Chiba Sana: A Warrior and Healer

*3/15/2019 – A small update on the name of Sana’s youngest sister, as well as on the text for the pic “Chiba Gekikenkai”.

For the last few months I spent a lot of time researching on a female historical figure named Chiba Sana¹. Sana is renown as both skilled in bujutsu, as well as possessed a beauty few others could rival during somewhat peaceful times in Japan. Those who train in Classical Japanese martial arts, especially in her family’s martial system, probably have heard references of her. She has appeared in several Japanese novels, as well as received big exposure in the historical drama called “Ryōmaden” a few years back in Japan. For today’s post, I will attempt to do a concise coverage on Chiba Sana’s life story, and events that she took part in.

In reality, Chiba Sana’s history is not well documented, for there is not just one source that covers the entirety of her life in one sitting. Outside of novels, much of her story is relayed in different Japanese websites, albeit in bits and pieces. Visiting websites such as “Bakumatsushin Shinsengumi“, “Sakamatsu Ryōma, Sono Yukari to Tochi to Hitobito“, “Kōfushi Kankōcho“, and “Hokushin Ittō ryu Honbu Kōshiki Site” provide good insight about Sana and significant events that took place in her life. The only troubling point out of all this is the differences in dates some resources provide. This is due in part with how dates were recorded based on the varying calendar systems Japan had implemented at different points. I’ve done my best to determine the correct date based on certain factors, for example Sana and others’ ages that were mentioned for specific events.

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EARLY YEARS

Born in 1838, Sana (千葉佐那) was the 3rd child & 2nd oldest daughter to the Chiba family. Her original name was Otome², but changed to Sana at some point. Her parents were Sadakichi, her father, and Taki³, her mother. Her siblings include an older brother named Jūtarō, older sister named Umeo, and several younger sisters named, Riki, Kiku, and Hama.

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A small section from the 3-panel woodblock print called “Chiba Gekikenkai” (千葉撃剣会) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The woman shown here is often said to be Chiba Sana. Visit here to see the entire print.

She and her family grew up in Oke Town of Yae Province, Edo (present day Tokyo). Her father opened Okemachi Chiba Dojo⁴ in the same location. Sadakichi was headmaster of the Hokushin Ittō ryū taught there, and his dojo was one half of this family style, with the other being the Genbukan dojo run by his older brother, Chiba Shūsaku. While well known for its specialty in kenjutsu, this system was also unique as the Okemachi Chiba Dojo’s doors were open for all to train in, including common folks. This openness made the Chiba’s dojo popular & sought by many the train at, including those from different dojos. Due to this and Sadakichi being employed as a retainer (samurai) to the Ikeda family, lords over Tottori Domain, Sana’s family was considered wealthy and elite.

Sana studied Hokushin Ittō ryū at a young age along with her siblings. She had great interest in bujutsu as she learned many things, such as kenjutsu. It is recorded that Sana was especially skilled in using the kodachi (short sword), that she received menkyo kaiden (mastery level) in kodachijutsu at the age of fourteen. Her older sister taught her naginatajutsu, which was quite renown due to Sadakichi’s efforts of developing it; he especially took the time to refine the techniques of the naginata while employed under Uwajima District, as well as testing it against different opponents while on a training trip in Takamatsu District. Thus, the effectiveness of this naginatajutsu is also reflected in Sana’s ability to utilize it. During her active time as a bujutsuka (practitioner of the warrior arts), Sana assumed the role as kenjutsu shihan (sword teacher) and naginata shihan (naginata teacher) and taught others her family style’s martial system.

Along with her famed talent in bujutsu, Sana is also recorded as being admired for her beauty. Bearing such a combination, she had nicknames such as “beautiful devil of the Chiba family” and “little Miss Beauty Chiba”⁵. One event that displays both qualities is mentioned in a book written by Date Munenari entitled “Kōhon Ranzankōki”⁶. When Sana was 19, she went to Uwajima Domain as a kenjutsu instructor for the Date family to train their daughter named Mako (正姫). During her time there, she had a sparring match with the soon-to-be 9th domain head, Date Munē (age 27), and was able to win against him. Other than physically losing, Munē was also defeated by her looks, as he also deemed her beauty surpassing others. In the aforementioned book it is written of him saying, “Sana is a lady of beauty that surpasses all in both noble establishments (of the Date family)⁷”.

MEETING RYŌMA

Possibly the most famous aspect of Sana’s life is her relationship with the imperial loyalist named Sakamoto Ryōma. In 1853, Ryōma, a country samurai from Tosa Domain in Kōchi Prefecture, traveled to the Okemachi Chiba dojo to further his martial arts training. Taken in as a student, he would learn Hokushin Ittō ryū. With Sana and her siblings as his seniors, he trained with them, studying kenjutsu and naginatajutsu.

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A picture of Sakamoto Ryōma. From Wikipedia.

Within a few years⁸, Sana and Ryōma would get close during their short time knowing each other. At some point, Ryōma requested from his teacher Sadakichi permission to marry Sana. He was granted this permission, and preparations were made for an engagement through a wedding ceremony. Ryōma had no gift from his family to offer. Instead, Ryōma had a montsuke (clothing that featured his family’s crest) made, which he wore to represent the bonding of 2 families. From Sana, a tantō was given to Ryōma as a gift. From there they became engaged.

In 1858, some time after the engagement, Ryōma ended his training at the Okemachi Chiba Dojo and quickly returned back to Tosa Domain to further study at a few other locations. Despite the engagement, Sana would lose communication with him for several years. Sana would see him again in 1862, when Ryōma visited the Chiba Dojo as a safe haven after running away from his hometown. While there, it is said that Sadakichi encouraged a full show of commitment to Sana from him. With nothing else at hand, Ryōma gave to her a sleeve that had his family’s crest on it. Through this gesture, Sana and Ryōma would be considered as marriage couples.

This was short lived, as Ryōma would leave with Sana’s older brother, Jūtarō, and head to Edo, where he later gets involved in stirring political movements against the Bakufu and certain political figures. In 1864, he would meet another woman by the name of Narasaki Ryō, or generally called Oryō. The 2 would get officially married in 1866.

It is said that during his absence, Sana held on to the belief that she was his wife, and was unaware that Ryōma had married another woman. However, she would learn in 1868 about his untimely death at the hands of assassins. She attempted to commit suicide, but was stopped by her father. She would keep his single sleeve as a memento and proof of their union.

MANY BUSINESS VENTURES

In 1871, things changed for the Chiba family. Sana’s father would retire as head of their household. Jūtarō, who was the 2nd successor by blood, went to work as a sword instructor for Tottori Domain. In his place, his adopted son Tochiro would become the 3rd successor, and have permission to run the Chiba Dojo. Soon afterwards, Sana and Tochiro, alongside with Chiba Shūnosuke from the Genbukan Dojo, started the Chiba Gekikenkai. Gekiken, an older form of today’s kendo, became popular for the sake of competition, and drew lots of attention. Many sword practitioners of different styles participated in the Chiba Gekikenkai, as well as those students of the Chiba Dojo. As a whole, the number of students in the Chiba Dojo grew tremendously, and the Chiba Dojo flourished for many years.

At some point, Sana would leave home and purchased an old apartment complex in Yokohama⁹. As a business venture, she acted as a land lord and earned revenue. In 1873, she got involved with a man named Yamaguchi Kikujirō, who was also residing in Yokohama. Sana and Kikujirō got married in 1874, and their union would last until 1876, where they separated due to personal issues. At the same token, she gave up the apartment complex and left Yokohama. Needing to relocate, she made contact with Tokubei, an individual who had worked for the Chiba family years ago, and stayed in his residence in Kawasaki.

While in Kawasaki, Sana began working her hand at moxibustion therapy¹⁰. This is something she learned from her father at some point while growing up. Reaffirming that she can perform what she was taught correctly, Sana put this into practice and began treating people, and was greeted with successful results.

In 1883, Sana accompanied her elder brother Jūtarō as they both went to Edo for work. While Jūtarō continued his occupation as a sword instructor, Sana gained employment as a school dormitory dean at Kazoku Jogakkō (Kazoku Women’s School)¹¹. It is said that she revealed to the graduating class her relationship with the late Sakamoto Ryōma, and showed to them the keepsake sleeve that she received as proof of their bond. On her spare time, it is said that she continued to perform moxibustion therapy, which helped to maintain her skills in this.

LONELY LIFE AS A HEALER

In 1885, Jūtarō passes away at the age of 61. Sana continued with her position as dormitory dean for a few more years until finally retiring from Kazoku Jogakkō in 1888. She made no effort returning to her hometown, for there was too much internal strife; many of her relatives struggled amongst themselves for successor-ship of the Chiba household. Instead, in an effort to make use of her talent for healing, she would rent a small building, and started the “Chiba Moxibustion Therapy Clinic”¹² in Senju, a town in Adachi District, Edo. Her business did very well, as many people would visit her clinic for treatment. Although her clinic would have to relocate at one point due to the construction of a government office, her business progressed smoothly.

Word got around about Sana’s treatment, which attracted those from far away. Itagaki Taisuke, a statesman who was also from the same hometown as Sakamoto Ryōma, paid her clinic a visit. Getting familiar with Sana and her practice, he requested that she treated an acquaintance of his who was ill. Later, following Taisuke’s recommendation, his friend Otagiri Genmei and his wife¹³ made their way to Sana’s clinic. While receiving treatment, Sana and the Otagiri couple made a meaningful connection, primarily due to Sana not having any immediate family members living with her. Genmei’s wife offered at one point that when she passed, that she’d have her body sent to be buried in the Otagiri family’s personal temple Hōdaiji located in Seiunji Temple in Kōfu City, Yamanashi. That way, her grave would be tended to regulary, and she would not be alone in the next world. Sana agreed to this, and the Otagiri couple made sure that preparations were made.

While she didn’t have children of her own, Sana did adopt Yūtaro, her nephew, as her own in 1892. Yuutaro was the oldest son of Sana’s younger sister, Kiku, who had passed away in an accident. Yūtaro lived with Sana up until 1895, where he passed away at the age of 26 due to ailing health. Although she lived alone most of the later portion of her life, she had good relations with her siblings, and kept in contact with her grandchilddren.

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Chiba Sana’s grave at Seiunji. From Wikipedia.

Sana lived up to the age of 58, where she would pass away in 1896. Her body was moved into the burial site of Seiunji as arranged. Interestingly, the Chiba Moxibustion Therapy Clinic was maintained as a family business, and was run by the remaining Chiba members well into the 1900s.

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We’ve reached the end of Chiba Sana’s story. Sana started her early childhood in bujutsu and was reputed as a strong female warrior, while in her later years she switched to healing arts to help those in need. There will be a follow up post later this week that continues with this post. It will feature some extra details that gives a little more information about specific aspects to Sana and those around her, as well as debunks some information that are even inaccurate in Japan.


1) 千葉佐奈. She is also referred to as Sanako (さなこ).

2) 乙女

3) Also called “Takiko” (瀧子)in some sources.

4) Also known as the “Ko-Chiba” (小千葉), as it was originally one part of the Genbukan Dojo, or “Oo-Chiba Dojo” (大千葉道場) located in Nihonbashi Muro Town in Edo. Genbukan Dojo was opened by Shūsaku, Sadakichi’s older brother. Since Shūsaku was older and started his dojo first, his was considered the main, while Sadakichi’s was considered the minor. This meant that admittance into the Genbukan was exclusive to more advanced, higher-skilled individuals, while those of lower skill level were sent to Okemachi Chiba Dojo.

5) Original nicknames in Japanese are “千葉の⿁⼩町” (Chiba no oni komachi) and “⼩千葉⼩町” (Ko-Chiba komachi).

6) 稿本藍山公記.

7) The orginal is written as so in Japanese, as shown on Wikipedia:

「左那ハ、容色モ、両御殿中、第一ニテ」

There is a note that explains it further:

佐那は2つの伊達江戸屋敷に出入りする女性の中で一番美人である

This refers to the women in the 2 households of the Date family, and how Munē feels that Sana surpasses them all.

8) Ryōma trained twice at the Okemachi Chiba Dojo. Starting in 1853, he would end his training briefly and return back to Tosa Domain in 1854. During his absence the Chiba family’s dojo suffered severe fire damages due to an earthquake, and had to relocate to another location not too far away. The new dojo was back up and running again, and in time for Ryōma’s return in 1856.

9) There are several theories as to why Sana moved to Yokohama, but no concrete evidence to back them up. For example, one theory is that one of Sana’s younger sistsers was living in that complex, which is why Sana was able to purchase it.

10) This is known as Tokugawa Nariaki Jikiden (徳川斉昭直伝). This a moxibustion treatment passed within the Chiba family. This method was that of Tokugawa Nariaki, land owner of Mito Domain. Sadakichi learned it from his older brother, Shūsaku, and would then pass it down to Sana and Jūtarō.

11) 華族女学校. The name has been changed shortly after its conception to Gakushūin (学習院). It is presently known as Gyakushin Girl’s Junior & Senior High School.

12) 千葉灸治院, pronounced “Chiba Kyūji-In”

13) 小田切謙明. Genmei was pioneer in the movement for freedom and people’s rights in Japan during the Meiji period.

Genmei’s wife’s name is written as “豊次”. From what can be told, the correct pronunciation is unknown because this is not a common female name.

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