As a former student of Kotaka Sadao, Ph.D., Okuden, Kogen Itto-ryu Kenjutsu, I was deeply saddened to hear of his death at the age of 80 on August 5, 2013. I had not seen Kotaka Sensei in many years, but had followed his efforts to establish a strong following of students and teachers dedicated to the pre-World War II techniques and ethos of traditional Japanese martial arts, the unfair criticism he suffered as a result, the amazed accounts of those who actually had the privilege of crossing swords with him, and the tragedies in his personal life. Kotaka Sensei was one of the last true samurai spirits and he will be sorely missed. As a tribute to him, and to help try to set the record straight, I am penning this article. For those of us honored to have trained with him, his spirit will live on.
Background and lineage
Dr. Kotaka Sadao, was born in 1933 in Hankou, central China, to a family of distinguished samurai lineage on both the paternal and maternal sides.1 He traced his ancestry back to the "Seiwa Genji," the most successful and powerful line of the Japanese Minamoto clan that were descended from Emperor Seiwa (850-878), the 56th emperor of Japan. Many of the most famous Minamoto warriors, including Minamoto Yoshiie, also known as "Hachiman-taro", or the "God of War"; Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate; and Ashikaga Takauji, the founder of the Ashikaga shogunate, belong to this line. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, also claimed descent from this lineage. The family is named after Emperor Seiwa, grandfather of Minamoto no Tsunemoto, patriarch of the Seiwa Genji. Kotaka was also descended from the Hitachi Genji and Kai Genji sub-clans of the Seiwa Genji. The latter sub-clan which produced three Kamakura shoguns and the famous warlord, Takeda Shingen (1521-1573).
Kotaka was born in China, because his father was stationed there as a member of the Japanese foreign service. In about 1935, the family moved back to Tokyo when his father was reassigned to the foreign ministry, and the three-year old Sadao was enrolled in a local kendo school. The next year, his father was assigned to the embassy in Beijing (then Peking) and Sadao began to train more seriously in kendo and iaido under the embassy's resident martial arts instructor, Konagaya Sensei, a master (kaiden 8th dan) in the "Kogen Itto-ryu" school of kendo, and also an instructor of judo, kyodo (archery), jodo (short staff), sojutsu (spear), and Hojojutsu (the art of tying up a prisoner).2 (I have been unable to find any additional information of Konagaya.)
When Sadao was transferred back to Tokyo in fourth grade (apparently at about the age of 9 or 10), his family was evacuated from the capital-which was being bombed by American Army Air Forces-to Yamanashi Prefecture, the ancestral lands of the Kai Genji clan and the former stronghold of Takeda Shingen, about 65 miles west of Tokyo. Yamanashi is a land-locked, mountainous area that includes the northern half of the iconic Mount Fuji and the Fuji Five Lakes region. It was while attending middle school in Yamanashi prefecture that Kotaka met his principle kendo master, Sakurai Gen'noshin Fumitake (c.1853-1954), a 9th dan kaiden.
According to Dr. Kotaka, Sakurai was one of the youngest and last members of the famous (or notorious) Shinsengumi, the forces who resisted the attempt to overthrow the 200 year old shogunate and restore power to Emperor Meiji.3 The Shinsengumi, which lasted from 1863-1869, were among the most feared swordsmen of the day; they trained intensively and for the real combat they regularly faced against bandits, underworld figures, ronin (masterless samurai) and imperial supporters.4
A coalition of often-quarreling young swordsmen, the Shinsengumi practiced an amalgam of several styles, mostly based on the Itto-ryu ("One Sword" style) of Ito Ittosai Kagehisa (1560-1653?). That style eventually fragmented into a number of sects, including the Ono-ha, Mizoguchi-ha, Nakanishi-ha, Kogen, Hokushin, and Itto Shoden, and members of the Shinsengumi came from several of these styles, as well as others.
Sakurai, who would have been in his early or middle teens, was a follower of Kotaka's great-grand-uncle, Harada Sanosuke (1840-1868), the captain of the 10th Unit of the Shinsengumi.5 Harada had studied Tyokushin-ryu Kenjutsu, an obscure style, but was a master of the famous Hozoin-ryu spearmanship. Harada fought at the Battle of Ueno on July 4, 1868, where he was severely wounded by enemy gunfire. Two days later, he died of his wounds.
Dr. Kotaka trained under Sakurai Gen'nosuke as a youth, when Sakurai would have already been at least well into his 80s. He claimed to have trained with Sakurai until he was a junior in college (thus likely around 20-21 years of age), when Sakurai would have been in his mid-90s. This, and Kotaka's claim to teach and to be the inheritor of Sakurai's "Kogen Itto-ryu," later led to questions and controversy. (See below.) Kotaka Sensei himself in the early 1970s wrote down for me the death date of Sakurai (1954) and said he was about 100 years of age.6
Kotaka apparently attended the prestigious Tokyo University.7 He moved to the U.S. in January 1959, apparently to pursue graduate research at the University of California, Berkeley.8 He seems to have been pursuing his graduate degree under the auspices of the Institute of Plant Biochemistry of the Tokyo University of Education while attached to UCAL Berkeley's Air Ion Laboratory, Department of Bacteriology, during the early 1960s.9 He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Tokyo University of Education sometime after 1965.10 During this period (roughly 1959-1965), according to his own account, he "did not have time to practice kendo," but practiced judo at the university gym with "a friend who was champion of [the] All-Japan College Judo Tournament, 1957 and 1958."11
He spent a year in 1964-1965 in Japan before returning to the U.S. where he took up the practice of modern shinai kendo at a dojo near Berkeley.12 According to a paper he hand-wrote for me in the early 1970s, he trained under Miyata Yoshinari, 6th dan in kendo.13 Dr. Kotaka moved to Columbus, Ohio in the early 1970s and began working at Chemical Abstracts, a service associated with the American Chemical Society and affiliated with the Biochemistry Department of the Ohio State University. He also worked at the Batelle Memorial Institute, a private nonprofit applied science and technology development company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.
In the early 1970s, he taught a few students (including the author) privately in his two-car-plus garage, which he had converted to a dojo. Around 1979 or 1980, he opened a Kendo-Iaido Club at the Physical Education building at the Ohio State University, where he taught a number of students who later became well-known swordsmen and who opened Kogen Itto-ryu schools around the country. These included Craig Campbell in Columbus, Ohio; David Diguangco in Utah; Christopher Watchman in Idaho; Donald Yehling of Ohio; Thomas Sovik in Florida; and Bill Dvorine in Maryland.
In the mid-1990s, Kotaka established the tax-exempt, not-for-profit United States Classical Kendo Federation to teach and propagate traditional Kenjutsu and budo.14 Kotaka Sensei retired both from active teaching and practice of kendo and from his professional activities around 2009 and moved to Clermont, Florida where he died of a heart attack.
I was one of Kotaka Sensei's earliest students after he moved from California to Columbus, Ohio in the early 1970s.15 I first met him when he performed a demonstration of iaido at a local karate tournament, to the best of my recollection, in about 1972. As a yodan in karate and fairly well experienced in Okinawan kobudo (weaponry), I could see immediately that he was the "real deal" and that I had to find a way to train with him. Altogether, I trained with him for about 6-7 years in his garage long before he opened a club at the Ohio State University.
Sensei and I would often spend three hours or more working out together, usually doing about an hour of iaido-the Omori-ryu seiza-no-bu and the Hasegawa Eishin-ryu hiza-no-bu-before donning our bogu and "sparring" for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, or two hours without stopping. Later we added the Nihon Kendo no Kata, the official two-person form of the Japanese kendo federation. The only breaks we took were to change equipment.
As a young and enthusiastic trainee, I regularly ran three to six miles a day, lifted weights five to six days a week, played hours of racket ball every day, and practiced karate every evening. So it came as a total surprise to me that a man nearly twice my age (he would have been in his 40s, and I in my 20s) could leave me totally exhausted at the end of each workout while he hardly broke a sweat or breathed hard. And he didn't play the kinds of tricks many sensei do, making the students do endless repetitions of basic techniques and exercises while saving their energy for keiko. What I did, he did. His conditioning amazed me, and it was quite some time before I realized that it was less a latter of conditioning than of perfect timing and effective execution. With sensei there was no wasted movement. Likewise, he astounded me with his flexibility and leg/hip strength. There was a table, about waist high, in the corner of his garage/dojo over which he had placed hooks on which to hang the bogu between training sessions. Numerous times I watched sensei place one foot on this table and step up with the other foot, all the while holding a set of bogu, and never assisting himself with the other hand. It was a feat that in my wildest imagination-and with at least several inches of height advantage-I could never have duplicated.
Despite the koubushi ("mouth warriors") who have questioned his bona fides, I can attest to the extremely high quality of sensei's martial ability. During keiko, he was simply so efficient that he ran me ragged trying to find an opening, then pounced with a devastating and quick strike. His perception was inerrant; I don't think that in 6-7 years of training with him I ever scored a clean point on him. And I well remember the many times he evaded my men strike, only to feel the "thwack" of his shinai across my do, as he reappeared as if by magic to my side, almost behind me.
Several times we had visitors, including some very competitive young yudansha from Japan. He simply made them look silly, playing with them like children. (But he was always polite and encouraging in doing so, a real gentleman.) He arrived in Columbus from California ranked 4th dan by the national ranking committee. Shortly before I left, he attended a senior tournament in Canada where he is said to have thoroughly and unambiguously beaten three visiting Japanese 7th dans. His skill in iaido and shinai kendo was simply unsurpassed in my experience.
Kotaka Sensei told me he did not practice kendo from the time of his sensei's death until he linked up with the modern kendo group in California.16 During the time I trained with him, Kotaka Sensei seemed to be attempting to reconstruct the Kogen Itto-ryu system. Despite the fact that I trained with him for quite a few years, he taught me only the seiza-no-bu (Omori-ryu), Tate Hiza-no bu (Eiishin ryu), Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Kendo no kata, and we practiced shinai kendo. On a few occasions, he pulled out the unique Kogen Itto-ryu kote and heavy bokken and showed me a few of the style's two-man techniques, but he made no effort to teach them to me. This later apparently became an integral part of his Classical Kendo Federation curriculum.
I have nothing but the highest praise for Kotaka Sensei as a gentleman and a kenshi. He was a devoted family man. His kind wife always invited me in for green tea and perhaps a piece of fruit after our workouts, especially in his unheated, un-air conditioned dojo in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Sensei tragically lost a daughter to cancer shortly after I left Columbus. She was a beautiful, young, and talented lady and it was a real tragedy. I later heard that Sensei believed his family was suffering under a curse laid on by someone years ago in Japan. Perhaps it was for this reason that Sensei hung up his sword for about a year as a sign of mourning.
Sensei was widely respected as a scientist. He never attempted to make a living out of teaching kendo as far as I know and never asked me to pay tuition. In addition, Sensei was an accomplished judoka, ranked sandan, though he had long since ceased to practice.
In about 1998, Kotaka Sensei told interviewer Dr. Phil Fellman that he had recently attended a special tournament in Tokyo where he fought and defeated fifty kendoka ranked nanadan [7th dan] and above in a row. Of them, only one was able to even score an ai-uchi [strike at the same time]. Dr. Fellman, an experienced practitioner of the Hokkushin Itto-ryu and Kameyama-Ha Owari Yagyu Ryu had this to say after crossing swords with Kotaka:
I noticed from my own match with you that you are able to anticipate virtually any attack before it arrives. I recall quite well that even as I moved only mentally, or simply prepared my breathing, you changed maii, negating my attack before even the first physical movement was begun.17
After his encounter with Dr. Kotaka, he later wrote that
I found Dr. Kotaka to be a charming, humble, knowledgeable gentleman of the old school... I quickly found [when sparring with Kotaka's students] that when I tried to use Hokkushin Itto-Ryu techniques, I was immediately overpowered by the much stronger Kohgen Itto-Ryu style. In that regard, I was greatly impressed that among "strong" or "hard" styles of kenjutsu, no system which I have seen has more vigor than Kohgen Itto Ryu, which even in [the] Edo period had a very powerful reputation... Finding that my Hokkushin techniques were completely inadequate, I then switched to the softer, more fluid Yagyu techniques, which we had inherited from Kameyama sensei and focused more upon smaller movements and attacks to kote... Once we switched to full contact fencing in bogu... I went from being the aggressor to being the punching bag. Finally, Dr. Kotaka put an end to my torment, and engaged me in a more familiar duel-like confrontation (although we still wore bogu). I think I can safely say that never have I faced a more skilled or a more sensitive, and spiritually attuned opponent. Knowing discretion to be the better part of valor, rather than attacking, I simply spent all my time (about twenty minutes) probing in vain for an opening in Kotaka sensei's defense. While he presented me with several apparent openings, I knew that to take any of them would mean instant defeat. Kotaka sensei has a sensitivity which must be felt to be understood. If I used internal breathing to expand my zone of control (a kind of seme technique) he simply stepped back, negating the attack. As far as physical adjustments went, I found that he could adjust to any change in Kamae, no matter how rapid or how complex without leaving me the slightest edge or beat for an opening. Most astonishing was the fact that he could see the attack forming in my mind, when it was still just the faintest glimmer of an idea. I feel that in over twenty years of studying martial arts, much of it internal styles, I have never seen a more spiritually developed instructor than Dr. Kotaka.
Throughout this prolonged dance, Kotaka sensei's zanshin never wavered in the slightest, try though I might to break it. Subjectively, it felt as if the two of us were trapped inside a tunnel with an opening big enough to let only one of us out. I felt very much like a character in an Eric Lustbader novel, standing on the 'killing ground', only it was impossible to make any headway against Kotaka sensei's immovable will. Finally after more than twenty minutes of this, Kotaka sensei suggested that we just try some normal kendo passes to share and exchange techniques, which was a great relief to me. Unlike David and Craig, he did not take this opportunity to pound me into a pulp (which he surely could have done) but rather used it in a non-competitive instructional way to show me many of the Kohgen Itto-Ryu and Classical Kendo techniques and how they could be applied in different situations.18
Whatever disputes people may have had about his bona fides, no one could dispute the quality of his martial ability.
1 "An Interview with Sadao Kotaka" paper in the private collection of the author. The interview apparently was conducted by Phillip V. Fellman around 1997.
3 Ibid. See also Sadao Kotaka, Ph.D., "The Relativistic Quantization of a Classical Kendo," formerly posted on the website of the Classical Kendo Federation (no longer available); email message from Kotaka Sadao to "Japanese Sword Mailing List" dated May 25, 1999; and Kotaka Sukesaburo (Minamotono) Sadayasu [Sadao], "A legend of Sakurai-ha Kaigenji (Kogen) Itto-ryu" from Japanese Sword Art Mailing List, March 2, 2000.
4 The best study in English of the Shinsengumi is Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 2005.
5 All familial and ancestral information comes from the sources cited in note 3 or Jane Van Paepeghem, "A Samurai Never Dies, Just Becomes A Hue of the Sword," Ohio Martial Artist, August 1985, pages 6-8, unless otherwise specified.
6 Paper in the private collection of the author.
7 "An Interview with Sadao Kotaka." This is according to his own words. In view of his later graduate work, it is not clear if he was referring to Tokyo University ("Todai") or the Tokyo University of Education, at which he did his graduate work. See below.
8 Van Paepeghem, "A Samurai Never Dies, Just Becomes A Hue of the Sword."
9 Sadao Kotaka, "The L-Amino Acid Oxidase from Silkworm Eggs," The Journal of General Physiology, Volume 46, 1963 at http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC2195297/pdf/1087.pdf.
10 "Final Report of Contract #3656 (06)," 1967, at http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=AD660028.
11 Van Paepeghem, op. cit.
13 Paper in the private collection of the author. Confusingly, after Miyata's rank, Kotaka Sensei wrote (in Japanese) "Kyoshi, Hanshi." It is not clear whether Miyata was a kyoshi or a hanshi, but it would be unusual for someone graded only 6th dan to be ranked a hanshi, the highest title given to Japanese martial artists and usually reserved for people ranked at least 8th dan. Miyata, according to this paper, taught at the Oakland Buddhist Church in Oakland, CA. Kotaka also wrote that his judo instructor was "Okuzumi Yohzoh" (or Yozo), 7th dan of the Ryotohkan Dohjo (Ryotokan Dojo), and that he either had trained with (or trained with when he returned to Japan) a Takayanagi Sensei of the Hachioji Police Force Dojo in Tokyo.
14 United States Classical Kendo Federation" web site (http://www.internationalclassicalkendofederation.org, no longer active).
15 Sensei no doubt may have had students in California when he lived there before the early 1970s, but at that time he was practicing standard kendo in someone else's school and had made no attempt to reconstruct or build a Kogen Itto-ryu organization. I trained with sensei from about 1972 to about 1978 (perhaps even a little later), leaving Columbus in 1980. I understand that Joe Doles, a veterinarian and Isshin-ryu practitioner from Cleveland, had trained with him before me and may have attained black belt status. I trained with sensei one or two days a week; it is possible that other students trained with him on other days, but I do not believe so.
16 This struck me as odd and raised questions about how well he would have remembered the unique kata and techniques of Kogen Itto-ryu which he learned as a teenager and had not practiced for several decades. I am not certain of the timeframes during which he did not train, but in an interview, he later said that he had not trained for a period of some 10 years. See Fellman, "Interview with Dr. Kotaka Sadao, Headmaster, Sakurai-ha Kohgen Itto-Ryu", 1998. See also the incomplete reconstruction of his life, above.
18 Phil Fellman, "A Visit with the Classical Kendo Federation," web posting hard copy in the possession of the author. These comments coincide exactly with my recollection of keiko with Kotaka Sensei. While always decisive, his scores were never harsh or excessively strong.