The association between Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward and the headquarters of the Aikikai world is obvious to pretty much all practitioners affiliated to the organization. Indeed, the imposing five-storey building weclomes hundreds of practitioners from around the world each year, including most of the highest ranked instructors. However, fewer people actually know the history behind its location. In fact, it was not until the founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, reached the age of 48 that he permanently established his dojo and organization in the Shinjuku ward in the area that we know today as Wakamatsu-cho. In this article, I would like to take you back in time and look at the history of the establishment of aikido’s headquarters in Tokyo.
A succession of temporary dojos
Ueshiba Morihei moved to Tokyo in 1926 at the invitation of the Admiral of the Imperial Navy, Mr Takeshita Isamu. The businessman Umeda Kiyoshi made part of his Aizumi-cho house, in the district of Yotsuya, available so that it could serve as a residence and a dojo to Morihei. At the time, the rest of the Ueshiba family was still Ayabe and they only came to live in Tokyo in September 1927. Soon after, Morihei moved to another house provided for free by the rich industrial Morimura Ichizaemon, this time located in the district of Shinagawa. The house also served as a dojo. In 1927, Yamamoto Kiyoshi allowed Morihei to rent a compact three-storey house in Shirogane, Shiba, for 25 Yen per month. The training was taking place elsewhere, in the secondary residence of the Duke Tsushima, in a pool hall converted into a large dojo of about 100 tatami. It was during this period that many officers and dignitaries were taught by Morihei. In 1928, the Ueshiba family moved once again in a property made available by Baron Katsuji Utsumi in Tsunamachi, Mita, Shiba and the dojo was also established in the same place. The family subsequently rented for 85 Yen per month a house Kurumamachi, Shiba, owned by the retired Imperial Navy Commander, Matsushita. The house was very small and the dojo space occupied only 8 tatami, forcing the increasing numbers of students to practice in turns. The dojo changed location once more in 1930 to settle in the neighborhood of Meijirodai, in order to allow the construction of a new permanent dojo. It is in the Meijiro dojo that Morihei was visited by Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan judo.
Construction of the Kobukan
With the increasing number of new students, it was high time to find a more suitable location. Thanks to the patronage of dignitaries and supporters, particularly that of Admiral Takeshita, the Founder succeeded in 1931 in establishing a dojo dedicated to the full time practice of Aikido in the district of Walamatsu-cho, in the neighborhood Ushigome (currently known as Shinjuku). It is a man named Hattori, the manager of the Ogasawara family estates, who facilitated the sale of one of their residences whose land would serve for the construction of the Hombu Dojo.
The term uchi deshi (内弟子) literally means “student of the inside”. In aikido, this term refers only to students who lived in the dojo with Morihei Ueshiba and / or Ueshiba Kisshomaru. Strictly speaking, the last aikido uchi deshi were therefore Chiba Kazuo, Kanai Mitsunari, Saotome Mitsugi, and Kurita Yutaka. With the construction of the new building, Doshu indeed no longer lived at the dojo, but in a house next door. From that time, the term sumikomi shidoin (住み込み指導員, live-in instructor) replaced the term uchi deshi.
The resulting wooden building of about 120 square meters (80 tatami) was named the Kobukan (皇武館道場, Imperial Warrior hall). Once finished, the building also served as the home to the Ueshiba family, as well as up to twenty uchi deshi. The schedule consisted of two classes in the morning and three in the evening, with free training sessions between each. Because of the intense pace and severity of the classes, as well as the presence of very advanced practitioners from other disciplines, the dojo quickly became known as the “Hell Dojo of Ushigome”. This golden age for aikido was also the time when a number of satellites dojos were opened in Tokyo and Osaka. The art practiced at the time by Ueshiba was called Aiki-jujutsu then Aiki-bujutsu, and later Aiki-budo.
Creation of the Kobukai
The establishment of an administrative body to facilitate the management of the finances and activities of Morihei in Tokyo became a necessity and in 1939, several of his key supporters helped him establish the Zaidan Hojin Kobukai (財団法人皇武会), a non-profit structure, on April 30th, 1940. Formal approval was obtained via Tomosue Yoji, an official of the Ministry of Health. A major benefactor was the businessman Miyazaka Shozo, who donated 20,000 yen to the foundation. The first president was none other than Admiral Takeshita and the vice president was General Hayashi Katsura. Board members included Count Konoe Fumimaro, Count Maeda Toshitame, Takuo Godo, Fujita Kinya , Okada Kozaburo, Tomita Kenji, and Futaki Kenzo.
Later, in 1942, aikido finally took its definitive name. However, it was less the fruit of a Morihei’s reflection on how to name his art and his philosophy than a bureaucratic decision made by the Dai Nippon Butokukai (大日本武徳会), an organization of martial arts in Japan, in order to standardize the name of the discipline by modeling it on those of judo, karatedo, and kendo. The term was also meant as an umbrella for several forms of jujutsu, including Ueshiba’s art but not only.
Second World War
With the increase of the Japanese war effort, most of Morihei’s students were drafted into service and activity at the dojo slowed down gradually. This period coincided with the retreat of Morihei to Ibaraki. As the conflict intensified, the activity at the dojo stopped completely and it then served as a shelter for families who lost their homes because of frequent Americans bombings. The Kobukan was the only structure in the neighborhood that resisted the bombings, mainly thanks to the efforts of the second Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru, the son of the founder, who remained in Tokyo through the entire conflict at the request of his father, and who had to risk his life several times in order to extinguish fires on the roof. At the end of the war, on 15 August 1945, the Kobukai Foundation was disbanded following General MacArthur’s decision to suspend the practice of martial arts. The formal administration of aikido and Kisshomaru, the Dojo-cho, settled in Iwama in the following years in order to allow the survival of art in a more private place, away from the occupant’s scrutiny. For a time, the Kobukan building was even used as a dance hall for the occupation forces. Kisshomaru had to show great patience when dealing with the damage and the looting, and the last refugee only left the dojo in 1955.
Foundation of the Aikikai
Kisshomaru returned to Tokyo in 1948 where he worked as a clerk for the Osaka Shoji company in order to support his family, finance the operation of the dojo, and the ensure the livelihood of the students living in the dojo. The beginnings were difficult, and the dojo attracted few students. In spite of this, no less than three daily classes were taking place from the start, Kisshomaru usually taking the first one at 6:30 and the last one at 18:30. He sometimes also had to escape from work in order to run the afternoon class when no one else was available. At that time, the roof was still not repaired and the dojo was divided in two by a panel to separate the space occupied by refugees from the practice area.
The directors of the old Kobukai foundation decided it was time to get their practice recognized once more by the government. Thanks to the work of Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Fujita Kinya, Nishi Katsuzo, Seko Seiichi and Nakayama Koshi, the Aikikai Foundation (財団法人合気会, Zaidan hojin Aikikai) was officially approved on February 9, 1948 by the Ministry of Education, which officially resumed the practice of aikido in the Japanese archipelago after years of torpor.
It was actually the authorities who recommended the temporary displacement of Hombu’s administration to Iwama, mainly in order to avoid friction with the occupation forces. In 1948, the name of the main dojo was changed to “Aikido Hombu Dojo of the Aikikai Foundation” and it was reverted from the Iwama dojo to that of Tokyo in 1953.
The publication of the Aikikai-ho, the foundation’s journal, started in 1950 and it still continues today in the form of the Aikido Shinbun. At that time, O Sensei himself began to frequently return to teach in Tokyo. The dojo, now operated by Kisshomaru opened for the first time its doors to non-Japanese. In 1955, the Hombu Dojo hosted for three years Frenchman André Nocquet, its first foreign live-in student. Nocquet proved to be a major asset for the development of aikido in Japan and abroad thanks to his many contacts in foreign embassies. The second foreign student to live in the dojo was American Terry Dobson, and he was followed by a number of others foreign soto-deshi including Henry Kono from Canada and Alan Ruddock from Ireland. In 1963, the American astronaut John Glenn visited the dojo and met Ueshiba Morihei.
Construction of the new dojo
The growth of aikido continued in spite of the chaos of the postwar period and the number of students increased steadily. Around 1955, classes went from three sessions per day to five, and Sunday classes began around 1965. In 1967, the wooden dojo was destroyed to make way for a modern, three-storey reinforced concrete building.
The site where once stood the Kobukan became home to the Ueshiba family and the dojo was located on the adjacent parcel. Construction started in March 1967. The dojo was designed and built in about 10 months by Sugiyama Construction Co. Ltd.
The new building officially opened on Friday, January 12, 1968, during a solemn ceremony. About 1,200 persons came from all over Japan to celebrate the occasion. Ueshiba Kisshomaru gave a speech, followed by a number of prominent guests, and demonstrations were performed by O Sensei, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Tohei Koichi, Osawa Kisaburo, and Saito Morihiro. The ceremony lasted for over an hour-and-a-half. Following this, a celebration party was held in the smaller dojo on the second floor.
Ueshiba Kisshomaru Doshu wrote the following article about the new building. It was published in the May 1968 issue of the Aikido Newspaper:
It has already been five months since practices have been held in the Aikido dojo. Because of the great change from the wooden structure of the old dojo to the ultramodern new dojo, in the beginning there were some people who felt that all this modernization, was a bit out of place for Aikido, but little by little this feeling is lessening. In comparison with the days of the old dojo, already there is close to twice the number of students who come in one day to seek the road of harmony and peace and are enjoying practice. Therefore, it can be said that since we are now well into the fifth month, the age of the new dojo has been launched. I can hardly find words to express my heartfelt feelings to the members and people interested in Aikido who have lent their encouragement and support to the construction of the building. Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, is nearing 90 years old, and fortunately is in good health and is continuing to pursue his one path. In expressing the truth of this path, one should not be contented with one’s small success. Instead, we should set our minds on taking a big leap–whether it be in training itself or the various functions and events which are connected with training–hand in hand let us pursue the path of Aikido.Uyeshiba Kisshomaru, Chairman of the Board of Aikido World Headquarters – Aikido Newspaper Vol. 5 No. 2, May 1968
A map of the dojo was published in the same issue of the Aikido Newspaper and gives a very good impression of what the layout was, and how little it has changed over the years .
The same year, the aikido gakko (合気道学校, aikido school) was created and the Hombu Dojo became recognized by the Metropolitan Government of the City of Tokyo as the only school teaching aikido. Today, the dojo offers different training courses for beginner, intermediate, and advanced practitioners. Separate special classes for beginners and for women began in 1970. The building was modernized in 1973 with the addition of a fourth and a fifth floor, bringing the total practice area to about 380 square meters (250 tatami) distributed through three dojos. The main practice area where advanced classes take place occupies 105 tatami mats (162 square meters), the second dojo, 72 tatami mats (112 square meters) and the third dojo, 42 tatami mats (65 square meters).
In 1975, classes for children were added and by 1985, following the introduction in Japan of the five days work week, the Saturdays and Sundays training schedules were expanded. In 1994, a meeting room and an archive room were opened on the third floor of the residence of the Ueshiba family. The meeting room is mainly used for meetings of the board of directors of the Aikikai and of the Japan Aikido Federation, and the archive room is used to expose the personal effects and calligraphic works of the Founder. These additions were made to reinforce the status of the Hombu Dojo as the center of aikido.
According to its own statuses, the Hombu Dojo aspires to the enrichment and development of aikido under the authority of Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru, helped by a team of instructors working together to meet and exceed the world’s expectations.
Today, over 500 Hombu Dojo members can practice every day from 6:00 to 20:00 and the three dojos are used intensively during the day. More than thirty professional full-time teachers whose grades range from 2nd to 9th Dan teach the classes, with regular classes being placed under the guidance of professors ranking 6th Dan and above.
In addition to regular classes, special seasonal sessions are also conducted such as the shochugeiko (暑中稽古, summer training, which takes place from late July to early August) and the kangeiko (寒稽古, mid-winter training, which takes place from late January to early February). Both are held for 10 days straight, and students attending at least one session per day throughout receive a certificate of attendance.
Internships are also held for secondary schools during spring and summer breaks.
The day before the New Year, from 23:30 to 00:30, Doshu, the head of the Aikikai, conducts the etsunengeiko (越 稽古, year-end practice) a special class where more than 200 members meet to practice in the large dojo at the third floor. During the naorai (直会, the banquet) that follows the practice, Doshu makes a speech, then all participants celebrate the new year by consuming the sake and food that were previously offered to the gods.
Kagamibiraki (鏡開き, opening the mirror), the new year ceremony that invovles the breaking of the mochi rice cake, takes place the Sunday of the second week of January. Some 1,000 practitioners from all over Japan come together and fill up the three dojos of the building. On this occasion, Doshu gives a demonstration as an offering to the gods. In addition, the year’s Dan promotions (black belt) are announced, and a ceremony is held where Doshu presents the diplomas to senior practitioners.
To learn more about Hombu Dojo and how to behave if you consider visiting, read the Guide of the Hombu Dojo.
- Ueshiba, Kisshomaru – A Life in Aikido: The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Kodansha
- Aikikai Foundation Chronology – Commemorative booklet distributed by the Aikikai during the 70th Anniversary of the Aikikai Foundation. Aikikai Foundation.
- 植芝 吉祥丸 – 合気道開祖―植芝盛平生誕百年 講談社 (May 1, 1983)
- 植芝 吉祥丸 – 合気道一路―戦後合気道発展への風と雲 出版芸術社 (October 1, 1995)
- Pranin, Stanley – Kobukan Dojo Era. Aikido Journal
- Aikido Newspaper Vol. 4 No. 3 / Vol. 5 No 1 / Vol. 5 No. 2