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Sokaku Takeda Biography (5)

by Tokimune Takeda

Aiki News #78 (September 1988)

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.

The Takeda family after the Aizu War

The end of the Aizu War also marked the end of the age of the sword and the beginning of the age of guns and firearms. The martial arts of the Aizu Clan, which had once been highly regarded all over Japan, had died out. The Aizu population had resigned themselves to a life of subsistence, with no hope for the future. Sokichi Takeda, Sokaku’s father, remained in the Aizu domain as a “country samurai” where he had inherited some cultivated land which was handed down in his family. He also taught swordwork and “bojutsu” (long staff techniques) at the “Budojo”, which he had built several years before as a storehouse. He also built a Sumo ring in his house so that he could teach Sumo wrestling. He usually had four or five live-in Sumo students who helped cultivate the fields. The level of Sumo training was so high that famous Sumo wrestlers from all over came to train there where they lived at Sokichi’s expense in his house.

Sokichi Takeda was also an educated man. He opened up the Saiko-ji Temple, founded by Kunitsugu Takeda, to the public and turned it into a “terakoya” or temple school to provide scholastic training for children.

In order to raise the spirits of the inhabitants of Aizu, Sokichi organized a group of Sumo wrestlers from the surviving members of the Aizu Sumo Wrestlers’ Party who had played an active part in the Aizu War, to tour the provinces.

The Aizu Sumo Wrestler’s party

In 1861, immediately after the first year of the Man’en Period (1860), Naosuko Ii, Chief Minister of the Mito domain, was assassinated outside Sakurada Gate [1]. Although there were some members of the Aizu Sumo Wrestlers’ Party who had actively fought in the Aizu War, there were many others who had been recruited to replace the numerous soldiers who had been killed or injured in battle. Still, the party’s brilliant war achievements brought it great popularity.

The high-ranking wrestlers who were “makuuchi” or senior grade Sumo wrestlers and above wore crested kimono, haori and hakama in full formal dress and were allowed to carry a sword. They were all huge, enormously fat men. The new rank of “rikishi” was created within the samurai rank and given to them. It is said to have been a grand sight when all thirty of them marched together in a stately formation.

They toured the various districts of Aizu to teach Sumo wrestling. As a result, the people of Aizu regained their fighting spirit, and eventually there was a new boom of Sumo wrestling wherever they visited.

Sumo training of Sokaku Takeda

The Aizu Wakamatsu War, which took place during the Meiji Restoration, clearly proved that the sword was no match for firearms [2]. Kendo dojos were burned down, and the sword and spear techniques of the “bushi” warriors proved woefully inadequate against peasants and commoners of the western army (government army) who were armed with guns. It was generally accepted that the age of swords had ended. As a result, the number of martial arts practitioners decreased drastically. However, the Yokikan Shibuya Dojo in Bange, which had been saved from destruction by fire, still had a fair number of students. Among them was Sokaku Takeda, who trained hard and regularly. In addition, Sokaku was taught swordwork, the bo or long staff, and Sumo by his father Sokichi. He also trained with the Sumo students living in his house.

After the war, Sokaku accompanied his father Sokichi, who had the rank of “ozeki” – the second highest rank in Sumo – to provincial Sumo tournaments, where he worked as a caller. Sokaku’s extraordinary beautiful voice, which was high-pitched and penetrating, was the result of his training for this work. He was also ordered to demonstrate “Shokiri Sumo” [3] to arouse interest in the spectators, because, even though he was small in stature, he had attained a high level of agility as a result of his Sumo training.

Sokaku participates on his own in the “kurazumo” at a festival

I, the present headmaster of Daito-ryu, had an opportunity to listen to “the story of Sokaku’s participation without permission in a Sumo tournament,” that has been transmitted by the older generation. Mr. Masae Watanabe, one of my distant relatives, who used to be a chamberlain of Takatera Village of Aizu, told me this story:

Around the beginning of the Meiji Period, a grand scale “kanjin Sumo” [4] tournament was held during a festival held in Yanazu. Sumo wrestlers gathered from all over Aizu to attend this tournament. The last events for entertainment called “shichinen-gakari” and “junin-gakari” were held; here one wins by beating seven or ten contenders consecutively. A 17- or 18-year old slightly built youngster jumped in to take part in the special tournaments. He had very sharp movements and wore a loincloth but no “mawashi” belt. He used variations of techniques such as swift front movement, “sotomuso” – an aiki application technique, “kirikaeshi,” and some leg techniques. In no time the contenders were on their knees, crawling around the ring, or flat on their buttocks. As a result, he made a clean sweep of all the matches, and holding all the prizes in his arms, he disappeared into the crowd without giving his name.

He was such an agile young fellow that the people in charge of the festival were all dumbfounded. They could not see his face very clearly because it was just getting dark. People discussed who the youngster could be and who in the Aizu vicinity was that good at Sumo. Judging from his age and short body, they decided that he must be the son of Hakkeiseki Oyakata, a retired Sumo wrestler who owned a Sumo stable. But it was young Sokaku who was already well-known for his techniques in Sumo circles of the Aizu district.

Sokaku’s father forbids him to attend Sumo tournaments without permission

When he was a boy, Sokaku used to participate in amateur Sumo tournaments held in little villages here and there. He would win the “gonin-nuki” or “junin-nuki” tournaments and walk away with all the prize money. Sokaku’s father, Sokichi, was an established ozeki and rikishi of the Aizu Clan and even had live-in students. If a son of such a professional continued to sweep away the prizes at Sumo tournaments for amateurs at various villages, it would be compromising to his reputation as a professional ozeki. As a result, Sokaku was forbidden to attend these Sumo tournaments. On the days when there were festivals at villages, the father did not let Sokaku out of the house. He was kept in the dojo to practice bojutsu. Young Sokaku wanted to go to the festivals so badly that he was scolded for training half-heartedly. Sometimes he managed to escape and go to the festivals; then he would come home with all the prizes. In the end Sokaku’s father got angry and burned a huge pile of moxa on both his thumbnails. His thumbs were severely burned, and it took two months for them to heal. I personally saw his cracked thumbnails, which Sokaku said were the result of his father burning moxa on them.

Sokaku’s students and Sumo

I would accompany my father Sokaku on his travels starting when he was around eighty years old. He would often play Sumo with some of his students who did well in amateur country tournaments.

Sokaku had a devilish look, appearing very ferocious, during martial arts training sessions. However, when he challenged others to a Sumo match, he had the smiling expression of Ebisu, the deity of commerce in Japanese mythology. Sokaku would say, “In Sumo, winning with dignity, in other words, using up all of one’s strength by pushing or lifting the opponent, is considered respectable Sumo, while throwing or turning movements are considered a technician’s Sumo. A skillful Sumo wrestler will usually not allow an opponent to grab his belt.” Sokaku said that there were very few people who succeeded in grabbing his belt.

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