WITH YUKIYOSHI TAKAMURA
Aikido Journal 117, Fall 1999
For our readers who are unfamiliar with the Shindo Yoshin-ryu
system, would you talk about its origin and characteristics?
Shindo Yoshin-ryu was founded by a Tokugawa clan retainer, Katsunosuke
Matsuoka in 1868. Matsuoka Sensei studied Yoshin-ryu, Hokushin
Itto-ryu, Jikishinkage-ryu, Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu, and Hozoin-ryu.
He based Shindo Yoshin-ryu on Yoshin-ryu, but added concepts from
other schools as well. He believed that the Yoshin-ryu concept
of passive defense was incomplete and needed the balance of positive
heiho or tactics. The original Japanese characters of Shindo Yoshin-ryu
were "new willow spirit," but they soon were changed
to "sacred willow spirit."
The original Shindo Yoshin-ryu curriculum could be more correctly
considered a bujutsu than jujutsu as many weapon techniques are
included in the curriculum (mokuroku). However, the popularity
of judo and the waning interest in weapons training resulted in
much of their influence being lost by the early 20th century in
the mainline martial arts traditions.
Several of the roots of our school begin in the early years. My
grandfather Shigeta Ohbata was originally a Yoshin-ryu student
of Hikosuke Totsuka like Matusoka. Totsuka was evidently quite
fantastic. My grandfather trained at his dojo before he met Matsuoka
Sensei. In his day, Totsuka was thought to be the match of anyone.
An absolutely wonderful technician. In his prime, it is said he
was unbeaten by anyone including opponents much larger than him.
Despite my grandfather¥s great respect for Totsuka, he left the
Yoshin-ryu after meeting a student of Matsuoka named Ishijima.
Shigeta eventually received a menkyo kaiden (teaching license)
in Shindo Yoshin-ryu around 1895. Matsuoka and Shigeta both trained
in Jikishinkage-ryu under Kenkichi Sakakibara so they developed
a close friendship. My grandfather did not intend to start his
own school but had effectively done so by the early 20th century.
This became known as the Ohbata school. He built his own dojo
with the help of a friend named Hasegawa in the Asakusa district
Shindo Yoshin-ryu is well-known in the Japanese karate world because
Wado-ryu jujutsu kempo (karate) founder Hidenori Otsuka received
a menkyo kaiden in Shindo Yoshin-ryu. A common misconception of
most Wado-ryu practitioners is that Hidenori Ohtsuka became the
headmaster of Shindo Yoshin-ryu. While he did receive a menkyo
kaiden in Shindo Yoshin-ryu, several others did as well resulting
in several schools. The original (Matsuoka) line succeeded through
Motoyoshi Saruse to Tatsuo Matsuoka and still exists today in
Sensei, when did you begin your training in martial arts?
I don¥t know for sure. My memories of being in the dojo go back
very far. Both my father and grandfather made me train while a
young boy. I was already accustomed to being in my grandfather¥s
dojo so I probably started actual training around five or six
Were you taught by your father and grandfather?
Yes. As I mentioned, my grandfather received a teaching license
from Katsunosuke Matsuoka. He, in turn, taught my father. My father
and grandfather both taught me. Matsuhiro Namishiro Sensei continued
my instruction after the death of my father and grandfather.
Would you tell us more about Namishiro Sensei?
He was one of my grandfather¥s most talented students and my father¥s
closest friend. He also trained extensively in Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu
and Shindo Muso-ryu jojutsu. He had the greatest influence on
my sword technique. Although my grandfather trained in Jikishinkage-ryu
under Kenkichi Sakakibara and taught this art to my father, the
majority of my instruction was in Shindo Yoshin-ryu. I learned
very little sword technique, from my father and grandfather. My
grandfather evidently considered the passing of his Shindo Yoshin-ryu
teaching license to be extremely important. He intended to pass
it to my father upon his return from victory in the war against
America. However, sometime in 1944, the reality of what was happening
in the Pacific War must have led him to realize that my father
might never return home.
When I was only sixteen years old my grandfather formally presented
me with a menkyo kaiden at the dojo. This was entirely symbolic
as I was in no way proficient enough to deserve such a license.
He privately instructed Matsuhiro Namishiro Sensei to complete
my training if he and my father did not survive the war. Confirming
his greatest fears, both he and my father died in 1945.
Wasnt your grandfather afraid that Namishiro Sensei might also
die in the war?
No. Prior to the war, Namishiro Sensei was severly injured in
an accident during kenjutsu practice. He was completely blinded
in his left eye. This injury left him unfit for military service
but did not seem to affect his martial ability. Upon his recovery
he was as good as ever. We often tried to take advantage of his
compromised vision, but it was as if he could see better without
his eye. He occasionally wore an eye patch of sorts. The sliced-open
eye socket made for a gruesome reminder of the seriousness involved
in kenjutsu training. Occasionally, he would remove the eye patch
and insert a wooden eye with a slice painted on it to frighten
his opponents during a match. I remember one time when a young
tough entered the dojo in military uniform saying that he could
cross a bokken with anyone. Namishiro Sensei flipped his eye patch
up and exclaimed that he had once been so bold but had lived to
become more humble. The young tough sort of slinked out of the
door as Sensei explained how hard it was to get a wife looking
like he did. Namishiro Sensei bellowed with laughter after the
guy left. He was quite a sight!
Earlier you discussed the origins of the Takamura school. There
seems to be an influence of Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu as well.
Yes, the influence of Namishiro Sensei left a large impact on
the Takamura school. He was a great teacher and his expertise
in Shinkage-ryu really influenced my training. His grasp of the
martial concepts and secrets of Shinkage-ryu are obvious within
our school, especially at the upper levels of instruction. Although
my father and grandfather both studied Jikishinkage-ryu, it was
Shinkage-ryu through Namishiro Sensei that most influenced my
kenjutsu. It was only natural that many of these concepts would
be incorporated into the Takamura school.
Did both your father and grandfather perish during in the war?
Yes. My father, Hideyoshi Ohbata, was a high-ranking army officer
and reportedly died on Saipan late in the war. My grandfather
vanished in one of the firestorms that raged in Tokyo during the
American bombing campaigns. We believe he was in the Asakusa area
staying with a friend when he was killed. This area of Tokyo was
completely destroyed by the bombing. One morning he was supposed
to attend a meeting including the press and local politicians.
He did not show up which was very unusual. The call immediately
went out and many of his friends including his students started
searching for him. Many of his friends had connections with the
police and the search for him was intensified but he was never
found. It was a great loss.
You mentioned that your grandfather¥s dojo was located in Asakusa...
Yes, Asakusa is in the north part of Tokyo. I think the dojo was
located between Sensoji and the Otori Shrine. A wealthy man named
Hasegawa helped my grandfather build it. He was involved in the
construction business and was also a student. By the time I was
training he was no longer around, but my grandfather mentioned
him often. The dojo was destroyed during the bombing raids. I
never saw it afterwards but Namishiro Sensei did. Tears were streaming
down his face when he returned. He said nothing could be saved,
not even my grandfather¥s swords.
Was the dojo ever rebuilt?
No. Several years ago we tried to find the location of the original
dojo, but everything is so different now. It was impossible to
tell where the exact location was. Even the streets are all different
now. A few landmarks told me that I was very close, but again
everything was so changed. The last time I saw my grandfather¥s
dojo I was only about 15 or 16 years old. You see, we left Japan
soon after the dojo was destroyed and eventually settled in Sweden.
I returned to Japan many times over the years but never really
tried to find the exact location until recently. My mother had
moved back to her original home in Otsu so I seldom had the opportunity
to look for it.
You indicated that your grandfather trained directly under
Kenkichi Sakakibara, one of the most prominent martial artists
of the late 19th century. Would you tell us what you recall hearing
about your grandfather¥s experience training in Jikishinkage-ryu
and what you happen to know yourself about the famous teacher?
Takeda Sokaku was also supposed to have trained under Sakakibara
Sensei. I wonder if this is the connection between your grandfather
Unfortunately, I know very little about Sakakibara Sensei except
that my grandfather met him during a demonstration and had towards
him an almost divine reverence. One thing I do remember that I
was told by Namishiro Sensei was of my grandfather¥s strength
in "positive heiho of ippatsu" (Instant victory with
one stroke). He attributed this tactic to Sakakibara Sensei and
said that it affected his decision to leave the Yoshin-ryu and
pursue training, in Shindo Yoshin-ryu.
In going over my notes I find that Sakakibara, according to Namishiro
Sensei, was quite aggressive in his kenjutsu. This influenced
Namishiro Sensei in his application of techniques and his way
of instructing me. He specifically talked about how Shigeta admired
Sakakibara¥s strategy of employing feinting and countertiming
followed by a very powerful attack. The use of hip movements in
successful feinting is extremely important as, without it, the
feint will fail when one is confronted by an experienced opponent.
In my notes I also found mention of the heiho totsuzen-totsuken
concept. This refers to the strike from the subconsciousness,
so fast that you youself are not aware you have made it. It exists
in only the most dangerous and superior swordsmen. It is a technique
of true masters.
Its interesting, 20 years ago nobody had ever heard of Sokaku
Takeda. Now I get asked about him all the time. Your magazine
has done some very good articles on him. Many people attempt to
minimize Takeda Sensei¥s perceived influence on aikido. That is
too bad because it is very disrepsectful to Ueshiba as well as
Takeda. Would it not be just as disrepectful for my students to
minimize my grandfather¥s influence on what I teach today? What
I teach and the way I teach it is quite different from what he
taught me, but his influence will always be there and deserves
Many people also attempt to make Ueshiba Sensei into a god. What
foolishness! Ueshiba Sensei was just a man. Maybe all this talk
of Takeda Sensei will bring the aikido world back down to earth.
Many will, however, resist it because it¥s always easier to convince
people to follow a god.
I understand your grandfather also knew Kotaro Yoshida. He was
one of Sokaku¥s senior students and received a kyoju dairi or
instructor certification. In what way were they connected?
My grandfather worked for a Tokyo newspaper as a reporter and
traveled often. He had many friends in government and politics.
He met Kotaro Yoshida while traveling. Yoshida Sensei and my grandfather
discovered they had much in common so he introduced my grandfather
to Takeda Sensei. I know my grandfather met Takeda Sensei several
times but I am not sure when or where. It was possible that it
was Hokkaido because my grandfather Shigeta traveled often. I
had the impression that my grandfather was more impressed with
Yoshida Sensei than Takeda Sensei. I don¥t know why I have this
impression. It may simply be that he talked about Yoshida Sensei
more. I know my grandfather was very impressed with Yoshida Sensei¥s
technique and regarded him as a martial artist of phenomenal ability.
Yoshida Sensei was instrumental in Morihei Ueshiba being introduced
to Sokaku Takeda. He is also well-known for instructing Mas Oyama,
the founder of Kyokushinkai karate, and Richard Kim. My grandfather
adopted several concepts and techniques from Yoshida Sensei and
taught them in the dojo. We still do these forms as part of the
I know Yoshida Sensei and my grandfather still traveled together
sometimes after 1930. Yoshida Sensei visited my father¥s house
with my grandfather on several occasions when I was a small boy.
I remember being scared of Yoshida Sensei. He dressed funny and
occasionally played mean tricks on me. One time I even hid under
the floor when I knew Yoshida Sensei was coming! It¥s very funny
now when I look back on it.
I found out later that Yoshida Sensei had a son named Kenji. This
was interesting news as my grandfather never mentioned that he
had any family or children. The son evidently traveled to America
and eventually passed their family art to a student in the USA.
His name is Don Angier and I witnessed several demonstrations
by him in Los Angeles many years ago. If I remember correctly
he was a police officer at that time. He is an excellent technician.
I have an old picture of my grandfather with Yoshida Sensei, Takeda
Sensei, Hiratsuka Sensei and Inazu Sensei. I¥m not sure when or
where it was taken. An interesting thing is that several years
ago Don Angier Sensei sent me a picture of Kotaro Yoshida Sensei
by way of a mutual student, Toby Threadgill. In the group with
Yoshida Sensei is my grandfather! It was a big surprise to receive
a photo of my grandfather from Angier Sensei. It must be from
1935 or later as my grandfather looks to be the age I remember
Yoshida Sensei was purported to have been a member of the so-called
"Black Dragon Society."
I believe Yoshida Sensei was a member of both the Kokuryukai and
the Genyosha as I believe my grandfather Shigeta was. I know very
little particular information about these groups. I know they
purposely approached many who embraced bushido to raise their
numbers and influence. The military version of bushido was seen
as a distortion of samurai ethics by some of the upper class who
resented the commoner military. Real samurai were not commoners
so the commoner army would be destined to failure. This tactic
was used effectively to encourage persons of samurai heritage
to join these groups and the military. It was a grave error of
judgement and the part these groups played in Japan¥s destruction
should not be underestimated. But I do believe many who were members
of these organizations were simple patriots and not aware of Japan¥s
real imperial pursuits. Some families are still ashamed unjustly
for their ancestors¥ membership in these organizations.
Please describe the present status of the Shindo Yoshin-ryu
school in Japan.
It has been a long time since I have had contact with the mainline
Shindo Yoshin-ryu dojo in Japan. I last saw Headmaster Tatsuo
Matsuoka around 1970, I believe, when I made contact through Taro
Kozumi, a student of Hidenori Ohtsuka and Kinosuke Abe. I believe
Matsuoka Sensei died about ten years ago. This left the future
of the mainline of the school uncertain. I have also heard that
the headquarters dojo was a victim of fire and do not know if
it was rebuilt. I think Fujiwara Sensei is in control of the future
of the mainline school, but I have no idea of his intentions.
I am not even sure how many mainline dojos exist now in Japan.
The last time I heard I believe there were four or five. Takagi
Iso, until his recent retirement, maintained a Takamura school
dojo in Osaka. Senior student Hashimoto Sensei is considering
teaching at a new dojo, but the situation there is not settled.
The Wado-ryu jujutsu kempo headquarters dojo still teaches Shindo
Yoshin-ryu in Tokyo. I understand that Shindo Yoshin-ryu does
not generate much interest within the Wado-ryu now. This is too
bad as Wado-ryu founder Hidenori Otsuka held a menkyo kaiden in
Shindo Yoshin-ryu. He received his license from Tatsusaburo Nakayama
Sensei around 1921. My grandfather knew Otsuka only slighlty but
thought highly of him. He was a man of exceptional reputation.
I hope that Wado-ryu does not loose its jujutsu roots which makes
it one of very few karate styles to have a bujutsu heritage. I
know some Wado-ryu dojos that still have a jujutsu influence as
in earlier times. Kozumi Sensei came to me in 1968 from Wado-ryu
with excellent jujutsu skill. Many years later, one of our present
senior instructors, Toby Threadgill Sensei, came to me from a
Wado-ryu sensei named Gerry Chau with equally impressive Shindo
Yoshin-ryu knowledge. It is regretful that this has now become
the exception. Sport karate matches seem to drive the future of
Wado-ryu away from its jujutsu roots. It would be good news to
hear that this impression is incorrect.
You mentioned earlier something I think is very important when
you said that the original Shindo Yoshin-ryu school is more correctly
a sogo bujutsu (comprehensive martial system) than a jujutsu because
it includes weapons training in its curriculum. Would you talk
more about the historical reasons for the elimination of a large
part of these old martial systems and the pros and cons of practicing
the specialized modern martial arts?
The modern idea that old jujutsu are weaponless arts similar to
judo is not correct. The truth is there are many jujutsu arts
which are fundamentally different. The very old jujutsu bear many
names such as yawara, kumiuchi, kogosoku, hakuda, and koppo, etc.
Mostly these are true koryu (classical martial schools) and were
conceived for battlefield combat against armor-clad soldiers.
Most of these systems were not very intricate as they were quickly
taught to ashigaru (foot soldiers) and include more simple weapons.
Some of the more intricate systems included advanced techniques
and weapons such as the kusarigama (chain-and-sickle), tanto (knife),
or even kodachi (short sword). They were invented so that lightly
armed and armored samurai could successfully engage superior armed
and armored opponents.
Jujutsu in the Edo period changed due to the extended era of peace.
These arts adapted to address the new reality of an environment
without armor. The old systems changed while many new systems
were founded. These schools still included much weapons training
as the basic principles and techniques of weapons were still the
heart of martial systems. Certain weapons, however began to fall
into disuse as others gained in favor due to the new reality.
The end of armored warfare saw a decline in the use of the nagamaki
(long-bladed halberd), yari (spear) and other weapons.
Weapons such as the jutte (truncheon), tessen (iron fan), sode
garami (sleeve entangler), tanto and jo were more emphasized.
Changes in weapon techniques, which were the core of an art, also
affected the application of unarmed techniques. Eventually, unarmed
techniques developed more of their own flavor due to the popularity
of unarmed contests. This signaled the beginning of judo-like
jujutsu and the end of many true classical traditions. By the
turn of the century, many schools began to ignore much of the
weapons curriculum in favor of unarmed combat. The popularity
of judo, founded by Professor Jigoro Kano, forced even greater
change on many of the older jujutsu schools. This is somewhat
of a mystery as the real innovation of judo was not in the area
of technique as much as in teaching methodology. Judo adopted
a more scientific approach to teaching and explaining physical
technique. Older jujutsu schools still used mystical explanations
using ki and other such concepts. Scientific explanations appealed
to most of the public as more modern and superior to outdated
martial mysticism. This resulted in the public embracing judo
over jujutsu and other Japanese classical schools. Kano was also
successful in making judo seem to appear more upper class than
jujutsu. This was very shrewd as the truth is exactly the opposite.
Judo is more a commoner¥s art while jujutsu was an art of the
So, what is commonly called jujutsu today is, for the most part,
not the jujutsu of old. What are commonly practiced today as jujutsu
are actually small parts of complete martial systems called bujutsu
or bugei. There are many reasons for learning only part of a martial
system. The most obvious is the simple truth of the changing reality
of the environment. Changes in technology and military tactics
led inevitably to weapons falling into disuse. Where a weapon
system survives it does so for a reason different from that of
its original value. This is why iaido is more popular than iaijutsu
and kendo is more popular than kenjutsu. Neither the spiritual
nor sporting dimension of the sword existed when it was invented.
The sword was developed as a tool of war. Other aspects of swordsmanship
came later. Some of these aspects were adopted by the warrior
class because they found them beneficial, but these things were
secondary. The bottom line for the warrior is the vanquishing
of the enemy. This must not be forgotten. This truth is what makes
a martial art "martial."
Sometimes old martial arts or weapons retained their value over
long spans of time and great changes. Tanto were used by samurai
as an alternative weapon, but the knife is still on the belt of
modern warriors as a companion to modern firearms. This is amazing
when you think about it! The knife may be one of the all-time
greatest weapons due to its versatile nature. History seems to
Another reason for learning only a part of a bujutsu system is
simply time. We are not warriors 24 hours a day now. The modern
world only affords us so much time to train so we practice what
is realistic to learn. To learn a bujutsu completely would be
a full-time job. Very few people have time or wish to make sacrifices
of this magnitude for bujutsu. It is better to learn one aspect
of a bujutsu well than learn all of them poorly. Also, we are
free to learn what most appeals to us. Some learn the sword, some
learn jujutsu, and some learn naginata (halberd). This is good
in that it gives future generations freedom of choice and opportunity.
Some people think that learning only jujutsu without studying
a complete bujutsu is not good. I regard that as the view of a
dilettante. It is better to learn something well than to learn
it poorly or to learn it to impress others because it is exclusive
or difficult. Learning to impress someone else and not for yourself
or for the teachers who came before you is not a proper motivation.
The best martial artists are driven to train because of a love
for the arts, a love for their teachers now and in the past, rather
Lastly, there are those of us who are committed to and accept
the sacrifices of learning and teaching a complete bujutsu or
bugei. We are not better than our friends who choose one part
of a bujutsu or who practice modern martial arts. We practice
a complete system because we believe and hope that there is a
bonus worthy of the sacrifice. It does exist. It is understanding
the technical and historical core of a martial school. A true
bujutsu or bugei tradition is a cohesive puzzle. Every separate
aspect combines to strengthen the whole and complement each other.
The realization that individual techniques are not the art but
rather a temporary reflection of a deeper set of concepts and
martial strategies is liberating. This allows us to embrace and
understand the okuden (secrets of the art). Mastery of these principles
allows a martial school to grow from generation to generation
from old applications to new. Through the okuden we grasp the
intellectual genius that appears after years of training in a
true bujutsu. It is like an old signature of many masters, each
one visible on top of one another, each one part of a greater
whole. This is what makes a ryu (school or style) a ryu.
Cobbled together systems which include different arts like karate
mixed with aikido are almost always missing the signature of genius.
It would be better to keep the systems separate because combining
them erases most of the signatures of all previous teachers¥ wisdom.
They are separate traditions whose concepts and truths are not
really compatible. They were conceived in different environments
for different reasons. Let them succeed at what they are instead
of failing to be what they were never meant to be.
After World War II, I believe you left Japan and ended up in
Sweden. Can you tell us briefly what happened?
My family had a friend who was a diplomat and under obligation
to my grandfather Shigeta Ohbata. This friend helped my mother
and me leave Japan. My grandfather had vanished in a firestorm
in Asakusa but had arranged our departure earlier when he thought
Japan would be invaded by the American and allied armies. My grandfather
especially feared Russian retaliation because of Japan¥s victory
in the Russo-Japanese War. We first went to Argentina and then
to Sweden using my mother¥s maiden name. That¥s how we arrived
How did leaving Japan affect your martial arts training?
Not too seriously. The first two years in Sweden were very difficult.
Fortunately, Matsuhiro Namishiro Sensei came to Sweden about two
years after our arrival. He had made a solemn oath to my grandfather
promising to complete my training. He moved in and soon continued
my training. This lasted until around 1958. He decided to move
back to Japan during one of our many visits back home. At this
point, he told me that my training was complete and that I needed
to start teaching. I believe he liked Sweden very much or he would
have moved back earlier. When my mother decided to move back to
Japan in 1949, I figured he would encourage me to return with
her. Instead he encouraged me to stay in Sweden. I was very surprised.
Later he explained to me that I needed to learn how to survive
on my own outside Japan. Years later, I ended up moving to America.
What led you to relocate to America?
On a business trip around 1958 I visited San Francisco and met
my wife-to-be Mishiko. She convinced me that the weather in California
was much nicer than in Sweden. I agreed, so I asked her to get
Would you tell us a little about your teaching career in the USA?
I first started teaching publicly in San Jose, California in 1966
I think. Back then karate was very popular and judo was also big
due to its inclusion in the Olympic Games. I called what I taught
"Ohbata-ryu judo-jujutsu." Classes were very small for
a long time and composed mostly of judoka and college wrestlers.
In time, Taro Kozumi Sensei became my assistant. He was a student
of Wado-ryu jujutsu kempo under Hidenori Ohtsuka as I mentioned
earlier. Although quite harsh in his teaching methods, he was
well respected by the students. He brought in many students of
karate. Around 1968, I decided to adapt the curriculum to address
more realistic self-defense applications. This process took five
years of hard work but it paid off. In 1972, I decided to officially
change the name of the art to "Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu."
We changed the kanji shin in "Shindo" to the one meaning
"new" from the one meaning "sacred". This
was done to recognize the changes to the traditional curriculum
we adopted during this period.
How did you come to reorganize the traditional curriculum of
That is a very complex question. Let me see if I can explain it
clearly. Any martial art is really a set of concepts and ideas.
Physical techniques are important but not the definiting elements
of a style. I have heard some people say that this is not true,
that they have secret techniques. So what! I bet another style
has techniques that are similar to their "secret techniques."
I would guess that what they actually have is more correctly described
as secret concepts. All jujutsu traditions do similar joint locks
because the joints in all human beings operate in the same way.
There really are no new joint locks. It¥s how they perform the
locks that differentiate the styles. The concepts used in the
application of the locks are what are important. These aspects
are what make one tradition different from another. They are often
When I came to America I discovered that many traditional techniques
were simply not applicable to the realities facing my new students.
Jujutsu techniques in their original form were not intended to
address these modern situations. When I first started teaching,
students began to ask me how I would deal with a boxer, or with
a karateka and so on. At first I was surprised because I was not
sure that I had the answers. I had to carefully examine this.
I realized that the answers were right in front of me. I was busy
focusing on jujutsu techniques when it was jujutsu concepts that
were the solution. Techniques did not matter because they were
guided by concepts. New techniques could be devised to address
new realities while embracing the time honored concepts that form
the art¥s core. This would not be abandoning the art. This would
allow the art to maintain its effectiveness and relevance to a
new generation and era.
What do teachers who embrace a more classical approach to the
martial arts think about this? I would assume that they are critical
of your position.
They are free to have their opinions. I am free to have mine.
I am not really concerned with what other teachers think because
my authority to teach does not come from them. My authority to
teach and to make the decisions I have made came from my teachers.
I am most concerned with the welfare of my students and living
up to the responsibilities that have been entrusted to me. I am
comfortable with the reality that my students may actually use
the art they are learning. The same cannot be said about the students
of most teachers that embrace a strictly classical approach.
Many classical martial traditions in Japan are now just pretty
dancing. It is so sad. They have not adapted their techniques
to address modern realities. They cling only to antiquated forms
and, in this process, often neglect the concepts which form a
particular tradition¥s core. Some people wish to preserve the
arts exactly as they were in olden times. This is commendable,
but usually folly. With very fews exceptions, no existing classical
school reflects even a fraction of the art¥s technical heritage
as practiced in times past. It is impossible for any teacher to
transmit 100% of an art¥s traditions, yet many classical schools
believe that the student should do everything exactly like the
teacher in order to preserve the art. Without the addition of
an instructor¥s own wisdom, experience and, most importantly,
technical innovation, the art is but a hollow shell of what it
once was in just several generations. Without the consideration
of modern realities to challenge an art¥s effectiveness, it becomes
a museum piece whose only modern relevance is that of a historical
curiosity. Remember that the ryu as they existed in the Warring
States era were constantly changing and adjusting to the realities
they faced on the battlefield. Only when this period ended did
the innovation slow. Many of the classical schools as practised
today are, at their best, reflections of the way that tradition
operated in one short period of its existence. They are not an
accurate reflection of its technical existence over its whole
The risk of classical thinking has many historical examples which
should cause one to pause. Katsuyori Takeda (1546-82, son of Shingen
Takeda and daimyo of the Azuchi-Momoyama period) clung foolishly
to outdated techniques of battlefield engagement even though he
was aware that its effectiveness was seriously compromised. New
strategies involving a devastating technical innovation, the tanegashima
(musket), were employed by his enemies. His samurai were cut to
pieces in rotating volleys of musket fire by Nobunaga Oda¥s foot
soldiers. One of the most impressive armies in Japan¥s history
was efficiently decimated because its leader was unable to part
with a strategy that he knew was compromised by changing realities.
Romantically drawn into doing things as they had been done succesfully
in the past, he was defeated by his classical mindset. This strategy
of old, and Takeda¥s failure to adapt in the face of overwhelming
evidence to change, cost him everything.
I will not allow a similar flaw in technique or mindset to compromise
my students¥ potential safety. My grandfather often emphasized
that my jujutsu must really work. That it must become my own jujutsu.
And that someday my students¥ jujutsu must become their own. That
was his legacy to me and it should be my legacy to them as well
How did you find learning and teaching different in the West
compared to Japan?
When I first came to America I realized that the Western mind
was not going to be taught in the same way as a Japanese mind.
The American situation was just too different. Americans are by
nature more skeptical and suspicious than Japanese. Western freedom
of thought permits a student to examine and question things in
a way that would be totally inappropriate in Japan. This is both
good and bad. On the bad side, it can lead a student to dismiss
a technique or concept as invalid just because he has not put
in the time to learn it properly or delve into its secrets. Students
that fall into this trap never master their basics. Later in their
training you find gaping holes left by ignoring important lessons
that the student chose not to pursue because he couldn¥t see the
value in them. When I find a student like this I usually will
not accept him. It is too much trouble to undo the damage done
by this mindset and a mediocre sensei. On the good side, it allows
for a much greater flow of information between student and teacher.
It also allows a greater level of creativity by the student. Students
with strong basics and freedom of thought far outdistance the
more traditional Japanese model.
The best of both worlds actually exists in concept in Japan. It
is called shu-ha-ri. [lit., protecting the form, breaking the
form, distancing one¥s self from the form] It is a theoretical
method for transmitting any classical school. In practice, however,
I believe it has had limited success. Cultural realities in Japan
historically don¥t encourage individuality. So while a great foundation
for learning is built, the creative freedom to expand upon it
is seldom realized. For proof of this just look at what has happened
in judo, or even sumo, for that matter. The more innovative foreigners
have been dominating judo. Europeans and Koreans are impressively
driving the technical innovations in that sport. Foreigners are
slowly making these same inroads into sumo. Sometimes shu-ha-ri
is correctly applied and innovative traditionalism keeps the art¥s
core and practical truths intact. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu
is one of the rare examples in the world of classical martial
arts where shu-ha-ri has in my opinion been successful.
I understand that you are extremely selective about who you choose
as a student. What are the criteria you use when selecting a potential
The question about how I select a student is difficult to answer.
Much of my criteria is based on gut feeling or "kan no me
wa tsuyoi." I just look at a student, look in his eyes and
see what I see. If I don¥t feel and see what I am looking for,
I just say, "No thanks." I am very sensitive to someone¥s
potential for learning. I do not like un-teaching students either.
I prefer a student with past martial arts¥ experience, but also
a totally open mind. See, it¥s not so much that I am selective,
it¥s just that so few potential students have the proper qualities.
Some people observing your training might consider it unusally
rough. Is this true?
I don¥t think that is an accurate observation. The term "rough"
implies to me frequent serious injuries. Are we more realitic
in the way we approach our training? I must say yes. When we practice
striking, we strike very hard. If you miss your block or technique
you will get hit hard. We practice unorthodox attacks and we practice
them at very high speed compared to most dojos. We intend to instill
a more realistic amount of stress into our situational training.
The fear of receiving hard strikes at high speed creates stress
that simulates the fear response felt in a genuine confrontation.
Eliminating this type of training only converts the art into calisthenics.
It does nothing to prevent injuries. The false sense of security
that exists in many dojos actually causes a complacent mind and
increases injuries. With a complacent mind a student is allowed
to relax his situational awareness. He lets his guard down and
gets injured. If you want to see a lot of injuries, go to some
aikido dojos. People are frequently injured because they don¥t
feel threatened in that harmonious environment. In my dojo the
techniques are not harmonious, they are threatening.
Some aikido teachers teach aikido as a martial art while others
don¥t. This is okay as long as the teacher is honest with his
students about the aim of his teaching. Some teachers claim there
are teaching a martial art when they are not. I believe this is
a big mistake. Other aikido teachers teach the art as a purely
spiritual discipline and are honest about this with their students.
This is okay by me. Aikido as a spiritual pursuit is an honorable
thing and I believe this was the ultimate aim of Ueshiba Sensei.
But the spiritual aspects of the art are more likely to apply
when it is taught as a martial art. Martial arts are a big responsibility!
Martial ability is a tool that allows spiritual discipline to
flourish and work magic on the soul. The heart and mind must wrestle
with demons and be victorious to find enlightenment. Without a
struggle, the character never really is challenged and never matures.
That is why shugyo (ascetic discipline) is so important.
Some aikido teachers talk a lot about non-violence, but fail to
understand this truth. A pacifist is not really a pacifist if
he is unable to make a choice between violence and non-violence.
A true pacifist is able to kill or maim in the blink of an eye,
but at the moment of impending destruction of the enemy he chooses
non-violence. He chooses peace. He must be able to make a choice.
He must have the genuine ability to destroy his enemy and then
choose not to. I have heard this excuse made. "I choose to
be a pacifist before learning techniques so I do not need to learn
the power of destruction." This shows no comprehension of
the mind of the true warrior. This is just a rationalization to
cover the fear of injury or hard training. The true warrior who
chooses to be a pacifist is willing to stand and die for his principles.
People claiming to be pacifists who rationalize to avoid hard
training or injury will flee instead of standing and dying for
principle. They are just cowards. Only a warrior who has tempered
his spirit in conflict and who has confronted himself and his
greatest fears can in my opinion make the choice to be a true
Years ago I saw an aikido instructor named Tadashi Abe in France.
He was a true warrior in every way. He was a great example of
a man with martial spirit flaming in his belly while the spirit
of harmony was visible in his eye. He was a real credit to Ueshiba
Sensei¥s technical and spiritual legacy. He is 100% samurai!
I find your thinking on this subject fascinating. Can you expand
on this theme a little more?
The term "martial art" is thrown around a lot without
any idea of its meaning. "Martial" means "war"
or "conflict." In a martial arts dojo we train for conflict.
Without physical and psychological conflict there is no "martial"
in martial art. Fear, to be overcome, must be confronted and experienced.
Fear must become part of your life experience. Appreciation of
fear and the appropriate reaction when confronting fear is the
sign of a mature martial artist. Are not your dojo mates and teacher
the ones that you should ultimately trust when learning to confront
your fears? In a real dojo, they are. Remember that most people
who call themselves martial artists are nothing of the sort. Most
dojos are not martial arts dojos either. They are glorified social
clubs thriving in an environment of emotional stimulation which
is heightened by a false or extremely limited perception of danger.
When real danger shows itself in such a dojo, the participants
run for cover. In a real dojo the participants run towards the
Sensei, what are your thoughts on the concepts of tori and uke
in martial arts practice?
In Shindo Yoshin-ryu we do not use the terms tori and uke much,
but the concepts are the same. By tori you mean the person executing
the technique and by uke you mean the person receiving the technique.
These terms are common in modern budo, but not very common in
traditional bujutsu. In modern arts, the teacher usually demonstrates
a technique on an uke who is a student. Although sometimes this
is done in bujutsu, it is often the other way around. The teacher
only demonstrates when students are beginners or don¥t know the
technique. Then, the senior students demonstrate on the teacher.
Eventually, all of the students demonstrate on the teacher. The
student executes a technique on the teacher to allow the teacher
to feel what is unseen to the eye. The teacher feels a mistake
before it becomes a habit. The teacher feels the spirit of the
student through his technique. The technique also becomes an eye
to the heart of the teacher who allows himself to be thrown. This
is a demonstration of the humbleness of the teacher¥s heart. This
is very important. Watch out for teachers who never let themselves
be thrown. If a teacher never takes a fall he is not really a
teacher, but just an impersonation of one. Students are not just
bodies for teachers to use to demonstrate or show off. Students
are the whole reason for the teacher¥s existence. Without students
there is no such thing as a teacher. It is unfortunate we do not
see more teachers taking ukemi in modern martial arts, especially
those that profess to be engaged in spiritual training. Often
spiritual lip service is a pretty covering to hide a corrupt heart
underneath. The sign of true enlightenment is not fancy technique,
flowery talk or spiritual pontification, but is evident in the
clear eye of the teacher and the respectful eye of the student
who looks at the teacher. Look and you will see.
What about the sempai (senior) and kohai (junior) system in martial
These are other terms we don¥t really use in Shindo Yoshin-ryu.
They are terms more common to modern martial arts. These concepts
are actually more recent and used as a tool for the enforcement
of discipline within a large group of conscripted military personnel.
In karate dojos with military-like discipline, this system is
often strictly enforced to the point of cruelty. I even see the
sempai-kohai system enforced to an unhealthy level in some aikido
dojos. In the military, it may be a positive thing to make the
chain of command obvious and assure a cohesive group mentality,
but remember that samurai were not a conscripted army. The group
dynamic of a samurai clan was very different from that of a modern
army. The same is true for a bujutsu dojoit is not the army.
Do we need this sort of system in the dojo? Not my dojo! I do
not need to bark, "Osu" at my students or wish them
to respond with group shouts. This is not really useful in a true
bujutsu dojo. The training and responsibility of students is much
more personalized. Is there obvious seniority in the Takamura-ha
bujutsu dojo? Yes and no. We have no rank and no specific uniform
that demonstrates seniority. No one is asked to do any task that
I or other teachers do not perform often ourselves. We do line
up in the dojo according to experience and issue licenses. If
you attend one of our dojos you will quickly figure out who is
senior and who is junior without the instructor barking orders
at anyone or watching who cleans the toilet. Barking orders at
enlisted men in the military may serve some positive purpose,
but I train students to be thinking leaders and not ardent followers.
Please give us your view of the popular Gracie jujutsu system.
Like everything there is both good and bad. One must remember
that Gracie jujutsu is very different from the jujutsu of old.
Although I don¥t have a problem with it being called jujutsu it
is really much closer to early judo. They have been quite effective,
haven¥t they? Although the system appears mostly a ring art, I
admire their effective application of jujutsu strategy and tactics.
I also admire the honorable way the Gracies conduct themselves.
I would like to meet this Helio Gracie very much. He, like Tadashi
Abe has fire in his belly but harmony in his eyes. He has taught
his sons to act properly. When they have appeared at these contests
they just wear a simple white gi. They don¥t hop around in gaudy
costumes or drag silly props onto the mat for television. That
is so absurd. Martial contests are serious business. The Gracies
conduct themselves with honor. This they learned from their father
and sensei. Unfortunately, the impression the public is getting
of jujutsu and martial arts through these contests is rather barbaric
I think. Many of the other contestants in these contests are not
real martial artists. They have no concept of honor or dignity.
I wish the Gracies had chosen to keep these contests more private.
By making them public they have attracted men of compromised character
who glorify violence and act like egomanical fools. This sort
of environment is one element that led Jigoro Kano to found judo.
Violence is a solemn reality to be confronted with the utmost
seriousness. Only character forged upon the hardest anvil of shugyo
can survive and overcome the evil of rampant violence. Western
society is sick with it. Individuals who conduct themselves in
these contests without any concept of honor or dignity only contribute
to the sickness.
I understand you have an opinion on individuals of non-Japanese
descent who adopt quasi-Japanese mannerisms and customs and take
them to extreme. I am very curious to hear your response on this
subject as I have met many of these types of individuals over
These persons you talk of are very bizzare individuals. It is
as if they are ashamed of being what they are. Perhaps they want
to be Japanese for some reason. Or maybe they want to appear Japanese
so they will be taken more seriously in the martial arts. This
may work on some Westerners but Japanese will always view them
with mistrust. What is wrong with being American or English or
Swedish? I have a student who is a teacher with a beautiful traditional
dojo and Japanese garden. He still acts normal. He is from Texas
so he wears cowboy boots and jeans, not kimono and geta. That
would look silly in Texas! Years ago my senior student David Maynard
and I met an American kenjutsu instructor at a festival in San
Diego who acted more Japanese than a Japanese. This instructor
had not even trained very extensively in Japan. It was very amusing
for us, sort of like being at the theater with him playing the
actor¥s part badly. This individual brought his own chopsticks
to eat with during the festival. I will forever remember the horrified
expressions on many of the Japanese who prepared food. Bringing
his own chopsticks may have appeared very "Japanese"
to him, but to the Japanese it appeared he thought the offered
chopsticks were dirty. This left a bad impression on many people.
It was quite embarrasing, especially to Dave because he was an
American also doing a kenjutsu demo for the mostly Japanese crowd.
I guess the point of this is to just be yourself. Martial arts
are hard enough to learn without trying to be someone or something
one is not.
Another common misconception is that one must go to Japan to get
"real" Japanese martial arts training! I find this a
very strange idea. What does the dirt under the floor have to
do with the quality of training in a martial arts dojo these days?
Some individuals who spend time training in Japan reinforce this
idea with fanciful magazine articles and story books on mysterious
secrets to be found there. Others make interesting claims that
only by immersing oneself in the culture that bore the art originally
can one truly understand its essence or spirit. These individuals
are welcome to their opinions, but I must disagree with them.
I was born in Japan, raised in the pre-World War II culture of
Japan, in a family linked for generations to many martial arts.
I have since lived many years in Europe, America and back in Japan.
I believe some of these Japanophiles are honest and well-meaning
martial arts practitioners drawn to the romantic image they have
of Japan and its martial traditions. But others I think are Nippon
snobs. They believe by making the admittedly great sacrifice of
moving to Japan and surviving the difficulties associated with
training there, that they are superior students who have received
superior training compared to their friends who stay and train
in budo or bujutsu outside Japan. If their training is superior,
it is the sensei who is superior, not the dirt under the dojo
floor. Many superior sensei exist outside Japan today and many
inferior sensei exist inside Japan as well.
Training in Japan does not make up for a bad teacher. Train with
a superior teacher abroad. Why go to Japan to train with an inferior
teacher? Also, to imagine that the post-World War II modern Japan
of today bears any significant cultural resemblence to that of
feudal era Japan requires one to ignore some most obvious facts.
This is especially true if you are training in a traditional bujutsu
or koryu. Using the rationale of cultural relevance just makes
no sense to me. I have seen incredible changes in the culture
of Japan in my lifetime. Feudal Japan of old died long ago. The
culture of the classical martial traditions was tied so directly
to the feudal era that the end of this era also brought the end
of the culture that bore the classical arts. That is just a fact
What is left today in the non-violent modern culture of Japan
that has superior relevence for training in traditional or modern
martial arts compared to that of a more violence prone Western
culture? Language perhaps offers some advantage; etiquette perhaps
as well. But these are successfully taught outside Japan. In a
more violence prone Western society one might have to train with
the realization that he may actually use the art he is learning
to save a life. That unfortunate realization is worth a great
deal. In Japan, despite all the philosophical talk of training
for death, no one really thinks they will fall victim to an attack
on the way home and maybe die.
The realization that violent crime really existed in the West
was a big shock to me when I went to America. It forever altered
my impression of the bujutsu student who trains in modern Japan
compared to the student who trains in the West.
If you had to provide only one bit of wisdom to impart for someone
seeking a martial arts instructor, what would it be?
Everyone is looking for a master or guru in the West, but the
word "master" is so overused today as to be meaningless,
much like having a black belt today is meaningless. A genuine
master is almost impossible to find because you won¥t quickly
recognize him. He is much more than a teacher. Genuine teachers
strive to be masters but only one in a hundred thousand finish
the journey. There are only a handful of true masters on the whole
planet. Funny how they all end up in the San Francisco yellow
pages! All the time I tell people this truth. It is not amendable
or conditional. Anyone who calls himself a master or allows his
students to refer to him as "master" in his presence,
isn¥t a master. Occasionally, he may be a well-meaning teacher
who misunderstands the definition of the word, but most of the
time he is an ego-driven narcissist seeking adoration. He will
have very little to teach because there is so little room in his
heart for his students. Instead of looking for a master, just
look for a good teacher with a sense of humor, especially if he¥s
driving a crummy old car. (Laughing while motioning towards his
old Toyota.) My old friend and Sensei, Matsuhiro Namishiro used
to say, "There must be lots of smiles along the way or the
journey is not worth it." He was correct you know!
[The above interview combines responses to questions by Takamura
Sensei compiled by Marco Ruiz and David Maynard about ten years
ago and a series of e-mail exchanges conducted between January
and April 1999 by AJ editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin. - Ed]
This article was reprinted with the permission of Stanley Pranin
and Aikido Journal. www.aikidojournal.com