Ueshiba Morihei and Kano Jigoro – as seen through Manga

posted in: Aiki, Historical, Judo, MASRN | 2


This article is based on a lecture given by Professor Dr Andreas Niehaus at a MASRN (Martial Arts Studies Research Network) event called New Research in Japanese Martial Arts in Bath earlier this year. The lecture was called: “Enlightening the World: Narrating and (Re)Presenting the Life of Kanô Jigorô and Ueshiba Morihei in Manga”.



Reading a historical biography through Manga 漫画 is something quite unusual for a Western audience. But for a Japanese audience it’s very common. Professor Dr Andreas Niehaus (Ghent University) has a special research interest in looking at how the founders of the modern martial arts have been represented in Japanese manga.

Here are some key points from a recent lecture he gave on this topic, which I was fortunate to attend. Andreas’ focus for this lecture was on two manga biographies.

The first biography is of Kanō Jigorō Sensei, the founder of Judo, from a 1980s series published by the Kodokan. The second is of Ueshiba Morihei Sensei (O Sensei), the founder of Aikido, published in 2000.

1. Manga is a serious educational medium in Japan

The Honobono Family Asks: What are Constitutional Revisions?

To set the context, Andreas explained that while we may see comics as childish or trivial in Western culture, in Japanese culture they are often used for serious educational purposes – for adults as well as children.

Manga is used for school text books, public service communications and so on. For example, here’s the cover of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party’s information pamphlet: ほのぼの 一家 の 憲法 改正 って なあに?Honobono Ikka no Kenpō Kaisei tte Nani? (‘The Honobono Family Asks: What are Constitutional Revisions?’)

Andreas explains:

There’s a cultural understanding of manga and the realisation that you can indeed educate and transmit history through manga. So it’s really not surprising that the Kōdōkan 講道館 and the Aikikai 合気会 chose manga to communicate the lives of their founders.

2. Biography is often a form of creative writing

Andreas explained that biography is a form of writing, which unfolds in the space between fiction and non-fiction. It selects certain elements of the person’s life, and constructs a narrative from these. Indeed, many historians regard biography as an inferior source of information, closer to creative writing than “real” history.

As you’ll see from the rest of this article, these two texts do indeed paint the lives of the founders in a creative way. They also present the arts of judo and aikido in a particular light. Andreas explains that these manga are acts of social communication through which the Kōdōkan and Aikikai legitimate their status, and express what they want to be, and how they want to be seen.

3. Both manga use some “saint-like” visual imagery to present the Founders

われ 黄金体 と 化す  Ware ōgontai to kasu – I am transformed into a golden body!!  ・   神 を みた Kami o mita – I saw God!

Andreas draws our attention to how some of the pictures in these books mirror imagery associated with hagiographies (lives of the saints).

A key episode in the Aikido text is O Sensei achieving “enlightenment” in 1925. Wikipedia explains that he had defeated a naval officer’s bokken attacks unarmed and without hurting the officer. Ueshiba then walked to his garden, where he had the following realisation:

I felt the universe suddenly quake, and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God,  the creator of the universe. At that moment I was enlightened: the source of budō [the martial way] is God’s love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings …

Meanwhile, the Kanō manga shows him defeating a huge Russian officer, while also protecting his opponent from injury. Kanō is then depicted as striding forward after the encounter, with rays of light behind him, as he leads his followers ahead to better the world through Judo.

Andreas explained that this can link the Founder to iconographies of deities and mystical emperors (see image).

However, this is not to say that Kano is being depicted as holy or “saintly” in the same way as O Sensei. Rather, Andreas explains that this episode connects Kanō to political developments and shows that Judo has a value for modern Japan in a sense that it can be used to protect the nation and strengthen Japanese patriotism as well as its people.

4. Both manga edit history to fit the narrative

We’ve already seen that biography involves choosing certain events to tell a story about someone’s life. But as Andreas says: it can be just as interesting to see what’s been left out, as to see what’s been included.

In this case, both manga focus much more on personal stories than historical events. Or else, they rewrite historical events in a simplified way, eliding any problematic elements. Andreas explains:

嘉納 治五郎 の 生涯 Kanō Jigorō no Shōgai – Life of Kanō Jigorō  ·  柔道 の 歴史– Judō no Rekishi – History of Judo  ·  合気道 開祖 Aikidō Kaiso – The Founder of Aikido  ·  植芝 盛平 物語 Ueshiba Morihei Monogatari – The story (legend / tale) of Ueshiba Morihei

Both manga deal with historical periods associated with controversial Japanese aggression. I was expecting to find this reflected to some degree. But the approach to history is very simplistic and uncritical.

There are no questions about how far Judo’s ideology and techniques ultimately became an integral part of mobilising Japanese people in the 1920s and 1930s.

Equally in the Aikido manga, the story glosses over O Sensei’s far-right politics, and involvement with the controversial Ōmoto-kyō sect. The text does show his visit to Manchuria with Onisaburo Deguchi (the founder of Ōmoto-kyō) but Andreas says:

It’s presented as a spiritual journey to unite the Asian people, and free the oppressed. There’s no mention of the organisation’s extreme right-wing connections, or the political context of the Japanese annexation of Manchuria.

5. These manga use markers of scholarly authenticity to create authority

We’ve seen above that biography is often seen as a subjective source of information. However, the writers of these manga are seeking to produce an authoritative historical narrative.

One way they deal with this challenge, is by including various “markers” of scholarly research, to give the text a more authoritative appearance. Andreas lists some examples as:

– Use of quotations
– Table of contents
– Text to introduce each chapter
– Footnotes with additional information about certain historical figures, techniques and so on.
– An introduction by Ueshiba Moriteru (O Sensei’s grandson) where he explains what kind of sources he’s used, the approach taken and even the production process for the manga.

In this way, Andreas explains, an objective, scholarly feel is created.

6. They also create authority through using markers of historical authenticity

Andreas shows lots of examples where the texts have incorporated “real” source material into their pages. These include:

– Precise copies of photographs of real people, places and things

– A copy of an actual letter from Kanō Sensei

– Characters shown reading real books

– Copious reference to 実話 jitsuwa – oral transmissions (literally real stories) from Ueshiba Moriteru’s father and grandfather.

Here’s a good example – a picture of the Kōdōkan at Fujimi-Cho that appears to be closely based on a painting of the dojo from around 1886-1889.

Andreas explained that judōka and aikidōka are likely to recognise some of these picture sources, either consciously or subliminally, which gives them confidence in the authenticity of the text.

In some cases, the artists have adopted an especially realistic drawing style for events such as World War Two bombings, which creates a serious mood of inserting real history into the story.

7. Both manga choose their audience carefully

This was an interesting point. Andreas explained that the two manga are aimed at completely different audiences.

The Judo manga states that:

These authentic volumes have a high educational value, and we hope they’ll be read by primary school children as well as adults.

The language used is simple, and all the kanji – even the easy ones – have furigana (phonetic text markers to indicate the kanji’s pronunciation). The artwork is also generally simple, in the style of manga for shōnen (teenage boys) and sports manga. It’s clearly aimed at a wide audience – children, adults, judōka and the general public alike.

It does use various technical Judo language, but is careful to explain it, and make it accessible to any reader.

Meanwhile, the Aikido manga appears to be written for an elite audience of well-educated, serious Aikido practitioners. It uses complex sentence structures, difficult vocabulary and copious technical Aikido terms that will make no sense to outsiders.

Indeed in some cases they won’t even be able to read the words, as the text contains no furigana at all, even for the most difficult kanji, or for complex technical terms that a non-practitioner won’t know.

Andreas explains that the Judo text seems to be aiming to educate a large, wide audience, and spread the knowledge. Meanwhile, the Aikido text seems to be for a smaller audience – a closed community, which reconfirms knowledge and keeps it within. This may also be linked to the fact that many more Japanese people practise Judo than Aikido.


This was such an interesting lecture. It opens up a whole new perspective on the martial arts; and in particular the stories and legends we like to preserve and share about our ancestors and founders.

The key point I took away from Andreas’ talk, was that when we tell stories about our school’s founders, we’re not just talking about THEM as people. We’re really expressing something about ourselves – about who WE are; the culture and identity of the group we belong to; and why our own school or art is so special.

It’s human nature to enjoy stories; and sharing tales of our founders is an essential element of building a strong community within our club, school or association. But on the flip side, we just need to be aware of what we’re doing when we edit and represent the founders’ lives in this way; and any risks or other implications . . .

Professor Dr Andreas Niehaus is Head of International Office Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at Ghent University. You can view his full lecture here (46 minutes): Enlightening the World: Narrating and (Re)Presenting the Life of Kanô Jigorô and Ueshiba Morihei in Manga. 

This lecture was part of a one-day event hosted by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network in Bath, UK, May 2017 – New Research on Japanese Martial ArtsThe event was a great success, with researchers from Japan, Korea, the US, the UK and Europe sharing their exciting work. 

I’ve already written about one of the other lectures (by Dr George Jennings) here: Are Eastern values “better” than Western values?

You can view the full set of lectures from this event, by George, Andreas and the other scholars, on the MASRN YouTube channel.

2 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Interesting – thanks for sharing! I found I understood a text on Budo better in Manga than I did in translation 🙂 Good to see you writing again – keep it up!

  2. Jamie Korsen

    Thanks for forwarding; it’s appreciated.


    I enjoy when childhood learning is involved as I believe it is of the upmost importance.

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