Fame to the Spear ~ Part 1: Shichihon Yari

The yari (槍), which is the Japanese spear, was once considered the strongest weapon. Boosting a long shaft and large blade, it was advantageous on the battlefield. Some armies used yari that was up to about 20 feet, giving the wielders a great reach that kept them safe against enemies at a distance who were using anything shorter. It was to the point where the yari became a status symbol, and only permitted to elite warriors to train in. Yet, it has been overshadowed by the katana (刀), the Japanese sword that was considered to be the soul of the samurai from the Edo period onward. This is mainly in part of battlefield weapons being banned during the Tokugawa rule from the 1600s onward, and the adjustments warriors had to make with arming themselves with the next best thing.

Looking into when the yari made a huge impact was during the 1500s, which was the time period when many warlords utilized formations that involved soldiers being outfitted with this weapon. It was also during this period where the ideal image of a strong warrior was reflected upon those who rode into battle wielding a yari, dispatching enemy troops, and defeating other strong opponents. Notable figures were recorded who demonstrated exemplary skills while bearing this formidable weapon. A popular tag that begin to emerge in the pages of history-focused books was “Shichihon Yari” (七本槍), which refers to seven warriors who had displayed great bravery on the battlefield with the Japanese spear in hand during Sengoku period. For this article, we will look at the most iconic tale that portrays seven brave spearmen, along with a bit of twists due to actual accounts. Finally, we’ll touch upon different groups that are also hailed by this illustrious title.

SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI

The most popular and renown group to bear the title goes to a select warriors who were employed under the ruling power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Here’s how their tale begins.

Artwork featuring few of the Shihon Yari called “Shizugatake Ō-gassen no Zu, by Utagawa Toyonobu.

In 4th month of 1583, after the death of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose up to claim the rights to continue his master’s vision of ruling Japan. He wasn’t the only one who had their sights on this goal, as he would clash in a power struggle against another former Oda loyalist, Shibata Katsuie. In 1583, they would meet both commanding an army of their own and exchange blows in combat within the rocky terrains of Shizugatake in Ika domain, Ōmi prefecture. This battle will be recorded as the “Battle at Shizugatake” (賤ヶ岳の合戦, Shizugatake no Gassen).

The outcome of this battle had Hideyoshi come out as the victory. What is significant to note is that he praised and gave honors to seven warriors for their exemplary heroics during the battle, whom are recognized today as “Shizugatake Shichihon Yari” (賤ヶ岳の七本槍, Seven Brave Spearmen of the Battle at Shizugatake). This was first mentioned in the 20-volume documentation “Taikōki” written by the Confucian scholar Oze Hoan (小瀬 甫庵) in 1626.

These seven warriors are the following:

  • Hirano Nagayasu (平野長泰)(1559年-1628年)
  • Wakisaka Yasuharu (脇坂安治)(1554年-1626年)
  • Katō Yoshiakira (加藤嘉明)(1563年-1631年)
  • Katagiri Katsumoto (片桐且元)(1556年-1615年)
  • Katsuya Takenori (糟屋武則)(1562年-不詳)
  • Fukushima Masanori (福島正則)(1561年-1624年)
  • Katō Kiyomasa (加藤清正)(1562年-1611年)

Each of these warriors were not just random individuals, but were born in military families. Receiving the typical martial training many military families offer, they had their fair share of battle experience before the event at Shizugatake. It can be said that this battle did highlight their potential even more, elevating them up in rank even during the early years of Edo period in the 1600s.

DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD

During the battle at Shizugatake, these seven individuals, wielding a spear each, are praised as being ichiban yari (一番槍). This title means not only being the first to engage with the enemy, but to do significant work that benefited the overall outcome for their side. Due to their high spirit and valor, they helped to turn the tides in the Toyotomi force’s favor of what was starting out to be a difficult battle. This was through gaining ground in areas around Shizugatake, as well as eliminating key figures on the Shibata force’s side, which caused a lost of morale amongst their ranks. Especially Fukushima Masanori, for he managed to take the head of Shibata Katsuie’s commanding officer, Haigo Ieyoshi (拝郷 家嘉). Masanori received the highest reward of 5000 koku (石, stipend in the form of rice per year), while the others received 3,000 koku each.

Other acclaims that add to these seven warriors’ merits include the following:

  • Hirano Nagayasu defeating Shibata Katsumasa (柴田勝政), the adopted son of Shibata Katsuie.
  • Katō Kiyomasa defeating Yamaji Masakuni (山路正国), a warrior who defected to the Shibata side and helped with the initial success the Shibata forces had during the battle. It was through a well-timed counterattack that helped not only turn the ties to the Toyotomi force’s favor, but allowed Kiyomasa to dispose of the traitor¹.
  • Kasuya Takeyori defeating Yadoya Shichiemon (宿屋七左衛門). This event happened while fellow spearman comrade Sakurai Iekazu was locked in battle with Shichiemon. As Iekazu was injured by a cut from his opponent’s yari, Takeyori joined the fray and ran Shichiemon through with his own yari².

LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK

Just as written accounts are considered valuable resources, so can be the same for visual artworks. There are various paintings that depict the battle that took place at Shizugatake at different museums in Japan. The most well known one is a folding screen version from Ōsaka castle, which has been duplicated by other establishments. These artworks also feature the Shichihon Yari, all with unique interpretations as these warriors engage with the Shibata force with their trusty yari in hand.

Since these are visual artworks, they tend to slight variations from the popular tale, but usually not without reason. For example, in the version from Ōsaka castle, the Shichihon Yari are located on the right side together, but the line up is different from what is usually recited. Wakisaka Yasuharu is replaced by another warrior named Ishikawa Heisuke. In another, these seven warriors are shown charging into battle together, but the difference here is Fukushima Masanori is located in another area, already defeated his target. In his place amongst the seven warriors is Sakurai Iekazu.

Why is this? Apparently, it was more than just seven individuals who were praised for their efforts during the battle at Shizugatake. There were 2 more names mentioned, which were Sakurai Iekazu (桜井家一) and Ishikawa Heisuke (石河兵助). They too are considered ichiban yari, and are recognized for their efforts on the field too. On top of this, they were rewarded the same 3,000 koku as the 6 others. So, should the group not be called Kyuhon Yari (九本槍, the 9 Brave Spearmen)?

Speculations on this evolve around the untimely deaths of both Iekazu and Heisuke, with the latter actually dying during the battle, which had his son receive the reward in his place. As for Iekazu, he would die later, but the cause is unclear. In a different 5-volume version of the Taiheiki by Kawasumi Saburōemon, it states that Iekazu died from an illness in 1596. However, in a different account, he dies 3 years after the battle due to the injuries he sustained from his battle with Yadoya Shichiemon, and shortly after, from a revenge battle with the younger brother Yadoya Jirōsuke (宿屋次郎助), where they clashed with tachi (太刀, battlefield swords), then wrestled in kumiuchi (組討, armored warriors grappling) before Iekazu successfully took his life with his knife. Whatever the case is, there is no disagreement on the fact that Ishikawa Heisuke and Sakurai Iekazu fell from grace, and are not praised in the same light as the other seven spearmen.

OTHER SHICHIHON YARI

The term “Shichihon Yari” is believed to have been invented in later times, much after Sengoku period was over and these famed warriors had passed. Due to this, it became a coin term that other writers used to speak about exemplified spear-wielding warriors during various battles. Below are a few examples.

1) Ueda Shichihon Yari
Early in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Hidetada led a force of his own alongside with his father, Ieyasu. Hidetada’s force would make their way to Ueda castle, which was occupied by Sanada Masayuki. This encounter is known as “Battle at Ueda” (上田合戦, Ueda no Gassen). During this battle, seven warriors from the Tokugawa’s sided are recognized for their valiant efforts. Their names are the following:

  • Saitō Nobuyoshi (斎藤信吉)
  • Ono Tadaaki (小野忠明)
  • Shizume Koreaki (鎮目惟明)
  • Nakayama Terumori (中山照守)
  • Asakura Nobumasa (朝倉宣正)
  • Toda Mitsumasa (戸田光正)
  • Tsuji Hisayoshi (辻久吉)

Highest merits go to Ono Tadaaki, but in a turn of events he was also punished soon afterwards due to a violation in military orders, which was considered a huge crime. While he would be pardoned at a later date, this incident does tarnish Tadaaki’s image abit.

Another surprising point about this battle is that Tokugawa Hidetada and his force lost the fight against Sanada Masayuki and his force. While noted as a defeat, it’s also important to point out that none of these warriors died during this battle.

2) Azukizaka Shihon Yari
Possibly the first real account of skilled spearmen comes from one of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns. In 1542, Nobunaga lead an army east towards Azukizaka in Nukatagun, Mikawa no Kuni. There, he would clash with the military force of the Imagawa/Matsudaira coalition. This event, the 1st of the ongoing conflict between these groups, is known as “Battle at Azukizaka” (小豆坂の戦い, Azukizaka no Tatakai).

During this battle is the first mention of what can be considered skilled spearmen that controlled the tides of a battle. Here’s the names of these acclaimed warriors:

  • Oda Nobufusa (織田信房)
  • Oda Nobumitsu (織田信房)
  • Sasa Masatsugu (佐々政次)
  • Sasa Magosuke (佐々孫介)
  • Okada Shigeyoshi (岡田重能)
  • Nakano Ichiyasu (中野一安)
  • Shimokata Sadakiyo (下方 貞清)

From the Nobunaga clan’s written account called “Shinchō Kōki” (信長公記), it is said that these seven warriors were formidable in forcing the opposition to retreat, leading to victory. Unfortunately, there is not much detail about what actually took place and the feat these warriors performed on the battlefield. Note that while we know about this battle from this source, the Matsudaira clan’s well-documented “Mikawa Monogatari” makes no mention of this event. What’s even more interesting is that there was 2 battles that took place at Azukizaka, the 1st being 1542, and the 2nd in 1548. Both clans have detailed accounts on the 2nd battle, while the 1st is only mentioned in Shichō Kōki. There are a lot of speculations regarding this 1st battle, and whether it actually happened on the level it is claimed to have been.

ENDING

This here concludes our look at the yari through literature & artwork from Edo period. The tale of the Shichihon Yari offers a good look at how important and impactful this Japanese weapon was viewed during the Sengoku period, which influenced certain groups to continue to work with it even to modern times. Stay tuned for part 2, where we look at a few yari that were recorded as legendary treasures.


1) In another account, it is stated that a Hazumi Goemon (八月一日五左衛門), one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retainer’s men, had taken Yamaji Masakuni’s head.

2) Depending on the source, who is said to have killed Yadoya Shichiemon varies. While Sakurai Iekazu was outbested by Shichiemon and would’ve died if it wasn’t that he was rescued, it is said that he landed the killing blow. However, Iekazu was only able to do so after Kasuya Takeyori ran his spear through Shichiemon’s chest, incapacitating him.

The Female Leader and Strategist named Myōrinni

Today’s article features the tale about a female warrior name of Myōrinni ( 妙林尼 ), who lived during the frantic Sengoku period in the 1500s. Hailing from northern Kyūshū, she earned merits by defending her clan’s homeland at a time when it was in danger of being taken over by an invading force. In this article, we’ll look into what is known about Myorinni’s past, the events she took part in, and how she is remembered in present day.

One thing worth mentioning is that the records of Myōrinni are, like many other women during ancient Japan, not as well documented as her male counterparts. A few sources that do mention her and her acts of bravery include ” Ōtomo Kōhaiki” (大友興廃記, Rise & Fall of the Ōtomo Family), and “Ryōbunki” (両豊記, Bungo Province: Before & After). It is very difficult to come across the official sources, but fortunately there are a good number of Japanese websites that cover her story. Here’s a few sites that were helpful in writing this article:

THE BEGINNING

Looking into Myōrinni’s past, we learn that there’s not much recorded prior to her becoming a renown female warrior and leader. There are uncertainties regarding her birth father, for it is either she was the daughter of Hayashi Sakyonosuke (林左京亮 ), a Shintō priest at Oe Shrine, or Niu Kojiro Masatoshi (丹生小次郎正敏), a nationalist who specialized in a mining business. This has not been definitively confirmed. Who her mom was is also a mystery. Another mystery is her original name, which is unknown to this day; the name “Myōrinni” is a Buddhist name she took after becoming a nun. Variants of this name includes “Yoshioka Myōrin” and “Yoshioka Rinko”, with Yoshioka (吉岡) being the family name she married into.

A statue in Oita City, in honor of Myōrinni. From Wikipedia.

Why is there so little background info? A common reason behind this is because of how record-keeping were handled in the past. For instance, when it came down maintaining a family line’s genealogy chart, generally boys’ names were recorded, while girls were simply identified as “woman” or “daughter”. Women of a particular status usually associated with the Imperial court, held power such as land, or took part in an important or well-documented event would then have their names and background stories recorded in journals or diaries. You can say for half of her life, Myōrinni lived a simple life where who she was and her roots were not so significant enough where anyone needed to write it down.

Her story as a warrior, as far as we can tell, begins at a time when her husband, Yoshioka Akioka (吉岡鑑興), who was a retainer for the Ōtomo clan (大友家), and land owner of Takada villa (高田庄 Takada jō), Tsurusaki castle (鶴崎城, Tsurusaki jō), and Chitose castle (千歳城, Chitose jō). Their land was in the north-eastern part of Bungo Province (豊後の国, Bungo no kuni) located in Kyūshū, which was an island in the south-western part of Japan. They also had a son named Yoshioka Munemasu (吉岡統増), who was old enough to serve the Ōtomo clan as he helped manage Tsurusaki castle. In terms of her appearance, there is not much to go by during her youth to the time she was married to Akioka. However, there is much depiction of her later on wearing your typical Buddhist attire, which includes an iconic shawl and simple robes.

ŌTOMO VS SHIMAZU

The Yoshioka clan was a prominent one, as they were descendants of the elite Ōtomo family. They were also involved in the governance of their parent clan thanks to Akioka’s father, Yoshioka Nagamasu (吉岡長増). Along with the Ōtomo family having significant power in their own rights, they were also retainers to the current shogun of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the time, Kyūshū was divided into two, with Ōtomo clan having control of the northern half, and the Shimazu clan, land owners of Satsuma Province (present-day western part of Kagoshima Prefecture) further south west, controlling the southern half. As like many clans that sought more power through expansion, the Shimazu clan was extending their reach little by little by acquiring more territories in Kyushu, as they made their way towards the north. This includes a particular area called Hyūga Province (日向の国, Hyūga no kuni, which is present-day Miyazaki Prefecture).

In the 9th month of 1578, 21st successor Ōtomo Yoshishige commanded an army in an attempt to regain Hyūga from Shimazu’s clutches. At the time, Shimazu Yoshihiza was occupying Taka castle (高城, Taka jō) in Takagigawa no Hara (高城川原), Hyūga Prefecture with his own force. Both armies would clash head-on, which would lead to the “Battle at Takagigawa” (高城川の合戦, Takagigawa no Gassen). At first, the Ōtomo force had the upper hand, and were gaining ground against the opposition as they tried to overtake the castle. However, in the 11th month of the same year, Yoshihiza devised a strategy where his army would unexpectedly divide and surround the Ōtomo force from the east and west. Doing so caused them to flee towards Mimi river (耳川, Mimi kawa), where many soldiers including top commanders on the Ōtomo side had drowned as they tried to fend against the overwhelming odds. This triumphant victory for the Shimazu clan had this incident called “Battle at Mimi river” (耳川の戦い, Mimikawa no Tatakai). Akioka, Myōrinni’s husband, was also one of those who had died during this. Upon learning about the death of her husband, Myōrinni decided to retire herself to Buddhism. It was at this time she took up her Buddhist name, and was from this point on was recorded as so.

Facing a major victory, this boosted the morale of the Shimazu army, as they continued to make their way up north of Kyūshū, ambitious in taking over the region completely. On the other hand, things didn’t look to good for the governance of Ōtomo clan, as they lost some key members. In fear, the Ōtomo clan were able acquire aide from their master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Reinforcements were sent to help safeguard points they still had control over, but they too failed to suppress the invaders’ northern expansion. With nothing to stop them, the Shimazu force made their way to Ōtomo Yoshishige’s mainstay, Niujima castle (丹生島城, Nuijima jo).

MYŌRINNI’S PREPARATIONS FOR WAR

Munemasu, along with the younger soldiers, left Tsurusaki castle to provide aid to the Ōtomo clan by preparing fortification at Usuki castle (臼杵城, Usuki jō), leaving his mother, children, women, and older soldiers behind. Myōrinni was concerned about the safety of everyone who remained at the castle, for it was possible that the invading Shimazu clan would target them as well. Not wanting to give in to the idea of sitting idly just to surrender when the time came, she devised countermeasures to outlast a possible siege. She evaluated the castle’s strong points, as there were plenty; Tsurusaki castle was situated between bodies of water to the east, west and north, providing it natural defenses that made it too difficult for an invading army to attack in these areas. She had everyone at the castle help with setting up defensive measures to Tsurusaki castle, which included digging pits in the field as traps, and setting up makeshift alarms called naruko (鳴子, small hollowed bamboo pieces strung to a wooden board by a rope) to prevent potential infiltration attempts. Myōrinn also had everyone with no combat experience train how to use matchlock guns in order to fire at the enemies from a distance within the safety of the castle.  

In 1586, Shimazu Yoshihiza set forward a two-prong assault, one on Usuki castle where the Ōtomo army set up fortification, and another towards Tsurusaki castle, where Myōrinni and her makeshift force were preparing their defenses. It is stated that Yoshihiza sent retainers such as Ijūin Mimasaka-no-kami Hideo, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, and Shiraha Suou-no-kami Shigemasa, along with 3000 troops, to storm Tsurusaki castle. The Shimazu force could only approach from the south, which made it perfect for Myōrinni’s defensive plans to go into effect.

While the invaders charged with what can be considered unmatched might, they fell prey to the many pitfalls cleverly designed in the southern path, while the naruko alarms made it easy to pinpoint where the soldiers were as the battle-inexperienced civilians released volleys of shots from their guns and stopping them in their tracks. The Shimazu force apparently made 16 attempts to storming the castle, but each time was the same as before, which them being forced back by the near-impregnable defense Myōrinni and her militia were maintaining.

ANOTHER BRILLIANT TRAP

Despite the successful defensive play, Myōrinni was faced with an impending issue. Tsurusaki’s food rations were heavily depleted, while many of the inhabitants were becoming fatigued from the many assaults that came towards the castle. On top of this, despite successfully halting a possible invasion 16 times, it doesn’t look like the Shimazu force was ready to give up. The invaders then sent a message to Myōrinni, stating that if she allowed the gates of Tsurusaki castle to be open so that they can claim the castle peacefully, they will ensure safety to her and the inhabitants. Thinking that the safety of her people present was top priority than to risk their lives and fail in a battle they cannot outlast, she agreed to the terms. However, what the Shimazu force didn’t realized that this was a mere ploy, and that Myōrinni was scheming on how to use the situation to her benefit.

Tsurusaki castle’s gates were opened, permitting entry to the 3 Shimazu generals and their troops, while Myōrinni and the others were allowed to reside in the lower level  of the castle. For several nights, Myōrinni and several of the women in her group entertained their new guests as they feasts by serving them alcohol and the like. This allowed them to get closer to them. She noticed that one of the generals, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, became particularly fond of her, and was developing feelings for her. Myōrinni decided to keep this relation with him, and use it at the right moment to her advantage.

The Shimazu force were successful in extending their reach into Hyūga province, and invading into the lands of the Yoshioka and Ōtomo family. With much of the Ōtomo force held up in Usuki castle, they needed more help in order to contend with the large Satsuma army. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi amassed a very large army¹, which he set out to reclaim Kyūshū. Suspecting that the Toyotomi force would bring the battle straight to Kyushu to drive them out, Shimazu Yoshihiza had ordered his troops who occupied different points in Kyushu to concentrate their power in Hyūga Province. This included the 3 generals who held Tsurusaki castle.

Fumitsuna, worried about Myōrinni’s safety as the impending war loomed over them, suggested to her that she move to Satsuma Province. This way, in case the Satsuma force had lost, she wouldn’t be caught and punished for being a traitor. Myōrinni happily obliged², but not for the reason Fumitsuna believed. That night, after getting Fumitsuna drunk & wasted, she quickly wrote a letter and had it delivered to the 50 retainers of the Yoshioka clan³, which included a Tokumaru Shikibe (徳丸式部) and his family, Mukaishin Uemon (向新右衛門), and the Nakamura Shinsuke brothers (中村新助兄弟). This letter served as a declaration that they were to prepare for war against the Shimazu force.

DECISIVE BATTLE TO RID OF THE INVADERS

As the 3 generals left Tsurusaki castle with their troops as they moved southward towards Hyūga Province, they were ambushed on their way by a small army of Yoshioka retainers. This clash took place near Otozu-river (乙津川, Otozu-gawa), with the Shimazu force caught with their backs to the river. This skirmish is known as “Battle at Terajihama (寺司浜の戦い, Terajihama no tatakai), as well as “Battle at Otozu-river” (乙津川の戦い, Otozu-gawa no tatakai). The 3 generals and their troops were defeated woefully, with 2 of them dying in battle. Although Fumitsuna suffered many wounds from arrows rained upon him and his troops, he still managed to survive long enough to escape to Hyūga Province. However, he would shortly pass away from his fatal wounds.

In the Yoshioka accounts, it is written that during this battle, the Yoshioka clan personally took down the 3 Shimazu generals, along with 300 of their soldiers. On top of this, Myōrinni is mentioned to have participated as well, and took the heads of 63 enemy soldiers. As a sign of her loyalty and dedication, she had those heads sent to Ōotomo Yoshishige, who was at the time at Niujima castle. She received much praise for her efforts. As for the loses on the Shimazu side, they suffered a heavy death toll during the battle. As a means to put the lost soldiers to rest, a burial site was created near Terajihama called “Sennin Zuka” (千人塚).

Word spread about the Yoshioka’s success, especially about Myōrinni’s impressive feat in organizing their successful battle at Terajihama. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was also informed, who then requested that Myōrinni come to Ōsaka castle in person and be bestowed honors. However, Myōrinni had no interest in this, and humbly turned this down. Instead, she merely asked that she keeps her late husband’s keepsake sword as a reward for fulfilling the role as castle lord while her son was supporting the Ōtomo clan, and assisting in defeating the Shimazu clan from northern Kyūshū, which was motivated by acts of revenge for her late husband.

ANALYZING MYŌRINNI’S LEGACY

After these events, there is no more word about Myōrinni. It is thought that, as a Buddhist, she removed herself from the political life the Yoshioka clan were involved with, and went into seclusion to live the remainder of her life in peace. Today, a statue honoring the legacy of Myōrinni can be seen in Tsurusaki Ward⁴ of Oita City, Oita Prefecture. She is even elevated to the level of a saint, where some establishments in Oita City sell omamori (御守り, talisman) that represent her.

The official website for Oita City has several publications that feature Myōrinni. The following is one of them, which features her (circled in red) amongst other historical figures whom are considered heroes of northern Kyūshū. From City of Oita Offical Website.

While she has considerable fame especially in what can be considered her hometown, there is still much mystery that surround Myōrinni as a whole. For example, it seems that just as sudden as she makes her appearance during the Ōtomo family’s war against the Shimazu force, her story ends just as abrupt once her role is done. There are no clear details about she lives the rest of her life. In terms of her own combat experience, we don’t get any info on that either. Yet, from little descriptions we are told that she designed the defensive measures for Tsurusaki castle, and had all the residents there train for combat, especially with muskets. In her own rights, it is possible that prior to the events between the Ōtomo family and the Satsuma army, Myōrinni may have learned much about warfare and worked closely to her late husband. Or, she may have learned about combat even before marriage. The latter is a stretch, as usually women of a military family can gain such access to combative training.

While she is admired by her cleverness and commitment in freeing her land, we must also wonder if this was truly a one-woman show. It is not unusual for leaders to discuss & plan with others, such as a strategist. However, in Myōrinni’s case there is no mention of her working closely with anyone. It is possible that she spoke with, and was assisted by, a few of the older soldiers that were in her party. It would make sense, especially to have them help train the residence to be battle ready. Alas, as they remain nameless in the original sources, their involvement in the battles also go unmentioned. Lastly, accounts mention how she beheaded 63 soldiers from the Shimazu army. How did she go about doing this? During the battle at Terajihama? Or afterwards, on captured enemy troops? If she did participate in the skirmish, did she do so with her husband’s sword, a matchlock gun, or a naginata? It is a shame that these details were left out, but it is also not unusual. In fact, it is pretty common to find pinpoint details regarding what took place during battles for many important figures.

ENDING

The bravery and strategic genius of Myōrinni is quite impressive, as it illustrates how well-formulated plans can foil even the largest of armies. Her story has been covered over the years, both in novels and historical programming in Japanese, which helps to keep her legacy going even in modern times. Here’s hoping this article continues this trend, as it serves to introduce Myōrinni’s story to a western audience.


1) One of the figures given for Hideyoshi’s troop support is 200,000. War journals of old are known to inflate the size of armies as a means to illustrate that they were large. Thus, this figure is most likely an exaggerated number, and should be much lower.

2) There is another version of this, where Myōrinni initiated the conversation about accompanying Fumitsuna back to Satsuma Province.

3) These retainers are related to the Yoshioka-owned Takada Manor, and most likely reside there. It’s possible that this is where they were when the letter was delivered.

4) Former grounds of Tsurusaki castle.

“Dō” and its Influence on Kenjutsu Terminology

Recently I had a conversation with a fellow colleague who specializes in Japanese history about fighting between armored warriors during the late 1500s of Sengoku period. We discussed about how techniques like “dō giri” can be performed despite how much protection Japanese armor provided during that time. For those new to this, dō giri means “cutting the torso”. It is made up with the following kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived characters):

  • dō (胴) = Body, torso
  • giri (斬り/切り) = cutting, slashing

Like other kanji, dō has other uses, which gives different nuances to its core definition. For this article, We’ll look at the historical use of dō and similar words in the relations of armor, how they work in conjunction with kenjutsu. Also, we’ll touch upon the use of the word dō giri outside of the battlefield and how it became a specialty term in society.

THE ROLE OF ARMOR

The generation where Japanese warriors engaging on the battlefield decked in armor has long passed. Yet, its influence can still be seen today. Both classical and modern Japanese martial arts still make reference to Japanese armor in different ways. In the case of classical systems, those that have a history that dates back before or during Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) tend to possess many poetic naming schemes for techniques. Some of these also include armor references. This is in the form of specific parts of armor representing areas of the body. The most common ones include the following:

  • Dō = 胴
  • Kote = 籠手
  • Men / Menpō = 面 / 面類

As mentioned before, dō stands for the upper body. In the case of armor, the same kanji is used for naming the chestplate of the armor, which usually provides protection from slightly under the collarbone down to the stomach. The kote is the gauntlet, which covers the back of the forearms. Men, or also known as menpō , is a half face mask that generally covers the nose down to the chin. As armor parts designed to provide adequate protection to important areas while on the battlefield, it is interesting to note that these are also prioritized target areas in many martial systems, especially kenjutsu styles that were further developed during Edo period. Those who are initiated into the specifics about these in their respected systems understand how to approach these.

Pic of a suit of Japanese armor, which features ① do (chestplate), ② men (facemask), and ③ kote (gauntlet). From the book “Art of the Samurai: Japanese arms and Armor, 1156-1868”.

ANSWERING THE “WHY?”

Looking into these aforementioned three parts of armor, it’s interesting to note that they can repel otherwise life-threatening weapon impacts. When you really think about it, why would would armor parts be used to reference areas to attack in kenjutsu? Should it not be the opposite, where words that clearly depict what you are striking at be used instead?

One possible answer to this is looking at the period when martial systems were under development. During the Edo period from mid 1600s onward, society was moving away from raising warriors for war to becoming more business/career-minded. Martial artists focused more on opening training halls where locals and/or certain individuals from elite samurai families could train at. This required a structured approach to teaching large numbers of students, yet still making sure that the contents could not be easily stolen by outsiders. One approach was using non-general words as labels for techniques.

Non-general words ranged from terms related to Shinto, Buddhism, nature, animals, specialty occupations, to even armor parts. These non-general words were like a code, where if you weren’t taught what they meant or what they referred to according the the martial system, then a person couldn’t figure out how to do the techniques. This was especially effective for keeping the contents secret in the event a scroll was ever lost. So, in the case where dō (chestplate) is used, only those students who are taught the particulars behind the usage of this word will understand why this variation was chosen than than the common dō (torso).

Another layer of secrecy was to use different kanji to represent these non-general words. This was against those who were literate and had martial arts experience. Let’s take a look at the word kote, which normally stands for gauntlet. There are a few ways to write this in kanji, such as the following:

  • 籠手
  • 篭手
  • 甲手

Which one is used can be dependent on which region in Japan you’re situated in. So, you may use one of those three ways to refer to gauntlet that is understood in a group far out in the east, yet not familiar at all to another group that resides in the south.

To go even further would be to use kanji that creates an obscured word. In the case of kote, using the kanji “小手” was an Edo-derived variant which, to the unlearned, would not be easily deciphered as referring to gauntlet. Or, to omit the use of kanji and instead write the name in kana (仮名, phonetic Japanese script), such as こて or コテ. One more layer of protection would be to teach the specifics verbally, but have students identify them with numbers in their physical notes. This is common practice in some schools that give out mokuroku (目録, listing of techniques), which is effective in case it ever gets lost or stolen.

Modern martial arts have adopted the use of using these three terms for armor parts, which is especially noticeable in kendō. A sports-oriented martial art that incorporates bōgu (防具, protective gear) that include a men (面), dō (胴), kote (小手). They still serve as protection against the stinging strikes from the shinai (竹刀, bamboo sword) used in competitions, but also double as the targeted areas one can score a point through clean hits.

OTHER ADAPTATIONS

As Japan’s society headed towards peace & prosperity from the Edo period onward, dō and its significance in kenjutsu found further adaptions outside of the battlefield. Let’s refer back to the term “dō giri”, which can be viewed as a prime example. At some point, dō giri became a coin term for cutting things perfectly in half. This can be found in literature that involves legendary martial artists whose kenjutsu were unparalleled, or near-miraculous feats with swords that belonged to important historical figures. One popular tale involves the famous swordsman Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎) who was active during the late 1500s to early 1600s. It’s told that during his youth, Ittōsai not only defeated a group of thieves attempting to steal from a shrine he was staying in, but expertly sliced in half one of the thieves who had hidden in a barrel used for ritual practices.

A depiction of suemonogiri, performed on a still living criminal. From Wikipedia.

Outside of literature, the word dō giri became a means to measure how sharp a sword was, like a counter. This was an old practice called tameshigiri (様斬り). Different from the tameshigiri (試し斬り) where one develops their sword skills by cutting rolled tatami mats, which is popularly practiced by many kenjutsu schools around the world, there was a practice of tameshigiri that involved cutting the dead bodies (in some cases also live bodies) of criminals. Around the 1500s, bladed weapons like swords and spears were commissioned for sharpness testing to a magistrate who would take the role of a tameshimono (様者). The bodies of criminals who were sentenced to death were kept, which where the magistrate can later perform tameshigiri. A version of this was suemonogiri (据え物斬り), where one to several dead bodies were piled on a mound of dirt, and the magistrate would attempt to slice through the torso(s) in one shot. Depending on how many that were successfully cut through would determine the grade for the sword. If only one body was divided, then it would be a hitotsu-dō (一ツ胴), while three bodies would be mitsu-dō (ミツ胴). The highest grade recorded is seven bodies, which is nanatsu-dō (七ツ胴).

The practice of tameshigiri continued into Edo period, where the Tokugawa bakufu commissioned skilled swordsmen to test specially crafted swords. This was not only done on dead bodies, but at times for executing live criminals. This would extend further from just dividing the torso in one stroke, but rating how well a sword would cut through other parts of the body, such as the neck and the leg. The performance of these swords would then be recorded on the nakago (中子, tang) of the sword. Renown individuals to perform as otameshi goyō (御様御用, distinguished test cutters) for the Tokugawa bakufu come from the Yamada family, where each generation adopted the title “Asaemon”.

CONCLUSION

Understanding history behind words can give a clear glimpse on how they influence the changes in society over the generations. This is true for dō (胴), which has its own unique development in different walks of life. Stay tuned for more of this, as there will be a future post that covers many of the famous depiction of the word “dō giri” from Japanese literature.

Kurai Dori: Taking Control through Skilled Footwork

Last Thursday, Chikushin Group held an event called Shochūgeiko (暑中稽古), which is a special training done during the hot days of summer. It took place on the beach in full training attire, which proved to be challenging. Due to the differences in training grounds, we were able to work on certain principles we would’ve normally not get a chance. One of these was on the lesson of kurai dori. For this article, we’ll look into the meaning behind this word, how it applies to martial arts, and how we approached this during this special training on the beach.

Kurai dori (位取り) means taking control over a situation through an advantageous position. This is a form of lesson that is found in many Japanese martial systems. It is easier to analyze this through a 1-on-1 scenario, where one person takes the high ground on uneven terrain, or has the sun behind their back. This directly influences the type of kamae (構え), or posture, one uses, accordingly. When both sides are on even grounds in the conflict, then it’s a matter of skill in one’s footwork and movement when fighting is unavoidable. This was part of the theme for our event on the beach, which made it an invaluable lesson for those who took up this challenge.

For example, one segment in the event involved running on the sand. While it sounds simple, it can feel sluggish as most people will drive their force downward into the sand. This makes us sink down abit while we won’t move as fast as we’d like to. However, to really move nimbly requires ability to carrying one’s weight in a way where each step becomes lighter. We put this to the test through drills where two people then run at each other with sword in hand, and the defender needed to evade an overhead cut from the opponent in order to successfully counterattack. Understanding the principle behind carrying one’s weight, which we call ukimi no ho (浮身の法) in our group, is vital for this.

Another point we explored involved taking the initiative while running towards an opponent with a sword thrust. For one was the idea of initiating this slightly beyond our cutting range while low profiling. If done correctly, we will connect with our opponent before he/she can strike us with their own sword. We looked at a few ways to make this safe for us in case our opponent is skilled enough to dodge. One was to use momentum from our run to keep going, for if we missed, we would be able to avoid any counter attack by running by and making distance that would be safe to stop and turn around to once again face the opponent. The other would be to dig our feet into the sand while initiating the thrust, which will not only ground us so we can stop early, but puts us in a position where we can quickly re-adjust and spring upon our opponent with a follow up attack.

In short, the concept behind kurai dori has many layers based on the type of area, type of ground, and so on. Exploring this while on the beach was very fruitful, as our footwork and movements where greatly influenced by the conditions one faces while on sand. Looking forward to future events that allow practitioners to getting a different perspective to the lessons we normally train, but from a different environment.

Bokuden and his Live Lesson regarding the Naginata

Today’s post is a continuation of reviewing the Hyakushu, a gunki (軍記, military documentation) written by the famed Tsukahara Bokuden. Whereas in a previous post we went over various rules out of the 100 entries found in the Hyakushu, this time we look at 3 that focus on a particular theme. Along with this, will be a real life story of Bokuden that serves as an example of, through experience, how advice can be passed down with merit.

RULES ABOUT THE NAGINATA

The 3 rules we will look at are #35, #36, and #37. These 3 rules share a common theme regarding on the weapon known as the naginata (長刀 or 薙刀, glaive). Here’s the rules both in Japanese, and their English translations provided by myself. The source being used is the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓):

Rules #35, 36, and 37 from the Hyakushu, circled in red.

ー、長刀は二尺にたらぬほそ身をは持は不覚の有と知るへし(三十五)

ー、手足四つ持たる敵に小長刀持て懸けるとよもや切られし (三十六)

ー、太刀かたな持たる敵に小長刀しすます時に相討ちとしれ(三十七)

  • It is a disadvantage to wield a naginata with a blade less than 2 shaku (2 feet) (#35)
  • You will certainly not get cut down by an enemy who possesses many skills, wielding a konaginata (#36)
  • Understand that you, despite how skillful you are, will end up in a mutual kill against an enemy who wields a tachi or katana (#37)

In regards to #35, the standard length of the blade found on an ōnaginata (大長刀, a long-bladed glaive) in the past was 2 shaku 3 sun (87.4 cm) or greater, while anything less would be a konaginata (小長刀, a short bladed glaive).  Here, Bokuden implies that any naginata that has a blade less than 87.4 cm, is a konaginata, which he does not have a favorable opinion on.

For #36, one should not worry about an enemy wielding a konaginata. No matter how skillful he/she is, or tricks they may use, because their reach is short it will not be a problem to defeat them. Naginata’s advantage is reach, but making it shorter, especially the blade, nulls that advantage.

As for #37, Bokuden advises against using a konaginata. It is a continuation from both #35 and #36, except that now he cautions skilled warriors that no matter how good you are, at most you will end up committing ai-uchi (相打ち), where both fighters die at the same time delivering killer blows. It can be said that Bokuden puts more faith in kenjutsu than naginatajutsu.

Note that this is just the opinion of one individual, and these rules are not written in stone that the konaginata is an ineffective weapon. This is probably based on his experience with the weapon, or what he’s seen by those who so happen to use this.

A version of Tsukahara Bokuden’s duel against Kajiwara Nagato, found in the book “Budō Gokui” (武道極意)

BOKUDEN VS THE NAGINATA SPECIALIST

Speaking of experience, there are many recordings in regards to Bokuden’s real life experiences in combat, many of them related to duels and fights. One particular story that will be covered here is his bout against a specialist who fights with a konaginata. Note that many sources such as “Nihon Bugei Shoden” (日本武芸小伝) and “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史) reference this story, sometimes in great details, and other times not. Below will be the story as full and accurate as possible. Take note that there are some graphical descriptions in the text, so please read with caution.


During Bokuden’s kaikoku shugyō (廻国修行, journey around Japan for the sake of training and employment), he came across a warrior by the name of Kajiwara Nagato (梶原長門). Through much boasting, Nagato was making a name for himself as a renown fighter with the naginata. He did so by performing feats of leaping into the air, and coming down with a strong strike fast enough to cut down birds such as kiji (雉子, green pheasants) and kamo (鴨, ducks). Nagato also claimed that no warrior has yet to either avoid or withstand his power strikes, as many of them, whether they be swordsmen or spearsmen, were slain in mortal duels. Furthermore, he made it known that he used a peculiar method of first cutting off his opponent’s left hand, then the right hand, before finally finishing them of by cutting clean through the neck. Learning about these points, Bokuden was certainly up for facing against such an individual. So he challenged Nagato to a duel to the death, who willingly accepted.

When the day came, the two held their duel at the lower area of Kawagoe in Bushū (present-day Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture). While Bokuden wielded a tachi (太刀, an older word for sword), Nagato used a konaginata, with the blade length about 1 shaku 5 sun (57 cm). Bokuden’s disciples were there to bear witness¹. At the start of the duel, Nagato leapt at Bokuden like a bird taking flight², and swung his konaginata down at him. Bokuden evaded the attack, with the konaginata’s blade cutting into the ground. Instantly, Bokuden countered with a severe blow, as he sliced Nagato’s face in two.


ANALYSIS

Depending on the source, Bokuden is usually depicted as expressing the weaknesses of the konaginata to his disciples right before the fight. If stated simply, he mentions that having a long shaft, yet a short blade for a naginata gives no advantage no matter how fast the wielder moves or tricks used. Whether or not he actually spoke such info right before the duel is hard to prove, but for the sake of the readers this could’ve been included to further enhance his views regarding the konaginata. In regards to Nagato’s merit, Bokuden also expressed his opinion about him not being that great, as cutting down wild birds or inexperienced warriors was nothing that impressive. In some sources this conversation is short and just focuses on the size disadvantage the konaginata has, while in others it is quite long and detailed.

In some sources, credit is given to Bokuden for incorporating psychological warfare. As an example, from the tales coming from Kashima City, there is one that states Bokuden lecturing his disciples about the weaknesses of the konaginata…while his opponent was in ear shot. This made Nagato furious, so when the duel started he fought recklessly, which made him lose rather easily. In another source, it is written that Bokuden brought to the duel a much longer tachi than what most would use at the time. On one hand, this supports his views on always giving yourself the advantage with a longer weapon, which can be seen in rule #20 of his Hyakushu regarding swords³.

CONCLUSION

In ending, Tsukahara Bokuden is an individual portrayed as having a great amount of experience in warfare. His opinion on weapons like the naginata is based on his personal experiences, especially versus those who’ve used them against him in duels. As mentioned before, there are many stories of his life experience, with some that can be compared to the Hyakushu. I may revisit the Hyakushu again, using a different story of Bokuden’s to reference the lessons expressed in a few of the rules.


1) In various sources, the type of bird Kajiwara Nagato is compared to ranges from a tsubame (燕, swallow) to mozu (鵙, shrike). These birds are usually admired for their grace or speed in flight.

2) Unlike other warriors who had to tough it out during their training journeys solo, Bokuden was generally accompanied by a group of individuals, from assistants to personal students. Credit goes to him coming from a rather wealthy family, thus the ability to have support while far away from home.

3)This can be reviewed in a previous post here.

Tanabata and the Customs involving Tanzaku

Tanabata, which falls on July 7th in modern times, is one of the more anticipated holidays during the summer. It is especially a major attraction for kids, as they partake in this during school. One aspect to Tanabata’s popularity is due to its relatively fun & involving practices. Along with learning about the stories involving star viewing and actually experiencing this with telescopes, kids also take part in tanzaku (短冊), where they engage in small crafts and decorate the sasa leaves on the bamboo stalks.

A starry night sky, and papers of wishes hung among sasa leaves.

For this article, we will look into the latter, and learn about what tanzaku is, its history, and other crafts that are similar to it.

MEANING BEHIND TANZAKU

Tanzaku (短冊) means “strips”, as in strips of paper. On the day of Tanabata, kids write their special wishes on strips of colored paper, which are then hung on sasatake (笹竹), which are stalks of bamboo that have sasa leaves. It is a spectacular sight to see bamboo stalks covered with numerous tanzaku. Usually, those who are learning writing, or going to private school at a temple, would do this during Edo period. For the sake of success in their academics and calligraphy, they would partake in this practice of tanzaku.

One of the origins to tanzaku is thought to have started from a unique practice of writing on the large green leaves of sato imo (里芋, type of Asian potato). The practice involves waiting for water from the morning dew to form on these leaves from the cool air the night before. Then one would take ink, and begin writing different kanji as a form to wish for improvement in one’s calligraphy skills.

The reason behind using water that had naturally formed is due to the divine symbolism of sato imo leaves; the water is seen as coming down from the heavens, which the leaves can naturally hold within its center. Plus, the leaves are big enough to be used as umbrellas.

It is said that due to this origin, the wishes made on Tanabata are not the needy ones, but instead are those that are focused on improvement in one’s skills or abilities.

On a separate note, tanzaku is kept up on their bamboo display during an entire day, even throughout the night. On the next day, all the tanzaku are removed and the bamboo stalks are disposed of. In the past, the tanzaku would be cleansed in a river, then brought to a local shrine or temple, where they would then be placed into a bonfire so that the wishes may rise up and reach the gods so they may be granted.

ROLE OF GOSHIKI

Generally, the paper strips used as tanzaku come in 5 colors. This color variation is called “goshiki” in Japanese. The use of the 5 colors is derived from the ancient practice of Inyō Gogyōsetsu, which originated from China. These 5 colors are green (青/緑)¹, red (赤)², gold (黄), white (白), and black (黒). These colors represent the elements (or elemental flow) that influence both life and the world as taught in Inyō Gogyōsetsu. These elements are wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水)³.

Tanzaku in the general 5-color scheme. Click on each one to see their full size.

An interesting note is that for the practice of Tanabata, the color black has been replaced with purple. So it is most common to see the strips of paper in the colors green, red, gold, white, and purple⁴. Here’s what each of the colors stand for, and how they influence what type of wish one would make:

  • GREEN: Improving one’s traits as a person
  • RED: Having the ability to maintain respect to our parents and our ancestors
  • GOLD: Being able to treat others well by improving relations
  • WHITE: Living up to our obligations and responsibilities
  • PURPLE: Excelling in our academics

This was the role the colors originally assumed. Nowadays this practice isn’t followed so strictly, as anyone can freely use whichever one of the colors they choose for their tanzaku.

OTHER DECORATIONS

Along with tanzaku, there are other types of decorations that were used in the past in conjunction to Tanabata. While these are not part of the general format of celebrating Tanabata, some establishments and events may still incorporate these for the sake of honoring traditional practices, such as street parades.

  • Fuki-nagashi (吹き流し): Long strands of different colored papers joined together, sometimes attached to different types of ornaments such as a star-shaped origami. Based off of colored threads that a seamstress would use, it also acts as a type of talisman to ward off evil.
  • Ami kazari (網飾り): A decoration using a long piece of paper cut in an intricate design in the form of fish wire. This is to wish for successful fishing trips.
  • Orizuru (折鶴): An origami crane. Originally the crane represents a long life. So, with this one would wish for longevity and a healthy life.
  • Kamiko (神衣): An origami kimono that looks like it could fit a doll. Along with wishing for improvements in one’s sewing skills, the kamiko also can double as a charm to prevent bad luck by catching it, which can then be passed on to a doll.
  • Saifu (財布): An origami wallet or purse. As one would expect, you would hang these when you want to wish for financial gains.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up our article on the finer details of tanzaku and its significance during the Tanabata celebration. An important one in Japan, it is not unusual to see this practice done in other countries. If you had a chance to participate with your own tanzaku, what qualities would you wish to improve on?


1) In older Japanese culture, the word aoi (青い) stood for both blue & green. However, usually it is associated to what we in the West would call “green”. To avoid confusion in modern times, aoi mainly refers to the color blue, while midori (緑) is used for the color green.

2) Quite often, paper that is a pink color is used to represent red.

3) Another set of virtues that comes from Inyō Gogyōsetsu that was attached to the 5 colors was gojō (五常), which means “the natural 5 habits”. Here’s how the same colors represent these virtues:

  • Blue/Green = Respect
  • Red = Benevolence
  • Gold = Righteousness
  • White = Understanding
  • Black/Purple = Belief

With a few exceptions, the color scheme of gojō aligns with that of Tanabata. You can read more on the virtues of gojō in another article on this site here.

4) Depending on preferences, there are variants of this color combination. It is not unusual to also have the following used as tanzaku:

  • blue, red, gold, white, purple
  • blue, red, gold, green, purple
  • green, blue, red, pink, gold, white, purple

7/16/2021 Translations Section Updates

Here’s a quick announcement that the Translations section has been updated. Here’s what’s been added:

  • Pages 3 & 4 of “Kōyō Gunkan no Naigunpō no Maki” have been added. As a description, this work is a translation of borrowed sections from the military-centric documentation called Kōyō Gunkan found in the Ueno Tamaki Kabunsho. Some points are also compared between the original documentation and the copied version.
  • 2 new entries are added to “Many Ways of Utilizing the Zodiac Signs”. Following the topic of of the 12 Zodiac signs played a role in general Japanese society in the past, one of the entries show how they were used in compasses, while the other is a list of how they were used to represent each month.

You can access these through the Translation tab above.

Okiku’s Daring Escape

Many popular stories from Japan’s history usually based on famous wars and conflicts. These stories generally cover the bravery of warriors clashing in battle, or feudal warlords trying to outdo another for the sake of land, and the power to control it. Many enthusiasts of Japanese history draw inspiration from these tales. Yet, we can also take some lessons from tales that focus instead of warriors on the battlefield, but from those who avoid the conflicts for the sake of survival.

There is a story¹ called “Okiku Monogatari” (おきく物語).  taken from the surviving journal of a woman by the name of Okiku and her plight to escape from the chaos during the famous Osaka Campaign headed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. This journal was supposedly written by her grandchild, Tanaka Motonori (田中意徳)², who was a physician from Ikeda, Okayama prefecture. He had learned that his grandmother, whom he called “Kiku”, was a survivor of the aforementioned war, and wanted to record it³. While the story is short, it is a great example of survival using one’s wits, judgment, along with some luck, from the perspective of one who was not honed in the ways of the warrior.

WHO WAS OKIKU

Okiku was born in 1596 in Ōmi province. Her father was Ogawa Mozaemon (小川茂左衛門), who had served several influential families, such as the Asai clan and the Toyotomi clan. There is no mention as to who her mother was. While there isn’t much mentioned about her childhood, this story covers the point when Okiku was 20 years old⁴ and, at the time, living within Ōsaka castle. She was as a female servant for Yodo-dono, who was of a high ranking aristocrat. While this Yodo-dono did come from an influential military family, as she was the daughter of Asai Nagamasa (浅井長政) and Oichi no Kata (お市の方, late Oda Nobunaga’s daughter), she was also a concubine of the late Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

As stated before, there isn’t much info before the actual events in her story, other than small tidbits regarding when she and her family became associated with the Toyotomi clan. On a related note, Okiku’s father had fought during the Ōsaka Campaign in 1615, where it’s said he died in battle⁵. When last did Okiku see her father before the tragic day when Ōsaka castle would fall? Unfortunately, there are no notes about this.

DAY OF THE CHAOS

in June 7th, 1615⁶, Okiku was in the nagatsubone (長局), which was a long, multi-room living quarters quarters for servant girls within a separate part of the large complex of Ōsaka castle. Being told to go take a break, she made yakisoba (焼き蕎麦, fried noodles) for herself. After finished eating her meal, she returned to kitchen area. At some point she heard commotions coming from outside. She took a moment to step away and go to investigate.

As she stepped out from Tamadukurikuchi (玉造口, the southeast exit of the main structure), Okiku walked along the path in the courtyard towards Senjojiki (千畳敷, a large structure with many rooms famed for having around 1000 tatatmi mats). She heard people yelling, and wondered what was causing this. Then her eyes caught visual cues that showed fighting outside the castle was taking place: fire leaping up over the walls of the castle grounds, along with sounds of gunfire and war shouts. from the troops that were fighting. Startled at the chaos that was erupting on the battlefield and how close it was to the castle, Okiku felt that it was necessary to escape the castle.

Okiku rushed back to the nagatsubone, and made preparations to protect herself before venturing out into the courtyard, joining 3 hats together along with several koshimaki (腰巻, a belt worn with kimono). She used these as a shield to cover herself as arrows were now randomly raining into the vicinity of the castle grounds. At this point, there was nothing worth of any value that would make her stay in Ōsaka castle. Other than her life, she did happen to pick up a keepsake mirror from her room at the nagatsubone that was rewarded to her by Toyotomi Hideyori. This was very dear to her, so she kept it safely in her futokoro (懐), which is an inner pocket within a kimono. As Okiku made her way back to the kitchen area, where she spotted a retainer of the Toyotomi clan, Takeda Eio, who was dressed in armor. Eio was trying to maintain order as the place was in turmoil with many female attendants running around hysterically, while injured soldiers were being attended to.

There were other women who moved towards a gate near the kitchen. As they were asked where they were heading, they replied to leave the castle. Eio refused, insisted that they don’t abandon their castle. The women then pointed to a prized banner that had several golden gourds on top⁷, which represented the Toyotomi clan. This banner, laying down on the floor unattended, meant that it was abandoned by the appointed flag bearer. They refuted, claiming others have already left. From that, the women ignored the flustered soldier, and rushed to the gate to leave the castle grounds and find a place to hide from the ensuing battle. Okiku also did the same, as she moved alongside with the  other women.

TROUBLE AT KYŌ BRIDGE ENTRYWAY

Okiku walked along the outskirts of the assaulted Ōsaka castle, trying to stay on a safe path while avoiding the ongoing conflicts between the Toyotomi troops and the the Tokugawa army. She decided to head to Matsubara-guchi, which was northwest of her (present day southern area of Hyōgo prefecture). There, she would look for safe haven from a daimyo and ally of the Toyotomi clan, Tōdō Takatora, who also happened to be a benefactor to her family. Her father knew him first when he was a retainer of the Asai clan, for at the time Takatora was a minor soldier who was working directly under him. At the time, Takatora was poor, but her mom would call him and make him food. When the Asai clan fell, and her father wandered as a ronin, Takatora had risen to a high position, and had contacted her father to come work for him.

To reach Matsubara-guchi would be a bit of a journey, and Okiku would need to cross over a few bridges to get there. First she crossed over Gokuraku Bridge (極楽橋), which was just north of Ōsaka castle. She moved vigilantly, as she took caution not to run into danger as she journeyed farther away from what was once the safety the Toyotomi clan. Especially as a female traveling on her own, she would be an easy target for thieves and such. The Gokuraku Bridge was one of the few ways over Ōsaka Castle’s natural water defense, as it was surrounded by several lakes. After crossing this bridge, she headed west and made her way towards Kyō Bridge Entryway (京橋口). It appeared that Okiku was still in the clear as she reached the entrance. As she was going to pass by and continue along the path, she then heard a voice calling to her.

To the side of the road near Kyō Bridge Entryway a man appeared, beckoning her to come to him. Okiku did as so, as not to make any sudden moves to turn the situation sour in her favor. As she got close, the man took out a bladed weapon⁸, and asked for money. Okiku cooperated with the thief, and took out a takenagashi (竹流, bamboo container for cleaning small things using water) from her inner pocket, and from it brought out 2 coins. She gave one coin to the thief. Not satisfied, the thief requested the other. Okiku then bargained with him, saying that she would give him the other if he leads her to Tōdō Takatora’s encampment in Matsubara-guchi. Surprisingly he agreed, possibly on the prospect of being rewarded even more for his good “deed”.

CROSSROADS

Okiku and her unlikely companion of a thief continued on their way the Matsubara-guchi. Shortly on the Okiku saw a crowd of people, who were surrounded by many soldiers. Taking a closer look, Okiku recognized one of the people to be a high-ranking aristocrat named Jōkōin. Okiku was familiar with her, as she was the daughter of Yodo-dono through marriage. Accompanied by some female servants and personal male guards, Jōkōin and her companions were off towards Kyōto north of Ōsaka prefecture to gain refuge from the Tokugawa force.

A diagram of Okiku’s intended traveling plan. After escaping ① Ōsaka castle, she went across ② Gokuraku bridge, and west along the bodies of water surrounding the castle. Going on the path that passes by ③ Kyō Bridge Entryway, she would have needed to go over ④ Tenma Bridge, then head west in the southern part of Hyōgo prefecture in order to reach ⑤ Matsubara-guchi. There was the other option, however, to accompany Jōkōin’s group and head north of Ōsaka prefecture to ⑥ Kyōto.

Okiku pondered about Jōkōin’s plan, as it appeared to have some value in terms of survival. It was a big risk, however, and granted safety from the enemy side was not guaranteed. On the other hand, She could continue with her original plan and head to Matsubara-guchi to gain safe haven from Tōdō Takatora. However, there’s no guarantee that she could make it all the way there, especially as she was accompanied by her shady companion.

As she watched Jōkōin and her group start to head off, in a sudden turn of events Okiku decided to accompany them. She followed behind the group, enough where it was obvious she was a part of their party. The thief did not tag along this time, must’ve been a relief on Okiku’s end. As they went on their way, they could see Ōsaka castle in the distance, with the sky lit up around it as it was set ablaze. It was truly a sad and surreal scene, for no one could’ve imagined that they would lose their home, once under the control of the prestigious Toyotomi family, being burned down through the violence of war. Despite the sorrow they felt, Okiku and the group marched on towards a new land, one where they may be safe.

During the group’s trek, Okiku was surprised to learn that Jōkōin was no longer taking them to Kyōto to gain refuge from the Tokugawa side, but instead was making a detour to northern Ōsaka towards Moriguchi (present-day Moriguchi City, Ōsaka prefecture). This was actually Jōkōin’s intention all along, as a means to get away from the bloodshed and violence that was taking place around Ōsaka castle. As members from the Toyotomi side, the group were able to hide amongst the populous in Moriguchi, as they each were taken in and made residence in different homes. Okiku stayed in the home of a rather poor family, but they were nice to her, and made her living as comfortable as possible.

Some time passed after the fall of Ōsaka castle and the demise of the Toyotomi clan. Okiku would receive word that the Tokugawa bakufu would not condemn any of the former female servants of Osaka castle guilty due to association. This was a relief to Okiku and the other survivors, as this was confirmation they could come out of hiding and move on with their lives. Okiku would leave her surrogate family and head to Kyoto, where she would gain employment as a servant for Kyokoku Tatsuko, who has blood relations to the once influential Asai family. Once a concubine of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tatsuko had became a Buddhist priestess and was known by the title “Matsu no Maru-dono”. Okiku’s having the same connections possibly helped with her connecting with Tatsuko, and being accepted. It is said that from there on, Okiku was able to live a good & happy life.

ANALYZING THE SITUATION

While she may appear to be just a common servant girl who knows nothing of warfare, Okiku shows to possess good judgment, and a natural sense of adaptation to her environment and situation.  One could only imagine how difficult it would be to stay calm in the face of pending danger from an ensuing battle right at one’s doorsteps, as well as to run into wild territory not knowing who’s friend or foe. Yet, if this journal is true, then Okiku exhibited this, which is quite remarkable.

  • If Okiku put loyalty over her life and instead returned back to the main building in search of Yodo-dono, things would turn out differently. You see, Yodo-dono and her remaining servants at hand walled themselves up within Osaka castle. When things turned dire and it was obvious that the Tokugawa force were going to take the castle, Yodo-dono and her servants had committed suicide.
  • Takeda Eio was very adamant that the women there calmed down and remain in the castle. If Okiku had listened to him, all could’ve been lost as the castle soon was burning around them. On top of this, Eio himself had seen that the end would come, thus committing suicide.
  • Being able to bargain with the thief was a risky yet brave move. Considering the times, this thief was not such a bad person, as he cooperated with her and was willing to accept getting the 2nd coin after escorting her to her intended location. For all she knew, the thief could’ve been a cold-blooded murderer, plus there really wasn’t any incentive for him not to take both coins by force. It’s possible that her appearance showed that she wasn’t a poor, local girl…which would’ve been even more a reason to rob her. Still, it could’ve been her upbringing in a relatively good environment that gave her the mental fortitude to control the situation as she did.
  • Okiku was not only flexible in her decision-making, but also able to adapt in order to ensure her main objective comes true: survival. Switching to follow Jōkōin instead of continuing her journey to Tōdō Takatora’s location demonstrated just that. It’s still possible that heading to Takatora would’ve also been fruitful. Still, her final decision lead to her having a happy ending.

CONCLUSION

The war story of Okiku is one that demonstrates the trials & tribulations a civilian can go through in order to survive a war that appears at your doorstep. There are not so many old Japanese texts that go into details like this that are transliterated into English. Hope everyone can enjoy this type of story.


1) This is often labeled as a “gunki” (軍記), which means “war (military) text or journal”. It is usually coupled with another war journal called “Oamu Monogatari” (おあむ物語), which is a recording about a women named Oan and her experience actively participating in th defense of a castle during Sekigahara war. One of the connections between both stories is that the Sekigahara war took place before the Osaka campaign, and both deal with the struggle between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa forces.

2) Some trivia regarding Okiku and her name. It is possible that her real name may have been “Kiku”, as that is what her grandson called her. Does that mean the the “O” is an honorific label (which could be the “御” character)? Or is “Kiku” just a shorthand that Tanaka used due to having kinship with her? Unfortunately, none of this has yet to be verified, specifically since Okiku is not written in kanji (Chinese characters) in the original source.

Speaking of which, few sources have written her name with the kanji “菊” or “お菊”, which may be the correct way to write it. However, her employer, Yodo-dono, also went by “Okiku”, and used those very same characters…but that doesn’t mean everyone who had the same name wrote it with thise exact characters. 

As a whole, Okiku’s name is represented in hiragana as “おきく” as that is how it appears in the original.  This is a neutral way of writing it.

3) Motonori as a name is not common nowadays. This is the only reading I was able to find associated with the characters that make up the name.

4) Her age may have been calculated based on kazoedoshi (数え年), where everyone gains an extra year the moment of their birth. This practice was common in Asia.

5) Osaka Campaign took place both in the winter of 1614 and around the summer of 1615. It is believed that Mozaemon died in battle during the one in 1615.

6) Apparently, the year mentioned in the original text is off, as it states June 7th, 1617.

7) The full name of this banner is “kane no Hyotan no umajirushi” (金の瓢箪の御馬印).

8) There is no description of what type of man he was. Considering the times and the threats while walking along paths and bridges, most likely he was a thief or bandit waiting to spring on easy targets. It is possible he was once a warrior who switched to a life of thievery. This may be because his bladed weapon could’ve been a (short) sword.

Looking at the teachings from Bokuden Tsukahara’s Hyakushu

When studying Japan’s military history, there are some documents that excel above others due to being based on personal experience. Tsukahara Bokuden, an individual known for his contribution to his father’s martial system Kashima Koryū (鹿島古流), and later developing his own system called Kashima Shintō ryū (鹿島新當流), is one of those famous martial artists who had passed down such a document. Along with his connections to popular martial systems including the aforementioned ones, his experience on the battlefield around the late 1400s to early 1500s of during Sengoku period, as well as in mortal combats in the form of duels during his musha shugyo (武者修行, expedition across the land for the sake of training and employment)¹, also contributed to the knowledge he gained regarding the necessities one who walks the warrior path should know.

Bokuden Tsukahara drafted a documentation called “Hyakushu” (百首), which is a collection of 100 entries that can be looked upon as rules for warriors². As a whole, Hyakushu is a set of teachings regarding military and martial-related practices, confrontations, preparations, and the like through the form of short poems. Like many other documents of similar nature, these poems are not straight forward, and require some research and/or understanding on topics regarding military and martial practices during Sengoku period. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources in Japanese that go over Tsukahara’s writings in detail, helping to grasp some of the more vague entries.

Out of the many documents like this, I find the teachings in the Hyakushu a mix of lessons that are of practical use, those that touch on necessary points that could assist fellow warriors, and others that are informative through what Tsukahara was experiencing during his time firsthand; they are not rules that are the standard that all should follow regardless of the times. What’s also interesting is that I feel many of the poems can be compared to certain practices that are done in modern times, both combative and non-combative.

2 pages showing the many entries from Hyakushu. From the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓).

Below are a select few entries from the Hyakushu. You’ll find the original Japanese, followed by my translation and breakdown of the meaning behind the poems. For some, I’ve also added some commentary to how they may apply to scenarios in modern times, as a means to understand how Tsukahara’s teachings actually transcends generations.


JAPANESE:「近き敵遠き敵をはゐる時は矢の根の習いあると知へし(六)」

ENGLISH: “You must know the teachings regarding different arrowheads when dealing with enemies that are close and far away (#6)”

MEANING: This is in relations to what type of arrowheads are designed better for long range versus those for close range. In terms of basic knowledge, the weight of arrows can prevent them from being used in all types of situations. Along with the draw power of a bow, certain arrows are more effective from far away through ya-awase (矢合わせ, raining arrows), while others are better for picking off troops upclose especially for those who are cavalry.

From my still young experience with archery and shooting at an open range, I have conversed with those who are more seasoned with the bow and arrow. It was explained to me³ that lighter arrows are better for hitting a target at greater distances (say, over 20 yards), as they are able to maintain their velocity and still puncture a target. As for heavier arrows, those are better for targets that aren’t too far out (around 20 yards and less), for they tend to lose velocity quicker if shot beyond their preferred range, making them suffer less piercing power. Although this is from the perspective of modern archery, these points are elementary & universal to archery done for centuries.

On a more fundamental level concerning expertise, archery was a practice highly valued by those who walked the path of a martial specialist, and was even the symbol of what it meant to being a warrior. Considering that many from military families were taught formally how to shoot an arrow extensively from a young age, Tsukahara could also be implying that these very people should know the differences of arrowheads and when they should be used. Those who do not cannot say they are truly versed, or complete warriors.


JAPANESE:「癖有れど強き馬こそよけれとて進まぬ癖の馬を乗るぞよ(十四)」

ENGLISH: “While it may be said that a strong horse is fine even if it has its (bad) habits, riding one that has the tendency to not move forward is problematic (#14)”

MEANING: Those with horseback riding experience develop good judgment about different horses. They can point out each one’s habits, some good, some bad. This is so in all generations. When looking at Tsukahara’s era, generally elite figures or those who assume the role as cavalry would ride horses into battle.

To the untrained, a strong or fast horse would be a perfect choice. One can imagine the benefits of these types of horses. However, Tsukahara mentions about habits of a horse, using the word kuse (癖) in Japanese. This tends to have a strong connotation, usually negative. If we look at the habit of a horse not moving forward when commanded, this is a very detrimental habit. Couple of reasons for this include having too strong a will and difficult to tame, to being too timid and frightened easily.

Regardless of a horse being strong or fast, if it does not follow its rider’s commands on the battlefield due to its bad habits, then it is unsuitable. What would then be considered suitable? Possibly one that falls in between, where it is not too strong, and isn’t too timid.


JAPANESE: 「鎬のなき太刀をば深く嫌うべし、切る手の内のまわる故なり(十八)」

ENGLISH: “A sword with no curve (ie shinogi) is one that is loathed immensely, for in order to use it you have to rotate your hand (#18)”

Earlier in Japan’s history, swords with little to no curve were used. However, later in Sengoku period, especially around Tsukahara’s time, swords with a pronounced curve are the preferred choice. This is true all the way to modern times. In sword terminology, a curve in a sword is called sori (反り). How much of a “sori” is there can be understood visually, or it can be measured by the shinogi (鎬), which is a ridge line that goes up along the side of a sword from the habaki (鎺, copper collar right above the swordguard) to slightly under the tip.

When studying how to use a Japanese sword through kenjutsu⁴, you learn how to cut with the upper part of it. In due time, you can perform solid cuts where you don’t have to move your hands so much. However, cutting with straighter swords is the complete opposite. Since they have no curve, you may have to compensate by twisting and turning your hand.

Note that this was the prevalent view in Japan due to certain events. However, there are other countries that have successful histories using straight swords. Of course, there may be other factors that contribute to this, for example, length and weight of the blade.


JAPANESE: 「切れるとて新身の太刀を帯びる人必ず不覚あると知るべし(十九)」

ENGLISH: “Those who equip themselves with a newly made sword believing it will hold up (ie cut with durability) very well are making a big mistake. (#19)”

MEANING: This is an interesting one. Tsukahara is talking about having more trust in battle-worn swords over newly smitten ones. This is because swords have the risk of bending and snapping upon impact while on the battlefield. This is a normal occurrence. However, this can be minimized by using swords that have been tried and true, for if they have survived one or several battles, then that shows they’ve been crafted properly and will most likely hold up. Untested swords, on the other hand, cannot be verified so quickly.

There is more to this teaching. From the mid to later parts of Sengoku period, as territorial battling grew rampant, there were higher demands for equipping troops with weapons, including swords. Many swordsmiths were commissioned to make great numbers of swords in a short amount of time. Due to such urgency, there was little to no time for quality assurance. Thus, there are tales of swords breaking during clashes, which literally renders a warrior helpless and at the mercy of their opponent if they cannot equip themselves with another weapon quickly. It’s possible that Tsukahara witnessed this…or even experienced this himself.


JAPANESE: 「勝ち負けは長き短かき変わらねど、さのみ短かき太刀な好みそ(二十)」

ENGLISH: “A long or short sword can be used in order to determine the outcome in a fight. However, in terms of advantage, a long sword is preferred over a short one. (#20)”

MEANING: There are stories of martial artists winning a fight in all types of methods. Examples of this include having a superior weapon over their opponent, having an inferior weapon, and even having no weapon. It can be said that skills and experience, with a bit of luck at times, have a great influence in being able to do so. While Tsukahara states that a long sword and short sword can be used to obtain victory, he also admits that he prefers using a long sword. If we read into this, he is hinting about not hindering yourself if you are given a choice. This may have to deal more with duels than battlefield experience.

Around his time, there are sword styles that incorporate techniques for using a shorter sword to defeat an opponent with a longer one, such as Chūjō ryū (中条流), Nen ryū (念流), and Ittō ryū (一刀流). While those are great feats with skills that are invaluable, I think Tsukahara is advising don’t take the chance to win with a shorter sword when you can ensure a better outcome with a longer sword. Of course, I believe there is a limit to the type of swords he’s referring to, such as daitō (大刀) & uchigatana (打刀) as long swords, and shōtō (小刀) & kodachi (小太刀) as short swords. From what I know, there are no duels that had excessively long-bladed weapons (ie nodachi [野太刀]) and short-bladed weapons (ie kaiken [懐剣]).


JAPANESE: 「もののふの夜の枕に二重帯、おかぬはあわれ不覚なるべし(四十七)」

ENGLISH: “It would be a terrible blunder for a warrior not to place their futae obi next to their pillow at night (#47)”

A futae obi (二重帯) is a long Japanese-style belt that wraps around the body twice, with the ends being joined together and tucked in. It is very easy to wrap around one’s body, as there is no need for any cords or such to secure it properly around the body. The reason for keeping one’s futae obi next to the pillow is because warriors were trained to do the same with their sword. So, in case of danger, one could quickly put on their futae obi and insert their sword into the 2nd loop at a moment’s thought. Based on the context, this advice is useful for when one is at home or taking lodge at an inn.

For modern times, an equivalent to a futae obi would be an obi used for dankyu (段級) ranking in many modern martial arts organizations. While a kaku obi (各帯, long & wide belt) is the more standardized choice for many classical Japanese martial arts today, a simple long obi can be used in its place by tying it the same way as a futae obi. This can be a good substitute, plus it is much faster to fasten around the body than a kaku obi.


JAPANESE: 「もののふの道行く時に逢う人の、右は通らぬものとしるべし(七十六)」

ENGLISH: “A warrior should not pass on the right side when encountering a stranger while on a road (#76)”

MEANING: In the past, people traveled on the specified main roads. As a warrior, passing by a lone person can be risky, especially if it’s another warrior. That person could be one who practices tsuji kiri (辻斬り), which is intentionally cutting down a passerby on a road or in the field in order to test your skills or the sharpness of your sword. Passing by on their right gives them enough time to draw their sword out. To neutralize this, you would pass by on their left, which not only makes it difficult for them to attack, but you can actually stop their hand, grasp the sword handle, etc. if you can spot the attempt.

This is opposite of what was normally practiced in towns, where you would pass on the right side to avoid bumping into another warrior’s sword sheath, and accidentally causing a confrontation that could lead to kirisute gomen (切り捨て御免, having the right to cut down someone who disrespected you as a warrior).



JAPANESE: 「もののふの道行く時に曲り角、避けて通るぞ心ありけり (七十七)」

ENGLISH: “A warrior should be aware to avoid making a turn (closely) around a corner while walking on a path (#77)”

MEANING: This is in regards to any type of building structure. When walking by or turning around a corner, we do so blindly, not knowing what’s on the other side. Corners are perfect for ambushes, making it easy for an attacker to strike down those who are unaware. This is especially true if you walk very close to the corner.

To remedy this, one should instead turn the corner widely. This not only gives you a chance to see what’s on the other side from a safe distance away, but gives a warrior enough space to react in case of an ambush. This is especially necessary when making a left turn, as with one’s sword being on the left side of the body, you would need space to draw it out of it’s sheath and not hit the wall.

In today’s generation, this rule still holds true. Even outside of a combative situation, it is a good idea to take care around corners especially in heavily populated areas. For example, when walking on a sidewalk, to avoid bumping into someone who may be carrying something. Or when inside a store, to avoid turning straight into a showcase or display.


These are few of the 100 short poems found in Bokuden Tsukahara’s Hyakushu. It would be nice to add all of them, but I have to refrain as that would become a rather large translation project. Hoping to revisit this in the near future, with possibly examples from Tsukahara’s own recorded history that covers his personal experiences.


1) There is an older article about this on Light in the Clouds, which can be accessed here

2) From sources like “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史), it is mentioned that Bokuden Tsukahara actually wrote around 97. After Tsukahara’s death, the original manuscript that he wrote was kept in the possession of Iizasa (飯篠) family. From there, a person named Katō Sagami-no-kami (加藤相模守) is stated to have added 3 more to the original manuscript.

3) Note that there are still many variables to archery that can affect the distance both light and heavy arrows fly, which includes the arrow’s material, whether they have feather fletching or not, length of the arrow, weight & type of arrowhead, size & draw power of the bow, type of bow, and so on. The example given in the article is based on using a recurve bow that is around 30 poundage, while the numerical figures are not set in stone.

4) The experience varies between each sword school, while there may be slightly different mechanics concerning using a sword if learning through iaidō, battodō, etc.

Remembering Ōtake Risuke

A few days ago I heard news that a great martial artist has passed away. Ōtake Risuke (full name, 大竹利典源健之 Ōtake Risuke Minamoto-no-Takeyuki), former head shihan of Tenshin Sōden Katori Shintō ryū (天真正伝香取神道流, Katori Shintō ryū for short), was 95 years old when he left this world on June 6th, 2021. While he was not a direct teacher of mine, his work ethic, proficiency, and philosophy in Japanese Classical martial arts was very inspirational for as long as I can remember over the years. You can say he made a great long-lasting impression on me through the  books he published and television programs he took part in.

Pic of Ōtake Risuke, from his book “Heihō: Tenshin Sōden Katori Shintō ryū”.

Ōtake sensei was born in March 10th, 1926 in Narita City, Chiba prefecture. He would begin studying martial arts under Hayashi Yaemon Iekiyo at the age of 16, and would receive the highest rank at the age of 42. At a time, much responsibility in both teaching, and maintaining the 600-year old knowledge & tradition of this art, was placed on his shoulders, which he did with exuberance and dedication in his hometown. This in turn helped to have the teachings of Katori Shintō ryū designated as an invaluable cultural asset of Chiba prefecture in 1960, with him appointed as the guardian of this art. Seven years later, he would attain full master rank, and be appointed as the head teacher, overseeing all training conducted in this art. This was no small feat, as Ōtake sensei explained in a book about how rigorous the training he undertook under his teacher Hayashi, and how he stuck through it especially at a time when many were called to bear arms as WWII was getting underway.

When you see Ōtake sensei in action, it’s easy to identify how seasoned he was in martial arts, and how refined & sharp his movements were. When watching videos where he performed paired kata, he and his partner generally move at a fast pace. Yet they were always maintained control & execute their techniques with accuracy, and devoid of any fixation on any particular point with unnecessary pauses.

Pic of Ōtake Risuke, performing part of Nuketsuke no Ken from Katori Shintō ryū’s Iaijutsu.

Ōtake sensei was a prime representative of Katori Shintō ryū, which drew much attention by the press, and inquiring potential students. This is especially true when he participated in public demonstrations. He was proficient in the many weapons taught in Katori Shintō ryū. One of the first vivid memories that still remain is when he personally demonstrated iaijutsu. There are several kata of this, with Nuketsuke no Ken (抜附の剣) being one of my favorites. At the start of this kata, Ōtake sensei looks calm in his seated position, with his sword in it’s sheath at his waist. The next moment he would spring high into the air as he draws out his sword in one fluid motion, looking very strong and focus. The energy, the speed, and the movements themselves are very different from the slower, more deliberate demonstrations of modern iaijutsu (iaido) that is commonly practiced today.

There is a rare shuriken demonstration that took place publicly during a 1950 event “Zen Nihon Budō Kakuryū Taikai” (全日本武道各流大会”, aired on NHK channel. Here, a different practitioner of Katori Shintō ryu demonstrates throwing bō shuriken, before drawing his sword and following up with a cut. I was duly impressed as each bō shuriken hit the mark from a good distance away. Ōtake sensei would talk later about his system’s shurikenjutsu in his book, “Heihō: Tenshin Sōden Katori Shintō ryū”, where he passes on valuable advise regarding practicing shuriken. The following is from the stated book, with the original Japanese followed by my English translation:


“手裏剣術の稽古は一人で行うため、倦まず弛まず地道に稽古をすることが肝要で、並々ならぬ努力が必要です。私が手裏剣術を覚えたてのころは…約三年間、ほぼ毎日三百本ほど打ちました。

“For shuriken practice, a great amount of effort is a must in order to engage in this by yourself. What is vital in achieving this is unwavering and consistent training. The period in which I had learned (memorized) shurikenjutsu…was from throwing shuriken 300 times almost everyday for about 3 years.”


As mentioned before, Ōtake sensei attracted many students from wide & far when he was actively teaching as the head shihan. Through his influence, many of them adapted that discipline of sharp & accurate movements. This is because they too frequented training sessions with dedication. This can be seen in Ōtake sensei’s two sons, as well as the famous American pioneer in martial arts Donn Draeger.

A pic featuring Donn Draeger (left) training with Ōtake sensei (right). From the book “Katori Shinto-ryū”.

In an old TV documentary about kobudō (unfortunately I am uncertain of the title), many teachers of different martial systems were recorded introducing their martial systems. Ōtake sensei was interviewed at his dōjō as well. From the start of his segment, two select practitioners from his dōjō demonstrated a kenjutsu kata. Perplexed at how unclear the interaction was between the two performers (i.e. both move in harmony blocking and attacking with almost no one a clear winner), Ōtake sensei was asked by the interviewer what was the purpose of each of the techniques performed in this kata. Ōtake sensei answered that they perform their kata as so as to hide how their techniques work. He then explained what is actually supposed to happen in the kata by breaking down the kenjutsu kata. This scene, plus Ōtake sensei’s explanation, truly inspired me to look outside the box when it comes down to kata and technique. Although a different ryūha, most Japanese martial systems share this same ideology.

For instance, it is common to only focus on the person who’s performing the “winning” technique, yet the one who is the “attacker” also is performing techniques that are key to the school, usually in a way where it can be countered.  When it comes down to what takes place in kata, or how techniques are to be used, a good teacher generally teaches lessons like this, while a good martial artist who wants to learn his or her craft inside-out will research this as well to understand strengths and weaknesses.

Outside of his physical prowess, Ōtake sensei also presented his knowledge on the more theoretical, philosophical, and otherwise esoteric, side of Classical martial arts. Some of these are details that, albeit old, serve as a necessity to grasp a proper understanding of Katori Shintō ryū. For example, he has outlined the specifics regarding armor and its significance when learning the multitude of techniques found in the kata they trained it. In a somewhat non-combative side of things, he also spoke about how the esoteric nature of inyō (陰陽, yin yang) helps to guide warriors of the past on how to set up and fortify their castles in the 7-part series “Way of the Warrior”, which aired in the 1980s. There is a practicality to this, as it is based on nature and what is, both logically and realistically, beneficial against enemy attacks. This same practice is also used for building homes, which is similar to the popular fūsui (feng shui). Lastly, in his books he shares ideology and poems that are important for building character, which could be seen as a means to balance a warrior to remain human and be grateful to those who came before as. Most are of Buddhism-origin, but with most of Japanese culture, they serve mainly as a way to shape how to properly live even if religion is not the main focus. One that stands out particularly is a poem called “Chichi Haha Onjū no Uta” (父母恩重の詩), which describes how we must be grateful to our parents for raising us, and not to forget to show respect to them even after they have passed.

As a respected martial artist who has been watched by the world, Ōtake sensei will be missed. His memory will still live on, as he left a lasting impression on many even on those like me who’s never met him, but could feel his essence both through his words and in his visual presentations.