20th Soke (head master) of Tosa no Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu
Takeshima Sensei died in the spring of 2007 of Lung Cancer attributed to cigarette smoking, after several years of battling the disease and following two, ultimately unsuccessful surgeries. The 20th Soke (Headmaster) of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (Heart to Heart Transmission of the Art of Eishin Ryu, a 400+ year old classical Japanese Martial Art noted for originating Iai or quick draw of the sword) took over Eishin Ryu at a critical time in its history. Takeshima Sensei elevated the art with his skill as a practitioner, as a teacher and with his strength, personal warmth and commitment. A simple man from a humble beginning, he created who he was. He lived his life with vigor, but remained always humble. Noted as one of the top 3 swordsman in Japan in his time, he was also an exceptional calligrapher and photographer. I will attempt to pass on a bit of Takeshima history, not to simply honor him, for he was never one to seek fame or acknowledgement, but as a reminder to each of us what we can do with our lives.
Prior to him starting Iai, a couple of events stand out; Takeshima Sensei was an orphan who in High School was a national level swimmer (distant freestyle). He swam throughout his entire life to keep in shape. He took up guitar and became a touring classical guitarist in Japan. He started training Eishin Ryu Iai at 22 years of age.
Eishin Ryu had a very full history – a no nonsense approach to martial arts that was well reflected in the character of the people of Kochi. Dueling was not allowed – that was self-serving and an Eishin Ryu samurai was about serving his lord, his clan and the people of the clan. Money was not to change hands – this was heart to heart transmission, not something you could read about or barter for, despite the hundreds of scrolls and journals its leaders had written and compiled. Prior to World War II, there were many political factions vying for power in Japan. It was a turbulent time. Eishin Ryu and Kochi were pro-Emperor (and instrumental in the return of power to the Emperor and modernization of Japan) and anti-war (they opposed the rightwing expansionist movement and militarization of Japan). When Japan went to war, however, Eishin Ryu members went out and served their country resulting in the death of thousands of iai practitioners. At the end of the war, the United States fire bombed Kochi burning most of the city to the ground which was of particular significance as Takeshima Sensei lived through this time. He fled to the mountains during the bombing and watched his home burn. I was always inspired that he never held these actions against America or Americans.
The 19th Soke, Fukui Harumasa, was a swim coach, judo player and Eishin Ryu bugeisha. He was not the most skillful of practitioners and bad knees resulting from Judo limited his ability to perform seiza kata. Still, he was chosen to lead the limited practice during the war and post war years. He originally awarded the 20th Soke to Hakuren Sensei of Osaka with the stipulation that he move to Kochi to lead Eishin Ryu. Eishin Ryu, while wide spread over most of Japan, was brought to Kochi from near Edo (Tokyo), from the 9th Soke (Hayashi Sensei). The Soke of Eishin Ryu from that period forward always resided in Kochi. Hakuren Sensei did not move to Kochi and more significantly, he started making money from teaching Eishin Ryu. Teaching for money has never been in the Eishin Ryu Tradition and Hakuren showed his moral state when began selling the next Soke position to approximately 20 different students. Fukui Sensei, shortly thereafter, removed Hakuren as Soke. With great shame Fukui Sensei began to look for the next Soke. Potential candidates were few due to the decimated numbers of Eishin Ryu practitioners as a result of the war. The poverty in the area and the transition away from classical teaching all culminated in a difficult choice.
Takeshima Sensei was 32 years old at the time and while too young for the post and his training not completed, he was approached to become Soke. There was something special about this young man, his character, his drive. This was a difficult decision but once accepted, Takeshima committed himself to the task. He set down the guitar and vowed never to play it again (he never did) and he trained relentlessly. His training included not only training with Eishin Ryu teachers, but also with 6 outside teachers, each with specific teachings to pass on to him. He also had several Sempai in Kochi to keep him in check (this was always the Eishin Ryu way – pass on the mantle while the previous Soke was still strong and could control the new Soke if need be).
While only a high school graduate, over the next decade Sensei would learn Classical Chinese Characters so that he could read the scrolls entrusted to him. In fact, the 13th Soke was to become his “Kokoro Sensei” (heart teacher) – the words of whom touched his heart more than any other and shaped his teaching methods and approach to life. This also led to his daily practice of Shodo (calligraphy), which was said by experts in the field to reflect his mastery of the sword. Over the years this mastery showed itself in the carving of a wooden boken created from a single piece of Biwa wood. It was beautiful and perfectly balanced. It was accomplished on the first attempt. His iai skill showed in his photography, especially wildlife photography, which he started around 60 years old. He could capture movement in a photograph with grace and presence. His egret photos received the highest praise in Tokyo.
Takeshima Sensei elevated Eishin Ryu with his skill; a skill he passed on by being very inclusive as a teacher, making everyone feel welcome and part of the group. Sensei trained daily throughout his life. He pedaled his bike to work in the morning, then to the pool where he swam at lunch and then again to his home. In the evening or early morning, he trained at least 30 minutes of Iai each day. In the evening he might also do calligraphy, or sharpen his knife (he could sharpen a knife so it would cut thru paper with ease if you were left handed but not cut at all if you right handed). Takeshima Sensei was left-handed – a challenge perhaps for right-handed iai, but one he just accepted (though he noted in early Japan’s history there were left hand swordsman). Sensei’s skill was mostly kept to himself. He taught what the student needed, not what he was working on and training. He did show pieces of his skill from time to time:
1.Sensei demonstrated an upper level okuai kata that had even Muranaga Sensei, today’s current Soke, wide eyed. The sword seemed to just appear in his hands.
2.Sensei showed a free form kata one day – showing where Iai could go at its highest levels.
3.Sensei could move on his knees as if he was walking, pivoting left, right or 180 degrees without bobbing, at a level none of us had ever seen.
4.He introduced me to Okyuai by sitting in front of me, both of us in tatehiza and said ‘draw as fast as you can’. I must admit I was a bit scared. I did not want to hurt Sensei with my clumsiness (I was drawing a mogito [training sword], Sensei’s sword was a live blade) and while I cannot say I moved at full speed – my hands didn’t even make it to my sword when Sensei’s sword tip was under my nose. Again everyone’s eyes were wide. It was a great time to be training.
5.Sensei was taken to a Kyudo dojo once and after the several demonstrations, he was asked if he would like to try. Sensei said yes, drew the bow – each time putting the arrow in the target despite never having drawn a bow before. His Art, his mastery showed itself in nearly all he did.
As a teacher, Sensei was always supportive. He was rarely harsh, like the picture we see of modern budo teachers. He made you think you too could do it and showed you how to do it. Early on he was a bit more negative – like many traditional Japanese teachers he might show what you did wrong by demonstrating it for all to see (usually getting a laugh) – a bit of shaming. The amazing part is just how much kinesthetic sense these sensei had. It was as if their body became that person physically and mentally. Sensei did this once in 1985 or thereabout and hurt his wrist (tore a cartilage in his wrist that would bother him from time to time the rest of his life). He never made fun of anyone again. I think he sensed there was a better way to teach.
Sensei grew Eishin Ryu and raised its level of skill considerably over the years. His teaching and refinement of kata continued. Early on he was much more power oriented, while later he emphasized more precision and ‘Ma’ (the time & transitioning between motions). New and middle level students were still taught power first. If you wanted to learn he would teach you. There were several people over the years, who some of the seniors felt were not well equipped to excel. Sensei listened, perhaps gave a bit of advice and then usually kept on teaching them. He showed everyone what could be done and what students could accomplish. His skill and presence was the key to keeping the varying groups from around the country from splitting off, resolving any in-fighting or silly squabbles. He knew when to be strong, when to forgive and when to say, “Is this a reflection of your Iai?” Mostly you just wanted to please him. He never needed to say anything – and he never abused the trust the student placed in him.
Sensei lived well within his means despite working his way up to president of a small shoe distributing company. In this way his hospitality was able to be generous and his worries were few. He housed students from around the country who came monthly to train with him.
He was known as an excellent boss and had an interesting way of dealing with his clients. He would carry them if times where hard, give them discounts if they needed or even forgive a debt. He never charged interest on the bill he carried for a person. His clients were very loyal and the bank would grant loans to start up stores or troubled companies based on his word and his support of their efforts. His word carried a lot of weight. If an individual, however, came and bartered with him, claiming that so and so was offering a better deal, he would escort such a person to the door and never do business with that person again. He felt his business was not about making money, but rather about supporting his family, his employees’ families and his clients’ families. And to do so with good cheer, friendliness and honor that would spread out and touch all those people’s lives.
He entertained at least one week night and once on the weekends almost every week. He and his wife were a wonderful host and hostess, making all feel warm and welcome. Even when a drunken, lower ranking student from Fukui pinched Sensei’ daughter and the Kochi students were about to drag him outside and give him one of the famous Kochi teachings – sensei said no, leave him be. The man was so embarrassed he never acted so poorly again.
This does not mean sensei never called people to task for their behavior. Nor does it mean he did not kick people out of Eishin Ryu for their behavior, their lack of sincerity. He did what was best for the group and for the individual to help him or her improve. If you needed straightening out you got it – perhaps at first in the form of a talk to the entire group, or taking the individual aside, or he might mention behavior just as the person did it in front of group (shaming the individual). He just might even kick the person out. However, with Sensei’s insight, the respect everyone had for him and his projection of energy, this rarely happened. If you were out of line – he let you know. If there was a problem he solved it.
Sensei wanted to open the minds of his students. This occurred in many ways. He always was exposing his students to new ideas, he might do this, for example, through introducing new foods. If you keep doing things the same way how can you get better? Keep the good and change the bad, but be open to change. He never said you had to like it, just be open to trying it. He lived this way himself – while at the Grand Canyon he ate ice cream. What is special about this? Classical men in Japan (and the bushi of old) like sour taste and never eat sweets. They like pickled food or beer, not cookies. In fact no one had ever seen Sensei eat sweets before. He said, “I am in America and I think I should try all the food Americans like.” He believed an open mind was necessary if Mushin was ever to come.
Sensei also kept everyone humble. He had a group of visitors from Tokyo who had trained with him all day and were enjoying dinner at Sensei’s house. One gentleman called Takeshima a ‘Sword Saint’. Sensei interrupted and said, “No, I am just a man.” Similarly, he was fond of saying in English for emphasis, “I don’t know” if asked a question for which he did not know the answer.
He was also known to get everyone to start training after hours of eating and drinking. The blades were real and if you couldn’t draw well at that time, you didn’t know how to drink – a bushi was never drunk, though he might appear to be. It was amazing how red faced Eishin Ryu practitioners could be, then stepping on the dojo floor they suddenly becoming sober – suffice to say, there were some cuts to the head and hands from folks who were not in control of themselves. [Please do not do this at home.]
This does not mean Sensei was never stern. Rather, he taught each person as they needed to be. One time it might be gentle, perhaps the next time firm, but never in anger. He let you know when you were wrong usually without saying a word. He would answer your questions until at some point he might say, “I can say no more, you must feel it, so go train.”
At the end of my first year, I was in a taxi with Sensei going to a big going away party for me. I wanted to let him know I was happy with my training and would come back next year; so I said I would train daily and train hard – and WHAM! Energy flowed from him. Shocking me – “Never say what you are going to do. Do it! I will know next year if you trained or not.” Sensei was very big on no B.S.
Takeshima Sensei had a way of taking each person along the path they needed to travel if they were serious about their training. If you were not serious, then he would let you sit. He would be nice but not teach. Sensei could look at anyone’s iai and know what type of person they were. He knew when and how to motivate. Takeshima Sensei knew their soul it seemed.
I traveled with Sensei to various training sessions around the country as part of my training. He would have you dress him, then get his sword ready and you had better be ready when he hit the floor. At the end when training was done – clean his sword (always great fun), fold his clothes then get your sword cleaned, change and out the door with him. He never said hurry, you just got it done. “He uses his deshi.” an outsider once said. But no, he taught us to be efficient; he taught us how put our ego aside and serve. Then one day I went to get his clothes and he said, “No, I know how to dress my self and you have learned all you can from this.” So unless he needed some help or I felt like I wanted to look after him, or show a mid-level student how to prepare Sensei’s things – I was not to do this so called chore.
As your skill progressed he might find ways to challenge you. Knowing your weak spot he would expose it. If you were down he would help you find your strength and remind you – you can do it. My first visit to Tokyo – we traveled on an airplane and Sensei was going to have me demonstrate the kata while he talked. Our hosts had about 25 swords, 10 of which were works of art, most were 200-400 years old, all but one were lovely swords. There was one on the end – too short, ratty, out of balance. I wondered why that one was there. I must say I was excited to try many of these shinken. Sensei looked them over and gave me the short one that rattled! No preparation, just get out there and start. I had drawn with various size blades before, so no worries, but then as Sensei introduced me he said, “I was one of HIS best students.” Now I became nervous. I felt I had to live up to the expectation of being one of his best students, rather than simply being a student. He knew which button to push. I had drawn for him before while he lectured, no big deal, but now I was shaking. I was not just demonstrating, but I was doing this for him, as one of his “best” students. I mangled the kata, looking like a rookie pitching to Babe Ruth; a karate yellow belt seemingly could have done better. It was embarrassing. He never said a word or seemed to notice. He just smiled and continued with his presentation.
Later that night, he asked what I had learned. I did not get the point, so he said, “You have trained with me for a long time and you have demonstrated all over Japan. You have trained at Gasshuku for 16 hours a day. You have drawn with swords that were too long and with swords that were too short at other demonstrations. But you are too attached to me. I say you are MY student and you feel the pressure to not let me down. That was fine before, it motivated you, but now the time has come for you to take the next step. Let go of it. Let go too the embarrassment of today.” He reminded me about a breathing technique and said good night. I still felt like I had let Sensei down, but I understood his point. The next day my iai was very nice because my mind was clear; despite him introducing me again as HIS best student. Sensei knew how to get the best out you for the long term.
Sensei’s teachings were for his students. Iai was not a game to play and the dojo was not a circus to entertain others. Iai was a Way and the dojo a place to improve you and thus the world around you. Yes he taught the jutsu side of the Art to his upper students, but this is not why he taught. His kindness opened people’s hearts. His firmness did not let little things slide – solve problems while they are little and still easy correct. Leave problems alone too long and they will grow and be difficult to change. Earnest effort, trust, and honor were very important to him.
Takeshima Sensei knew his Art. He knew how to teach and how to motivate. He also knew how to give each student exactly what each one needed. Combo Sensei can relate how effective a teacher Takeshima was. Takeshima Sensei knew the key point to change in one’s art that would lead to real progress. He knew how to challenge the student to excel and gave the student the means to do so. He said “No” when something was wrong and helped you get “YES” that is it, or yes, you are moving toward the right direction. He knew how to praise you and keep you going.
He touched many of his students’ lives. His dignity, honor and good nature helped many students find their way. Sensei could see people as they were. He did not judge them, but he did not waste anyone’s time either. He could see beyond the culture he grew up in – noting its strengths and weaknesses. He cultivated the good in people. As I said at the beginning of this article, Takeshima Sensei wanted his students to know ‘you can do it’. You may have to work at it, but you can progress and grow if you commit to your training. He enjoyed his journey on this Earth and even though he has now passed on, he continues to live on because of the man he was, the legacy he left and teachings he instilled in so many people.