The founder of traditional Korean hapkido, Choi Yong-sul, claimed to have studied under Japanese martial artist and founder of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu Takeda Sokaku for approximately thirty years, after having been kidnapped from Korea and adopted into the Takeda household as a child, before returning to Korea and teaching his version of Daito-ryu which eventually became known as hapkido. How much of this story is true, I do not know, but there is little doubt, amongst those who are intellectually honest, that hapkido has a technical, and therefore historical connection to Daito-ryu.* Beyond the historical, my interest in the story of Choi Yong-sul and Takeda Sokaku has always been technical.
Takeda Sokaku is famous in Japanese martial art history for his ‘mysterious strength,’ commonly referred to as aiki and his ability to apply his own brand of jujutsu against any volunteer, regardless of size, skill, or social status. Takeda was a harsh and ferocious man, but he was also highly skilled and well respected. There are many who came after him, including myself, who have sought his skills and the elusive aiki that is said to have made his jujutsu so effective.
In the arts that resulted from Takeda’s teaching, such as Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, aikido, hapkido, et al, it is common to avoid or even to denounce any kind of sparring or resistance-based competitive training. I always took this at face value as part of the culture and lineage I was a part of, even buying into and regurgitating many of the myths and justifications around the absence of randori (sparring) or shiai (competitive bouts) in the art(s) I was associated with.
Over the years, I dug deeper and deeper into the history of these arts and the life of Takeda Sokaku.** What I found was fascinating and much less straightforward than I previously believed. Takeda’s father, Takeda Sokichi, was a high ranking sumo wrestler and, in spite of his small size, Sokaku himself had grown up learning sumo from Sokichi and even competing in, and winning, many local sumo contests (against his father’s wishes).
In other words, not only did Takeda grow up sparring in competitive resistance-based sumo, but he was also very good at it. According to stories from his son and his students, when Sokaku would visit the various dojo he taught at, he would do sumo for fun before or after his classes or seminars. This is a practice he continued well into old age.
While it may be true that Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and its descendant arts do not contain sparring or competitive practice in their curricula, it is also true that their histories are inextricably interwoven with resistance-based sparring as an essential supplement to the core practices, at least if we consider what the founder himself did as being part of his art. This knowledge was one of the factors that led me to seek out Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) after receiving my black belt in hapkido. I was looking for my own personal sumo practice to supplement my Daito-ryu, so to speak.
What I found in BJJ was a rabbit hole of technique and strategy that I am still utterly fascinated with, as a supplement to and information source for the Taikyoku Budo that is now my main practice. BJJ continues to challenge and intrigue me and I can see myself wanting to roll well into my old age as much as Takeda wanted to do sumo when he visited his students in his eighties.
– Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
**For a great article on the technical relationship between hapkido and Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, read the chapter A Conversation with Daito-ryu’s Other Child in Ellis Amdur’s book Dueling with O-Sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage
**For more information on Takeda Sokaku, I highly recommend Ellis Amdur’s book Hidden in Plain Sight: Esoteric Power Training Within Japanese Martial Traditions