Interview with Swordmaster: Kiyoshi Nakakura, Part 2 by Stanley Pranin

This is the second of a two-part interview with Kiyoshi Nakakura Sensei, 9th dan hanshi in both Kendo and Iaido and one of Japan’s top swordsmen. It was conducted on December 23, 1987 by Editor Stanley Pranin at the residence of Nakakura Sensei in Higashi Murayama City. Read the first part of the interview here.

Kiyoshi Nakakura (1910-2000)

I believe Ueshiba Sensei taught at the Toyama School and the Military Police School?

Yes, he did teach at the Toyama School, the Military Police School and also the Naval Staff College sometimes but he did not receive a monthly salary from them. He received an honorarium every time he visited these places.

We understand that Admiral Isamu Takeshita studied under Ueshiba Sensei for a long time.

While I was at the Ueshiba Dojo, he was an adviser to the Kobukan or something of the sort. I met him many times and also visited his house. He was present at my wedding as well. He also practiced at the dojo. I understand that he left some 2,000 pages of notes of Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques.

Of course we now call the art “Aikido” but in those days a different name was used, I believe.

The art was called “Daito-ryu” because of the connection with Sokaku Takeda. Then a few years later it was changed to Aikido. It seems that while I was there, various names were used for the art. For example, “Aioi-ryu” or “Aiki Budo” and so on. I think that the name “Aikido” was used quite a bit later. The dojo was built before I enrolled but its name was changed to the Kobukan while I was there, probably around 1932 or 1933. The land used to be part of a mansion called the “Tsugaru” which was owned by a lord of Aomori Prefecture. The Ueshibas used to rent a section of about 100 tsubo (one tsubo = 3.954 sq. yds.). I think it was around the time I was leaving the dojo that they were asked to buy the land and they did.

How did Admiral Takeshita support Ueshiba Sensei?

When I was there Ueshiba Sensei never received money from him or anything like that. Sensei used to receive a gift during the traditional bon summer period and the end of the year from Admiral Takeshita and that was all. There was an association named the “Harada Sekizenkai” which contributed funds to places like the Ueshiba Dojo and a man called Osumi who was an admiral was the president. Admiral Takeshita told Mr. Osumi about the Ueshiba Dojo and the dojo used to receive 100 yen per month from this association. 100 yen at that time was quite a sum. I imagine that Admiral Takeshita was around 70 years old then.

I believe there were navy officers practicing at the dojo who had connections with the Omoto religion such as Admiral Seikyo Asano.

The Omoto religion did have a positive influence on Mr. Ueshiba as well as on Aikido. However, there were some negative aspects too. I think it is because Mr. Ueshiba was an Omoto believer that he created such divine techniques and also came to hold such a faith. So these are pluses. However, from our standpoint, a religion responsible for an incident of lese majeste is questionable. Actually, though, I don’t know now whether the activities of the religion were really disrespectful to the Emperor or not.

We understand that the second Omoto incident of 1935 (where the prewar Japanese military suppressed the Omoto religion destroying much of its property) put Ueshiba Sensei in a very difficult situation. Do you know anything about the matter?

In the Omoto incident of 1935, Onisaburo Deguchi Sensei as well as his wife, the second successor of the religion, were arrested. Also, the Osaka police department was ordered to arrest Ueshiba by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. At that time he was instructing police officers including a Mr. Kenji Tomita who was then the chief of the Sonezaki Police Department and who later became the head of the Criminal Law Bureau. Mr. Tomita knew that Mr. Ueshiba was not the sort of person who would involve himself in a lese majeste affair. Mr. Tomita insisted that if they were going to arrest Mr. Ueshiba, they would have to arrest him first. It was because of his efforts that Mr. Ueshiba was not detained.

Was Ueshiba Sensei in Osaka at that time?

That’s right. His wife, Hatsu, was also there. I was in Tokyo. Kisshomaru was here also. In the Ueshiba Dojo there were shrines dedicated to Omoto deities and many framed calligraphic works by Reverend Onisaburo Deguchi hung on the wall. They were things which Mr. Ueshiba valued highly. However, I tore all of them down and burned them. The live-in students were surprised and asked me if it was all right for me to do so. However, it had nothing to do with being right or wrong. To hang up or display such things was a lese majeste affair, you see. If Mr. Ueshiba’s wife was present then, I don’t think I could have done such a thing. I could only do it because nobody was there.

How many calligraphic works by Onisaburo Deguchi were burned then?

There were about four. There weren’t many works by Onisaburo Deguchi in Tokyo. That was because Admiral Takeshita disliked the Omoto religion.

The Omoto religion did have a positive influence on Mr. Ueshiba as well as on Aikido. However, there were some negative aspects too. I think it is because Mr. Ueshiba was an Omoto believer that he created such divine techniques and also came to hold such a faith. So these are pluses. However, from our standpoint, a religion responsible for an incident of lese majeste is questionable. Actually, though, I don’t know now whether the activities of the religion were really disrespectful to the Emperor or not.

We understand that Ueshiba Sensei went to instruct at the Noma Dojo of the Kodansha Publishing Company. There were many photos taken at this Noma Dojo which have survived.

Actually, Ueshiba Sensei never went to instruct at the Noma Dojo. The son of Seiji Noma (founder of the Kodansha Company), Mr. Hisashi Noma, used to train at the dojo in Wakamatsu-cho. I think Ueshiba Sensei demonstrated Aikido there rather than taught it. It seems that Seiji Noma practiced Kendo in his youth but he was no longer doing it when we came to know him. He apparently was putting his energy into his son, Hisashi. He didn’t even have his son go to middle school but insisted he would educate his own child by himself. He thought that it would be a problem if his son was educated poorly and so he had tutors come to his house to have him study with them. Therefore, Hisashi Noma only graduated from elementary school.

We understand that Mr. Hisashi Noma participated in the Tenranjiai (tournament in the imperial presence).

He won the event in 1934. He was a student of the Yushinkan Dojo. He went to train there when he was a child and was one year older than me. He died of cancer of the rectum at the young age of 30. He was a great man. If he were still alive he would be the president of the Kendo Federation now.

Do you know any-thing about Sokaku Takeda Sensei?

Sokaku Takeda Sensei would never fail to contact Ueshiba Sensei if he didn’t send him money for living expenses. That was the reason Mr. Ueshiba used to send him money. One time when Ueshiba Sensei happened not make a payment, Sokaku Sensei came to visit him at the Kobukan. I was there then. I heard something that sounded like an argument going on at the gate and went out of the dojo to find Takeda Sensei pushing a taxi driver into a gutter! It seems that the driver said something about money to Sokaku Sensei and so Sokaku got mad at him and pushed him into the gutter. (Laughter) So I apologized and paid the driver his money explaining that Sokaku Sensei was just an old martial artist. Then, Sokaku Sensei asked me where Ueshiba Sensei had gone and I replied that Sensei had gone down to Osaka. Next he asked where in Osaka he had gone and I answered that he went to instruct at the Asahi Newspaper dojo. Sokaku Sensei immediately went down to Osaka. This was around 1933. Mr. Ueshiba returned to Tokyo because Sokaku Takeda Sensei went there. After Mr. Ueshiba returned to Tokyo no one was left in Osaka to teach. So Sokaku Sensei decided to stay there explaining he would instruct the students since he knew techniques he had not taught Ueshiba. There was a man named Takuma Hisa who was an employee of the Asahi Newspaper. I believe it was he who studied under Sokaku Sensei.

We have obtained copies of teacher certification documents from the Daito-ryu school. They state that those awarded these certificates were to pay a fee of 3 yen to Sokaku Takeda Sensei when instructing students in Daito-ryu.

Depending on how you think of it, I believe it’s quite natural. Even now the All-Japan Kendo Federation takes a registration fee. Sokaku Sensei would have needed money for living and transportation expenses and so I think it was quite natural. I do not know how much Mr. Ueshiba used to send Sokaku Sensei but since Mr. Ueshiba had many live-in students in those days I believe he had just enough to take care of them. I don’t think that he was that well off.

Would you tell us about the Kendoka Jun’ichi Haga Sensei who was also a friend of Ueshiba Sensei?

The relationship between Haga and Mr. Ueshiba was not that close. Haga came to visit me because I married into the Ueshiba family. He was never taught Aikido directly by Mr. Ueshiba or anything like that. Around 1930 when I came up to Tokyo, Haga was serving as an imperial guard. He was two years older than me. Since I was 22 years old when I came up to Tokyo, he was probably around 24. After one year and 4 months I entered the imperial guards. Around that time Haga was still with the imperial police. He was a man of violent temper. There was a certain prefectural police chief who was really supportive of Judo and Kendo and he thought that since Haga was so strong it would be a pity to send him to the Metropolitan Police Office. However, there was no one who could handle him as his superior officer. So there was nothing to be done but send him to the Metropolitan Police Office. And that’s just what he did. Haga became an assistant instructor at the Metropolitan Police Office. I guess he was there about 3 years. Even though he was working for the police office, he got drunk and got into a fight once and was sent to a detention room. The next day it was discovered that the person who was taken into custody was an assistant instructor at the Metropolitan Police Office. Therefore, the police had no choice but to let him go. There was a professor of Tokyo University named Oshima, who was also a teacher at the Metropolitan Police Office. One of his students named Masuda was teaching at the police training school in Korea. Mr. Oshima asked Mr. Masuda to accept Haga there and so he went to Korea and stayed for a time. Then Mr. Masuda was promoted to commander-in-chief by the commander of the southern region, Seishiro Itagaki. Since Haga was sort of a secretary to Masuda, he accompanied him to a place called San Fernando in the Philippines. This was during the war. Masuda lived in Tokyo for a while after the war. I was working for the imperial guards then and he sometimes came to visit me and we practiced together at the Saineikan dojo. Masuda became a lawyer six months or a year later. He is eight years older than me so I suppose he was around 41 or 42 years old then. He is now living in a place called Saginomiya. He is probably about 83 or 84 now. Since he had bad legs, he has not been able to train for the last three or four years. He took really good care of Haga.

We understand that Haga Sensei tested Ueshiba Sensei on one occasion.

Yes. In those days a 10th dan Judo master named Kyuzo Mifune was using a technique call kukinage (lit., “air throw”) which was highly regarded then. Haga and I thought that the technique Mr. Ueshiba was using to throw his students must have been this kukinage technique and we decided to test him once. We both went to attack him but we were thrown before we even grabbed him. Then we realized that what Mr. Ueshiba was doing was genuine. This incident took place after I entered the Ueshiba Dojo.

When were the Tenranjiai tournaments held?

Three of them were held, in 1929, then in 1934 and in 1940. After the Taisho Emperor passed away and the present Emperor ascended to the throne, a tournament called the “Godaiten Taikai” took place. The one in 1934 was held in commemoration of the birth of the Crown Prince. The one in 1940 took place because the year just happened to be the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese nation. There were no other Tenranjiai tournaments. Only Kendo, Judo, and Kyudo matches were held in these tournaments. They lasted for a two-day period and the first day was for preliminary matches. The Emperor came on the day of the final matches. They were all held at the Saineikan Dojo.

Depending on how you think of it, I believe it’s quite natural. Even now the All-Japan Kendo Federation takes a registration fee. Sokaku Sensei would have needed money for living and transportation expenses and so I think it was quite natural. I do not know how much Mr. Ueshiba used to send Sokaku Sensei but since Mr. Ueshiba had many live-in students in those days I believe he had just enough to take care of them. I don’t think that he was that well off.

Have you, Sensei, ever been to Manchuria?

I went there once. It was in 1942 just after the war broke out. A hall for the martial arts called the Shimbuden was built in Manchuria in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Manchuria and a Kendo tournament celebrating this event was held. By that time submarines were already entering home waters and even on the ship we had to keep all lights off.

We arrived in Fuzan and from there we got on a train. I met Ueshiba Sensei at the Shimbuden one day before the tournament. It had been seven years since I left the Ueshiba family and it was then that I was informed of the death of Tsutomu Yukawa (a senior student of Morihei Ueshiba of the Kobukan period).

Sensei, let me ask you something about your present activities. Do have any plans to travel abroad in the near future?

I will visit Australia next April (1988). I went there last year also. Although the number of Kendo practitioners there is still small, they are practicing with real enthusiasm. The most advanced country in terms of number of Kendo practitioners and level of proficiency is France which has now exceeded England. The next country would be West Germany and then England. In France there was a physical education teacher who was very keen on Kendo and it was he who spread the art. About 20 years ago I went abroad for the first time and visited eight countries in Europe. It was then that we first formed the European Kendo Federation in London, England.

The next year we decided to hold the first World Kendo Tournament. That was in 1970. When I went to Taiwan recently I taught at the military academy and made a speech. I said, “Although you will be leading Taiwan in the future, in Kendo, you all seem to be concerned only about how to strike or defeat your opponent. I can see that easily. This is not good. You should all work a little more on basics.” Hearing this the head of the school was really pleased and gave me a medallion. This is like a free pass to Taiwan, you know. (Laughter)

Would you tell us about Dr. Gordon Warner, the American Kendo expert who is now living in Okinawa?

I have known him since before the war. He was studying at Waseda University. He used to come to practice at the Noma Dojo of the Kodansha Publishing Company. There is an interesting story about him. One day, after the war when I was practicing with him, I struck his shinai (bamboo sword used in Kendo) down. Then we began kumiuchi (sword matching). I executed a gyaku technique. He conceded defeat and I let him go. He was in tears then! Warner had been in the war and so Mr. Ono of the Metropolitan Police who was watching us said to me, “Nakakura, Japan lost the war, right? Warner is going to defeat you the next time!” (Laughter) There were almost no other foreigners practicing Kendo before the war. He is a historical person.

Mrs. Nakakura: Catherine Borden (4th dan in Kendo, 5th dan in Iaido and a student of Torao Mori, adopted son of Seiji Noma) of the United States used to say, “Kendo should be based on the yamato damashii (Japanese spirit).” She also said, “Kendo should never be included as an Olympic event. Since Kendo is not sport and has its roots in the Japanese spirit, we should never lose that spirit.”

She also made the following comment: “I am pleased with the fact that Kendo has now spread all over the world but I am still concerned about the loss of the Kendo spirit.” After Japan lost the war the Ministry of Education suggested that the spiritual side of Kendo not be emphasized. They approved the introduction of Kendo in schools again but it was presented as a pure sport and not as an art with a spiritual dimension.

At one point the spiritual side of Japanese Kendo had deteriorated. When we went to Europe in 1969,1 asked the following question in every country: “What made you decide to practice this art of Kendo when there are only a few instructors and where you also have to buy a lot of equipment.” They replied, “We practice Kendo in order to study the Japanese Kendo spirit” I then asked, “Do you really understand the Kendo spirit?” They answered, “Yes, we do. Our seniors who have been studying in Japan for many years tell us that the reason Japan has developed economically this far is due to the Japanese spirit which is cultivated through martial arts training, especially Kendo.” However, in Japan we were not practicing the Kendo which the foreigners were trying to pursue then. We were only concerned about how to win championships and how to acquire ranks in Kendo at that time. Therefore, we were really embarrassed then. When we returned to Japan I explained my experience in Europe to the All-Japan Kendo Federation and suggested the need to reconsider the future direction of Kendo. We studied the ideological basis of Kendo for three years and made our ideas public in March of 1975. Our statement said that Kendo is a way of character building through training in ken techniques. It was then that we confirmed that Kendo should emphasize the traditional Kendo spirit.

Mrs. Nakakura: Ms. Borden emphasized the same thing. She is now teaching the Kendo spirit as a volunteer to children of Japanese businessmen working in the United States. She takes small children to an open air school in the summer. She feels that since Japanese children living abroad do not know the true Kendo spirit, she has the responsibility to teach it to them. She is a great person.

Although it is often thought that Japan before the war was carried away to militarism because of its martial spirit, in my opinion, it was because the government at that time didn’t fully understand the true spirit of martial arts that Japan went in a wrong direction. This was why America misunderstood that the cause of Japanese militarism had something to do with the martial art spirit. However, true martial arts are not like that. Although Ueshiba Sensei did not say anything specifically about this I believe that he was against the Pacific war.

America misunderstood this point. They disarmed Japan completely and prohibited a very important thing like Kendo. This is why they are having a hard time now. I mean they should have created a stronger Japan in order to oppose the Soviet Union. Now, Japanese are spiritually so weak. The power of education is great you Know. Given the present situation, it is difficult for us to go back to where we before.


Kiyoshi Nakakura

Born in 1919 in Kagoshima Prefecture, he began Kendo training at the Daidokan Dojo in Kagoshima. Later, in 1930 he enrolled in the Yoshinkan Dojo of swordsmaster Hakudo Nakayama in Tokyo. In 1932 he entered the Kobukan Dojo as the adopted son of Morihei Ueshiba through his marriage to the latter’s daughter. At present he is a 9th dan master of both Kendo and Iaido.

Read the first part of the interview here.

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