Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 2

We continue with our discussion about Kagami Biraki and how it is celebrated in Japan. As mentioned in part 1, this ceremony has important ties with the martial arts community. Yet, it is but only but one part of the overall experience, as there are other manners in which people can acknowledge this without having to be a martial artist. In this article, we will take a brief look at the origins of Kagami Biraki, and how it is observed by the general public, both on an individual level and in a public setting.

MEANING BEHIND THE CEREMONY

Sometime in the Edo period, Kagami Biraki originated through strong roots to buke (武家), or military families. According to resources such as “Nihon Kokujo Daijiten” (日本国語大辞典) and “Nihon Daihyakka Zensho” (日本大百科全書), the original date was set for the 20th day of the 1st month, but was then changed to the 11th day due to the 3rd Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu passing away on the 20th of the 4th month in 1651¹. Some references still remain concerning the original date. For instance, In Japanese the 20th day of the month is pronounced hatsuka (二十日, 20 days). To tie it in with their heritage as warriors, the characters of hatsuka were changed to “刃柄”, which can mean “sword”, as the characters reference a blade and a handle.

To celebrate, men would have mochi set up before a fine suit of armor. Not only was this mochi called “gusoku mochi” (具足餅, armor mochi), but the ceremony itself was once called “Gusoku Biraki” (具足開き) or “Gusoku Kagami Biraki” (具足鏡開き). On the other hand, for women of these same families, they would instead setup the kagami mochi on a kagami dai (鏡台), which is a small platform where a mirror would normally go on. As a play on words, women also referred to the original 20th day as “hatsukao” (初顔) or “hatsukagami” (初鏡). This points to them seeing themselves in the mirror the 1st time of the new year and admiring their beauty.

For either manner, these families followed a belief about inviting the toshigami (年神) into their home through the use of a kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) within the first week of the new year². Shortly after this, they would further wish for luck from the toshigami presently residing in their home through eating kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a 2-tier rice cake that is slightly firm on the outside, yet soft on the inside. For public events, the kagami mochi is often very large, and may be in the familiar 2-tier shape or separated. Normally a powder white color, in some events the top mochi may be dyed pink. For those occasions where the presentation is simpler, the kagami mochi is much smaller, and placed on a kagami dai.

To the right, a decorated kagami mochi placed on a kagami dai. From AC-Illust.

To consume a kagami mochi, the standard practice is to first split the top layer, then separate it. People can do this by hand, or with a small wooden mallet. Spreading it open in this fashion is symbolic as one’s fortune growing ever so widely. This action is usually described with the phrase suehirogari (末広がり), which stands for opening up like a folding fan called a sensu (扇子). This phrase is one of the reasons why a small sensu is used dress the kagami mochi. There are other terms used to describe Kagami Biraki, as well as how one goes about conducting this ceremonial-like practice, but the above one is currently the most recognized one.

WHEN & HOW TO CELEBRATE

In terms of general observation, there is “Kagami Biraki no Hi” (鏡開きの日, Kagami Biraki Day). While it is officially appointed on the 11th day of January, there are other dates depending on which part of Japan a person is from. On whichever day it falls on, the general population may choose to consume a treat that is believed to promote longevity and good luck. These treats usually consist of mochi in it. A few examples are the following:

  • kinako mochi (きな粉餅, roasted soybean powder-covered mochi)
  • age mochi (揚げ餅, deep fried mochi)
  • yaki mochi (焼き餅, roasted mochi)
  • kurumi mochi (くるみ餅, mochi covered in grounded walnut sauce)
  • oshiruko (おしるこ, sweet redbean soup)

Note that these can be eaten regularly anytime one feels like it, but tend to be chosen as the to-go choices on Kagami Biraki no Hi. From my personal experience, kinako mochi is a great treat on it’s own or, following popular trends, with green tea. It’s especially tasty with kuromitsu (黒蜜, brown sugar syrup). Yaki mochi is another that I’d generally eat on Kagami Biraki no Hi, as it is simple to prepare. Wrapped in nori (のり, roasted seaweed), it has a good crunch, while dipping it into soy sauce enhances the flavor.

AUSPICIOUS PRACTICE

As one would imagine, Kagami Biraki has a connection with religious establishments. As an example, priests of either Shinto or Buddhism perform rituals that are meant to ward off any serious natural disasters and plagues, which is still in practice today. Also, kagami mochi and other forms of charms are sold at the stalls that are set up on the grounds around shrines and temples, readily available for purchase by visitors. Another example is the symbolic use of taruzake (樽酒), or rice wine sealed in special barrels, as part of the ritual at a shrine. This rice wine is considered to be goshinshu (御神酒, divine wine of the gods), and is viewed to bring luck in the same manner as kagami mochi. In fact, the round lids are split open with a small wooden hammer. It is thought that the practice with the taruzake predated the kagami mochi, thus inspiring this common practice that anyone can do even at home.

A pic of taruzake. From AC-Illust.

Note that both kagami mochi and taruzake have a lot in common regarding how they are used during the ceremony Kagami Biraki. The round shape of the mochi and the lid of the barrel represent a “mirror”, and when “split open”, good fortune is spread out for each individual. Note that a small wooden hammer is the preferred method for bringing forth good luck. A few things to consider are a few of their differences, such as that the term kagami biraki is used to indicate to splitting of the kagami mochi, but not for the splitting of the lid on the taruzake, despite it being used in the same event. Instead, the proper term for the action done on the taruzake is “sakedaru wo akeru” (酒樽を開ける), or even “shito wo akeru” (四斗樽を開ける).

An interesting point worth mentioning is the evolution of the name Kagami Biraki. While it did bear different titles from conception to the change of the designated day, there are 2 that are important in relations to the tone of this ceremony. It is thought that at one time in the past the name used for celebrating with kagami mochi was “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), for a knife was used to slice open the mochi. For taruzake, “Kagami Biki” (鏡引き) was used to indicate how the lid was pulled off of the wine barrel. Due to unfavorable implications presented by both names, a more acceptable concept to highlight what the ceremony was meant to achieve helped to have both replaced by the title “Kagami Biraki”. If we look at Kagami Wari, the idea of using a knife to cut open something was reminiscent to seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly), which contradicted with the idea of a ritual that was to bring luck. As for Kagami Biki, using a pulling force also did not fit well when it comes down to wishing for luck. It boils down to the idea that both kagami mochi and taruzake inhabited by new year lucky deity spirits³. Using a sharp instrument, or a physical pulling action, resemble an aggressive attack on these deity spirits with which people seek good fortune from. Thus, using a hammer to merely split the top layer was viewed as the proper method for releasing good fortune from within.

ENDING

From its history down to the different manners in how it’s celebrated, we get a feel of how deeply entwined Kagami Biraki is with the Japanese culture. While instilling the ritualistic idea of wishing for longevity and good fortune, it is approached in a fun manner with the inclusion of sweet treats. This covers the overall observation of Kagami Biraki. Looking forward to public gatherings for this in the future once the world can get back to normal.


1) Note that is is according to the inreki (陰暦), or old calendar system once used predominantly in Japan. This means that, in comparison with the modern, Gregorian calendar, the inreki was late by one month. So, the 1st month of the new year would’ve actually been February.

2) The standard time in modern times is from January 1st to January 7th, although it may start as early as December, or end as late as January 15th, in certain areas of Japan based on their tradition. This period is called Matsu no Uchi (松の内), which stands for inviting the toshigami inside one’s kadomatsu.

3) Other than the toshigami, deities of rice such as inadama (稲魂) and kokurei (穀霊) were thought to inhabit the kagami mochi and taruzake. Thus the quality of these items, as well as the proper means of showing respect when opening these items, is important.

Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 1

There are many martial arts groups that open the new year in Japan with a ceremony called “Kagami Biraki” (鏡開き). Along with how it’s utilized for the sake of auspicious readings and praying for year-long fortune by shrines and temples, this ceremony is conducted for the sake of good luck during year-long martial training sessions. Its purpose is symbolically significant that my Chikushin group has also adopted this to promote a safe & healthy training year. For this article, we’ll first explore how this ceremony is conducted, by looking at a few events that really illustrate the theme for the new year.

PROCESSION OF THE KAGAMI BIRAKI CEREMONY

Today, Kagami Biraki is used as an opening ceremony for many martial arts groups and organizations. It can be either a small gathering among those who are associated with said group, to a large gathering in a form of a collaboration between different organizations. Well established groups such as Maniwa Nen ryū and Kōdōkan Judō Institute hold this ceremony among their own members, as an example. These smaller events may commence with a speech or formal new year blessing, then followed by technique demonstrations. At the end, there may be  traditional sweets and treats associated with the ceremony that are made available to participants, such as mikan (みかん, mandarin orange). Depending on their tradition, visitors may be allowed to view these groups’ ceremony.

One of the largest, most publicized of these events is “Kagami Biraki-shiki & Budō Hajime” (鏡開式・武道始), which is conducted at the Nihon Budōkan in Tokyo City, Japan. This is an event that has two parts, first being the Kagami Biraki ceremony, then followed by the martial arts segment. Dozens of different martial arts schools, both traditional and modern, participate to present their unique systems.

Let’s look at how Kagami Biraki takes place at the Nihon Budōkan. For the ceremony portion there are 3 parts¹. It starts off with “Yoroi Kizome” (鎧着始め), where individuals dressed in Japanese armor give tribute to the roots of combat to those warriors that fought during warring times. Next is “Sankon no Gi” (三献の儀), where the sōdaishō (総大将, commander-in-chief) does a ritualistic consumption of kachiguri (勝ち栗, dried walnuts), uchi awabi (打ち鮑, dried abalone), and konbu (昆布, kelp) alongside with sake (酒, rice wine) for the sake of gaining luck before going into battle. Finally, “Kagami Biraki” portion takes place, where the sōdaishō uses a small mallet to break the top layer of a kagami mochi (鏡餅, 2-tier decorated rice cake), while his second-in-command officers split the lid on a taruzake (樽酒, barrel filled with special rice wine).  All of this is symbolic, and is considered important to promote the true spirit when engaging in Japanese martial arts.

Next is the training portion, which usually is conducted in the form of demonstrations by each participating group. It is a mix of groups that specialize in modern, sports-oriented styles, and traditional styles. So you may see one group that’ll demonstrate kyūdō (弓道, way of archery), and another demonstrate a version of karate.  There are usually groups that are involved in iaidō (居合道, way of drawing the sword), sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), or naginatajutsu (薙刀術, glaive techniques). Over the years, this event had demonstrations of hōjutsu (砲術, gunnery techniques), jukendō (銃剣道, way of the bayonet), and even sumō wrestling. Every year, the participating groups may differ, so there may be variations in what types of styles are presented. After all the demonstrations are over, the floor is open for everyone to take part in hatsu geiko (初稽古, first practice session). A good variety of practitioners, both young and old, can be seen training together. Finally, this ends with an oshiruko kai (おしるこ会, sweet red bean soup event), where everyone can sit together and replenish their energy with this tasty treat.

Screen shot of the hatsu geiko segment. From the video here.

Take note that each Kagami Biraki event has its own date in which it takes place. For the one that is held at the Nihon Budōkan, it’s held on the 11th of January. Unfortunately, this event was canceled due to the precaution against the current pandemic inflicting the world. For those interested, there are vids on Youtube that showcase these Kagami Biraki events. To see the one held at the Nihon Budōkan, I recommend the following video found on Budo Japan Channel, as it covers the explanation in this article very closely.

ENDING

The connection that Kagami Biraki has with Japanese martial arts is considered a deep one. Every year many groups and organizations go to great lengths in organizing events where practitioners can feel they can begin their training in the new year on the right foot. Unfortunately, since a great number of participants are pulled in every year for this, many Kagami Biraki events have been canceled due to the current restrictions. As a substitute, it’s possible that these groups may have performed a smaller ceremony just for direct members.

Be on the lookout of the 2nd art on the topic of Kagami Biraki. In the next one, we will look into the actual history behind this ceremony, look deeper into some of the components that were briefly mentioned, and get an understanding of how it’s celebrated by the general public and through religious establishments.


1) This is carried out by “Nihon Kacchū Bugu Kenkyū Hozonkai” (日本甲冑武具研究保存会). This organization’s name in English is “The Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor”

Ushidoshi: Steady Pace is the Ox’s Way

Welcome, 2021! Kicking off the new year, our 1st post will cover the Lunar Zodiac sign for 2021. Which animal sign is the highlight for this year? What traits are represented by this animal sign? Are there any unique stories, traditions, or phrases related to it? As always, the info and viewpoint will be from how it is interpreted in Japan, unless there are any differences between other countries that is worth mentioning.

COME FORTH THE OX

The zodiac sign for 2021 is none other than the ox, which is called “ushi” in Japan. Pronounces as “ushitoshi” (丑年) in Japanese, this year is the 2nd in the current Lunar Zodiac cycle. According to old folktales, the ox is also the 2nd sign, for it came in 2nd place in a foot race, being outwitted from arriving 1st by the mouse¹. The character that represents the ox sign is “丑”, but just like the other animal signs, this sign originally had no association with the animal image.

If we take this character ushi (丑) and look at its root meaning, it signifies something that bends, wraps around, or clings onto an object. It’s normally seen within specific characters such as himo (紐), which means “rope”. In ancient Chinese text regarding the Lunar zodiac, the ushi character represents a bud that is being produced from a seed, but has not fully gotten through the hard exterior. In a sense, this expresses that hard work & effort is needed to produce the outcome one desires².

2021 IS ALSO THE YEAR OF THE METAL OX

In conjunction with the 12 Animal Zodiac signs are the 10 Heavenly Stem, which is written as “Jikkan” (十干) in Japanese. 2021 marks the 38th year where both work in unison, and we get a combination of ushi (丑) and kanoto (辛). Together, this year is also called “kanoto-ushi doshi”, or “Year of the Metal Ox”. What is so significant about this? Kanoto, which is the 8th sign from the 10 Heavenly Stem, further enhances the traits of the ox (more on this below). Here’s some things to consider:

  • As a standard, the 5 Elements and Ying Yang theory are incorporated into this unison
  • Kanato’s element is metal, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Ox’s element is earth, while it is on the ying (dark) side
  • Both share similar qualities

Originally, kanoto’s character “辛” stood for “to go against” or “to offend one’s superiors”. However, this meaning is no longer in use, as the purpose of the 10 Heavenly Stem has been revised³.

Most, if not all of this, doesn’t say much in a way that makes it easy to follow or understand for the average reader. Even for myself, I do not fully grasp all the components that consist in these different areas that work hand-in-hand to make the Lunar calendar what it is. As an ancient practice for predicting the outcome in a yearly basis within Asian culture, it is amazing that it is still observed in modern times, let alone make its way into Western societies.

TRAITS OF AN OX

Now that 2021 is here, predictions and forecasts regarding how the year will progress based on the ox sign is out. What are we to expect? What type of traits does the ox represent? Here’s the following:

  • The ox sign represents hard working, my-pace mentality, and intelligence
  • This depiction lines up well with the use of oxen for labor work throughout history, as they are patient & resilient animals that can accomplish long, strenuous tasks
  • People under this sign are said to bear these traits naturally

Those born under the ox sign are said to be hard workers who, once set on a task, are completely focused on it, and will see it through until the very end when it’s complete. While it is commendable, this could also be they become stubborn, and may not sway easily to others’ requests. Also, when needing to work with others, they do so at their own tempo. As a leader, they may make many requests to their employees, but on the other hand they tend not to be a tyrant of a boss. As a bonus, this year being the “Metal Ox” means that those under this sign will also get a boost in popularity, and establish good relations easily. As always, those of the ox sign need to be careful not to overdo it, lest their good qualities backfire and turn against them!

Artwork by Utagawa Toyokuni. Originally untitled, it’s been referenced as featuring a beautiful woman riding an ox alongside her young companion (牛乗り美人と若衆). From the Fujisawa Ukiyo-e Museum.

For this year, everyone is encouraged to learn from the ox traits and apply it, even if your sign is not the ox. While the prediction may still be too early to consider fact, the “Metal Ox” unity is said to be a lucky one. Through patience and hard work, individuals are predicted to be successful in 2021. It’s not something we can do on our own, so through good communication and establishing intimate relationships will prove beneficial. Attempting new endeavors during these troubling times can be worthwhile with abit of effort and patience.

MISCELLANEOUS & FUN FACTS

The following are ways in which the ox sign played a role as a cultural fuction throughout Japanese society over the years. First, let’s look at how it was used for conventional means.

  • Time = 1 pm – 2 pm
  • Direction = North-Northeast (around 30 degrees)
  • Month = 12th (according to the old calendar)
  • Energy = dark (ying)
  • 5 Elements = earth

Next, are some phrases and idioms that are related to, or even inspired by the image of the ox. Note that the majority of these are old, so you most likely won’t hear them used today.

  • Ushi no mimi ni kyōmon (牛の耳に経文)
    LITERAL: Reciting sutra to an ox
    MEANING: Your words have no effect on a person mo matter how many times you explain
  • Ushi no ayumi (牛の歩み)
    LITERAL: Walk like an ox
    MEANING: Someone who walks slow
  • Ushi no ayumi mo senri (牛の歩みも千里)
    LITERAL: Even the ox walks a very long distance. (senri = 4,000 km)
    MEANING: You have to put in your fullest effort in order to get the desired results
  • Ushi no kaku wo hachi ga sasu (牛の角を蜂が刺す)
    LITERAL: The bee stings the horn of the ox
    MEANING: You feel no pain no matter what may occur
  • Ushi wa ushi-zure uma wa uma-zure (牛は牛連れ馬は馬連れ)
    LITERAL: The ox leads the oxen along, while the horse leads the horses along
    MEANING: People of like qualities can easily gather and work together

ENDING

This about covers the ox sign of the Lunar Zodiac, and the predictions for 2021. Look out for more posts this year related to the ox sign, as I will continue to cover this theme. Let’s work to make this a great year in the long run!


1) This version of the story is featured in the Translations section of this site, which I translated into English. You can read it here.

2) In ancient times, each of the 12 Zodiac signs shared the same theme of a plant’s growth from a seed one way or another. Eventually, this theme was overshadowed by the more popular animal theme.

3) Outside of the Lunar calendar, this character acts as an adjective in the standard Japanese language. It can either be pronounced as “karai” and have such meanings like “spicy” and “salty”, or pronounced as “tsurai” and have several meanings such as “painful”, “difficult”, and “heart-breaking”.

Closing of 2020…

As I close the year with this last post, I look back at what has transpired around the world. What sticks out the most is how a pandemic has changed the lifestyle for everyone. Countless lives have been lost, travel and social activites have nearly ceased, jobs have downsized or ceased, and the economy for many countries have been affected greatly. We’ve all been affected personally in one way or another. The negatives of 2020 will linger greatly in many people’s minds possibly for some time.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any positive moments in 2020. In times of of turmoil we’ve seen people work together to help one another. Many who work in the hospitals around the world worked tirelessly to save the lives of those inflicted by the pandemic. We’ve seen innovation used to keep society from screeching to a halt through making work spaces safe or to interact remotely from one’s homes. Families could spend more time safely to strengthen their bonds and continue to move forward, and so on. These may pale in comparison to the negatives, but in reality we must look for the silver lining in the clouds in order to strengthen our spirit and find the will to move forward.

There is a popular Japanese proverb that goes “nanakorobi yaoki” (七転び八起き). It means even if you fall down seven times, you get back up eight times. Countless people around the world have gone through some tough moments personally due to the pandemic. Yet, we all need to keep going forward into the new year with a positive attitude. This resolve will make us stronger, and hopefully overcome a history we hope to never revisit. We all can return back to a state of normalcy, and from there continue to aim further for great success in the years to come.

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and a fruitful 2021!

Ōsōji: Starting the New Year Clean & Fresh

As the year comes to an end, households, business establishments, and religious grounds have a traditional practice performed called ōsōji (大掃除). This is a common word one will hear especially in December, as it refers to cleaning the entirety of one’s house or living space. While this practice is well throughout Japan, there is even an older one, which is considered a rarity, yet still practiced today. For today’s article, we’ll look into the origins of ōsōji, when the best time to start, and what entails in keeping your home clean.

ANCIENT PRACTICE OF CLEANING

The older form of ōsōji is believed to be the practice of susuharai (煤払い), which stands for cleaning the soot that would have accumulated in one’s living space within the span of a year. This soot is from the smoke created from the burning of candles, stove while cooking and the like. It was a form of ritual that went further than merely cleaning the house, but in ridding & preventing akki (悪鬼, bad spirits). Through this, kami (神, divine spirits or gods) could enter into each household in the new year, which ensured fortune to be bestowed there.

2 pages depicting a large cleaning within the home of a merchant, called “Shōka Susuharai” (商家煤払). From the 5th volume of “Tōto Saijiki” (東都歳事記)

The roots of susuharai is traced to the Heian period (794 – 1185) as an ancient ritual in the Imperial palace. This is during the time when the Imperial family and noble families alike were learning a great deal from religious teachings that stemmed from China. Within an old rulebook called “Engishiki” (延喜式), is explained about how this ritual was conducted. Later, as the Heian period transitioned to the Ashikaga-ruled Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), 6th Ashikaga shogun by the name of Munetoshi Shinō (宗尊親王) wrote about the practice of susuharai within the old text called “Azuma Kagami” (吾妻鏡). It seems that from these ancient texts the word itself stood for more than keeping the Imperial palace and its grounds completely clean, but to ensure great fortune from the Toshigami (年神, deity that visits during the early new year), as the act of cleaning also included warding away evil spirits.

From the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), susuharai became a large task performed within the shrines and temples respectively. Monks and priests worked together to ensure their halls were clean in accordance to appeasing the deity they worshiped. This ranged from wiping clean the numerous butsuzō (仏像, statues and figures depicting Buddhist gods) placed in a temple, to using a takesao (竹竿, long bamboo pole) that has a branch full of leaves or straw at one end in the form of a broom to sweep the ceiling of the hondō (本堂, main chamber). Centuries later, the practice of susuharai was passed down to civilians throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) . To ensure everyone had ample time for this, the 13th day of the 12th month was designated as the time to accomplish this.

MODERN DAY APPROACH TO ŌSŌJI

Today, ōsōji is designated for December 31st according to the modern calendar. This day is called Ōmisoka (大晦日), which means “last day (nightfall) of the year”. Along with cleaning, other traditional activities take place, including the eating of toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦, buckwheat noodles served at midnight of ending of the year) and visiting temples for Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘, listening to the temple bell ring for the sake of good fortune).

Sample of simple cleaning tools for your ōsōji needs! From AC-Illust.

While the 31st is an important day, it is also a very busy day if one intends to prepare and participate in the numerous events that take place. In regards to ōsōji, depending on the house size, or even one’s schedule, families may start earlier. For example, my wife often told me that while growing up in Tokyo, her mother, who had a busy work schedule including running her own shop, would clean a single room or an area in the house one day at a time as the 31st approached. She would finally finish on the 31st, if needed, with one room remaining.

What is needed to perform ōsōji nowadays? Your everyday cleaning implements, and water! While considered a tradition, the rules are not as strict as one would think. Generally, family members dust and clean every possible inch of their household, includes on top of cabinets, in corners, around windows, inside the sink and toilet, and so on. Water is also fine for wiping surfaces clean to ensure dirt is removed, as water is symbolic for purification in Japanese culture.

Traditionally, when ōsōji is completed, kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) and shimenawa (注連縄, purified rope made out of rice paper or hemp) are placed around the entrance of the home, business establishment, and shrine & temple grounds. These are the final touches believed to be excellent invitations for the Toshigami to visit and bring everlasting fortune. This is still in practice today as well.

CLOSING

This covers the history of ōsōji, and how it is observed even today. My family and I also carry this tradition forward in our household. Ōsōji is something everyone around the world can practice, as there are so many benefits gained from this outside of the ritual implications. If anything, going into the new year in a clean house is great hygienically.

Shiwasu: How busy monks coincide with the last month of the year

Japanese can be a very colorful language, especially before standardization took place in recent times. Many words that have survived hundreds of years and is still part of modern speech due to their inclusion in the culture have some very interesting back stories. These can range from the name of towns, types of clothing, professions, or celebrations. One topic I’d like to bring up is the naming convention of the months within a yearly cycle, which was a project just recently finished. This can be found in the Translation section under “Topics Related to the Lunar Calendar”. Some points regarding the origins of how these months were named left a lasting impression on me, one particular I want to elaborate on just a little.

The characters for the 12th month name, Shiwasu. From Illust-AC.

According to the old Lunar calendar called “inreki” (陰暦)¹ once used in Japan’s past, each of the months have a “standard” name alongside which number month it is. They were also accompanied with many variants, which were devised with a relatable concept. These names are not as significant as they once used to be, but provide a cultural glimpse several hundreds of years ago of how people lived, how they viewed the seasons, or what activities were significant at specific times. Some are easy to understand and give you a clear visual once you hear the description. Others are not so clear, or have a description that may not really make sense at all. The biggest culprit of this is “Shiwasu”, which is designated as the 12th month of the year². The name Shiwasu has a unique meaning of “teacher (Buddhist priest or monk) rushing about”, which in turn indicates the ending of the year. How can such a description have any relations to indicating what month it is? And why a monk?  

Below are a few quoted sections from an article about Shiwasu, which comes from the website “Setagaya Byori”. It provides a few nice examples, and gives a slightly different take from my own write up in the project mentioned earlier. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my English translation.


“「師走」はもともと旧暦の「12月」を指す言葉です。具体的には今の12月末から2月上旬ごろを指すのですが、今では陽暦の12月の異称としても親しまれています。”

“The word “Shiwasu” was the designated label to the “12th month” of the old (Lunar) calendar from the very start. To be entirely clear, it points to the later part of the 12th month all the way to the earlier part of the 2nd month. However, it is more familiar to us as an alternative name for the 12th month within the new calendar.”

“「師が走る」という字面から、まさに年末の慌ただしい気分までうまく表した言葉のように思えますが、この漢字は「当て字」ともいわれ、語源も諸説あってはっきりしないのです。”

“The term “shi ga haseru” (師が走る), which means “teacher is hurrying about”, gives us vivid thoughts of a very busy end of the year. However, the characters used in this name is said to be an ateji (当て字), or alternative label for naming purposes only, for the explanation behind it doesn’t match up properly with the actual roots for the name.”

“語源として有名なのは、師走の「師」は僧侶であるという説。かつては冬の季節、僧侶を招いて読経などの仏事を行う家が多かったため、お坊さんが東西に忙しく走り回ることとなり、「しがはせる」から「しはす」になったといいます。この説は、平安時代末期に成立した古辞書『色葉字類抄』に「しはす」の注として書かれているのですが、この説をもとに、のちに「師走」の字があてられたと考えられます。また、「師馳せ月」が誤って「師走」になった、という説もあります。”

“The explanation for “shi” of “shiwasu” is that it stands for Buddhist priest or monk, and is a famous one as being the roots of its origin, which goes something like the following. During the winter season, monks were busy running back & forth from east to west because there were many homes that required Buddhist services, which included calling for a monk to recite sutras. Due to this practice, the term “shi ga haseru” was shortened to just “shihasu” (しはす). This explanation is based on the writing of the word “shihasu” in the late Heian period ancient dictionary called “Iroha Jiruishō”. It is thought that the characters “師走” were being referenced in the word “shihasu”, thus the origin for this explanation.  Another explanation is that “Shiwasu” accidentally became a word from the phrase “Shihase Tsuki” (師馳せ月), which shares the same meaning.”


Just by reading this, one can get an idea where some issues would pop up. One of the biggest is the pronunciation. Why change to “shiwasu”? Ease of pronunciation? Apparently in the Iroha Jiruishō only the phonetic “しはす” (shihasu) is written, with no indication that the characters “師走” is being referenced. One linguistic point here could be that, as witnessed in some older documents, the character ha (は) represented the sound wa, which may be why it was assumed that the reading should be “shiwasu” instead³. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence in this case that leads to such a point.

A monk hurrying along during the last month of the year. Is this truly the origin behind the name Shiwasu?!? From Illust-AC.

One thing worth mentioning is that studying up on Japanese history will show that there was a strong presence of Buddhism during the late Heian period, especially in Kyoto, where the Imperial palace was present throughout the majority of Japanese history. Many nobles also lived there, and kept up with what was popular, which including growing interest in Buddhist practice. Due to this, it is most likely that monks were busy fulfilling requests of visiting homes and reciting sutras. However, was this truly the basis for the naming convention for the last month of the year? Most likely not, especially since many other activities were taking place at the same time that may have been more significant. There is a strong belief that this is a more recent creation that puts a bit of poetic spin on the name, which would then spread and become popular. Fortunately, there are more solid theories behind the root word “shihasu”, which are stronger and closer to the actual end-of-the-year description. This can be read in the last page of “Months” here.

Here’s yet another theory that is interesting, for it supports a different spin on the busy religious teacher theme, but from a Shinto angle.



“師が忙しく走り回る説にはバリエーションがあります。「師」は「御師」という神職のことで、この季節は神社の参詣者の案内をしたり、祈祷を行ったりするのに忙しくなるから、という説…”

“There is another variation to the explanation regarding a teacher busily running around. It states that the character “shi” (師) comes from the title “onshi” (御師), which is a rank in Shinto tradition meaning “low level Shinto priest”. The story here is that during the winter season, onshi were very busy with tasks such as guiding worshipers who come to visit the shrine, and conducting prayer services…”


This is just one of the many different theories placed on this unique name “Shiwasu”. Unlike the Buddhist priest theory, the Shinto priest theory is not a popular one. On top of this, it is most likely a recent theory.

Honestly, researching about “Shiwasu” while working on the months of the Lunar Calendar project was one of my highlights that left me scratching my head all too often, but not entirely due to frustration. Oddities like this give a glimpse of some of the creative liberties with the Japanese language in the past that individuals took that shine a light on cultural aspects and topics. If I were to point out every word like this that I’ve come across over the years, I could write about each one in an article everyday for about a year!


1) The Lunar calendar coincides with what was used in most of Asia in the past. Compared to the western Gregorian calendar, the Lunar calendar has a different starting point by almost a month. That means that new years took place at the start of today’s February! Also, the length of each month varied due to certain conditions.

2) According to the Lunar calendar, this was most of what we would designate as today’s January. Japan has long switched to the Gregorian calendar, so Shiwasu begins at the 1st of December and ends on the 31st. On a side note, this adjustment actually affects the meaning of certain names, as they were originally designed to match up with corresponding seasonal changes.

3) Here’s an example of Japanese grammar for those interested. On page 69 in the 3rd volume of the Takeyazō-sho version of Iroha Jiruishō is the word “貫河”. The phonetic for this is written as “ぬきかは” (since it is an official documentation, it actually is written in katakana as “ヌキカハ”).

At 1st glance one would think that this is read as “nukikaha”, but in reality it is “nukikawa”. The reason is the character “河” is pronounced “kawa” as a standard. In the past the character “は” doubled for the sound “ha” and “wa” visually. Basically, you would have had to have been educated to know this point so as to not read it incorrectly depending on which word it was being used in.

Looking at the True Sanada Yukimura ~ Part 2

We continue with part 2 regarding the true image of Sanada Yukimura. In part 1 we established that his real name was Nobushige, took a brief overview of his historical bio, and examined the source behind the label “Yukimura” along with the idea behind it. In this post we will look at the fictional side spurred on by the Yukimura image, and how real life accounts fit into this. Take note that when addressing non-academic source materials such as movies and novels, one should not automatically assume that these are completely false info which can can be discarded in a blink of the eye. Depending on the author/director’s intentions, these could very much follow along accurately with historical events in order to make a solid and entertaining story. They may even contain info that tends to be difficult to find. However, what is important is to recognize which points are fiction in these works, and how to discern the correct info that can be compared to factual sources.

PERSONALITY OF A HERO

A common image of Sanada Yukimura in today’s generation.

When analyzing the image of Sanada Yukimura, we see him represented as one of Japan’s greatest war heroes. This is in part to how he’s portrayed in novels, shows, and movies, both old and new. Depending on the literary work, Yukimura is given a personality that portrays him as stoic, righteous, and heroic figure. This is common especially if the individual is the main character. He is usually depicted as one who stands by his principles and doing whatever it takes to ensure victory, especially for the Toyotomi family. In instances regarding the Osaka Campaign, Yukimura is shown leading his troops head-on into the thick of battle, while in others he is resourceful with carefully analyzed plans that lead to successful outcome. One of the themes that is considered memorable is him commanding his elite warriors and having them operate as kagemusha (影武者, body double) of himself, which was a deceptive tactic to disrupt the enemies’ focus and lower their morality as they get overwhelmed dealing with multiple “Yukimura”.

Take this as an example. In the novel “Chōbō Sanada Yukimura” (智謀真田幸村), Yukimura is shown to be ever protective of his master, Hideyoshi Hideyori after the defeat during the Osaka Campaign. As an escape to Sasshū Province (western part of present-day Kagoshima prefecture) has been established, he is portrayed saying the following lines to a fellow comrade named Gotō Matabei¹:



“…今日評定の席にてあのようにもうしたものゝ、ねがはくば御身は討死を止まっていただきたい”

…considering things from where I stand right now, I want to prevent my lord from dying in this war, if granted such an opportunity”


“そのうえ時節をまって島津家において人数をまとめ、ふたゝび豊臣家を再興せんと言う所存、よって貴殿は誰れか影武者をもって、表面討死をいたしたと言う体裁になしくださるよう”

”On top of this, my thoughts are to gather a number of people, and have them reestablish the Toyotomi clan through the help of the Shimazu (Shimadzu) clan. Through this, I would want to have someone play your double, and then have him die in (the next) battle where everyone can see.”


To the very end, Yukimura dedicates his life in preserving the true Toyotomi line, even when the odds are surely against them. Establishing a new Toyotomi family, and using doubles for certain individuals that would continue the fight and eventually die at the hands of Tokugawa Shogunate would stop any pursuers coming for them. As impressive as this may sound, this is just a novel. Yet, this also goes in hand with the narrative regarding him avoiding death and managing to survive Osaka Campaign.

ADDITIONAL/SUPPORTIVE CHARACTERS

In fictional works there tends to be characters that don’t have a real historical presence, but used for the sake of the story. In the various novels that feature Yukimura, there are cases of this, sometimes being minor individuals who help to fill in the gaps where history leaves open. Other times a real figure is used to model a new character placed in the story. Since literary works regarding Sanada Yukimura were stated to be based on true events in the past, like many other novels of its kind, future generation may inadvertently mistaken fictional characters as to being actual people.

A collage of thumbnails depicting the Jūyūshi (10 brave warriors) who served Yukimura, drawn woodblock-style. From “Ueda City Digital Archive Portal Site”

Other than Yukimura himself, possibly the largest example of fictional characters is found in the “Sanada Jūyūshi” (真田十勇士), which is a label given to 10 brave warriors representing families that were allies to the Sanada clan. The appearance of this Sanada Jūyūshi is often attributed to “Sanada Sandaiki” (真田三代記), a Sanada-supportive narrative produced in the Edo period. Although viewed as fictional, these characters grew in popularity and appeared in modern-day novels, manga, movies, and the like. Some of the individuals even appeared in works centering about them, which further developed their background story to the point where they sound like they truly came out from the pages of history. The following is a list of the those individuals of the Sanada Jūyūshi²:

  1. Sarutobi Sasuke (猿飛佐助) – a famous ninja employed by the Sanada clan, he is said to be the student of the legendary Koka ryu ninjutsu master named Tozawa Hakuunsai.
  2. Kirigakure Saizō (霧隠才蔵) – a ninja who was the student of Momochi Sandayu, lord of one of the 3 powerful families of Iga Prefecture.
  3. Miyoshi Seikai Nyūdō (三好清海入道) – A monk employed by Yukimura who is renown as a hero fighting to his death during the Osaka Campaign.
  4. Miyoshi Isa Nyūdō (三好伊三入道) – Younger brother of Sekai who was also a monk, and hailed as a hero dying in battle during the Osaka Campaign.
  5. Anayama Kosuke (穴山 こすけ) – A dedicated retainer of Yukimura, he played the double of his master during the Osaka Campaign.
  6. Yuri Kamanosuke (由利鎌之助) – Once a retainer Toda Suganuma, he switched to the Sanada side after the Toda were defeated in battle.
  7. Kakei Jūzō (筧十蔵) – From the Kakei family, allies of the Sanada clan. Apart from Jūzō, other members of the Kakei family also appear in different Sanada-related stories.
  8. Unno Rokurō (海野六郎) – A fellow kinsman, as his family line is from where the Sanada line originates from.
  9. Nezu Jinpachi (根津甚八) – Once a pirate for the Kuki navy, he later becomes a retainer of Yukimura. His family line, like the Sanada line, also originates from the Unno line.
  10. Mochizuki Rokurō (望月六郎) – A mysterious ally of Yukimura who specializes in explosives. Rokurō is also known under different titles depending on the story he appears in.

Note that while they make up the Jūyūshi due to their inclusion in various works as allies of Yukimura since as early as the Edo period, this wasn’t an official title for them until sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Some other things worth mentioning is that while these characters are deemed fictional, most of them are considered to have been inspired by actual people from history. For example, the concept of Sarutobi Sasuke is believed to have been based off of one of several different individuals whose names appear in different texts. The most popular theory is Sarutobi Nisuke³ (猿飛仁助), who is said to have been a thief hired to assist in the “Battle of Kanegasaki” (金ヶ崎の戦い) by a Kinoshita Tokichirō (木下藤吉郎) in 1570⁴. In another example, Miyoshi Sekai and his brother are believed to have been modeled after Miyoshi Masakatsu (三好政勝) and his family. Masakatsu became head of the Miyoshi clan and served under Hosokawa Harumoto after his father, Miyoshi Masanaga (三好政長), retired.

RED ARMOR

A staple that will probably be forever associated with Sanada Yukimura is red armor. This is something Yukimura and his troops donned on right before the Osaka Campaign. The concept of wearing red armor is thought to be intimidating due to its fiery color. It’s said that it has such a psychological effect on his enemy Tokugawa Ieyasu that his umajirushi (馬印, a battle flag on a pole inserted into a slot on the back of one’s armor) fell down, which is said to be a bad omen. Yukimura is, with no hesitation, depicted in red armor in novels and visual in artworks from Edo period. Due to these, the trend continues in modern times. This association to the red armor is not limited to Yukimura, for the Sanada clan as a whole is included as well.

News article regarding the discovery of red armor, possibly related to the Sanada clan. From Sankei News.

Of course, this claim of red armor doesn’t come without critical disputes. One of the more recent claims is that the Sanada red armor is just as much as a myth as the name Yukimura, for this famed red armor of his (Nobushige’s) has yet to be claimed and placed in a museum. One argument is that the actual armor that Nobushige wore was found, and that it was actually black. Another argument is that within certain households in Japan that have some form of link to the Sanada clan have preserved these old red armor, but the color is not a vibrant red but a dull brownish-red color. Considering how wars in the past were conducted, it is not unusual for certain things like armor to have been taken by the victor, or lost during the chaotic fray. Interestingly, in 2017 there was an article in a Japanese newspaper regarding family in Nagano, Japan coming forth with what looks to be the remains of a very old red armor, along with an aged note stating it was the possession of the Sanada clan. It was up on display at the Sanada Hobutsukan (真田宝物館, Sanada Sacred Treasures Museum) that same year.

As a side note, the idea of wearing red armor isn’t an original concept by the Sanada clan, nor was a it a rare sight. Historical sources point to the warlord of Kai province, Takeda Shingen, as being the first to devise this strategy around the mid 1500s. It’s said of intimidation the opposition with this type of color. Shingen had a designated team of soldiers wear red armor in order to catch the enemy force’s eyes and instill fear as they rushed into battle. It is from here which Sanada Masayuki (Nobushige’s father) adopted the idea of red armor within his clan. Whether or not members of the Sanada clan donned on red armor prior to the events in Osaka Campaign is still up for debate, but there is one evidence that points to this as being a thing. In Hirayama Masaru’s book “Sanada Nobuyuki: Chichi no Chiryaku ni katta Ketsudan-ryoku” (真田信之 父の知略に勝った決断力), he reveals that when an order from Toyotomi Hideyoshi came regarding being prepared for military service in 1593, Sanada Nobuyuki (Nobushige’s older brother) replied that the warriors of the Sanada clan were always ready to serve while donning on red armor. Years later, during the Battle of Sekigahara a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu known as Ii Naomasa (井伊直政) also adopted the idea of wearing red armor and outfitted his troops the same way. What’s unique in this is that he was a comrade to Nobuyuki, who at the time sided with the Tokugawa-Eastern forces as ordered by his father Masayuki as a means to ensure the Sanada line survives no matter which side wins.

SANADA = NINJA?!?

Since the Edo period all the way to the present, the Sanada clan is presented as heavily associated with ninja. Employing a large number of these shadowy figures, ninja from both the regions of Iga and Koga are portrayed as serving Sanada members like Masayuki, Nobuyuki, and Yukimura. While it starts off small in earlier works in the Edo period, this image became more pronounced in later works such as novel Sanada Sandaiki, where all 10 members of the Jūyūshi are ninja or related to a ninja. This even lead to more focus on the ninja theme in modern works, including movies such as “Ninjutsu Sanada Jūyūshi” (忍術真田十勇士) and “Sanada Fuunroku” (真田風雲録), as well as 2016 drama “Sanada-Maru” (真田丸)⁵.

What is the reason behind this large focus on ninja being employed by the Sanada clan? Is it just a ploy to bolster the image of Yukimura (Nobushige), which in turn developed into its own entity entirely? In some ways, yes. However, this is not a baseless creation or idea. There are records that point to the Sanada clan having a working relationship with different groups that specialized in the fundamental skills that would become what we call “ninjutsu” in modern days. According to some, the Sanada clan are also said to have engaged in ninja-like activities themselves. The root of this is generally connected to Takeda Shingen and when he was ruler of Kai Province during the early-mid 1500s. Shingen is recorded as utilizing not only a network of different groups taking part in espionage and information-gathering, but establishing an in-house system of ninjutsu, which a select number of his generals were privy to learning in order to assist in maintaining it. At the time, Sanada Yukitaka (Nobushige’s grandfather) was serving Shingen and not only had knowledge of utilizing ninja, but is said to have taken part in ninja-like operations. Yukitaka’s son Sanada Masayuki would continue this as one of the 24 top generals of the Takeda clan. In fact, some claim that after Takeda Shingen’s death and the fall of the Takeda clan, Masayuki would keep up this network of utilizing ninja.

One piece of evidence for this is found in an old historical memoir called Kazawaki (加沢記), which is an account of activities that took place in areas around Kosuke Province (present-day Gunma prefecture) during the 1500s. Ninja-like groups from Higashi Agazuma area (東吾妻方地) are written to have been utilized by Takeda Shingen and members of the Sanada Clan. This is significant due to Higashi Agazuma area featuring densely wooded routes that were used not only by the local ninja, but it said that members of the Sanada clan also had access to these as well.

A genealogy chart of the Yokotani family. On it is the name of Yokotani Sakon (Shigeuji), circled) who was a ninja employed to the Sanada clan. From the book “Sanada Ninja no Matsuei” (真田忍者の末裔)

This leads to the famed Yukimura and his Jūyūshi. The ninja members such as Kirigakure Saizō have been identified as fictional characters. Claims are that they were inspired by real life figures who may not have actually had any connections with Yukimura. Yet, could it be that there were actual ninja working closely to him? There is one that is worth mentioning. Sources point to the Yokotani family (横谷氏), who are said to have been ninja from Shinano Province (part of present-day Nagano Prefecture). While there is not a lot of info on them, it is believed that they were active throughout the 1500s to about the early 1600s as members of a ninja group from Agazuma area, who were under the employment of Ideura Morikiyo (出浦 盛清), a vassal of the Sanada clan. Notable members are Yokotani Yukishige (横谷幸重), who is said to have served Sanada Nobuyuki (Nobushige’s older brother), while his younger brother Yokotani Shigeuji (横谷重氏) had served Nobushige. Shigeuji, who also went by the title “Sakon” (左近), died during Osaka Campaign, just like others who were serving Nobushige during the battle. Some researchers believe that Yokotani Shigeuji could have inspired the idea of Sarutobi Sasuke, but this hasn’t been proven yet.

So the idea of a ninja employed under Nobushige, fighting during the Osaka Campaign, and dying as possibly a kagemusha for him is a strong possibility. On top of that, with the Sanada clan’s deep connection with utilizing ninja groups, it can be understood why they are presented the way they are. However, it is too far of a stretch to say everyone around Nobushige was a ninja, and that the Jūyūshi were composed entirely of them. See, when you have a forced portrayal of Miyoshi Seikai Nyūdō being the son of the fictional thief ninja Ishikawa Goemon as depicted in Shibata Renzaborū’s novel “Sanada Yukimura~Sanada Jūyūshi” (真田幸村~真田十勇士), it’s hard not to say that this is due to the popularity of ninja in modern society.

CONCLUSION

Here we conclude the discussion on this famous hero. In ending, writing about Sanada Yukimura (Nobushige) is a tough topic to pick up and try to address from a historical point of view. To be exact, this was a several months-long project, which included acquiring a Sanada-related books, reading through well-known novels, researching historical sources, and going through sites that spoke about both the real side and the fictional side of Yukimura, to say the least. In the long run, due to how history was recorded hundreds of years ago, it is hard to get a definitive answer on certain points, especially when writers add their creative perspective to make a war story sound more epic.


1) Chapter 54, page 431

2) Depending on the source material, some of these characters bear a different name or are presented in a revised way. The one above is a standard listing.

3) The credibility of the source that mentions Sarutobi Nisuke is also under scrutiny, thus historians feel that he may have been made up to fit some agenda.

4) This was another alias used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warlord who managed to seize control of Japan in the later part of the 1500s

5) The terms ninja and ninjutsu are used loosely here, as they are modern words used to identify those who engaged in clandestine activities such as spying, and information gathering. While in the past there were different labels depending on the region and who they were employed by, the universal term was often considered to be shinobi (忍び), and their methods called shinobi-no-jutsu (忍びの術). For the sake of ease in understanding for casual readers, the terms ninja and ninjutsu were chosen to be used in this article.

Looking at the True Sanada Yukimura ~ Part 1

Those who invest time in studying up on the Sengoku jidai (戦国時代, Warring States period) of Japan will eventually come across accounts concerning the Sanada clan. Possibly one of the more popular figures, the Sanada clan are renown for their brave, unorthodox methods of warfare while under the allegiance to warlords such as Takeda Shingen and Hideyoshi Hideyori. Out of the known members of this clan, the most talked about would arguably be the one named Yukimura. To some it would be due to his fame, yet this in turn is riddled with discrepancy. Who was this Sanada Yukimura?

Primarily inspired (mainly from curiosity) through the Kai Kokushi project found in the Translation section of this blog¹, I decided to take a shot at presenting the true face of Yukimura, as well as separating him from the fabled image that is currently predominant around the world. What I’ve found out, however, that this is a task that, in the very end would still have holes due to a lack of solid factual evidence, making it near impossible to paint a perfect picture. A plus to all this is understanding the situation enough where I can at least explain it where readers can discern just how difficult it is to claim what is historically real and what is fabricated through fiction.

In this 1st post of this 2-part discussion, we will touch upon the historical story regarding of the true Yukimura, the origins of the fictional Yukimura, and the proposed reasoning behind the name.

BRIEF LOOK AT THE LIFE OF NOBUSHIGE

Picture of Sanada Nobushige (Yukimura). From Wikipedia

To understand the legend of Sanada Yukimura is to learn about how historical sources view him. For starters, Sanada Yukimura’s actual name is said to be Nobushige (信繁). His active participation in war is often recited to be around 1600, when the Western forcess of the Toyotomi clan went to war against the Eastern forces of the Tokugawa clan for control over Japan during the “War at Sekigahara” (関ヶ原合戦, Sekigahara Gassen)². During this time he was fighting alongside his father, Sanada Masayuki while establishing a strong fortification in Ueda Castle on the side of the Toyotomi clan. Records point out that Nobushige and his father went into hiding at Kudoyama (九度山) in northern Wakayama prefecture after the Tokugawa-Eastern force came out victorious in the battle and had Masayuki exiled.

Many years later, Nobushige and his troops joined allies of the remaining Toyotomi clan to occupy Osaka Castle, as well as took part in the fighting against the Tokugawa shogunate that ensued afterwards, known as the Osaka Campaign (大阪の陣, Osaka no Jin) in 1614. Nobushige is said to have been a skilled strategist, as he performed effective tactics such as securing a weakpoint on the side of Osaka castle with his own fortification called “Sanada-maru” (真田丸), which proved to be near impenetrable. He also divided his troops into smaller squads around the battlefield and attacked their enemies from multiple directions, disrupting the opposite side’s advancements a few times. As talented as he was, however, in the long run Nobushige met his end during one of the smaller conflicts that took place during the war called “Battle at Mikatagahara” (三方ヶ原の戦い, Mikatagahara no Tatakai). It is recorded that while he was wounded and tired amongst a grove of trees, Nobushige was successfully killed and decapitated. The rest of his troops shared a similar fate.

Yet, there is much mystery surrounding his death as well, as there are claims that he had managed to escape to Satsuma province (present-day Kagoshima) through the use of many kagemusha (影武者, someone posing as a double of another). These kagemusha perished in battle posing as him³. This is a recent claim made in 1941 by researchers who came across the grave of one of Nobushige’s grandchildren in Kagoshima, who’s name was Sanada Daisuke (真田大助). Speaking of graves, supposedly Nobushige has many graves around certain areas in Japan; while this isn’t an unusual thing in Japan, a few of these are in areas where certain individuals claim he traveled abit during his escape before making his residence there. Of course, these claims are made during modern times.

Is it a possibility that one of these claims are true? Could it be that the myth created from the novels that portray Sanada Yukimura as a legendary figure was the inspiration for random people to devise such plans that support the notion of Nobushige having survived the Osaka campaign? This goes against the official report by the Tokugawa shogunate where, despite soldiers claiming to have brought back the head of this fearless warrior, they were able to confirm his death through using an acquaintance of the Sanada clan to identify the correct head of Nobushige.

Image of a newspaper article from 1941 regarding the discovery of a grave of Yukimura’s grandchild. From “Rekishi Kenkyu Unno“.

In the actual records before Nobushige’s untimely death, the name “Yukimura” doesn’t come up at all. However, it becomes widely used later. In reality, surviving records show that this figure is known by the name of Nobushige, along with other titles he took on during his military career⁴. While he is a recognized warrior of the Sanada clan, Nobushige’s military career is somewhat underwhelming. When comparing merits and achievements, it appears that a few of his predecessors accomplished more. For instance, his father Masayuki is a much more renown individual due to his illustrious career on and off the battlefield serving different lords, including his long time servitude under Takeda Shingen as one of his top 24 generals.

BIRTH OF “YUKIMURA”

When does the name “Yukimura” start to come into play? The earliest example is in the war chronicle “Nanba Senki”⁵ (難波戦記), which was written in 1672, years later after the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established and had complete rule over Japan. This covers the actual events that unfolded during the Osaka Campaign, told from the supportive side of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his allies. When it comes down to speaking about the Sanada clan and their forces, who were on the opposing side, the name used to identify Nobushige was not his real name, but “Yukimura” instead.

This trend continued, as the name Yukimura also appeared in other places, such as the official family registry for lords and their retainers called “Kanseichōshu Shokafu”(寛政重修諸家譜), the Sanada lineage & history compiled in Matsushiro district (present-day Matsushiro Town, Nagano), as well as fictional war novels such as “Chibō Sanada Yukimura” (智謀真田幸村) and “Sanada Sandaiki” (真田三代記). These were all written during the Edo period. The continuous use of this name gave many the perspective that this was the official name, thus the Yukimura tag further its inclusion in historical-related subjects, especially in pop culture. For example, fans of manga may be familiar with the heroic portrayal of Sanada Yukimura in “Goshimei Bushō Sanada Yukimura: Kageroi” (御指名武将真田幸村 かげろひ -KAGEROI-), or game enthusiasts may enjoy playing as him in the video series “Sengoku Basara” (戦国BASARA).

One would think through the evidence of Nobushige being his real name, that the current descendants or affiliates of the Sanada line would dispute this fabricated name being used as almost an official identification. Surprisingly, it appears that the name “Yukimura” has not only been accepted, but also promoted as well. As mentioned before, a Sanada lineage chart was officially released from Matsushiro domain many years ago. This was under the control of Sanada Nobuyuki (真田信之) & his descendants at one time, and they compiled this lineage chart which includes Yukimura⁶. It is possible that, due to the large recognition and popularity the name brings to the history of the Sanada clan, that they have “accepted” Yukimura being a nickname of Nobushige.

THE REASON BEHIND THE NAME

Why use “Yukimura” instead of “Nobushige”? It is not 100% confirmed, but there appears to be some logical patterns behind this. For starters, it is not unusual in Japanese documents of old to change a particular figure’s name if they were on the losing side. Doing so may imply some things, such as if they are viewed as significant or not, referencing the actual individual directly may be a taboo, or in order to take some creative liberties with their story. From another point, changing Nobushige’s name may indicate a little of each of what was just mentioned with the following explanation.

A historian by the name of Atobe Ban published a book entitled “Sanada Yukimura ‘Eiyū Densetsu no Uso to Shinjitsu'” (真田幸村 “英雄伝説のウソと真実”) in 2015. In this book, Mr. Atobe explains how Yukimura (幸村) is an acronym for certain traits of the Sanada clan that bears some weight depending on how one views it⁷. He does this by dissecting the name into separate components.

Cover of Atobe Ban’s book regarding the facts and fiction surrounding Sanada Yukimura

Taking the first character Yuki (幸), the pronunciation is used for naming purposes. This character was originally used in the given name of different members of the Sanada family (such as Nobushige’s father, Masayuki), as well as the preceding clan they originate from, being the Unnō family. Bearing positive meanings such as “bountiful harvest”, “good fortune”, and “happiness”, it is no wonder why Yuki would be an acceptable component in a given name. Yet, why wasn’t Nobushige named in a similar vein? Who knows. Possibly as a nod to this, the writer of Nanba Senki may have thought the same thing when conceiving the name Yukimura.

Now for the last character mura (村). This character is in reference to the Muramasa (村正), a type of sword forged in the style by the famous swordsmith named Sengo Muramasa (千子村正). There are supposedly 2 theories why “mura” is used, but they arrive to the same conclusion.

  • The 1st one is that Nobushige, his troops, and even possibly other members of the Sanada clan used the Muramasa (村正) swords as their preferred style of blades. While there is no proof regarding this, it is one that is also not unreasonable. Muramasa swords are known for their sharpness, to the point that they would cut and harm everything and everyone indiscriminately…including the wielder (more on this in the 2nd theory). For the sake of war, these types of swords were ideal and sought after. Between the late 1400s to throughout the 1500s the Muramasa swords were mass produced and said to have been used by many throughout Japan. It would make sense that the Sanada clan would also add this to their equipment.
  • The 2nd theory spurs from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s superstition regarding the Muramasa swords. It is stated that from his youth onward, he had repeated bad experiences with these popular swords, despite the fact that it was originally a favorite in the Tokugawa household. At one time, when inspecting this type of sword, he had cut himself when drawing out this blade from its scabbard. As he got older he viewed the Muramasa to be bad luck to him and his family line, as he saw it having the possibility of bringing his family line doom. Once establishing his reign over Japan, it is said that Ieyasu ordered these Muramasa swords banned, and to have them be dismantled. Now, seeing how strongly he was against this type of sword, you can imagine how this can be applied to those who were his enemies and how they willingly armed themselves with Muramasa swords. Interestingly, it is recorded that the Sanada clan were extremely difficult to defeat due to their unconventional battle tactics and their resourcefulness. Ieyasu and his allies had many difficulties with subduing them during the battle at Sekigahara and Osaka Campaign. You can say that Nobushige (Yukimura) was like the Muramasa, as he was a thorn in the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu that could not be overlooked.

CONCLUSION

Now that a clearer picture of who the real Yukimura/Nobushige was, we’ll end part 1 here. While there is a definitive record of who he was up until his speculated death, in actuality there are some things that remain unclear due to a lack of proper documentation, as well as claims made by Sanada supporters. Part 2 will continue with looking at the fictional Yukimura, traits and items that are iconic to him, and how they may have been inspired by real life evidence associated with Nobushige.


1) You can access it by clicking on the “Translations” tab from the menu above, or you can go directly to the Kai Kokushi page here.

2) In actuality, Nobushige was active much earlier than this. Since 1592 he, his brother, and father were serving Toyotomi Hideyoshi, handling different tasks over the years such as managing Nagoya Castle in Bizen Province (present-day Saga Prefecture), taking part in the construction of Fukumi Castle in Kyoto, and occupying Ueda Castle in Nagano Prefecture.

3) Out of these kagemusha, 5 have been identified. Their names are Mochizuki Yoemon (望月宇右衛門), Yamada Kichibei (山田喜知平), Anayama Kosuke (穴山小助), Takabashi Shikibu (高橋式部) and Anayama Ichiemon (穴山市右衛門).

4) These names include Genjirō (源次郎), Saemon-no-suke (左衛門助), and Kōhakusai (好白斎)

5) Another name for this is “Osaka Gunki” (大阪軍記)

6) Some writers such as Hirayama Masaru wrote about this point. Originally, Sanada descendants in Matsushiro domain compiled “Sanada-ke Bunsho” (真田家文書, Records of the Sanada Family), which included a lineage chart. Within this only the name “Nobushige” was used. At a later date, this was converted to “Sanada-ke Keifu” (真田家系譜, Genealogy of the Sanada Family), which would include the name “Yukimura”. These were both produced during the Edo period.

It appears that these descendants accept the “Yukimura” name as being used for Nobushige after the Osaka Campaign. That doesn’t necessarily mean they believe Nobushige used it himself.

7) Apparently there is another way to write the name. In relations to the news report about the discover of his grandchild’s grave in Kagoshima made in 1941, supposedly a gravesite for Yukimura was also found. On the headstone the name “Yukimura” is on it, but using the characters “雪丸”. These characters may have been used to keep his grave hidden…that is, if this story is true.

Translations Page Update

Just a quick announcement, there are new updates being added to the Translations page. For starters, both “Kai Kokushi” and “Bukijutsus Zusetsu” have new entries added today. There will be another update in a few days as well. On top of this, a new translation entry will be added soon, possibly at the ending of this week. Just like blog entries, there will not be a shortage of translation works present on this site.

Speaking of which, one of the nice things about doing translation work is some of the new & interesting topics that pop up from them. For example, I’ve spent some time on & off working on the entry under “Kai Kokushi”, which covers several military commanders who held the prestigious title of “Hayato”. Since it covers inheritance, family genealogy through arranged marraige, and the like, I needed to do a lot of research on different individuals and family lines. This also encouraged me to read certain older novels in Japanese, as these were referenced as well. While this entry mainly focuses on the Hara family of Kai Province, the Sanada family are also mentioned abit…including the famous Sanada Yukimura.

Considering the popularity of the Sanada clan, one would think that it’d be easy to get information as needed. However, this is not the case when a great deal of their fame, especially due in part of Sanada Yukimura, is through fictional novels and artworks. Lotsa fact-checking is required in cases like this to understand what’s real and what’s fiction. So, thanks to the translation work on the Hara family and the Hayato title, I will be releasing a post on Sanada Yukimura this week.

Stay tuned!

Understanding Te no Uchi

A topic that often comes up no matter how long a person studies martial arts is what he/she should be doing with their hands during x, or how they should manipulate their weapon during y. These examples are generally related to te no uchi (手の内), which is an important area of training that is introduced to many beginners of martial arts, yet is deep enough in principles that even advanced practitioners continue to work on.

Te no uchi refers to how you wield a weapon in your hands. It is not limited to just how one holds a weapon, but goes as far as how to manipulate it, how to do certain strikes, how one’s hands change grips, how it is held based on one’s posture, and so on. You’ll hear this used for many weapon-based martial systems such as kenjutsu (剣術), kyūdō (弓道), sōjutsu (槍術), and so on. However, it is not just used for when you possess an object in your hand, for te no uchi is also used for hand-to-hand martial systems like karate (空手) and taijutsu (体術), for in essence even a martial artist’s hands are a “weapon”.

Let’s refer to the te no uchi of the naginata. One of the basic te no uchi often taught very early is keeping a consistent grip style with the right hand on top and left hand on bottom similar to wielding a katana. This is reminiscent to how it was used on the battlefield in the past especially in troop formation. Another te no uchi taught is how to switch hand positions, which is important depending on the situation and type of naginata being used. The following example below illustrate this when doing repeated horizontal cuts.

① The initial grip (left pic) is important, as it determines the te no uchi for the right horizontal swing.

② Finishing the swing, the right hand turns the naginata vertically (left pic), from which the left hand slides up and switches place with the right hand (middle pic). Through this a transition to a horizontal swing using the intended te no uchi can be established.

③ Finishing the left horizontal swing, same action is performed again, this time left hand bringing the naginata vertical (middle pic), then switching with the right hand (right pic). Repeat.

This is a step-by-step demonstration on how to achieve this switching of hands in order to maintain a specific reach with the naginata. Of course, as one becomes proficient, this manipulation will become smoother & natural. However, the overall execution of this te no uchi will still remain as long as it’s properly ingrained in the body.

Another scenario concerning te no uchi can be seen during kenjutsu, when two practitioners lock their katana together in tsuba zeri ai (鍔競合い). When the skill level between the two are about even, the one with the better te no uchi can get the upper hand. For example, it is advantageous to understand the moment when to push the opponent’s hands up through the use of one’s tsuka (柄, sword handle), or how to twist one’s hands to utilize the tsuba (鍔, sword guard) to push the opponent’s sword to the side in order to break through their defense, which is possible through the use of advanced te no uchi.

In ending, te no uchi is one of the basics found in Japanese martial arts that is learned very early in training. It’s critical that beginners practice this in order to progress in their respectful martial system. Yet, it is something that can not be forgotten and left behind, as it continues to define a practitioner’s proficiency even in advanced techniques. Thus, te no uchi is a fundamental skill that can be worked on even for a lifetime.