The most widely known figure in the establishment of Hapkido is Choi Yong-Sul. There are many varying accounts of Choi's training in Japan and each particular story must be seen in the context of who is writing it. Much of Japanese history is written from an ethnocentric point of view , particularly in relation to Korean history. An example of this is the way Korean history was rewritten to the Japanese viewpoint during their brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. During this period the Japanese tried to completely eliminate Korean thought, cultural arts and the foundation of traditional Korean martial arts as these posed a threat to their authority in an occupied land.
Choi was born in 1904 at Chung Buk province in Korea. Some have said that he lost his parents at an early age. He is thought to have been in Japan by 1913 where he was a servant, perhaps even the adopted son of Daito Ryu Aikijujitsu Grandmaster Takeda Sokaku
. Martial arts historian Kim Jeong-yoon from Seoul says that after Choi was orphaned he was taken to Japan by a Japanese family. He then spent four years living in a temple before Takeda, a close friend of the abbot, took him in. Perhaps a more authoritative account comes from Suh Bok Sub, Choi's first student in Korea.
In an interview with Michael Wollmershauser of Massachusetts in 1996 Suh Bok Sub stated that Choi had told him that he was born into a very poor Korean family who lived close by to a candy factory run by a Japanese couple. The couple took a liking to Choi and, as his family could not afford him, they allowed the couple to return to Japan with their son. This accords with the Kim Jeong-yoon's account. As a Japanese couple took him to Japan there was no problem Choi entering Japan. The couple left Choi at a Buddhist temple so they could travel more widely in Japan and so that Choi could be given an education. Apparently Choi was not interested in schooling and was causing some minor problems by fighting and having a lack of discipline.
The head of the temple sent him to a friend of his by the name of Sokaku Takeda. Choi then cleaned Takeda's dojo for five years after which the master permitted him to learn aikijujitsu. In Suh Bok Subs interview he mentions Choi showing a photograph of Takeda to him and explaining to Suh that Takeda was his surrogate father.
Many aikijujitsu exponents cannot accept the proposition that Choi, a Korean of low status in Japanese eyes could have possibly been taught or been close to Takeda. On the other hand Bernie Lau, an aikijujitsu researcher and instructor in February's 1987 edition of Black Belt commented that one of the more famous styles related to Daito Ryu is hapkido. In addition he makes the comment that Uyeshiba Morehei,
aikido founder and a former student of Takeda, was so far below in social status than the other of Takeda's disciples that he could not even get a proper recommendation to study under Takeda.
In Japan, Choi used the Japanese name Yoshida Tatsujutsu (or Tatujutu) since Japanese law at the time required everyone to use a Japanese name. Dr He-Young Kimm explains that on Choi's return to Taegue city in Korea in 1945 after the end of the Japanese occupation, a bag with his martial arts certificates and money was stolen. This has been confirmed by Suh Bok Sub who states that the bag was stolen at Younson train station after Choi returned to his home town of Yong Dong then decided to locate to Taegu city after he found no one to meet him at the train station. However there is no official records in the Daito Ryu to reflect the granting of a teaching certificate.
Perhaps the reason no records exist is the fact that despite Choi's close relationship with Takeda he was not Japanese and therefore excluded from the records or that he did not pay any money for lessons and thus there is no registration of payment.
Some claim that Choi's training was limited to just attending seminars. Regardless of these conjectures, Choi spent thirty two years in Japan off and on and his techniques reflect a definite link to Daito Ryu Aikijujitsu. Recent information has come to light in the form of a personal inyerview with Master Choi in 1982 in New York where he details the early years of his life. It seems he was abducted by the Japanese couple and then abandoned by them because he was being extremly difficult. This would account for him arriving at a Buddhist monastery because they often looked after orphans.
Suh Bok Sub also mentions that by the time he returned to Korea to stay after the war he was married to a Korean woman and he had three daughters and a son. It seems he had travelled from Japan to Korea previously and met his wife on one of these visits.