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Morihei Ueshiba and Admiral Isamu Takeshita

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by Stanley Pranin

From Japanese Wushu Magazine

One of the fascinating aspects of the study of aikido history is the many important figures from a large-cross section of Japanese society that one encounters. Throughout Morihei Ueshiba’s long life he had close relationships and contact with many extraordinary individuals not only from the world of budo, but also from political, military and financial circles. One person in particular, though largely unknown to practitioners of aikido today, played an essential role in the spread of this art in prewar Japan. His name was Admiral Isamu Takeshita.

Admiral Isamu Takeshita in
full dress uniform c. 1920

Admiral Takeshita is mentioned frequently in conversations with old-timers who knew Morihei Ueshiba during his years in Tokyo before the outbreak of World War II. He was born in Kagoshima in 1869. Takeshita was a member of the Satsuma Clan. In that period the Satsuma were known for producing many naval officers while the Choshu clan provided army officers.

The relationship between Takeshita and Ueshiba began as a result of the introduction of another admiral, Seikyo Asano. Asano was a believer in the Omoto religion (see previous article on Onisaburo Deguchi) and began to practice Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu in Ayabe in 1922. Thoroughly impressed with Ueshiba’s art, Asano recommended him to Takeshita, his collegue at the naval academy in Tokyo. Takeshita journeyed to Ayabe in 1925 to view Ueshiba’s art and left totally convinced that Ueshiba was an exceptional martial artist. Upon Takeshita’s return to Tokyo he presented a glowing recommendation of Ueshiba to retired Admiral Gombei Yamamoto—a two-time former prime minister—and this led to a demonstration before a select group of viewers at Takeshita’s residence. Henceforth, the admiral played an active role in promoting Ueshiba’s activities among the elite of Japanese society. This resulted in many military officers, government officials and wealthy persons becoming devotees of Ueshiba-style Jujutsu. Kenji Tomiki who later created a competitive form of aikido was also introduced to Ueshiba by Takeshita around 1925.

Admiral Takeshita was not only an admirer of Ueshiba’s superlative martial skills, but also an enthusiastic practitioner even though already well into middle age. He assiduously attended practices for many years and for a time Ueshiba taught at Takeshita’s home. Moreover, the admiral encountered Ueshiba’s teacher Sokaku Takeda of Daito-ryu Jujutsu fame on several occasions. Takeshita quite probably was taught by Takeda although his name and seal do not not appear in any of the extant Daito-ryu enrollment books (eimeiroku). We know, for example, that Takeshita observed Takeda’s seminar conducted at the Ueshiba dojo in 1931. Further, Sokaku’s son and present Daito-ryu Soke, Tokimune Takeda, reports that Admiral Takeshita once authored a magazine article entitled “The Story of the Bravery of Sokaku Takeda.” Unfortunately, this article seems not to have survived.

It was during the early years of practice in Tokyo that Takeshita regularly recorded notes numbering into the hundreds of pages on the content of Ueshiba’s training sessions. The handwritten notations consist mainly of detailed descriptions of the Daito-ryu techniques then being taught by Ueshiba. These notes represent an important legacy not only for aikido practitioners, but also for adherents of Daito-ryu. They constitute additional evidence of the close historical and technical relationship between the two arts.

A fascinating sidelight from an earlier period of the life of Takeshita which cannot go unmentioned involves the American President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is well-known to have acted as a mediator in the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. The president was at the time pro-Japan and, as an avid sportsman, became aware of the existence of jujutsu. He invited the leading disciple of Judo Founder Jigoro Kano, a man named Yoshiaki Yamashita, to go to America to teach the art. A photograph of Roosevelt dated April 13, 1904 and dedicated to “Prof. Y. Yamashita” is preserved at the Kodokan. The person who acted as the contact man for Yamashita’s trip was Admiral Isamu Takeshita.

Standing front left: Commander Isamu Takeshita;
to his left, President Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1905

Besides his connections to the judo world and Ueshiba’s Aikijujutsu, Takeshita was quite fond of Sumo and exerted his considerable influence to see this art become a national sport. He also served for a number of years as the head of the Sumo Association.

During the golden years of Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo in the 1930s, Takeshita was constantly on the scene and frequently appears seated beside Ueshiba in the many group photos remaining from that period. Takeshita also participated in a large Kobudo demonstration in 1935 as the representative of “Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu.” On this occasion he was undoubtedly the representative of the Ueshiba dojo.

In 1939, a proposal was made to incorporate Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo. Normally a time consuming process, this status was swiftly granted the next year resulting in the creation of the “Kobukai Foundation.” Admiral Takeshita was the first president of the Foundation.

Takeshita’s contacts with the Imperial family led to a demonstration at the Imperial Palace Saineikan dojo in 1941. Ueshiba first resisted the invitation stating that he didn’t want to demonstrate “false” techniques before such an illustrious audience. By this he meant that if he performed “real” techniques his partner would be killed! Finally, Admiral Takeshita, always the diplomat, persuaded Ueshiba to show his “lies” anyway. Gozo Shioda, one of Ueshiba’s leading students at that time, tells the story of how his teacher, even though extremely ill with jaundice, gave a spectacular exhibition of his skills on that occasion. The other partner for Ueshiba during this demonstration, Tsutomu Yukawa, committed the error of attacking only half-heartedly in deference to his teacher’s debilitated condition. The unlucky deshi ended up with a dislocated shoulder!

After the beginning of the war when most of Ueshiba’s students dispersed, the name of Isamu Takeshita ceases to be mentioned in the context of aikido. We do not know of his activities during the conflict but given his advanced age he may have been in retirement. Takeshita passed away in 1949 at the age of 80.

All accounts of Admiral Isamu Takeshita describe him as a warm, intelligent and noble individual. Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba when once interviewed offered the following tribute to the Admiral: “A person who made tremendous efforts to insure my father’s success after coming to Tokyo was Admiral Isamu Takeshita. Isamu Takeshita was always with Morihei Ueshiba. Without him, we cannot talk about the development of aikido at that time.”