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

Finally, we arrived at an open place a little to the right of the inner shrine. Ueshiba Sensei said: “This is the place where Ushiwakamaru ( = Yoshitsune, famous general of the Kamakura period) trained in the old days. Starting tomorrow you and I will get up at three in the morning and practice here together in the dark.” So starting the next morning we got up at three and walked up to the clearing with me pushing Sensei up. Since it was pitch dark I couldn’t see anything. However, Sensei could see fine. He said: “You probably cannot see me well now but you will learn to see even on a moonless night within a few hours or days.” In the beginning I practiced kata with him on the moonless nights. By the third night I told him that I could see. He replied: “That’s quite fast.” This time we used bokken and practiced various movements and then standing techniques. I think we practiced for about five days. Then he said to me: “I have nothing else to teach you. You will be able to handle anyone who comes to attack you wherever you go. Don’t worry.” Then we returned to Tokyo and went to Iwama where the Aiki Shrine was located.

This was in 1939?

That’s right. After getting off the train we walked into a grove. Sensei said: “One day a martial art for the entire world will be born here.”

After I returned to Manchuria I would invite Aikido teachers every year. I built a dojo called the “Shinbuden” in Shinkyo in 1941 or 42 with government funds. I practiced with people like Mr. Tomiki and Mr. Oba there. When the war ended in 1945 I was repatriated. I think that Sensei was really disappointed that Japan was defeated in the war. General MacArthur prohibited the practice of all Japanese martial arts. I opened a Chinese restaurant in Ginza in 1950 and sometimes invited Ueshiba Sensei there and ate with him. He said then: “Tenryu, my son, Kisshomaru is still young and cannot do much yet. Please look out after him.” Sensei was giving serious thought to running the dojo. Hearing this, Mr. Shioda said to me: “If we leave things as they are now, Aikido might go off on the wrong track. Why don’t we do something about it? Maybe we can attempt something even without permission from Sensei .” Little by little this was the start of the Yoshinkan. Then Hombu Dojo began to become active too. Kisshomaru is now operating on a large scale but I don’t think he was thinking of succeeding his father at that time. It was clearly the Yoshinkan which first started up after the war. Mr. Shioda’s techniques are the closest to those of O-Sensei. He served Ueshiba Sensei the longest. At the time I was practicing Kisshomaru was a junior high school student and hadn’t yet started to practice. He didn’t like Aikido much then. Mr. Shioda was devoted to Aikido and attended the dojo religiously.

Did you ever practice with Shioda Sensei?

Yes. He had what could be called a competitive spirit. Once while I was standing he suddenly came over to me, twisted my hand and threw me to the mat. He triumphantly shouted, “Hooray! I threw you!” (Laughter)

We would like to ask you about your experience in the world of Sumo.

The Sumo society in those days was really feudal-istic. Sumo wrestlers couldn’t make a living on the allowance they received from the association. They received gratuities from supporters which they used. My stable master named Hitachiyama told me the following: “Tenryu, Sumo wrestlers are not entertainers or flatterers. We are wrestlers. We practice a budo. You have to face things with a budo spirit.” Even after I rose to the highest tournament level and became a sekiwake, I couldn’t possibly maintain my position with the allowance I received from the association. The owner kept all of the money for himself. I thought that that state of affairs would ruin the future of Sumo and decided to take some action to reform the system.

I presented a reform plan to the association with the approval of 32 people including makiuchi (senior grade), ozeki (second highest rank) and juryo (junior grade) wrestlers who were all students of Hitachiyama. However, there was no way the association would swallow all of the changes we proposed. Members of the “Kokuseikai”, a right-wing group of that time, came into the room and tried to remove us. We stood our ground stating that we would not leave until our reform plan was accepted. However, we were finally forced to leave. We then cut our hair and established the “Dainihon Shinko Rikishidan” (New Greater Japan Sumo Association) and became independent. We had a number of problems. There were some right-wingers who thought that these troubles would come to an end if they killed me, the leader. Somehow I managed to find a way out of this situation and we declared our rebellion and gave a performance in Shitayanegishi on February 4, 1932. Then 17 wrestlers of the eastern group left the main association saying that it was too slack. These wrestlers established a Sumo federation and traveled around Japan continuing the reform movement. These movements had a great effect on the Sumo world. Nowadays, not to mention yokozuna and ozeki (the two highest Sumo rankings), any juryo wrestler with a family can make a living on the allowance from the association alone.

A reform movement arises when the world is in a state of disorder in any period. This was also the case at the time of the Meiji Restoration. Because of the chaotic state of the Tokugawa Shogunate government, people like Takamori Saigo, Shoin Yoshida and Ryoma Sakamoto rose to action and disrupted society leading to the Meiji Restoration. The process of reform can only be carried out where someone sacrifices his position and honor. I was thirty years old when I initiated the breakaway movement. I had, of course, no intention of returning to the Sumo world. I established the Kansai (western Japan) Sumo Association in Osaka which continued from 1933 to 1937. During that period I requested many times that the Kanto (eastern Japan) Sumo Association compete against us in a tournament. But since we were the ones who were rebelling against them they didn’t respond well to the idea. If they accepted a match with us and lost it would be disastrous for them. So no matches ever occurred between us. In 1937 Japan began to slide into the Greater East Asia War. All political parties and groups were dissolved and the “Dainihon Yokusankai” (Imperial Rule Assistance Association) became the sole governing group in Japan. Since Japan as a nation and the government were united, we felt that the Sumo world should not remain split into two separate organizations. I dissolved the Kansai Sumo Association and brought 17 promising wrestlers back to Tokyo and asked the stable head Mr. Oyakata to take care of them. He asked me what I intended to do and I replied as follows: “Since I have strongly opposed all of you for years and have been un-dutiful I cannot possibly return. I will go to Manchuria and start over and spread Sumo there.” Thus I left for Manchuria in 1938. I organized all the amateur Sumo wrestlers in that country and established the Manchuria Sumo Federation.

Were these amateur wrestlers Japanese?

Yes, all of them were former university graduates. I became the leader of these wrestlers and planned a tour of Manchuria of the Japan Sumo Association. So I went to northern China from Manchuria in August and September and negociated with the Kanto Army and started the Manchuria tournament. The Japan Sumo Association supported all my efforts in Manchuria and allowed me to become an advisor in 1941 or 42. Although I had rebelled against the association earlier, it was as a result of our revolt that the old Sumo system was reformed and a new organization, the one you see today, created. None of the young wrestlers of the present Sumo Association know that history. Those things happened 60 years ago.

We understand that Sokaku Takeda Sensei and Takuma Hisa Sensei were in the dojo of the Asahi Newspaper Company in Osaka at that time. Did you ever meet them there?

I often met Mr. Hisa but never Takeda Sensei. When I established the Kansai Sumo organization Hisa Sensei was employed at the Asahi Newspaper. Articles covering our reform movement were carried in the paper from January 7th to about the 15th of 1932. They used the whole page of the local news section.

Saburo Wakuta (Tenryu) Profile

Born on November 1, 1903 in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Active as a standout Sumo wrestler in the 1920s and early 30s, he lead a reform movement which established its own independent “Kansai Sumo Association” in 1932. Tenryu first met Morihei Ueshiba in 1939 in Manchuria. Later he spent an intensive 70-day period training under O-Sensei at the old Kobukan dojo.


1 comment

  • Amazing interview, I am very grateful to Stanley Pranin, that he did go out and interviewed so many top martial artists before they died.
    One small thing I have noticed: “…asked the stable head Mr. Oyakata…”
    oyakata in Japanese is the word used for the stable head, is this not a translation error?