*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Small and easily disregarded, few would ever guess that Ueshiba Morihei could amount to much when he was born in what is now Tanabe, Japan on December 14, 1883. As he refined his martial art of aikido — loosely translated as “The Way to Harmonize with the World” — he maintained an undefeated record until his death at the age of 85.
Growing up in a well-off agricultural family in southern Japan, Ueshiba spent much of his youth moving from one illness to another. Despite his father prodding him to take up sumo wrestling or other physical activity, Ueshiba often chose to put his nose in books about religion or poetry. The young boy was subjected to story after story about his great-grandfather, a well-known samurai, perhaps in the hopes of stirring a more aggressive attitude in him. It didn’t work.
Though Ueshiba slowly got stronger by following his father’s advice to a degree, it was not until he witnessed a rival politician’s soldiers rough up the elder Ueshiba that he understood the purpose of developing the ability to fight. As he grew older and sought out a career, only the martial arts — jujitsu, judo, swordsmanship and so on — could keep his attention for long.
In a bid to follow his interests, Ueshiba attempted to join the Japanese army, particularly as war with the Russians seemed imminent. Standing less than five feet tall, he did not meet the height requirement at first. Eager to find a way to gain entry, he passed hours hanging from trees in order to make himself taller. When he finally entered the infantry in 1903, Ueshiba’s discipline earned the respect of his superiors. Though flattered by the opportunity to attend the National Military Academy, he ultimately turned down the offer and retired to the farm.
Over the next decade, particularly after the family moved to the remote village of Hokkaido, Ueshiba continued to develop as a jujitsu master. As he learned other techniques, he gradually formulated a system of defending that would morph into what we call aikido today by the late 1930s. Taking a more spiritual look at what it meant to engage in combat, Ueshiba shifted away from the practice of striking an opponent toward a more sophisticated approach: taking advantage of the other person’s momentum to make him defeat himself.
As World War II broke out in the Pacific, Ueshiba maintained a busy practice teaching others his method, influencing police forces and military groups. When the fighting became more intense after the Americans entered the conflict, he opted to return to the countryside feeling an intense pull toward farming as his father had. From the time he moved to the village of Iwama in 1942, Ueshiba blended the physical technique and spiritual engagement of aikido further.
Referred to as O Sensei by his students, the “Grand Teacher” continued to instruct up until his sudden death from cancer in April 1969. Telling his students to share his teachings, Ueshiba operated from a basic point of view his whole life: “A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind.”
Also On This Day:
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1902 – The Commercial Pacific Cable Company lays telegraph cable between Ocean Beach, San Francisco and Honolulu, Hawaii
1911 – An expedition led by Roald Amundsen becomes the first to reach the South Pole
1962 – Mariner 2 becomes the first spacecraft to fly past Venus, relaying information about solar radiation to NASA