Shindo Yoshin Ryu: “Interview with Yukiyoshi Takamura,” by Stanley Pranin, Marco Ruiz and David Maynard

“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.”

Having undergone special training in Shindo Yoshin-ryu jujutsu as a boy, Yukiyoshi Takamura left Japan while a teenager and eventually settled in San Jose, California, USA. He operated a dojo in California in the 1960s and 70s choosing to provide rigorous training to a small group of dedicated students. His art, now called Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu, embodies the philosophy and spirit of an earlier era of Japan adapted to a Western setting. Takamura’s deep insights into the essence of martial arts will surprise and stimulate modern budo practitioners.

For our readers who are unfamiliar with the Shindo Yoshin-ryu system, would you talk about its origin and characteristics?

Yukiyoshi Takamura (1928-2000)

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 of Tokyo.

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 Japan.

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 years old.

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.

Wasn’t 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 and Sokaku.

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.

I don’t know very much about Sokaku Takeda Sensei either. I believe he was an live-in student of Sakakibara Sensei, but I don’t think my grandfather and Takeda Sensei trained in the dojo at the same time. If so, my grandfather never mentioned it. My memory is not so good on these things.

It’s 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 proper recognition.

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 Takamura school.

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 him.

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.

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