Historical photo: “Morihei Ueshiba’s remarkable physical development,” by Stanley Pranin

“Look… O-Sensei had no wrists!”  

This is quite an interesting photo taken in the early 1960s at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo which would put the Founder in his late 70s. O-Sensei’s body development was quite remarkable, and the Founder took pride in his physical conditioning.

I once remember Sadateru Arikawa Sensei saying, “The Founder had no wrists!” By that he meant that the thickness of his forearms extended right into his hands so that it appeared he had no wrists! This photo demonstrates what Arikawa Sensei was talking about.

For another take on the Founder’s powerful physique, here is a comment from Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei of the Shin Budo Kai:

morihei-ueshiba-shirtlessOne other time I saw O-Sensei’s naked figure. One day Saburo Sugiyama, a member of the the board of directors of the Aikikai, invited O-Sensei to try out a whirlpool bath at the clinic he owned in Nihonbashi. In those days, it was very rare for a person to have a whirlpool bath. As you know, they are very popular now. We took a taxi to the clinic from Hombu Dojo. When we arrived we were led up to the whirlpool room. I helped O-Sensei take off his clothes. He was dressed in nothing but a loincloth and entered the bath by himself. While I was waiting for him to return to the dressing room I watched him through the glass because I had to remain alert in my capacity as his assistant. It seemed to me that he was enjoying this new experience. When he came out, I began to prepare a bath towel for him to dry off. I was surprised at how thick his chest was. His breasts were hanging down like an old woman. Although he was in his eighties at that time, I could imagine that he had muscles of iron in his prime. If you doubt my story, you should look at the photograph of O-Sensei naked from the waist up on page 20 of Budo – Teachings of the Founder of Aikido by Morihei Ueshiba published in 1991 by Kodansha International, Tokyo.


    • I agree too – O Sensei was ripped! There are many instructors and even aikido Shihan today that set a very poor “example” when it comes to their health and their weight. I find myself embarrassed for them sometimes. Aikido is a discipline and I’ve got to think that this sense of discipline should extend to proper diet and exercise. Teachers should continue to train and take ukemi as much as they can too, but many just get lazy in this area and content themselves with standing in front of the class and throwing the young ones around. We need to expect more from people who want to represent the art. Look at the senior people in TKD, judo or BJJ – typically very fit. Wassup with that aikido people?

      • Well, you did see the comment about his breasts, didn’t you? Sometimes it is just the ravages of age. I agree that Aikido is a discipline but we are, for the most part, not ascetics devoting our lives to training. We have day jobs and families that have to take precedence. Also, I know many people who come to Aikido later in life and since it takes a longer than average time to get to Shodan in this art – you end up with people who don’t seem as fit as their trained for the ring or mat peers. On the other hand, I have found out through practice that advanced practitioners are warriors whether they look it or not!

  • I believe this photo actually is taken from “The secret teachings of aikido”. There are several other pictures of late half naked founder, this one is among best, becouse a little tensed muscles reveals what kind of body o sensei used to have. Founder certainly took pride in his physical conditioning, his uchi deshi had hard times while massaging founders muscular back in the evenings and late in life he would complain how he is losing his muscle mass. Maybe it is worth to mention that O sensei teacher Sokaku Takeda, wasn’t very muscular, but he had also a very thick and strong forearms. Strong forearms means very strong grip, strong hands, that is very advantageous for applying techniques successfully.

    • Thanks, Marius, I was going from memory. I’ll correct the reference to the book. By the way, it is my understanding that Sokaku Takeda was very muscular. Probably, not as bulky as Morihei, but very wiry and powerful.

      • How can I argue with you Stan, but I established this opinion becouse of interview with Yukiyoshi Sagawa, here is the excerpt “Did Takeda sensei have hard muscles? No, his muscles were soft. His arms were usually soft. But he had really large forearms.“

        • I see your point. My information comes from Sokaku’s son Tokimune. Sokaku was obviously very fit. He was training and teaching all the time. Quite a few stories survive about his exploits. He was even tested by various martial artists. Sokaku was a fierce individual.

      • The strong forearms, I’m generally told, come from weapons training. Sokaku Takeda was apparently better known in jujutsu circles of the day as a swordsman. Morihei Ueshiba, on the other hand, was known early on for feats of strength such as winning sticky-rice pounding competitions and breaking the huge pestle afterwards. His father started his only son early on sumo out of concern for his small stature and slight frame, and what he couldn’t do with weight he’d surely have to have compensated with muscular strength and understanding of physics, or whatever primitive physics was called back then. Modern people just don’t have as good of an idea of how physics applies to their own bodies and surroundings in daily life as people once did, in whatever society and culture.

  • Great photo! That was one thing I noticed right away when starting Aikido — all of the regulars had thick forearms. I’ve noticed mine also get thicker over time. I’m not sure how this works, but maybe it’s just the constant motion/extension of the arms/hands.

  • These guys lived in a time when you had to train hard and work hard… O’Sensei was an old school Japanese farmer. He didn’t have machines to do his farm work. He did it by hand!

  • In 1966 or 1967 on one of my trips from Nagoya to Tokyo, I was very fortunate to be at Hombu Dojo when O’Sensei was teaching. I noticed that O’Sensi had no wrists. I’m still moving about with small wrists. I need more Aikido practice.

    I read a book on martial arts in which the author said something to the effect that during O’Sensei in his later years his ukes were just throwing themselves as a favor to O’Sensei. In the two or three times that I attended practice at Hombu Dojo when O’Sensei was teaching I said to myself that if uke tried to resist O’Sensei’s art the uke would die. Well, maybe not die, but would probably have been badly hurting from O’Sensei’s art. There was so much latent power extended in O’Sensei’s art that if I had been uke I would hope that my ukemi would save my butt from disaster.

  • Aikido or no aikido, it’s a good idea for everyone to be physically active and eat properly. (I know all too well how easy it is to be sedentary in today’s world!) I imagine O-sensei’s lifestyle was a big contributor to his long and active life.

    If you want strong wrists, I think you need to do more than taijutsu. 20 years of suburi, maybe. (-; Failing that, gardening! (Also some good training aids on the market – grippers, for example. or make your own – length of broomstick, hole through the middle, bit of rope through it and tie a brick or two around the other end. Then wind up, wind down….)

  • Remarkable is probably misleading, as you will find any one farmer of the old days looking just as “ripped” even at an old age. I remember well my mother’s uncles who worked the family farm way out in the deep dark woods of Sweden from the day when they could walk until the day they couldn’t. They had forearms, hands and fingers, bigger than any aikidodoka I’ve ever seen (even the chubby ones). Their chests as big as professional weight lifters and legs to carry them and big sacks of potatoes. Growing up I watched them handle cattle just as smooth as O’Sensei would throw his students. Their touch was incredibly soft, warm and loving, their energies balanced and at peace. Their wills and beliefs in what’s right and fair strong and unyielding. Their love for and connection with nature infinite. They were truly great martial artists even though they never learned a single technique from a Japanese master. It is what a connection with nature through farmwork rewards you with.

  • My students always comment on how hard it is to do katatetori on me, they never seem to get a grip. I was taught old school hard nikyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi. This builds your wrists up. I know this is painful and I don’t like to push it too far out of fear that they won’t come back. We were taught to do push ups on our wrists to get stretched out. That helped a lot to get used to the pain. My Sensei told me a story when he was in Japan training in the 50’s he complained about his wrist being sore and they would hit his wrist and say “make strong”! That’s old school!

  • I trained numerous times with Hiroshi Kato Shihan when he made trips to Texas bewteen 2002 and 2010, and always relate how one day I arrived at the dojo early when Kato Sensei was doing his misogi, essentially in a loincloth. I was struck by how muscular and solid he was, and looked like chiseled marble; so very different from our teacher on the mat in dogi and hakama, or the small man in flip-flops, jeans, and a t-shirt who looked like somebody’s kindly grandfather. Due to his great command of ki, you never got to feel his physical strength, but it would have been formidable. Kato Sensei revered O-Sensei and relegated him to a supernatural being, but apparently followed his regimen, and was certainly an “old school” martial arts master.

  • Robert – Your comments about Hiroshi Kato following O’Sensei’s lead by staying in top shape as he got older
    is absolutely correct. In 1995 i trained with him at Hombu Dojo in Doshu’s class, I was around 43 and he in his mid to late 60’s. After an hour of hard training he was barely breaking a sweat, and although in good shape I was completely drained. It was not just his superb technique, he was in top physical condition. Perhaps his training regularly as a student in other teachers classes, long after reaching shihan level – had something to do with it. Both O’Sensei and Hiroshi Kato are great role models for us all.

  • Let us not forget that O’Sensei began his training and development from an early age. Through some alchemy of Nature and Nuture he became a prodigy. The foundation was laid in a personal psychology of what we might well today call OCD or even fanaticism … or perhaps more kindly, phenomenal single-mindedness and dedication. He forged not only a remarkably tough and strong physical aspect of his persona but also an incredible mental toughness and an unbending will as well. I would speculate that he also cultivated a ferocity of spirit that he could summon when he wished to. Add to that an aptitude for Martial Technique and a penchant for challenging himself in all manner of ways … well, you get the picture.

    It wasn’t until early in midlife that the seeds of his spiritual nature and profound philosophical quest broke ground, blossomed, and began to bear fruit. And I understand that he said even later in life that it wasn’t until he began to lose his prodigious physical strength that he really came to appreciate the wondrous realm of Aiki that he had discovered.

    So, just how much of this trajectory do we, as students of the man and his Way, have to mimic on our own individual journeys? Has O’Sensei pointed out some ‘shortcuts’, or better said, some ‘worm holes’ that might allow us to progress more quickly and more masterfully on the Path? To move with greater ease and facility between the Manifest/Physical Plane and the Energetic/Spirtual Realm of this vast Cosmos of ours.

    I submit that this is where our attention should be. What other people eat or how much they weigh or what kind of beer they like is, … well … none of my real concern, really. The Old Man said it best himself, “Aikido is not a way for correcting others, …”