In accordance to this year’s Zodiac animal theme, I’ve looked into stories from Japanese folklore that deals with a rabbit and its inspiring traits. I’ve decided to go with a classic known as “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (因幡の白兎, White Rabbit of Inaba Country), one that is found in one of Japan’s oldest literature named “Kojiki” (古事記) . While deemed on the mythological side, the Kojiki is a valuable source that is tied to the Imperial line and is integral to Japanese culture, as some aspects of it is thought to tell of real-life social events, albeit coded. As for Inaba no Shiro Usagi, originally it is not a stand-alone tale in the Kojiki, but has since been sectioned out to act as a folktale for little kids since modern times. While it is a simple tale about a white rabbit’s journey, take note that it is driven by past spiritual and superstitious views & beliefs, so there are a bit of hidden lessons to be found, which some will be covered in a follow-up article.
The original text found in the Kojiki is written in very old Chinese-structured Japanese, which makes it a challenge to read even for native speakers. Plus, the writing was much shorter and concise. Fortunately, there are numerous publications of Inaba no Shiro Usagi that feature updated, easy-to-read Japanese text that are also fleshed out to capture the full picture of the events in the story, which expands it a good deal. The version that will be used for this article comes from the following site.
A long time ago, there was a single white rabbit on an island called Oki. He wanted to go to Inaba Country, for he wanted to meet the Goddess there. However, he had no means to do this, for there was a vast sea between Oki island and Inaba Country.
As a resolution to his situation, the white rabbit had an idea about tricking some sharks and using them to cross the sea. He called out to a shark and proposed the following,
“Hey shark, let’s compare who has more companions, me or you.”
The white rabbit then had the sharks line up all the way to Inaba Country, and was able to cross the sea by jumping nimby along the top of their backs.
Brimming with happiness, the white rabbit blurted this out just as he was about to arrive on the coast of Inaba Country. Infuriated, one of the sharks grabbed hold of the white rabbit’s fur with its teeth and pulled it right off, leaving him hairless.
The hairless white rabbit was in such pain from this, as he was left crying in the sand. Just then, a large mass of gods, who were the 80 sibling gods of Ōkuninushi no kami (大国主命), came walking by. Similar to the rabbit, they too traveled to Inaba from a neighboring country after hearing about the unrivaled beauty of a princes named Yagami-hime (八上姫), with their intention being that one of them succeeds in taking her hand and making her their wife. Hearing the plight of the sobbing rabbit, the sibling gods, half-interested, shared with him the following.
“To cure your ailment, wash your body in sea water, then allow your body to be blown-dry in the wind, and finally sleep at the top of a mountain.”
As instructed, the rabbit drenched his body in sea water, and blow-dried his skin in the wind. However, he was unaware that this remedy was all but a lie, for with each step in this painful process, the more it became extremely excruciating to bear.
As the white rabbit sat crying once again due to this extreme pain, a god by the name of Ōkuninushi no kami walked by, carrying a large baggage that contain the personal items of the sibling gods. He was a good distance from the sibling gods, as he followed behind the group at a slow pace. Ōkuninushi inquired the weeping white rabbit the cause of his plight, and listened to all that had transpired.
“Please go wash your body in fresh water at the mouth of the river, then rub the furry fruiting spikes of the cattail reeds all over your body.”
Ōkuninushi gave the white rabbit advice on how to solve his situation.
The white rabbit did as he was told, and sure enough his body once again was covered in fur. In return, the white rabbit, elated with joy, had this to say to Ōkuninushi,
“Mean-spirited guys like your brother gods will never be able to take Princess Yagami-hime as a wife. Instead, she should choose you.”
With that, the white rabbit transformed into a messenger god, and was able to quickly travel to Yagami-hime & inform her the situation before the sibling gods reached her place.
Unaware of what the white rabbit had done, the sibling gods gathered in front of the princess, and they all asked for her hand in marriage. With no hesitation, the princess responded to the request.
“I offer my hand in marriage to Ōkuninushi no kami, and not to any of you.”
In saying this, she sent the sibling gods out from her presence.
It can be said that through Ōkuninushi no kami’s kindness, and coupled with his unique trait of catching the heart of a woman, that this is how his journey was able to come to an end.
This is how the story Inaba no Shiro Usagi ends. As mentioned before, this tale is a small part of a bigger story surrounding Ōkuninushi no kami’s journey. Still, in a short narrative we see a white rabbit use its cleverness & speed to accomplish a difficult task, as well as transform into a godly creature to repay another for his kindness. Stay tuned for part 2, which will be an in-dept analysis of the story and its unspoken meanings, as well as some back story in its interpretation over the years.
Happy New Years everyone! 2023 is now upon us, giving us the opportunity to start off fresh and put new ideas to the test. But first, I will stick with my normal pattern and open the year with an article covering this year’s zodiac sign, which is the rabbit! To be more specific, it’s water rabbit. Let’s go over the specifics of this year’s sign, traits that those born under the rabbit zodiac possess, and well known rabbit-inspired Japanese phrases that advise us on real life topics.
USAGI, THE RABBIT SIGN
The word for rabbit in Japanese is “usagi” (兎), and represents the 4th Zodiac sign of the 40th 12 Animal Zodiac cycle (十二支, Jūnishi). However, as mentioned in other posts with like topic, this was done for phonetic purposes, as well as to make digesting the complexity of the Zodiac cycle easier for the masses. Before this, the rabbit (as well as the other animals) had no connection to it. Even the Chinese character for this Zodiac sign is different from the standard one used for this animal. Below are the details.
Chinese character: 卯
Pronunciation: u / usagi¹
Meaning: To force through, to challenge
Thus, this Zodiac year is pronounced either “udoshi” or “usagidoshi” using the Chinese characters “卯年”². Also, the meaning mentioned above is in relations to the stages a plant seed goes through. Imagine a sprout pushing through the outer coating of the seed, as it struggles to grow into a big plant. This is the real meaning behind this Zodiac sign.
TRAITS OF THE RABBIT
How does both the original meaning of the plant and the image of the rabbit relate to human characteristics? This Zodiac sign represents the period where we grow through proper nutrition, by taking chances, and achieving success by not giving up. This is critical for little kids, as they learn many things that can vastly help with development, such as studying math to learning how to ride a bike. Adults can also be inspired by this as well. Also, if we add the imagery of a rabbit, where we can grow physically & succeed at our goals in leaps and bounds, as long as as we don’t shy away from trying.
Other traits thought to be possessed by people born under this sign are inspired by the rabbit imagery, which includes being gentle yet warm, quiet yet graceful, and delicate yet fine. By nature, people of these traits are thought to uphold a prosperous environment. There is a phrase in Japanese used to describe this, which is “kanai anzen” (家内安全), which means “peace & prosperity in one’s household”. By nature, positive lifestyles of these individuals include caring & get along with others, while not being overtly hostile or aggressive even in competitive situations. However, possible negative lifestyles that should be avoided are being self-centered and inconsiderate to others’ needs, self-preservation that causes flight & the abandonment of others when danger arises, and being overtly sensitive to the point where one is offended at the slightest sign of disrespect. Of course, all these are prospective views on these traits, and not necessary accurate for everyone born under the rabbit Zodiac sign.
ZODIAC + HEAVENLY STEMS
Here are some other facts regarding the rabbit Zodiac sign and its practical use in Japan’s society in the past.
Number: 4th sign
Time: Around 6 am / within the 2 hour period 5 am ~ 7 am
Month: 2nd (based on the old calendar)
Ying/Yang: ying (dark)
There is also the 10 Heavenly Stems (十干, Jikkan), which work in conjunction with the Zodiac cycle. For this year, the sign “mizu no to” accompanies the rabbit Zodiac sign. Here’s some important details about this.
Number: 10th sign
Chinese character: 癸
Reading: mizu no to / ki
Element: water (dark)
Image: small water / light rain / mist
Meaning: to moisten the warm earth / ending and beginning
Since both the Zodiac and Heavenly Stems go hand-in-hand, the full reading of this year’s sign is “mizu no to-udoshi” (癸卯年), or “year of the water rabbit”.
COOL RABBIT PHRASES
There are some interesting old (and new) Japanese phrases that use the rabbit to teach lessons or give advice. There are many out there, but for this article we will go over a few. Along with the Japanese phrases and their meaning in English, I have also included the direct translation of each phrase as a bonus for those interested in how they read in their native language.
・Nito wo oumono wo itto wo mo ezu (二兎を追うものは一兎をも得ず, one won’t be able to catch a single rabbit if you chase two at the same time) MEANING: Trying to accomplish 2 goals at the same time is fruitless, as you won’t succeed in either one.
・Datto no gotoku (脱兎の如く, like a fleeing rabbit) MEANING: Run swiftly to the point where you can’t be caught.
・Usagi shi sureba kitsune no wo kanashimu (兎死すれば狐之を悲しむ, the fox will be sad when the rabbit dies） MEANING: People of the same kind, whether it be class, field of work, and so on, generally suffer the same misfortunes. If one person fails, then the next person will lament as they too are bound to suffer the same fate.
・Enmoku toji (鳶目兎耳, black kite eyes, rabbit ears） MEANING: A black kite is known for having long-range vision, while a rabbit has very sharp hearing. A person complimented as having both traits is said to be skilled at information gathering, like a spy.
・Usagi no wana ni kitsune ga kakaru (兎の罠に狐がかかる, the fox gets caught in the rabbit’s trap) MEANING: Just when things look bad, a turn of events grant a person great luck.
・Usagi no hirune (兎の昼寝, a rabbit’s nap) MEANING: This relates to the famous story where the rabbit lost a race to a turtle because it took a long nap, underestimating its shelled adversary. There are two ways to interpret this, the 1st being to keep one’s guard up and not underestimate the opposition, while the 2nd being a person who naps too much.
This is a quick, yet compact overview of this year’s Zodiac sign. There are points that we can take and use to be successful this year. Stay tuned, for there will be a couple more articles coming out that will cover the rabbit theme.
1) This kanji is not pronounced as “usagi” originally. However, to match with the times and the rabbit image, it is now ok to use this pronunciation.
2) Nowadays, it is not uncommon to write “usagi” in usagidoshi in kana, for ease of reading. Kana is another written form used in Japan, which consists of 2 styles, the first being hiragana (平仮名), and the second being katakana (片仮名). Either writing below is fine:
Today’s article is sort of a pick up from the last one, where I spoke about Musashibō Benkei’s ōnaginata being a cultural asset. To reiterate, cultural assets are things that have value in a country’s culture, but may not necessarily match up in the form one would expect. Let’s look at this from another angle, taking a popular story of how the heroic Minamoto no Yoshitsune met the barbaric Musashibō Benkei. Though their first encounter was violent, they became loyal partners with Benkei becoming a retainer to Yoshitsune. Through this, a bridge claimed as where the encounter took place has become famous, and quite an important landmark that many individuals (both local and international visitors) travel to see.
For stories of the past that seem bigger than life, do they always add up as being accurate? For today’s article, we will look at the specifics of this legendary story & how they play out in the geographical setting of Kyoto, then delve into this particular bridge in question and see how much it actually ties in to the fame it gets.
The backdrop of this popular lore is set in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period, and begins in the rich Capital city known today as Kyoto. For about a year, the warrior monk Benkei would approach anyone bearing a sword as they attempted to cross a particular bridge, and take it by force by challenging them to a fight. He was always successful, since he stood at a monstrous height and was equally as strong bearing a large naginata, for many individuals were powerless against him. However, this would come to an end when he met a small boy named Ushiwakamaru, who would later be renown under the name “Minamoto no Yoshitsune”¹.
Here’s a popular children’s folklore song based on the encounter, called ”Ushiwaka”, which sums up how the popular lore of the encounter plays out. To the left is the original Japanese text, while to the right is my English transliteration.
This folklore sets the acclaimed image of two warriors battling out on a bridge, which in turn contributed to a setting like this being a popular one for duels in many stories even today. While this lore is simple & easy to understand, it’s also surprising to know that this is not how their encounter took place! For the full story, we have to review the original text, which is called “Gikeiki” (義経記), or “The Records of Yoshitsune” in English. The Gikeiki is stated to be a very old war chronicle by an unknown author(s), which was compiled into 8 volumes during the Muromachi period in the 14th century, shortly after the real-life feud between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan in the 12th century. Through this, not only do we learn that the fight took place in not one, but two locations, it’s also revealed that either one was not mentioned to be a bridge directly².
GOJŌ TENJIN SHRINE
In the Gikeiki, the encounter between Yoshitsune and Benkei can be found in the 3rd volume, recited in a chapter entitled, “Benkei rakuchū nite hito no tachi wo ubaitoru koto” (弁慶洛中にて人の太刀を奪ひ取る事, While on a bridge, Benkei takes other people’s swords). Here, they first meet each other not too far away from the Gojō Tenjin Shrine. The specifics of this is Benkei departed from this shrine and headed southward towards a pathway with earthen walls on either side within a residential area, and waited at the end of a waterway for his 1000th victim to walk along this route. He then caught a glimpse of Yoshitsune walking along this route as he crossed a waterway³, playing a flute. This route is significant as it was used by those who traveled to pay their respects at the Gojō Tenjin shrine, which is a real place located in the lower city area of Kyoto.
Is the Gojō Tenjin shrine where the famed battle takes place? Not really, as it is only half of it. According to the Gikeiki, after a brief scuffle, Yoshitsune demonstrated unexpected skills which would put his opponent on the back foot. Not prepared for the smaller Yoshitsune to be so overbearing, Benkei runs away.
The final confrontation between Yoshitsune and Benkei concludes the following day. However, it did not take place on the Gojō bridge. Instead, the two warriors would meet⁴ and settle their dispute in front of a large gate of the temple called “Kiyomizu-dera”. This temple, too, has a claimed long history and still exists today in the Higashiyama District of the city area in Kyoto. Take note that as both Gojō Tenjin shirne and Kiyomizu-dera are in the city area, they aren’t too far away from each other. Distance-wise, they are about 30 mins apart by foot, separated by the Kamo river (more on this later).
The two would battle around the vicinity of the Kiyomizu-dera, where Yoshitsune, realizing his opponent’s potential, would lightly wound Benkei on the hand to prevent him from continuing the fight. Defeated, Yoshitsune offered him to pledge his allegiance and serve him. Weighing in on the pros and cons, Benkei agrees.
POTENTIAL HISTORICAL INACCURACIES
Going based on the Gikeiki, there’s no mention of Yoshitsune encountering Benkei on the Gojō bridge, or any bridge for that matter. So where did this idea come from? Does it even exist today? Just to be clear, there is mention of a bridge in the said chapter of the Gikeiki, for the chapter title indicates that Benkei does his dirty deed on a bridge. By default, he is synonymous with a bridge due to the trouble he stirs in Kyoto as he performs his task of acquiring 1000 swords. Yet, why does he not occupy this bridge for the 1000th victim, who would turn out to be Yoshitsune? Instead, after departing for Gojō Tenjin shrine, Benkei chooses to wait near a waterway…possibly leading to the Gojō bridge? Or, is it possible that their fight spilled all the way onto the Gojō bridge? What about during their 2nd encounter at Kiyomizu-dera? Distance is way too far, so logically they wouldn’t have concluded their battle on the bridge, right? This could just be a case of poor narration on the part of this unknown author, and failing to describe properly the fight being on the aforementioned bridge. Of course, there are other sources of this famed event that mention the Gojō bridge as the location where the two warriors met, but take note that they date much later than the Gikeiki.
Regarding this bridge in question, how do we track it down? In popular lore and other (later) adaptions of the lore (including in the form of song and theatrical performance), it is referred to as “Gojō no hashi”, but is officially called “Gojō Ōbashi” today. If we go by the latter, then yes there is a Gojō Ōbashi, which is a large bridge that sits over the Kamo river. It is geographically in the middle of Gojō Tenjin shrine and Kiyomizu-dera, albeit at an angle, and is an option of a path for those who would need to travel between both locations. However, this particular “bridge” cannot be the same one hinted in any of the sources, simply for the fact that it was not originally there at the time of the two warriors’ battle!…at least, not in the form we see it now.
Here’s a quick explanation to clear this up. Originally, this Gojō bridge was a short distance north from where it is now. In 1590, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had that bridge moved more southward in order to make processions to the temple Hōkōji (southwest of Kiyomizu-dera), which houses the largest statue of Buddha in Kyoto, more accessible. This is where the new Gojō bridge sits today. So, where was the old location? Researchers have estimated it to be where the current Matsubara bridge (松原橋, Matsubara hashi) is located, which is on the Matsubara tōri (松原通り), or “Matsubara street”. Guess it’s safe to say that while the location of the bridge is correct, apparently the specifics of the general area are a little off. Since it would’ve been the preferred route at the time, it aligns with the idea that Benkei was using this previous Gojō bridge (Matsubara bridge), and that he would’ve confronted Yoshitsune there (see illustration below as a reference).
In regards to potential inaccuracies concerning the 14th century text Gikeiki, this is to be expected for a couple of reasons. For starters, it is not unusual for locations that were mentioned in ancient text to not match up due to the development of cities and towns. In Japan’s case, this is even more of an issue, as certain key areas faced many changed due to whoever was in power at the time, usually a warlord, or by order of the shogun. It is not unusual for a bridge to be moved and renamed, but there are cases of villages, towns, and prefectures gaining new names or resized geographically. This poses as a challenge when trying to pinpoint places found in old documents that no longer exist. Another issue is in regards to the author of the text. While there is no author’s name specified, it is believed that the writing was heavily influenced by Buddhist monks. This isn’t unusual, for they were but few of specific groups that were literate, plus much of the contents for certain characters involved Buddhist practices that would take someone in the field to understand⁵. That being said, the original text, while slated to be a war chronicle based on true events, has its fair share of oddities that hint at agenda-driven ideas. In essence, these peculiar points could lead to such inaccuracies like not indicating properly whether a battle between two warriors indeed takes place on a bridge for the sake of highlighting places of worship.
On a related note, it is worth mentioning the naming convention “Gojō” is connected to the Gojō tōri, or “5th street” for simpler reading. As one would expect, the Gojō tōri is part of a numerical sequence of large streets that run through Kyoto, so there is an Ichijō tōri, (1st Street), Nijō tōri, (2nd Street), and so on. In turn, these same streets have their own matching bridges over the Kamo river. The Matsubara bridge, the former location of Gojō bridge, is geographically where Gojō tōri is said to have have been (present-day Matsubara tōri), which is one of the reasons for the name of the shrine Gojō Tenjin to have “Gojō” in it, as it sits near the edge of that former street (now called Matsubara tōri). Today, Gojō tōri runs along the same line as Gojō bridge…which seems to also be where Rokujō tōri is supposed to be.
In ending, certain aspects of history can make tangible things much more special, becoming intangible cultural icons. In the case of Yoshitsune and Benkei’s fated encounter, it’s been passed down as a lore that embraces the Gojō bridge as the stage for this. Being an old story, sometimes details don’t match up quite as well as they should, which can bring up questions, such as the accuracy the actual location. At the end of the day, it is best to see the modern day Gojō bridge as a tribute to the original location in my personal opinion. While there are perks to understanding the specifics, it shouldn’t deter a person from visiting this massive bridge and enjoy its visuals.
1) Historically famous under the title “Minamoto no Yoshitsune” as an adult. When he was younger, including the time of meeting Benkei, he went by the nickname “Ushiwakamaru”. To avoid confusion, we will primarily stick with his adult name for this article, where it applies.
2) There are a few other adaptations that cover this fated encounter as well, this including those interestingly entitled “Benkei Monogatari” (弁慶物語), “Hashi Benkei” (橋弁慶), and “Jisori Benkei” (じぞり弁慶). While all have their similarities, a few of them contain more info about Benkei, as well as some slight variations to how Yoshitsune and Benkei’s encounter unfolded, such as directly centering the Gojō bridge as the sole location where they would meet & conclude their battle.
3) This waterway points to the Kamo river, and may be the hint to Yoshitsune crossing over it by the Gojō bridge. Problem is, this is not actually stated in the Gikeiki, leading readers to assume this is the case. Note that this is an issue with the Gikeiki, and not necessarily a problem found in other sources covering Yoshitsune & Benkei’s fight.
4) In the Gikeiki, this is narrated as if this happened by chance. Benkei guesses that he would meet Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu-dera at night, and sure enough he appears. There is no indication that this is an arranged meeting, which is strange…or possibly the readers are to assumed that there was a clue hinting to the two agreeing to meet there…?
5) This is similar to the “Heike Monogatari” (平家物語), another historical text that covers the same events found in the Gikeiki, except more from the perspective of the Taira clan. While the author of the Heike Monogatari is unknown, it was told by monks in the form of verses for many generations.
For this November, the ōnaginata (大薙刀, large glaive) will be the focus of my martial arts group’s Theme month training. Handouts with information regarding the monthly theme is given out, which will be the same Other than just learning fighting techniques, it’s important to also study the history of Japanese weapons, and understand how certain ones have been preserved up to even modern times.
From a historical standpoint, the naginata is a respectable weapon used during the long warfare that plagued Japan during its medievel period. While in today’s generation we commonly see the shorter version generally called a konaginata (小薙刀, short glaive), in the past very large ones both with a long shaft and large blade called ōnaginata once were carried by some of the mightiest warriors. Once wielded in the hands of capable warriors during Japan’s chaotic warring times, it lost usage once the Tokugawa Shogunate was established during the early 1600s. Thus, due to the government rule of naginata naoshi (薙刀直し), where the giant blades of ōnaginata were to be cut down into smaller blades to be used for such weapons such as katana, kodachi, and tantō, along with other restrictions that prevented large-scale battles from erupting. It’s unfortunate that no single ōnaginata survived into modern times…or did they?
Here are 3 examples of surviving ōnaginata, from their dimensions, the makers, and the stories tied to them.
ŌNAGINATA BY MORIMITSU
The first one is labeled “Oonaginata-mei Morimitsu” (大薙刀銘盛光), located in Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture. Simply an ōnaginata that bears no unique name, it is a good representative of like weapon types used in the past which only is marked on its tang with the name of the maker, who is “Morimitsu”. This is the surname of a particular blacksmith that lasted for 3 generations, whom were active in the 1300s from the Nanbokucho period to the earlier part of Muromachi period, was respected for the craftsmanship used in the weapons produced.
There are a lot of details regarding this ōnaginata made available, with below an example of some of those that are provided:
Blade length is 107.8 cm
Curvature: 3.2 cm
Straight grain tempered pattern
Has a straight temper line with a misty-like appearance
Has 2 mekugi ana (peg holes)
This is a fairly long blade at 107.8 cm (42.5 in.), stated to be much longer than the standard size of ōnaginata used during warring times. Just as a frame of perspective, modern iaitō (居合刀, aluminum-bladed swords) and shinsakutō (新作刀, newly-made steel swords) have a standard length around 70 cm (roughly 27 in.), which is much longer than the blade for a konaginata, which can reach up to about 60 cm (23 in.) in length. In comparison, this ōnaginata has a big advantage, boosting a difference in length over 30 cm. One can imagine that, attached on an long shaft, a person would have superior reach when performing cuts. Speaking of shaft, this blade comes paired with one, which is black-lacquered.
THE SHRINE ŌNAGINATA
The next ōnaginata is part of a 3-piece collection that includes a larger sword and a shorter sword. Written on one side of the tang, we learn that it bears the name “Hōkago Hachimangu Reiken” (奉篭八幡宮霊剣). On the other side of the tang is the signature of the maker, which is “Heianjōjū Fujiwara Kunimichi” (平安城住藤原国路). This is currently the property of the shrine called “Hirosaki Hachiman-gu”, which is located in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture.
From surviving records, this is a 17th century weapon that was in the possession of the aforementioned shrine in 1611. There is a great chance that this ōnaginata (along with its 2 swords counterparts) was made specifically for the shrine and is more of a ceremonial piece, meaning it’s never been used for warfare. It is also known that Fujiwara Kunimichi, an uprising blacksmith who resided in Kyoto, made a name for himself with his style of craftsmanship that contributed to the new types of swords many moved towards to from the early Edo period onward.
Here’s the known specs of this ōnaginata:
Blade length: 91.2 cm
Nakago (tang) length: 1 meter
There’s not much info regarding other specs of the blade. However, the entire built is very long, for from the tip of the blade all the way down to the tang, it measure 205 cm.
How long is this ōnaginata blade? Let’s compare it to an ōdachi (battlefield long sword) at the bottom of the pic above, which was made by the same blacksmith.
Blade length: 107.8 cm
Nakago (tang) length: 35.3
While the ōnaginata’s total length is greater, the actual blade length is over 10 cm shorter than the ōdachi. Nevertheless, we can see that an ōnaginata blade is roughly the size of an ōdachi. Including the length of the shaft, the overall reach of the ōnaginata is staggering.
LEGENDARY BENKEI’S ŌNAGINATA
The last ōnaginata to showcase is an interesting one. Named “Iwatooshi” (岩融), it is claimed to be the prized weapon of the famed Musashibou Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶). As a little bit of history, Benkei was active during the later end of the Heian period (794 – 1185) as supposedly a large warrior monk, and was a loyal retainer of Minamoto Yoshitsune. The ōnaginata he used was just as grand, with a name that stands for “a blade that has fine cutting edge good enough to split stone”¹. The Iwatooshi is currently housed in Ōyamazumi Shrine in Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture, and is categorized as a valuable cultural asset, and is provided safe keeping².
There isn’t much info regarding its specs, other than the following.
Blade length: 106 cm
On top of being on the longer side of standard ōnaginata length, the name of the maker is important to note, as this is possibly the legendary blacksmith known by the name “Sanjō Munechika” (三条宗近). Renown for making extraordinary swords, Munechika is noted in records related to exquisite swords and exemplary blacksmiths. This includes his finest work, “Mikazuki Munechika” (三日月宗近), which not only exists today, but is considered a national treasure, as well as one of 5 swords categorized as “Tenga Goken” (天下五剣, Five Greatest Swords). With a high profile blacksmith on its label, is there not doubt the level of acclaim the Iwatooshi will receive?
As expected, the Iwatooshi isn’t without some perplexing mysteries. For starters, Benkei is a figure who’s story has many holes due to a lack of proper documentation, so his existence is rather on the exaggerated side, especially in pop culture. Second, Benkei is said to have been alive around the 1100s, which is about 1,100 years ago. The same can be said about the Iwatooshi, which is amazing that such a thing could survive throughout so many generations (and in good shape too!)…if such a weapon truly did exist. Lastly, if we go based on the information regarding the blacksmith and can accept that Iwatooshi is a relic of past medieval Japan, can it be proven that this is the authentic ōnaginata and not a replica? From what I could find, it doesn’t look like this ōnaginata is set up for public display.
This wraps up our look at ōnaginata. Once a potent battlefield weapon in ancient Japan, seeing a fully functional one today is but a think of the pass. Those who have the opportunity to see any form of an ōnaginata that has survived into modern times is usually in exhibitions, generally those held in museums.
2) An interesting note regarding items that are valuable cultural asset is that they are different from national treasures. The reason being is that while the former has a significant cultural value within Japan itself (whether it actually exists or is just a replica), the latter has prestige value on a global level in terms of tangible piece of history.
Troop formation and group strategies are an interesting topic for those who enjoy studying how wars and battles were conducted from historical documents. Taking a look what texts and illustrations are left behind from medieval Japan, such topics are presented either in a sophisticated manner that leaves a lot to desire in terms of effectiveness, or are heavily-coded that usually those who are privy to the unspoken details can decipher it thoroughly. One of the more popular of these are how specific warlords used certain famous formations with their army, which are normally labeled as “jinkei” (陣形).
In this article, examples of coordinated teams or squads called “tegumi” (手組) will be reviewed. Before this, we’ll look at some background info of the source from where it comes from.
MANUSCRIPTS OF KŌKA WARRIORS’ SKILLS
There are many sources that speak on the topic of military practices, some more obscure than others. In 2017, an Edo-period collection of family-owned manuscripts were reproduced, compiled into one book, and presented to the public. This book is titled, “Watanabe Toshinobu kemonjo – Owari-han Kōkamon Kankei Shiryō” (渡辺俊経家文書－尾張藩甲賀者関係史料).
The specifics on these manuscripts are that they were of the Watanabe clan, who were an influential family for several generations within the Kōka region located in present-day Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Within this collection are important info for whoever was head of the family, which includes lineage, contract-like documentation, military-related strategies, combat-related skills, and shinobi-related practices. Warriors of Kōka are especially renown for their expertise in shinobi no jutsu, which is popularly known under the modern label ninjutsu.
Within the book is a section on the military strategies referred to as “Kōka Gunpō”. Here we see a manuscript called “Inyō Yōkan no maki” (陰陽用間の巻). This appears to have been written for intended use by those who engaged in shinobi activities, for the opening statement includes a point that ninjutsu is a pivotal part of the military strategies of Kōka.
ANALYZING THE TEGUMI
Below will be the text and diagrams from the book. Presentation of source material is very simple, so manually typing the text and drawing the diagrams digitally is the route I’ve taken to make formatting the content easily in this article.
The 1st part of this section is the introduction of a formation which consists of 4 different patterns of formation, and are color-coded.
TEGUMI NO HŌ (手組法, Strategy of Group Operation)
Gogyo ichidan (5 Methods – 1st level)
青 赤 黄色 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Aka (Red) Kiiro (Yellow) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Gogyo nidan (5 Methods – 2nd level)
Ao (Blue) Shiro (White)
Gogyo sandan (5 Methods – 3rd level)
青 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Gogyo yonmenpō (5 Methods – 4 sides trick)
青 赤 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Aka (Red) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Taking a guess, there are different teams within each level, each color-coded. Since we are dealing with troop formations, this makes the most logical sense, especially when you compare with other documentations on like subject. It is even possible that number of members distributed within each team are evenly proportional. The following information below leans toward this.
右人数ニ拾人一組 A team of 20+ members to the right
Were these intended for infiltration purposes or battlefield engagement? Possibly for raiding an enemy fort? It’s possible with a small number of troops, especially during the night. Unfortunately, the use of Tegumi no hō is not stated in the text, so we can only speculate. Let’s move on for more clues.
Next in the section we get our 1st visual troop formation coupled with a diagram. Here’s a digital recreation of both the diagram and the troop formation.
ICHIKUMI YONMENBI (一組四面備, 4-sided arranged team)
This formation gives an example of tactical application. Visually we can see there are four teams made up with 5 lines each, which are determined based on the simple use of cardinal directions north, south, east, and west. There is also one more group, which, assuming it follows the directions style in the manuscript, is positioned in the north-west. Considering how the northern team is positioned, it’s possible that there is someone of importance there, such as a field commander, and the 5th team is added security from a flank. Unfortunately, there’s not enough information to verify this or the purpose of the 5th team.
Something worth mentioning is this is possibly related to the previous Tegumi no hō, for different teams color-coded can easily be applied to this 4-way pattern.
After this 4-way pattern is the following label.
人数百人一手一組 Army of 100-troop divisions
Here, the number of troops in this formation is 100. Should this number be taken as a literal count? It’s possible, but it could be another case where it represents an estimate of a large brigade with individuals operating in groups. If this numerical value is to be taken as accurate, then each team is made up of 20 troops, with each line represent 4 soldiers.
The next insert follows in suit with having 4 teams.
ITTE YONMEN NO ZU (一手四面之図, Diagram of a 4-sided division)
青/blue 黄/yellow 白/white
Once again we get a description of some form of formation according to the cardinal directions, along with the use of color labels from the Gogyo Tegumi no hō. However, this formation may not be for the army itself, for in the diagram we see long rectangle-like structures. It’s possible that these are obstacles like barricades positioned in a way to make advancement for the opposition difficult, while the defending side takes up advantageous positioning to rout them from whichever side they emerge from. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of how to use this.
Along with the diagrams we get the following text.
人数四百人一手四組 Four teams that are made up of an army of 400 soldiers.
If we take the number literally, this could mean that 400 soldiers are broken into 4 teams, possibly with each made up of an even number of 100.
Now we look at the final diagram.
GOGYO HACHIDAN-ZU (五行八段図, Diagram of 5 Methods 8th-level)
same 125 soldiers same
125 soldiers Castle 125 soldiers
same 125 soldiers same
Along with this, follows the text below.
右人数千人 To the right¹, formation consisting of 1000 soldiers
Here we get the implication of the Gogyo Tegumi no hō pattern used on a much larger scale. We can assume that the color labels are applied to each team, making up the north-south-east-west pattern. However, what about the other 4 teams at the diagonals? Seeing how 4-way pattern has been the main theme so far, this methodology can be doubled by applying another 4 teams at the diagonals as well.
At the center of this formation is yet again a point of interest. In the diagram we get a label that stands for “castle”. Could the formation be a defensive one, or an offensive one?
This concludes our look into a surviving manuscript with group teamwork recorded. It’s a shame that the diagrams do not come with more descriptions in order to get a better understand, but this is to be expected with content that could be compromised if it fell in the hands of a rival. This article is the 1st on the topic of troop strategies from medieval Japan, as there are more I have plan to cover soon.
1) The manuscript originally follows the old-fashioned reading style of right-to-left, top-to-bottom, with the text essentially coming after the diagram. Thus, the reason why the text refers to the diagram “to the right”.
Summer is a a time myself and family enjoy going on vacation. When we travel to Japan, we take advantage of seeing the sights, shopping, and visiting relatives & friends. This is also a unique opportunity to experience seasonal traditions and practices, some of which can appear dark in nature. Today I will introduce one of these traditions called “Obon”, which is an age-old practice of connecting with ancestors. Celebrated widely throughout Japan, the official dates are set from dusk of August 13th¹to nighttime of August 16th².
For this article, we’ll cover a brief summary of Obon’s fabled lore, it’s history in Japan, the standard way of celebrating in a homely setting, and the other unique ways Obon is carried out around Japan in a public setting.
BEGINNINGS: A BUDDHIST TALE
The word “Obon” is written as “お盆” in Japanese, and has the meaning “Festival of the Dead”. It also is known as “Lantern Festival”. The history behind this practice is related to Buddhism, and is practiced not only in Japan, but in India and other Asian countries. From surviving sources, it is said to have 1st been practiced by Buddhist monks, nobles, and military families around the year 606. Later, from the 1600s and forward of Edo period, commoners adopted the practice.
Originally it was called “Ura Bon-e” (盂蘭盆会), with Ura Bon being derived from the sanskrit phrase “suffering being suspended upside down”. Sutras that are chanted during this celebration are called “Ura Bon-kyō” (盂蘭盆経). This is derived from the story where Shakyakuni instructed a disciple who wanted to save his deceased mom from hell to hold a memorial service with other Buddhist monks on a certain date. Traversing the 3 trails of suffering, the disciple was able to guide his mom from hell to nirvana, where she could find peace.
For some prefectures, extra lore may accompany this origin story, to paint a particular picture unique to the locales in their respected areas.
GUIDANCE BY FIRE: MUKAEBI AND OKURIBI
Fire has a prominent symbolism in Obon, as it represents a means for souls to be guided during this event. As a lighting source, souls can both find their way to visit those who are still alive, as well be lead back to the land of the dead. A popular lighting source are candles, which was introduced as a means to celebrate Obon during Edo period. This was a major contribution for commoners to adapt Obon into their lives and carry it on as a tradition. Fire is used during the start and the ending of Obon, where the former is called mukaebi (迎え火, light of guidance), and for the latter it’s called okuribi (送り火, light for sending off).
Here’s a general way residents carry out Obon, which also my parents-in-law followed this year. A lantern is hung in front of a family’s entrance way of a house or mansion on the evening of August 13th as a means to guide souls into one’s home. For those who don’t live in their own personal and/or detached home, they can also hang a lantern at their family grave, which serves the same purpose. Once in the home, the spirit will temporarily reside in an ihai (位牌), which is a Buddhist mortuary tablet with the name of the deceased family member’s name inscribed on it. This sits in a butsudan (仏壇), which is a small cabinet that is adorned with flowers in a small vase, a bowl, incense, and pictures of those loved ones departed, which serves the purpose of remembering those individuals dear to one’s heart. For the next few days, families eat specific foods that can be shared with the visiting souls in a figurative sense, such as cucumbers, eggplants, peaches, grapes, and pears. Incense is also burned during this period.
Finally, as Obon comes to a close on the eve of August 16th, a lantern is be hung outside in front of the home as a means to lead the souls out from the house so they may head back to nirvana. As mentioned earlier, there may be some slight variations based on prefecture or people’s preferences. As an example, on the night of August 16th there is a simultaneous spectacle called “Gozan no Okuribi” (五山送り火) which takes place on 5 mountains in Kyōto³. A Buddhist ritual is conducted where many torches are assembled to form large kanji on each one as a means to send off the visiting souls properly.
MANY PREFECTURES, DIFFERENT WAYS
Obon is observed nationwide. Depending on prefecture, it can be a personal experience for families, or celebrated together as a community. For example, some areas retain the old calendar date for this and celebrate on July 13th, while others follow the modern calendar and begin on the August 13th. There are areas that also begin Obon with “Shōrō Nagashi” (精霊流し), where locals gather by the ocean to let numerous floating lanterns sail out into the distance. This is also accompanied by special boats set out to sea, or a large boat-shaped float similar to a dashi⁴ called a “Shōrō-bune” (精霊船), which is adorned with many lanterns in a grand manner and is pulled through the streets at night.
Then there are some areas where a public festival called “Obon Odori” (お盆踊り) is held, which has participating performers dress up in traditional garb like yukata, and perform a dance routine. Some have a routine that is much slower and performed on or around a wooden stage-like platform called a yagura (櫓), while some have the performance done in the streets. Some areas also use fireworks as a means to mark the commencement of Obon. On a more subtle level, those who have a family grave, where their ancestors are buried at, and have the time may do Obon no Ohaka Matsuri (お盆のお墓参り). This is a process of showing respect to those who’ve passed by going to the grave site and paying respect which involves paying respect through prayers, as well as performing maintenance from cleaning with water to adding fresh flowers.
In closing, Obon is but one of few traditional celebrations that is carried out widely throughout Japan. Although how it is practiced varies, the purpose remains the same, which is the superstitious belief of connecting with ancestors and deceased loved ones.
1) This is based on the modern calendar. On the old calendar, Obon fell on around July 15th.
2) Not all areas in Japan end Obon on this date, for some places end late August 15th.
3) The 5 mountains are the following: eastern mountain of Nyoigatake (東山如意ヶ嶽), Mt. Matsugasakinishi (松ヶ崎西山), Mt. Nishigamofune (西賀茂船山), Mt. Ookita (大北山), and Mt. Mandara (曼荼羅山).
4) 山車. There is an article about dashi on this site, which can be read here.
There is something to say about being a specialist when it comes down to martial arts. Dedicating time & effort to be a master of a particular style or weapon is no small feat. Yet, we should avoid limiting ourselves as well, and explore different martial systems and disciplines as well.
It is good to be exposed to many different weapons, disciplines, and the like when studying martial arts. This way, we gain knowledge to different approaches towards combat, as well as being able to perceive what others have studied themselves. In the modern times we live in, there is a greater variety of martial arts styles to choose from, whether it be Japanese, Chinese, European, Southeast Asian, and the like. For me, I’ve had the opportunity to do the same; while I’ve dedicated most of my effort in kobudō, over the years I’ve taken the time to explore the basics of karate, taekwondo, boxing, and hung gar. On a technical level, studying other systems has not only helped to appreciate the philosophy behind these different styles, but pick up unique skills and methods of movements that have made essential contributions to my overall studies that I can take with me.
Let’s narrow this down to Japanese martial arts, and how this idea of learning different styles has been important in its growth. When studying how Japanese warriors stayed active during Japan’s Sengoku period, we learn how various weapons were used on the battlefield, from swords, spears, archery, and gunnery. Depending on the time period, warriors who had the resources not only trained with them to understand how they are used, but carried a plethora of weapons in war campaigns. So, it’s not unusual to read details about archers who spent most of their effort in arrow volleys having to switch to drawing out uchigatana slung at their left hip when the opposing army has closed the distance, or a general who’s fighting with a tachi on horseback may switch to a yari which his attendant would be carrying close by.
This idea of being resourceful with multiple weapons continued throughout Edo period, to even modern times. Those who specialize in hand-to-hand systems during the 18th century also made practice to be proficient using smaller weapons concealed on their person, such as suntetsu (寸鉄, a steel bar held in a fist), kakute (角手, a ring with a small spike), and manriki gusari (萬力鎖, weighted chain), which are often categorized as kakushi buki (隠し武器). This ideology has been retained in specific traditional forms practiced today, where practitioners work on being able to switch from one weapon to another.
Let’s take naginata systems as an example. There are forms where the defender, a naginata wielder, will be overwhelmed by an opponent using a katana that manages to close the distance. In response to the opponent preparing to deliver a finishing blow, the defender pulls out a tantō that is kept in the front of their obi and counters appropriately. Interestingly, there are accounts of this in documented records from Edo period where a shorter bladed weapon proved to be the equalizer in situations where their trusted longer weapon was ineffective, such as the skilled spearsman Katsuhisa Umataemon Saitō¹, and the war-hardened swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden².
In closing, martial artists should strive to be as skilled as can be, especially with disciplines we truly favor. However, we must not be closed-minded to other disciplines, for studying & adapting multiple skills can help keep us open-minded, and enhance us even further.
1) This experience changed Umataemon’s views on long weapons. This was covered on this blog, which can be read here.
2) Bokuden spoke about his, as well as other adventures during his time. This can be read in the following post on this blog here.
Over the years I’ve reviewed several old works that are accredited to one of Japan’s famous historical strategists, Yamamoto Kansuke. Employed under one of Japanese history’s most decorated warlords, Takeda Shingen, Kansuke is recorded as contributing much to the advancement of the Takeda army’s military career, both on and off the battlefield. There are many documents that given recognition to him, some of which have already been covered on this blog site. For today’s article, we will look over yet another one of these documents, which is known as “Rōdanshū”.
IDENTIFYING A SCROLL ON WAR-TIME NINJUTSU
The title Rōdanshū (老談集)¹ can be loosely translated as “A Collection of Conversations from the Experienced”. It is arguably labeled as a ninjutsu scroll, one that is related to a division of the Takeda army that specialized in scouting & shinobi-like activities that is dubbed “Kōyō ryū” (甲陽流), which Kansuke is lauded as contributing to. This is also usually regarded as a “picture scroll”, for it contains many illustrations of different, somewhat exotic, tools that ninja are said to have used as early as the Sengoku period. However, it actually has a 2nd section with no pictures, but instead contains instructions on important skills for those who are active on the field, possibly while doing scouting work.
As a whole, the illustrations found in the Rōdanshū aren’t what one would expect from a ninjutsu scroll; instead of the more stereotypical weapons and items that are iconic to those who would be called a ninja, we see many items that appear to be gear and tools one would use during non-combative scenarios. For example, there is a garment worn around the torso called koshi-ate (腰当て), a type of lantern carried while on horseback, a flotation device using a spear called ukibashi (浮き橋), and a collapsible boat, to name a few. Of course, they don’t appear to be standard items just anyone would use both in design and in the instructions given (which is not included for many), giving the idea that these tools present in the scroll are unique for ninja use. On top of this, the Rōdanshū gives us an idea of what a ninja would actually use during a warring period if their job was to spy on the enemy or evaluate an area.
The written section of the Rōdanshū further supports the idea stated above as it goes over instructions on what a ninja should in relations to certain activities while out in the field. No information about stealth techniques, but instead how-to descriptions regarding certain items that would help for survival, operating in the dark, choosing essential gear for a horse, and so on. With careful evaluation, one can understand that the contents of the Rōdanshū are indeed a representation of the ideology for engaging in scouting and shinobi activities used by the Takeda military, and that they appear to have been put into practice for quite some time.
UNDERSTANDING THE WRITTEN LESSONS
I’ve taken the time to read and research the contents located in the written section of the scroll. Below I will provide some transliteration of each of the topics presented, as well as a concise summary of what is being discussed.
Hyōrōgan (兵狼丸) Energy pills that were carried during field work. Only one type is mentioned here, along with its ingredients, such as urukome (ウル米, type of sticky rice), yokunin (よくにん, coix seeds), and kōri zatō (氷砂糖, rock candy). Interesting, there’s a not about it being okay to feed your horse this alongside with water.
Imagawa-dono no Akagusuri (今川殿赤藥) A red-colored medicine that is accredited to Imagawa Ujizane (今川氏真), a warlord who occupied Suruga Province (駿河の国, present day central Shizuoka Prefecture). Used to relieve stomach ache. Note that in different, yet relatable sources, there are varying thoughts about whether this was designed only for human consumption, or if this can also be fed to one’s horse.
Taimatsu (明松) A torch that uses a bamboo as a tube and kindling. Ingredients include matsubikiko (松引粉, grounded pine), hai (灰, ash), and azukiko (小豆粉, red bean powder). This is also called arimatsu (有松).
Mizu tsuimatsu (水續松) A type of torch-like instrument used on the water. This is possible due to oil being one of its ingredients, to keep the flame going in case it gets wet.
Kusa musubi no hi (草結ノ火) This is similar to the taimatsu mentioned above, but is a lighting instrument used while in a boat. By design, it is supposed to be resilient to bad weather conditions, and stay lit even against strong winds.
Dōmei (同銘) A type of metallic device that can be used with either water or fire for various purposes.
Ōhikaribi (大光火) A type of fire device used by armies at night. One of the main ingredients is the konara no ki (コナラの木), a type of East Asian oak tree identified as “Quercus serrata” in English. There are metal fixtures fastened to it.
Dō no hi (胴ノ火) A body warming device that, once lit, will retain heat up to 12 hours. Used especially during operations in cold conditions.
Ukigutsu tōyu no koshiraeyō (浮沓 唐油ノ拵樣) A type of footwear used for crossing water. Apparently it helps with not sinking if used with a specialized oil.
Fune no tōyu (舩の唐油) Using specific ingredients included with a unique oil, you can easily drag a boat onto land.
Yoruuchi no Tsuimatsu nagebi no koto (夜討ノ續松投火の事) A type of device that is thrown at an enemy’s camp or such to cause a fire during night raids.
Bagu no koto (馬具之事) This covers certain points regarding gear used by horses. Some of these points include:
How to tether a horse while it’s drinking water
Thickness of the pad underneath the saddle
Type of saddle accessories that’ll keep a horse warm during cold periods
Uma no koto (馬之事) Instructions concerning horses, it goes into details regarding which types of horses are essential in specific situations. This includes:
Keeping the horse’s mane in check
Umanori yō no kuden (馬乗り樣之口傳) Advice and lessons regarding horseback riding. This is pretty extensive, as it references scenarios that include:
While wearing armor
When needing to lay low in a river while on horseback
How to stay quiet while approaching a town
ADDRESSING THE INCONSISTENCIES
Now, to talk about some odd points regarding the Rōdanshū. The knowledge found in this scroll is credited to Yamamoto Kansuke, but the one to actually write the scroll is a Baba Nobuharu (馬場信春), one of Takeda Shingen’s loyal retainers. Nobuharu is recorded as a specialized field agent performing shinobi-like duties, so it would make sense that he would have a deep connection to the contents of this scroll. Interestingly, his signature, where he uses his official title of “Baba Mino-no-mori” (馬場美濃守), is in the back of the Rōdanshū, and not Yamamoto Kansuke’s. Did Kansuke actually give important input for this scroll?
Speaking of signatures, there is usually a date and the name of a recipient along with the signature of the one issuing such scroll. This is where things become very inconsistent. For starters, the date in the Rōdanshū referenced in this article is 1827, or the 7th year of the Kaei era (嘉永七年) in older Japanese time keeping. In yet another version that I have, the date is different in that one, where it reads as 1845, or 2nd year of the Kōka era (弘化二年). On top of this, the signatures vary greatly, with the one reviewed here having several, including 2 names of individuals who have received this very scroll at 2 different time periods. Yet, in the other version, there is only one recipient signature. Why is this? What about an original copy?
One thing that needs to be understood is that, from what I am able to gather, there are many copies of the original Rōdanshū. It seems like during the 1800s this was passed down to different people in varying years. While the details of this is unknown, we can play with the idea that the Rōdanshū isn’t an antique relic, but was still in use way after the Sengoku period. This isn’t an unusual practice, to be honest, as some older documents were circulated as “living lessons” during the Edo period. This doesn’t invalidate it as being “authentic”, as long as its core lessons weren’t changed. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see some versions of the Rōdanshū kept in museums, while copies of others being sold in auctions in Japan. As for the original, there are no details regarding this.
This concludes our review of the ninjutsu scroll called Rōdanshū. Out of the many documentations I’ve reviewed, I must admit that this gives a more realistic perspective of the tasks a ninja would have while on the field during medieval Japan’s warring times, and the tools they would’ve needed to utilize. It is very utilitarian, creative, and not heavy on the combative side. Yamamoto Kansuke is said to have learned many aspects of military practices, including ninjutsu. If this is truly the case and his knowledge was incorporated into the Rōdanshū, then the fame he gets is well-earned.
1) Based on the version, the title could be much longer. The one being reviewed here has the full title of “Kōshū ryū Ninpō Hiden Rōdanshū” (甲州流忍法秘伝老談集).
In today’s generation, martial arts schools offer lessons to all, as long as necessary requisites can be fulfilled (i.e. covering fees). Through years of dedication, all can learn pretty much what is offered in a progressive format from basics to advanced techniques, and receive acclaims as proof of such hard work. Furthermore, anyone can continue their training for as long as they want, even to their elderly years. These are great points we can enjoy in modern times. However, this was a different story in Japan of old.
Here’s food for thought, about a different approach that goes against the norm. There was once s a martial system known as Kusaka Ichimune ryū (日下一旨流), which specialized in a number of disciplines, such as sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques) and jūjutsu (柔術, hand-to-hand grappling techniques). This martial system no longer exists, but there are scrolls of it that still remain. On a website called “Kobujutsu Hōzonkai ‘Getsurindō’“, a researcher presents one of the remaining scrolls from this particular system that is called “Onna Naginata”, which is about women’s naginatajutsu. Dated 1854, it contains a list of technique names, but right before this section is something a foreword about this discipline. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my own English transliteration.
ENGLISH: “Our women’s naginata style is different from that of what boys learn. Women will learn all that is to be passed down, for they will be taught gradually the means of attaining victory against an opponent as advanced techniques and secret lessons are taught early in their training. This is due to not being able to engage in grueling training over many years like boys can.”
What is understood from this message is that contrary to the teaching methods most people would imagine, this particular system allows women to learn much of what Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s naginatajutsu has to offer almost from the start. This is a dream for many engaged in martial arts today. However, this is because women could not spend years upon years being engrossed in personal perfection in combative training. Why was that? The answer lies in how Japanese society was structured during the Edo periond.
PROGRESSION OF JAPAN’S MARTIAL ARTS
Let’s go over a quick summary about the development of Japan’s martial systems, as this went through several stages of changes. During Japan’s ancient periods, the methods of warfare was in its infantry years, for families with combat background specialized in combat methods that were either native to them (i.e. archery), or whatever that was brought to this island country from China and Korea. As time went on, certain families rose up and became prosperous as they supported & worked for the Imperial line, and continued to improve on combat methods through campaigns in the northern part of Japan, or against those who were considered a threat. Once Japan became a military state, war became a constant against power-driven elite families that could afford their own military, all the way to the late 1500s of Sengoku period. Within old documentation, martial training is recorded as being designated to elite military families that either had their own tradition, could send their children to learn at a temple, or families that had a background for bearing weapons for survival. This wasn’t only permitted to boys, as there were girls too who, born in military families, were given martial training.
Fast forward to 1600s of the Edo period, martial training transformed into something more formalized and accessible with the opening of martial arts schools, as well as instructions in-house. Documentations about martial training from 1600s to early1800s illustrate this primarily from men’s perspective, where they could spend years perfecting their craft by taking up careers that involved combat, such as an instructor, running a dojo, and doing police/guard work. However, women didn’t have the same chances during these times when Japan was progressing towards modernization, as they were expected to get married, settle down and handle other tasks, such as child care, house work, or working for shops. While wars were not a common thing as pre-Edo period, martial training was still handled with serious attention, which men were given the chances to engage in with full commitment especially as a career; this meant they could invest as much time needed to attain full transmission of a martial system, could teach at their own schools, as well as able to inherit ownership of it. On the other side of the spectrum, women were not generally given these opportunities. While there are few rare cases of martial system being passed into the hand of women, these scenarios come up because there wasn’t a male heir present at the time.
ADVANTAGES OF MARTIAL STUDIES WITH NO LIMITATIONS
Taking the time to research about lifestyle and occupations during much of Edo period, it becomes evident the world of martial arts was a playground for boys. This didn’t mean that women didn’t learn at all; one of the more popular impression is that women born in or hired to work within the household of a military family would be taught a number of different disciplines as a means of survival and to protect the home. In fact, when it comes down to the naginata, it is said that women of a castle in Chikugō Province (筑後国, now present-day southern Fukuoka Prefecture) were taught this to be as a line of defense in case of an invasion¹.
The method for teaching women naginatajutsu in the now defunct Kusaka Ichimune ryū appears to have, theoretically, come with many perks. Let’s take a quick look at what these could be.
Learning the effectiveness of techniques quicker
Having access to most, if not all, of the content
Taught advanced techniques and secret lessons early
If we take the message from Kusaka Ichimune ryū as one that reflects the trend of how women’s naginata² was taught as a standard during early/mid Edo period, then their training should be considered real throughout. When you think about it, if the available time for practice was shorter than men’s, then it is logical to only teach effective lessons so that they can immediately use what is taught. The learning process could be what most would expect: being taught the “secrets” of application alongside the study of the basics, doing repetitive drills, learning techniques, and engaging in set forms. Instructions were probably much straight forward and to the point, with the end goal taught clearly so that women could handle danger immediately. There are many merits to this.
In terms of actual content, there was probably less holding back in the lessons. This can be a two-fold argument, however, depending on how this is viewed. On one hand, if women were trained to be capable of defending their home, then what better way than to teach them everything they would need? This could also include complex or intricate techniques, along with advice & instructions on subject matters that, from a men’s perspective, would only be learn after decades of studying under a teacher and earning their trust. On the other hand, it could be that the level of the skills learned in this naginata style may not have been so complex, which could be why such a curriculum could be used. For example, if Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s women’s naginata was streamlined off of what was once used on the battlefield, it could be that tactics used in formations, against armored opponents, cutting methods, etc. were omitted, leaving a more bare-boned version. Since the intended goal was not to have women run onto the battlefield, but instead deal with one, or a handful of enemies within an indoor setting, then their version of naginatajutsu had to be taught differently. Of course, this isn’t a strong argument anyone can make wholeheartedly, for many martial systems went through this same change and focus was geared towards what was needed during this time once big battles were not a normal occurrence during Edo period. This is especially evident once hand-to-hand martial systems grew in popularity. Realistically, an assertive evaluation on the contents cannot be made, since Kusaka Ichimune ryū has already died out, meaning we can only speculate and make educational guesses.
Now, one of the more interesting points to be discussed regarding women’s naginata of Kusaka Ichimune ryū is the idea of advanced techniques and secret teachings being instructed in the early stages of training. One of the benefits of this is being inducted into the true methodology of this martial system, along with understanding how to utilize it at its fullest in a shorter time. Of course, this probably has some guidelines, as this could be problematic on its own. Considering the proficiency needed for more advanced-level skills, it would not be so fruitful to teach them to those who are brand new on their 1st day as a whole. Most likely they were coupled in with basic training, and introduced progressively so not to become too confusing or difficult to comprehend. Meaning, as each woman developed their foundation in basic movements, executing proper cuts, understanding the concept of distancing, and so on, they would then be introduced to advanced techniques that would cement their potential utilization of the skills being developed, as well as be instructed on the secret lessons that would make all that is being taught usable almost immediately.
While women’s training in martial arts may not have been so extensive during the Edo period, it is much different in modern times, as many women train freely to their heart’s content. There are even renown female headmasters of their own martial systems in Japan today, such as Ogihara Haruko of Jiki Shikage ryū, Kimura Kyōko of Tendo ryū, and Koyama Nobuko of Yoshin ryū, as they run their respective schools teaching young girls, as well as boys, the methods of handling the naginata, along with other weapons. Still, if older martial arts systems like Kusaka Ichimune ryū serves as an example, it’s quite amazing that the training for women’s naginatajutsu was so accelerated in such a short time. While I personally enjoy the traditional way of studying Japanese martial arts, it could be satisfying to engage in learning where all secrets are offered at the start of one’s journey down the path as a martial artist.
1) Part of the history of a different ryūha known as Yoshin ryū Naginatajutsu (楊心流薙刀術).
2) This also should include other disciplines that were available, such as kusarigamajutsu and kodachijutsu
In a previous set of articles, brave acts with the Japanese spear were covered, as well as a few famous ones that still exist today¹. These examples illustrate the importance this weapon had in Japanese history. The same can be said about the Japanese sword, with a great amount of stories especially coming forth during the Edo period; these are often painted as an essential tool part of the arsenal of warriors during the Sengoku period, as well as being the symbol of the samurai class during the Edo period. Many of the tales concerning swords even touch on levels one would deem supernatural.
For this article, we’ll look at 3 unique stories that tell about amazing feats done with the Japanese sword. Each story has an interesting point to illustrate, which ranges from the greatness of the wielder to the sword itself being nothing short of mystical. As amazing the feat is, keep in mind that they shouldn’t be taken literally.
STORY #1: YAGYŪ AND THE DIVIDED STONE
There is a legendary story that comes from the Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine (天石立神社, Ama-no-Iwatate Jinja) in Nara prefecture, which is home to a very large stone on its property. Measuring at about 26 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 6 feet & 1/2 high, this stone is fabled as the very one used by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu to seal herself in a cave. Today, it is a critical center piece behind the founding of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine. However, the story we will be reviewing isn’t about the shrine’s origin, but concerns one of the more renown swordsmen during Edo period, whose name is Yagyū Muneyoshi (柳生宗厳).
A seasoned warrior on the battlefield during Japan’s warring years, Muneyoshi is the founder of Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) during the Edo period, a popular martial system that specialized in combat with the Japanese sword, which many still practice today. Well, it just so happens that the large stone of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine also plays a significant role in how Muneyoshi founded his style.
There was a time Muneyoshi went on a training journey to further improve his sword skills. For this, he went to Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine and stayed there for awhile. One day, when he was training on the grounds of the shrine, a tengu (天狗, a long-nosed goblin with wings) suddenly appeared, as if challenging the warrior. Muneyoshi fought fiercely with the tengu, as they both went back and forth with blows. Channeling his intention, Muneyoshi swiftly delivered a downward finishing cut that the Tengu couldn’t stop, cleaving him in half. In the next moment, Muneyoshi’s opponent disappeared, and was replaced by the large stone that was originally sitting not too far from him while he was training. He was so intent on victory, that his blade was able to cut through stone.
The large stone would later be called “Ittōseki” (一刀石, stone divided by a single sword swing) once an account of Muneyoshi’s feat was learned. It’s perfectly split from top to bottom at an angle, which would take an enormous amount of brute strength to achieve. The point to take from this tale is that near impossible feats can be achieved through sheer intention, where one is harmoniously in tune entirely on 3 levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.
STORY #2: A BLESSED SWORD AND A WINE BARREL
This next story concerns the Mijima Shrine in Izu, located in Ooshima (eastern part of present-day Tokyo). Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎), the pioneer of the martial system known as “Ittō ryū” (一刀流), was residing there in his youth during a time when he wanted to learn kenjutsu. After a period of self-training through determination, the shrine’s head priest was moved, and decided to pass on a sword named Ichimonji (一文字) to the youth. This would be the 1st sword that Ittōsai would receive so he could begin to learn kenjutsu properly. Ichimonji was not only fabled to have a fine edge, it helped its young owner develop a skill that is quite a feat.
Before he became a renown swordsman, Ittōsai was described as a youth who had much potential in kenjutsu. The head priest acknowledged this as he convinced the youth to head on a journey to find a competent swordsmaster, which he agreed to fund. On the day he received Ichimonji, the sword was blessed with ceremonial rice wine, and passed on to him without proper fittings². Late in the night, right before his trip, Ittōsai heard commotions in the shrine, and learned that it was being looted by a gang of thieves. Unsheathing the sword which only had a wooden handle, he charged at the thieves. Despite them being armed and outnumbering him, the thieves fell to his sword one-by-one, as he displayed great handling. The last thief retreated to a room where wooded barrels used to store blessed rice wine are kept, and hid in an empty one hoping to escape later unseen. Ittōsai gave chase and, upon entering the room, was able to perceive where the thief was hiding. In one swift motion, he rushed at the barrel and cleaved through the barrel, which not only collapsed in two, the thief inside also fell along with it, severed from his torso down.
This remarkable feat of cleaving both the wine barrel and the thief would years later serve as a secret technique taught to his highest student, which would be called “dō-giri” (胴斬り)³.
STORY #3: THE DEMON-SLAYING SWORD
This tale involves Hōjō Tokimasa, a figure hailing from the illustrious Hōjō clan. Originally a military commander serving in the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, Tokimasa became the 1st authority figure of the established military-ruled Bakumatsu during the early Kamakura period.
After the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu, Tokimasa went through a period of being plagued by tormenting nightmares, which all involved the appearance of a demon. One night, he went to sleep in his chambers as normal, with his sword next to him. He proceeded to go through another round of nightmares, which made him agitated. As he turned on his bed, his right arm bumped into his sword, which then fell ontop of him. Suddenly, as if willed by a power not of his own, Tokimasa subconsciously drew this sword and swung it, instinctively cutting at the demon within his dreams. His sword instead cut off one of the legs from a table which a hibachi (火鉢, small heating pot) sits on. The exasperated Tokimasa woke up surprised at the scene around him. As he examined the damage done to the table, he noticed that the part of the table leg that was accidentally cut off had the carving of a demon on it. Suspecting that this was the cause of his nightmares, Tokimasa had this part discarded, and from then on, was able to have peaceful nights of pleasant sleep.
This sword of Tokimasa was actually named “Onimaru-kunitsuna” (鬼丸国綱). Known as one of 5 legendary swords in Japanese history, it is distinguished as being a “reitō” (霊刀), or “spirit sword”. This means the unique trait the the Onimaru-kunitsuna bear was the ability to cut things on a spiritual level. Since the small table was cursed by the carving of a demon, this sword was able to “will” its owner to severe the menace at its roots.
This concludes our coverage on stories concerning feats with Japanese swords. These tales were definitely penned to stir the imagination, illustrating famous figures and renown swords in a light of glory. While taking these types of stories as fact is abit difficult, one thing for certain is they are entertaining.
2) A sword prepared for use would have what is called koshirae (拵), which includes a proper sword handle covered with shark skin and cotton wrap, a sword guard, and adorned with metal pieces. Since the Ichimonji was place at the shrine for safe keeping, it was prepped in shirasaya (白鞘), which consisted of a simple wooden sword handle, and housed in a non-lacquered sheath.
3) There is an article that talks on the general use of this term, which can be read here.