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Sokaku Takeda Biography (9)

by Tokimune Takeda

Aiki News #82 (October 1989)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Brian Workman of the USA. The article below is reprinted with the kind permission of Tokimune Takeda Sensei, Headmaster of Daito-ryu Aiki Budo and son of Sokaku Takeda Sensei.

Revival of swords arts in Kyushu

Sokaku returned to Kyushu after traveling in the Okinawan Islands for self-training, and continued his tour. At this time calm was gradually being restored in Kyushu after the violence of the wars. Due to the battlefield successes of the “Jigen-ryu batto” swordsmen of the Satsuma Clan’s army, and the sword-fighting corps of the Metropolitan Police Board during the Seinan Civil War, the value of the Nihon-to (Japanese sword) and the sword arts was being reassessed. As a result, kendo became fashionable and soon the echoes of thousands of bamboo swords exchanging blows rang through the streets. Toshiyoshi Kawaji, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police and Satsuma Clan member, wrote “The Theory of the Revival of Swordmanship.” This publication, along with a fencing tournament sponsored by the Metropolitan Police Board, held in Ueno National Park [Tokyo] in August 1879, signaled the beginning of kendo’s official revival. Sokaku continued his self-training circuit of the dojos in many towns of Kyushu, and ceaselessly devoted himself to the practice of kendo.

Sokaku’s arrogance

At that time there were many kendo dojos in various towns throughout Japan, but there were very few dojos which taught sojutsu (spear arts). On the streets, quite a few swordsmen could be seen carrying their kendo protective gear on their shoulders, but there were few carrying spears as they had in former times. In 1880, there was a teacher called Sakai at a sojutsu dojo in Kumamoto, Kyushu. In the past, Kumamoto Prefecture had turned out a great number of spear masters, and the valor of “Kumamoto’s spears” was renowned throughout Japan. Sokaku was good at thrusting techniques in kenjutsu and bojutsu (staff arts), so he was naturally inclined to favor sojutsu. However, he was unable to practice the spear arts as much as he would have liked because there were so few dojos teaching these arts. When he practiced sojutsu at Sakai Sensei’s dojo, the teachers there were very surprised at his fierce training method. They said to him, “If you haven’t any urgent business, would you stay here for a while and train our disciples in the spear art?” Sokaku agreed and stayed at the dojo giving the students lessons on sojutsu.

Sokaku, during his time with the acrobats, and while on his self-training tour of the Okinawan Islands, often challenged Okinawan Karate men to practice matches. Since he had a small physique and was quick in his actions, he could jump about 11 feet forward or backward, or to either side, in a single breath. This made him somewhat conceited.

One day, after sojutsu training, he said to the students, “I cannot fully concentrate on giving you lessons in sojutsu using only a practice spear. “Come on! Attack me with a real spear!” Giving one opponent a real spear, Sokaku, armed with his wooden sword, challenged him to a match. Using the wooden sword that his teacher, Kenkichi Sakakibara, had given him, he assumed the jodan (upper sword) stance. Dodging to either side of the thrusting spear, he easily struck the spear down. This bored him, so he encouraged two opponents to attack him simultaneously, and he jumped and dodged the spear heads, which were thrust at him from different directions, with a single leap, and defeated them. The teachers, who were sitting in a row watching, were surprised at Sokaku’s lightening-fast evasions. He could have saved his honor if he had stopped the matches at this point. But Sokaku was too proud to quit and next engaged in a match with three opponents: two were on their guard against Sokaku’s attack from the front and back, and the third moved to Sokaku’s right side. Each of them assumed an attack posture, and Sokaku raised his wooden sword to the jodan (upper) stance. As soon as he jumped and evaded the two spears thrust at him from the front and rear, the opponent at his right side also attacked, aiming at Sokaku’s armpit. Sokaku twisted, avoiding the attack and struck the third opponent’s spear from jodan, snapping the shaft of the spear, which flipped up and hit him in the mouth, breaking his two front teeth. He plucked out his dangling teeth and threw them away, challenging his opponents again. “Thrust at me!” Although Sokaku ordered them to attack him again, the three students were frightened by the terrifying sight of Sokaku, blood gushing from his mouth, and he overpowered them again with his outstanding vigor. At last, the match was stopped. That night Sokaku had a fever, and the next day he left the dojo to stay at an inn to rest.

In later years, when Sokaku was an old man, he said regarding this episode, “I was quick and highly-skilled, and was a bold youth who was fond of rushing headlong into any situation. While I could have easily given the students lessons in sojutsu using practice spears, I was defeated because of my arrogance in saying that I couldn’t concentrate my attention on practicing unless I was facing a real spear.” Sokaku, on principle, admitted as students of aikijujutsu only those who were over 20 years old and who had a steady occupation. He always admonished them against arrogance saying that it led to defeat.

An amazing coin-throwing performance

After Sokaku had broken his two front teeth, he stayed at an inn to rest, but soon began to run low on money to pay the inn charges. So he taught the art of throwing shuriken (small throwing knife) to some young men. The number of students gradually increased until he had about ten students who practiced the art every day. The shuriken art was a required one for itinerant martial artists on self-training tours. At that time, most true martial art masters would retreat to the mountains to practice at one time or another. When the food supplies in their mountain retreats began to run low, they had to use shuriken to catch small animals such as copper pheasants, squirrels or hares, to eat. They could stay in the mountains for many months if they had a flint and steel and some salt. It was said in those days that it took three years of practice to master a martial art. Those who dropped out along the way were almost always the ones who were not very skilled at shuriken throwing.

One day, when Sokaku was training his students in the shuriken, there was, among his many spectators, a young man who looked about 19 years old whose left arm and leg were paralyzed, possibly due to some kind of infantile paralysis. Smiling, he watched, but his smiling seemed to Sokaku to be full of scorn. Sokaku thought that this young man was very discourteous to smile so mockingly while observing him teach his students. After finishing the practice, he called to stop the crippled man who had started to leave. “Why did you smile at me?”, he asked the man. “It is natural that a thing sharpened at the end will stick into the target,” he answered, still smiling, and showed Sokaku an ichirin sen (a coin in the old monetary system, one rin = 1/1000 yen). Placing the coin between his index finger and middle finger, the man threw it at the board which was at a distance of about 12 feet. Over half of the coin stuck edgewise into the board. On his second throw, more than seven or eight tenths of the coin penetrated deeply into the target. On the last throw, the coin struck the board on its flat side and stuck in. This very much surprised Sokaku. The man easily removed the coin and repeated the same technique over and over again. Sokaku also tried it. He could hit the target, but each time the coin rebounded with a sound. Though he tried it many times, he couldn’t succeed in sticking the coin into the board even once.

Wishing to master this arcane art of coin-throwing, Sokaku bought the man dinner at the inn and asked him to teach the secret of his art. The man agreed to come and teach Sokaku the art for two days starting the next day. An enthusiastic Sokaku applied himself to practice day and night during the two days. Nevertheless, he was unable to stick one coin into the target. On the third day, he asked the man, “How many years must I practice in order to succeed in driving the coin into the target?” The man answered him, “I was born rich, but my left arm and leg were paralyzed by nature. When I was about eight years old, I made a mountain of coins, and played at coin-throwing, aiming at a pillar. When the coins near me were gone, I crawled to the pillar and gathered them, then returned to my former spot. Every day I threw the coins innumerable times, and at last, after about three years, I could thrust a few coins into the pillar. It has been about ten years since I first began to throw coins.” Sokaku was worried. “It will take ten years if I concentrate only on coin-throwing. If this is so, I must abandon all other martial arts, but I can’t do that.” The man seemed to sense Sokaku wavering, and from the next day he ceased coming. As a result, Sokaku felt that he had been defeated by the man in shuriken throwing. Only on very rare occasions after that, at the special request of his students or others, would Sokaku demonstrate the art of the shuriken, and he would never willingly teach them. But he occasionally showed the art of throwing using tongs, which came in many different forms, long or short, big or small, square or round. He showed them the art, beating out a rhythm two or three times, and then threw the tong driving it into the pillar.

The cripplied man

Sokaku was unable to forget the man with the great coin-throwing talent, and he was eager to see him once more. The man had mentioned “A” village, so Sokaku went there to look for him, but couldn’t find him. He asked some of the villagers about the man, but to no avail. They said to him, “We would easily remember the name if there were such a crippled man in this village. There is no wealthy man who can allow his son to play games with a highly piled mountain of coins in this village.” Sokaku visited some other villages near the “A” village, but he could find no trace of the crippled man, and the man’s true nature continued to elude him.

After he returned to the inn, the crippled man became the topic of conversation among many people, including the innkeeper and his servants. All of them had often seen his wonderful skill at coin-throwing. They had always admired him and admitted that his skill was beyond their comprehension. A few among them said in a chorus, “Now that we think about it, we seem to recall a halo appearing around the crippled man.” Upon careful examination of the coins that the man threw, they found that the ones which were stuck flat into the pillar could be picked out only using an awl. They were amazed because it was beyond the power of a human to remove the coins, yet he had easily picked them out with his fingers. Perhaps when the man said, “My family is rich, so I piled up the coins into a mountain,” he was referring to the offerings of money made to a shrine or temple. All of them agreed that the boy must be a deity, an incarnation of the Buddha. An old tradition says that Uto Myozin (a Buddhist deity) is reincarnated as a monkey or a strolling Buddhist so as to punish malicious people or the conceited. For the first time in his life, Sokaku was deeply ashamed of all the actions and thoughts which had resulted from his conceit, especially the episode in the spear dojo. In later years, when Sokaku handed his students the hiden mokuroku (secret scroll of techniques), he told them about the coin-throwing of the crippled man, and then offered the following words of admonishment: “It is disgraceful to become too proud or to be conceited. These attitudes will result in defeat, because there will always be someone better than you.”

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