The Greatest Samurai (The Formative Years)
To understand the real Last Samurai, the man who taught Morihei Ueshiba, one has to understand that Samurai were in charge of life and death in old Japan. If you were a peasant, you could be killed by a samurai for the slightest offense. If a samurai killed another Samurai all he had to do was go to the local government headquarters and make a statement, and he was free.
Samurai were trained from birth in a variety of martial arts. They were expected to offer their lives in the service of their Lord, and they were expected to make that life mean something. Samurai were arguably the greatest warriors earth has ever seen.
The greatest Samurai of them all (the real ‘Last Samurai’) may have been Sokaku Takeda. Compared to Myamoto Musashi, referred to as a Tengu (demon), he mastered many different martial arts and weapons including sword, staff, half-bow, short-staff, and darts. He also received a teaching certificate in the spear arts of the Hozoin-ryu, and he taught over thirty 30,000 students during his lifetime, among them the founders of such martial arts as Aikido and Hapkido.
Perched in high branches, the young child watched the approaching armies. The Imperial Forces with their waving flags moved in geometric fashion across the valley. The infantry chanted in thunderous voice, and the immaculate cavalry on their high stepping chargers darted back and forth, shouting challenges to the rebel fighters.
The boy was 10 years old, and small for his age, yet he studied the precise movements of the troops with a bold and fascinated eye. They moved like well oiled machinery, and they looked so beautiful in their lacquered armor, yet his father had merely referred to them as trained dogs. Suddenly, beneath young Sokaku Takeda, the rebels emerged from the forest.
These were not peacocks, but hard and tested warriors, and among them Sokaku could pick out his father, and other family members. These were the men of the Aizu clan, and he felt a fierce surge of pride. Now we shall see, and he unconsciously flexed his fingers–and quickly unflexed them.
He had been slow in mastering a grappling technique during training the night before, and his father had held his hand over the fire while his grandfather watched. He had not cried, had merely stared as his flesh burned. When the punishment was done he had not cradled his hand, but merely let it hang y his side, a reminder to work harder, to master the martial techniques quickly lest the burning punishment happen again.
His flesh had been burned before, and it would be again, but what was more important to him now was the coming fray. Watch and learn, his father had told him the night before–learn what gets a man killed, and what lets a man live. The ten year old knew he must seej the truth of his father’s words, and he settled in to watch the battle.
The Greatest Samurai (Coming to Grips with Death)
Mid-morning, and the Imperial troops initiated an attack, and were met with wave upon wave of arrows. The men of the Aizu clan were remarkable archers, and the downslope of the vale was quickly covered with screaming men.
Still shooting bolts, the Aizu retreated to the tree line. The cavalry, blunted in previous efforts, swung aside and let the infantry through, and the battle began in earnest. Lines of marching men were separated by the trees, and the Aizu went man to man with spear and sword.
Screams, shrieks, orders were raised on the bloody wind. More troops arrived, and the Aizu slowly gave ground. Underneath Sokaku’s tree several Aizu took a stand.
Arrows flew, and were slashed out of the air by arcing swords. The swords, polished to a high degree, were now shiny with the slick fluid of dying men. Raptly, the ten year old boy watched as an Imperial Samurai reached the small conflict taking place at the base of his tree.
The samurai moved past a spear thrust, and then his own sword was deflected, and a dagger inserted between the joint of arm and chest. It slipped through the armor and the warrior sank down to his knees. The battle raged around him, then the small group of Aizu moved back, and the lone Samurai was left, alone, on his knees, to bleed out his final moments of life.
The muted roar of the battle drifting through the forest, the Samurai looked up. Whether for a final glimpse of sky, or to see the heavens open to receive him, the result was the same–he went eyeball to eyeball Sokaku Takeda. Avidly, Sokaku had studied the battle techniques, and now he was beyond technique, he was face to face with a departing spirit.
For long moments the two stared at one another, sharing an eternal moment, then the Samurai’s pupils seemed to widen, and he sighed, and he died. He died on his knees, but upright, too proud to lay down even in death. The boy felt the spirit leave; such an easy passing.
And though the Samurai was an Imperial, he was still a Samurai, and the boy felt pride, for he was a Samurai, too. Then he felt a double dose of pride, for not only was he Samurai, like the brave warrior who had died beneath him, but he was Aizu, the greatest of the Samurai warriors. And through the day the battle swelled and receded like storm tossed waters, and through the day the boy held his perch and watched and learned.
The Greatest Samurai Defeats Justice
It was 1882 when Sokaku Takeda, 23 years old, strode into the Fukushima courtroom. Behind the bench the magistrate felt a cold wind. It was a new era, the Samurai were being disarmed, yet this proud peacock didn’t seem to care.
On a table to the side a sword had been placed. So many men killed by that yard of steel, so many injured and maimed, yet when the magistrate looked up at the cool-eyed Samurai who had wielded the sword there was no expression on his face. Looking into the eyes of the young man was like looking into a bottomless well…at midnight…and there was no moon.
The judge considered what he had heard concerning this samurai. An Aizu warrior, he had begun a warrior’s pilgrimage when he was just thirteen, traveling through the country, training with top swordsmen, even samurai of the shogunate’s Kobusho. Finally, he had begun taking challenges, killing scores of men, and now he was in a courtroom in Fukushima.
The magistrate studied the young man carefully. The judge had old eyes, and he was trying to enforce with Imperial edict and put an end to the hard ways of the Samurai. The young man had haughty eyes, and those eyes pierced the old man like a winter wind, seeing through him, daring him.
In the presence of such a powerful personality, the magistrate felt the depths of his mortality. He had no doubts that if his verdict was unpleasing to the young man, sword or no, the young man could pass a verdict on the court. A bloody verdict, indeed.
“You have killed many people.” The judge forced himself to say the words. In truth, he was terrified.
“They attacked me with picks and shovels and rakes. I defended myself.” Young Sokaku Takeda spoke without remorse.
“So many dead.” The magistrate shook his head. Inside, he was shaking.
“They should not have attacked me.” There was no expression on Sokaku’s face. He was in no danger.
The old man measured the defendant. So brave, so proud. “Since it was self defense, you are free to go, but we shall keep your weapon.”
Takeda showed no expression.
“The age of the Samurai is ended,” stated the magistrate.
Disarmed, Sokaku Takeda was no less dangerous. Spoken down to, he was yet above his accuser. Not cowed at all, strode proudly from the courtroom.
The Greatest Samurai (Death in the Bath House)
Sokaku Takeda, fifty-two years of age, settled back into the hot water. Sighing…he considered his situation. He had been called to this wilderness town two weeks previous, but so far nothing had happened.
Where were the brutal gangsters who ran the smuggling and the gambling in this town? He had seen their slave labor business, but so far he had seen nothing but a pair of skulkers who had followed him from a respectful distance. Where were these gangsters that razed police stations and frightened the authorities so much that they had called for him?
Where were these terrible gangster that–CRASH! The door to the bath house burst open and six thugs crowded into the room. They held their swords in the ready position and came around the sides of the large bath.
Sokaku had scrambled from the water. He grabbed the first weapon he could find…which was a towel. Fortunately, in his hands absolutely anything was a weapon!
“Time you learned some manners,” shouted one of the gangsters, lifting his sword high. All the gangsters moved forward then, snarling insults and telling him what they were about to do to him. They were trying to surround him so they could rush him and kill him.
Though the old man didn’t even have his sword, his reputation was so fierce that none of them were willing to be the first to attack. After all, he had killed dozens of men, highly skilled samurai. It would be far better to surround and rush him together.
“Dogs that that are going to teach me manners, eh?” Sokaku twisted the towel tight, then dipped the tip of the towel into the water.
Giving a fierce scream, one of the gangsters attacked. Sokaku stepped to the side, kept a sure footing on the slippery tiles, and snapped the towel. Crack–and the gangster fell to the floor and held his ribs in agony.
Another thug dashed forward, and another one. Crack! Crack!
Sokaku moved like a demon and flicked his towel like lightening. Crack! Crack!
Five of the thugs lay on the floor of the bath house now, holding their cracked ribs, or entirely unconscious. The sixth gangster dropped his sword and dashed out of the bath house. Behind him, Sokaku Takeda tossed the towel to the side and calmly put his clothes on.
Sokaku Takeda Defeats the Gangsters
Sokaku Takeda emerged imperiously from the bath house. It was only a short walk to the inn where he was staying. Entering the inn, he demanded a sword.
The innkeeper was completely confused by the request. From some unseen hand, however, a sword was presented, and Sokaku hefted the blade. The yard of steel had a good feel to it.
Outside the inn a clamor began to rise. Gangsters were coming down the street. They held up swords and clubs and at their head was the cowardly fellow who had run from the bathhouse.
“We’ll teach you some gangster manners!” At the sides of the streets astonished citizens watched in fear. Gangsters came in pairs and small groups, never had they seen such an outpouring of the thugs.
The innkeeper begged Sokaku not to fight in his inn. Master Takeda stepped past the innkeeper and out onto a balcony. Sword in hand, he stood silently, and the entire troupe of gangsters came to a sudden stop.
A silence fell over the gangster, and in the silence crackled the raw energy of the last last samurai. “Come if you will,” shouted Takeda. “The streets will be filled with bodies before I am through!”
The silence lasted but a moment more, then a woman with a baby curled her baby into her arms and scuttled off. Then a pair of old men turned down an alley. Suddenly, the street became a race track for leaving citizens.
The gangsters looked around and realized something: they were alone, and the man on the balcony was looking at them! A thug at the rear of the pack began moving backwards, then another gangster moved off, and within a minute the avenue was empty. A short time later the boss of the gangsters appealed to Sokaku for a truce.
The Greatest Samurai (The Haunted Years)
It was dark and the house was silent. If a mouse had scratched in a corner, it would have been heard through out the entire residence. Suddenly, a low moaning rose and fell, then silence, then more moaning, rising like a wind warning of storms to come.
“Master!” The servant searched through the house for where Sokaku Takeda slept. The Master slept in a different location every night, and changed his bedding every hour or two. It was the only way, he believed, that he could be safe from his enemies.
“OOOO!” The moan had risen, and the members of the household could be heard moving about, muttering nervously at the sound of the Master’s nightmare. At last, the servant found where Sokaku had unrolled his bedding–in a cupboard under a stairway.
“Master!” The servant was afraid to approach and knock on the cupboard door, for Sokaku slept with a dagger and an iron fan, and in the grip of a nightmare he could easily cut down his servant. The servant reached into a canister and took out an umbrella.
Gingerly, from a distance, he tapped on the door. The doors burst open, and before the servant could even see Master Takeda, the old man had thrown him on the floor. A sharp dagger touched the servant’s throat.
“Eh? Did you think you could sneak up on me? I killed you before and I can kill you…what? What is that?”
Another servant came forth with a lantern, and the sudden influx of light made Sokaku look around. He was confused, bleary-eyed, pale. The knife had drawn a drop of blood from the first servant’s throat, and the arm of the first servant, where Sokaku had gripped him, felt like it was going to break.
“Master?” The first servant pleaded desperately. Bewildered, Sokaku looked at the man he held, then he came to an awareness of what had happened.
Wearily, he reached into the cupboard and drew out his bedding. Without another glance, he walked down the hall, searching for another place to settle down. If only he could sleep undisturbed, but always…always…the souls of the people he had slain sought him out.
The Last Samurai, Sokaku Takeda, was possibly the best samurai who ever lived.