The first sword we will cover in depth is the Onimaru Kunitsuna (鬼丸国綱). This sword was actually introduced in another article, entitled “Unique Swords with the Finest Edge“. Wielded by those of nobility and military status, it is portrayed as a mystical sword able to dispatch evil spirits, thus protecting its owner. Bearing such an illustrious profile, one would imagine it’s a true treasure with such power anyone would never bear to part from it. To be honest, this perception is not 100% accurate, for at a time the Onimaru Kunitsuna had a very negative reputation. Before we go into its rather rocky history, let’s examine this sword’s specifications.
Status: Imperial treasure
Blade length: 78.2 cm
Curvature: 3.2 cm
Out of the 5 swords, the Onimaru Kunitsuna is deemed a treasure of the Imperial Palace. This, however, does not mean it’s a national treasure, for it is rarely on display for public viewing, while few publishing have pictures of it. This may have to do with its rather complex history, and how it came to be included in the safekeeping of the Imperial Palace. Much of its extra-ordinary status comes from documents considered recordings of actual past events, like the novel-styled historical writings from the “Taiheiki” (太平記), and the Imperial logs of legendary and political matters from the “Gobutsu Chōsho” (御物調書). When reviewing the actual documents or sites that reference these same sources that pertain to the Onimaru Kunitsuna, you notice that much of it is unusually detailed dialogues and labeling just for a sword, which can range from its passing from one owner to another as a spoils of war, to reference during a simple evaluation by order of a government official. While I can’t say that all that’s written about the Onimaru Kunitsuna is factual or not, I will say that some of the info is a little over the top, and should be taken with a grain of salt.
BELOVED SWORD OF THE HŌJŌ CLAN
The origins of this sword is traced to around mid 1200s, during the Kamakura period. Hōjō Tokimasa, the 5th Regent who was in control of the government body known as Kamakura Bakufu, commissioned the swordsmith Awataguchi Kunitsuna to craft him a special sword. This was fulfilled, with the sword being called “Kunitsuna” based on the name signed on it.
This sword would also gain an addition to its name, “Onimaru”¹, a little later. This came about when Tokimasa was tormented by nightmares caused by a demon while sleeping. As if willed by an unknown power from his keepsake sword, Tokimasa drew Kunitsuna out of its sheath and swung it down, cleaving off a part of the leg of his light stand that had the mark of a demon on it. From this, Tokimasa would give his sword the full title “Onimaru Kunitsuna”, as he believed it was good luck against mystical danger. Thus, it was a treasure of the Hōjō family for several generations.
However, this “good luck” of the Onimaru (title choice for remainder of article) was not witnessed again outside of the Hōjō household. This beloved sword was safely in the possession of this family up until the 14th successor Hōjō Takatoki, and after his passing, would later fall into the possession of Nagoe Takaie, who was the son of Hōjō Tokiie². It is said that in 1333, as many groups rose to oppose the Kamakura Bakufu rule controlled by the Hōjō clan, a particular rivalry between the Nagoe (Hōjō) clan and Akamatsu clan erupted, leading to skirmishes between both sides. The Hojo clan made an attempt to claim Yamazaki (present-day Ōyamazaki Town, Kyoto) from the Akamatsu clan. Takaie took part in this as he rode into the fray with the Onimaru at his side at Koganawate (present day Fushimi Ward, Kyoto City)³. However, he suffered the ill fate of being shot between the eyebrows by an arrow, dropping him dead in battle. Due to this tragedy, the Onimaru would later be returned back to his father Takatoki.
MISFORTUNES AS AN IMPLEMENT FOR WAR
A war commander by the name of Nitta Yoshisada would be next to gain possession of the Onimaru. This happened during an assault on Kamakura later in the same year, where it became evident that the might of the Hōjō clan was waning. Hōjō Kunitoki made an attempt to repel the assault, but things were looking grim on his side. At this time, he would have in his possession the Onimaru, and attempted to escape. However, he was caught by a subordinate of Nitta Yoshisada, assembled with other family members at a temple called Tōshōji, and was forced to commit suicide. Here is where the beloved sword would switch to the hands to Yoshisada. To claim such a treasure from a powerful family such as the Hōjō would mean good things to come…or so that was the thought.
We turn to the Ashikaga clan, who originally were supporters of the Hōjō clan, and rose in power by establishing their own military government in Kamakura by the new shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Not in agreement of the sudden change of power, Nitta Yoshisada opposed Ashikaga Takauji, resulting in them going to war. At first nothing impactful took place between the two sides, but soon Takauji would start to get the upper hand. In 1338, during the battle at Fujishima in Echizen Province, Yoshisada rode out into battle with the Onimaru and another sword known as the “Onikiri” (鬼切), attempting to prevail through his 2 auspicious swords. However, being caught by a rain of arrows from the enemy, he was shot dead as one of the arrows pierced between his eyebrows. Yet again, another display of the Onimaru providing no protection to those who attempt to wield it in physical battle
As the spoils of war, the Onimaru, along with the Onikiri, were taken by Shiba Takatsune, a commander who was in the service of the new shogun. Learning of the successful victory over Nitta Yoshisada and his army, Takauji sent a messenger to learn the whereabouts of the swords. When questioned by the messenger, Takatsune lied that both swords were kept in a training center, but was lost in a fire that erupted inside, destroying the building and everything inside. It would later be discovered that this was a lie, which Takauji lamented over this fact. Eventually, Takauji managed to secure the auspicious sword in his possession.
An interesting observation worth noting is that from this point on, the Onimaru will not be taken to the battlefield again, due to the misfortune of defeat and death that befell those thinking its surreal spiritual power would transfer to victorious physical strength⁴. Instead, it stayed as one of many valuable treasures within the position of the Ashikaga clan.
THE VALUABLE TREASURE MANY REFUSED TO TAKE IN
From here on forward, the Onimaru will pass through the hands of other prominent figures in Japan outside of being a spoils of war. This first takes place sometime around the late 1560s to early 1570s, when the 15th Ashikaga shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki gave potential rival Oda Nobunaga the sword as a peace offering. In turn, Nobunaga gave it years later to his vassal, Toyotomi Hideyoshi⁵. By now, the Onimaru had a reputation of being a mystical blade that can eradicate evil spirits, but bearing the potential of bringing ill luck to those who wield it out on the battlefield. Taking an interesting turn by believing in the tales of its ability to ward away evil spirits, Hideyoshi had it evaluated by the Honami clan, and lent it to Honami Kōtoku for safe keeping.
The Onimaru stayed as part of the Toyotomi family’s collection for a few decades. However, this would change after their demise when they lost during a war on their home, Ōsaka castle, by Tokugawa Ieyasu and supporters from eastern Japan in mid 1615⁶. Ieyasu would seize control over Japan as the new shogun, and establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. As if following protocol, Kōtoku would give the sword to the new Shogun, as it now has a new owner. Despite receiving this great sword, Ieyasu decided to follow suite and pass it back to Kōtoku for continued safe keeping…possible due to suspicion of its “unlucky” reputation.
In 1626, Ieyasu’s granddaughter, Tokugawa Masako, gave birth to the 2nd prince of the Imperial family, whose name was Sukehitoshinō. As she was be-wedded to Emperor Gomizunō and tied the Tokugawa family’s lineage to the Imperial line, this was an honorable occasion. As an offering, the Tokugawa family had the Onimaru delivered to the Imperial family, as a sign of their connecting with the newborn prince. Unfortunately, Sukehitoshinō would suddenly pass away in 1628, after his 3rd birthday⁷. The cause of death was thought to have been due to the “unlucky” sword, thus having it returned back to The Honami clan for safe keeping yet again.
The Onimaru remained in the care of the Honami clan for some time. They were also rewarded for their dedicated service at some point, as the sword was maintained in exceptional condition. However, after being unclaimed for a few centuries, the faith of the Onimaru would finally be decided in 1867, with rule over Japan being restored to the Imperial line after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. With this change in power, the sword was no longer an item of the Tokugawa family, but instead recognized as an Imperial treasure. It would then be added into the collection of the Emperor and the Imperial Palace in 1881, after the Honami clan fell into a decline in a successor to properly fulfill the job of sword care & evaluations. This is how the extraordinary sword known as Onimaru Kunitsuna would find its last home, and remain as part of the Imperial collection to this day.
We close this article on the 1st sword out of the Tenga Goken, Onimaru Kunitsuna. Bearing the reputation of its spiritual powers to eradicate evil spirits, it received quite a reputation during a time where many were superstitious. On the flip side, it was also deemed bad luck, which stemmed from providing no protection against physical dangers, to bringing untimely death. Are all these tales about the Onimaru Kunitsuna warrant? It’s impossible to get full clarity, but it does indeed make for an interesting tale. Stay tuned part 3, which will cover the the next sword known as Juzumaru Tsunesugu.
1) This is also the shorthand name for the sword
2) The Nagoe clan was a related branch of the Hōjō line
3) This particular clash is properly know as Koganawate no Gassen (Battle at Koganawate)
4) It is rumored that the 13th shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (1536~1565), a skilled swordsman, wielded the Onimaru against overwhelming odds at Nijō Gojo in Kyoto. This is a statement without a reliable source, so can’t say that this is true.
5) Toyotomi Hideyoshi is the name he’s most recognized by after he became shogun of Japan in late 1500s. While he was serving under Oda Nobunaga, he went by a different name, which was Hashiba Hideyoshi.
6) This war is known as “Ōsaka no Jin” (Siege of Ōsaka), which was a 2-part assault with the 1st taking place in the winter of 1614, then the 2nd in the summer of 1615.
7) This is based on the traditional age calculating method primarily used in Eastern Asian, where a newborn baby is considered one year old, then gets one more year added after the New Year.
There are several icons related to Japan stand out. One of them being the katana. Both historically and culturally, there was a strong viewpoint regarding the importance of swords, way back when the warrior class still existed. In fact, there is the famous saying that “the sword is the soul of the warrior”¹. Although it was not the strongest weapon used during wars, it was nonetheless held at a high value, as a sword also represented status.
There are many stories about amazing swords coming from Japan, especially in fiction. Usually these stories are based on real versions crafted generations ago, which, in themselves, come with their own rumors and tales about being extra ordinary. Interestingly, there is one group of swords that are considered the best of their kind, known as “Tenga Goken” (天下五剣)², which can be read as “5 Great Swords of Japan” in English.
What could be so special about these swords that grant them such a title? What’s their origin? Who were the owners of each these five swords? Which ones were deemed supernatural? All of this will be covered in a multi-part series. Today’s article will be part 1 of this series, which will cover the origins of this claim. This will include the individuals who were experts in evaluating swords, along with recordings in the form of official documents that determine the quality level of these unique swords.
A WORD OF CAUTION
Before we proceed, let’s cover some notes that will give a broader view on this topic. While there are fairly aged books that have information regarding the Tenga Goken, it should be understood that a definitive name, along with cohesive details, were not nicely written in one go. On the contrary, it’s taken many generations, along with slightly varying descriptions, before we have an actual picture of said 5 great swords. However, is this picture real and accurate?
For starters, it is said that the following 5 swords make up the Tenga Goken:
Mikazuki Munechika (日月宗近)
Onimaru Kunitsuna (鬼丸国綱)
Dojigiri Yasutsuna (童子切安綱)
Juzumaru Tsunetsugu (数珠丸恒次)
Odenta Mitsuyo (大典太光世)
These are judged as 5 exemplary swords, and were supposedly chosen sometime during the Muromachi period³. However, the individual(s) who made this assessment is unknown. On top of this, the label used to group these swords, Tenga Goken, was not originally as a headline for some listing. Instead, this was derived from descriptions regarding the 5 swords from said older documents. If anything, the name and the determination of the five swords grouped as Tenga Goken was something that came into play later in the Edo period. So, while this claim of 5 great swords may have been something finalized at a much later date, what we do know is that they do exist, and some documentation about them did take place. For what it’s worth, all 5 swords are said to still exist present day, and are in safe keeping as antiques. More about this in the upcoming articles.
ORIGINS WITH THEHONAMI CLAN
We get the 1st documentation that speaks on the Tenga Goken, which is called “Meikenden” (名劔伝)⁴. Part of the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, the Meikenden was compiled in 1769 in a document entitled, “Honnami-ke no Meibutsu Hikae-cho” (本阿彌家の名物扣帳). This is a listing of established blacksmiths around Japan, and swords that are their prized works. In listings like this, each sword is judged by certain traits, which will then put each into varying categories such as their grade of quality, being a visually fine piece of work, to having a unique story in its creation.
So, who were the Honami clan and what was so special about them? They had a long history of being recognized as sword polishers, and later as experts in evaluating sword. In surviving records, the 1st head of this clan, Honami Myōhon, established his clan’s rise during the early Nanbokucho period (1337-1392) by being employed under Ashikaga Takauji, a war commander who would later establish the 1st shogunate under the Ashikaga rule and start the Muromachi bakufu around 1338. With Myōhon establishing this connection, the Honami clan became a dōboūshū (同朋衆) to the Ashikaga clan, which means they were personal artisans of whom were considered the most powerful at the time. Although being known to have such a prestigious relationship, the Honami clan didn’t just stay idle; they also took up the occupation as merchants and traveled abit throughout Japan over the centuries. Another point to take note is that, as their clan expanded, they also branched into other arts, such as calligraphy (書道, shodō), lacquer decorations using metal powder (蒔絵, makie), pottery (陶芸, tōgei) and tea ceremony (茶道, chadō).
OFFICIAL SWORD EVALUATIONS
It wasn’t until Honami Kōtoku, 9th successor, was recognized as an expert in sword evaluation, from where his clan was permitted in establishing methods for sword polishing, as well as determining the quality and style of swords being crafted. In due time, Honami Kōshitsu (本阿弥光室), the 10th successor, created a log in the form of an orihon (折本) that list detailed analysis on different swords of the time sometime between the late 1500s to early 1600s. While the Honami clan were famous due to their start by serving the Ashikaga shogunate, over the generations they also provided service to those who seeked their expertise. This includes Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1500s. Lastly, in 1719, when Tokugawa Yoshimune, 8th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, had the 13th successor Honami Kōchū commissioned to document the know-how about his clan’s lifework as sword polishers, Kōchū created a catalog called “Kyōhō Meibutsucho” (享保名物帳). It’s highly probable that this was used as one of the bases for in the aforementioned book, “Meikenden”.
DESCRIPTIONS OF 5 GREAT SWORDS
The next book of interest is “Shoka Meikenshu” (諸家名剣集), which was compiled in 1828. What’s interesting here is that this is a copy of the older book Kyōhō Meibutsucho, which is coupled with descriptions about each of the 5 swords. This is where we get many references that lead to the label “Tenga Goken”. Below are the pages from this book where each of these 5 swords are mentioned. The name of the sword and the particular phrase are indicated by a red line. (this is placed to the right of the text in the image) This will also be accompanied by the typed Japanese text, followed by my English transliteration.
Mikazuki Munechika “One of the 5 swords to the right“
Note that this sword and its descriptions are mentioned on a previous page (left), while the phrase above continues onto the following page (right)
Onimaru Kunitsuna “This is said to be #1 out of the 5 swords to the right”
Note that descriptions for this sword spans around 8 pages, and the phrase mentioned above appears on the 7th page (right)
Dojigiri Yasutsuna “One of the 5 renown swords, This sword to the right is famous as being “truly unrivaled” in excellence“
Juzumaru Tsunetsugu “One of the 5 swords to the right because it is a famous sword unrivaled in excellence“
大典太光世 「 是又天下出群之名剣五振之内也」
Odenta Mitsuyo “This is also among the 5 swords to the right because it is a famous sword unrivaled in excellence“
Key words to take away here are “5 swords” (五振)⁵ and “unrivaled” (天下). Although the word “unrivaled” appears for 3 out of the 5 swords, it’s probably assumed that the other 2 swords should be of the same caliber if grouped in the same category.
This concludes our look at the origins to the categorizing of the Tenga Goken. In the following articles more details will cover each sword, from the swordsmiths who made each one, to how they made their marks in history.
1) In Japanese, it is “katana wa bushi no tamashii” (刀は武士の魂).
2) Can also be pronounced “Tenka Goken”.
3) Note that the term for these swords used is “tachi” (太刀). In the past, This was determined by having a bigger curve in the blade, being around the length of a battlefield sword, and used while riding horseback. This is different from swords that were made for fighting on foot, such as the katana. On another note, the Tenga Goken were also praised as being works of art based on the craftsmanship that made them look magically appealing.
4) Note that there is 1 extra sword mentioned on the same page as the Tenga Goken in the book Meikenden, which is “Kanze Masamune” (観世正宗). This sword was made by the renown blacksmith group Masamune. While swords by Masamune are considered works of art in their own rights, they are not categorized along with the previous 5 swords, as the Tenga Goken were held in a class of their own years before this book was written.
5) This is read as go-furi (5 swords) in Japanese, whereas furi is a counter for swords. Even though the word “sword” is not present, the counter itself lets the reader know what is being referenced here.
There are many interesting documents of old that describe all sorts of trades, practices, cultural topics from pre-modern Japan. This is especially true for those who are enthusiasts of Japanese martial/military history, for there are many resources on said topic. Some famous documents are usually easy to obtain as great strides are taken to make these more readily available to the public. Then there are those rare gems that are part of individuals’ personal collection or found in second-hand bookstores, which, if lucky, may be shared either through exclusive meetings, events based on invitations, or even online. While it’s tempting to take all martial/military-related documents at face-value and view them as windows into the past, it’s also important to discern genuine from fabrication.
There is a term for documents that we must be wary about, which is “gisaku” (偽作). While it’s simple to translate this term as “forgery” or “fake”, this term actually has more layers to its use. There are reasons to labeling an old document gisaku, which could range from, but not limited to, the following:
A document having reputable information, but is a direct copy (i.e. Chinese war strategies that were copied for use in Japan, but this fact is not stated)
A particular family or group claiming genuine tactics, but in reality they were copied & altered to appear “genuine” (i.e. clandestine tactics that were copied from another reputable source, but arranged to fit a specific narrative unique to the individuals in question)
A document containing unusual/suspicious practices that may be made up (i.e. ritual practices said to be done before setting out to the battlefield, which in truth seems out of place compared to other historical recordings)
Stories & notes in the form of a war journal, which may be exaggerated (i.e. A family journal claiming great exploits in certain events, but unverifiable in legitimate historical records)
In the following text below, certain excerpts from a source entitled, “Buke Kojitsu Gunrei bassho” (武家故実軍令抜書, Excerpts of Customary Practices and Rules of the Samurai) will be used to illustrate this point about war documents that could be labeled as gisaku. Unfortunately, the author of this is not mentioned, which leans it closer to not the most trust-worthy of documents as there’s no way to verify the information.
KŌGAI, THE MULTI-PURPOSE TOOL
Before we look at these excerpts, I will explain some background pointers. The topic of this document is a small, sharp implement called a “kōgai” (笄). While normally labeled as a hairpin primarily used by women in the past, there was a similar version synonymous to warriors during the Sengoku Period all the way to mid/late Edo period. The kōgai used by warriors was a key component found inserted into the opening of their sword’s scabbard. Its’ usage varied slightly throughout the ages in Japan, as it went through some alterations from having specific functions to becoming a decorative standard accessory on the scabbard. The kōgai is regarded as one of the “mitokoromono” (三所物), which were 3 essential items that accompanied one’s sword (high-ranking or lower-ranking alike) , which included the menuki (目貫) and kozuka (小柄).
Take note that a word of caution comes with the contents of this document; while there is evidence regarding the importance of the kōgai and the mitokoromono, it has not been verified that its usage as a multi-purpose tool as mentioned here to be true. It is also highly possible that this was written during Edo period, way after Japan was moving towards an era of peace, being that there may be some romanticizing ideas here at play that glorify things that never was practiced by warriors of old.
EVALUATING OLD PRACTICES WITH THE KŌGAI
Below are seven excerpts from Buke Kojitsu Gunrei bassho. Note that while the title for each excerpt will be translated from Japanese to English, the explanation for each will not be a direct translation, but instead will be more of a description. Also, without being too opinionated, I added a comment below for each one, mainly based on similar practices to each one.
#1: Using a kōgai to insert a head-trophy marker during a battle (軍場の首札としての使い方) Warriors get rewarded for the number of enemy soldiers they slay on the battlefield. There are several ways of claiming one’s “head-trophy” during battle, which will then be evaluated later. One of the ways is to put a form of marker in their hair. For this document, it is said that for slain enemies who have no hair (such as a warrior monk), to pierce one’s kōgai into their ear to create a hole, in which then a head trophy marker can be inserted.
COMMENT: In my limited research, this is reminiscent of other methods of leaving a marker on a slain opponent that will be used as your prize. This one is unique for bald soldier, which is new to me.
#2: Using a kōgai when your horse is tired while in battle(軍場で馬が疲労した時の使い方) When riding an exhausted horse on the battlefield, there should be someone, such as a stable boy, to assist with resolving the situation. When found alone and no one to help, you would use your kōgai to pierce into the lower part of its leg to perform phlebotomy.
COMMENT: Since high-ranking warriors were privileged to riding on horseback, attendants tend to be close by to assist in various ways. While some details are missing, this sounds like a method to spur on your horse to be reinvigorated by inflicting pain to it.
#3: When the Commander gives a retainer his kōgai(大将が臣下に笄をお渡しになる場合があること) In this case, a retainer is used as a spy and sent out by his Commander to handle certain tasks in enemy territory. The commander will give the retainer a specific kōgai, which allows the retainer to be recognized during meetups upon his return.
COMMENT: While this sounds like something from a spy thriller, this is highly possible. Whether or not this method was truly used is a different story.
#4: Using the kōgai to scale a castle wall(塀越の時の使い方) In the event where a castle wall needs to be scaled, one’s kōgai can be used by inserting it into the gap of the stone foundation. This way, you step on the kōgai to propel you up in order to reach the top of the castle wall. If in a group, the person most skilled at this will perform this task. When there is doubt amongst your group about how to scale the wall, suggest using the kōgai will help for reinsurance.
COMMENT: I’ve heard of steel pegs and the like being inserted into the crevice of a stone wall in order to climb up a castle back during Japan’s warring times. I wouldn’t rule out the effectiveness of a kōgai being used for such a task, although it is a pretty short implement.
#5: Using a kōgai during a night raid (戦場で夜討する時の使い方) Your group has taken down the enemy’s fort at night, but you do not have time to claim the heads of your slain opponents. In the case where the enemy commander, or any other high-ranking warrior, was slain by your hands, then you should stab your kōgai into the eye or ear of your victim. This way, it can be verified later.
COMMENT: This is possible, as I’ve heard other examples of leaving a form of mark on slain soldiers that can later be identified as being that from a specific individual. It is also said that if the kōgai is part of your mitokoromono that has a unique motif, then there won’t be any dispute as it being yours.
#6: Using kōgai-gakure while at an inn when traveling about (旅の宿における笄隠れ) When there is a concern about being watched while in your room at an inn, you are advised to make your room dark without actually quenching the flame from the andō (行燈), which is a paper-encased oil lantern. The trick is as followed: pass a wooden skewer stick over the flame in the lamp, while vertically placing you kōgai in front of the flame. Forming a cross formation, the light from the lamp will be blocked, giving the impression that you are going to sleep. This is the method for “kōgai-gakure”.
If your suspicions are correct, and thieves and the like sneak into your room, you can pull your kōgai away to light up the room in an instance, exposing your perpetrators.
COMMENT: Interesting tricks like this can be found in some war documents. While they sound pretty cool, in many cases they are very situational, and tend to be missing additional information.
#7: Using a kōgai as chopsticks (箸に用いる使い方) When your group has set up camp and are about to eat, you can use your kōgai as chopsticks when proper ones are not available. You can also use the kōgai to skewer pickled items.
COMMENT: While a kōgai was generally a solid, singular metallic object, there was another version where it was 2, detachable pieces, which could then double as chopsticks. However, this 2-piece kōgai was devised, from my understanding, much later during Edo period, so it’s abit skeptical that such a version was made beforehand.
Researching old documentations on martial/military contents can be both fun and informative. However, it’s best to take the information you read with a grain of salt. Some contents are easier to verify than others, while finding unique/obscure documents doesn’t mean you’ve found a treasure trove. At the end of the day, documents like the one mentioned above make for an interesting read that can be further researched on for further verification, but nothing to announce to the world as top secret strategies you’ve miraculously discovered.
Staying true to the rabbit theme for 2023, here’s another article that is related to the story “White Rabbit of Inaba Country”. The original story, along with analytical tidbits, have been covered already. Now, let’s take a turn in a different direction with it.
As mentioned in a previous article, there are speculations that tales like “The White Rabbit of Inaba Country” are more of a fantastical re-write of true events. I’ve come across a couple of discussions about what those true events could be, but the one that caught my attention the most is one that is fitting of an action film.
While visiting the website for Hakuto Shrine (the shrine located in Tottori Prefecture where the god that is revered there is indeed the White Rabbit) and viewing the mythology page¹, one can find the story about the White Rabbit that fits the same narrative that most are familiar with straight from the historical source called the Kojiki. However, there is another story below it that is claimed to be a true event that took place centuries ago in Japan.
THE NAVAL BATTLE BETWEEN SHIRO-USAGI AND WANI
This story below was passed down for generations by the chief priests, as they would be the ones to refer to in regards to the real meaning behind the popular folklore. I’ve included the original Japanese text, and beside it my English transliteration.
It is said that the name “shiro usagi” (white rabbit) from the famous book Kojiki was related to a highly prestigious clan that controlled a particular area during the age of folklore, and was not truly referencing an actual rabbit that lived in the wild. This clan was peaceful by nature with their neighbors, similar to actual rabbits, which is the reason why they were nicknamed Shiro-Usagi.
Specializing in sea fare, the Shiro-Usagi clan sailed close to the islands of Oki and engaged in battles against bandits that were terrorizing the coast, who went by the name “Wani”, meaning “Shark”².
During the last battle with the bandits, members of the Shiro-Usagi clan suffered grave injuries. Fortunately, they were rescued by the god known as Ōkuninushi no mikoto³. Later, they worked hand-to-hand with Ōkuninushi no mikoto in order to dispel the Wani force, and bring order to the islands. It’s also said that the Shiro-Usagi clan allowed Ōkuninushi to take Yagami-hime to be his wife.
Here is more information regarding this battle, which is found in the a publication from Tottori Prefecture called “Tottori Shinpō” (鳥取新報), which was issued sometime in November of 1920.
The White Rabbit clan, ruling over the area near Tottori Prefecture, went to battle against the massive force of the Wani at Oki islands.
The Wani were a wild bunch of seafarers who caused havoc around the ocean of Japan.
It is written that the gods of the White Rabbits employed a strategy against the Wani called “Line up the Wani heads, now jump!”. It’s noted that fireworks were used to push the large force of the Wani to be grouped together, which is described as “line up their heads”.
These circumstances of the battle, as written in the Kojiki, is very interesting.
The Wani grand fleet fought the White Rabbits ruthlessly as if they were nothing, as they were pushed from Oki islands all the way to Keta Front. In the end, the Wani bested the Shiro-Usagi, as they were left bloodied from the superior assault from the sea bandits.
Seeing their opponents in their defeated state, the Wani army let out a battle cry, then withdrew from the battle area.
The last sentence written is “As our clothing has been ripped from our backs, this is the last we see of the Wani force”, which is similar to the description of the white rabbit losing his fur in the Kojiki.
Guess we can image that they were beaten near the brink of death, similar to the state in which the divine white rabbit after first reaching Inaba Country.
In the end, the surviving members of the White Rabbit clan recovered, and, with the help from Ōkuninushi no mikoto, chased after the Wani force and defeated them from good, ridding them from the area…or so it’s said.
ANOTHER LAYER TO THE REAL EVENT
If we take the story above as fact, then that means that the folklore from the Kojiki is coded for an actual navel battle between a reputable clan and sea rogues…as so recorded at Hakuto Shrine in Tottori Prefecture. Yet, the story does not end here. Apparently, this naval battle is coded yet again, with the original bearing a much more robust details, and intertwining parties involved.
On the blog, “Shinwa wo kagaku suru tanbou“, there is a discussion regarding the naval battle version spoken about above, and how there’s yet another theory about it being a coded tale for an actual historical event. This theory states that this historical event is known as “Battle of Baekgang” (白村江の戦い, reads as “Hakusontou no Tatakai” in Japanese), which is a true event that took place in old Korea in the year 663. Historical data reads this as a civil war between surviving clans of the ancient south-western kingdom of Baekje and their eastern neighbors of Silla. The groups from Baekje were supported by a Japanese force, while those of Silla found support in the form of troops from the Tang Empire of China. This battle took place both on on land & sea, with the masterful naval prowess of the Baekje at the forefront, later supported by the naval crafts of the Japanese. while the Tang Empire did the same for their side.
The naval battle story found in Hakuto Shrine parallels this Battle of Baekgang, with the Shiro-Usagi clan representing Baekje/Japan alliance (ie. the native clansmen), while the Wani force represents the Silla/Tang alliance (ie. the raiders). Of course, this particular event takes place at the end, with much more content found years before. In a similar fashion, the Baekje faced near annihilation at the hands of the rivaling army in their own homeland of Baekje, which first happened in 660. To their saving grace, survivors that fled south were able to find a glimpse of hope by the last Baekje ruler, Prince Buyeo Pung, who at the time found refuge in Japan. As the beaten Baekje warriors recover, and bolster their strength once again, a large Japanese naval fleet was sent out to assist in helping them continue the fight with the Tang army in the former southern city of Ungjin County (located present-day Gongju) on the Korean Peninsula. A few years later, in 663, the Baekje/Japanese force set out for their final battle in southern Baekje with the Tang army in the form of 5 naval face-offs.
As a reminder, this is just speculation for the origins of the “White Rabbit of Inaba Country”. In truth, there is more content regarding the struggle for power between the people of Baekje and Silla that prevents it from being a simple cut-and-paste in the form of a fairy tale, while the outcome found in history is different even the coded version of the tale (hint: the Baekje/Japanese force lost all 5 naval battles, which ended the survivors of Baekje completely). From what I understand, there is no strategy related to “lining up the sharks’ heads” used by the Baekje/Japanese force, although the Japanese naval fleet took the most casualties at the end, which included many of their ships being burned down.
This concludes our look at this wild take on a popular folklore. I’ve only introduced one theoretical take on this, for while there are more, the idea of a naval battle is the most interesting in my opinion. Like anything based on theory, the connection to a war that took place in Korea which the Japanese was also involved in isn’t a perfect one, especially the reasoning why, if the connection is true, it had to be re-written in a folklore that give no indications to the history behind it. Nonetheless, the coded version is pretty wild & exciting with its more pro-nationalistic theme and mythological image that is portrayed.
1) Currently, the website is down. Interestingly, I was able to visit the site a few times this year, but now this is no longer the case.
2) It’s been considered that the ancient use of the Chinese characters “和爾” is a reading for the sea creature “shark”, as well for “crocodile”. To stay consistent with the accepted viewpoints regarding the Kojiki, I will use the shark term.
3) This is another name for Ōkuninushi no kami (大国主神), as used in the articles here and here.
As an objective of growth for 2023, my training group will be focusing on more close-quarter combat. One concept related to this is torite (捕手). Torite can be translated as grappling, catching, or arresting. In many ways it is similar to judō as a form of grappling system, but has many differences due to the purpose of usage, techniques allowed, as well as tools that can used to assist.
When learning the methods of torite, usually practitioners train in katageiko (型稽古), which is a drill that features one person as a defender and another as an attacker. The scenario used in katageiko generally consists of an attacker initiating a confrontation by grabbing the defender, while the defender reacts using specified techniques to defend against & defeat the opposition. It is very common for a student to learn the specifics regarding how to apply torite to defeat an attacker’s technique, as well as subdue them with their own. However, what is not covered in detail at the beginning of one’s training are the advantages the attacker has when performing their initial torite (grapple) technique. In theory, the initial action of a skilled attacker would prove difficult to stop if timed correctly, which is why the #1 effective defense is not to be there as a target.
For today’s article, I will cover various grapples an attacker may attempt that we train to defend against, and explain briefly the advantages of these if an attacker is successful in pulling this off.
SINGLE HAND WRIST GRAB
With a forward or downward pull, you can take a person’s balance as they stumble forward, leaving their upper body vulnerable to attacks. There is also a double hand wrist grab version.
Grabbing an opponent’s sleeve can be used as another variation of this. In similar fashion, you can manipulate an opponent by pulling downward, forward, or to the side. Depending on which hand you use, an opponent’s arm can be pulled across their body by their sleeves, leaving their side vulnerable and unable to defend themselves.
SLEEVE GRAB NEAR ELBOW
Grabbing the sleeve closer to the elbow gives more control in manipulating an opponent’s upper body, especially along their spine. Pulling here downwards to your hip, or outward, can take their balance, and leave them open for strikes or throws. Similar to the sleeve grab near the wrist.
SINGLE LAPEL GRAB
Seizing the lapel from the front with one hand isn’t just limited to a strike with the other hand. One can still manipulate an opponent by pushing or pulling while gripping the lapel to take balance, and can administer more weighted control by pulling downward at the same time. Of course, this is not done through just the strength of one’s arm, but has to be coordinated with movements by the entire body. Depending on if you grab the lapel on the same side as your hand or go for the opposite side, you can push or pull the opponent right or left.
DOUBLE LAPEL GRAB
A much more secure version, this offers the same results as the single lapel grab, but with even greater control. Shoving and pushing can greatly take balance, along with lower body techniques that are difficult to anticipate. It is also easier to execute throws and take downs since you are using both hands.
BEHIND LAPEL GRAB
This is usually done at an opponent’s blind side, which is typically from the back. When done correctly, one can quickly pull down the opponent to the ground, or push the opponent forward by striking with the same hand that grabs. Outside of this, one can use their free hand and legs to deliver strikes.
SINGLE SLEEVE-LAPEL GRAB
This is a familiar set up for specific throws, such as seoi nage (背負投げ, shoulder throw). Of course, we have to set up prior to make throws work effectively. As the aggressor, the hand that grabs the lapel can strike into sensitive areas around the face and neck to create opening, while the hand that holds the sleeve manipulates by pulling to take balance in different directions.
In closing, understanding the strong points of an attacker is critical in martial arts. It is often stated that the one who throws the 1st punch wins a confrontation. The same can be said with well-timed & well-executed grapples. That being said, there is a lot of value understanding how an attacker cam truly use the initial grapple to win. From this can we learn how to effectively defend against this.
Here is part 2 on the series regarding the folklore “White Rabbit of Inaba Country”, which will cover fun facts, real life comparisons, as well as certain research topics. Although introduced as a folklore to many kids, originally this was held with high esteem as a source of Japan’s origin story, as well as the rights of the Imperial line. Of course, this type of literature was only privy to nobles and influential clans as early as 700s, but was made available to the general public from around the mid 1600s, especially as literature in schools.
Here’s a list of some of the sources used as research material for this article:
Before going forward, it’s worth mentioning again that the story of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country is originally part of a bigger tale regarding Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he becomes the head of the earthly gods, as well as the ruler of the central land in Japan, which is all recited in the Kojiki. While it may seem that the white rabbit plays a minor role, it is in fact the opposite, for he was critical in Ōkuninushi’s rise in status, and can even be argued that he judged Ōkuninushi’s fate. While this, as well as all other stories found in the Kojiki, part of the mythological origin of Japan, it is worth noting that the interpretations aren’t as clear cut as one would assume; reading the clear & easily digestible versions of the folklore (including the one from the previous article) paints an acceptable image of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country, but in reality these are based on adjusted, acceptable interpretations. The original text isn’t as clear with the details, nor the meaning behind some of the dialogue used. These, along with not fully understanding the reasoning behind why the Kojiki was written the way it is, has lead to numerous discussions on the meaning behind much of the text. In the end, researchers have to struggle reading in-between the lines, which in itself can lead to more confusion. Some of these issues will be touched upon lightly in this article.
Another point regarding interpretation challenges leads to the idea about aspects of the folklore being a parallel to real social, and political events that are linked to geographical areas of old. While there may be some truth to this (especially later on in the Kojiki, when the “gods” theme tones down abit and focuses more on actual people), it is still challenged by a lack of concrete, factual evidence. Reasons behind this include certain aspects of the past intentionally hidden due to political issues, which can be remedied through either changing names of certain individuals involved, to replacing with a misdirection in the form of a fantasy-like narrative.
LESSONS FROM THE FOLKLORE
As a folklore geared towards children, what types of lessons are young readers expected to take away from the story “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”? There are 2 lessons that I was able to find.
1) GREAT FORTUNE COMES TO THOSE WHO DO GOOD DEEDS – This one points to Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he was rewarded for his kind nature. Unlike his mean and selfish older siblings, he helped an injured white rabbit heal itself & regain his fur. In turn to his kindness, the white rabbit ensured that it was Ōkuninushi be the one to take Yagami-hime’s hand in marriage.
2) AVOID BRASH ACTIONS, LEST BE GREETED BY DISASTER– This pertains to the white rabbit and how he foiled himself as he crossed along the backs of the sharks to reach Inaba Country. While his wit to have the sharks line up unaware is admirable, getting ahead of himself and making them look stupid by bragging about his trick was his undoing. The white rabbit brought bad luck to himself due to this…which is a poor habit we should avoid.
THE REAL OKI ISLAND AND INABA COUNTRY
The country Inaba, from where the events took place, has been deduced by researchers to be modern-day Shimane, in the eastern part of Tottori Prefecture. Shimane is also part of the area that was once called “Inaba Country” or “Inaba Province”, during ancient times. The land of Inaba is painted as an important location where a goddess named “Yagami-hime” resides. This may not be a coincidence, as there is a bit of a parallel with real life. You see, while most of the events in the Kojiki are considered mythological, this possibly was done intentionally as it covers possibly social structures. In the past, Inaba Country was one of the highest ranking lands in terms of powerful clans, coming second to the capital where the Imperial Palace resided. Inaba Country was also close to the capital at a time, so the clans there served the Imperial family directly. In terms of its geography, Inaba Country sits next to the Sea of Japan, which is important to note for the next part.
Looking at Oki Island, where the white rabbit was first introduced, there are a few areas that are thought to be this location. Based on distance, as well as the idea that this is a “lone” island, researchers point to an archipelago in the Sea of Japan called Oki Islands, meaning that it wasn’t a single island. Despite it’s distance in the ocean, it is part of the territory of Shimane Prefecture that is called “Oki District” in modern times. While being one of the many smaller islands off the coast of Japan, Oki Islands was considered its own country, as there are records of inhabitants even during ancient times. This also made these islands suitable for political exile. Speaking of which, The full story of Ōkuninishi has a relatively profound political tone, especially later in his life. Some of it is thought to be parallel to real events between aristocrats, warlords, and the Imperial Palace. Is it possible that the white rabbit, being the only one of his kind on Oki Island, was a representation of a reputable individual who was exiled? Or one who escaped from a bad situation? That is a personal theory of mine, one out of speculation.
WHAT’S IN A TITLE
At 1st glance, the modern title “White Rabbit of Inaba Country” seems to be more straight-forward and staying true to the story. Yet, something is off, as this points to the rabbit being from Inaba Country. Isn’t he originally from Oki island? To be honest, the modern title isn’t as straight forward as one would think when reading the Japanese title, yet it’s one of those minor points that’s not easily obvious. Now, if we compare this with how the older title was written, we then discover it is filled with hidden meanings behind the story. Of course, to understand this would be to analyze and dissect the characters used in the Japanese title.
Here’s variations of the modern title. Note that they are both essentially the same, other than that the word for “white rabbit” (shiro usagi) is either written in modern kanji (Chinese characters) or simpler Japanese phonetic characters called hiragana:
Now, here’s what the older title looks like.
Inaba (因幡) is the name of the country where the events took place. In the older title, we see “稲羽” used for the name Inaba instead. Other than small nuances such as character presentation, representation of phonetics, and the like based on the time period, both mean the same thing. However, the real point of interest lies in the theory that the name is thought to have a hidden reading, which is “往ば” or “去ば”. Both are verbs with the conjugation “inaba” pronunciation, and have the meaning “to return” or “go back”. If either is used in the story’s title, it’ll properly read “White Rabbit who’s Returning Home”. This theory isn’t too far-fetched, as in many older Japanese literature there tends to be word play through the use of Chinese characters. Also, the white rabbit’s desire to travel to Inaba Country must mean that he knows something about this area….possibly because he’s been there before?
There is one other point, which is concerning the older title “shiro usagi” and how it does not use a character that actually means white. Instead, there was a theory that it actually references him returning back to normal after facing his ordeals. This will be saved for a more in-depth discussion later in the article.
YAGAMI-HIME = GODDESS
Yagami-hime is whom Ōkuninushi no kami and his 80 sibling gods head to see. Is this also true for the white rabbit? There’s some interesting tidbits regarding her, as well as what she represents.
Yagami is the name of an area in Inaba in the past. Thought to have gotten its name from the actual story, the area of Yagami was fairly large, consisting of 12 towns. Today, it is known as “Yazu District” (八頭郡) in Tottori Prefecture. Having such a historical record as such, it’s possible that Yagami was a place of significance, for it’s even thought that the white rabbit, as well as Ōkuninushi no kami and his siblings, were heading to this very area. In parallel to the regalia of Yagami-hime in the story, the area of Yagami may have been controlled by a noble family. Whether or not this family had a daughter of such significance as demonstrated through Yagami-hime in the story is a mystery. Another thing worth mentioning is that her name can can also be pronounced as “Yakami-hime”.
In terms of her position, since the premise of the folklore centers around gods, Yagami-hime is indeed a goddess. So, it would make sense that other gods would seek her out to take her hand in marriage. What about the white rabbit? What would be his purpose in meeting with her? In the version of the story used in the previous article, it’s written that the white rabbit traveled to Inaba to meet a goddess. Is Yagami-hime whom the white rabbit wanted to meet? This isn’t specified. In fact, this appears to be an addition to this version. Going off of the original story found in the Kojiki, readers only learn of his intentions after Ōkuninushi asks what’s ailing him, which the reply include his statement about wanting to visit Inaba. In truth, the white rabbit doesn’t mention about a goddess, let alone Yagami-hime. In the end, most likely he only went to see Yagami-hime as a means to help Ōkuninushi no Kami, and foil the 80 sibling gods’ plans.
One more fact to mention is how Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi no kami’s relationship is considered one Japan’s oldest love story. While this isn’t the only example of a relationship taking place in the Kojiki (nor is it the first one), it is, in a way, appreciated on a romantic level. In true fashion, their relationship did blossom into something special, where they did get married and have a child. Unfortunately, their tale did not have a happy ending, as Ōkuninushi would be forced to leave after an attempt was made to take his life, and would never return back to Yagami-hime.
SHARK VS CROCODILE
In terms of topics pertaining to the story that have no clear resolution, one I’d like to point out in detail concerns the first obstacle for the white rabbit, which are the sharks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always sharks that were presented in the story, for there was a time when instead the sea creatures that cost the white rabbit’s fur were described as crocodiles. The reasoning behind this has to do with the naming convention used during ancient times, and the confusion that comes with it due to inconsistencies in geographical inhabitancy, as well as changes in the Japanese language in modern times.
First, let’s look at the name used in the story. The creatures deceived by the white rabbit are called “wani” in Japanese, which are represented by the Chinese characters “和爾”. Verbally, wani means “crocodile” or “alligator”. So one would assume that it’s correct to assume that crocodiles were the obstacle. There are a couple of issues with this, the biggest deals with when the story (and as a whole, the Kojiki) was written. It dates back around the 700s, which around this time, crocodiles were not a creature naturally inhabiting Japan. Furthermore, the event with the white rabbit took place out in the sea, where crocodiles would not be at for they are reptiles and not sea creatures. Although they are active in water, crocodiles are generally found closer to land. Sharks, on the other hand, are a type of sea creature that are fish and can be found out in the ocean, which better fits the narrative.
So why use the term wani for a sea creature? There are some theories behind this. One is that the Japanese had knowledge of crocodiles from their interactions with other Asian countries, such as China and, for the sake of fantasy, added them into the story. This isn’t too far-fetch, especially when you consider how many artworks incorporate tigers, which are also not natural to Japan. In fact, this is a pretty strong one, as there are other cases of the word wani appearing in other Japanese folklore, which was used for dragon-like or snake-like reptilian creatures. On the other hand, one thought is that the word wani was used as a label for multiple creatures in ancient times, and not just for reptilian ones such as crocodiles; there is evidence that the name may have been attached to other sea creatures as far back as when the Kojiki was written, which includes fugu (河豚, puffer fish) and same (鮫, shark) . This isn’t too unusual; in fact, this practice is still used today in certain parts of Japan, as apparently the word wani is associated to sharks. This is similar to the difference in pig/boar labeling in Japan when compared to China.
At the end of the day, there is no concrete answer to whether it’s a crocodile or a shark that appears in the story. In current times, the shark theory is more accepted, and is in the majority of versions and art depictions of the story. In fact, to distinguish from crocodiles, the common practice is to use the unique title of “wani-zame” (鰐鮫) for these sharks.
The cattail, called “gama no hana” (蒲の花) in Japanese, plays a symbolic role for bringing back the white rabbit’s fur. Or, it can be though that it replaces the lost fur completely. For those who are unfamiliar (like myself), a cattail reed has spiky seeds all over it. When ready, these same seed bloom into fluffy cotton. In reality, the cattail is a multi-purpose plant that has been relied on for generations, as it can be used for making utilitarian supplies such as hats & baskets, it can be used for culinary purposes, as well as for medicinal purposes. Quite amazing is how the cotton from the seeds can be used as stuffing and insulation, which is probably where the idea of rubbing a cattail along the white rabbit’s body had the seeds stick to him in order to bloom into a new white coat of fur came from.
Outside of this playfully creative remedy in a folklore, cattail does have actual medicinal usages in Japan in the past, as it is said there are some archaic remedies found in old documentations. One usage was for resolving certain pain-related issues, possibly through boiling or burning down certain parts into some form of concoction. Another medical usage was for bleeding issues, where the cotton from the seeds were probably used to cover up cuts. Speaking of which, there is the idea that the cattail was actually used for the purpose of relieving the white rabbit’s pain and not for regaining his white fur. Could it be that the cotton from the cattail was actually used to cover up and heal his lacerated skin? While this aligns with actual medical purposes, this idea is not incorporated in most (if any) interpretations of the folklore. This is actually a small piece of a much bigger conversation, which will be covered more in depth in the following paragraphs below.
ORIGINS OF THE WHITE RABBIT
Pinpointing where the white rabbit comes from is one with no clear answer. Exploring the origin would be a fruitless endeavor, as there are no concrete method to uncover this. On the other hand, we can look into some fun facts regarding the character used to identify him, as well as the idea of him crossing the sea.
For linguistic buffs, it’s interesting to know that the white rabbit was identified by a different Chinese character. Normally, “兎” is the character that represents rabbits, but in the Kojiki there is a unique variation for this word, which is “菟”. The difference between both characters is the top part of the character, which means “grass”. This is an old character not used in modern Japanese, but is though to be the original character used to identify rabbits. One can say that the old character describes rabbits better, as they do live out in fields and eat vegetation to survive.
The idea of a rabbit crossing the ocean on the backs of sharks is quite unique, but not necessarily the sole example of such story telling. There are other such tales in older Asian lore where animals, such as foxes and small deer, have to cross the sea using various modes of transportation. It’s possible that the author of Kojiki was inspired by other Asian lore from other countries, and incorporated this theme. But why? On another note, what does this tell us about the white rabbit? Was he native to Oki Island, or did he somehow get stranded over there? Does that mean that he’s originally from Inaba? Also, what was the reason to traveling to Oki Island? Could his travel have been a reflection of political conflict? Is the white rabbit a parallel of an important individual sent to Oki Island? Questions like these probably won’t be answered anytime soon. Interestingly, there was a work of literary art produced generations later that expands on the origins of the white rabbit with a unique spin, adding reasoning behind his journey. Since it is out of scope with this article, it won’t be discussed here, but I intend to go in depth about it in another article.
BEHIND THE “WHITE” FUR
In the modern adaption of the story, the protagonist is called “shiro usagi”, which is white rabbit in English, and this name is represented by the characters “白兎”. However, note that this differs from the original text, which includes the point that the color of his fur was never mentioned before he lost his fur. In the Kojiki, he is not called “white rabbit”. Instead, simply the term “rabbit” is used to address him, along with other terms based on the changes of his situation, such as naked rabbit (裸の兎) from when he lost his fur, and rabbit god (兎神) after he elevates to the status of a deity. The name of the book “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” is taken directly from the following line in the Kojiki upon regaining his fur after following Ōkuninushi’s remedy:
JAPANESE: 此稻羽之素菟者也 TRANS: He’s become the “white” rabbit of Inaba
Here we have rabbits that have brownish-to-beige-hue fur (left) during the warm seasons, while a white fur rabbit (right) sits in the snow during winter. Could there be any significance to the white rabbit having white fur in the folklore outside of wintertime?From Photo AC.
Although here the word “shiro” is used, which normally stands for white in Japanese through the character “白”, in the Kojiki a different character is used. This particular character for shiro is “素”, which has a meaning that leans toward “clean”, “unstained”, or “original”. An Edo period scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730 ~ 1801) reasoned that the reading of this character can be white through the same meaning. His reasoning has often been compared to how non-dyed clothing or fabric is often white, and is represented by the characters “素布”. Interestingly, the pronunciation shiro is uncommon for the character “素”, but could be a case where it’s used to represent the idea of “white”, thus allowing readers to understand that the rabbit does indeed have white fur.
On another train of thought, some of the descriptions geared towards the white rabbit is more “human-like”, as opposed to how other animals in the Kojiki are described. For example, when the white rabbit loses its fur, it is called the “naked rabbit”. The characters used for naked feels more of what you’d say to a person, as it has the nuance of meaning “being clothe-less and having a reddish hue”, similar to that of a new born baby. Some thoughts about the white fur likens it to clothing, such as him putting on a white robe. This could be because the white rabbit turned into a deity that is revered today, thus encouraging the words that describe him to be more respectful.
REAL PURPOSE OF ŌKUNINUSHI’S REMEDY
The most problematic conversation regarding the meaning behind “white” is regarding Ōkuninushi’s remedy, and what it truly was for in the original text. If we examine the white rabbit’s condition in the story, he was more than just fur-less, but was wind-burnt and lacerated from the 80 sibling gods’ prank. Seeing the injured body, Ōkuninushi’s remedy of using clean water and the cotton from cattail seeds may have only been to treat the cuts sustained and heal the body, for his intentions were to return the rabbit back to his “normal” state. Following this concept, the use of the word shiro (素) may have actually been speaking towards this, and not actually getting a white (白) fur back, if he even had one from the start.
While the application of medical treatment in the form of a remedy makes perfect sense, it does detract from a story that deals with individuals that are beyond normal. In fact, it takes away from the surreal nature that the narrative hints towards, not just in the “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” story, but from the Kojiki as a whole. It’s possible that the consensus found this idea distasteful, as there are criticism in the unclear and segmented narrative used in the Kojiki and its whole “gods” theme. In truth, reading the older, non-restructured version of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (as well as Kojiki as a whole) can be a chore trying to interpret, as the descriptions are not very fleshed out, which can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. Thus, with this idea ruled out, future interpretations steered toward the notion that the character “素” refers to “white”, and incorporated the vivid imagery of a rabbit with white fur losing it, then regaining it through Ōkuninushi’s remedy.
WORSHIPING THE RABBIT DEITY
There’s no argument that “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” has had an influence on Japanese society. With the likeable image of the white rabbit, it is not surprising to see rabbits play a star role in future stories, traditions, and pop culture. One of the more substantial result of this can be seen in the number of shrines and temples built in honor of rabbits, or that have a rabbit motif somewhere in their structure.
The most well-known shrine that is directly correlated with the iconic folklore is “Hakuto Jinja” (白兎神社), or “White Rabbit Shrine” in English. This is located in Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture, the origin land of the folklore itself. This shrine was built generations later, Here, people revere the same white rabbit as “Hakuto-kami” (白兎神), and pray to receive aid for various situations, such as the following:
Images of Hakuto Jinja, which includes the main shrine hall (left), the torii gate (middle), and statues depicting the white rabbit and Ōkuninushi no kami (right). From Photo AC.
Curing skin disease
Healing from injuries
Recover from various illnesses
All these are related to the folklore one way or the other, especially the last one. In “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”, the deity white rabbit displayed the unique ability to affect the fate of specific individuals, or people of special existence. As such, we see how remarkable he was as the go-between in sealing the fate between Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi. Thus, why lovers would come to the Hakuto Jinja an pray for a successful marriage.
Here comes the end to this article. This became a much longer one than anticipated due to finding a lot of interesting information. This is a testament on the importance of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” in Japanese culture as a whole. There are other interesting concepts based on this folklore, which are currently planned as separate articles to be shared on this blog later this year.
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, you 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.