Founder’s bad temper when he was in these moods. It was a sad experience I had many times in the last years with the Founder.

Most of the shihan or shidoin of Hombu dojo in Tokyo knew Morihei Ueshiba as the Founder of Aikido as he functioned in his official capacity. A few were witness to the Founder’s mood changes and eruptions in the last years of his life. Very, very few shihan and virtually no students knew the Founder as he was as he attended his shrine to his gods; a man filled with an inner calm, kindness and joy.


The Founder catching up on
national events on the train.
    Checking the new dojo construction. There were many lonely times with only me and Mr. Tsunoda.




This photo was used in a book translated by Mr. John Stevens. It was captioned
“Before the Founder leaves for Hawaii he prays…”. This photo was actually taken on the
roof of the new Hombu dojo very close to the time of the Founders death. Every morning,
when the Founder was in Tokyo he went to the roof on the third floor (now there are five
floors at Hombu dojo) dressed in a casual kimono and without a hakama. Daily he would
offer morning prayers to Mount Fuji to the west. This photo was taken by myself and
Mr. Tsunoda many years after the Founder visited Hawaii.

In all of the time I spent with the Founder I never heard him refer to himself as a god, far from it in fact. He often referred to himself as a servant of the gods, and pledged his life work and daily tasks humbly to them. Never did he ever equate himself to their level of being, he always considered himself beneath them. He took his life, his actions and his dedication to his gods seriously, but it never occurred to me that he was anything other than a very human; human being.

In recent years I have had the good fortune to have met Aikidoka in many parts of the world. I have been able to visit different countries and experience the values, culture and ways of thinking of the people living in different continents around the globe. I have discovered that people’s points of view and philosophies in different countries are based on foundations formed most notably by their physical natural environment and their religious and cultural backgrounds. These factors blend together to form an environment in each country as unique and as prevalent and natural as the air that is breathed there. The more I have traveled, the more I have found this to be true. Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism are a few of the world’s major religions. If you count all of the different forms of each of these religions, plus all of forms of worship that fall outside of these major religions and their personal interpretations, there are too many religions to possibly count. If you try to understand the history and interrelationships between these all of these religions, it is too much to fully comprehend.

I have found when I first visit a new country, one way to begin to understand the point of view of the people living there is to determine at least if the religion or religions practiced in that country are based on the concept of “one God (monotheistic)” or “many Gods (polytheistic).” This has proven to be a starting point that has helped me a great deal to understand the hearts and minds of the people I am visiting. To understand a people’s culture it is critical I believe to experience first hand the physical environment they live in and to have at least a fundamental understanding of the prominent religions practiced there.

When I travel to other countries to teach Aikido, I am often asked a question that used to surprise me. It is a question that I have been asked more and more frequently since the Founder’s passing. It is a question that I am now asked almost every time I visit a new country. The question? “Is the Founder Morihei Ueshiba really a god?”

I am always asked this question in earnest. I can tell by the way the question is phrased if the students believe this to be a fact, or if they are just wondering if the stories they had heard were true. Either way, it is a delicate question to answer and be sensitive to the mind of the student inquiring. Either way, it is a question that cannot be ignored.

In Japan, the word used to describe a person’s death is shojin, which literally translates as “climbing up to god” or nujin which literally translates as “became a god.” The problem here is a very large one. Attempting to translate these two words correctly is extremely difficult, because the meaning of these words in Japanese is very, very different than the literal English or Western translation. Without explaining the differences in understanding of these terms between Japanese and Western cultures, the literal translation makes it sound as if the Founder, upon his death, became an actual god. The meaning of these words, shojin or nujin in Japanese is not the meaning of these words by Western definition. This translation has obviously raised questions that are being felt now all over the world.


***


Today, whether stewardship of the Aiki Shrine in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture is under the jurisdiction of the Aikikai Foundation or the Ueshiba family is in question. For Japanese Aikidoka however, who is in charge of the shrine does not really matter; they still come to the Aiki Shrine to pray or to pay their respects.

The Aikikai Foundation defines itself as a non-religious institution and no religious ceremonies or artifacts are present at the Aikikai Hombu dojo in Tokyo. If one is looking in from the outside however, Aikikai activities that are held at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama are indeed religious in nature. Ceremonies and festivals attended by Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba and other high ranking instructors and officials are presided over by Shinto priest who perform ceremonies that are attended by thousands of Aikidoists who come to pray. To someone who is not from Japan, it very much looks like there is a correlation between Aikikai and religion, and this can be a source of confusion and misconception as well.

Aiki Tai Sai Festival in Iwama   Religious ceremony at the Aiki Tai Sai Festival?

For the Japanese, the religious overtones prevalent in certain Aiki Shrine ceremonies do not have the same relevance as one might think observing from an outside point of view. This is because the foundation of Japanese culture is permeated with different religions; in Japan, there literally is a god in everything! Religious ceremonies to these gods are as much a part of life in Japan as rice and sake! They are so prevalent, that for most people their commonplace nature has made them more just a part of the fabric of life than deeply religious events.

Aikido however is no longer the total domain of Japan. Aikido is practiced in many parts of the world by people of different cultures with different beliefs and points of view. Today concepts of Aikido and Aikido philosophy are beginning to take on a shape in the greater world, not intended in its Japanese origin. Conceptions about Aikido, the Founder and religion are beginning to show signs of distortion. Aikikai as an organizational body I think needs to address these issues to offer the world a more clarified position. There needs to be a clarification of Aikikai’s relationship with the Aiki Shrine, and the growing conception around the world that the Founder is a God needs to be officially addressed.

In Japan, according the teachings of its Shinto religion, when a person dies, they become a “god.” So in this sense for the Founder to become a god after his passing is nothing out of the ordinary; in fact it is quite normal in Japan. In Japan, everyone becomes a god when they die.

Lets think about that. In Japan during WWII for example, kamikaze pilots, soldiers on the battlefields and innocent civilians all became gods as casualties of war. This might seem okay that they would become gods, but all of the military leaders as well who were eventually tried as war criminals, became gods when they died too! According to the teaching of Shintoism, all murderers, rapists and thieves; everyone, regardless of their life’s accomplishments or lack thereof become gods when they pass on. According to the Shinto religion, mountains, rivers, old trees, rocks, stars and a multitude of other forms of nature all have gods inside them. Floods, typhoons, earthquakes, fires, plagues, pestilence and any other form of natural disasters are all the work of these gods, as well as good rains, sunshine, and fertile harvests. All of these gods performing all of these god-activities need to be appeased with prayers and offerings on a daily basis. The gods are literally part of the air that is breathed in Japan and are an integral part of Japanese culture and history. Living with the gods is a natural part of everyday life in Japan. In this context, the Founder becoming a god is not an unnatural one. Outside of this context however, the Founder being a god has a meaning that was not intended.

Prayers that are chanted during Shinto ceremonies are usually read from a norito (small Shinto prayer book). Because there are so many gods in Japan, the phrases Yaho yorozu no kami and Moro moro no kami are commonly used to describe the number of gods in Japan. Yaho yorozu means eight million in Japanese; so in this case eight million gods, inferring an uncountable or infinite amount. Denominations of 800 are commonly used in Japan to describe an unlimited number as in “uso hapyaku" which translates literally as 800 lies, and refers to someone who lies continually. Hapyaku yacho literally translates as 800 blocks and is used to describe a very, very large city. Denominations of 800 are used the same way we commonly use “a million”, or a “zillion”. For example we use phrases like: “He had a million reasons, it’s a million miles from here, there are a million of stores in that shopping center etc.”
To try to calculate the number of gods in Japan, consider the following; if everyone past or present becomes a god when they die and the current population of Japan is over 120,000,000…that makes for a lot of gods!

During the years I lived with the Founder, I often accompanied him to the Aiki Shrine while he performed his morning prayers. His prayers always began with a recitation of many of his favorite or personal gods. When I was first allowed to go to the Aiki Shrine with the Founder for his morning prayers, the Founder was familiar enough with me to know what town I had been born in. At the end of one of his recitation of the gods, for my benefit he added the name of a god who lived in a mountain near my hometown. I also found it interesting that sometimes he included the names of a few Hawaiian gods he had learned of after a visit there. The Founder’s daily prayers always included the forty-two gods that are popular in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist mythology. He would chant each name consecutively in his peculiar high tone, behind the closed doors of the Aiki Shrine.

While the Founder was reciting the long list of names of the gods; I sat in seiza with my head lowered almost to the floor. From this position I would listen to the names of the gods and often I found myself hoping this exercise would come to an end before my knees gave way! I think it was actually a little difficult for the Founder too, and from time to time he would lump some of the gods names together into an “etc” group just to hurry things along!

Today, at the yearly Aiki Tai Sai festival held at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama, Shinto priests call to the Aiki no Oukami which loosely translates as the “Grand Gods of Aikido.” Originally, this group now referred to as the “Aiki no Oukami” were the forty two favorite individual gods the Founder favored in his daily prayer. The Founder left a lot of documentation in the form of writings and poems about his gods, and his belief that the group of forty-two had helped him to create Aikido. As I said, today this group of forty-two has become collectively the Aiki no Oukami or the Grand Gods of Aikido. The history of this select group of gods called the Aiki no Oukami is not that long since their origin came from the Founder. This would make them about fifty to sixty years old; or relatively “new gods on the block.” It is pretty impressive that this group of gods have been promoted to the level of Oukami which is a much higher level god than your garden variety kami so soon in their existence. The Aiki Oukami run in the same impressive circles as the gods that created the earth and the sun!

Since the Founder’s death thirty six years ago, the Aiki no Oukami have become somewhat interchangeable with the person; Morihei Ueshiba. Slowly over the years, in legend, he has become ONE of the Aiki no Oukami or even THE Aiki no Oukami. I have been confronted with these legends more and more frequently over the years, especially in countries outside of Japan, or even in Japan amongst younger generations. This frankly concerns me.

Remembering the religious context of Japanese lore, gods do move around and take up residence in mountains, trees, rivers, etc. Like a hermit crab, sometimes they take up residence in the shells of others. In a Japanese sense, Morihei Ueshiba becoming one of the forty-two gods of the Aiki no Oukami would not be a out of the ordinary. Outside of a Japanese context however, this idea of the Founder becoming a god is a dangerous one.

The primary question in this article is, Is the Founder Morihei Ueshiba a god? I have known the Founder personally, and have never thought of him as a god, but since I don’t think I have ever actually met a god, I don’t really have anything to compare to. I have known the man, Morihei Ueshiba.

In Japan, it is common to equate someone’s talents or personal qualities as god-like. It is an accentuated comparison meant as a high compliment. It is a term to describe greatness, much as the terms heavenly or saintly are used in the West. For example in Japan, a pianist with exceptional talent is said to play like a god. No one thinks the piano player is a god at the time, it is understood that it is a descriptive compliment.

Compliments in any country are used for different reasons. Compliments are made at times by family members or friends out of love and respect. Compliments might be made by an employee to score points with an employer, or made by someone attempting to manipulate or maneuver a person or situation. Sometimes compliments are made of someone so often that they begin to be believed as fact. All of a sudden the fabric of a legend begins to take shape. From a group of admirers you now have a shrine or a monument where people come to pray. Compliments can become legends that take on a life of their own until those that might question this transition from compliment to legend become the subject of question themselves.

***

Today is August 15th, the anniversary of the day that Japan surrendered to the United States coalition, ending WWII. It was sixty years ago today that Showa Emperor Hirohito shocked the Japanese nation by appearing with General McArthur to officially surrender. General McArthur stood casually dressed at least a foot taller than Emperor Hirohito who despite his formal dress and silk top hat looked weak and defeated. The photograph taken that day told the Japanese people that the war was over and not only had Japan lost, but the Emperor they had believed to be a living god was very mortal indeed. Over 3,100,000 people died for their belief in Emperor Hirohito, and that was only on the Japanese side. The number of casualties in this war almost outnumber the stars in the sky. It is a sobering to think that throughout our history, so many people have gone to their deaths in the name of a “god.”

The people of Japan during that era in history were told to believe that the Emperor was a living god. They did this, and also did what was asked of them by their Emperor. This gave the Emperor enormous power that unfortunately was not used wisely in Japan’s quest for power early in the twentieth century, especially over Korea, China and other nations in the South Pacific. Today some just dismiss the horrors of this era in Japanese history. This I feel is a mistake. If amends for this time in history are not made by the Japanese and lessons learned, there is always the possibility that history might repeat itself sometime in the future. It is important now for Japan to build bridges with countries like China and Korea, bridges that were once destroyed by the ambitions of Japan’s imperialistic visions. Japan once invaded these countries in an attempt to colonize them, bringing with them their gods; this time, the gods of war...

Today being August 15th, it is a time for me to reflect on some of the militaristic actions Japan has taken in our history within the context of their belief in their gods. This is part of Japanese history, but it is important to understand Japan’s historical context as well as Japan’s religious context to understand the central questions about the Founder in this article.

***

This Japanese history and the issues in this article are very complex, and to be able to understand them one needs to think deeply. To be able to translate correctly the concepts in Japanese thinking and Japanese belief systems into Western languages and Western points of view is even a greater challenge.

Unfortunately I think that at times work done by translators have been colored by the personal beliefs or ambitions of the translator, i.e. to please a publisher or possibly make something more marketable through a bit of embellishment. Some of the translations about the Founder have made their way to the far corners of the world, and have become hot topics for chat lines, blogs and magazines. Releasing a story that the Founder is a god, peaks interest and increases sales, and instant internet communication has given rise to rumors and myths that otherwise would not have grown so out of proportion. One thing for sure, the concept or idea of the Founder being a god has become a topic of great interest in many places around the world. I have witnessed this personally on more than one continent, and I do believe the definition of this statement has been interpreted not as intended.

***

I am sure that every month there is a Shinto festival held at the Aiki Shrine, and once a year at the Tai Sai Festival, held at the Aiki Shrine, a ceremony is conducted by a priest from the Omoto Kyo religion; a favorite of the Founder. When the current Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba is in town, he usually attends these ceremonies.

Remember however, we can’t judge these activities to be the activities of a serious religion nature. This is Japan, remember.

The Founder first joined the Omoto Kyo religion in 1919 after his return from Hokkaido. It was then that he met the leader of the Omoto Kyo Religion, Onisaburo DeGuchi. The Omoto Kyo religion was not the religion the Founder was born into in his hometown of Tanabe. There he had been raised as most Japanese with a mixture of Shinto and Buddhist religions. In Tanabe, the local sect was called Kuma no Gongen. When the Founder moved to Hokkaido to pioneer the settling of Shirataki Village, he built a series of shrines dedicated to the Kuma no Gongen sect in the surrounding hills called the Kami Shirataki Jinja. In this way he took his hometown gods of Tanabe with him to fortify him for his adventures in the Hokkaido wilderness. Always good to have a god or two on board.

The Founder organized the building the Kami Shirataki Jinja.   Homma Kancho researching the Kami Shirataki Jinja.

Since the Founder adopted different religions during his lifetime, it is understandable that his gravesite is marked in more than one place. In his hometown of Tanabe, the Founder’s remains are buried at the Buddhist Kozanji temple graveyard. He was buried there as he began, as a Buddhist, and was even given the honorary Buddhist name after his passing of Aikiin Moritake Enyu Daidoshi.

The Founder has another burial site outside of Kyoto in the town of Ayabe at the Omoto Kyo, Ten Nou Taira graveyard. This is his burial site of his adopted Omoto Kyo religion. This site is marked simply with a common Japanese stone grave marker, unpronounced in a mass of similarly marked graves bearing the names of countless other past Omoto Kyo followers.

Omoto Kyo facility in Ayabe village.   The entrance to the Omoto Kyo Ten nou Taira graveyard.

Understanding the meaning of having two different grave sites in two different religions will be interpreted differently depending on whether you have a monotheistic or polytheistic religious background. To those with a background of many gods, this is a sensible scenario. For those whose religious ideology revolves around the concept of one God, this would be disconcerting. It makes sense in Japan however, a country with at least 120 million gods!

The Founder’s Omoto Kyo Ten no Taira burial site.   Tanabe City’s Buddhist Kozanji temple Ueshiba family burial site.

In Japan, most families have a Buddhist altar and a Shinto shrine in their homes. During Christmas, Japanese families decorate a Christmas tree and exchange presents. On average, Japanese people commonly practice two to three religions in their households. It would be difficult to take an accurate census in Japan based on religion since most people practice more than one, and yet if you were to take a poll of Japanese people to see how many people seriously followed a particular religion, only 50% would say yes. Japan is an odd mixture of beliefs and customs that can be very difficult to understand, especially for people who live in cultures that are based on religions that worship one God; it can even be a little insulting. To answer the question “Is the Founder a god?” for students in countries whose primary form of worship is monotheistic is a delicate task indeed.

Originally, Japanese Shintoism was born of an island culture where nature had provided well for the needs of the people living there. There was fertile land, plentiful seas, an abundance of water, and for the most part tolerable climates. Shintoism is a flexible religion whose central purpose is to honor and thank the gods of nature. For centuries, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world and had few foreign enemies. Simply stated, the lifestyles in early Japanese history were very nature-oriented and the religion forgiving. A study of Shintoism might lead one to conclude that it is a fairly unstructured religion, but its flexibility allowed for wisdom and the ability to adapt, which proved to be vital for survival in later centuries.

In the 20th century, this core flexibility was used masterfully by the American occupying forces in Japan after WWII. It was this core flexibility that allowed the Japanese people to not only accept the surrender of Emperor Hirohito as the leader of the Japanese people in war, but to also accept that their Emperor was not a god as they had been led to believe. The leaders of the American Occupation were quite brilliant in portraying General Macarthur as he was, large in stature, and yet benevolent in victory. This portrayed Emperor Hirohito as defeated and demoralized but not injured by the American captures which went a long way in allowing the Japanese people to accept that there was a new era in Japan about to begin. It was Japan’s Shinto background that allowed them the flexibility to accept these new realities and resign in cooperation to the occupation. The result was the subsequent rebuilding of Japan.

***

In my travels, I have tried to discover who the people are that most promote this concept of the Founder as a god. Interestingly enough, I have found that especially in the United States and Europe, it is mostly instructors who promote themselves as “messengers” of the Founder’s teachings. This is a generalization, yet it brings a real image to my mind. These instructors are usually the instructors interested in meditation, spiritual seeking and Eastern religions such as Tibetan or Indian Buddhism. The front shrines of their dojos are decorated with fresh flowers, incense and bells, which are only used in Japan by the way, as offerings on altars in Buddhist temples, not in Shinto shrines. For those who believe that the Founder is a god, this is inconsequential, since their beliefs are usually a hybrid mix of Buddhism and New Age fantasy. The Founder as a god is just another extension of their spiritual excursions, and also a marketable product.

Miracles, and universal spiritual power can make for good sales in today’s world and the concept of the Founder as a god can be a testimonial for these special powers. If the Founder were to be only human, it is harder to use this concept to sell miracles.

The Douwa poems left by the Founder are often used as text for new age spirituality. Actually even Japanese people have trouble understanding these poems, and some of the Western translations I have seen of these have been frightful. The translators after all, I believe, are working through filters. One filter is the monotheistic background of the Western translator, and the other is the filter of desire to present a mysterious confirmation of their own beliefs. The Douwa have been used in instances as proof that the Founder is a god which I believe to be a total misinterpretation.

***

I have visited other countries where students are not allowed to bow to a photo of the Founder before practice because their religious beliefs forbid it. I have been asked in these countries if the Founder was a god. If I answer “I do not believe so,” the next question usually is “Why, how do you know?”

Looking carefully into the innocent eyes and hearts of the questioning students, I have tried to gently explain some of the points in this article. I have tried to explain that in my experience, the Founder was a human being; a special and great human being indeed, but as human as you and I. By being human, his understanding is something that we can reach for, and something we can all attain with practice. Usually if I speak slowly and gently, most people accept my answer. Some actually show relief in their faces, and a release in their posture. I think that the thought of the Founder being a god actually grates against their own religious beliefs and dispelling this story is a relief from internal conflict for these students.

The Founder traveled up many hills and down many valleys during his lifetime. He forged raging rivers and overcame many obstacles. Navigating his small craft through tremendous waters, his life of 86 years was hard work. In all the years of his life, the Founder believed he had the support of many gods and Buddha behind him. He believed they had supported him through all of his trials, defeats and triumphs, and until his last days he spent time every day in prayers of thankfulness.

I worry about the story of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba slowly changing from a man to a god. In our history, many times the images of others have been manipulated to serve the ends of the righteous and dictators alike. I do not believe that idea of the Founder being a god fits well with the Aikido philosophy of the “Way of Love and Harmony”, a philosophy I have spent my life learning to understand.

On Aug 15th, 1945, Japan as a country was leveled by the war. Hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost and in the end, the god as emperor appeared as he was, a man. This realization and acceptance by the Japanese people was the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity in Japan that has continued to this day. It has been sixty years this day since the surrender of Japan. Only someone like myself that grew up in Japan in the 1950’s, after Japan had lost the war, might have thoughts such as these, but this is a point of view I feel is important to express.

Yes the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba “looks like a god” as the Japanese say, but today the world of Aikido is larger than Japan, and is practiced by Aikidoka from many different cultural and religious backgrounds. I hope the Founder will stay with us human beings and help us with his gifts and his prayers for all.