Competitive Training = Adaptive Training

At least once a week our group engages in dōjō jiai (道場試合), which can be viewed as a form of competitive training. While this has the nuance of being a competition among practitioners in-house, this really isn’t the case for us, as this is more of an umbrella term for a collection of active training methods designed as a means to drive our skills, and see how our martial systems work. As a whole, competitive training assists in flourishing our skill, as well as show which areas need improvements. All these points lead to one critical principle that’s necessary to being a exemplary martial artist: the ability to adapt.

Kumitachi using fukuro shinai.

For those that train in sports-oriented systems such as boxing, mixed martial arts, kendō, and the like, and either fight competitively or just focus on the possibility of self defense, competitive training is a useful tool. In kobudō, there are schools that also utilize competitive training. Generally, it is not the main focus of transmission of a martial system, for instead focus is put on kata geiko (形稽古, practice of preset forms) as the main tool for teaching. In kata geiko, we learn to develop structure, and understand key principles of our specific style, or techniques and how they would work under specified conditions. The more we can execute these forms with the correct energy and movements, the better we can present the core essence of our martial system. This is a fine example of “art”.

On the other hand, at some point students need to be tested in some fashion to not only see their level of proficiency, but for themselves to actually use what they are learning in a “live” environment. Many forms of competitive training assist with this, such as sparring, randori, kumite, kumitachi, and so on. While there are different degrees of control that can be placed on this type of training (ranging from rules restricted areas of attack, limitation of specific techniques that can be used, to being completely free form), they all serve the purpose of conditioning us to adapt, which makes it possible to deal with stress and develop insight on how to stay in control in order to win or survive.

Perfectly executed techniques are a testament to one’s ability, but considering an actively resisting opponent won’t just allow it, we must also understand there are moments where we need to adjust our techniques, or reinforce them with other skills, in order for them to work. Just because a technique is done in a particular way during kata geiko doesn’t mean it is valid in all situations. Preset forms can be viewed as “snapshots”, and give validity to the usefulness of the technique itself. However, forms can also be viewed as “not alive”, since in an actual conflict people do not move or respond in only one preset manner. Conflict of all types represent the notion of “war”, and we generally cannot approached them in a scripted manner.

To teach students the concept of adaptation is not only done in competitive training, but more preferably during regular kata geiko itself. Let’s look at a component normally tied with this, which is technique. Fundamentally, we first learn how to do techniques in a set manner to understand its mechanics under set conditions. When those conditions differ due to an attack being at a different height, range, or even scenario, can these techniques still be applied? Realistically yes, for we have to naturally adjust the techniques where they can be applied, enabling them to adapt and be effective according to the vision of one’s martial system. This is only true if techniques themselves retain their core principles. Before this can be achieved during competitive training, bunkai (分解, breaking down the components for analyzing) needs to be incorporated into kata geiko at some point, especially when students show a level of understanding and have grasped the basic movements.

Another aspect of adaptive training is giving students the chance of failure, which is necessary for them to understand this feeling, and how to proceed forward. The idea of “losing” to another can be tough, especially when we hold onto thoughts about being a great & unstoppable martial artist. Yet this is fine, as this can be a demon of sorts that needs to be overcome. Once this is achieved, a person’s perception regarding conflict will change from being a personal endeavor to one that is in tune with everyone and everything around us. Failure can make or break a student, which becomes their own personal challenge when growing as a martial artist, as they’ll need discover that capacity to adapt, and mover forward in order to look at the big picture. Another good point about failure is that it can help to crush ego, which is a big obstacle just about all of us encounter, and need to deal with at some point.

A Japanese saying I learned many years ago that has a strong connection to the idea of adaptation is “banpen fugyō” (万変不驚). Literally, this reads as “10,000 changes, no surprise”. In martial arts, this can be interpreted as how chaotic things can become during a fight, for one’s opponent(s) may attack freely with whatever knowledge or tools they have at hand. Yet, with proper conditioning and a solid foundation, one can stay calm and handle things accordingly through adaptation, no matter what comes at you.

Nengajō: Happy Wishes on New Years Day

As the year comes to a close, people send different forms of heartfelt messages around the world. This is done for all types of purposes, whether it be reaching out & staying in touch between family and friends, or keeping good relations between businesses and customers. In the US, many usually do this in the form of holiday cards, such as Christmas cards or New Years cards. Similarly, Japan has a practice of using cards as well, which is called nengajō (年賀状). What is the story behind nengajō? In this article, we’ll explore the history behind these letters of happy new year wishes & when they came about in Japan, along with the iconic appearance that has become a mainstay. We’ll also touch upon the rules & hardships that come along with following this tradition, as well as how technology is changing people approach sending out new year wishes.

MEANING AND HISTORY

The word “nengajō” stands for a written letter used to wish good fortune in the new year. In today’s standards, this is labeled simply as a holiday card. Such practice in Japan was recorded around the later part of Heian period (794 ~1185). Evidence of this is found within the collection of letters called “Unshū Shōsoku” (雲集消息), which were of the possession of Heian aristocrat and Confucius scholar Fujiwara Akihira. In this collection, there are exchanges of messages of New Year wishes between him and others. Considering the time period and how aristocrat families primarily had access to literacy education, it is believed that the practice of nengajō started with this group. Other examples of expressing new year wishes can be also found in educational resources called “Teikin Ōrai” (庭訓往来), which were used at private temple schools starting sometime in the 1300s during the Muromachi period. In the past, the most common phrases found in these letters included expressions of fortune or wishing happiness to the recipient as Spring was opening up throughout Japan. Along with the elite families, military families would also follow this tradition, as many warlords saw it important to uphold good relations with their allies.

Here’s an opening page in a version of Teikin Ōrai from Sakamoto Ryumon Bunko & Nara Women’s University Academic Information Center that was written in 1520. The underlined section is an example of nengajo, where the message is expressing luck and plenty of fortune to the recipient as Spring is upon them. This reflects the time period when the old calendar was prominent in Japan’s past, for the new year fell on the beginning of today’s February.

In the Edo period, this practice was slowly being adopted by the common people. This is due to literacy education being made available through private elementary schools, which helped society as a whole develop with each generation. Still, the catch was that family had to be making a well enough income to afford education lessons. Education as a whole made it possible for many towns & prefectures to incorporate cultural traditions primarily elite families partook in the past. As nengajō became a growing practice among the masses, one form of transportation that became essential was the mobility of machibikyaku (町飛脚), or express messengers in English. This special service was introduced as a simple solution to meet the demands of Japanese citizens having their holiday cards reach their families, friends, and acquaintances on the exact day of gantan (元旦), or 1st day of the new year. Machibikyaku were depended on for this task up until the ending of the Edo period, as this service would be replaced by a more systematic process known as the postal system.

The postal system was introduced in Japan around 1871, with post offices slowly constructed in each prefecture throughout the country. The postal service would become fully established around Japan within the years, which from there a formal delivery service could be provided throughout the country. Citizens took advantage of this, for in late 1880s onward post offices had to handle the bulk of these holiday cards from everyone throughout Japan in the last month of the year, as postal workers had to work around the clock to ensure each and every nengajō made it to their destinations on the 1st day of the new year. This approach was adopted from how the machibikyaku were used for express deliveries in short periods of time.

DESIGNS AND FEATURES

Over the course of history, nengajō went through several visual and physical transitions. More ancient examples can be seen from resources like Unshū Shōsoku and Teikin Ōrai, where In the beginning this letters were sent that contained new year wishes in the form of one to two line greetings. Once Japan was unified by one sole power called the Tokugawa Shogunate and giving birth to Edo period in the early 1600s, nengajō retained its letter form as common people emulated what was done in the past. In some of these, illustrations were added along with the message depending on the sender’s taste. These new year letters were folded into a smaller, compact size, which made easy to carry by those who could travel, or be piled with other letters in a square box and easily distributed by machibikyaku once they reached their destination.

An example of nengajō in modern times. From Wikipedia.

As Edo period came to an end, with Meiji period taking its place in late mid 1800s, advancement in modernization would influence how people would send out nengajō. With an actual postal system in play, actual holiday cards called nenga hagaki would be made available for purchase. This version was especially well received during the early to mid 20th century, as people could go to their local post office, book stores,or specialty shops and purchase these pre-made cards. This period saw a very iconic look for these holiday cards, where on one side would be for the address of the sender & recipient and the stamp, while the other side would feature some form of illustration followed by space for one’s message.

An example of otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, with the inclusion of the card design came other features that gave sending nengajo more appeal. The 1st one being otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki (お年玉付き年賀はがき), which are holiday cards equipped with lottery numbers. These lottery numbers are issued by the postal system and give the recipient a chance to win small prizes. Take note that these cards are only purchasable from post offices, as this is one of the ways the postal service makes money. There are 2 periods in which these lottery holiday cards can be purchased, with the earliest being July, and the latest during August. These lottery cards are different from regular cards used as nengajō, which are generally made available from November 1st. Surprisingly, these lottery holiday cards became the “expected” way of sending new year wishes at one point.

The other appealing feature would be the nenga kitte (年賀切手), or new year stamps. These specialized stamps were introduced to the public in late 1935, and were designed to be placed on nengajō. Over the years, these stamps featured unique art themes to make them more eye-catching, such as having a national landmark, a symbol attached to a specific prefecture or island in Japan, a person in an attractive outfit, and to the ever familiar Zodiac animals. New year stamps are still in play today, both physical and digital stamps (more on this later).

RULES & HARDSHIPS

Nengajō has a pivotal place in Japanese society. In modern times, people took sending these holiday cards out seriously, especially for maintaining good business relations. Since their purpose is to wish the recipient a fortunate new year, they need to be prepared & sent out at on time. There are actual protocols that need to be followed when sending these out.

  1. The period for sending out nengajō is from the last week of November to around 2nd~3rd week of December
  2. Cut off time for the post office to receive nengajō is December 25th
  3. While any type of holiday card can be used, official ones issued by the post office were the expected type
  4. Nengajō had to be bought at a particular time, especially otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki

While this is a seasonal practice, just keeping in mind when to prepare for this isn’t too much of a hassle, especially when sending out personal holiday cards for family and friends. On the other hand, businesses are hard pressed with getting all of their holiday cards out at a timely fashion. Companies are expected to take seriously the custom of sending out new year wishes to everyone they communicate throughout the years, whether it be customers, associates, and vendors. This includes individual workers who are the position of working directly in business transactions.

Picture of a Print Gocco. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, there was a point where sending nengajō was a serious endeavor that equipment was needed to assist with the volume of holiday cards that was required to be to sent out. From the late 1970s to early 2000s there was a handy device called “Print Gocco” (プリントごっこ), which allowed anyone to custom design their cards with the typical designs found on nengajō. It was small & simple to use, and would allow anyone to fully design a typical holiday card in a short amount of time (specially-supplied cards from the post office generally were used). Of course, what a Print Gokko could not do was duplicate a hand written message, which a person had to do themselves. In terms of experience with a Print Gokko, my Japanese father-in-law invested in this during his years of full-time employment at a company. It wasn’t for personal use though, but instead needed to prepare nengajō for customers and business partners he interacted with over the years. Every year he had to prepare around 200 of these holiday cards at home using the Print Gocco, and making time to write personal messages based on recipient. My wife explained that was a daunting task on him, and how others in Japan had the same routine as him. This is an example of how important keeping good relations through nengajō was viewed upon throughout the years.

Another example of the importance nengajō presented was impacted on the Japanese postal system. Pressure was placed on post offices around Japan for many years, especially during the late 21st century, when the economy was at its highest point and many high-profile businesses doing well worldwide. During this period, the volume of mail that included nengajō was unmanageable during regular postal schedule. This instilled a critical end-of-the-year overtime during the last week of December, where Post Offices had to hire part-time workers, usually students, to handle the task of delivering nengajō on January 1st. This is reminiscent of how machibikyaku worked during the Edo period. As of recent, this end-of-the-year overtime was lifted off the post office, due the lesser volume of physical holiday cards they see nowadays.

DECLINE DUE TO MODERN ADVANCEMENT

Nengajō has cemented its place in Japanese culture. However, how people continue this tradition of new year wishes is changing. Advancement in technology has given the world options for ease of accessibility for many areas of interest with the introduction of computers and smart devices. People can enjoy nengajō through these methods, but in return interest in sending out physical mail has dwindled considerably.

Let’s take a look at how technology has given people options with nengajō. From the late 20th century to early 21st century, print shops, as well as online services that can be accessed on one’s personal computer, offer options to customizing and designing unique holiday cards. Through such service, customers do such things like choose font type, adjust layout, to adding their favorite pictures, including of family members. The popularity in this was due to the departure from the more traditional look of nengajō since the start of the Meiji period, to a modern standard that fit everyone’s personal taste and style.

Snapshot of new year stamps that can be purchased for use in messages, which can be used through Line app.

Technology of smartphones in the early 21st century would further give people greater ease of sending holiday wishes through digital nengajō using SMS, such as Line app. Along with one’s personal message and decorated picture, users can add cool looking new years stamps. Digital nengajō is a very cost-efficient way of staying in touch and is extremely popular way among different age groups in Japan. Of course, with this ease in communicating with both family and friends through tech, the more traditional method of “snail mail” using paper cards and physical stamps is not relied on as it once used to be decades ago.

ENDING

This concludes our look at nengajō and its impactful history in Japanese culture. As a well-documented practice, there are some really nice designs that can be viewed online of cards & stamps used within the last century. Even though there’s a departure from physical nengajō, sending them digitally is also cool, as it still retains the spirit of wishing a happy new year to loved ones & friends. As a whole, one can have fun making a comparison of this holiday card practice in Japan with one’s own country’s standards.

Kuroda Bushi: Story of the Sake-Guzzler named Mori Tomonobu

There are amazing tales of warriors accomplishing all types of great feats. Oftentimes in old Japanese tales, these individuals are painted with words that put them on the level of being super-human. This can range from having super strength, impeccable intelligence, and unmatched wit. How about we add voracious consumption of alcohol to that list?

In my 2-part series “Fame to the Spear”, I mentioned about a famous tale that told how a loyal retainer was able to drink his way to obtained a treasured Imperial spear. For this article, we’ll look into the details of this story, which is called “Kuroda Bushi” (黒田節, Song of Kuroda). Along with this, we’ll review where & when it was created, and the lasting appeal it has in the locations associated with the writer and members in the tale. There are different versions of this story, each with slight variations in how it is told and how it progresses. Some versions have more details than the other, while some have dialogue to illustrate how each characters interact with one another. The following sites are but some of the sources used as guides in writing this article:


THE FULL STORY

Artwork of Mori Tomonori. From Wikipedia.

The protagonist of this story is Mori Tomonobu (母里友信)¹, who is known as an accomplished warrior with the spear, and a retainer of the Kuroda family. He goes by other titles, including “Tahei” (太兵衛), “Tahyōe” (多兵衛), and the official title of “Tajima-no-kami” (但馬守). Among those who served the Kuroda clan, he was a skilled warrior especially with the spear, and was a member of both “Kuroda Nijuuyonki” (黒田二十四駒, 24 Cavalrymen of the Kuroda clan) and “Kuroda Hakko” (黒田八虎, 8 Tigers of the Kuroda clan) due to his loyalty and military service. Tomonobu also has a reputation for being a “sake-gō” (酒豪), which we’ll interpret as “sake guzzler”.

The story takes place around the New Year period of 1569. Mori Tomonobu was about to embark on an errand for his lord, Kuroda Nagamasa, to the lower town of Fushimi castle in the Capital (京, which is Kyōto in present-day Japan). This area was under the control of Fukushima Masanori, who was the feudal lord there. Aware of who he may run into, Nagamasa forbade him consume any alcohol while there, stating, “you must not accept any sake he offers, no matter what!”. Obediently, Tomonobu, promised not to drink any sake while out on his errand.

When Tomonobu arrived, Masanori was brought word of this guest to his town. Wasting no time, Masanori hurried to go see Tomonobu. When He found him, Masanori invited him to his drinking party, so they may celebrate with a couple of rounds of drinks. Remembering what his lord told him, Tomonobu humbly refused. Masanori made a few more attempts to invite the reluctant warrior, which finally he would accept.

Artwork of Fukushima Masanori. From Wikipedia.

Now, why would a person in Masanori’s position go out to get a lower-ranking warrior like Tomonobu to attend his drinking party? For starters, this invite was nothing special for Masanori. In fact, it was just another excuse for him to drink himself drunk. While bearing merits due to the great feats he’s achieved in battle, he also had a reputation for liking to drink sake a little too much. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to report to duty on the field while being drunk! On top of this, Masanori was also aware of Tomonobu’s reputation of being able to consume a lot of sake himself and not get drunk. You can say that this was Masanori’s chance to test if this rumor was true.

Back to the story, Masanori led Tomonobu to his residence, and lead him to a room that was adorned with many nice items, and a table that would be used for the sake party. As his guest sat down and got settled in, Masanori brought forth a very large bowl of sake to kick off their drinking fest, stating, “here, drink this”. Still on duty and concerned about the impact such an amount of sake would have on him, Tomonobu refused. He would try to entice the invite with a wager, offering to grant him anything he wanted in his room if he could consume all the sake in the large bowl. While there were some nice items around the room, as expected by someone of Masanori’s status, Tomonobu once more declined to consume the entire content within the large bowl.

At this point, Masanori was getting annoyed with Tomonobu’s constant declination, as he proceeded to taunt the Kuroda retainer by saying, “What?!? As a warrior of the Kuroda house, you are so disappointing! Even if you, a member of the Mori clan, do hold the reputation as “sake-guzzler”, you certainly have no backbone to back it up. Pity goes to Lord Nagamasa for having a bunch of wimps under his command, for he runs nothing more than a province of weaklings!²“. These words got to Tomonobu and made him very furious. Taking the large bowl, he drank everything straight down. Putting the bowl down, he exclaimed “I’ll have another”. Refilled with sake, he would proceed to drink everything again. He repeated this a few more times, consuming more than anyone could’ve imagined. Finished, Tomonobu maintained is composure as he politely commented “I will now claim my prize in accordance to your promise, which will be that spear over there”. He pointed to a large spear, lacquered in black, and boosting a grand spearhead with exquisite carvings.

A snapshot of the Nihongō’s blade (replica) on Nagoya Touken World website.

This was no ordinary spear, as it was a treasured property that passed through the hands of famous people; commissioned by the 106th Emperor Ōgimachi, it would be rewarded to great military commanders, from the 15th Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, to the ambitious rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masanori was rewarded this spear by his master Hideyoshi after achieving great feats in battle³, and he treasures this greatly. This is none other than the legendary Nihongō, and it was about to be lost due to a silly drinking bet.

While drunk himself, Masanori was fully aware of what was in stake with his treasured spear. He initially tried to protest, pleading how special the spear was in his possession, but Tomonobu refused to listen, and remain steadfast on acquiring the Nihongō, stating, “a warrior does not repeat himself⁵”. Aware that he cannot go against his word, Masanori complied and handed over the spear. With that, Tomonobu made his way out and headed on his way with his trophy, not showing any signs of being intoxicated.


HOMETOWN PRIDE VS ORIGIN PRIDE

A statue in Fukuoka of Mori Tomonobu carrying both a large sake bowl and the Imperial spear known as Nihongo. From Wikipedia.

Today, the Kuroda Bushi is known as a folklore song of Fukuoka prefecture, where Mori Tomonobu’s grave is. This version is very popular there, as it is represented in businesses (especially sake distributors) and entertainment (i.e. singers and theatrical performers). It grew in popularity thanks to how the actual episode became known in the first place. Mid to late 1600s of Edo period, feudal lords who stayed in the lower town of Fushimi castle spoke freely about the sake party that Fukushima Masanori held and how it brought the lost of his prized spear to the hands of the Kuroda retainer Mori Tomonobu.

Eventually, this tale would reach the ears of a Confucius scholar named Kaibara Ekiken, who was a native of modern-day Fukuoka prefecture. Since the Kuroda family were from Fukuoka prefecture, Ekiken saw value in this story and made it into a song called “Kuroda Bushi”. In the form of a song, it spread throughout Japan, and would eventually be associated with Fukuoka prefecture. This song, along with other tales & info regarding those affiliated with the Kuroda family, was compiled by Ekiken into a collection labeled “Kuroda Kashinden” (黒田家臣伝). This also goes hand-in-hand with the Nihongō being retrieved and placed in a museum in Fukuoka as well. With the reputation as being the birthplace of the once influential Kuroda family, there’s no mistake that the residence in Fukuoka would find it necessary to keep the Kuroda Bushi and Nihongō close to home.

Despite its obvious connections with Fukuoka prefecture, the Kuroda Bushi is also just as important in Kyōto. In fact, the actual location in present-day Fushimi District where the tale took place is a tourist attraction, which is advertised as “”Kuroda Bushi”, Tanjō no Chi” (黒田節、誕生の地), or “Birthplace of the song “Kuroda Bushi””. Historically, Kuroda Nagamasa, Mori Tomonobu’s lord, had good relations with Fukushima Masanori. Interestingly, it is rumored that Nagamasa had a house in north-eastern part of Fukushi castle’s lower town, which is where he would pass away. While possible considering the importance of Kyōto during medieval Japan, it has yet to be proven.

Another point to mention is the strong association to sake the area of Fushimi has. During the early mid 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established, major wars were over, and a movement of development was underway. The town in Fushimi was developing into a hub for business endeavors, as it was close to a port where many traders used. At this point, a sake brewing business was started, and became very successful. While this was not the 1st sake brewery, it did contribute to Kyōto’s long history of sake manufacturing. Thus, the episode of sake drinking in the Kuroda Bushi is synonymous with not just Fushimi, but Kyōto as a whole.

ENDING

This brings the story of the Kuroda Bushi to a close. It is an interesting tale, one that illustrates a different form of battle & wit⁶. Who’d guess that having an insatiable gut for alcohol like Mori Tomonobu would net a hometown folklore? Also, be on the lookout for a full translation of the Kuroda Bushi as displayed in Kyōto. This will be posted in the Translation section of this site.


1) Originally, the surname “Mori” (母里) was pronounce as “Bori”. Later in the Edo period, this name was not only phonetically changed in official documents of the Tokugawa Shogunate to “Mori”, but the kanji was also changed to a more familiar “毛利”. This may have been done to make it easier to identify the Bori clan. Nowadays, it is common to read the original name as “Mori”, but in Fukuoka prefecture, as well as in the documents of the Kuroda family, it is still read as “Bori”.

2) The actual line in Japanese: “なんだ、酒豪だと言われる母里でさえ、このくらいの酒を飲む自信がないとは黒田家の侍もたいしたことないな、腰抜け揃いの弱虫藩か長政殿もお気の毒に”

3) Fukushima Masanori’s great feat was discussed here

4) This was discussed in details here. On a side note, this event also dubbed the spear “Nomitori Nihongō” (呑み取り日本号, Nihongō taken through drinking contest).

5) The actual line in Japanese: “武士に二言は無い”

6) Did this story conclude with a happy ending? Sort of, but depends from which perspective you view it from. It’s said that after the event, Fukushima Masamori made a plea to Kuroda Nagamasa to have Mori Tomonobu return the Nihongō, including offering an exchange with a replica spear. To maintain the peace, Nagamasa also tried his best in the matter, but Tomonobu held steadfast to the validity to the promise made at the sake party, and refused. This would sour relations between Masamori and Nagamasa for awhile, until another feudal lord named Takenaka Shigetoshi intervened. Watching how bad they interacted with one another from the sideline, Shigetoshi stepped in and resolved the matter by having them make up through an exchange of kabuto (兜, helmet).

Ushi no Koku Mairi: Dark Ritual for Vengeance

Today’s Halloween here in the States, so it is time to put out an article that goes with the occasion. There are rituals and processions that one would associate with occult practices, black magic, and spells. Some are so out there that they would fit perfectly as a thriller or horror film. In this article, we’ll cover one practice that is pretty out there, and could make for a cool costume!

Since Edo period, there was an unusual practice in Japan which may have roots to the divination system Onmyōdō (陰陽道) called “Ushi no Koku Mairi” (丑の刻参り)¹. This can mean “Late Night Ritual Procession at a Shrine²“. While the title sounds harmless, what takes place is not. Records on it state that this was a practice where when some women were slighted by a cheating man, whether be boyfriend or husband, they would embark on this personal journey of revenge at the back of a local shrine to place a curse on him. The origins of this is believed to have come from old texts dating back as far as Heian period (794 ~ 1192), such as the military text titled Heike Monogatari (平家物語) and a book of songs called Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集). These have short inserts of a woman who becomes slighted by a lover who failed to keep his promise, and transforms into an oni (鬼, demon) through the will of an enshrined deity after praying to it at a shrine that houses it. With this new found strength, she swears vengeance and terrorizes the area. Fast forward to Edo period (1603~1868), cases of women going to shrines and performing a ritual in the dead of the night appear to have been a thing.

A ukiyoe depicting Ushi no Koku Mairi. The woman presented has a demonic look, as if transformed by the ritual herself. By Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

The purpose of Ushi no Koku Mairi was to put a curse on a cheating man that would bring him death. This was a means for a woman to successfully break any eternal ties with him, plus for him to face retribution. This process did take place behind a shrine, where there were plenty of trees. In advance, a tree would have to be chosen to where this ritual of vengeance would take place. The following steps would need to be prepared to make this all work:

  • white robe-like outfit with a white belt
  • metal band around or on top of the head
  • 3 candles fixed at 3 points on the metal band
  • small mirror hanging from the neck
  • a small kushi (櫛, a semi-round comb)
  • high wooden geta (下駄, clog-like footwear)
  • long white sash with one end fastened to the body or belt

Of course, the most important items that are very critical for this ritual are a small straw doll, decent sized nails, and a metal mallet.

Instruments necessary for acts of revenge.

When it’s pitch-dark outside and the designated time frame is near, the woman must change into her outfit and, with no one around to see her, must run through the wooded area behind the shrine all the way to her designated tree. From there, she will insert the nail through the straw doll, and hammer it to the tree with her mallet, screaming obscenities throughout the process. Once the woman is done, she takes all her items and returns home. This process must be done for 7 days straight in order for her desire for vengeance to come true. It is expected that the targeted man will die within those 7 days. If not, then the process was a failure.

When you really think about it, the outfit may sound and look bizarre. However, there is a purpose behind this, which is to give the woman a rather demonic look. She is to appear as if she too has turned into an ogre as she carries out her mission, much like how it’s depicted in ancient tales. Here’s some more detailed info regarding the preparations for Ushi no Koku Mairi:

  • There are no special words or chants. The individual can use any words, labels, and otherwise, curses that best describe her target.
  • The long white sash encourages the woman to run as fast as she can and keep it up in the air as she makes her way to the tree used for the process. The reasoning for this is that the white sash must not touch the ground and get soiled before she reaches the tree, or else the process will not be completed. Take note that this is a difficult feat to accomplish due to the next note….
  • The type of wooden geta the woman must wear is the one with long ha (歯), or pegs. How long should the pegs be it is not stated, but one thing to keep in mind is that high geta makes it very difficult to walk, let along run.
  • Feet have to be bare while wearing the geta.
  • The comb must be carried in the mouth while running.
  • The woman must have her hair down and not tied. She may wash it ahead of time.
  • It is recommended to have “keepsakes” of the target that the woman wants to curse inside the straw doll, such as his hair or fingernails.

As mentioned earlier, this ritual was documented. In fact, there was even theatrical performances in the form of Noh (能) plays about this in Japan during Edo period. Now, as for the particular shrines that may have been used in Japan, one that stands out is the Kifune Jinja (貴船神社, Kifune Shrine) in Kyōto, due to the fact that was used as a source of power for a vengeful woman in the Heike Monogatari. Take note that this shrine is not designated for that purpose, nor is the deity that is worshiped there.

A painting of a woman perfoming Ushi no Koku Mairi on a tree near a shrine. Part of the series called “Hyakunin Isshu Ubaga Etoki (百人一首姥がゑとき) by Hokusai Katsushika.

As with many things that are based on supernatural occurrences, there is no real evidence that Ushi no Koku Mairi actually works, nor are there cases that anyone has died due to its ritual. Another interesting point is that while wishing ill fortune is not illegal in Japan, the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi is in fact a crime. This also includes entering the grounds that belong to a shrine, which is deemed as trespassing, while hammering a nail into a tree is called defacing of private property.

CONCLUSION

Being Halloween, dark tales such as Ushi no Koku Mairi can be interesting and add an element of fun for the occassion. It is certainly one that has inspired manga, anime, and other aspects of pop culture. It does have a dark history with a theme that can be considered black magic. This ends our look at the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi. Please remember, while the attire described in this article could make for a nifty outfit, the actual ritualistic practice is not really something to try…especially running in high wooden geta late night.


1) Also can be called “Ushi no Toki Mairi” (丑の時参り).

2) The word “Ushi” is related to the Ox zodiac sign, which is the same as this zodiac year. Ushi no Koku is “Time of the Ox”, which is the time frame 1 am ~ 3 am.

Fame to the Spear ~ Part 2: Tenka Sanmeisō

In part 2 of this series on popular stories & events highlighting the yari (aka Japanese spear), we go in the direction of legends. Japan has had its fair share of people, places, animals, nature, and things elevated to a level beyond normal existence. There are several cases like this involving the yari, especially the one called “Amenonuhoko” (天沼矛), which was used by the deity Izanagi-no-mikoto (伊邪那岐命) to create Japan and the world in old Japanese mythology. These objects of legends were first passed down from word of mouth, then to being jotted down in documentations, to now being depicted in pop culture such as video games and dramas.

For this article, we will look at three special yari that are labeled as “Tenka Sanmeisō” (天下三名槍), or “Three Great Spears of Japan” in English¹. Being real spears, we’ll cover when each was created, which individuals were lucky to be the owner, and whether they survived into modern times or not. Along with this, small but unique details that add to these yari being a cut above the rest will also be covered. Resources used to write this include the following:

NIHONGŌ, THE IMPERIAL SPEAR

The 1st of these legendary spears is known as the Nihongō (日本号)², believed to have been made during the Muromachi period (1336 ~ 1573). A large yari featuring a long blade with an engraving of a Buddhist depiction of a Kurikara dragon wrapping around a sword at the base. It also boosts a lacquered wooden shaft, and is well adorned with fine fittings. By design, it is considered an exquisite weapon designed as a treasured weapon of the Imperial family. Originally it was just known as an Imperial spear. It was later that when it passed into the possession of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that he would give it the name “Nihongō”. This name can be interpreted as “No. 1 spear of Japan”.

A snapshot of the Nihongō’s blade (replica) on Nagoya Touken World website.

Here are its known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 79.2 cm
  • Spear weight = 912 g

It was considered the finest yari in existence that it was given the rank “Shōsani” (正三位), which is an official Senior Third Rank of the Imperial Court. Bearing such status, it is no wonder that it was recorded to having been passed down through the hands of individuals of high rank. The order goes as the following below.

The 106th Emperor Ōgimachi (1517 ~ 1593) is considered to have been the first owner of the Nihongō. He would at some point bestow it upon Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the 15th Shogun of the Muromachi period. For awhile it remained in the possession of Yoshiaki until he formed a working relationship with Oda Nobunaga around 1570. Being around the time when Nobunaga was rising in power, some sources say that once he learned about the spear’s origin being a treasured weapon from the Imperial Palace, he demanded it from Yoshiaki to the point where they almost went to war just for the sake of it. Other sources say that it was a peaceful exchange between the two. In any event, Nobunaga would successful claim the Nihongō. At some point, this yari was passed into the hands of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga’s successor. Finally, possibly after his impressive service on the battlefield, Fukushima Masanori, a retainer of the Toyotomi clan³, was rewarded the Nihongō from Hideyoshi.

Artwork of Mori Tomonobu. From Wikipedia.

From this point comes interesting stories that illustrate the Nihongō’s whereabouts later down the generations. First is a tale about how Masanori would lose it to Mori Tomonobu (母里友信), a retainer of the Kuroda clan, in a drinking game. From there, it would remain in the Mori family line for several generations. Between 1800s to 1900s, it would once again get passed into different hands, but in the most peculiar ways. In one instance, an individual was able to purchase it for 1,000 yen (almost 9 dollars). Later, it would once again be bought, but this time for 10,000 yen (almost 100 dollars). It would eventually be acquired by a descendant of the Kuroda family in around 1920s. Finally, a museum in Fukuoka prefecture would acquire the Nihongō, where it is said to be til this day.

In honor of this Imperial spear, many smiths made attempts to recreate the Nihongō. Not just the blade itself, but its decorative fittings as well.

OTEGINE, THE MALLET SPEAR

The next spear is an interesting one, both in name, design, and origin. It is called “Otegine” (御手杵). This name means “Tapering Mallet”. It was created during the Muromachi period by Gojō Yoshisuke (五条善助), who belonged to a well known sword smith in Shimadashi, Suruga Province. It was made at the request of Yūki Harusaki, lord of Yūki castle in Shimōsa Province. Harusaki would keep its splendor alive through his foster child, Yūki Hideyasu. He in turn would then pass it down to his 5th son, Naomoto, who at one point also inherited the Yūki surname. One thing to note is that Hideyasu was originally from the Matsudaira clan, but was adopted into the Yūki clan at a young age. Due to the ties, the Otegine would be associated with both families, as it would be passed down to a few members of the Matsudaira family in later years as well.

Two pictures, with a clear view of a replica Otegine and its shaft on the left. To the right, the blade of the replica Otegine placed on a stand next to its mallet-shaped sheath. From Wikipedia.

Out of the 3 legendary yari, the Otegine is known to be not only the longest, but also the heaviest. The blade itself was a sight to see, as the blade was long and triangular design, and featured a rather deep groove that ran up through the center. It also featured an even longer tang, which made it solidly reinforced when fitted into the shaft, and allowed the user to perform sweeping cuts along with thrusts.

Here are its known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 138 cm
  • Tang = 215 cm
  • Shaft length = 215 cm

The name “Otegine” comes from the very unique sheath it is paired with. Originally, when Harusaki had the spear created, it came with a sheath that was wider at both ends, and tapers towards the middle. This shape resembled a type of mallet or pestle used for pounding mochi (餅, rice cake), thus the unique name given to the spear. At some point, Harusaki had a fur covered mallet-shaped sheath devised. This is for decorative purposes.

An example of a tapering mallet. From Wikipedia.

While its blade was tempered extremely well and has potential of being effective on the battlefield, its sheer size and weight made too cumbersome to be used proficiently. While it may not had seen use in actual warfare, the Otegine was symbolic and showed one’s status when heading to the battlefield. It is said that it would often be brought from the Yūki castle to the commander’s camp and used like an umajirushi (馬印, banner carried next to a commander’s horse) right before going into battle. There were even occasions during 1635 when Tokugawa Iemitsu, the the 3rd Shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu, had the Otegina brought out and used as a symbolic lead during official processions by those of the Yūki clan and Matsudaira clan to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Note that carrying the Otegine was no easy feat, with or without its furry sheath, as its sheer weight was overbearing to be carried by just one person over long distances.

The Otegine’s last whereabouts was in the possession of the Matsudaira family, but tragedy would struck in an unexpected way. This spear was destroyed by fire bombings during WWII. Although it was stored away in a special containment, the heat from the fire caused by the bombings would melt the steel spear blade, and burn the shaft to a crisp. Unfortunately, this state left it impossible to repair. On a positive note, replicas were made of the Otegine in the early 21st century, and are up for display at several museums, including the Yūki Kurabikan (Yūki Collection Gallery) in Yūki City, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Kawagoe-shiritsu Hakubutsuken (Kawagoe City Museum) in Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture.

TONBOKIRI, THE DRAGONFLY SLAYER

The 3rd treasured yari is known as “Tonbokiri” (蜻蛉切り). Out of the three spears, this one is renown for its overall performance on the battlefield. Of course, credit also goes to the one who was wielding it as well — Honda Tadakatsu (本田忠勝).

Ukiyoe of Honda Tadakatsu with Tonbokiri in hand called “Honda Tadakatsu Komakiyama Gunkōzu” (本多忠勝小牧山軍功図, Honda Tadakatsu at Battle of Komaki Mountain”. The work of Mizuno Toshikata.

In the Muromachi period, The Tonbokiri was crafted by Fujiwara Masazane, a swordmaker from the Muramasa smith in Ise Province. It is a large spear, designed in the fashion of a “ōsasahoyari” (大笹穂槍), or “spear with a large bamboo grass-shaped blade”. On this blade are engraved 3 bonji (梵字, sanskrit symbols) above what looks to be a vajra-like sword engraving. From top to bottom, here’s what each symbolize:

  • Jizō Bōsatsu, guardian Buddha of children and travelers, and deity known to be compassion for those suffering
  • Amida Nyōrai, Buddha recognized for infinite light and life
  • Kannon Bōsatsu, Buddha of compassion for others

It features the following known dimensions:

  • Blade length = 43.7 cm
  • Tang = 55.6 cm
  • Shaft = 4.5 m

Take note that the Tonbokiri was not the longest spear by the standard followed during Sengoku period. When this yari was crafted, Tadakatsu was already up in years. Apparently he found wielding the average length yari abit cumbersome, so he intentionally had the Tonbokiri’s shaft shorten by around 90 cm.

The name Tonbokiri means “Dragonfly Slayer”. This is because the blade of this yari is said to be so sharp that a struck dragonfly would be severed into 2. To top this, it’s said that even if this spear were not moving, a dragonfly that perches onto the tip of the blade would also be divided into 2. These claims elevate the Tonbokiri as a devastating weapon, even if they can’t be taken literally.

As mentioned earlier, the owner of the Tonbokiri was Honda Tadakatsu, who himself was a legend in his own rights. Tadakatsu was one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s most trusted and loyal vassals during Sengoku period. A large man in stature since his youth, it is said he was a force to be reckoned with in skirmishes, as he participated in as many as 57 battles during his lifetime, and never sustained any damage. For his service, Tadakatsu was among Ieyasu’s top 16 generals, and was named one of the “4 Heavenly Kings⁵”.

While it’s not recorded that Tadakatsu’s successful career was all thanks to Tonbokiri, there is little argument that he did take it to battle. In historical records, along with Tadakatsu’s achievements due to his undying loyalty to Tokugawa Ieyasu, his prowess with the yari was noted. After his death, this yari was passed down his family line to his descendants for several generations. Today, it is in the safe keeping of a museum in Shizuoka, Japan.

THREE FAMOUS SPEARS: FUN FACTS

A good amount of info regarding the Tenka Sanmeisō was provided above. However, it’s not quite over as there are plenty more tidbits and rumors regarding the 3 yari. Below are lists of extra info for each yari.

Banner on Nagoya Touken World website promoting the project of replicating the Tenka Sanmeisou. Here, we get a clear idea of the details on these spear blades.

General

  • All 3 yari are considered ōmi yari (大身槍). What this means is that these are in a class of very long spears, especially with the blades they are outfitted with.
  • Originally, just the Nihongō and the Otegine were considered treasured spears. There was a comparison between the two based on the geographical significance of Japan predating modern times. The Nihongō was called the “great spear of western Japan” due to originating there, while the Otegine was the “great spear of eastern Japan” for the same reason.

Nihongō

  • The tang of this spear blade was unsigned. Speculations are that the spear was of the Kanabō style (金房派) of Yamato Province, but this has not been proven yet.
  • Despite its grand image, the Nihongō was not used in battle. There is one rumor that it was taken overseas during the invasion of Korea in 1592 by Mori Tomonobu, where it survived fierce battles. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence to verify this.

Otegine

  • In the Matsudaira family, there are 2 legends about the Otegine. The 1st stating that when the sheath is removed, snow flakes fall down, while the 2nd is it will rain when it is leading a procession to Edo. There is no particular meaning behind these, but adds more sentimental feelings to the splendor of this yari.
  • Speaking of rain, it is said that the sheath’s fur absorbs water when it rains, adding more than 50% of it natural weight. Those who have to carry it during a procession on a rainy day had a lot of work on their hands.

Tonbokiri

  • What adds to the praise given to Tonbokiri is where it originated from. Mikawa is known to be home of a group of smiths labeled “Mikawa Monju” (三河文殊). Mikawa prefecture is known for many weapons being produced there, which many important people sent commissions to, including Tokugawa Ieyasu. These smiths were liken to miracle workers, as their products were rumored to perform better…as if they were magical. Since the Tonbokiri was crafted by a smith who is part of the Muramasa line, this was a major selling point.
  • It is said that Honda Tadakatsu had another spear commissioned, and that one was also named Tonbokiri. It is not certain that this is true, nor the reason being supposedly possessing 2 yari with the same name.

CONCLUSION

This here concludes this article on the Tenka Sanmeisō, and what makes them legendary weapons. With evidence of their existence, they are more than just rumors leaping out from the pages of history, as they have survived over many generations and made it to modern times (albeit the Otegine). The also ends this 2-part series highlighting the yari and its value in Japanese history. Hope this was enjoyable, as well as informative, regarding one of Japan’s strongest weapons.


1) Can also be pronounced “Tenga Sanmeisō” Also known as the shorter title, “Tenka Sansō” (天下三槍).

2) Can also be read as “Hi-no-moto Gō”.

3) Fukushima Masamori was introduced in part 1 of this series, which can be read here.

4) The descriptions come from Lifehacker Analyzer website.

5) This is “Shitennnō” (四天王) in Japanese.

Fame to the Spear ~ Part 1: Shichihon Yari

The yari (槍), which is the Japanese spear, was once considered the strongest weapon. Boosting a long shaft and large blade, it was advantageous on the battlefield. Some armies used yari that was up to about 20 feet, giving the wielders a great reach that kept them safe against enemies at a distance who were using anything shorter. It was to the point where the yari became a status symbol, and only permitted to elite warriors to train in. Yet, it has been overshadowed by the katana (刀), the Japanese sword that was considered to be the soul of the samurai from the Edo period onward. This is mainly in part of battlefield weapons being banned during the Tokugawa rule from the 1600s onward, and the adjustments warriors had to make with arming themselves with the next best thing.

Looking into when the yari made a huge impact was during the 1500s, which was the time period when many warlords utilized formations that involved soldiers being outfitted with this weapon. It was also during this period where the ideal image of a strong warrior was reflected upon those who rode into battle wielding a yari, dispatching enemy troops, and defeating other strong opponents. Notable figures were recorded who demonstrated exemplary skills while bearing this formidable weapon. A popular tag that begin to emerge in the pages of history-focused books was “Shichihon Yari” (七本槍), which refers to seven warriors who had displayed great bravery on the battlefield with the Japanese spear in hand during Sengoku period. For this article, we will look at the most iconic tale that portrays seven brave spearmen, along with a bit of twists due to actual accounts. Finally, we’ll touch upon different groups that are also hailed by this illustrious title.

SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI

The most popular and renown group to bear the title goes to a select warriors who were employed under the ruling power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Here’s how their tale begins.

Artwork featuring few of the Shihon Yari called “Shizugatake Ō-gassen no Zu”, by Utagawa Toyonobu.

In 4th month of 1583, after the death of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose up to claim the rights to continue his master’s vision of ruling Japan. He wasn’t the only one who had their sights on this goal, as he would clash in a power struggle against another former Oda loyalist, Shibata Katsuie. In 1583, they would meet both commanding an army of their own and exchange blows in combat within the rocky terrains of Shizugatake in Ika domain, Ōmi prefecture. This battle will be recorded as the “Battle at Shizugatake” (賤ヶ岳の合戦, Shizugatake no Gassen).

The outcome of this battle had Hideyoshi come out as the victory. What is significant to note is that he praised and gave honors to seven warriors for their exemplary heroics during the battle, whom are recognized today as “Shizugatake Shichihon Yari” (賤ヶ岳の七本槍, Seven Brave Spearmen of the Battle at Shizugatake). This was first mentioned in the 20-volume documentation “Taikōki” written by the Confucian scholar Oze Hoan (小瀬 甫庵) in 1626.

These seven warriors are the following:

  • Hirano Nagayasu (平野長泰)(1559~1628)
  • Wakisaka Yasuharu (脇坂安治)(1554~1626)
  • Katō Yoshiakira (加藤嘉明)(1563~1631)
  • Katagiri Katsumoto (片桐且元)(1556~1615)
  • Katsuya Takenori (糟屋武則)(1562~???)
  • Fukushima Masanori (福島正則)(1561~1624)
  • Katō Kiyomasa (加藤清正)(1562~1611)

Each of these warriors were not just random individuals, but were born in military families. Receiving the typical martial training many military families offer, they had their fair share of battle experience before the event at Shizugatake. It can be said that this battle did highlight their potential even more, elevating them up in rank even during the early years of Edo period in the 1600s.

DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD

During the battle at Shizugatake, these seven individuals, wielding a spear each, are praised as being ichiban yari (一番槍). This title means not only being the first to engage with the enemy, but to do significant work that benefited the overall outcome for their side. Due to their high spirit and valor, they helped to turn the tides in the Toyotomi force’s favor of what was starting out to be a difficult battle. This was through gaining ground in areas around Shizugatake, as well as eliminating key figures on the Shibata force’s side, which caused a lost of morale amongst their ranks. Especially Fukushima Masanori, for he managed to take the head of Shibata Katsuie’s commanding officer, Haigo Ieyoshi (拝郷家嘉). Masanori received the highest reward of 5000 koku (石, stipend in the form of rice per year), while the others received 3,000 koku each.

Other acclaims that add to these seven warriors’ merits include the following:

  • Hirano Nagayasu defeating Shibata Katsumasa (柴田勝政), the adopted son of Shibata Katsuie.
  • Katō Kiyomasa defeating Yamaji Masakuni (山路正国), a warrior who defected to the Shibata side and helped with the initial success the Shibata forces had during the battle. It was through a well-timed counterattack that helped not only turn the ties to the Toyotomi force’s favor, but allowed Kiyomasa to dispose of the traitor¹.
  • Kasuya Takeyori defeating Yadoya Shichiemon (宿屋七左衛門). This event happened while fellow spearman comrade Sakurai Iekazu was locked in battle with Shichiemon. As Iekazu was injured by a cut from his opponent’s yari, Takeyori joined the fray and ran Shichiemon through with his own yari².

LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK

Just as written accounts are considered valuable resources, the same can be said for visual artworks. There are various paintings that depict the battle that took place at Shizugatake at different museums in Japan. The most well known one is a folding screen version from Ōsaka castle, which has been duplicated by other establishments. These artworks also feature the Shichihon Yari, all with unique interpretations as these warriors engage with the Shibata force with their trusty yari in hand.

Since these are visual artworks, they tend to have slight variations from the popular tale, but usually not without reason. For example, in the version from Ōsaka castle, the Shichihon Yari are located on the right side together, but the line up is different from what is usually recited. Wakisaka Yasuharu is replaced by another warrior named Ishikawa Heisuke. In another, these seven warriors are shown charging into battle together, but the difference here is Fukushima Masanori is located in another area, already defeated his target. In his place amongst the seven warriors is Sakurai Iekazu.

Why is this? Apparently, it was more than just seven individuals who were praised for their efforts during the battle at Shizugatake. There were 2 more names mentioned, which were Sakurai Iekazu (桜井家一) and Ishikawa Heisuke (石河兵助). They too are considered ichiban yari, and are recognized for their efforts on the field too. On top of this, they were rewarded the same 3,000 koku as the 6 others. So, should the group not be called Kyūhon Yari (九本槍, the 9 Brave Spearmen)?

Speculations on this evolve around the untimely deaths of both Iekazu and Heisuke, with the latter actually dying during the battle, which had his son receive the reward in his place. As for Iekazu, he would die later, but the cause is unclear. In a different 5-volume version of the Taiheiki by Kawasumi Saburōemon, it states that Iekazu died from an illness in 1596. However, in a different account, he dies 3 years after the battle due to the injuries he sustained from his battle with Yadoya Shichiemon, and shortly after, from a revenge battle with the younger brother Yadoya Jirōsuke (宿屋次郎助), where they clashed with tachi (太刀, battlefield swords), then wrestled in kumiuchi (組討, armored warriors grappling) before Iekazu successfully took his life with his knife. Whatever the case is, there is no disagreement on the fact that Ishikawa Heisuke and Sakurai Iekazu fell from grace, and are not praised in the same light as the other seven spearmen.

OTHER SHICHIHON YARI

The term “Shichihon Yari” is believed to have been invented in later times, much after Sengoku period was over and these famed warriors had passed. Due to this, it became a coin term that other writers used to speak about exemplified spear-wielding warriors during various battles. Below are a few examples.

1) Ueda Shichihon Yari
Early in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Hidetada led a force of his own alongside with his father, Ieyasu. Hidetada’s force would make their way to Ueda castle, which was occupied by Sanada Masayuki. This encounter is known as “Battle at Ueda” (上田合戦, Ueda no Gassen). During this battle, seven warriors from the Tokugawa’s sided are recognized for their valiant efforts. Their names are the following:

  • Saitō Nobuyoshi (斎藤信吉)
  • Ono Tadaaki (小野忠明)
  • Shizume Koreaki (鎮目惟明)
  • Nakayama Terumori (中山照守)
  • Asakura Nobumasa (朝倉宣正)
  • Toda Mitsumasa (戸田光正)
  • Tsuji Hisayoshi (辻久吉)

Highest merits go to Ono Tadaaki, but in a turn of events he was also punished soon afterwards due to a violation in military orders, which was considered a huge crime. While he would be pardoned at a later date, this incident does tarnish Tadaaki’s image abit.

Another surprising point about this battle is that Tokugawa Hidetada and his force lost the fight against Sanada Masayuki and his force. While noted as a defeat, it’s also important to point out that none of these warriors died during this battle.

2) Azukizaka Shihon Yari
Possibly the first real account of skilled spearmen comes from one of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns. In 1542, Nobunaga lead an army east towards Azukizaka in Nukatagun, Mikawa no Kuni. There, he would clash with the military force of the Imagawa/Matsudaira coalition. This event, the 1st of the ongoing conflict between these groups, is known as “Battle at Azukizaka” (小豆坂の戦い, Azukizaka no Tatakai).

During this battle is the first mention of what can be considered skilled spearmen that controlled the tides of a battle. Here’s the names of these acclaimed warriors:

  • Oda Nobufusa (織田信房)
  • Oda Nobumitsu (織田信房)
  • Sasa Masatsugu (佐々政次)
  • Sasa Magosuke (佐々孫介)
  • Okada Shigeyoshi (岡田重能)
  • Nakano Ichiyasu (中野一安)
  • Shimokata Sadakiyo (下方貞清)

From the Nobunaga clan’s written account called “Shinchō Kōki” (信長公記), it is said that these seven warriors were formidable in forcing the opposition to retreat, leading to victory. Unfortunately, there is not much detail about what actually took place and the feat these warriors performed on the battlefield. Note that while we know about this battle from this source, the Matsudaira clan’s well-documented “Mikawa Monogatari” makes no mention of this event. What’s even more interesting is that there was 2 battles that took place at Azukizaka, the 1st being 1542, and the 2nd in 1548. Both clans have detailed accounts on the 2nd battle, while the 1st is only mentioned in Shichō Kōki. There are a lot of speculations regarding this 1st battle, and whether it actually happened on the level it is claimed to have been.

ENDING

This here concludes our look at the yari through literature & artwork from Edo period. The tale of the Shichihon Yari offers a good look at how important and impactful this Japanese weapon was viewed during the Sengoku period, which influenced certain groups to continue to work with it even to modern times. Stay tuned for part 2, where we look at a few yari that were recorded as legendary treasures.


1) In another account, it is stated that a Hazumi Goemon (八月一日五左衛門), one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retainer’s men, had taken Yamaji Masakuni’s head.

2) Depending on the source, who is said to have killed Yadoya Shichiemon varies. While Sakurai Iekazu was outbested by Shichiemon and would’ve died if it wasn’t that he was rescued, it is said that he landed the killing blow. However, Iekazu was only able to do so after Kasuya Takeyori ran his spear through Shichiemon’s chest, incapacitating him.

The Female Leader and Strategist named Myōrinni

Today’s article features the tale about a female warrior name of Myōrinni ( 妙林尼 ), who lived during the frantic Sengoku period in the 1500s. Hailing from northern Kyūshū, she earned merits by defending her clan’s homeland at a time when it was in danger of being taken over by an invading force. In this article, we’ll look into what is known about Myorinni’s past, the events she took part in, and how she is remembered in present day.

One thing worth mentioning is that the records of Myōrinni are, like many other women during ancient Japan, not as well documented as her male counterparts. A few sources that do mention her and her acts of bravery include ” Ōtomo Kōhaiki” (大友興廃記, Rise & Fall of the Ōtomo Family), and “Ryōbunki” (両豊記, Bungo Province: Before & After). It is very difficult to come across the official sources, but fortunately there are a good number of Japanese websites that cover her story. Here’s a few sites that were helpful in writing this article:

THE BEGINNING

Looking into Myōrinni’s past, we learn that there’s not much recorded prior to her becoming a renown female warrior and leader. There are uncertainties regarding her birth father, for it is either she was the daughter of Hayashi Sakyonosuke (林左京亮 ), a Shintō priest at Oe Shrine, or Niu Kojiro Masatoshi (丹生小次郎正敏), a nationalist who specialized in a mining business. This has not been definitively confirmed. Who her mom was is also a mystery. Another mystery is her original name, which is unknown to this day; the name “Myōrinni” is a Buddhist name she took after becoming a nun. Variants of this name includes “Yoshioka Myōrin” and “Yoshioka Rinko”, with Yoshioka (吉岡) being the family name she married into.

A statue in Oita City, in honor of Myōrinni. From Wikipedia.

Why is there so little background info? A common reason behind this is because of how record-keeping were handled in the past. For instance, when it came down maintaining a family line’s genealogy chart, generally boys’ names were recorded, while girls were simply identified as “woman” or “daughter”. Women of a particular status usually associated with the Imperial court, held power such as land, or took part in an important or well-documented event would then have their names and background stories recorded in journals or diaries. You can say for half of her life, Myōrinni lived a simple life where who she was and her roots were not so significant enough where anyone needed to write it down.

Her story as a warrior, as far as we can tell, begins at a time when her husband, Yoshioka Akioka (吉岡鑑興), who was a retainer for the Ōtomo clan (大友家), and land owner of Takada villa (高田庄 Takada jō), Tsurusaki castle (鶴崎城, Tsurusaki jō), and Chitose castle (千歳城, Chitose jō). Their land was in the north-eastern part of Bungo Province (豊後の国, Bungo no kuni) located in Kyūshū, which was an island in the south-western part of Japan. They also had a son named Yoshioka Munemasu (吉岡統増), who was old enough to serve the Ōtomo clan as he helped manage Tsurusaki castle. In terms of her appearance, there is not much to go by during her youth to the time she was married to Akioka. However, there is much depiction of her later on wearing your typical Buddhist attire, which includes an iconic shawl and simple robes.

ŌTOMO VS SHIMAZU

The Yoshioka clan was a prominent one, as they were descendants of the elite Ōtomo family. They were also involved in the governance of their parent clan thanks to Akioka’s father, Yoshioka Nagamasu (吉岡長増). Along with the Ōtomo family having significant power in their own rights, they were also retainers to the current shogun of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the time, Kyūshū was divided into two, with Ōtomo clan having control of the northern half, and the Shimazu clan, land owners of Satsuma Province (present-day western part of Kagoshima Prefecture) further south west, controlling the southern half. As like many clans that sought more power through expansion, the Shimazu clan was extending their reach little by little by acquiring more territories in Kyushu, as they made their way towards the north. This includes a particular area called Hyūga Province (日向の国, Hyūga no kuni, which is present-day Miyazaki Prefecture).

In the 9th month of 1578, 21st successor Ōtomo Yoshishige commanded an army in an attempt to regain Hyūga from Shimazu’s clutches. At the time, Shimazu Yoshihiza was occupying Taka castle (高城, Taka jō) in Takagigawa no Hara (高城川原), Hyūga Prefecture with his own force. Both armies would clash head-on, which would lead to the “Battle at Takagigawa” (高城川の合戦, Takagigawa no Gassen). At first, the Ōtomo force had the upper hand, and were gaining ground against the opposition as they tried to overtake the castle. However, in the 11th month of the same year, Yoshihiza devised a strategy where his army would unexpectedly divide and surround the Ōtomo force from the east and west. Doing so caused them to flee towards Mimi river (耳川, Mimi kawa), where many soldiers including top commanders on the Ōtomo side had drowned as they tried to fend against the overwhelming odds. This triumphant victory for the Shimazu clan had this incident called “Battle at Mimi river” (耳川の戦い, Mimikawa no Tatakai). Akioka, Myōrinni’s husband, was also one of those who had died during this. Upon learning about the death of her husband, Myōrinni decided to retire herself to Buddhism. It was at this time she took up her Buddhist name, and was from this point on was recorded as so.

Facing a major victory, this boosted the morale of the Shimazu army, as they continued to make their way up north of Kyūshū, ambitious in taking over the region completely. On the other hand, things didn’t look to good for the governance of Ōtomo clan, as they lost some key members. In fear, the Ōtomo clan were able acquire aide from their master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Reinforcements were sent to help safeguard points they still had control over, but they too failed to suppress the invaders’ northern expansion. With nothing to stop them, the Shimazu force made their way to Ōtomo Yoshishige’s mainstay, Niujima castle (丹生島城, Nuijima jo).

MYŌRINNI’S PREPARATIONS FOR WAR

Munemasu, along with the younger soldiers, left Tsurusaki castle to provide aid to the Ōtomo clan by preparing fortification at Usuki castle (臼杵城, Usuki jō), leaving his mother, children, women, and older soldiers behind. Myōrinni was concerned about the safety of everyone who remained at the castle, for it was possible that the invading Shimazu clan would target them as well. Not wanting to give in to the idea of sitting idly just to surrender when the time came, she devised countermeasures to outlast a possible siege. She evaluated the castle’s strong points, as there were plenty; Tsurusaki castle was situated between bodies of water to the east, west and north, providing it natural defenses that made it too difficult for an invading army to attack in these areas. She had everyone at the castle help with setting up defensive measures to Tsurusaki castle, which included digging pits in the field as traps, and setting up makeshift alarms called naruko (鳴子, small hollowed bamboo pieces strung to a wooden board by a rope) to prevent potential infiltration attempts. Myōrinn also had everyone with no combat experience train how to use matchlock guns in order to fire at the enemies from a distance within the safety of the castle.  

In 1586, Shimazu Yoshihiza set forward a two-prong assault, one on Usuki castle where the Ōtomo army set up fortification, and another towards Tsurusaki castle, where Myōrinni and her makeshift force were preparing their defenses. It is stated that Yoshihiza sent retainers such as Ijūin Mimasaka-no-kami Hideo, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, and Shiraha Suou-no-kami Shigemasa, along with 3000 troops, to storm Tsurusaki castle. The Shimazu force could only approach from the south, which made it perfect for Myōrinni’s defensive plans to go into effect.

While the invaders charged with what can be considered unmatched might, they fell prey to the many pitfalls cleverly designed in the southern path, while the naruko alarms made it easy to pinpoint where the soldiers were as the battle-inexperienced civilians released volleys of shots from their guns and stopping them in their tracks. The Shimazu force apparently made 16 attempts to storming the castle, but each time was the same as before, which them being forced back by the near-impregnable defense Myōrinni and her militia were maintaining.

ANOTHER BRILLIANT TRAP

Despite the successful defensive play, Myōrinni was faced with an impending issue. Tsurusaki’s food rations were heavily depleted, while many of the inhabitants were becoming fatigued from the many assaults that came towards the castle. On top of this, despite successfully halting a possible invasion 16 times, it doesn’t look like the Shimazu force was ready to give up. The invaders then sent a message to Myōrinni, stating that if she allowed the gates of Tsurusaki castle to be open so that they can claim the castle peacefully, they will ensure safety to her and the inhabitants. Thinking that the safety of her people present was top priority than to risk their lives and fail in a battle they cannot outlast, she agreed to the terms. However, what the Shimazu force didn’t realized that this was a mere ploy, and that Myōrinni was scheming on how to use the situation to her benefit.

Tsurusaki castle’s gates were opened, permitting entry to the 3 Shimazu generals and their troops, while Myōrinni and the others were allowed to reside in the lower level  of the castle. For several nights, Myōrinni and several of the women in her group entertained their new guests as they feasts by serving them alcohol and the like. This allowed them to get closer to them. She noticed that one of the generals, Nomura Bitchū-no-kami Fumitsuna, became particularly fond of her, and was developing feelings for her. Myōrinni decided to keep this relation with him, and use it at the right moment to her advantage.

The Shimazu force were successful in extending their reach into Hyūga province, and invading into the lands of the Yoshioka and Ōtomo family. With much of the Ōtomo force held up in Usuki castle, they needed more help in order to contend with the large Satsuma army. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi amassed a very large army¹, which he set out to reclaim Kyūshū. Suspecting that the Toyotomi force would bring the battle straight to Kyushu to drive them out, Shimazu Yoshihiza had ordered his troops who occupied different points in Kyushu to concentrate their power in Hyūga Province. This included the 3 generals who held Tsurusaki castle.

Fumitsuna, worried about Myōrinni’s safety as the impending war loomed over them, suggested to her that she move to Satsuma Province. This way, in case the Satsuma force had lost, she wouldn’t be caught and punished for being a traitor. Myōrinni happily obliged², but not for the reason Fumitsuna believed. That night, after getting Fumitsuna drunk & wasted, she quickly wrote a letter and had it delivered to the 50 retainers of the Yoshioka clan³, which included a Tokumaru Shikibe (徳丸式部) and his family, Mukaishin Uemon (向新右衛門), and the Nakamura Shinsuke brothers (中村新助兄弟). This letter served as a declaration that they were to prepare for war against the Shimazu force.

DECISIVE BATTLE TO RID OF THE INVADERS

As the 3 generals left Tsurusaki castle with their troops as they moved southward towards Hyūga Province, they were ambushed on their way by a small army of Yoshioka retainers. This clash took place near Otozu-river (乙津川, Otozu-gawa), with the Shimazu force caught with their backs to the river. This skirmish is known as “Battle at Terajihama (寺司浜の戦い, Terajihama no tatakai), as well as “Battle at Otozu-river” (乙津川の戦い, Otozu-gawa no tatakai). The 3 generals and their troops were defeated woefully, with 2 of them dying in battle. Although Fumitsuna suffered many wounds from arrows rained upon him and his troops, he still managed to survive long enough to escape to Hyūga Province. However, he would shortly pass away from his fatal wounds.

In the Yoshioka accounts, it is written that during this battle, the Yoshioka clan personally took down the 3 Shimazu generals, along with 300 of their soldiers. On top of this, Myōrinni is mentioned to have participated as well, and took the heads of 63 enemy soldiers. As a sign of her loyalty and dedication, she had those heads sent to Ōotomo Yoshishige, who was at the time at Niujima castle. She received much praise for her efforts. As for the loses on the Shimazu side, they suffered a heavy death toll during the battle. As a means to put the lost soldiers to rest, a burial site was created near Terajihama called “Sennin Zuka” (千人塚).

Word spread about the Yoshioka’s success, especially about Myōrinni’s impressive feat in organizing their successful battle at Terajihama. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was also informed, who then requested that Myōrinni come to Ōsaka castle in person and be bestowed honors. However, Myōrinni had no interest in this, and humbly turned this down. Instead, she merely asked that she keeps her late husband’s keepsake sword as a reward for fulfilling the role as castle lord while her son was supporting the Ōtomo clan, and assisting in defeating the Shimazu clan from northern Kyūshū, which was motivated by acts of revenge for her late husband.

ANALYZING MYŌRINNI’S LEGACY

After these events, there is no more word about Myōrinni. It is thought that, as a Buddhist, she removed herself from the political life the Yoshioka clan were involved with, and went into seclusion to live the remainder of her life in peace. Today, a statue honoring the legacy of Myōrinni can be seen in Tsurusaki Ward⁴ of Oita City, Oita Prefecture. She is even elevated to the level of a saint, where some establishments in Oita City sell omamori (御守り, talisman) that represent her.

The official website for Oita City has several publications that feature Myōrinni. The following is one of them, which features her (circled in red) amongst other historical figures whom are considered heroes of northern Kyūshū. From City of Oita Offical Website.

While she has considerable fame especially in what can be considered her hometown, there is still much mystery that surround Myōrinni as a whole. For example, it seems that just as sudden as she makes her appearance during the Ōtomo family’s war against the Shimazu force, her story ends just as abrupt once her role is done. There are no clear details about she lives the rest of her life. In terms of her own combat experience, we don’t get any info on that either. Yet, from little descriptions we are told that she designed the defensive measures for Tsurusaki castle, and had all the residents there train for combat, especially with muskets. In her own rights, it is possible that prior to the events between the Ōtomo family and the Satsuma army, Myōrinni may have learned much about warfare and worked closely to her late husband. Or, she may have learned about combat even before marriage. The latter is a stretch, as usually women of a military family can gain such access to combative training.

While she is admired by her cleverness and commitment in freeing her land, we must also wonder if this was truly a one-woman show. It is not unusual for leaders to discuss & plan with others, such as a strategist. However, in Myōrinni’s case there is no mention of her working closely with anyone. It is possible that she spoke with, and was assisted by, a few of the older soldiers that were in her party. It would make sense, especially to have them help train the residence to be battle ready. Alas, as they remain nameless in the original sources, their involvement in the battles also go unmentioned. Lastly, accounts mention how she beheaded 63 soldiers from the Shimazu army. How did she go about doing this? During the battle at Terajihama? Or afterwards, on captured enemy troops? If she did participate in the skirmish, did she do so with her husband’s sword, a matchlock gun, or a naginata? It is a shame that these details were left out, but it is also not unusual. In fact, it is pretty common to find pinpoint details regarding what took place during battles for many important figures.

ENDING

The bravery and strategic genius of Myōrinni is quite impressive, as it illustrates how well-formulated plans can foil even the largest of armies. Her story has been covered over the years, both in novels and historical programming in Japanese, which helps to keep her legacy going even in modern times. Here’s hoping this article continues this trend, as it serves to introduce Myōrinni’s story to a western audience.


1) One of the figures given for Hideyoshi’s troop support is 200,000. War journals of old are known to inflate the size of armies as a means to illustrate that they were large. Thus, this figure is most likely an exaggerated number, and should be much lower.

2) There is another version of this, where Myōrinni initiated the conversation about accompanying Fumitsuna back to Satsuma Province.

3) These retainers are related to the Yoshioka-owned Takada Manor, and most likely reside there. It’s possible that this is where they were when the letter was delivered.

4) Former grounds of Tsurusaki castle.

“Dō” and its Influence on Kenjutsu Terminology

Recently I had a conversation with a fellow colleague who specializes in Japanese history about fighting between armored warriors during the late 1500s of Sengoku period. We discussed about how techniques like “dō giri” can be performed despite how much protection Japanese armor provided during that time. For those new to this, dō giri means “cutting the torso”. It is made up with the following kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived characters):

  • dō (胴) = Body, torso
  • giri (斬り/切り) = cutting, slashing

Like other kanji, dō has other uses, which gives different nuances to its core definition. For this article, We’ll look at the historical use of dō and similar words in the relations of armor, how they work in conjunction with kenjutsu. Also, we’ll touch upon the use of the word dō giri outside of the battlefield and how it became a specialty term in society.

THE ROLE OF ARMOR

The generation where Japanese warriors engaging on the battlefield decked in armor has long passed. Yet, its influence can still be seen today. Both classical and modern Japanese martial arts still make reference to Japanese armor in different ways. In the case of classical systems, those that have a history that dates back before or during Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) tend to possess many poetic naming schemes for techniques. Some of these also include armor references. This is in the form of specific parts of armor representing areas of the body. The most common ones include the following:

  • Dō = 胴
  • Kote = 籠手
  • Men / Menpō = 面 / 面類

As mentioned before, dō stands for the upper body. In the case of armor, the same kanji is used for naming the chestplate of the armor, which usually provides protection from slightly under the collarbone down to the stomach. The kote is the gauntlet, which covers the back of the forearms. Men, or also known as menpō , is a half face mask that generally covers the nose down to the chin. As armor parts designed to provide adequate protection to important areas while on the battlefield, it is interesting to note that these are also prioritized target areas in many martial systems, especially kenjutsu styles that were further developed during Edo period. Those who are initiated into the specifics about these in their respected systems understand how to approach these.

Pic of a suit of Japanese armor, which features ① do (chestplate), ② men (facemask), and ③ kote (gauntlet). From the book “Art of the Samurai: Japanese arms and Armor, 1156-1868”.

ANSWERING THE “WHY?”

Looking into these aforementioned three parts of armor, it’s interesting to note that they can repel otherwise life-threatening weapon impacts. When you really think about it, why would would armor parts be used to reference areas to attack in kenjutsu? Should it not be the opposite, where words that clearly depict what you are striking at be used instead?

One possible answer to this is looking at the period when martial systems were under development. During the Edo period from mid 1600s onward, society was moving away from raising warriors for war to becoming more business/career-minded. Martial artists focused more on opening training halls where locals and/or certain individuals from elite samurai families could train at. This required a structured approach to teaching large numbers of students, yet still making sure that the contents could not be easily stolen by outsiders. One approach was using non-general words as labels for techniques.

Non-general words ranged from terms related to Shinto, Buddhism, nature, animals, specialty occupations, to even armor parts. These non-general words were like a code, where if you weren’t taught what they meant or what they referred to according the the martial system, then a person couldn’t figure out how to do the techniques. This was especially effective for keeping the contents secret in the event a scroll was ever lost. So, in the case where dō (chestplate) is used, only those students who are taught the particulars behind the usage of this word will understand why this variation was chosen than than the common dō (torso).

Another layer of secrecy was to use different kanji to represent these non-general words. This was against those who were literate and had martial arts experience. Let’s take a look at the word kote, which normally stands for gauntlet. There are a few ways to write this in kanji, such as the following:

  • 籠手
  • 篭手
  • 甲手

Which one is used can be dependent on which region in Japan you’re situated in. So, you may use one of those three ways to refer to gauntlet that is understood in a group far out in the east, yet not familiar at all to another group that resides in the south.

To go even further would be to use kanji that creates an obscured word. In the case of kote, using the kanji “小手” was an Edo-derived variant which, to the unlearned, would not be easily deciphered as referring to gauntlet. Or, to omit the use of kanji and instead write the name in kana (仮名, phonetic Japanese script), such as こて or コテ. One more layer of protection would be to teach the specifics verbally, but have students identify them with numbers in their physical notes. This is common practice in some schools that give out mokuroku (目録, listing of techniques), which is effective in case it ever gets lost or stolen.

Modern martial arts have adopted the use of using these three terms for armor parts, which is especially noticeable in kendō. A sports-oriented martial art that incorporates bōgu (防具, protective gear) that include a men (面), dō (胴), kote (小手). They still serve as protection against the stinging strikes from the shinai (竹刀, bamboo sword) used in competitions, but also double as the targeted areas one can score a point through clean hits.

OTHER ADAPTATIONS

As Japan’s society headed towards peace & prosperity from the Edo period onward, dō and its significance in kenjutsu found further adaptions outside of the battlefield. Let’s refer back to the term “dō giri”, which can be viewed as a prime example. At some point, dō giri became a coin term for cutting things perfectly in half. This can be found in literature that involves legendary martial artists whose kenjutsu were unparalleled, or near-miraculous feats with swords that belonged to important historical figures. One popular tale involves the famous swordsman Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎) who was active during the late 1500s to early 1600s. It’s told that during his youth, Ittōsai not only defeated a group of thieves attempting to steal from a shrine he was staying in, but expertly sliced in half one of the thieves who had hidden in a barrel used for ritual practices.

A depiction of suemonogiri, performed on a still living criminal. From Wikipedia.

Outside of literature, the word dō giri became a means to measure how sharp a sword was, like a counter. This was an old practice called tameshigiri (様斬り). Different from the tameshigiri (試し斬り) where one develops their sword skills by cutting rolled tatami mats, which is popularly practiced by many kenjutsu schools around the world, there was a practice of tameshigiri that involved cutting the dead bodies (in some cases also live bodies) of criminals. Around the 1500s, bladed weapons like swords and spears were commissioned for sharpness testing to a magistrate who would take the role of a tameshimono (様者). The bodies of criminals who were sentenced to death were kept, which where the magistrate can later perform tameshigiri. A version of this was suemonogiri (据え物斬り), where one to several dead bodies were piled on a mound of dirt, and the magistrate would attempt to slice through the torso(s) in one shot. Depending on how many that were successfully cut through would determine the grade for the sword. If only one body was divided, then it would be a hitotsu-dō (一ツ胴), while three bodies would be mitsu-dō (ミツ胴). The highest grade recorded is seven bodies, which is nanatsu-dō (七ツ胴).

The practice of tameshigiri continued into Edo period, where the Tokugawa bakufu commissioned skilled swordsmen to test specially crafted swords. This was not only done on dead bodies, but at times for executing live criminals. This would extend further from just dividing the torso in one stroke, but rating how well a sword would cut through other parts of the body, such as the neck and the leg. The performance of these swords would then be recorded on the nakago (中子, tang) of the sword. Renown individuals to perform as otameshi goyō (御様御用, distinguished test cutters) for the Tokugawa bakufu come from the Yamada family, where each generation adopted the title “Asaemon”.

CONCLUSION

Understanding history behind words can give a clear glimpse on how they influence the changes in society over the generations. This is true for dō (胴), which has its own unique development in different walks of life. Stay tuned for more of this, as there will be a future post that covers many of the famous depiction of the word “dō giri” from Japanese literature.

Kurai Dori: Taking Control through Skilled Footwork

Last Thursday, Chikushin Group held an event called Shochūgeiko (暑中稽古), which is a special training done during the hot days of summer. It took place on the beach in full training attire, which proved to be challenging. Due to the differences in training grounds, we were able to work on certain principles we would’ve normally not get a chance. One of these was on the lesson of kurai dori. For this article, we’ll look into the meaning behind this word, how it applies to martial arts, and how we approached this during this special training on the beach.

Kurai dori (位取り) means taking control over a situation through an advantageous position. This is a form of lesson that is found in many Japanese martial systems. It is easier to analyze this through a 1-on-1 scenario, where one person takes the high ground on uneven terrain, or has the sun behind their back. This directly influences the type of kamae (構え), or posture, one uses, accordingly. When both sides are on even grounds in the conflict, then it’s a matter of skill in one’s footwork and movement when fighting is unavoidable. This was part of the theme for our event on the beach, which made it an invaluable lesson for those who took up this challenge.

For example, one segment in the event involved running on the sand. While it sounds simple, it can feel sluggish as most people will drive their force downward into the sand. This makes us sink down abit while we won’t move as fast as we’d like to. However, to really move nimbly requires ability to carrying one’s weight in a way where each step becomes lighter. We put this to the test through drills where two people then run at each other with sword in hand, and the defender needed to evade an overhead cut from the opponent in order to successfully counterattack. Understanding the principle behind carrying one’s weight, which we call ukimi no ho (浮身の法) in our group, is vital for this.

Another point we explored involved taking the initiative while running towards an opponent with a sword thrust. For one was the idea of initiating this slightly beyond our cutting range while low profiling. If done correctly, we will connect with our opponent before he/she can strike us with their own sword. We looked at a few ways to make this safe for us in case our opponent is skilled enough to dodge. One was to use momentum from our run to keep going, for if we missed, we would be able to avoid any counter attack by running by and making distance that would be safe to stop and turn around to once again face the opponent. The other would be to dig our feet into the sand while initiating the thrust, which will not only ground us so we can stop early, but puts us in a position where we can quickly re-adjust and spring upon our opponent with a follow up attack.

In short, the concept behind kurai dori has many layers based on the type of area, type of ground, and so on. Exploring this while on the beach was very fruitful, as our footwork and movements where greatly influenced by the conditions one faces while on sand. Looking forward to future events that allow practitioners to getting a different perspective to the lessons we normally train, but from a different environment.

Bokuden and his Live Lesson regarding the Naginata

Today’s post is a continuation of reviewing the Hyakushu, a gunki (軍記, military documentation) written by the famed Tsukahara Bokuden. Whereas in a previous post we went over various rules out of the 100 entries found in the Hyakushu, this time we look at 3 that focus on a particular theme. Along with this, will be a real life story of Bokuden that serves as an example of, through experience, how advice can be passed down with merit.

RULES ABOUT THE NAGINATA

The 3 rules we will look at are #35, #36, and #37. These 3 rules share a common theme regarding on the weapon known as the naginata (長刀 or 薙刀, glaive). Here’s the rules both in Japanese, and their English translations provided by myself. The source being used is the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓):

Rules #35, 36, and 37 from the Hyakushu, circled in red.

ー、長刀は二尺にたらぬほそ身をは持は不覚の有と知るへし(三十五)

ー、手足四つ持たる敵に小長刀持て懸けるとよもや切られし (三十六)

ー、太刀かたな持たる敵に小長刀しすます時に相討ちとしれ(三十七)

  • It is a disadvantage to wield a naginata with a blade less than 2 shaku (2 feet) (#35)
  • You will certainly not get cut down by an enemy who possesses many skills, wielding a konaginata (#36)
  • Understand that you, despite how skillful you are, will end up in a mutual kill against an enemy who wields a tachi or katana (#37)

In regards to #35, the standard length of the blade found on an ōnaginata (大長刀, a long-bladed glaive) in the past was 2 shaku 3 sun (87.4 cm) or greater, while anything less would be a konaginata (小長刀, a short bladed glaive).  Here, Bokuden implies that any naginata that has a blade less than 87.4 cm, is a konaginata, which he does not have a favorable opinion on.

For #36, one should not worry about an enemy wielding a konaginata. No matter how skillful he/she is, or tricks they may use, because their reach is short it will not be a problem to defeat them. Naginata’s advantage is reach, but making it shorter, especially the blade, nulls that advantage.

As for #37, Bokuden advises against using a konaginata. It is a continuation from both #35 and #36, except that now he cautions skilled warriors that no matter how good you are, at most you will end up committing ai-uchi (相打ち), where both fighters die at the same time delivering killer blows. It can be said that Bokuden puts more faith in kenjutsu than naginatajutsu.

Note that this is just the opinion of one individual, and these rules are not written in stone that the konaginata is an ineffective weapon. This is probably based on his experience with the weapon, or what he’s seen by those who so happen to use this.

A version of Tsukahara Bokuden’s duel against Kajiwara Nagato, found in the book “Budō Gokui” (武道極意)

BOKUDEN VS THE NAGINATA SPECIALIST

Speaking of experience, there are many recordings in regards to Bokuden’s real life experiences in combat, many of them related to duels and fights. One particular story that will be covered here is his bout against a specialist who fights with a konaginata. Note that many sources such as “Nihon Bugei Shoden” (日本武芸小伝) and “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史) reference this story, sometimes in great details, and other times not. Below will be the story as full and accurate as possible. Take note that there are some graphical descriptions in the text, so please read with caution.


During Bokuden’s kaikoku shugyō (廻国修行, journey around Japan for the sake of training and employment), he came across a warrior by the name of Kajiwara Nagato (梶原長門). Through much boasting, Nagato was making a name for himself as a renown fighter with the naginata. He did so by performing feats of leaping into the air, and coming down with a strong strike fast enough to cut down birds such as kiji (雉子, green pheasants) and kamo (鴨, ducks). Nagato also claimed that no warrior has yet to either avoid or withstand his power strikes, as many of them, whether they be swordsmen or spearsmen, were slain in mortal duels. Furthermore, he made it known that he used a peculiar method of first cutting off his opponent’s left hand, then the right hand, before finally finishing them of by cutting clean through the neck. Learning about these points, Bokuden was certainly up for facing against such an individual. So he challenged Nagato to a duel to the death, who willingly accepted.

When the day came, the two held their duel at the lower area of Kawagoe in Bushū (present-day Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture). While Bokuden wielded a tachi (太刀, an older word for sword), Nagato used a konaginata, with the blade length about 1 shaku 5 sun (57 cm). Bokuden’s disciples were there to bear witness¹. At the start of the duel, Nagato leapt at Bokuden like a bird taking flight², and swung his konaginata down at him. Bokuden evaded the attack, with the konaginata’s blade cutting into the ground. Instantly, Bokuden countered with a severe blow, as he sliced Nagato’s face in two.


ANALYSIS

Depending on the source, Bokuden is usually depicted as expressing the weaknesses of the konaginata to his disciples right before the fight. If stated simply, he mentions that having a long shaft, yet a short blade for a naginata gives no advantage no matter how fast the wielder moves or tricks used. Whether or not he actually spoke such info right before the duel is hard to prove, but for the sake of the readers this could’ve been included to further enhance his views regarding the konaginata. In regards to Nagato’s merit, Bokuden also expressed his opinion about him not being that great, as cutting down wild birds or inexperienced warriors was nothing that impressive. In some sources this conversation is short and just focuses on the size disadvantage the konaginata has, while in others it is quite long and detailed.

In some sources, credit is given to Bokuden for incorporating psychological warfare. As an example, from the tales coming from Kashima City, there is one that states Bokuden lecturing his disciples about the weaknesses of the konaginata…while his opponent was in ear shot. This made Nagato furious, so when the duel started he fought recklessly, which made him lose rather easily. In another source, it is written that Bokuden brought to the duel a much longer tachi than what most would use at the time. On one hand, this supports his views on always giving yourself the advantage with a longer weapon, which can be seen in rule #20 of his Hyakushu regarding swords³.

CONCLUSION

In ending, Tsukahara Bokuden is an individual portrayed as having a great amount of experience in warfare. His opinion on weapons like the naginata is based on his personal experiences, especially versus those who’ve used them against him in duels. As mentioned before, there are many stories of his life experience, with some that can be compared to the Hyakushu. I may revisit the Hyakushu again, using a different story of Bokuden’s to reference the lessons expressed in a few of the rules.


1) In various sources, the type of bird Kajiwara Nagato is compared to ranges from a tsubame (燕, swallow) to mozu (鵙, shrike). These birds are usually admired for their grace or speed in flight.

2) Unlike other warriors who had to tough it out during their training journeys solo, Bokuden was generally accompanied by a group of individuals, from assistants to personal students. Credit goes to him coming from a rather wealthy family, thus the ability to have support while far away from home.

3)This can be reviewed in a previous post here.