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Interview with Swordmaster: Kiyoshi Nakakura (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #78 (September 1988)

The text below is the first of a two-part interview with Kiyoshi Nakakura Sensei, 9th dan hanshi in both Kendo and Iaido and one of Japan’s top swordsmen. Nakakura Sensei was interviewed on October 15 and December 23, 1987 at his residence in Higashi Murayama City. Also present and questioner for the first interview was Mr. Hideo Yamanaka, President of Nihon Shuppan Hoso Kigyo Company.

Kiyoshi Nakakura (1910-2000)
“If you think you can’t do something, you can’t! If you absolutely make up your mind to do something, you can!” A product of old-style pre-war Kendo training, top student of Swordmaster Hakudo Nakayama and former adopted son of Morihei Ueshiba, 78-year old Kiyoshi Nakakura Sensei is one of Japan’s top swordsmen.”

Nakakura Sensei: My grandfather paid for all of my school education expenses. My mother became a widow at the age of about 32 and went through great hardships. The garden of my house was a continuation of that of my grandfather’s and I grew up in his house until I started attending elementary school.

Mr. Yamanaka: Was it as a result of your relationship with your grandfather that you went to the Daidokan Kendo dojo?

Nakakura Sensei: That’s right. My grandfather was around 50 years old at that time and had just retired. He used to keep “mamushi” (a kind of pit viper) and he would break their bones and hang them up on the wall to dry. He had us eat them saying that they would give us energy. Then the rumor spread that I ate mamushi. So we children said that we would never eat that stuff! (Laughter) However, my grandfather insisted that we had to eat them in order to gain energy. When we were to stay over night for some kind of event, my grandfather would grind a grilled mamushi into a powder-like medicine and give one dose to each to us. That way the other children would never know that it was mamushi, you see. My grandfather told us to take it after meals.

This is something that happened after I came to Tokyo. Whenever I wrote a letter to my grandfather to let him know that I was having a match, he would put “shochu” (low-class distilled spirits) into a liquor bottle and visit all the shrines in the village to pray that his grandson would perform well in the match. Whenever I sent him a letter which said that the match was over, he would again visit all the shrines with a bottle of shochu to offer thanks. My grandfather’s behavior made me determined to practice really hard. I used to think of my grandfather’s face while putting on the “men” or Kendo face protector just before a match and that really made me perk up.

Mr. Yamanaka: Your grandfather was your foster parent in the true sense, wasn’t he?

Nakakura Sensei: That’s right. It was in April in 1927 that I left my grandfather. I was 17 years old. Then I went to the Daidokan in Kagoshima Prefecture. In the beginning, my grandfather said that he would never allow me to go to the Daidokan. My older brother, who was a school teacher, would come home every Saturday to try to persuade my grandfather but he would get angry at my brother saying that such a suggestion was futile. My teacher was named Nakahara and he and my brother together attempted to persuade my grandfather to allow me to go. On the third attempt my grandfather was finally convinced. My grandfather was concerned about my being able to earn a living only by doing Kendo in the future. My father’s brother had been adopted into the Yoshitome family and my brother also succeeded him. My grandfather told this uncle to go to visit the chief of a police station nearby and ask him if I would be able to establish myself as a Kendoka in the future. Then my uncle went to ask the chief who replied, “I cannot say anything certain about the future, but I think that it will all depend on your nephew himself. If he devotes himself to Kendo from now on and receives at least the 3rd rank, he will be able to establish himself as a Kendoka.” This convinced my grandfather. When I was to leave, my grandfather told me the following, “You are now going to work hard to become a Kendoka. You are not to come home until you receive the 3rd rank”. I felt sad then. It was really difficult to receive the 3rd rank in those days. There were no Kendo teachers who had any dan in elementary schools in Kagoshima Prefecture at that time (around 1922). There were only about two policemen who had 2nd dan and two or three who had shodan. It was extremely difficult to get the 3rd dan. Just before I left the village, people came to see me off and gave me a parting gift. Although the amount was very small, something like 20 sen or 30 sen (1 sen = 1/100 Yen), they all encouraged me.

The training I underwent at the Daidokan was really severe. We would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and run to the dojo for practice. We would get really exhausted after one hour of practice. I thought that with this severe training experience I would be able to establish myself in any other field even if I didn’t succeed as a Kendoka. Many times I thought that I would just pack up everything in a wicker trunk and go home. However, whenever I felt that way, I talked myself out of it. I remembered how I went there overcoming the opposition of my grandfather and how I was seen off by the people in the village. I endured to the end exactly for this reason. Without it I might have given up and gone home.

There was a really strict Kendo teacher named Kanehiro Maruta at the Daidokan. One day, by mistake, I stepped over the “shinai” (bamboo sword) of the person next to me and Maruta Sensei who watched me do this shouted out my name, “Nakakura!”. Immediately I regretted what I had done but it was too late. Maruta Sensei told me to bring him my shinai and he struck me so hard I saw stars. Sensei said, “What in the world do you think the shinai is for? The shinai is a sword. Samurai warriors in the old days took good care of their swords just as if they were their souls. How could you step over a shinai which stands for a real sword? Someone like you will never be able to become any good however much you practice or for however long. Quit now and go home!” Normally I would have gone home but for the reasons I have already mentioned I could not go home. I then begged him to forgive me this once. Maruta Sensei said, “All right. You then apologize sincerely to the shinai for stepping over it and raise it over your head and stand still like that in the corridor!.”

I stood still holding the shinai over my head until the class was over. Then I went back to the dormitory with the others. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I found bumps like kumquats all over my head. I didn’t cry when I was struck but when I saw myself in the mirror I really thought that I would go home and wondered if I still had to continue Kendo training. However, I supressed the desire to quit and stuck it out. He was a really strict teacher. He was also a heavy drinker and drank every night with the head of the Daidokan. Sometimes he drank till one o’clock in the morning. A dormitory leader would tell us that our teacher was still drinking and would not be coming the next morning. When we all believed it and weren’t thinking of going to the dojo the next morning, Sensei had already been up before five am and was waiting for us in Zazen posture at the dojo. A student on duty that day would see Sensei there and come to tell us that he was already at the dojo. We all jumped up surprised and ran to the dojo. (Laughter) At the dojo students were supposed to hang their name plates on the wall, you could tell who came first and who came last. The student who came last would be nearly killed. (Laughter) Then we had “kakarigeiko” [1]. The kakarigeiko of those days was different from that of today. We did it for one or two minutes and it was unbearably hard. You would become blinded. Even though we were in that condition, we continued to be struck hard. In the end, the wall of the dojo was practically destroyed. On one occasion Masayoshi Arikawa - who is now in Oita Prefecture - was forced out into the corridor. The boarding broke when he landed and he fell into it up to his thigh and was stuck there. However, Sensei still told him to attack him and struck him on his head, trunk (do), hands -everywhere! That left him stuck in the floor and we had to pull him out. (Laughter)

Mr. Yamanaka: How many years did you stay in the Daidokan?

Nakakura Sensei: I stayed there for 2 years. We practiced three times a day - morning, afternoon and evening - one hour each time. When you get a little older, this type of training is too severe.

After graduating from this Daidokan, I went to teach Kendo at the Daitosha Kogyo Office in Fukuoka Prefecture on the recommendation of my older brother. I went to Fukuoka in April of 1929. Then in November there was a school field trip to Tokyo and I went along as well. This is how I came to visit Hakudo Nakayama Sensei.

The reason I visited Nakayama Sensei is that Maruta Sensei talked about him in the class on military science at the Daidokan. Maruta Sensei saw Nakayama Sensei at the Yubukai in Kyoto before the [Russo-Japanese] war and thought light of him wondering how he could be considered the best in Japan. He thought that he would just knock him over once and went to attack Nakayama Sensei. However, he could not even touch his hakama. Maruta Sensei crashed against Nakakura Sensei but the latter deflected his attack, pinned his head and made him fall. We had heard that Nakayama Sensei was really great in that sense. What’s more is that this story came from Maruta Sensei who we believed to be the strongest teacher in the world. I was so curious to see what Nakayama Sensei was like. So I snuck out of the inn I was staying at and visited him. When I told his live-in student that I would like to see his teacher, he asked me if I had a letter of introduction. When I replied that I came from Kagoshima and my sensei was Maruta Sensei, I was taken to the dojo. Nakayama Sensei came to the dojo and said, “You are Mr. Nakakura. I know Maruta Sensei very well. Since you came here why don’t you practice with us today?” When I told him that I didn’t bring anything with me and would like to do so next time, he said he would have a student lend me his training suit and the things I needed and told me to practice that day. I was so pleased to be told this by someone I regarded as almost a god. Since I thought that I might never get a chance like this again, I practiced there. After practice Nakakura Sensei called me over and asked what I was doing then. When I replied that I was a Kendo teacher, he told me the following: “You are still young and that’s a waste of your time. Don’t you want to come to Tokyo to practice?” I immediately felt an impulse to answer yes but instead I replied to Sensei that I would go back to Fukuoka then to talk to the people concerned about this. I asked him for his assistance if I was able to come back to Tokyo. Then I left.

I went back to Kagoshima during the winter holiday of December and told my grandfather everything. He gave me permission and told me, “If you really want to go there, I will let you. I will send you the money you need. Since this is what you have aimed to achieve, take advantage of the opportunity.” I was so happy. When I returned to the school on January 5, I explained the situation to the head of the school and asked him to let me quit. Although I was told that it would not be easy for me to do so since I hadn’t given him prior notice, my mind was already in Tokyo then and I couldn’t be patient. I thought that I would go that night secretly. I left there at dawn and walked 2 hours to the station carrying my Kendo equipment on my shoulder. Then I got on the 7 o’clock train and came to Tokyo. It was thanks to Maruta Sensei who talked about Nakayama Sensei that I could become a student of the latter.

Mr. Yamanaka: I understand that when you entered the Yushinkan Dojo Gorozo Nakajima and Jun’ichi Haga tested you since they thought that you were rather conceited….

Nakakura Sensei: I was a country boy from Kagoshima and didn’t even know how to greet people properly. Also I was a newcomer there but I asked Nakajima to have a match with me. Now Nakajima says, “I had never seen anybody more conceited!” (Laughter) In those days I had the feeling that no one could beat me. I had rarely lost a match before anyway and I absolutely did not want to be defeated especially by people in Tokyo. At that time Mr. Haga was quite strong and he agreed to practice with me thinking that he would teach me a lesson. It was a violent practice. In the end the practice became a free-for-all. We were determined to continue in this way until one of us gave up. Finally, Mr. Nakajima had to come in between us to stop us. (Laughter)

If you think you can’t do something you can’t. If you are determined to do something you can. I think the reason high-ranking teachers are struck is that their determination never to be struck is not strong enough. If you compete as though you are in a real situation, you will never be struck. Several years ago Nakajima said to me: “Nakakura, I feel tired recently when I do Kendo.” I said, “No wonder you feel tired the way you practice!” Nakajima didn’t like what he heard and asked me why I thought so. The reason was this: He was looking up at his opponent from below. In other words, he was assuming a hunched-over stance. You become tired if you practice in that stance. If you look up at your opponent from below you don’t see the movement of his mind and the initiation of his techniques. Therefore, by the time you see that he is coming to attack you it’s too late. In Kendo as long as you keep striking your opponent you don’t get tired. You become tired when you start being struck by your opponent. This is why I emphasize that you should keep striking. When you stand and adopt a stance, you should stick out your stomach and look down at your opponent as if you were controlling his mind. That way, you read his mind which makes it easy for you to strike him. That’s what I told Nakajima. After practice Nakajima came up to me and said, “Practice became much easier when I did as you told me to. You sometimes say something useful, don’t you”. I said to him, “I’m now more than 70 years old. You have to let me say something useful sometimes.” (Laughter)

The same thing can be said when you referee a match. If you look up at competitors from below you may overlook something and also you may become slow at noticing the initiation of the techniques. If you look down you see their movements very well. In Kendo, mind power, that is, what we call “spiritual strength” decides a match. Therefore, when you go somewhere else for practice and practice half-heartedly thinking that your partner is young, you will lose your composure after being struck once or twice. It will be too late for you to regain calmness then. Practice is easy as long as you treat it seriously from the beginning.

Mr. Yamanaka: Was there anything about Aikido which was useful to you in your Kendo?

Nakakura Sensei: I have never been aware of anything which has proved to be useful for Kendo techniques directly. However, I think that Ueshiba Sensei’s foot movements were very useful. Also, I think that it is thanks to Aikido training that I do not become disturbed when facing an opponent. I have come to develop the strong conviction that I will never be beaten by anyone no matter how strong. This is thanks to Aikido.

Mr. Yamanaka: In the films of Ueshiba Sensei, we see him still executing techniques as he did in his heyday with no weakening of his abilities.

Nakakura Sensei: I was really impressed when I saw him in the film. He had young students attack him for that long a time and he threw them all. He would never lose his balance even if he practiced for one hour. It is really amazing. I doubt that you can do the same in Kendo. I think that his techniques are those of a kami (divine being).

Aiki News: We understand that you came to the Kobukan Dojo as the adopted son of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei and your name at that time was Morihiro Ueshiba.

Nakakura Sensei: That’s right. I married the daughter of Ueshiba Sensei in 1932. Two Chinese characters, each from the names of two masters were used for my name, “Morihiro”. One was “Haku” (can also be read “hiro”) from my master, Hakudo Nakayama and “Mori” (can also be read “Sei”) from a famous master named Seiji Mochida. Therefore, when I was in the Kobukan I was known as Morihiro Ueshiba. Some old-timers still call me “Mr. Ueshiba.”

Aiki News: Was it due to the relationship between Ueshiba Sensei and Nakayama Sensei that you entered the Kobukan dojo?

Nakakura Sensei: That’s right. They became acquainted with each other for some reason. Ueshiba Sensei used to say that Aikido is closer to Kendo than it is to Judo. Therefore, he expressed his desire to receive an adopted son from the Kendo side. Ueshiba Sensei asked if Nakayama Sensei knew any appropriate person. There were lots of people from Kagoshima Prefecture in Ueshiba’s dojo then. For example, there was Count Gombei Yamamoto [2]. He was the one who called Mr. Ueshiba from Kishu, you know. There was also his son, Kiyoshi Yamamoto who was a lieutenant and his nephew, Eisuke Yamamoto, also an admiral who was a Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet. Then there was Isamu Takeshita who had a keen interest in Aikido and was practicing the art very seriously. He also was an admiral and was from Kagoshima Prefecture. Given this situation, Nakayama Sensei chose me since I was also from Kagoshima Prefecture. Then Nakayama Sensei stood as my guarantor in place of my parents.

Aiki News: Did you practice Jujutsu while you were in the Kobukan?

Nakakura Sensei: I was practicing both Kendo and Aikido. Although I was practicing Aikido, I found Mr. Ueshiba to be superhuman and felt that I would never be able to master the techniques he was doing and so would not be able to succeed him. I felt that I should not cling to the position as his successor. Then I went to see Nakayama Sensei and told him that I did not think I would be able to succeed him and would like to leave the Ueshiba family. Nakayama Sensei said that he understood but told me to wait since he himself would go and talk to Mr. Ueshiba. It was just before I left the Kobukan. I departed in 1937.

Aiki News: Who were the live-in students then?

Nakakura Sensei: There were always five to six live-in students such as Zenzaburo Akazawa, Shigemi Yonekawa, Rinjiro Shirata, Tsutomu Yukawa, Masahiro Hashimoto and Kaoru Funahashi. Since these students didn’t have jobs then Mr. Ueshiba was taking care of all of them. Tsutomu Yukawa was stabbed to death by a soldier in Osaka just before a trip to Manchuria. He had a quarrel with a soldier at a pub but they somehow settled the quarrel and were to go home. When they came to the stairs the officer of the soldier stumbled down the stairs and fell. The soldier who thought that Yukawa started the fighting again, stabbed Yukawa with his bayonet. Yukawa was about the same age as I am and so he might have been 32 or 33 then. He was a favorite of Ueshiba Sensei. He came to stay with the Ueshiba family as soon as he graduated from middle school. He was not from Tanabe but he was from Wakayama Prefecture, the same prefecture Ueshiba Sensei came from.

There was a person called Aiki Hoshi who was the Judo teacher of Yukawa in his middle school days and who was later hanged for war crimes. Because Yukawa started Aikido he quit his job as a teacher and he too came to Tokyo to study Aikido. He had a 6th dan in Judo. Yukawa was very strong in Judo too. However, Mr. Hoshi returned his 6th dan to the Kodokan. He volunteered as a one-year officer but for some unknown reason he was accused of war crimes. There is a famous story about him. This occurred on the day he was summoned for execution. However, he was very strong at “go” and was playing a game when he was called. He said, “I am playing go now. Wait a while. I will come with you as soon I finish my game.” Then he finished his game and went to be executed. He was such an extraordinary man. There is another story about him. One Sunday morning, 5 or 6 of us were chatting in the Kobukan dojo. Mr. Hoshi said to me, “However strong you are, Wakasensei, [3] at Kendo, I can beat you since I know a technique for dealing with the naked sword. So we decided to have a match to test him. I told a man named Ueki who was there for Kendo practice to go to my room and get my sword. Then I put on my sword at my side. I drew it and assumed a stance. He took a stance with empty-hands. I suppose that he was thinking of controlling or pinning my sword from above by avoiding my strike. However, I didn’t go to strike him. I turned the blade of the sword up and advanced straight toward him saying, “Come on!”. He stepped back little by little and stood flat against the window and said, “I lost. Sensei help me!”. I placed my sword very close to his body. (Laughter)

Kaoru Funahashi was a very quiet, serious person. He was good at Aikido, too. If I remember correctly, he was from Tottori Prefecture. He was a favorite of Ueshiba Sensei. He was younger than me. I guess he has already passed away. Masahiro Hashimoto was from Fukuoka, Kyushu Prefecture. Funahashi was much better than Hashimoto in Aikido. Then there was a man named Rinjiro Shirata. His father really liked the martial arts and so he sent his son to Mr. Ueshiba. Aritoshi Murashige was an extraordinary man. I guess he accompanied Mr. Ueshiba to Mongolia. He was not a big man. He wore a mustache. He did lai a little. I only met him two or three times while I was at the Ueshiba Dojo. He didn’t come to the dojo much.

Aiki News: According to the book by Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, you formed a Kendo club in the Kobukan, Sensei. Did anyone practicing Aikido join this club?

Nakakura Sensei: There weren’t many. Live-in students such as Mr. Shirata, Hashimoto and Funahashi joined the club. Funahashi was quite good. There was also a man named Suzuki practicing. He passed away four or five years ago, though. He was dark-complexioned and very strong. In Aikido people like Shirata and Yonekawa were among the best.

Click here to go to part two of this interview.