Sumo champion Tenryu and Morihei Ueshiba by Stanley Pranin

Famous sumo wrestler Tenryu in his prime (1903-1989)

Famous sumo wrestler Tenryu in his prime (1903-1989)

“I thought that this old man was talking nonsense and slapped his hand down as I grabbed it. But the moment I touched him I was startled. I felt as if I had taken hold of an iron bar!”

Tenryu entered the Dewanoumi sumo stable in 1920 and earned promotion to sekiwake, sumo’s third highest rank, in 1930. In 1932, he seceded from the Japan Sumo Association, taking with him dozens of other wrestlers, in a movement to reform the feudalistic sumo system. Tenryu ultimately abandoned the movement and moved to Manchuria to take up a teaching position.

In 1939, while still in Manchuria, he saw a demonstration by Morihei Ueshiba. At first doubtful of the founder’s technique, Tenryu later asked to be accepted as a student at the Kobukan Dojo. He trained intensively at the Ueshiba Dojo for seventy days.

After the war, Tenryu opened a Chinese restaurant in Ginza and became a popular sumo commentator on radio and television. He maintained contact with Morihei Ueshiba and was a supporter of Yoshinkan aikido.

Please tell us about how you first met Ueshiba Sensei in Manchuria in 1939

I dissolved the Kansai Sumo Association in 1937 and in January of 1938 I went to Manchuria as a physical education instructor. In the spring of 1939 in an effort to spread Japanese martial arts in Manchuria too, we invited Japanese teachers to the country and arranged to have high local officials observe their demonstrations. The arts demonstrated were Kendo, Judo, Kyudo and Aikido. Since the dojo had not yet been completed, we asked the participants to give demonstrations in the dojo of the Chuo Bank.

Ueshiba Sensei brought Mr. (Noriaki) Inoue with him. After they showed some techniques, Ueshiba Sensei said: “You are probably thinking that we cannot possibly do these techniques without some sort of collusion between us. Since you are all martial arts practitioners, if there is a man among you, come and test this old man.” However, no one stepped forward. At 35 I was the youngest among them. I had recently arrived in Manchuria and several government officials were observing the demonstration. I thought that I should test my own ability and said, “Yes, I will try”. Ueshiba Sensei replied: “You are Mr. Tenryu, aren’t you? You too are probably imagining that an old man like me won’t be able to throw you very well. However, budo is much more than what you think it is. He offered his left hand saying it was weaker than his right and continued: “You must be quite strong physically. I am not putting strength into my arm so you can do anything you want with it. Try!”

I thought that this old man was speaking nonsense and slapped his hand down as I grabbed it. But the moment I touched him I was startled. I felt as if I had taken hold of an iron bar. Of course, I knew very well from my experience in Sumo that it would be useless to struggle against him. I immediately knew I had been defeated. However, I couldn’t just leave things like that and attempted to twist his arm up and out. He didn’t move an inch. I tried again with both hands using all my might. But he used my strength against me and I fell down.

What technique did he use on you then?

It was kokyunage. I didn’t have any particular problem with the fall since we take ukemi in Sumo too. But I was really amazed to know that such an art existed. That night I visited the lodging house where Ueshiba Sensei was staying and asked permission to become his student. He told me to come to his dojo in Ushigome in Tokyo. He said that three months of practice would be enough for me.

Stanley Pranin interviews famous sumo wrestler Tenryu at his home in 1987

Stanley Pranin interviews famous sumo wrestler Tenryu at his home on October 11, 1986

I then requested official leave from the Minister of Manchuria who had also observed the demonstration. I entered the dojo in Wakamatsu-cho in April 1939 and stayed through June.

Sensei, did you take falls for Ueshiba Sensei many times during that three-month period?

Yes, many times. I practiced directly with him. There was only one occasion when I thought that Ueshiba Sensei may have fallen during that time but he might have done it on purpose.

Was what you were practicing called Aiki Budo?

It was Daito-ryu Jujutsu Aikido.

Who were the uchideshi (live-in students) in those days?

There were people like Mr. Shioda and Mr. Okubo, who was quite good with his hands.

Mr. Shioda was still a student at Takushoku University and was the most energetic person in the dojo at that time. We became good friends. After three months we decided to take a trip together to add the finishing touches to my training. We instructed police officers of the Mie Prefectural Office and then students of the Sumitomo Dojo in Osaka. After that we visited the house of Ueshiba Sensei at the foot of Mt. Kurama.

While we were in Osaka the following incident occurred. I had spent time there five years earlier as the head of the Kansai Sumo Association and thus had many acquaintances who asked me to dinner. I got permission from Ueshiba Sensei and went out with them. When I came back a little late, he had already retired and I too went to bed. The next morning when I greeted him Sensei said: “Tenryu, you came back around 10:30 last night didn’t you?” He was not an ordinary person. He knew such things.

Later we went to Ueshiba Sensei’s house near Mt. Kurama. We woke up at three o’clock the following morning and Sensei suggested that we go to visit the mountain shrine. Sensei wore sandles and we were barefoot as we walked to the stairs leading up the mountain. There Sensei said to me: “Tenryu, you are young. Since I am an old man and have a hard time climbing stairs you push me up.” When I placed my hand on his back, he immediately leaned against it. Mr. Shioda told me later that I must have played a trick on Sensei then but I was really quite serious. Although the stairs to the main shrine were not that steep I was dripping with sweat. Sensei told me: “The reason you are perspiring so much is because you were preoccupied with the thought of pushing an old man like me. That’s why you are out of breath. If you walk thinking that there is nothing in front of you, you won’t sweat or get out of breath.” The stairs to the inner shrine from there were quite steep and narrow. People rarely went there. I continued to push him but this time I found that I was not struggling since I had learned to breathe properly. I realized that a little practice of the correct breathing method could make a big difference in Aikido.

From left, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Zenzaburo Akazawa, Tenryu; far right, General Makoto Miura, 1939

From left, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Zenzaburo Akazawa, Tenryu;
far right, General Makoto Miura, 1939

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