Fukunaga-sensei on the Early History of the NTHK
Ryuko Takahashi Helm, Tom Helm & Jim Gilbert
At the 2002 NTHK taikai in Tokyo, Fukunaga Suiken-sensei delivered a lecture on the history of the Nihon Token Hozon Kai. Born in the third year of Taisho and now 88 years old Fukunaga-sensei is the oldest living member of the NTHK and has published more books on the Japanese sword than anyone else to date. He is still going strong with several more books in the works.
The NTHK was founded by Mr. Takase Uko, the third son of a rice dealer serving the Mito Tokugawa. Born in the same year that Minamoto Kiyomaro died, his childhood name was Masakichi, or Masaaki which can be read “Shinkei,” a name he used in his adult years. He was described as a willful youth, but a student of the Chinese classics among other studies. He was not interested in pursuing the family business. In need of a career, he went off to Yamanashi prefecture to work as a police officer. At that time criminals were still being put to death by the sword and Takase-san witnessed a number of such executions. He observed that wakizashi were more effective for beheading than katana.
During the Meiji period, many women entered the work force as cheap labor. They were preferred because they hadn’t any hang-ups about rank and titles. One of the duties of a Policeman at this time was the “training and supervision” of the female workforce. Presumably to ensure no “other” work was conducted.
Traveling through the country, he visited the Nichiren sect at Mt. Mino where he studied swords and other artifacts preserved at the temple. Later in his travels, he was the only survivor of a boat accident. He was dragged ashore still clutching the two swords he had with him, a Bizen Sukesada that he bought when he was 10 years old and a Soshu Hiromasa.
He spent time in Osaka where he became friends with a professional storyteller. Apparently Takase-san was an excellent storyteller himself and probably learned the art from his Osaka friend.
Ultimately, Mr. Takase was deemed too rebellious for the police officer’s life and decided to try journalism instead. He was a good journalist, but was a bit too truthful in his reporting, which often got him in trouble with people in high places. His writing eventually landed him in jail for 40 days for being too critical of an influential office holder.
He transferred to Sendai to make a fresh start, but again his reporting got him into trouble and he wound up with another 40-day sentence. After this he went to Tokyo where he wrote a book calling for reform of the Japanese prison system based upon his first hand familiarity with it. He had some success in this and then turned his attention to the reform and education of juvenile criminals.
He worked with a priest from the Nichiren sect to feed, clothe and educate street kids, but money was always a problem. He was successful at raising needed funds from wealthy, titled friends and went on to operate Japan’s first juvenile detention center for 27 years. He started with an abandoned temple in Asakusa as a dormitory and as the center grew he leased land and buildings in prime locations through the imperial household agency and titleholders. The organization got too big for Takase-san to handle and he negotiated its transfer to abbot Sano of the Nichiren sect. The abbot passed away soon after and his successor was less than enthusiastic about project. Eventually, the center was taken over by the government.
After this Mr. Takase spent his time studying swords and promoting their appreciation. He wrote five or six books on swords. He tried his hand at running a publishing business of his own and a landscaping company, but neither worked out. He was publishing Token to Rekishi, the NTHK journal that we know today. In the third year of publication the readers of his magazine asked him to start a sword study group. At the time there was an existing sword society, but it was only open to wealthy, titled individuals. Mr. Takase’s group would be the first organization that was open to anyone with an interest in sword study. The group did not have a kantei-kai, but rather did extensive tameshigiri on rice straw bundles to evaluate what made the best sword. These tameshigiri demonstrations were held all over the country spreading the popularity of test cutting. Supplying the wara (tatami targets) and other things became an expensive exercise so this aspect of the societies activities eventually faded. Mr. Takase was in poor health in his final years and passed away on November 17th, 1922 at the age of 70.
Fukunaga-sensei presented to the Nihon Token Hozon Kai a portrait of Takase sensei along with an image of an interesting sayagaki. It was for a Go Yoshihiro sword known as the Haruzame Go or “spring rain” Go, it carries a kinzogan mei giving this name. The sayagaki states Uko Shokei (possession of Uko) and explains that this sword was also known as the “Aoki Go” from the Aoki family of Saitama (then Count), who received this sword from the second Tokugawa Shogun. Takase sensei bought this sword from the Aoki family in 1921 or 1922. He had it polished but didn’t like the polish so had it polished again just six months later! All this is noted on the saya! Fukunaga Sensei believes this sword now resides in San Francisco.
After Mr. Takase’s passing, the sword study group was carried on by Mr. Kondo. Kondo-san knew Mr. Takase from Mito and worked with him at the juvenile center. Mr. Kondo was not formally schooled, but studied diligently and was something of a protégé of Takase. He later became a licensed antiques dealer. Fukunaga-sensei joined the NTHK in 1937 and worked with Yoshikawa-sensei on Kondo-san’s book, although neither was given author credit. Yoshikawa-sensei gave the sword explanations at the meetings of the society and when Mr. Kondo died without an heir, it was natural for Yoshikawa-sensei to take over as the head of the organization. Fortunately Mr. Yoshikawa has left us a qualified heir to continue the NTHK.