Kaikoku Shugyo

A topic I wish to touch upon deals with a Japanese word “kaikoku shugyo1”. It is not a common word heard about in English. What does this word mean, and what does it pertain to? Here’s an explanation about it, followed by a few examples of it utilized in Japan’s history.

Woodblock print depicting  Kaikoku Shugyo by Kunisada Utagawa
Woodblock print depicting different individuals on a Kaikoku Shugyo. By Kunisada Utagawa. Property of Museum of Fine Arts

Kaikoku shugyo (廻国修業) translates as “going on a warrior’s expedition throughout the land for the sake of refining one’s skills”. Or, can simply be stated as a “training journey”. A practice during the Sengoku Period2 that became more common during the peaceful times of early Edo Period3, many warriors would pick up and leave their homes and families for long periods of time traveling throughout the different areas in Japan engaging in duels, military-driven services, and small-scale conflicts. Some were out for fame, either by dominating others as a means to demonstrate the strength of their skills, or by expanding their system through gathering new students and opening up more dojos around the lands under their name. Others did this to test their own system, and refining it by learning from masters stronger than them, creating the process of adding new techniques to replace ineffective ones. Then there are those who searched for work to raise their status, whether it be an in house kenjutsu teacher or a military advisor.

Those committing themselves on a kaikoku shugyo sacrifice the comfort and ease of a normal lifestyle in their hometown where things are safe and familiar, for a very harsh one on unfamiliar roads filled with fatigue, lack of nutrition, malnutrition, illness, and the constant danger of being robbed or attacked. More than just a test of skills, warriors condition themselves mentally and physically on these journeys, testing their willpower to survive the extreme elements, rugged lands,  and the fate of being cut down in mortal combat. Those who do return back to their homes are said to be different: tempered in body, sharpened in skills, and enlightened.

Statue of Tsukahara Bokuden
Statue of Tsukahara Bokuden, within Kashima City. From Wikipedia

A famous warrior renown for his adventures through kaikoku shugyo goes by the name of Bokuden Tsukahara. Bokuden was born in 1489 as the second son of the Yoshikawa family, who resided in the Hitachi Province of mainland Japan. His father, Akikata Yoshikawa, was a Shinkan (Shinto Priest) of the Kashima Shrine, as well as one of the four Karo (Chief Retainers) to the powerful Kashima family of the Kashima Castle. After his 5th birthday, Bokuden was adopted by Yasutomo Tsukahara, and resided in the Tsukahara residence from there on.

At a young age, Bokuden was exposed to the divine swordplay of the Kashima Koryu4 through his father, and later, the famous Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto ryu5 from his adopted father. Although he grew up in a wealthy environment, Bokuden left it behind after his 16th birthday and embarked on his 1st kaikoku shugyo. The purpose of this was to increase his abilities through challenging other martial systems, as well as to make known the sword style of Kashima throughout Japan. In his lifetime, he left on three kaikoku shugyo, each one lasting over 10 years. When he returned home, he brought back with him new students, as well as strategies & knowledge to expand the sword skills of Kashima no Tachi.

Bokuden Tsukahara pitted his might against other swordsmen in arranged matches with bokuto6 , as well as dueling with shinken (live swords) to either maim or kill. Not all of his opponents wielded swords; in written records of his feats during one of his kaikoku shugyo is one where he defeats Nagato Kajiwara, a warrior famous for winning duels using a naginata7 against swordsmen with ease. At the start of their duel, Bokuden cuts off the blade below the tsuba8 of his opponent’s konaginata9 in one sweep of his tachi10, and claimed victory. Through understanding the strategies of warfare, Bokuden dispelled the belief to those present that the longer the reach of the weapon the most advantageous.

Another incident demonstrating Bokuden’s ability to adapt and survive took place at the estate of Takayori Rokkaku11, where he attended a banquet. After a night of drinking, Bokuden was making his way to the entrance of the estate to head home carrying his two swords in his belt (a tachi and a wakizashi12), when suddenly a swordsman who, previously losing to Bokuden in a match where bokuto were the weapons of choice, jumped out from behind a folding screen close by and rushed towards him brandishing a drawn sword. Leaping back to avoid the sudden assault, he drew his wakizashi and cut his assailant down. When questioned by a witness why he chose his wakizashi to protect himself instead of his tachi, Bokuden answered with the following, quoted in Japanese:


Which translates to “It was faster to utilize the wakizashi since my enemy was very close upon me”. His situational awareness, along with clear judgment on what is required to handle life & death situations is what earned him the title “Kensei”14.

Events like the ones Bokuden Tsukahara, along with many other warriors, faced were commonplace in the past. Eventually, this practice of kaikoku shugyo took a severe decline when the ruling Tokugawa Bakufu banned all forms of mortal combat through live weapons. Since staking their lives for the sake of martial superiority was forbidden, there was a gradual shift towards more formally established dojos, the development of safer ways of competition through items such as shinai15 and padded body armor, and the development of new martial systems to fit in more with the increasing peaceful times in Japan.

There are many written books and documents on the feats of warriors who made their name and fame in Japan history through kaikoku shugyo in Japanese, as well as in English.

1) An equivalent to this word that is more commonly found in English is Musha Shugyo (武者修行)

2) (1467 – 1603) The period where Japan was under constant military conflicts as different various feudal lords fought for unification of and complete control over the lands

3) (1603 – 1868) The period where the Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan and ushered in peace through strict laws

4) “The Classical Martial Arts of Kashima”

5) Considered to be one of the oldest martial systems in Japan. Regarded highly for exemplifying the true spirit of classical bujutsu (martial arts).

6) “Wooden sword”. Another name is bokken, with the same translation.

7) “Halberd”, or “Glaive”

8) “Sword Guard”

9) Type of naginata with a smaller blade and shorter shaft

10) A long battlefield sword predating the katana

11) A feudal lord residing in Oumi Province (present day Shiga Prefecture), who is famous for participating in the Onin war

12) A shorter sword that usually is paired with a longer sword

13) From the book “Nihon Kenkaku Retsuden” written by You Tsumoto

14) “Sword Saint”, in reference to a swordsman whose skills are above the rest

15) “Bamboo sword”

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