Interview with Takako Kunigoshi by Stanley Pranin

A young Takako Kunigoshi in a featured article that appeared in the Shukan Asahi magazine about 1935

“The dainty lady who lit up Morihei Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo”

The following interview with Ms. Takako Kunigoshi took place on the 26th of August, 1981, at her home in the Ikebukuro area of Tokyo. Kunigoshi Sensei is a teacher of both flower arrangement and the tea ceremony.

Editor: Kunigoshi Sensei, when was it that you first became involved in Aikido?

Takako Kunigoshi c. 1995

I started in January of 1933, the year that I graduated from school. I was then able to continue up to a little before the air raids began over Tokyo. At one time I had been asked to teach self-defense to female employees of a company located next to the famous Kaminari Mon (Thunder Gate) of the Asakusa Temple in Tokyo’s old town district. I went there with the grand daughter of Yakumo Koizumi (the well known Meiji period author better known to foreign readers as Lafcadio Hearn), Ms. Kazuko Koizumi, and we would teach there together. She is dead now, however. Then the air raids started and there were always warnings and alarms and things were getting a little dangerous so we had to stop. We never got to train very much there.

Editor: Were you training at the Ushigome Dojo (presently Hombu Dojo)?

Yes, that’s right. It was the dojo that had asked me to teach in Asakusa.

Editor: I imagine there weren’t very many women among the deshi in those days.

There were only two of us! The other woman was two or three years younger than myself. I received New Year’s greeting cards from her up until a few years ago. Even now it seems that her nephew is going to the dojo. But as you said, in those days not many women went to train. Ever so, Ueshiba Sensei never made us feel different by changing things “because you are a woman.”

Editor: Who was it that introduced you to the art?

In my case I was never especially introduced by anyone. I went on my own, on my way to school in the morning, to the 6:30 morning class. Do you by chance know of the late Kenzo Futaki Sensei? He was a teacher of the Macrobiotic diet based on brown rice. I used to go with him. He has passed away, too.

Things were not like they are now, the art was not so well known. I would say that there were about six or seven uchideshi students who lived and slept in the dojo and probably about the same number of people who came from their own homes outside. If the uchideshi were not awake yet we couldn’t get into the dojo and we had to wait outside in the cold! (laughter)

Editor: What were the uchideshi like in those days?

There was Mr. Yonekawa, Mr. Shirata, Mr. Funahashi and the late Mr. Yukawa. Then there was a person who came from Osaka whose name was Mr. Oku. He dropped in on me from out of the blue a few years ago. Perhaps it was Mr. Yonekawa who was the oldest among us. Last year he and I made a trip to the Kasama Inari Shrine together on our way home from the ceremony that was held to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of 0-Sensei.

Editor: About two years ago we heard some wonderful stories from Yonekawa Sensei. Do you recall if at the time you were training, the name “Aikido” was in use?

I think at that time it was called Daito Ryu.

Editor: “Daito-Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu?”

I think it was something like that because I received a makimono scroll entitled Daito Ryu. It seems to me that the name Aikido came into use just a little before the war started. It was almost as if the name Aikido was thought to actually indicate the Daito Ryu. Later whenever I was asked about it I always answered that it was Takeda Sokaku Sensei’s tradition (ryu).

Editor: During Ueshiba Sensei’s training sessions in what way did he explain the techniques of Aikido?

No matter what it was that we asked him I think we always got the same answer. Anyway, there wasn’t a soul there who could understand any of the things that he said. I guess he was talking about spiritual subjects but the meaning of his words was just beyond us. Later we would stand around and ask each other, “Just what was it Sensei was talking about anyway?” (laughter).

Illustrations of Takako Kunigoshi from “Budo Renshu” (1934)

Editor:This is a copy of the book entitled “Budo Renshu”. It was republished two or three years ago. I’m sure that you, Kunigoshi Sensei, are very familiar with it.

I drew the pictures for it. I had Mr. Yonekawa or Mr. Tomiki pose for them. Everyday right after practice I would sketch them. Just as someone was about to go flying I would say, “Stop!” and they would go no further. At the instant of a throw I would say, “Hold it just a second there,” and get down most of what was happening. Then later, at my home, I would finish up the details. Naturally my family often asked me, “What on earth are you doing?” as I stood in front of a mirror trying as hard as I could to recreate a certain attitude or look, for my reference in the drawings. (laughter)

Editor:About when was it that this book was first put out?

I started early in 1933 and it was after about a year that we did the book so I suppose it would have been around 1934. These pictures were really difficult to do! I had to do them all twice, you know. Even so I always felt there were some problems left. The second book was never printed after all but… At any rate, this particular version has the first drawings.

Editor: Akazawa Sensei was kind enough to introduce us to another book called “Budo”, printed about 1938, which contains photographs instead of drawings.

I was not involved in that work but I’m sure that photos are better for most people. Was that 1938? Look how young Mr. Kisshomaru (Ueshiba) was then!

Editor: For what reasons was the “Budo Renshu” book printed in the first place?

At first I started drawing the pictures so I myself could remember the techniques. Though on any certain days, for example, we may have been taught ikkajo and nikajo by the time I was out of the gate of the dojo I could hardly remember them so I would watch other people and sketch out just enough that I could understand what was happening. Then one day the owner of a candy store in the Yotsuya area (of central Tokyo), a man called Mr. Takamatsu, happened by and said, “Hey, you’re doing a good thing with these illustrations. Why don’t you draw up a set for me, too?” I replied that those pictures had only been drawn from memory and were not something for other people to see. At that he said, “Well then, I’ll find someone (for a training partner) and we’ll pose for you.”

That’s how all this got going in the very beginning. While we were working on them Ueshiba Sensei looked at them and kindly gave us his personal approval. After that the project became more and more of a formal undertaking and (0-Sensei) had Mr. Yonekawa take this or that attitude. “Do it exactly rightl” he would shout (laughter). For a while at first I hardly got more that ten minutes training in a hour’s practice session because I had to sit and watch closely and try to each the forms in my memory for later use.

Editor: Do you recall about how many issues were printed?

Well, that’s a good question… I had nothing to do with that part of it. I wonder who it was that took care of that? Perhaps Mr. Yonekawa would be the one to ask about that. Anyway, it was only given to those people who had already mastered the basics to a certain degree. Sensei always reminded us that “If someone who has just entered the dojo should try to train like this they’ll be injured so never show this to a beginner.”

Editor: Who wrote out the explanations that accompany your illustrations?

I think that a friend Mr.Takamatsu wrote them for us. Then, in other cases (Ueshiba) Sensei;> and I would sit down together and Sensei would show me how, “the right hand should be like this,” or say, “More like this,” and in this way we would draw the pictures together.

Editor: There are quite a large number of techniques in this book. About how long did the job take?

I don’t think it took us a year. Then, too, there were times when 0-Sensei would suddenly say, “That’s enough for today,” and we would simply quit. Nothing would get done if he didn’t feel like working on it.

Editor: Right up until his death Ueshiba Sensei traveled widely around Japan. Did you ever accompany him on any of his trips?

Yes, I went with him to Ayabe(site of the Omoto Religion’s Headquarters, near Kyoto) and to Tanabe (0-Sensei’s birthplace and the family seat) and a couple of other places. Then from there I continued on to Kumano (an area in the mountains and site of a large and famous shrine associated with 0-Sensei and his Shinto beliefs) to draw pictures. Drawing was one of the reasons I would go on the trips. In the old days there was absolutely no distinction made in the relationship with the deshi because some were men and others were women. One time the other deshi and I took a trip to the Kishu region (where the above cities and sights are located) together with 0-Sensei. First, we went to Tanabe, then up to Ayabe and finally to Kyoto. By the time we arrived in the old capital I was the only one left there with him. I suppose that nowadays people simply wouldn’t carry such heavy luggage in the first place and that the teachers would probably carry their own things but in those days a person who called himself a “deshi” whether a woman or not, would never think of making their teacher carry his own things, so there I was lugging a trunk big enough for me to hide in, along with my own bags. Well, I carried what had to be carried but this time my feet wouldn’t come off the ground. Even so Sensei would never have said, “I suppose that’s pretty heavy, let me carry it.” I would never have asked him to do it either. That was just the way things were in those days. Sensei never carried anything accept his small bag and a single practice sword. That one time, though, was really heavy for me (laughter).

Editor: Ms. Kunigoshi, what caused you to start training in Aikido in the first place?

I myself had wanted to study kembu dance style that uses a sword and roughly resembles the movements of combative swordsmanship). My father was a soldier and he told me it would be all right if I went to the dojo in Wakamatsu-cho. Some friends and I went there and we said we wanted to study kembu. “We don’t do kembu here, we do Aik i j but there is a training session in progress now if you’d like to observe it for a while,” was the answer we got. After that, I was hooked.

Editor: How many training sessions were there everyday back then?

There was the 6:00 am class and another morning practice at about 10:00 am. Then for people who worked in the daytime there were three other periods in the evening. Then the uchideshi could train anytime in between those hours, too.

Editor: Did Ueshiba Sensei’s daughter, Matsuko, also train at that time?

No, she didn’t come very much. Personally, I had very few chances to speak directly to Ms. Matsuko. Their house was connected to the dojo so she might appear and invite us in for tea or say, “We have plenty of food left over, won’t you have lunch here?” and we would all stay and enjoy a nice meal. Even so, I never had the right opportunity to talk about her life or about training.

Editor: Do you happen to have any photographs from that period?

Back in those days things being as they were we didn’t take very many pictures. I seem to recall a time when we all had gotten together at the dojo for some reason or other and we all lined up in front of the dojo shrine for a souvenir picture. But that was the only one. I wonder where that one could be? We didn’t have so many chances or occasions to take photos, actually.

Editor: I suppose not. Was Kisshomarau Sensei training at that time?

During the time with which I am familiar he may or may not have entered junior high school, I don’t remember for sure, so I don’t think he had started to train very much as yet. He went to the school down next to the Shinjuku Imperial Garden. Today it is called Shinjuku High but years ago it was known as the Number Six Middle School. I think he started training after he graduated from that school.

Editor: How would you compare Aikido as you remember it at the Hombu Dojo with Aikido as it is done today?

Perhaps it was because there were so few people around but the feeling was much more mature or refined at the time. Now there is more of the feeling of a school; you pay your fees and you come and attend classes from this hour to that. I don’t suppose that its that way on purpose but that’s the atmosphere you feel.

Editor: When you were training weren’t there some fixed monthly fees?

No, there weren’t. But in the old days you could say the teacher and the deshi really were like a unit. Back then you could say, “Hey everybody I just bought some sweet rolls. Come and get itl” I guess that would be a little hard to do now. And as I mentioned Sensei’s wife would have a lunch ready for us and in return we would all completely clean the dojo. When that was finished we would play badmitten for an hour or two in the dojo. That’s how much we felt like we were all in the family. As far as numbers, I’m sure there couldn’t have been anywhere near even one fifth of the number of people there are today. Sometimes someone would arrange some flowers in the entry hall alcove; things like that.

Editor: Now things are different and so we must consign those feelings to the past. Still, it’s wonderful that you still have contact with your friends from that period.

Well, there were so few of us that our ties with each other were quite strong. I suppose now that everything is so big no one knows who’s coming or going, but I remember that if someone said, “I have to go to the country but I don’t have the cash,” right away another member would say, “Don’t worry, I’ll loan some to you,” just like that.

Editor: In those days did the deshi receive dan (black belt level) gradings from Sensei?

The first thing that I received was (a transmission scroll) called a mokuroku.Ueshiba Sensei told me, “Actually I should copy this out and give it to you but I don’t have the time so please take mine and copy it yourself.” So I have a makimono which I copied out myself. If we were to ask just what a makimono meant I guess we could say it was equivalent to some certain dan grading. Later I heard some one comment that I was a sandan (third degree black belt) and although at the time I answered that I hadn’t received anything of the sort it seems that somehow the dojo now has my name down with that grading. I actually went once to see about it and sure enough it was true. Still I wondered when all this came about (laughter). And without the person even knowing about it, at that! When I was training, though, there was nothing like dan grades so I was rather surprised.

Editor: We have seen old movies (in which juken were used in demonstrations) but did you ever use the juken (bayonet and rifle) in practice at that time?

Yes, we did. Someone would thrust with the training weapon and we would try to deal with that kind of attack. We also worked against a spear attack. Anyway, there was just about every type of major weapon in the dojo. Even I was expected to have practiced against a cutting attack made with the bokken. Nor were we only expected to be able to avoid the attacks of the weapon-carrying person. We were also expected to be able to take the role of the attacker and wield the weapons. When you cut the weapon should make a high-pitched whistling sound but at first it not so easy to get that perfect sound. It comes out more of a low whooshing sound (laughter). After a year or so, though, I was able to get a good pitch.

Just about the time that the war started my alma mater was on summer vacation and I spent something like three days teaching something more akin to self-defense than to Aikido. If we could have taken those 50 people who were to learn and divide then into three groups for three teachers it would have been fine but as it was after the first day one of the instructors’ voices gave out and we ended up having to do the course with only two instructors. I had to take care of 30 of them. That meant I had to uke (take break falls) for them one after the other; boom, boom, boom. It was summer vacation and terribly hot I was sweating so hard it was as if it was raining. But I feel that if you are going to teach you have to be able to take the uke side. When you are practicing in the dojo and all you do is throw people then it’s really hard on the uchideshi, I thought, because they were taking break falls morning noon and night.

Editor: I believe you were familiar with General Takeshita at that time. Was he also an active trainee?

Oh yes, he was very active, indeed. It seems he was also well known to the present emperor who even asked him something like, “Takeshita, are you still training in Aikido?” Now, Aikido has become an international budo, but in the past it was something that people who had passed above the regular kendo and judo would come and learn.

Editor: Have you ever had the experience of being thrown directly by 0-Sensei?

Yes, I have and he didn’t pull any punches because I was female. You often hear it said that in Aikido the size of one’s body is not so relevant but I think there is a certain handicap in being small. When my partner took hold of my arm his fingers usually wrapped around with enough left over to overlap his own finger tips. Then when I tried to grasp them, there was a gap of about this much. I had to use both hands and grip for all I was worth and then I would just about equal their single-handed grasp. In a case like that there is a big disadvantage. I had to grip so hard that I ended up getting stiff and I worried about being inflexible. Two or three years after I quit training I was still pretty rigid.

Editor: In those days did the beginners also wear hakama?

Everyone wore them. When you joined you had to buy training uniform and that included a hakama. Most people used black but some had white. I had a black one… or was it white? At first I bought a white one but it got so filthy that I took it home and dyed it black because the things were so hard to wash.

Editor: Kunigoshi Sensei, you studied drawing especially in school. The pictures you did for “Budo Renshu” are really valuable reference works.

When I think about them today, feel I did pretty well with them. At school I had taken a course in design but that dealt mostly with fashion. When I did the drawings of the techniques I started with a circle for the head and drew out the arms and legs and that was it because you only have a second or two to catch the kata. Then I would take my time at home and add a kimono and hakama (to the stick figures)“The makimono scrolls from the Daito Ryu are just like that. There’s a black dot for the head and stick hands and two lines for legs. The figures look like ants! Some are holding swords…

Now the Hombu has become a very fine place with many deshi but I guess it’s the ‘cold water’ of age, I don’t feet like trying it again. I spend most of my time with the tea ceremony but when I am holding the water dipper it is just like holding a sword. I have the same feeling and I remember the things I was told by Sensei. Whether you do tea or flowers, there are common points with Aikido, because the whole world (tenchi) is made up of movement and calm, light and shadow. If everything only moved and moved then there would be complete chaos, right?

Editor: Those ideas came from China didn’t they?

Yes, from China, but I think that the idea that the heavens and the earth arose from the in and the Y£ (yin and yan) (or the Positive and Negative principles) is not limited to China alone. Although the words of course are different, it’s simply a matter of differences in expression. All the world’s nations have the same truth, I think. Whenever the sun is shining there must be shadows, too. I believe we can say that the same thing applies to budo as well, don’t you?

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The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.


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