In Ueshiba’s Kobukan dojo gender didn’t matter much once you bowed onto the tatami. Here’s the story of Takako Kunigoshi, the female prewar Aikido pioneer that is behind Morihei Ueshiba’s first-ever book “Aikijujutsu Renshu”
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
When the sun is shining there must be shadows too .
Jigoro Kano’s decision to open Judo practice to women and start his Kodokan Joshi-bu (Kodokan’s Women Judo section), which took place in 1926, is often seen as a true turning point in the history of martial arts . Was Kano Shihan an enlightened visionary, or was he just able to recognise that times were changing and acknowledged this change as it was happening? And also, was he alone in embracing it?
Women’s active presence in the history of Japan’s classical combative systems is a known historical fact. Just like in other parts of the world, there have been times when Japanese women had to learn martial arts and fight alongside men, as common survival required it. Even though Japan’s history knew several women warriors, the most famous being Tomoe Gozen (巴 御前) and Hangaku Gozen (坂額御前), it wasn’t unusual at all for women to train in the classical Koryu systems .
When the Dai Nippon Kobudo Shinkokai was established in 1935, women budoka were not an unfamiliar sight, as proven by the fact that Kobayashi Seio, Toda-ha Buko Ryu 18th Soke, was one of the founding members of the organisation .
The main teachers of each school involved in the Dai Nippon Kobudo Shinkokai gave presentation embukai, and a few noticeable women were numbered among them, such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu’s Ito Kikue .
It would seem, therefore, that Kano Shihan was not the only one to approve of women training in martial arts, far from it. Even though Morihei Ueshiba never thought of opening a Women’s Aikibudo section in his Kobukan – Morihei wasn’t interested in organising training, or in “modernising” Budo the way Kano had done for a few decades already – he didn’t object when he saw commitment and talent in a student, sex not being an obstacle.
In the 1920s, Naohi Deguchi was probably the first woman to practice the art that Ueshiba was developing from Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, when Morihei opened his first dojo in the Omoto-Kyo compound in Ayabe . To find a “regular” Aiki student, however, we have to look at the following decade, at the Kobukan dojo era.
Takako Kunigoshi (国越 孝子) was born in 1911 in Takamatsu, Shikoku Prefecture, from a military family. She attended Japan Women’s Fine Arts University (日本女子大学, Nihon Joshi Daigaku), one of the most prestigious Japanese private universities, and in 1933, when she was a few months from graduating, she manifested an interest in studying Kembu (剣舞) sword dancing  . During the Age of Warring States (Sengoku Jidai, 戦国時代), Kembu sword dancing was performed through kata with swords and fans by samurai warriors to fire up their courage and attain mental strength before a battle .
It was Takako’s father to point her to the Kobukan Dojo for this purpose, and she went to Ushigome with some friends to make enquiries about learning Kembu  . Even though this notion might seem unusual for the contemporary reader, it must be pointed out that Morihei Ueshiba gave workshops on sword and body movement for classical Japanese dancers in the Kobukan, as proven by the photo below .
Takako was told that there was no Kembu training at the Kobukan. She was, however, invited inside to watch an Aiki session that was being currently held, which she did. Takako liked what she saw and in the month of January 1933, aged 22, she decided to join the Kobukan. Interestingly, it seems that she could freely access the dojo while a session was being held  , and she doesn’t mention recommendation letters to join . Therefore, access to tuition was either not as protected as often suggested, or her family was a noticeable one and she was given a sort of “free-pass” based on her social standing (we know that her father was a “soldier”), or maybe the Kobukan was interested in acquiring a female presence on the mats? Hard to judge, as it stands.
Another common preconception about the typical pre-war Ueshiba student that Takako seems to contradict is that everyone at the Kobukan had some kind of Budo background. In the case of Takako Kunigoshi, this was certainly not the case, as this young woman had no previous martial arts experience, besides being small (she was 153 cm) and frail.
Takako Kunigoshi was nevertheless a determined young woman. She started attending the morning class from 6 to 7 before going to university, and kept it up regularly every day, 6 times per week – there was no morning class on Sunday, just like today  . Often Takako walked to the dojo in the company of Kenzo Futaki, a master of the macrobiotic diet based on brown rice that would later become a leader in the medical community in Japan .
What art was Takako practising? The students used to call it Daito-Ryu. The denomination Aikido became official only a few years later, even though, according to her, the two names were almost considered to be synonyms .
At the time the morning class was attended by the uchi-deshi, 6 or 7 of them, and more or less the same number of soto-deshi . According to Takako, the current uchi-deshi were Shigemi Yonekawa, Rinjiro Shirata, Kaoru Funahashi, Tsutomu Yukawa and an otherwise unknown Mr. Oku from Osaka . They slept on the dojo mats, as the Kobukan was not equipped with an uchi-deshi dormitory .
Takako found only another woman training in the dojo, Kazuko Sekiguchi, that was a couple of years her junior. Ueshiba sensei’s daughter, Matsuko, would seldom join training . When the two girls arrived at the Kobukan before the morning class, most of the times they found the uchi-deshi asleep on the mats and were unable to wake them up and get changed – the dojo had no changing facilities and it was not proper for them to get in and do it with all the boys around . Kazuko and Takako had to wait outside in the frosty cold, sitting on a large rock until the arrival of Kenzo Futaki: his loud good morning would quickly wake up all the uchi-deshi and everyone would start tidying up the dojo .
Takako bought a white hakama, as everyone was expected to wear one, the colour of it not being an issue. After not long, she dyed it black, as it was hard to keep it clean . The training was very demanding from a physical point of view: although the art’s philosophy had it that body size was not particularly important, Takako Kunigoshi felt that her being small was not helping at all. When grabbed by Yonekawa, her partner’s fingers would join around her wrist. To obtain the same result with his huge wrists, she had to use both hands  .
Her perceived weakness made her get stiff in the arms, however, after training regularly with Kaoru Funahashi, who was small like her, Takako gradually grew stronger . Her body started to change, as she noted with some horror that her wrists were growing thicker and “manly” .
The atmosphere in the dojo had a family feel, due to the small number of people attending and the quality of the relationship developed in it. No fees were paid, students were very close to each other, everyone brought to the dojo whatever they could, food was prepared by Hatsu or Matsuko Ueshiba and shared. The students cleaned the dojo thoroughly on a daily basis, after which Takako reveals that they played badminton on the mats for a couple of hours!  .
During class, Ueshiba sensei would walk around the mats correcting mistakes , but for Takako Kunigoshi his teaching style resulted difficult to deal with. He did not explain in words the techniques he was showing and showed them only once, most of the times passing to another technique immediately after  . Yoshio Sugino, the great Katori Shinto Ryu master, trained at the Kobukan at the time and said explicitly: “Even when we asked him [Ueshiba sensei] to show us the technique again he would say, ‘No. Next technique!’ ” .
Just to complicate things, Morihei Ueshiba was used to speak in a way that sounded unfamiliar to most contemporary Japanese. He used a mix of old dialect and obscure references to Japanese mythology, making his explanations out of reach for most of his audience . Takako was a perfect example of this: “No matter what we asked him, I think we always got the same answer. Anyway, there wasn’t a soul there who could understand any of the things he said. I guess he was talking about spiritual subjects, but the meaning of his words was just beyond us. Later, we would stand around and ask each other, “Just what was it Sensei was talking about anyway?” .
Takako Kunegoshi found her solution for that problem. She was a Fine Art University student, she knew how to draw and loved doing it. Not long after having started practising, she took it on herself to make sketches of the techniques she was learning for her own use. Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed and soon Takako’s drawing enterprise became a dojo project. According to Gozo Shioda, Takako proposed the idea to Ueshiba sensei: “It would be a great loss if these wonderful techniques are not preserved.” . Morihei started supervising the drawings .
At the end of each session, she would grab Kenji Tomiki before he ran out of the door, had him reproduce some of the moves they had been studying and quickly drew them . The technique she used consisted of representing human heads with circles and lines for the limbs, leaving the details for later, at home, when she would stand in front of the mirror, trying to reproduce the images she had seen in the dojo. Her parents thought she was going mad and asked her: “What the hell are you doing?” . Takako added the necessary details and finishes, human expressions, keikogi, hakama, etc. and was pleased with the results, that looked a lot better than the standard Daito-Ryu makimono scroll’s illustrations, with humans in form of dots and lines that reminded her of ants fighting each other and holding swords .
Morihei managed things the Ueshiba-way, at times abruptly stopping with an “Enough for today” and leaving. The drawing would not restart unless he was there checking things, supervising and correcting the overall results . Morihei and Takako would sit together and he would observe her work and say: “The right hand should go like this” or “This more like this”, to try and achieve the desired visual result .
The drawings were hard work and often Takako had to redo things twice. In the end, after a year of efforts, in 1934 the project was ready  and a book containing 166 illustrations of techniques was produced out of it. Besides each series of drawings representing a technique was added a brief handwritten explanation  .
Kenji Tomiki was the main model  , together with Yonekawa and Funahashi. Tomiki helped in compiling the introduction and the explanatory parts that accompany the illustrations   . Takako Kunigoshi said that they were written by a friend, Mr. Takamatsu  and it could be that she transcripted them, as the Japanese handwriting appears to be produced by a female hand , even though Tetsuro Nariyama, a student of Kenji Tomiki seemed to recognise the handwriting as that of Tomiki himself . In a 1978 interview, Tomiki explained that he wrote the text content of this book .
The book was entitled Aikijujutsu Densho (合気柔術伝書), that is Book of Aikijujutsu, and the authorship of it is given to Moritaka Ueshiba, a name with strong Omoto-Kyo resonance that Morihei used between the 1920s and 1940s .
What was the purpose of what came to be later known as Budo Renshu? According to Shigemi Yonekawa, it was a way of supplementing the makimono transmission scrolls given to senior-level students, as the pictures would make it easier to understand and remember the scrolls technical content . This was confirmed by other pre-war students including Zenzaburo Akazawa, Tanaka Bansen  and Takako Kunigoshi, who explained that the book was given only to the students that “already mastered the basic principles”, as Ueshiba sensei was concerned that a beginner could get injured while trying to reproduce what shown in it . Definite confirmation of the above has been offered by Christopher Li in an essay which also contains the downloadable pdf of Aikijujutsu Densho: the last page of it is signed by Morihei Ueshiba, stamped and dated just like a licensing document . The selected ones who were given copies of the book by Ueshiba sensei made a monetary offering on the dojo altar as a gesture of appreciation .
In 1981, Takako also mentioned to have produced drawings for a second book and she said that it was never published . This is most surely not the 1954 book Aikido Maki-no-Ichi, produced by Kisshomaru Ueshiba and distributed privately (again it can be downloaded from the Aikido Sangenkai website), as Takako Kunigoshi’s illustrations contained in it are just duplicates of those included in Aikijujutsu Renshu . We are going to come back to it in a little while.
In the meantime, given the above, it is quite obvious that Takako Kunigoshi’s presence in the Kobukan dojo was a very relevant one. There are other stories to confirm it: at some stage, she was asked to help out Kisshomaru – then a boy of 12 and still not training – with his maths homework, as he was having trouble with it. Takako laughed off the request, explaining that she was not an arithmetic teacher .
Takako’s training quickly progressed. She said: “Ueshiba sensei never made me feel different by changing things for being a woman” . She often took ukemi for him and Morihei never gave her preferential treatment because of her sex   . Takako also travelled with Ueshiba as his otomo, accompanying him in his travels to the Omoto-Kyo headquarters in Ayabe, to Tanabe and Kumano  . In those days there was no female-male distinction both between deshi and in the sensei-deshi relationship. A travelling deshi would just carry his sensei’s luggage – besides his/her own, no matter the size . Takako had to carry a suitcase as big as her and she could barely walk, but Ueshiba never made the chevalier move to take it off her saying “I guess it’s quite heavy, let me carry it”. Not that Takako Kunigoshi would have ever allowed it .
Morihei had learnt to appreciate Takako’s artistic talents and one of the reasons for taking her on his travels was that she would draw for him . We have one of Takako’s works, as well as a formal portrait of Morihei Ueshiba, painted by Takako Kunigoshi in 1935 .
In the Kobukan she established for herself a reputation for being a strong and skilled student. She stood up to the strongest practitioners such as, for example, Rinjiro Shirata, nicknamed the “Kobukan Prodigy”, who said of the charming Miss Kunigoshi and Sekiguchi: “They came every day. They were really tough. I was helpless against them (…). [Takako] used to beat me up regularly. I couldn’t possibly beat her” .
It would also appear that Yoshinkan Aikido owes a quite substantial debt to Takako Kunigoshi, as she was somewhat instrumental in Gozo Shioda’s meeting Morihei Ueshiba and Aiki. In 1933, Takako used to regularly clean a shrine not far from the Kobukan and Shioda’s school – Gozo at the time was 17. The school’s headmaster, Munetaka Abe, noticed her commitment and asked her about it . She gave credit for her behaviour to her sensei in aikijutsu, Morihei Ueshiba, and recommended Abe to visit the Kobukan and watch a session, and so he did . Abe was fascinated by the training, to the point that he recommended Gozo’s father – Seiichi Shioda, a reputable paediatrician – to enrol Gozo at the Kobukan .
Gozo went to watch a class, but having an attitude and some Budo experience, he wasn’t impressed and showed it . Ueshiba called him on the mats, Shioda tried to kick him and got a bit of a thrashing for his efforts, after which he asked to join, which was allowed following Shioda senior and Abe’s recommendations .
Instruction at the dojo got gradually more complex for Takako and involved armed training. She mentioned studying moves in answer to wooden bayonet and spear attack  . She also explained that all students were expected not only to know how to evade armed attacks, but also to use weapons properly as attackers  . The Kobukan was equipped with most kinds of weapon, therefore in the dojo Takako practised her suburi cuts with a bokken, managing to get a good high-pitched whistling sound out of it in about a year  .
In 1935, Takako, that had in the meantime completed her university studies, was approached by Ueshiba sensei and told that she was ready to receive her mokuroku transmission scroll . Morihei was busy and said: “Actually, I should copy this and give it to you, but I don’t have the time, so please write down what I say and copy it yourself” . A while later she heard that it had been converted to Sandan, which surprised her . In Takako Kunigoshi’s times, there were no dan grades, and the notion of being Sandan did not resonate with her. Years later she went to check at the dojo and to her amusement got confirmation of it .
At some point, Admiral Isamu Takeshita asked Ueshiba sensei to send an Aikido teacher for a group of high-born ladies that were going to start training in the admiral’s private dojo. Morihei dispatched Takako Kunigoshi . She later kept training with Takeshita for several years and got involved in the organisation of self-defence courses for women . Takako went to the Kobukan to practice under Ueshiba sensei once a week until 1943 . Admiral Isamu Takeshita was very active in Aikido, as reported by Takako Kunigoshi, to the point that Emperor Hirohito himself knew about it and asked the admiral: “Takeshita, are you still training Aikido?” .
Right before the war started, Takako remembers teaching a 3-day course in something that she describes as “more akin to self-defence than Aikido” . The experience was exhausting, as it was summertime in Tokyo, which means extremely hot and humid. There were about 50 people in the course, divided into two groups and Takako’s had 30 students. Since il was her habit to also take ukemi when teaching, she ended up falling for each of the students in attendance .
Another time, on the occasion of a self-defence course organised for the female staff of a local company, Takako instructed together with Kazuko Koizumi, granddaughter of Yakumo Koizumi (aka the famous writer Lafcadio Hearn) .
The second illustration project that Takako Kunigoshi mentioned having realised might have been linked to her activities as a women’s self-defence teacher and to the above-mentioned relationship with Admiral Isamu Takeshita. Recently a book published in 1937 has emerged: it is centred on Yamato Ryu Goshinjutsu and contains over 200 of Takako’s drawings . It is a typical self-defence manual based on techniques aimed at the modern prewar Japanese woman. The book was clearly produced in the Ueshiba circle, as Takako’s illustrations testify, plus Morihei Ueshiba’s name is given on the back of the book itself, probably to offer a level of quality guarantee of the overall product .
Authorship of the work is given to Fujiko Suzuki, Yamato Ryu Soke, who signed and stamped the book . Information about Fujiko Suzuki is scarce: she was 3rd Dan in Judo and 1st Dan in Kendo. In a 1937 photo from a women’s self-defence demonstration, she is depicted in the company of Admiral Isamu Takeshita .
The book includes a number of poems by Munetaka Abe, the school Headmaster that introduced Gozo Shioda to Ueshiba sensei through Takako’s recommendation . To close the circle of Aiki relations, the forward to Yamato Ryu Goshinjutsu was written by Yasuhiro Konishi, a pioneer of Karate in mainland Japan and an early student of Morihei Ueshiba . Yamato Ryu Goshinjutsu could be the second project that Takako referred to, however, the question remains open. Thanks to the efforts of Scott Burke this book can also be downloaded from the Aikido Sangenkai website.
Takako continued practising until the airstrikes over Tokyo started and training became first dangerous and then impossible, and she was forced to stop .
The vulgata about Takako Kunigoshi’s post-war activities has it that after the end of the war, like many others Takako did not resume training .
New information is starting to emerge, however, suggesting that there is more to the picture: besides the 1937 Yamato Ryu Manual, it would appear that Takako Kunigoshi may have illustrated a few more technical manuals up into the 40s or 50s, just not Aikido or Daito-ryu related ones . Scott Burke, who has spent months restoring the Yamato Ryu Goshinjutsu book and has become familiar with her style, is suggesting that there might be more of her illustration work around to be identified . It would also seem that Takako was still active in Goshinjutsu in some capacity after the war. Here’s a rare pic of Kunigoshi taken after practice: Takako is right behind Admiral Isamu Takeshita, and beside her is Fujiko Suzuki – the Admiral’s wife is apparently the third woman in the back .
She worked for 25 years as an administrative employee and retired at the age of 55 . Takako then dedicated herself to Japanese tea ceremony , that she taught in her home in Ikebukuro, Tokyo until she died in 2000 .
Aikido was never lost on her, however: “(…) When I am holding the water container I feel the same as someone holding a sword. I have the same feeling and I remember the things I learned from O-Sensei. Whether you practice the tea ceremony or the flower arrangement, there are points in common with Aikido, since the whole world (Tenchi) is made up of movement and calm, light and shadow. If everything moved and changed then everything would be complete chaos, right?” .
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
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