Interview with Swordmaster Kiyoshi Nakakura (1) by Hideo Yamanaka and Stanley Pranin

Morihei Ueshiba's adopted son, Kiyoshi Nakakura, attacking the Founder in demonstration, probably in Osaka c. 1934

Morihei Ueshiba’s adopted son, Kiyoshi Nakakura, attacking the Founder in demonstration, probably in Osaka c. 1934

“I had the feeling that no one could beat me. I had rarely lost a match before, and I absolutely did not want to be defeated especially by people in Tokyo.”

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.

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