history kendo kenshi

The iron will of the kendo god Ueda Heitaro

Intro: part one

Spring, 1894 (10th-11th of April). To celebrate the building of a new dojo at Saka-no-ue police station in Takamatsu city, Kagawa prefecture, a two day Budo embu-taikai was held. Just a couple of days earlier, on the 8th, another large taikai had been held at the central police station in Takamatsu. Kenshi from as far afield as Osaka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Aichi, and Hyogo took part, with participants of the stature of Takayama Minezaburo, Okumura Sakonta, Takahashi Kyutaro, Nakajima Harumi, and many others. Well-known Shikoku-based swordsman and Muto-ryu exponent, Kagawa Zenzaburo was also in attendance (Zenzaburo inherited Muto-ryu from Yamaoka Tesshu, and Nakajima, who had been studying under Yamaoka, became one of Kagawa’s students). These kenshi, some of the best in the country, also joined the opening ceremony held for the Saka-no-ue police dojo two days later. 

(btw on the 8th, Zenzaburo defeated Okumura 2-1, but was defeated by Takayama 2-0)

Watching the embu was a young aspiring kenshi from the area. His name: Ueda Heitaro. An only child, he was doted on by his parents. His father, in particular, worried about his weak constitution, and started teaching him kenjutsu (Katori Shinto-ryu, provenance unknown) when he was 14. Two years later, the young Heitaro also began jujutsu. Sitting in the audience in 1894, he was only 17 years old. 

“I’ll never forget it …”

The final embu of the day was the two Muto-ryu swordsmen, a teacher and student match up between Kagawa and Nakajima. Nakajima was 8 years younger than Kagawa, but at 190cm he was about 8-9cm taller than Kagawa (both were very tall for the time). Both men looked wiry but in fact were physically strong. They needed to be, because Muto-ryu kendo wasn’t for the weak: both men used a 3-shaku 2-sun shinai weighing about 800 grams. They fought as if their lives were on the line. Their kiai was powerful and the strikes and thrusts strongly. The onlookers were impressed. Finally, Kagawa cut down towards Nakajima’s men from jodan. Like lightening Nakajima dove forward headlong and thrust towards Kagawa’s tsuki-dare. The thrust landed heavily knocking Kagawa backwards. Both men stood glaring at each other.

“Maitta (I’m defeated)”

Kagawa relaxed his kamae and bowed his head. 

The young Ueda looked on in awe. 

(there’s a little bit more to this story but I’ll leave it here today)

Yamoka Tesshu’s grave

Intro: part two

By 1936 the by-now 26 year old Nakakura Kiyoshi had already made his mark in Tokyo. He had won or placed highly in some of the top shiai, had already been awarded renshi, and – with a recommendation from Nakayama Hakudo – had married Ueshiba Morihei’s daughter and was being groomed as his successor (it didn’t work out). He worked for a five years as a kendo teacher for the imperial guards but was currently employed as a university kendo teacher as well as teaching kendo at Ueshiba’s dojo. He was a rising star in the kendo community. 

Between 1929 – when Nakakura arrived in Tokyo – and July 1936 there was a particular senior kenshi who Nakakura saw at large events here and there whose kendo style fascinated him. The sensei’s kendo was elegant. He seemed very relaxed, yet strikes and thrusts were sharp. His movements could be described as graceful, his seme detailed and elaborate. Even though Nakakura fame had grown, he was still only 26, and he could never simply approach such a senior sensei. He watched him from afar for a few years before finally breaking.

In July 1936, Nakakura showed up unannounced at Kagawa prefecture’s Butokuden and asked to see the head instructor, Ueda Heitaro sensei. 

Kagawa Butokuden, built 1904

Intro: part three 

At the end of May/beginning of June 1905, Ueda returned from a five month stint studying kendo at the Butokukai’s brand new Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo in Kyoto. He had been dispatched (it is thought) by Takamatsu police department (he’d started to work in Takamatsu prison in mid-1904). At the Yoseijo he was there as a “koshusei” or a “part-time” student there to learn kendo only (full time students also did academic study). There he studied directly under Naito Takaharu and crossed shinai with the likes of Saimura, Nakano, Oshima, and Shimatani (this was slightly before Mochida, Ogawa, Miyazaki, and Oasa, etc arrived). 

Returning to Takamatsu, one of the first things he did was to go to keiko at the Butokukai’s branch Butokuden. Built in 1904 (finished in April with an opening ceremony/embukai held in October), Kubo Fujoki was installed as a head instructor (with Katayama Takayoshi of Shin-Tamiya-ryu). Kubo was about 56 or 57 at the time and Menkyo-kaiden holder in Ono-ha Itto-ryu and Jikishinkage-ryu kenjutsu, as well as Taneda-ryu Sojutsu. Small of stature, but incredibly strong, the moment he set foot in the dojo he was always ready to fight as if his life depended on it.

Ueda and Kubo, with their bogu on and holding their shinai, faced-off. Kubo said:

“Shodachi ippon.”

Within seconds Kubo struck Ueda’s men. 

“One more ippon, onegaishimasu”


This was par-for-the-course for this pair. Kubo would always do ippon shobu with Ueda, always win (usually with one strike), and then steadfastly refuse another one that day. This had been happening since the prior year, and would continue into the future as well. 

Kubo would often berate the younger kenshi, including Ueda, by saying:

“The reason you guys can’t defeat me is you lack real conviction. You need to fight like you are staring death in the face.”

The gate to the Butokukai HQ and the Busen

Pic of the professional kenshi competitors from the 1929 Tenran shiai. On the far left is the famous jukendo exponent Ito Seiji, Ueda is on his right. A few of the future kendo judan’s are in this picture as well as some who, had they lived long enough, may have become one too.

Ueda Heitaro hanshi (in both kendo and iaido) was born in Takamatsu city, Kagawa prefecture, in August 1877. Except his five month stint in Kyoto in 1905, Ueda would stay and teach kendo in Takamatsu his entire life. It was far from the centre of kendo action in Kyoto and Tokyo, which is probably why he started his professional kendo life a little bit later than most – in 1904, when he got a job as a kendo teacher at Takamatsu prison. A few years prior to this, in 1986, he showed his desire to pursue a life of kendo by going on a Musha-shugyo around Shikoku. In the intervening seven-eight years between 1896 and 1904 he seems not to have been involved in kendo seriously (or perhaps there were no opportunies to do so) and instead seems to have been involved in the rearing and training of horses (information is very vague about his life during this period).  

At any rate, in 1904 he was hired by Takamatsu prison and not long after was dispatched to the Butokukai’s HQ in Kyoto to study kendo more formally. After a five month long shugyo he returned back to Takamatsu and resumed his position. 

The next we hear of him is when he defeated 27 opponents in a local shiai in 1907. There weren’t many shiai happening at that time, so news of his achievement spread through kendo circles rapidly. It seemed that his shodachi-ippon practice with Kubo Fujoki was paying off. 

In 1908 two things of note happened, but I am not sure the exact order of events. First, he meets and is matched with Mochida Moriji at the Kyoto Taikai (2-1 to Mochida). This would be the first time they clashed but it wouldn’t be the last. The pair were matched up numerous times in many different settings during their kendo career, creating a deep and mutual friendship. Second, he is moved from the prison system into the police system and at about the same time obtained a teaching position at the Kagawa Butokuden (he would eventually become the top police instructor in the prefecture as well as the head of the Butokukai Kagawa branch). 

Over the following years, as his seniority rose, Ueda would start to teach in more and more places, so many it is said that every kenshi in the prefecture would have, at some point, received direct instruction from him. 

Mochida (l) vs Ueda (r), 1929

Showa Tenran Shiai

There were three famous Tenran-shiai  (competition in front of the Emperor) in the Showa period, in 1929, 1934, and 1940. Ueda took part in all three. 

In 1929 he was in the professional kendoka section. He defeated Hotta Tokujiro (2-0, men-men), Hashimoto Toyo (2-1, kote-men / dou; started kendo in Tobukan before become a student of Nakayama Hakudo at Yushinkan), and Nakano Sosuke (2-0, men-men) in the league round, then defeated Hori Shohei (2-1, dou-men / dou) in the tournament round. In the quarter final he faced Mochida. He struck kote first, then lost to a katate-zuki and kote from Mochida. Mochida, as you know, would go on to defeat the famed jodan exponent Takano Shigeyoshi and go on to win the competition. 

BTW, it is important to note that in all of his matches Ueda, as had been drilled in to him by Kubo Fujoki, took shodachi. 

Mochida and Ueda had first met in 1908 when they were paired-of at the Kyoto Taikai. They would go on to be paired together at various taikai (demonstration embu) at places around the country over the years (for example, at Butokukai teaching seminars or opening ceremonies of newly built Butokuden). The pair had a warm friendship and were respectful of each other. 

After his performance at the 1929 Tenran-shiai many people came to Kagawa to learn from Ueda. Unlike most people of his stature, however, he would put on his bogu, pick up his shinai, and spar with anyone who came to be taught… even if the person was a complete unknown. Normally people of his stature would leave the teaching to their students. 

In 1930 he was awarded hanshi and as a result in the 1934 Tenran-shiai he took part only as a shinpan and in the “Mohan-shiai” (demonstration match) section, where he faced Oshima Jikita. Btw, one of Ueda’s students, Nito-ryu kenshi Fujimoto Kaoru, reached second place in the non-professional section. 

In the 1940 Tenran-shiai the pattern was the same. This time he was matched with Watanabe Sakae.

Oshima (l) vs Ueda (r), 1934

Rewind: Nakakura’s shugyo

When Nakakura (26) rolled up in 1936 Ueda (59) was in his prime.  The pair seemed to have hit it off, and Nakakura spent a week there keiko-ing with Ueda twice a day. The thing that impressed Nakakura the most, and something that he took to heart for the rest of his kendo career, was Ueda’s emphasis on shodachi:

“It doesn’t matter who your opponent is, their age, or their skill level, you must never let them strike you first.”

Ueda (front row, right) and his family, 1929

THE kendo god

What happened to Ueda during and in the immediate aftermath of the war years is unknown. What we do know is that he died of kidney inflammation in his house on the 25th of July 1949. He was 71.  

Fast forwarding 15 years to 1974, during a two day ceremony staring on the 23rd of February, he was enshrined as a deity in Sengen-do (part of Sanuki-Miya). Sengen-do was originally built in 1911 and is (what seems to be) a very rare type of shrine where selected individuals are deified. As far as my understanding goes, shrines in Japan are almost exclusively dedicated to the gods mentioned in ancient myths, never to people (originally the gods worshipped at shrines wouldn’t even have had names as the native religion was animistic) . In Sengen-do 103 people have been deified in this manner, the first batch being in 1917 and the last in 1974 (where Ueda was included). People included are scholars, professors, priests, artists, artisans, politicians, soldiers, and one kenshi. This makes Ueda the ONLY kenshi, as far as I know, who has actually been deified here in Japan.

When you (perhaps in jest!) refer to the “kendo gods” the only one actually listening is Ueda Heitaro. 

Sengen-do was struck by American bombs on the 4th July 1940 (I am not sure of the extent of the damage sustained). After the war (1946) it was decided to merge Sengen-do with Nogi-jinya, a shrine within the precincts of Sanuki-Miya (Kagawa prefectures Gokoku-jinja).

An omamori from Kagawa’s Gokoku-jinja. It reads “chikara” or “strength”

Ueda is sitting from centre. Pic is from sometime in the 1930s in front of the Kagawa Butokuden


Favourite saying: SHIN JO TESSEKI (心如鉄石). This means to “have an iron will.”

Son: Ueda’s third son Hajime (1912/13-2012) also became a kendo professional. He attained the ranks of kendo hanshi kyudan and iaido kyoshi, won or placed highly in many competitions (including second place in the All Japan Championships), and held various senior roles (Kagawa Kendo Association president, All Japan Kendo Association vice-president, etc.). 

Ueda Heitaro cup: starting in 1968, a competition has been held in his honour.

Amazingly, video – albeit short – of Ueda exists! Here he is facing Watanabe Sakae in the 1940 Tenran shiai. Ueda is facing us:

Quick bio

Important details 

Ueda Heitaro (14th Aug. 1877 - 25th July 1949)
- Kendo hanshi, iaijutsu kyoshi (hanshi date unknown?)
- Shihan at Butokukai branch HQ in Kagawa, plus Kagawa police, prison, various schools, etc
- Tenshin shoden Katori shinto-ryu (from father; beyond that lineage/contents unknown) 
- Muso shinden-ryu batto-jutsu Menkyo kaiden (17th headmaster)
- Takumato-ryu jujutsu Menkyo kaiden
- Tenranjiai three times (1929 lost to Mochida in quarter finals; 1934 embu with Oshima Jikita / shinpan; 1940 Embu with Watanabe Sakae / shinpan)

1877 - born in Takamatsu, Kagawa prefecure
1896 - musho shugyo around Shikoku
1904 - employed at Takamatsu Prison | At the opening embu for Kagawa Butokuden Ueda faces Abe (2-1 win) and Hotta Sutejiro (1-1 draw)
1905 (Jan-May) - despatched from Takamatsu Prison to the Bujutsu Kyoiin Yoseijo as a Koshusei
1907 - at a Kenjutsu taikai in Kagawa he defeated 27 people in a row, making him famous
1908 - first meets/faces Mochida (at the Kyoto Taikai)
1908 - started working as a police kendo instructor as well as teaching at the Butokukai branch HQ
1911 - Seirensho (kendo)
1919 - Kyoshi (kendo)
1919-1923 - studied Muso shinden Eishin-ryu batto-jutsu under Hosokawa Yoshimasa and received Menkyo-kaiden. 
1929 - first Tenran-shiai
1930 - Hanshi (kendo), renshi (iaijutsu)
1931 - Kyoshi (iaijutsu) 
1934 - second Tenran-shiai
1936 - Nakakura went to him for instruction
1940 - third Tenran-shiai
1949 - passed away in his home
1974 - deified 


昭和天覧試合 : 皇太子殿下御誕生奉祝。大日本雄弁会講談社。1934年発行。
[Special thanks to Billy!]

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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4 replies on “The iron will of the kendo god Ueda Heitaro”

Hi George, yet another great piece. I’m always astonished by how you write and find all this documentation. Thanks again for making it available to the public, as well as making this documentation digital to ensure it’s existence in the future.

Hey Ivo,

Glad you enjoyed it. Not sure I did Ueda sensei justice though. Perhaps more on him at a later date!

The info is all out there… it just needs someone to string it all together and make some sort of sense of it (or narrative to it). By supplying sources in my articles I am, in a way, providing clues for people younger and far more able than myself to come along and do better work. I hope!!!

Thanks for the link. Ueda probably taught a lot of people iaido. He was learning about the same time as Nakayama Hakudo. I left out discussion of his iai here as there’s always a lot of heated opinions about iaido online…

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