Aikido Comes to America: September 1935

Journal of Combative Sport November 1999

By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 1999. All rights reserved.

 In 1904 Isamu Takeshita helped introduce judo into the United States. For a description of that, see Joseph Svinth, "Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington," Aikido Journal, 25:2 (1998), 37-42. In 1935 Takeshita also introduced aikido, then known as aikibudo, into North America.

 Takeshita was born to a samurai family in service to the Satsuma clan of Kagoshima Prefecture in 1868. His birth name was Yamamoto, but after being adopted by the Takeshita family, he subsequently took that as his family name.

 He became a sailor, and upon graduation from the Japanese Naval Staff College, he was assigned as Japan's naval attaché to the United States. In April 1904 he achieved national attention by introducing then-US President Theodore Roosevelt to Kodokan judo. "The late President Theodore Roosevelt was one of my best friends there [in Washington in 1904-1905]," Takeshita recalled in August 1935.
 The relationship between us was just like that of members of one family. We had engaged Mr. Y. Yamashita, an expert on judo or jiu jitsu, from Japan as our instructor, and we, Mr. Roosevelt and I, used to take lessons in jiu jitsu very often in his library on the second floor of the White House.
 After returning to Japan, Takeshita was promoted to captain in 1907 and rear admiral in 1913. During his career he commanded the warships Suma and Kasuga, and the training ship Izumo.  For his service during World War I he received a Distinguished Service Medal from the United States, and in 1919 he was in the entourage of Crown Prince Hirohito during the latter's visit to Europe. Subsequent flag billets included Chief of Staff of the First Japanese Fleet and Commander-in-Chief, Imperial Japanese Navy.

 Meanwhile Takeshita did not neglect his duties as a samurai, and in Tokyo he patronized a martial art dojo called the Kobukan. Methods taught at that school included aikibudo -- Morihei Ueshiba was the instructor -- kendo, riding, and other spirit (kiai) developing activities. The school had about 200 members, perhaps ten percent of whom were female.

 During the summer of 1935, Admiral Takeshita made his fifth visit to North America. Stops included New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Seattle. His purpose was to tell US audiences that the international press misinterpreted Japan's role in China. The Japanese objective, he said, was not to spread the Japan's Co-Prosperity Sphere but to stop international Communism. "No Japanese warship has ever crossed the Pacific except on a mission of peace," he said during a radio broadcast in San Francisco. "No Japanese soldier has ever come to these shores except on a similar mission."

 While in the United States, Takeshita demonstrated aikibudo to judoka and reporters. "I spend at least two or three hours a day with my pupils," he said. "Ju-jitsu or kendo is an art as far as a foreigner is concerned, but it is also in character-building… Character is the most important thing from beginning to end."

 According to Takeshita, there were 3,500 holds in his style. Rather than using force to overcome an opponent, the idea was to throw him almost without touching him. The way this was done was by using the opponent's own energy against him. While Takeshita believed that aikibudo was a dangerous art for a young man, he thought it an excellent method for older men and women. He concluded by saying that it provided excellent training for politicians, as without it he would have become exhausted from all the handshaking Americans expected!

 In Washington DC in September 1935, US newspapermen asked Takeshita about his "jiu-jitsu". "Flexing the muscles of his arms and grinning," said the New York World Sun Dispatch afterward:
 The admiral offered to illustrate what he called a more effective manner of combat known in Japan as aikibudo.
 One man, allowing curiosity to overcome caution, volunteered. Like a flash the admiral had the newspaper reporter on the floor, too surprised to do more than gasp.
 'I was very gentle with you,' Admiral Takeshita said. 'You see, I could very easily have killed you instantly.'
 On his way back to Japan in October 1935, Takeshita also demonstrated aikibudo to Japanese American newspapermen in Seattle. His partner in the demonstration was Yasuyuki Kumagai, 5-dan, the head instructor of the Seattle judo club known as the Seattle Dojo. "The admiral smiled and told Kumagai to get set," the Great Northern Daily News reported afterwards.
 Both men took the judo pose, and with a sudden movement that was faster than most of the witnesses could catch, Takeshita thrust out an open hand, fingers rigid and pointing to Kumagai's mid-section.
 That was all, but Kumagai, who knows a little of vulnerable spots on the human body, was startled as well as convinced.
 'One inch more and I would have been unconscious or be writhing on the ground in pain,' said the husky judoist. And most of the bystanders believed him.
 Upon returning to Japan Takeshita remained in public life. For example, in February 1937 he was appointed head of the Japanese Boy Scouts, the Japanese YMCA, Juvenile Sea Scouts, and Yachting Association. The fascistization of Japanese sport was among his duties in these positions, and during the late 1930s Takeshita was responsible for organizing regular foreign exchanges with Germany's Hitler Youth.

 In May 1939 Takeshita also became chairman of Japan's professional sumo association. He held this post throughout the war, but following Japan's first postwar sumo tournament, held in Tokyo during the week of November 16-25, 1945, he resigned, saying it was time for a new man to take charge.

 Finally, in April 1941 Takeshita became head of Japan's New Sword Society, which was dedicated to perpetuating and preserving Japan's traditional sword manufacturing skills. In Japanese terms, a "New Sword" is any sword manufactured since 1600. While New Swords made according to traditional methods are as good as any sword ever made, mass-produced swords are another matter altogether, and the Japanese military spent a fortune between 1937 until 1945 trying to find a way of mass-producing military swords that wouldn't break under normal field conditions.

 Admiral Takeshita died in Tokyo in July 1949, aged eighty years.

JCS November 1999