The following is a bio of the person that can be considered one of the fathers (if not the father) of kendo as it exists today. I spend a lot of my time either reading his books, or reading books of others that trained under him or were influenced him in one way or another. I think if most people trace their kendo history back a couple of generations they will find a Takano connection. Despite this, there is almost no information about him nor his writing available in English… save on kenshi247.net! Hopefully, over time, we can help spread more information about him and his influence.
Takano Sasaburo was born in 1862 in what is now called Chichibu city, in Saitama prefecture. His family worked as local silk inspectors (i.e. duties and tax) and also provided lodgings for travellers. It was his grandfather Mitsumasa (Sakichiro) who would have the greatest influence on his life.
Mitsumasa was born in 1802 and became a top Ono-ha itto-ryu student of Nakanishi Chubei Tanemasa, who had been a direct disciple of the 4th Ono-ha soke, Ono Tadaichi. He received a menkyo in the style and worked as han kenjutsu instructor in a military encampment (Musashinokuni, Oshihan) for an unknown period of time. He also had a small dojo in his home, near Chichibu Shrine.
(Please note – at the time Nakanishi Chubei, Takano Mitsumasa, and Sasaburo, would refer to their kenjutsu as “itto-ryu” or “Ono-ha itto-ryu,” but at some point over the years the official designation of the style of Ono-ha passed through the Nakanishi family via Takano Mitsumasa/Sasaburo has come to be called “Nakanishi-ha itto-ryu.”)
As soon as Mitsumasa found out that his daughter (Sasaburo’s mother) was pregnant, he ordered her to come and watch practise at his dojo. Thus it could be said that Sasaburo’s training began at zero. Mitsumasa’s enthusiasm never faltered, and he began to train Sasaburo’s himself from the age of 3, often coaxing the young child into kata practise by offering sweets.
By the age of 5 Sasaburo was able to demonstrate all of the basic 50 itto-ryu kata in front of the domain chief when he came around on a tour of inspection.
Mitsumasa’s training of Sasaburo continued over the years, often with some unusual methods – putting beans on the dojo floor, practising on slopes, in the water, or at night, etc. Mitsumasa also demanded that Sasaburo face towards the sun in the morning and open his mouth widely so as to be able to drink in the heavens, believing that the power/spirit of space and the gods would soak into their bodies.
By the time Sasaburo was 10 years old he was able to beat older boys of 15 and 16, and by the age of 17/18 his ability saw him nicknamed “Chichibu no kotengu” (a literal translation of 秩父の小天狗 is impossible, but they basically called him the strongest youth in the area. Tengu were mythical creatures with supposed powers in swordsmanship).
The turning point
In 1879, at the age of 17/18, he took part in a kenjutsu shiai (as they were often called at the time) in his grandfathers place, and faced the 31 year old Okada Sadagoro. Okada was a renowned kenshi and had trained in both Araki-ryu and Hokushin itto-ryu, and currently served as a kenjutsu/gekkiken instructor in what is now Gunma prefecture. Sasaburo used his favoured 4.5 shinai (at that time there were no rules for shinai weight or length) and fought in one handed jodan.
By his own account, Sasaburo didn’t fear Okada, and attacked him many times. However Okada would never accept being struck and used every opportunity he could to tsuki Sasaburo again and again. Eventually Sasaburo’s hakama was covered in blood and the match was stopped. Many of the onlookers sympathised with Sasaburo so the match was declared a draw. However Sasaburo saw this as a humiliating defeat. By the time the young man got home he had decided on a course of action: go to Tokyo, train hard, then get his revenge on Okada.
After being in the capital for a short time, Sasaburo was introduced to and ended up training in Yamaoka Tesshu’s dojo, Shumpukan. After about 2 months of training Tesshu approached him and said:
“Well, you are a mysterious young man. Normally people who come to train here from the countryside don’t even manage to last a week. There must be something of significance bothering you. Spit it out.”
“Its not that; I am just here for the strict keiko.”
Tesshu had lunch with Takano and the young boy explained the story in full. Tesshu told him that Okada was no longer his enemy (i.e. Takano’s skill now surpassed Okita), and he should seek his revenge immediately. Sasaburo called on Okada but was surprised to have his adamant demand of a rematch turned down politely. Try as he might there would be no rematch, and he returned to Shumpukan unavenged. This result was exactly as Tesshu expected.
Although Sasaburo only trained at Shumpukan for around 3 months, the whole episode proved to be a turning point in Takano’s life – had he acted out his revenge perhaps things would have gone from bad to worse. His meeting with Tesshu set the wheels for his future in motion.
(There is a slight break in the narrative here, as I can’t uncover information as to what Takano was doing in between this time (1879) and his grandfather Mitsumasa’s death in 1884. Sasaburo would have been around 18-25 during this time. Upon his grandfathers death Sasaburo took over Mitsumasa’s business (and presumably his dojo as well) and ran it until 1886).
In 1886 – by the recommendation of Tesshu – the then 24 year old Sasaburo became a gekkiken (kendo) instructor for the fledgling keishicho, and was stationed at at Motomachi police station. This station master at Motomachi loved gekkiken and made all of the 180 officers practise. They would be split into two groups of 90 each and made to practise in rotation everyday. Members at this time included kenshi who had been involved in the Bakamatsu period disturbances, and had fought in the Satsuma rebellion, i.e. kenshi that had been involved in real sword fighting. Keiko was therefore severe. Sasaburo would remark “it was rare to go to asageiko and be able to eat lunch” (i.e. the training was so violent that you physically couldn’t eat).
Once a month all the police stations in Tokyo would get together and compete (gekkikenkai). Sasaburo not only made a name for himself during these shiai, but also won competitions in front of the Emperor (Tenran Shiai). Due to his success at these competitions Sasaburo would rise to become one of the foremost kenshi in keishicho.
In 1888 he was ordered to work in Saitama police HQ and moved to Urawa city with his family. The next year he began to teach kendo in a police training institute.
In 1890 he built his dojo, Meishinkan, on the grounds of his fathers business and left the police. The Urawa Meishinkan would serve to be the HQ dojo for a network of branch dojos in the prefecture.
(Note that I found two dates quoted for the building of the first (Urawa) Meishinkan: 1888 and 1890. I think the latter is probably correct. I read a figure of between 39-41 Meishinkan branches, and student numbers ranging from 6-10,000 (including school/university students and police), though I am not sure how accurate these figures are.)
In 1895 the Butokukai was founded and Sasaburo entered the first Butokusai (Kyoto Taikai) as a Tokyo representative. He fought and won 2 shiai against Izawa (Kyoto) and Takagi (Tokushima). The following year he beat Asano (Fukuoka) and Koseki (Shiga), and was awarded Seirensho, a mark of his ability (only 15 people had the honour).
In 1897 he used a substitute school building and opened the “Kendo kyojuho kenkyujo Meishinkan honbu” (Kendo pedagogy and research institute, Meishinkan HQ). The first keiko took place on the 16th of October 1897. Keishicho gekkiken instructors Horikawa and Tokuno started by demonstrating some kata, after which 10 bouts of demonstration matches were held before keiko began.
In the 1902 Butokusai Sasaburo’s performance was so good he was awarded a famous katana. 100 kenshi were selected to take part in a large All-Japan Bujutsu Taikai the next year in Osaka, and here Sasaburo was elected MVP, earning a gold medal and bogu from the emperor. His fame was spreading.
In November 1907 it was finally decided that judo and gekkiken (kendo) would become a school subject. There was a distinct lack of teachers of both at this point, so there was a need to train more quicker. At this time, Tokyo Shihan Gakko’s principle Jigoro Kano (the inventor of Judo) asked the gekkiken department boss – Minegishi – to find an instructor for the school (“shihan gakko” or “higher normal schools” were schools that educated male school teachers). Minegishi sat down and wrote a list of the top kenshi in the country, and invited each to the school to fence the gekkiken students. If they passed this physical test, they would be invited to sit a more formal interview. Sasaburo came to the school on the 19th of March 1908 and was selected almost immediately 3 days later on the 21st (an indication of the impression he made). At the time Sasaburo was 47 years old and kyoshi.
Due to the popularity of kendo in universities and schools at this time Sasaburo would also go on to teach at other places, including becoming the shihan of Waseda University in 1910. It was around this time that he began his research into creating a kendo curriculum to be used in schools and universities. The culmination of his research would be be published in two books, “Kendo” (1915) then “Kendo Kyohan” (1930). His impact on kendo teaching pedagogy cannot be rivalled in the history of kendo.
In 1911, after working hard on it for 10 years, Saitama Butokuden was finally completed behind Saitama prefectural office. The same year he was selected to be part of the committee to begin research on creating a standard kendo kata (the kata was unveiled in 1917).
In 1913, at the age of 52, he was awarded HANSHI from the butokukai. This was normally restricted to those over 60 but occasionally exceptions were made for those with talent (e.g. Naito Takaharu).
In 1915 Sasaburo became the department head of the kendo section of Tokyo Shihan Gakko, and would become a professor the following year. In 1916 he was the only “normal school kendo speciality professor” in the entire country.
In 1918 he built the first Shudogakuin, a kendo institute that would spawn branches around the country and where many influential kendoka would pass through (Nyui Yoshihiro, Mochida Moriji, Takizawa Kozo, etc). He chose the name Shudogakuin (修道学院) as it reflected his desire to train people in “Bun bu ryodo” (文武両道), or physically and mentally. i.e. his aim was not just to create strong kenshi, but good/educated people too. Secretly, it is said that his ideal was Saito Yakuro’s Renpeikan (a bakumatsu period dojo in Edo).
Sasaburo continued to work at Tokyo Shihan Gakko until 1936 (75 years old). Even after he quit being a professor there, and despite his age, he kept teaching kendo at the school’s dojo until forced to stop by impending war.
Sasaburo died on the 31st of December 1950. He was 88 years old.
高野佐三郎剣道遺稿集 (剣道日本プレミアム) 。堂本 昭彦 (著)。
Please remember I am not a professional translator, nor have studied Japanese at university nor in an institution. Any errors in fact, misunderstandings in the reading of the text, errors in translations, etc, are all my own. I can but apologise in advance.