Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tomiki and Ueshiba in Manchuria

I have been reading the histories of famed Aikido teachers Morihei Ueshiba , Kenji Tomiki, and Hideo Oba. Again and again it comes up that Kenji Tomiki went upon Ueshiba's request to teach budo in Manchuria. Ueshiba and his son went there yearly to teach and demonstrate. What bugs me is this is the period of the Manchurian invasion. This was a period of facist Japan at it’s worst. This was essentially Japan's lowest and bloodiest point, perhaps in it's entire history. The Japanese army marched in, committed mass executions, pillaged, raped, did sick medical experiments on civilians and enslaved a nation. And in the middle of it all we find famous teachers arming the military with aiki-budo techniques.
I would like to look at the political climate of the time to understand what Ueshiba and Tomiki were doing in China during this dark time.

The War In Manchuria

“The Mukden Incident, also known as the Manchurian Incident, was an early event in the Second Sino-Japanese War, although full-scale war would not start until 1937. On September 18, 1931, near Mukden (now Shenyang) in southern Manchuria, a section of railroad owned by Japan's South Manchuria Railway was dynamited.[1] The Imperial Japanese Army, accusing Chinese dissidents of the act, responded with the invasion of Manchuria, leading to the establishment of Manchukuo the following year. While the responsibility for this act of sabotage remains a subject of controversy, the prevailing view is that Japanese militarists staged the explosion in order to provide a pretext for war.”


“Following the Mukden Incident in 1931 and the subsequent Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Inner Manchuria was proclaimed as an independent state, Manchukuo. The last Manchu emperor, Puyi, was then placed on the throne to lead a Japanese puppet government in the Wei Huang Gong, better known as "Puppet Emperor's Palace". Inner Manchuria was thus formally detached from China by Japan to create a buffer zone to defend Japan from Russia's Southing Strategy and, with Japanese investment and rich natural resources, became an industrial powerhouse. However, under Japanese control Manchuria was one of the most brutally run regions in the world, with a systematic campaign of terror and intimidation against the local Russian and Chinese populations including arrests, organized riots, and other forms of subjugation.[26] The Japanese also began a campaign of emigration to Manchukuo; the Japanese population there rose from 240,000 in 1931 to 837,000 in 1939 (the Japanese had a plan to bring in 5 million Japanese settlers into Manchukuo).[27] Hundreds of Manchu farmers were evicted and their farms given to Japanese immigrant families.[28] Manchukuo was used as a base to invade the rest of China, an action that was very costly to Japan in terms of the damage to men, matériel and political integrity.”

Kenji Tomiki in Manchuria

From Aiki News #128 by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal

“Relocating to Manchuria in March 1936, Tomiki became a part-time instructor at Daido Gakuin and taught aikibudo to the Kanton Army and the Imperial Household Agency. In the spring of 1938, he was appointed to the staff of the newly established Kenkoku University in what was then Shinkyo (present-day Changchun). This appointment came about due to Tomiki’s connection with Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo. As a historical note, Rinjiro Shirata, one of Ueshiba’s best prewar students, was originally selected for the Kenkoku University post, but was forced to bow out following his conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937.”
“Tomiki was living in a house in Daiyagai in Shinkyo where he also operated a private dojo. This was in addition to his teaching activities at Kenkoku University. He taught people from the town and commuted to the Military Police Training Hall and the university. Another top prewar student of Ueshiba named Shigemi Yonekawa also lived with Tomiki for a time and assisted him in his teaching duties.”

“ Largely through Tomiki’s efforts, aiki training become a compulsory subject for students of judo and kendo, and therefore he sent for his close associate Hideo Oba, then a 5th dan, from Akita in order to develop a teaching staff. Also, Morihei Ueshiba made regular fall trips to Manchuria during these years also to conduct classes at Kenkoku University. Professor Tomiki made great strides during the Manchuria years in fleshing out his theory of rikaku taisei. This term refers to the use of techniques for dealing with attacks by an opponent separated from the defender. This was part of Tomiki’s view of a “complete judo” which encompassed two parts: “grappling judo” (kumi judo) which equated to Kodokan Judo, and “separated judo” (hanare judo) which was equivalent to aikido.”

“Ueshiba began to adopt the dan ranking system about this time and promoted Tomiki to 8th dan in 1940. Tomiki was the first person to receive this rank from Ueshiba and this honor reflected the high regard in which he was held by the aikido founder. For the next four years, during the summer months Tomiki would visit Japan where he would give instruction to senior judo dan holders at the Kodokan.”

Seated front: Kenji Tomiki and Morihei Ueshiba; standing right: Hideo Oba. Photo taken in 1942 in front of Shimbuden Hall of Kenkoku University, Manchuria

So what was this university in occupied Manchuria? From what I have been able to piece together, the university was a wing of the fascist mass party, manipulated and controlled by the Japanese military, mobilizing rather than responding to popular opinion. Students entering the "Great Unity" college charged with training civil servants (Daido Gakuin, founded 1932) It appears that great numbers of Japanese citizens were being shipped over to Manchuria to repopulate and take over government control. I surmise that this university was a education center to educate a populace in the takeover to help run a puppet government set up on the mainland.
Kenji Tomiki’s work in Manchuria was going on with a backdrop of tyranny. The following atrocities happened the year after Kenji Tomiki arrived in Manchuria.


“When the victorious Japanese poured in, they brought wholesale carnage. Frightened Chinese who made the mistake of running - or standing still - were bayoneted or shot. Houses were entered repeatedly and their trembling occupants robbed, beaten and raped. One young Chinese girl brought on a stretcher to a missionary hospital more than a month after the city's fall described how she had been carried off from her home and kept in a hovel for 38 days at the pleasure of her Japanese captors, who attacked her as many as 10 times a day. Chinese men suspected of having served as soldiers were tied together in groups and machinegunned, used for bayonet or hand-grenade practice or simply doused with gasoline and set afire. According to evidence collected by members of the International Relief Committee, more than 40,000 unarmed Chinese were slaughtered by one means or another during the atrocities at Nanking.”

While by no means am I accusing Kenji Tomiki of participating in these crimes, I think it is worth noting he could not have been ignorant of the terrible oppression that was going on all around him. There he was in the true bloody beginning of the Second World War watching his nation devour another right at the front lines.

“Mr. Tomiki was actually recruited from the Kobukan Dojo to go to Manchuria by Hideki Tojo. Tojo had become the provost marshal of the Guangdong Army sometime before Kenkoku University was established. Mr. Tomiki came to Manchuria and set up the Tomiki Dojo in Daiyagai. Mr. Tomiki came to Manchuria and set up the Tomiki Dojo in Daiyagai. He was the Manchukuo government’s official aiki bujutsu teacher at Daido Gakuin and also an instructor to the military police. Kenkoku University was established a little later, in 1938, and from then on Hideo Oba taught the military police while Mr. Tomiki went to Kenkoku University as an assistant professor.….The military police took their aiki bujutsu training very seriously.” (Pranin, Aikido Journal)

Aikido Journal

When I look at the entire picture of the times it becomes clear to me that the entire staff of famed aikido teachers that actively taught in Manchuria were a product of this dark time. Somehow these great men got caught in the cogs of the fascist machine of imperial Japan. While each individual may have been innocent of war crimes, I think if we look realistically at the dark history of Japan at the pivotal time in the evolution of aikido we see them giving the weapons of budo to those who would use them for aggression and harm.
Perhaps it is in the face of these darkest times, we find the true birth of aikido. Perhaps after seeing the evil of war we may understand why Morihei Ueshiba switched gears and after the war he sought a more peaceful path.

Aikido Journal

“To continue, Ueshiba’s religious and ethical views assumed greater importance in his concept of budo due to the physical and psychological devastation Japan suffered during World War II. Aikido in its modern form developed during the founder’s intensive period of study in Iwama which spanned the period of 1942 through the mid-1950s. Ueshiba’s main impact on aikido during the postwar period was in a spiritual and symbolic sense, rather than technical.”

More readings about Tomiki and Ueshiba in Manchuria

Aikido Journal


  1. Important history, much thanks,

    John @ Dojo Rat

  2. How would life in Japanese-occupied Manchuria have been better if Tomiki hadn't taught Aikido?

    How would conditions in Allied-occupied Japan have been more humane if Ueshiba hid his light under a bush?

    Do you have any evidence other than innuendo to support the claim that the teachers you've smeared were doing anything other than working to assuage suffering, rather than aiding and abetting war "crimes" like you elude they are guilty of doing?

    Maybe you're just projecting, and your blog post is an unconscious confession of resentment and fear for the very violence you, Eric, have done (or was done to you).

    Maybe not, maybe you're right and your teacher WAS a fascist. Well since your conscious about your blood-soaked lineage and you still advertise that your "Dojo primarily studies Tomiki Ryu Aikido" does that make you as student-fascist? Is this the sort of thing you tell the insurance adjuster for the dojo, or do you emphasize how safe the practice is? Do you even consider your practice insurable? How could you practice with good conscience, if you think Tomiki was a fascist, and you practice Tomiki-Aikido?

  3. Sensei Strange
    I respect you for tackling this difficult subject. Westoners taking up martial arts are usually given a "saint like" image of the founders of our style, yet we sometimes forget that they were just human too.
    As a Karateka, I have a lot of respect for Gichin Funikoshi, yet he helped the introduction of Karate in Okinawan schools to help prepare young men for conscription and changed a lot of Chinese names of Katas etc to make it appear "more Japanese". Karate is now translated as "Empty Hand". It used to be "China Hand" before Funikoshi changed it.
    However, before we come down too hard on them and become disenchanted with our lineage, I think it helps to understand the background from which they came.
    Japan had been under the ruthless rule of the Tokugawa clan from the early 17th Century up to 1868. During this time, conformaty was strictly regulated. Any deviation from the norm or any free thinking could result in a quick death. Imagine a country where they have a ceremony for making a cup of tea, that is how strictly their society was regulated to obtain conformaty.
    When our the masters of old said that martial arts training makes you a better member of society, they had a very different idea of society than we do. The come from a culture that is trained not to ask questions. They come from a culture where conformaty and service were everything. Where everybody knows their place and sticks ridigly to it (or else). We think today that Japan has a bit of "bee hive" mentality; it would have been nothing compared to back then.
    A good member of society back then would accept the official line despite any evidence to the contrary. This is the society that Funikoshi and Ueshiba grew up in. They did not grow up in todays world where freedom of speach and truth are highly valued by society (except by politicians). They did not grow up with intrusive media or Internet where information is readily available. Their media would have followed the party line. Would we be any differnt if we grew up in their world?
    Being British, we used to have a large empire at one time. When my father was at school (pre WWII) they used to have lessons each week about different parts of the Empire and how we (the Brits) were building roads, hospitals, infrastructure and educating the locals. Whilst we did do these things, we also took the the best of the mineral wealth from these places too. My father and I had very different views on the Empire, which reflected out different up-bringings and differnt education on the subject.
    So it was that that generation of founding martial artists and I think it is important to remember that when we judge them.
    I hope this helps.

  4. Sorry I have busy with school and have not checked my blog lately.

    I was offering to illuminate a reality of the history of my art. Not a smear, but these facts remain. I offer no judgments, but I do think these questions are worth looking at. Sweeping difficult questions under the rug only brings more shame.

    I myself have trained soldiers with techniques that have gone to war. So these questions are ones I ask myself as well. Is it a history repeating?

    Indeed I think the carnage of world war 2 was the birth of the more advanced Aikido philosophy of peace.

    To the anonymous asker of difficult questions...I think these are all valid questions that every person should find their own peace with. I myself have no answers, only more questions.

    More and more questions

  5. They were spies for the Nakano school.

  6. I wrote on this subject too, and I put a link to this excellent article. Hope that is okay.