The History of Hapkido

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Hapkido (way of coordinated energy) is a Korean martial art derived from Japanese Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. Hapkido typically includes strikes, kicks, jointlocks, throws, falling, and weapons work, and is aimed at developing realistic fighting skills. The martial arts of hwarangdo and kuksul are at least partially derived from Hapkido, and share many of the same characteristics. The story that Hapkido was descended from Wadoryu karate seems to have been pure fantasy. The primary link between Hapkido and Japanese jujutsu was Yong-Sul Choi, whose history is problematic in many ways. Nevertheless, Hapkido and Daito-ryu share the same general body of techniques and are obviously related in some way. Even though there are concerns that Choi’s story is false, it still serves to define the relationship between the two arts.

Yong-Sul Choi (1904-1986) claimed to have trained for many years in Daito-ryu aikijutsu under Sokaku Minamoto Takeda (1860-1943). According to an interview give in June of 1982 and translated by Chinil Chang, Choi was born in the village of Yong-dong in the Ch’ungch’eong province of Korea. When he was about eight years old he met a Japanese businessman named Morimoto. Morimoto was a candy store owner. He and his wife had no sons so they took Choi back to Japan. Bok-Sup Suh indicates that they did so because Choi “was cute and his own family could not afford him.” Choi’s own interview describes the incident as an abduction. He was taken back to Japan, but protested and cried so much that he was abandoned in the town of Moji soon after they arrived in Japan. Choi traveled alone to Osaka, where he was picked up by the police and sent to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto where Kintaro Watanabe (aka. Wadanabi) cared for him. Choi stayed at the temple for two years and then, when Watanabe asked him “what direction I wanted my life to take,” Choi pointed at the murals on the wall depicting martial arts scenes. As it happened, Watanabe was a “close friend” of Sokaku Takeda, and arranged an introduction, after which Takeda decided to adopt him, giving him the name of Asao Yoshida. According to Andre Carbonell,

“Sogaku Takeda era una persona muy orgullosa y provenía de familia de Samurai, por lo que nunca hubiese aceptado a un ‘esclavo coreano’ como alumno. Por eso Choi Yong Sul fue admitido bajo un nombre japones aunque le era prohibido hablar coreano y comportarse como un coreano.”

This translates to:

“Sogaku Takeda was a very proud person and came from a samurai family, who would never have accepted a ‘Korean slave’ as a student. Because of this, Choi Yong Sul had him admitted under a Japanese name although he had prohibited him [Choi] from speaking Korean and behaving as a Korean.”

According to Ki-Tae Chung, Choi’s initial training was not unusual:

“He started like everyone else did. He had to clean the school, learn to sit properly and to watch.
No lessons. For six months Choi, Yong Sul cleaned, sat and watched. It was not like it is now, where you pay and then you take lessons. After six months Choi, Yong Sul spent living in the dojang and doing everything for his teacher, his teacher finally agreed that it is time for this young man, he wants to learn, now I will teach him.”

For the next thirty years, Choi lived at Takeda’s home and dojo “on Shin Su Mountain in the area of Akeda.” Choi was Takeda’s “constant student” and under his personal direction,” as well as serving as “assistant in all of his instruction.” For twenty years of his training, Choi claimed that, “I was secluded in his mountain home.” Choi also claimed that:

“I was my teachers’s assistant in all of his instruction. While in Tokyo, we also taught high-ranking government officials within the palace circle. Also, we traveled to various parts of Japan and taught select groups of people.”

Choi eventually returned to Korea, probably in 1945 after the end of the Second World War. Choi arrived at Pusan City and then took a train for his hometown of Yong-dong. He found no one waiting for him, so he boarded the train again, this time for Taegu city. At the Younson train station, his traveling bag was stolen, along with all his money and his menkyo-kaiden certificate proving his rank in Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. Further, Carbonell relates that,

“El hecho de ser coreano, impidió al maestro Choi tener su nombre en el libro de oro del Daito Ryu. El mismísmo maestro Tokimune Takeda (hijo de Sogaku Takeda) dice no conocer a Choi Yong Sul y apoya el hecho de que sólo japoneses han sido alumnos de su padre.”

This translates to:

“Because he was Korean, he [Takeda] prevented master Choi from having his name in the ‘golden book’ of Daito-ryu. Master Tokimune Takeda himself (son of Sogaku Takeda) says that he did not know Choi Yong Sul and in fact that only Japanese have been pupils of his father.”

Glenn Uesugi adds to this:

“Some years ago, maybe ten years ago now, I began working with Mr. Stanley Pranin, editor of Aiki News Magazine.. Mr. Pranin is a 5th Dan in Aikido and also has excess to all of Takeda Sensei’s records. he could not find a single entry regarding Choi Yong Sool, although Mr. Pranin did locate an entry regarding a seminar Takeda Sensei taught to a group of Koreans in Japan.”

The lack of evidence of Choi’s training in the records of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, combined with his own lack of documentation, raises a veil over Choi’s years in Japan.

Takeda’s most famous student, for whom there is abundant documentation, was Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba founded aikido on the basis of his instruction in Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. If Choi trained under Takeda as he described, then Ueshiba would have been his junior. Choi describes Ueshiba’s encounter with Takeda:

“Once in Hokkaido approximately 30 brigands attacked Master Takeda. He, with his superb abilities dispatched this mass attack with great style. By chance, Ueshiba, Morihei witnessed this incident and was put in awe of Takeda, Sokaku and his martial art. He soon after petitioned my teacher in regard to his becoming my teacher’s student.”

Takeda turned Ueshiba down “because of personal reasons” so Ueshiba appealed to Takeda through Yoshida and was accepted. Choi also remembers that Takeda led an exhibition tour to Hawaii around 1932. Ueshiba was not part of the exhibition team but Takeda took Choi, Jintaro “Abida,” and two others whose names Choi could not recall. Choi also remembered:

“World War II changed things in many ways. The most significant changes happened toward the end of the war. Japan was losing the war and in a last desperation effort the government instituted a special military draft that called up most of the prominent martial artists of the time. These highly trained people were conscripted into special guerrilla-type units that were dispersed throughout the war zone. All of the inner circle of Daito-ryu Aikijutsu were drafted except Master Takeda and myself. All were killed in the final fighting of the war.

I was going to be drafted but Takeda, Sokaku intervened. Through his status and influence, he had me hospitalized for minor surgery. This stopped the process of my conscription and prevented me from being drafted. He prevented me from being put into the war because he felt that if I was killed Daito-ryu Aikijutsu would be lost in its completed form upon his death.”

Choi also claims that Takeda committed harakiri in 1945:

“Shortly after Japan’s surrender to the United States there was a gathering in Otara, Hokkaido, to witness Takeda, Sokaku’s suicide. These people were present; Takeda, Kushiro (eldest son of Takeda, Sokaku), Asao, Yoshida (myself), and some of Master Takeda’s preferred students. Before the ritual began, Master Takeda ordered me to be his second and to take off his head with my sword when he fell. He carefully prepared his ritual table and began. First, he made a brief formal apology to his ancestors and then he killed himself. When it came time for me to sever his head, I could not do it. This man was virtually my father, and I just could not bring myself to do this to his body. Some protest was made because I could not carry out this duty. Takeda, Sokaku’s body was buried by his eldest son.
He said goodbye to me before the ritual. He spoke of my long time desire to return to Korea and bid me to do so promptly after his death. He was concerned that because of my position in his household and because of my Korean heritage, that I would be assassinated if I remained in Japan after his death. Had I remained after his death and tried to succeed him, it would have been dangerous.”

The story Choi told is full of difficulties for historians of Hapkido. For one thing, Choi claims that Takeda committed harakiri in 1945, but both the aikido and Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu Takumakai lineages give his death date as 1943. On the other hand, Takeda had a reputation for being suspicious of assassination. Moreover, if Choi was unable to cut off Takeda’s head when chosen as a second, there certainly would have been more than a “protest” regarding his failure. To be chosen as the second in seppuku is a great honor and a position of great trust. Seppuku involves cutting one’s own belly open and it is the second’s job is to cut off his head and give the performer a quick and dignified end. Instead, Choi apparently either betrayed the samurai code of honor or he simply left Takeda without a second, in which case his master’s seppuku would have been a very painful death indeed.

Other Koreans also trained in Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. In-Mok Chang (1912-) also studied in that style, returning to Taegu City in 1945. Chang taught Hapkido for a time, but since his primary work was as a doctor of oriental medicine and massage, he did not produce many students. Dr. Mok does, however, still have his scroll listing his training record in Daito-ryu.

Despite the loss of his certificate, Yong-Sul Choi began to seek a position teaching the martial arts upon his return to Korea. His first attempt was a failure. He visited a keomdo dojang where they taught both keomdo and yudo, and he demonstrated a few techniques. Do-Hwan Shin, the yudo instructor there, was “very impressed” with Choi’s techniques. Choi claimed that “he learned a special kind of martial art in Japan.” Shin asked about lessons but Choi “asked for too much money” and did not recruit any students.

On Feb. 21, 1948, Yong-Sul Choi met Bok-Sup Suh (b. c1905-6), his first Korean student. Suh was chairman of a brewery making mak ju (Korean wine). Choi was supporting his family by selling cheap rice cakes on the street corners, and had come to the brewery to get some of the grain left over from the brewing. When he discovered that the procedure for this had changed, a fight ensued. Suh came downstairs to stop the fight and noticed that Choi “carried some extraordinary posture that I had not seen before. And I noticed that it seemed like some kind of martial art.” Suh was already a 1st dan black belt in yudo, having studied under Yong-Ho Choi. Suh brought Yong-Sul Choi upstairs to his office, where he had a room full of Japanese yudo mats (tatami in Japanese). Choi demonstrated a few techniques and showed Suh the business card for his instructor, “Takada Sokatu of Daito Ryu.” Suh became his student and took his first lesson the next day. In return, Suh gave Choi money to help him out, paid him in food, and allowed Choi to use Suh’s mat rom for his tojang. Among one of Choi’s first students was Han-Jae Ji (1936-), who began studying with Choi in 1949.

Suh believes that he was Choi’s first student in Korea. Suh recalls that, “Choi, Yong Sool said that first of all he couldn’t afford to teach anybody, he was to [sic] busy making a living. And also nobody was interested to pay for lessons in the amount he asked.” Suh enjoyed daily lessons with Choi even during the Korean War and afterwards, when Choi became a bodyguard to Suh’s father.

Hapkido Kwans

(Standard) McCune-Reischauer Founder Location Year
An Moo Kwan Anmukwan Ji, Han-Jae Taegu City 1956
Sung Moo Kwan Seongmukwan Ji, Han-Jae Seoul 1957
Shin Moo Kwan Shinmukwan Kim, Mu-Hyun Seoul 1961
Moo Sool Kwan Musulkwan Won, Kwang-Wha Seoul 1960s
Yun Moo Kwan Yeonmukwan Myuong, Kwang-Sik Seoul ca. 1967
Hwa Rang Kwan Hwarangkwan Lee, Joo-Bang Seoul 1962

Source: ©Dakin Burdick, 2001 To see full history please visit this page

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( The Hapkido history is (as many) martial arts histories clouded with questions, the history written above may or may not be 100% true. But it do serve as an insight to the history.)