Seeking The Original Path:
An Interview With Daito-Ryu’s Okabayashi Sensei
Interviewed by Medhat Darwish
Rod Ulher as interpreter
FightingArts.com is pleased to be able to present you with the first
interview in English with Okabayashi Shogen Sensei, founder and headmaster
of the Daito-Ryu HakuhoKai organization. The interview was conducted in
Montreal, Canada, in March of 2002.
Most readers will know little, if anything, about
Daito-Ryu. It is an ancient and classical samurai system of jujutsu
and self-defense (against single and multiple, armed and unarmed
attackers) that is today, especially in Japan, undergoing a resurgence.
Many new organizations and competing systems have sprung up and
enrollment has surged. The art also served as the technical inspiration
for aikido as well as the fountainhead for many successive systems
of jujutsu and what is called aikijujutsu.
two sword welding attackers
Okabayashi Sensei off
balancing Medhat Darwish
Okabayashi Sensei himself is a private man, who avoids the politics within
his art, as well as publicity in general. He prefers instead to teach
almost anonymously to his own dedicated students. While he is not well
known, Okabayashi Sensei represents a new and important movement within
this very old art, an effort to reintroduce the old ways of samurai movement
– a unique combination of moving the body along a single line (known
as hitoemi), and using the center and gravity – back into technique.
This is no small feat, since the old ways of moving had been largely lost
and the methods so foreign to most martial artists today that it takes
years of training to master them.
It is also somewhat amazing that Daito-ryu survived at all. It was a
secret system first developed within the powerful Minamoto clan, then
passed down through the Takeda branch of the family which had moved to
the Aizu province and taught it to samurai there – a process of
development and refinement that stretched over a period of nearly a thousand
The Aizu clan, however, virtually ceased to exist in the last days of
political and military turmoil ending the feudal era. Defeated by rival
clans, its castle was burned, leaders taken prisoner and members killed
or disbanded. With the new Meiji administration (1867), the feudal period
itself abruptly ended. The samurai lost their position and were dispersed,
and the old military ways were abandoned. Japan emerged as a changed nation.
The old ways were gone and forgotten, and samurai themselves passed into
the mist of past history.
In the beginning of the 20th century, stepping from the mist of this
history as if a man out of place and time, emerged a surviving Aizu trained
warrior, Sokaku Takeda, who began teaching his ancient daito-ryu art to
the public. Over the next four and one half decades Takeda instructed
literally thousands of people, primarily through a series of seven to
ten day seminars. Daito-ryu thus survived.
The art emerged again, led by a number of great masters: the best known
being Tokimune Takeda, son of Sokaku Takeda, who inherited the system
from his father; Takuma Hisa, the only person who received the highest
teaching license in the art, known as a menkyo kaidan, from Sokaku Takeda;
and Morihei Ueshiba, who went on to found aikido. Okabayashi Sensei was
a principal student of the first two of these teachers, studying both
Daito-ryu as well as the Aizu clan sword art, Ono-ha Ittoryu kenjutsu.
Q. Sensei, when and where were you born?
A. I was born on June 27, 1949 in Ashia City, Japan.
Q. When did you first become involved in martial arts?
A. I started training in Shito Ryu Karate when I was about 15
years old and trained in that style for about 6 years.
Q. When did you begin training in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu?
A. I was about 21 years old when I started training with Takuma
Hisa Sensei. So it was in 1970.
Q. Why did you stop your karate training, and how did you begin
your training in Daito Ryu?
A. I had an incident with some a Yakuza fellow (Japanese underworld).
I was out one night with my girlfriend, and he started being rude to her.
I intervened and asked him to stop, after which he became aggressive and
attacked me with a bokuto (a wooden sword). Since I practiced karate,
I was quiet strong with my fists and knew I could cause a serious injury
if I punched back, but I did not want to hurt him badly. So all I could
do was block the strikes of the stick with my arms. Finally he gave up
and left me alone. However, after this fight my arms were swollen and
hurt for two months. After this incident I thought hard to myself, “what
if that was a sword and not a stick I was attacked with? I would have
lost my arms.” So I began to search for a martial art that would
teach me how to defeat the sword. After about a year of looking for a
school, I came across Hisa Takuma Sensei’s group (teaching Daito-ryu
Aikijujutsu). I found the things they were practicing very interesting.
Hisa Sensei had traditional technique, so I asked him if I could study
under him. He accepted me and so I began my training.
(Hisa Sensei was one of the leading teachers of Daito-ryu. He first
studied Daito-ryu with Ueshiba Sensei who had been invited to teach at
the Asahi News in Osaka where Hisa worked. A few years later Sokaku Takeda
showed up and took over teaching. In 1939 Hisa was awarded a full teaching
license (the only one awarded) from Takeda, known as a menkyo kaiden.
It acknowledges full mastery of an art.)
Q. How long did you train with Hisa Sensei?
A. I trained under him until the late seventies, up to the point
when Hisa Sensei became frail and his son asked him to move to Tokyo so
he could take care of him.
Q. How was your training with Hisa Sensei?
A. With time Hisa Sensei became frail and he could not move very
well. So he would usually teach by speaking and explaining how to do the
movements, and demonstrating them slowly. Senior students of Hisa Sensei
and I came together and formed what is now know as the Takumakai (Takuma
from Hisa Takuma and “kai” meaning organization or socieity,
a group dedicated to teaching daito-ryu techniques as taught by Hisa)
practiced the techniques, working them out under Hisa Sensei's direction.
The training was good and we worked hard. At the same time I felt there
was something missing in the movements, there was some element that wasn’t
there. I endured these feelings and continued my training. After this
period Hisa Sensei moved to Tokyo upon request of his son, so his son
could take care of him. When this happened I was going to quit my training.
I went to see Hisa Sensei to ask his permission to quit. When I told him
my feelings, he said “no, you must continue to practice, I will
introduce you to a very good teacher”, and wrote me a letter of
recommendation to go see Takeda Tokimune Sensei in Hokkaido (a northern
island of Japan where Sokaku Takeda has lived before him).
Q. How was Hisa Sensei as a person?
A. His was a very interesting person. He liked to try many news
things. For example, he learned how to fly an airplane, and played golf
when it was not as popular as now. He enjoyed life and was a very good,
Q. When did you receive your kyoju dairi from Hisa Sensei?
A. I received it in 1976.
(A kyoju dairi in daito-ryu is a certificate, or teaching license.
It signifies a mastery of hiden mokuroku (118 teachings), chuden mokuroku
(65 teachings), aikijujutsu mokuroku (80 teachings), and goshen yo no
te (84 teachings). It is an interesting note that Morihei Ueshiba, founder
of Aikido, also held a kyoju dairi from the daito-ryu from Sokaku Tekeda)
Q. So after the recommendation from Hisa Sensei, you went to train
with Takeda Sensei?
A. That’s correct. I went to Abashiri, Hokkaido to learn
from Takeda Sensei. From him at first I learned basic techniques, the
shoden . The Takumakai (Hisa’s organization) did not have these
basic ones; they practiced more advanced waza (technique).
(The Shoden is name for a group of basic techniques arranged sequentially
in five levels, Ikkajo through Gokajo that Okabayashi teaches first
to provide foundation and the technical basis for higher level technique
classified as Chuden and Okoden. Today, for example, students up through
black belt (first dan) in Okabayashi’s organization train in Ikkajo
techniques. The difference between techniques taught in Tokimune Takeda’s
organization and that of Takuma Hisa may help explain why today there
are differences in technique among various daito-ryu organizations.)
Q. When did you first meet Takeda Sensei?
A. Twenty five years ago, so it must have been 1977.
(Takeda Tokimune (1916-1993) was the third son and hereditary successor
(soke) of Sokaku Takeda as head of the daito-ryu system that had passed
down through 36 generations. Tokimune organized many of the techniques
of the system he had inherited and incorporated elements of the Aizu
sword art, Ona-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu, into the system he was teaching.
In earlier periods this sword and other weapon arts were an inherent
part of clan member training and thus were familiar to all those who
trained in their family system of jujutsu and other self-defense arts,
later called daito-ryu.)
Q. So at that time you were part of the Takumakai? (Takuma Hisa’s
A. That’s correct. Because I went with to study under Soke
(here used to refer to Takeda Tokimune Sensei) with Hisa Sensei’s
recommendation, in Japanese thinking it was as if I was learning from
both teachers at the same time. I also took the shoden waza (first group
of techniques noted above) and brought them back to the Takumakai.
Q. How was your training with Takeda Sensei?
A. I was in pretty fit shape at that time because I did a lot
of skiing and played a lot of soccer. Although feeling strong, I put myself
on a 100-day program before going to see Soke to prepare myself for training
with him. When I went to see him, I was fortunate because Soke quit his
work right before I got there. We would have one-on-one training in the
morning, from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., then a break until lunch, and more one-on-one
training after lunch until the evening. Then there was an evening class
with other students.
The first morning I came to the dojo at 5:00 am, and Soke was already
there, so the next day I decided to come 15 minutes earlier, at 4:45 am,
to be there before Takeda Sensei. The following day, I came to the dojo
at 4:35 and Soke was already there. So, next morning I showed up at 4:15,
and I felt some pride about getting there before Soke. However, the next
day, I came at 4:15 and Soke was there before me again. I did not know
the reason for this, but this continued to go on until we started training
at 3:00 a.m. At this point, Takeda Sensei’s wife came out and said
to me, “You can’t come into the dojo before Soke, he needs
his time to train and it is the only time he can train by himself before
When training with Soke, I was never allowed to throw or apply a technique
on him; I was always the uke (the person who a technique was done to)
in our one-on-one training. Takeda Sensei taught me by doing the techniques
on me over and over again. This was very hard on me at first. You can
be uke for one hour, one-on-one, but it was three hours in the morning
and more after lunch! In the evening Soke had a class with other students,
and I got to practice and apply techniques on others that I learned during
the day with Soke.
After the third day with Takeda Sensei, I started to feel the toll of
the training, because it was so severe since I was always the uke (the
person on which a technique is executed). Although I was growing weary,
I decided I was there to train and persevered, and in a short time I got
used to this kind of training. Practicing with Soke, I was given permission
to teach the Takumakai (Takuma Hisa’s Organization) up to the nikajo
level, sixty techniques.
(The nikajo level of techniques is second of five successive levels
of technique within what is called the Shoden, the first of three major
categories of technique within the basic level of daito-ryu techniques.
Okabayashi now teaches nikajo techniques to those who have attained
lower dan rankings)
At the time we were about 15 students at Soke’s dojo, some of the
known names being: Arisawa Sensei, Kato Sensei, Saito Sensei, and the
sempai was Akimoto Sensei who passed away at the age of 85.
Q. How was Takeda Tokimune Sensei as a person?
A. He had a very good heart. After the war, Soke was a police
officer and later became a detective. He was a very suspicious person,
always suspicious of every one so this must have helped him with being
a detective. He probably inherited some of these traits from his father,
Q. Did Soke (Takeda Tokimune) speak a lot about his father? Tell
A. Soke never called his father by saying “father”,
he always referred to him as Takeda Sokaku. He did not really think of
him as a father. When Soke was 10 or 11 years old, Takeda Sokaku was approaching
70 years of age. Soke (Takimune) learned kenjutsu from his mother until
five years old, and after the age of five he learned from his father.
Takeda Sokaku trained him very hard. He did not have techniques to teach
specifically to children. He would have his son attack him with a sword,
then he would disarm soke (Tokimune) and the sword would go flying into
the snow. So at five years old Soke (Tokimune) would have to go searching
through the snow with his bare hands for the sword, pick it up and attack
his father again. Once again the sword would fly into the snow, and this
went on again and again. This is just an example of how Takeda Sokaku
would treat and train his son. It was difficult for Soke (Tokimune) to
think of him as his father.
One day Takeda Sokaku was sleeping, and Soke wanted to put a cover over
him to keep him warm. Sokaku, always being in a state of awareness even
when sleeping, grabbed his dagger and went to stab Soke in the heart just
as he was about to put the cover over Sokaku. Toimune was barely quick
enough to move to the side. He got off the line and the dagger that was
going for his heart stabbed him in the shoulder. Afterwards Takeda Sokaku
scolded his son severely, saying: “What kind of a fool are you?!
You should never carelessly come up one someone by surprise. It is your
fault that you were stabbed; if you were aware I would not have cut you!”
That’s the kind of man Takeda Sokaku was, so it must have had an
effect on Soke. He did not feel as Sokaku being his father.
Q. Did Soke use dan rankings when teaching?
A. Yes, Takeda Sensei used the dan ranking system that originally
comes from judo. He also gave out other licenses like the menkyo and shihan
license I have. Takeda Sensei also gave two kyuoju dairi, one to Suzuki
Sensei and Minamo Sensei, who have both passed away. When giving dan grades,
in reality Soke never gave past fifth dan.
(The kyu/dan system of ranking of students was adopted from Kano’s
judo that was initiated in the 1880s. Normally, kyus indicate level
of advancement up to a black belt level, whereas dans indicate ranks,
or level of black belts. For example, a second degree black belt would
be a second dan. In earlier times, daito-ryu and other classical systems
(ryus) did not use a kyu/dan system, but instead bestowed certificates
of proficiency that served as licenses to teach, such as the menkyo,
kyoju dairi, etc. Some teachers now use both systems. The situation
is complicated by the fact that neither system has been applied in any
standard fashion. One teacher, for example might only award up to 5th
dan, while another organization or art might award up to 10th dan. The
same is the case with licenses, and complicated by the fact that some
systems award different licenses than others. )
Q. How many years did you train with Takeda Tokimune Sensei?
A. 13 years.
Q. Sensei, you also learned Ono Ha Itto Ryu
(the Aizu clan kenjutsu or sword system) from Takeda Sensei?
A. That’s correct. I was one of only six people to
be taught Itto Ryu by Soke. He chose to teach it only to people
with a good heart, because through kenjutsu you can better understand
Q. When did you receive your certificates from Soke?
A. I received the shihan license in Daito Ryu and menkyo
(a license to teach which was the highest given out by Soke) in
Ono Ha Itto Ryu in 1985 from Takeda Sensei.
a basic sword cut
Q. Sensei how was the Hakuho Kai born?
A. When training with Hisa Sensei, I felt that there was older
body movement involved behind the techniques. And when training with Soke
(Tokimuni Takeda), I saw that he absolutely did not do any kind of turning
(body twisting or pivoting) and always moved (his body) in one line.
demonstrates the initial move in ippon dori with Rod Ulher. First
sensei releases his right leg to let his body move forward with
gravity – a movement that bridges the distance to the attack
while also letting the defender move under the doward strike. At
the same time, the left arm moves up from below, so the palm of
the hand meets and momentarily stops the downward strike by catching
the attacking arm under the elbow. The right arm is also lifted
and positioned, ready to then guide the attack down and to the side,
guided by sensei’s body that also opens up in that direction.
Many of his students, however, made turns and circles and did not do
the techniques the way that Soke did. For example, many would jump, or
rise into ippon dori strike (sensei then demonstrates this technique)
instead of releasing (the body to let it fall forward). From watching
Soke I knew this was not correct. I followed closely how Takeda Sensei
would move and researched the techniques.
(It should be noted that body turns, pivots and circles are a primary
characteristic of aikido that derived from daito-ryu by Morihei Ueshiba
who had been a principle student of Sokaku Takeda, and who had taught
daito-ryu to Hisa Takuma)
At the time I was with the Takumakai, and I taught these things to my
own branch dojo. With time it became a difficult situation because other
people were doing and teaching techniques in a different way, and did
not have the same idea. Even before Takeda Sensei passed away, there were
already disputes about who will be the next Soke (hereditary master of
the system), and about this license and that license. Takeda Sensei did
not want to have any part of this and did not want me involved in it either.
He told me to stay out of all the politics, and told me to go on my own
and not stay with an organization. He wanted me teach the techniques he
taught me. With his encouragement I decided to form the Hakuho Kai.
Sensei here demonstrates a basic principle of
the old samurai body movement (hitoemi, or moving in one line).
Here Okabayashi Sensei uses gravity, not muscle, to let the body
shift backward while also coordinating movement of the shoulder,
arm, hips and feet together along a single line. In this instance
Sensei shifts backward to demonstrate how to open the body up to
avoid a thrust or other straight line attack.
Here seen in a NYC seminar, Oakabayashi demonstrates
a follow up to this same move. First having shifted backwards and
opened up to avoid a straight punch, Sensei then slightly opens
his hip to shift his body in a new direction (forward at an angle)
a move that totally unbalances the attacker.
Q. Sensei, how did you research the techniques and develop your
method of teaching?
Here an Edo period woodblock
print depicts a samurai cutting down with naginata (a staff with
a blade). Notice how the body is kept in line, the right arm coordinated
with right side of the body and weight dropped into the cut –
a perfect example of the hitoemi principle. Also, notice how the
body position parallels that of Okabayashi Sensei’s sword
cut shown above.
A. I watched very closely how Soke moved (Takeda Tokimune), and
he was always moving in hitoemi -- one line (moving the body in one line
so there are no twists in the body or pivots in movement). I looked at
old paintings of the bushi (an old Japanese term meaning warrior), and
their bodies were also always portrayed as being in a hitoemi position
because that is how the bushi moved. I read old history texts about life
in old Japan and how things worked back them. Through all of this I did
not find anything in particular, but there were hints here and there.
Then, when researching the techniques, we had (the Tokimunikai) pictures
of the beginning of a technique and the end of a technique, but could
not make certain techniques work (the photos were taken at the Asahi News
by Hisa Takuma when Takeda Sokaku was teaching there to document the techniques
taught). I asked myself why have a technique that doesn’t work?
So by applying my knowledge from Soke and my research, applying hitoemi
and gravity principles, I could make those techniques effective and efficient.
Q. Sensei, what does “Hakuho Kai” mean, and why did
you chose this name?
A. “Hakuho” means “white phoenix”. You
see, in Japan’s history there were a lot of different eras, like
the “Edo” era, the “Meiji” era and so on.... If
you go back through history, there was an era called “Hakuho”.
It was a time when the Japanese decided to stop outside influence from
coming into Japan. It was an era when the Japanese were protecting Japanese
culture from outside influence. I want to preserve Daito Ryu in its traditional
form and keep the old movements of the bushi behind the techniques, and
not to let modern body movement influence it. This is why I chose the
name Hakuho Kai.
Q. Sensei, are dan rankings used in Hakuho Kai?
A. We use the dan ranking system. It is important to note that
permission to teach is not the same thing as rank. In Hakuho Kai one must
have a good heart and good intentions to have permission to teach.
Q. How many Hakuho Kai dojo are there, Sensei?
A. Let’s see, there are three in Italy, one in England,
three in the U.S., one in Canada, and fourteen in Japan, in the Osaka
and Fukuoka areas. So that’s four in North America, four in Europe,
and fourteen in Japan, making 22 dojo and about 420 people in all. I am
happy all of our members are good people and have the right samurai spirit.
(For US, Canadian and Japanese contacts representing Okabayashi
and his Hakuhokai organization, click here)
Q. Thank you very much Sensei, and thank you very much Rod for
doing a great job at translating.
A. Thank you.
Editor’s Note: The language in interview
was edited for clarification. Notes (shown in parenthesis) were also
included to add pertinent information for the reader.
Thanks to Okabayashi Sensei for his contribution of several photos and
to Christopher Caile who supplied the majority of the photos in this article,
plus the image of the Samurai woodblock print.
This interview is for viewing only. It may not be reproduced or reused
in any other public forum or medium without the proper consent and authorisation
of the Koryukan Dojo and the Hakuho Kai.
US, Canadian and Japanese contacts representing
Okabayashi and his Hakuhokai organization:
Hakuho Kai Japan
Mr. Rodney G. Uhler
Hakuho Kai USA
Mr. Robin Brown
Mr. Richard Kinville
Hakuho Kai Pennsylvania
Mr. James Mullins
Hakuho Kai Michigan
Mr. Dan Sharp (White Oak martial arts center)
Hakuho Kai Canada
Mr. Medhat Darwish (Koryukan dojo)