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Face to face with Sokaku Takeda

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by Yoichi Ozaka

Aiki News #68 (August 1985)

The article below was reprinted with the kind permission of Tokimune Takeda Sensei, Headmaster of Daito-ryu Aiki Budo and the son of Sokaku Takeda Sensei. In 1929, Navy Admiral Isamu Takeshita began studying Daito-ryu from Sokaku Takeda Sensei and published a magazine article entitled “Story of the Bravery of Sokaku Takeda.” This piece came to the attention of the Tokyo Asahi Newspaper Company which sent journalist Yoichi Ozaka in July 1930 to Hokkaido to interview Takeda Sensei who was travelling around the northern island teaching. The article appearing below was written by Mr. Ozaka and appeared in print on August 17, 1930.

Many years ago Daito-ryu aikijujutsu existed as a secret martial art school of the Aizu Clan. However, beginning in the Meiji Period this veil of mystery shrouding the art for hundreds of years had been lifted due to the efforts of Master Sokaku Takeda (1859-1943), legitimate heir of the school. Daito-ryu is considered the most advanced self-defense art and is unequaled by traditional martial arts such as kendo and judo. For some unknown reason, Master Takeda, an extraordinary martial artist, went to Hokkaido to renounce the world some 20 years ago.* He began to lead a life in complete seclusion while engaging in farming in Shirataki (the text actually reads “Shirahama”, a mistake on the part of the writer as the kanji for “taki” and “hama” are quite similar) in Kitami, the back country of Hokkaido. Although it seems that he has some thirty thousand students all over Japan, the Master is living in isolation in order to avoid all worldly troubles.

I spent seven hours travelling by train to the east after transferring at Nayori, close to the northern extremity of Hokkaido, to arrive at the Master’s secluded house where he is living in retirement in Shirataki in Kitami-no-kuni. His house has two ten-mat tatami rooms with no sliding doors between them. Besides these rooms there is one large room of about 20 mats containing a five-foot sunken hearth surrounded by a lustrous black wooden hem. Although it was midsummer, I found a large cauldron hanging from a pot hanger and two pairs of iron tongs about 16 or 17 inches in length randomly thrown into the pot. The room reminded me of the secluded house of Tsukahara Bokuden (sword expert and founder of Bokuden-ryu (Shinto-ryu) (1489-1571)) or Mataemon Araki (sword expert and founder of Araki-ryu (1597?-1638?)) in every way.

His wife greeted me saying, “Many thanks for your kind visit but my husband wandered off at the beginning of June and has not yet come back.”

“What an easygoing attitude she has,” I thought to myself. If this were Tokyo, one would immediately call the police to search for him. “Oh yes,” she added, “I received a letter from him three or four days ago. He said he was staying in a place called Koshimizu located behind Abashiri. But he will go off again somewhere from there and I have no idea when he will return home. I hope you’ll find him in Koshimizu but he may already have left.” I felt very much discouraged but decided to forget about it and again spent seven hours on a train and got off at Furuoke Station, four stops from Abashiri, famous as the site of a prison. Then I walked along a mountain path crossing a ridge for some 2 1/2 miles. It was about midnight when I finally arrived in the town of Koshimizu.

When I at last found an inn an old man of 67 or 68 who looked like a samurai of yesteryear came out and asked what business had brought me there and where I came from. I handed him my name card and followed after him. At that point I heard someone beyond the “shoji” sliding door say: “What? A newspaperman? What a nuisance! What does he want of an old farmer like me? It’s no use talking about it. If he is already here, tell him to come in.” He greeted me with the following words: “I didn’t want to see you because it’s a bother to me, but I suppose it can’t be helped.”

He was wearing a checkered summer cotton kimono with a belt wound around his waist. Anyone would think he was a poor peasant judging merely by his appearance. He didn’t look his age which was 72 years. He looked younger and appeared vigorous. He was small, probably less than five-feet tall. I found out later that he weighed only about 100 pounds. Nonetheless, his eyes stared at me fiercely and I had the distinct impression they wouldn’t be satisfied until having penetrated to the depths of my soul.

“What do you want from an old man like me?” he asked.

“I want to talk to you about martial arts.”

“If it’s farming you want to hear about, I have a general knowledge. I can cultivate a 2-hectare field myself. I can dig up the roots of about 30 big trees. Ha, ha, ha…”

After a while the conversation naturally turned to Takeda Sensei’s preferred subject of martial arts beginning with each school then moving on to other topics. The Master, who gradually had become excited while talking, had his best student (the old man I first met) stand in the middle of the eight-mat room opposite him. It seems that this old man is an ardent admirer of Sokaku and had been studying with him for twenty years.

“Since the conversation has livened up a bit, let me show you some techniques. Come on! Attack me from any direction!”

His strong posture with his feet spaced a little apart made him appear really large. His eyes were blood-curdling as they stared at his best student. A moment later his opponent attacked him with all his might. He ended up on the floor having been thrown easily by Takeda Sensei whose shout was like a bolt of lightening.

The student then uttered, “I surrender.”

The technique was so perfectly executed it left one somewhat unsatisfied. I was shown about ten matches of this type but the techniques were so quickly applied I couldn’t see how he managed the throws or pinned his adversary to the point he wasn’t even able to moan.

“It looks like a rigged match, doesn’t it.”

“Yes, it does,” I blurted out without thinking.

“Have you ever practiced ‘yawara’ (jujutsu techniques)? Stand up.”

I stood up.

“Squeeze my neck tightly.”

I am a pretty large fellow and I strangled him with all my might. Then, he said, “Are you ready now?” As soon as I heard him shout, my hands, which were around his neck, felt as if they were broken. He then asked me to grab his right arm with both my hands and to push against his chest and various other things. I did as I was told and was thrown without understanding how he did it. He pinned my neck and both arms with his legs as if tying a knot. My arms felt almost like they were broken and I was out of breath.

When I looked up at Master Takeda from my vantage point on the floor he had his arms folded across his chest and was saying to his student, “Hey, the tea has been spilt!” I couldn’t believe it!

A little later he drew a live blade and showed me various kata (forms). He swung the unsheathed sword before my eyes, under my nose and around my shoulders creating an ominous swishing sound.

“It is quite difficult to make this swishing sound with the sword. You can’t cut a person properly unless you can produce this sound when swinging a sword. It is very hard to make this 14-inch sword sing.” The 72 year-old man didn’t look at all tired.

He next talked about how quickly Marquis Tsugumichi Saigo learned techniques and having met and talked with General Nogi in Nasuno (in Tochigi Prefecture) and how much he liked it when the latter dressed up like a farmer. He also told me that since his martial art style was very easy to learn, he had never demonstrated in front of people. Takeda Sensei said that his father cauterized the nails of both his hands everyday as punishment for his not being able to learn techniques fast enough. He showed me the burn marks still remaining after so many years. Even when the hour reached two o’clock in the morning he continued to talk endlessly.

“Have these techniques ever been useful to you in a real situation?”, I asked, purposely changing the subject to draw more information out of him. At first he just laughed and didn’t answer my question but finally he told me about one incident. According to his story, he was attacked by 40 or 50 construction workers in Fukushima Prefecture in the beginning of the Meiji Period and killed 8 or 9 people.**

“This technique is a perfect self-defense art where you avoid being cut, hit or kicked while at the same time you don’t hit, kick or cut. As the attack comes you handle it expediently using the power of your opponent. So even women and children can execute these techniques. But I make it a rule not to teach the techniques to anyone without proper references because they are frightening if misused. I understand that there are people teaching these techniques in Tokyo [probably a reference to Morihei Ueshiba who was teaching in Tokyo at this time], but I don’t think you can teach other people well unless you are very skilled yourself.”

It seemed that his talk would never come to an end even after the day had dawned.

*According to Ryuichi Matsuda in Hiden Nihon Jujutsu (Secret Japanese Jujutsu Schools), when a student of Sokaku, an Akita Prefecture Police Superintendent, was transferred to Hokkaido in 1910, he asked Takeda to teach Daito-ryu to the police in the northern island. Takeda accepted and accompanied him there (p. 196). At the beginning Sokaku gave seminars at police stations centered in the Asahikawa area. At the beginning of the Taisho Period (1912-1925) he visited Shirataki in Kitami, married and set up a household there.

**Donn Draeger in Modern Bujutsu and Budo records this incident as having taken place when Sokaku was 23 in 1881 and gives the location as Tokyo. Also the number of dead is reported as 12 persons (p. 139).