A few days ago I heard news that a great martial artist has passed away. Ōtake Risuke (full name, 大竹利典源健之 Ōtake Risuke Minamoto-no-Takeyuki), former head shihan of Tenshin Sōden Katori Shintō ryū (天真正伝香取神道流, Katori Shintō ryū for short), was 95 years old when he left this world on June 6th, 2021. While he was not a direct teacher of mine, his work ethic, proficiency, and philosophy in Japanese Classical martial arts was very inspirational for as long as I can remember over the years. You can say he made a great long-lasting impression on me through the books he published and television programs he took part in.
Ōtake sensei was born in March 10th, 1926 in Narita City, Chiba prefecture. He would begin studying martial arts under Hayashi Yaemon Iekiyo at the age of 16, and would receive the highest rank at the age of 42. At a time, much responsibility in both teaching, and maintaining the 600-year old knowledge & tradition of this art, was placed on his shoulders, which he did with exuberance and dedication in his hometown. This in turn helped to have the teachings of Katori Shintō ryū designated as an invaluable cultural asset of Chiba prefecture in 1960, with him appointed as the guardian of this art. Seven years later, he would attain full master rank, and be appointed as the head teacher, overseeing all training conducted in this art. This was no small feat, as Ōtake sensei explained in a book about how rigorous the training he undertook under his teacher Hayashi, and how he stuck through it especially at a time when many were called to bear arms as WWII was getting underway.
When you see Ōtake sensei in action, it’s easy to identify how seasoned he was in martial arts, and how refined & sharp his movements were. When watching videos where he performed paired kata, he and his partner generally move at a fast pace. Yet they were always maintained control & execute their techniques with accuracy, and devoid of any fixation on any particular point with unnecessary pauses.
Ōtake sensei was a prime representative of Katori Shintō ryū, which drew much attention by the press, and inquiring potential students. This is especially true when he participated in public demonstrations. He was proficient in the many weapons taught in Katori Shintō ryū. One of the first vivid memories that still remain is when he personally demonstrated iaijutsu. There are several kata of this, with Nuketsuke no Ken (抜附の剣) being one of my favorites. At the start of this kata, Ōtake sensei looks calm in his seated position, with his sword in it’s sheath at his waist. The next moment he would spring high into the air as he draws out his sword in one fluid motion, looking very strong and focus. The energy, the speed, and the movements themselves are very different from the slower, more deliberate demonstrations of modern iaijutsu (iaido) that is commonly practiced today.
There is a rare shuriken demonstration that took place publicly during a 1950 event “Zen Nihon Budō Kakuryū Taikai” (全日本武道各流大会”, aired on NHK channel. Here, a different practitioner of Katori Shintō ryu demonstrates throwing bō shuriken, before drawing his sword and following up with a cut. I was duly impressed as each bō shuriken hit the mark from a good distance away. Ōtake sensei would talk later about his system’s shurikenjutsu in his book, “Heihō: Tenshin Sōden Katori Shintō ryū”, where he passes on valuable advise regarding practicing shuriken. The following is from the stated book, with the original Japanese followed by my English translation:
“For shuriken practice, a great amount of effort is a must in order to engage in this by yourself. What is vital in achieving this is unwavering and consistent training. The period in which I had learned (memorized) shurikenjutsu…was from throwing shuriken 300 times almost everyday for about 3 years.”
As mentioned before, Ōtake sensei attracted many students from wide & far when he was actively teaching as the head shihan. Through his influence, many of them adapted that discipline of sharp & accurate movements. This is because they too frequented training sessions with dedication. This can be seen in Ōtake sensei’s two sons, as well as the famous American pioneer in martial arts Donn Draeger.
In an old TV documentary about kobudō (unfortunately I am uncertain of the title), many teachers of different martial systems were recorded introducing their martial systems. Ōtake sensei was interviewed at his dōjō as well. From the start of his segment, two select practitioners from his dōjō demonstrated a kenjutsu kata. Perplexed at how unclear the interaction was between the two performers (i.e. both move in harmony blocking and attacking with almost no one a clear winner), Ōtake sensei was asked by the interviewer what was the purpose of each of the techniques performed in this kata. Ōtake sensei answered that they perform their kata as so as to hide how their techniques work. He then explained what is actually supposed to happen in the kata by breaking down the kenjutsu kata. This scene, plus Ōtake sensei’s explanation, truly inspired me to look outside the box when it comes down to kata and technique. Although a different ryūha, most Japanese martial systems share this same ideology.
For instance, it is common to only focus on the person who’s performing the “winning” technique, yet the one who is the “attacker” also is performing techniques that are key to the school, usually in a way where it can be countered. When it comes down to what takes place in kata, or how techniques are to be used, a good teacher generally teaches lessons like this, while a good martial artist who wants to learn his or her craft inside-out will research this as well to understand strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of his physical prowess, Ōtake sensei also presented his knowledge on the more theoretical, philosophical, and otherwise esoteric, side of Classical martial arts. Some of these are details that, albeit old, serve as a necessity to grasp a proper understanding of Katori Shintō ryū. For example, he has outlined the specifics regarding armor and its significance when learning the multitude of techniques found in the kata they trained it. In a somewhat non-combative side of things, he also spoke about how the esoteric nature of inyō (陰陽, yin yang) helps to guide warriors of the past on how to set up and fortify their castles in the 7-part series “Way of the Warrior”, which aired in the 1980s. There is a practicality to this, as it is based on nature and what is, both logically and realistically, beneficial against enemy attacks. This same practice is also used for building homes, which is similar to the popular fūsui (feng shui). Lastly, in his books he shares ideology and poems that are important for building character, which could be seen as a means to balance a warrior to remain human and be grateful to those who came before as. Most are of Buddhism-origin, but with most of Japanese culture, they serve mainly as a way to shape how to properly live even if religion is not the main focus. One that stands out particularly is a poem called “Chichi Haha Onjū no Uta” (父母恩重の詩), which describes how we must be grateful to our parents for raising us, and not to forget to show respect to them even after they have passed.
As a respected martial artist who has been watched by the world, Ōtake sensei will be missed. His memory will still live on, as he left a lasting impression on many even on those like me who’s never met him, but could feel his essence both through his words and in his visual presentations.