Deciphering the Story “White Rabbit of Inaba Country” ~ Part 1

In accordance to this year’s Zodiac animal theme, I’ve looked into stories from Japanese folklore that deals with a rabbit and its inspiring traits. I’ve decided to go with a classic known as “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (因幡の白兎, White Rabbit of Inaba Country), one that is found in one of Japan’s oldest literature named “Kojiki” (古事記) . While deemed on the mythological side, the Kojiki is a valuable source that is tied to the Imperial line and is integral to Japanese culture, as some aspects of it is thought to tell of real-life social events, albeit coded. As for Inaba no Shiro Usagi, originally it is not a stand-alone tale in the Kojiki, but has since been sectioned out to act as a folktale for little kids since modern times. While it is a simple tale about a white rabbit’s journey, take note that it is driven by past spiritual and superstitious views & beliefs, so there are a bit of hidden lessons to be found, which some will be covered in a follow-up article.

Image of a rabbit jumping, an essential skill used in the story “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”. From Illust-AC.

The original text found in the Kojiki is written in very old Chinese-structured Japanese, which makes it a challenge to read even for native speakers. Plus, the writing was much shorter and concise. Fortunately, there are numerous publications of Inaba no Shiro Usagi that feature updated, easy-to-read Japanese text that are also fleshed out to capture the full picture of the events in the story, which expands it a good deal. The version that will be used for this article comes from the following site.

For presentation, the Japanese text will be retained, and will be followed by my English Transliteration.


昔々、隠岐の島に住む1匹の白兎が、ある姫神に会いたいと思い因幡の国へ行きたいと考えていました。しかし、隠岐の島と因幡の間は海でとても自力では渡れません。

そこで白兎はワニザメをだまして向こう岸に渡ろうと考え、『ワニザメさん、君たちの仲間と僕たちの仲間とどちらが多いか比べてみようよ』と提案し、 ワニザメを因幡の国まで並べさせ、その上をピョンピョンと渡っていきました。

A long time ago, there was a single white rabbit on an island called Oki. He wanted to go to Inaba Country, for he wanted to meet the Goddess there. However, he had no means to do this, for there was a vast sea between Oki island and Inaba Country.

As a resolution to his situation, the white rabbit had an idea about tricking some sharks and using them to cross the sea. He called out to a shark and proposed the following,

“Hey shark, let’s compare who has more companions, me or you.”

The white rabbit then had the sharks line up all the way to Inaba Country, and was able to cross the sea by jumping nimby along the top of their backs.


そしてもう少しで向こう岸に着こうというとき、あまりの嬉しさについ、『君たちはだまされたのさ』と言ってしまいました。 それに怒ったワニザメは、白兎の体中の毛をむしり取り、あっという間に丸裸にしてしまいました。

丸裸にされた白兎がその痛みで砂浜で泣いていると、そこに大国主命の兄神様が大勢通りかかり(大国主命の兄神達は、隣の因幡の国に八上姫という美しい姫がいるという噂を聞きつけ、 自分のお嫁さんにしようと、因幡の国に向かっている途中でした)、 面白半分に『海水で体を洗い、風に当たってよく乾かし、高い山の頂上で寝ていれば治る』と言いました。 白兎が言われたとおりにしてみると、海水が乾くにつれて体の皮が風に吹き裂かれてしまい、ますますひどくなってしまいました。

“Hah, I tricked you guys!”

Brimming with happiness, the white rabbit blurted this out just as he was about to arrive on the coast of Inaba Country. Infuriated, one of the sharks grabbed hold of the white rabbit’s fur with its teeth and pulled it right off, leaving him hairless.

The hairless white rabbit was in such pain from this, as he was left crying in the sand. Just then, a large mass of gods, who were the 80 sibling gods of Ōkuninushi no kami (大国主命), came walking by. Similar to the rabbit, they too traveled to Inaba from a neighboring country after hearing about the unrivaled beauty of a princes named Yagami-hime (八上姫), with their intention being that one of them succeeds in taking her hand and making her their wife. Hearing the plight of the sobbing rabbit, the sibling gods, half-interested, shared with him the following.

“To cure your ailment, wash your body in sea water, then allow your body to be blown-dry in the wind, and finally sleep at the top of a mountain.”

As instructed, the rabbit drenched his body in sea water, and blow-dried his skin in the wind. However, he was unaware that this remedy was all but a lie, for with each step in this painful process, the more it became extremely excruciating to bear.


A creative interpretation Ōkuninushi no kami holding a cattail reed, which is key to the hairless white rabbit regaining its white fur back. From Illust-AC.

あまりの痛さに白兎が泣いていると、兄神達の全ての荷物を担がされて大きな袋を背負った大国主命が、兄神達からずいぶんと遅れて通りかかり、白兎に理由を尋ねました。 そして、『河口に行って真水で体を洗い、蒲の穂をつけなさい』と言いました。

白兎がその通りにすると、やがて毛が元通りになりました。 たいそう喜んだ白兎は『八上姫は兄神ではなく、あなたを選ぶでしょう。 あのような意地悪な神様は、八上姫をお嫁にもらうことは出来ません』と言い残し、自らが伝令の神となって、兄神達の到着より前に、この事実を八神姫に伝えたのでした。

As the white rabbit sat crying once again due to this extreme pain, a god by the name of Ōkuninushi no kami walked by, carrying a large baggage that contain the personal items of the sibling gods. He was a good distance from the sibling gods, as he followed behind the group at a slow pace. Ōkuninushi inquired the weeping white rabbit the cause of his plight, and listened to all that had transpired.

“Please go wash your body in fresh water at the mouth of the river, then rub the furry fruiting spikes of the cattail reeds all over your body.”

Ōkuninushi gave the white rabbit advice on how to solve his situation.

The white rabbit did as he was told, and sure enough his body once again was covered in fur. In return, the white rabbit, elated with joy, had this to say to Ōkuninushi,

“Mean-spirited guys like your brother gods will never be able to take Princess Yagami-hime as a wife. Instead, she should choose you.”

With that, the white rabbit transformed into a messenger god, and was able to quickly travel to Yagami-hime & inform her the situation before the sibling gods reached her place.


これを知らない兄神達は、先を競って姫に結婚を申し込みましたが、姫はそっけなく対応し、『私はあなた方ではなく、大国主命の元へ嫁ぎます』と言い、兄神達を追い返したのでした。

以上があらすじです。このように、大国主命は優しさも兼ね備えており、そんなところも女性の心をしっかりと掴むのかもしれません。

Unaware of what the white rabbit had done, the sibling gods gathered in front of the princess, and they all asked for her hand in marriage. With no hesitation, the princess responded to the request.

“I offer my hand in marriage to Ōkuninushi no kami, and not to any of you.”

In saying this, she sent the sibling gods out from her presence.

It can be said that through Ōkuninushi no kami’s kindness, and coupled with his unique trait of catching the heart of a woman, that this is how his journey was able to come to an end.


Page containing the tale “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”, from a copy of Kojiki in its original writing. From NDL Digital Collections.

This is how the story Inaba no Shiro Usagi ends. As mentioned before, this tale is a small part of a bigger story surrounding Ōkuninushi no kami’s journey. Still, in a short narrative we see a white rabbit use its cleverness & speed to accomplish a difficult task, as well as transform into a godly creature to repay another for his kindness. Stay tuned for part 2, which will be an in-dept analysis of the story and its unspoken meanings, as well as some back story in its interpretation over the years.

Yoshitsune & Benkei’s 1st Encounter: Tracking down Facts out of Lore

Today’s article is sort of a pick up from the last one, where I spoke about Musashibō Benkei’s ōnaginata being a cultural asset. To reiterate, cultural assets are things that have value in a country’s culture, but may not necessarily match up in the form one would expect. Let’s look at this from another angle, taking a popular story of how the heroic Minamoto no Yoshitsune met the barbaric Musashibō Benkei. Though their first encounter was violent, they became loyal partners with Benkei becoming a retainer to Yoshitsune. Through this, a bridge claimed as where the encounter took place has become famous, and quite an important landmark that many individuals (both local and international visitors) travel to see.

Artwork depicting Yoshitsune (right) dueling with Benkei (left) on a bridge, entitled “Yoshitsune Ichidaiki no uchi Kyukai Gojō no hashi ni” (義経一代記之内 九回 五条の橋に). By Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重).

For stories of the past that seem bigger than life, do they always add up as being accurate? For today’s article, we will look at the specifics of this legendary story & how they play out in the geographical setting of Kyoto, then delve into this particular bridge in question and see how much it actually ties in to the fame it gets.

THE LORE

The backdrop of this popular lore is set in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period, and begins in the rich Capital city known today as Kyoto. For about a year, the warrior monk Benkei would approach anyone bearing a sword as they attempted to cross a particular bridge, and take it by force by challenging them to a fight. He was always successful, since he stood at a monstrous height and was equally as strong bearing a large naginata, for many individuals were powerless against him. However, this would come to an end when he met a small boy named Ushiwakamaru, who would later be renown under the name “Minamoto no Yoshitsune”¹.

Here’s a popular children’s folklore song based on the encounter, called ”Ushiwaka”, which sums up how the popular lore of the encounter plays out. To the left is the original Japanese text, while to the right is my English transliteration.



This folklore sets the acclaimed image of two warriors battling out on a bridge, which in turn contributed to a setting like this being a popular one for duels in many stories even today. While this lore is simple & easy to understand, it’s also surprising to know that this is not how their encounter took place! For the full story, we have to review the original text, which is called “Gikeiki” (義経記), or “The Records of Yoshitsune” in English. The Gikeiki is stated to be a very old war chronicle by an unknown author(s), which was compiled into 8 volumes during the Muromachi period in the 14th century, shortly after the real-life feud between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan in the 12th century. Through this, not only do we learn that the fight took place in not one, but two locations, it’s also revealed that either one was not mentioned to be a bridge directly².

GOJŌ TENJIN SHRINE

In the Gikeiki, the encounter between Yoshitsune and Benkei can be found in the 3rd volume, recited in a chapter entitled, “Benkei rakuchū nite hito no tachi wo ubaitoru koto” (弁慶洛中にて人の太刀を奪ひ取る事, While on a bridge, Benkei takes other people’s swords). Here, they first meet each other not too far away from the Gojō Tenjin Shrine. The specifics of this is Benkei departed from this shrine and headed southward towards a pathway with earthen walls on either side within a residential area, and waited at the end of a waterway for his 1000th victim to walk along this route. He then caught a glimpse of Yoshitsune walking along this route as he crossed a waterway³, playing a flute. This route is significant as it was used by those who traveled to pay their respects at the Gojō Tenjin shrine, which is a real place located in the lower city area of Kyoto.

Pic of Gojō Tenjin shrine. From Wikipedia.

Is the Gojō Tenjin shrine where the famed battle takes place? Not really, as it is only half of it. According to the Gikeiki, after a brief scuffle, Yoshitsune demonstrated unexpected skills which would put his opponent on the back foot. Not prepared for the smaller Yoshitsune to be so overbearing, Benkei runs away.

KIYOMIZU-DERA

The final confrontation between Yoshitsune and Benkei concludes the following day. However, it did not take place on the Gojō bridge. Instead, the two warriors would meet and settle their dispute in front of a large gate of the temple called “Kiyomizu-dera”. This temple, too, has a claimed long history and still exists today in the Higashiyama District of the city area in Kyoto. Take note that as both Gojō Tenjin shirne and Kiyomizu-dera are in the city area, they aren’t too far away from each other. Distance-wise, they are about 30 mins apart by foot, separated by the Kamo river (more on this later).

Pic of the westward gate of Kiyomizu-dera. This is possibly the same area where Benkei and Yoshitsune met a 2nd time before resuming their fight. From Wikipedia.

The two would battle around the vicinity of the Kiyomizu-dera, where Yoshitsune, realizing his opponent’s potential, would lightly wound Benkei on the hand to prevent him from continuing the fight. Defeated, Yoshitsune offered him to pledge his allegiance and serve him. Weighing in on the pros and cons, Benkei agrees.

POTENTIAL HISTORICAL INACCURACIES

Going based on the Gikeiki, there’s no mention of Yoshitsune encountering Benkei on the Gojō bridge, or any bridge for that matter. So where did this idea come from? Does it even exist today? Just to be clear, there is mention of a bridge in the said chapter of the Gikeiki, for the chapter title indicates that Benkei does his dirty deed on a bridge. By default, he is synonymous with a bridge due to the trouble he stirs in Kyoto as he performs his task of acquiring 1000 swords. Yet, why does he not occupy this bridge for the 1000th victim, who would turn out to be Yoshitsune? Instead, after departing for Gojō Tenjin shrine, Benkei chooses to wait near a waterway…possibly leading to the Gojō bridge? Or, is it possible that their fight spilled all the way onto the Gojō bridge? What about during their 2nd encounter at Kiyomizu-dera? Distance is way too far, so logically they wouldn’t have concluded their battle on the bridge, right? This could just be a case of poor narration on the part of this unknown author, and failing to describe properly the fight being on the aforementioned bridge. Of course, there are other sources of this famed event that mention the Gojō bridge as the location where the two warriors met, but take note that they date much later than the Gikeiki.

Regarding this bridge in question, how do we track it down? In popular lore and other (later) adaptions of the lore (including in the form of song and theatrical performance), it is referred to as “Gojō no hashi”, but is officially called “Gojō Ōbashi” today. If we go by the latter, then yes there is a Gojō Ōbashi, which is a large bridge that sits over the Kamo river. It is geographically in the middle of Gojō Tenjin shrine and Kiyomizu-dera, albeit at an angle, and is an option of a path for those who would need to travel between both locations. However, this particular “bridge” cannot be the same one hinted in any of the sources, simply for the fact that it was not originally there at the time of the two warriors’ battle!…at least, not in the form we see it now.

Here’s a quick explanation to clear this up. Originally, this Gojō bridge was a short distance north from where it is now. In 1590, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had that bridge moved more southward in order to make processions to the temple Hōkōji (southwest of Kiyomizu-dera), which houses the largest statue of Buddha in Kyoto, more accessible. This is where the new Gojō bridge sits today. So, where was the old location? Researchers have estimated it to be where the current Matsubara bridge (松原橋, Matsubara hashi) is located, which is on the Matsubara tōri (松原通り), or “Matsubara street”. Guess it’s safe to say that while the location of the bridge is correct, apparently the specifics of the general area are a little off. Since it would’ve been the preferred route at the time, it aligns with the idea that Benkei was using this previous Gojō bridge (Matsubara bridge), and that he would’ve confronted Yoshitsune there (see illustration below as a reference).

In regards to potential inaccuracies concerning the 14th century text Gikeiki, this is to be expected for a couple of reasons. For starters, it is not unusual for locations that were mentioned in ancient text to not match up due to the development of cities and towns. In Japan’s case, this is even more of an issue, as certain key areas faced many changed due to whoever was in power at the time, usually a warlord, or by order of the shogun. It is not unusual for a bridge to be moved and renamed, but there are cases of villages, towns, and prefectures gaining new names or resized geographically. This poses as a challenge when trying to pinpoint places found in old documents that no longer exist. Another issue is in regards to the author of the text. While there is no author’s name specified, it is believed that the writing was heavily influenced by Buddhist monks. This isn’t unusual, for they were but few of specific groups that were literate, plus much of the contents for certain characters involved Buddhist practices that would take someone in the field to understand⁵. That being said, the original text, while slated to be a war chronicle based on true events, has its fair share of oddities that hint at agenda-driven ideas. In essence, these peculiar points could lead to such inaccuracies like not indicating properly whether a battle between two warriors indeed takes place on a bridge for the sake of highlighting places of worship.

This is an outline of the general area is Kyoto where the event takes place, as well as key locations mentioned in the story. The most important point to take from this is the location of the modern Gojō Ōbashi (Gojō Grand bridge) versus the previous Gojō bridge, now known as Matsubara hashi (Matsubara bridge).

On a related note, it is worth mentioning the naming convention “Gojō” is connected to the Gojō tōri, or “5th street” for simpler reading. As one would expect, the Gojō tōri is part of a numerical sequence of large streets that run through Kyoto, so there is an Ichijō tōri, (1st Street), Nijō tōri, (2nd Street), and so on. In turn, these same streets have their own matching bridges over the Kamo river. The Matsubara bridge, the former location of Gojō bridge, is geographically where Gojō tōri is said to have have been (present-day Matsubara tōri), which is one of the reasons for the name of the shrine Gojō Tenjin to have “Gojō” in it, as it sits near the edge of that former street (now called Matsubara tōri). Today, Gojō tōri runs along the same line as Gojō bridge…which seems to also be where Rokujō tōri is supposed to be.

CONCLUSION

In ending, certain aspects of history can make tangible things much more special, becoming intangible cultural icons. In the case of Yoshitsune and Benkei’s fated encounter, it’s been passed down as a lore that embraces the Gojō bridge as the stage for this. Being an old story, sometimes details don’t match up quite as well as they should, which can bring up questions, such as the accuracy the actual location. At the end of the day, it is best to see the modern day Gojō bridge as a tribute to the original location in my personal opinion. While there are perks to understanding the specifics, it shouldn’t deter a person from visiting this massive bridge and enjoy its visuals.


1) Historically famous under the title “Minamoto no Yoshitsune” as an adult. When he was younger, including the time of meeting Benkei, he went by the nickname “Ushiwakamaru”. To avoid confusion, we will primarily stick with his adult name for this article, where it applies.

2) There are a few other adaptations that cover this fated encounter as well, this including those interestingly entitled “Benkei Monogatari” (弁慶物語), “Hashi Benkei” (橋弁慶), and “Jisori Benkei” (じぞり弁慶). While all have their similarities, a few of them contain more info about Benkei, as well as some slight variations to how Yoshitsune and Benkei’s encounter unfolded, such as directly centering the Gojō bridge as the sole location where they would meet & conclude their battle.

3) This waterway points to the Kamo river, and may be the hint to Yoshitsune crossing over it by the Gojō bridge. Problem is, this is not actually stated in the Gikeiki, leading readers to assume this is the case. Note that this is an issue with the Gikeiki, and not necessarily a problem found in other sources covering Yoshitsune & Benkei’s fight.

4) In the Gikeiki, this is narrated as if this happened by chance. Benkei guesses that he would meet Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu-dera at night, and sure enough he appears. There is no indication that this is an arranged meeting, which is strange…or possibly the readers are to assumed that there was a clue hinting to the two agreeing to meet there…?

5) This is similar to the “Heike Monogatari” (平家物語), another historical text that covers the same events found in the Gikeiki, except more from the perspective of the Taira clan. While the author of the Heike Monogatari is unknown, it was told by monks in the form of verses for many generations.

Ōnaginata that Survived into Modern Times

For this November, the ōnaginata (大薙刀, large glaive) will be the focus of my martial arts group’s Theme month training. Handouts with information regarding the monthly theme is given out, which will be the same Other than just learning fighting techniques, it’s important to also study the history of Japanese weapons, and understand how certain ones have been preserved up to even modern times.

From a historical standpoint, the naginata is a respectable weapon used during the long warfare that plagued Japan during its medievel period. While in today’s generation we commonly see the shorter version generally called a konaginata (小薙刀, short glaive), in the past very large ones both with a long shaft and large blade called ōnaginata once were carried by some of the mightiest warriors. Once wielded in the hands of capable warriors during Japan’s chaotic warring times, it lost usage once the Tokugawa Shogunate was established during the early 1600s. Thus, due to the government rule of naginata naoshi (薙刀直し), where the giant blades of ōnaginata were to be cut down into smaller blades to be used for such weapons such as katana, kodachi, and tantō, along with other restrictions that prevented large-scale battles from erupting. It’s unfortunate that no single ōnaginata survived into modern times…or did they?

Here are 3 examples of surviving ōnaginata, from their dimensions, the makers, and the stories tied to them.

ŌNAGINATA BY MORIMITSU

The first one is labeled “Oonaginata-mei Morimitsu” (大薙刀銘盛光), located in Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture. Simply an ōnaginata that bears no unique name, it is a good representative of like weapon types used in the past which only is marked on its tang with the name of the maker, who is “Morimitsu”. This is the surname of a particular blacksmith that lasted for 3 generations, whom were active in the 1300s from the Nanbokucho period to the earlier part of Muromachi period, was respected for the craftsmanship used in the weapons produced.

There are a lot of details regarding this ōnaginata made available, with below an example of some of those that are provided:

  • Blade length is 107.8 cm
  • Curvature: 3.2 cm
  • Straight grain tempered pattern
  • Has a straight temper line with a misty-like appearance
  • Has 2 mekugi ana (peg holes)

This is a fairly long blade at 107.8 cm (42.5 in.), stated to be much longer than the standard size of ōnaginata used during warring times. Just as a frame of perspective, modern iaitō (居合刀, aluminum-bladed swords) and shinsakutō (新作刀, newly-made steel swords) have a standard length around 70 cm (roughly 27 in.), which is much longer than the blade for a konaginata, which can reach up to about 60 cm (23 in.) in length. In comparison, this ōnaginata has a big advantage, boosting a difference in length over 30 cm. One can imagine that, attached on an long shaft, a person would have superior reach when performing cuts. Speaking of shaft, this blade comes paired with one, which is black-lacquered.

THE SHRINE ŌNAGINATA

The next ōnaginata is part of a 3-piece collection that includes a larger sword and a shorter sword. Written on one side of the tang, we learn that it bears the name “Hōkago Hachimangu Reiken” (奉篭八幡宮霊剣). On the other side of the tang is the signature of the maker, which is “Heianjōjū Fujiwara Kunimichi” (平安城住藤原国路). This is currently the property of the shrine called “Hirosaki Hachiman-gu”, which is located in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture.

Picture of the ōnaginata “Hōkago Hachimangu Reiken”, (top) along with an uchidachi (middle) and ōdachi (bottom) crafted by the same blacksmith. From the Hirosaki City website.

From surviving records, this is a 17th century weapon that was in the possession of the aforementioned shrine in 1611. There is a great chance that this ōnaginata (along with its 2 swords counterparts) was made specifically for the shrine and is more of a ceremonial piece, meaning it’s never been used for warfare. It is also known that Fujiwara Kunimichi, an uprising blacksmith who resided in Kyoto, made a name for himself with his style of craftsmanship that contributed to the new types of swords many moved towards to from the early Edo period onward.

Here’s the known specs of this ōnaginata:

  • Blade length: 91.2 cm
  • Nakago (tang) length: 1 meter

There’s not much info regarding other specs of the blade. However, the entire built is very long, for from the tip of the blade all the way down to the tang, it measure 205 cm.

How long is this ōnaginata blade? Let’s compare it to an ōdachi (battlefield long sword) at the bottom of the pic above, which was made by the same blacksmith.

  • Blade length: 107.8 cm
  • Nakago (tang) length: 35.3

While the ōnaginata’s total length is greater, the actual blade length is over 10 cm shorter than the ōdachi. Nevertheless, we can see that an ōnaginata blade is roughly the size of an ōdachi. Including the length of the shaft, the overall reach of the ōnaginata is staggering.

LEGENDARY BENKEI’S ŌNAGINATA

The last ōnaginata to showcase is an interesting one. Named “Iwatooshi” (岩融), it is claimed to be the prized weapon of the famed Musashibou Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶). As a little bit of history, Benkei was active during the later end of the Heian period (794 – 1185) as supposedly a large warrior monk, and was a loyal retainer of Minamoto Yoshitsune. The ōnaginata he used was just as grand, with a name that stands for “a blade that has fine cutting edge good enough to split stone”¹. The Iwatooshi is currently housed in Ōyamazumi Shrine in Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture, and is categorized as a valuable cultural asset, and is provided safe keeping².

Pic of the actual blade (?) of Iwatooshi, from the Touken World website.

There isn’t much info regarding its specs, other than the following.

  • Blade length: 106 cm
  • Maker: Munechika

On top of being on the longer side of standard ōnaginata length, the name of the maker is important to note, as this is possibly the legendary blacksmith known by the name “Sanjō Munechika” (三条宗近). Renown for making extraordinary swords, Munechika is noted in records related to exquisite swords and exemplary blacksmiths. This includes his finest work, “Mikazuki Munechika” (三日月宗近), which not only exists today, but is considered a national treasure, as well as one of 5 swords categorized as “Tenga Goken” (天下五剣, Five Greatest Swords). With a high profile blacksmith on its label, is there not doubt the level of acclaim the Iwatooshi will receive?

As expected, the Iwatooshi isn’t without some perplexing mysteries. For starters, Benkei is a figure who’s story has many holes due to a lack of proper documentation, so his existence is rather on the exaggerated side, especially in pop culture. Second, Benkei is said to have been alive around the 1100s, which is about 1,100 years ago. The same can be said about the Iwatooshi, which is amazing that such a thing could survive throughout so many generations (and in good shape too!)…if such a weapon truly did exist. Lastly, if we go based on the information regarding the blacksmith and can accept that Iwatooshi is a relic of past medieval Japan, can it be proven that this is the authentic ōnaginata and not a replica? From what I could find, it doesn’t look like this ōnaginata is set up for public display.

ENDING

This wraps up our look at ōnaginata. Once a potent battlefield weapon in ancient Japan, seeing a fully functional one today is but a think of the pass. Those who have the opportunity to see any form of an ōnaginata that has survived into modern times is usually in exhibitions, generally those held in museums.


1) 岩をも断ち切るほどの切れ味の良さ

2) An interesting note regarding items that are valuable cultural asset is that they are different from national treasures. The reason being is that while the former has a significant cultural value within Japan itself (whether it actually exists or is just a replica), the latter has prestige value on a global level in terms of tangible piece of history.

2022: Be Inspired to do Big in the Year of the Tiger

It’s 2022! Let’s kick off in our usual fashion with an article on what the current Lunar Zodiac year is and what sign represents it. As many are aware, 2022 is the year of the tiger. Many have been sending out new year wishes accompanied with colorful images of tigers to help spread the word and support the Chinese Zodiac cycle. If we follow the actual chronological order of this ancient calendar, the correct date for this zodiac year is February 1st. Still, doesn’t mean we can’t get into the proper mindset and start 2022 right.

For this article, we’ll cover the specifics of the tiger sign, and what to expect the auspicious predictions for this year to be. Along with this, we’ll look at the societal and cultural influences the image of the tiger, as a whole, has had within the history of Japan.

UNDERSTANDING TORADOSHI

Under the Zodiac calendar, 2022’s zodiac animal is the tiger. So, we can call this the year of the tiger, or toradoshi (寅年) in Japanese. In many people’s minds, the imagery of a tiger symbolizes power, courage, as well as strong-willed. Of course, these characteristics were added much later once animals were incorporated as relatable representatives of humanistic qualities for each of the 12 zodiac signs.

A painting of a tiger reclining. Artwork of Ohara Kosen.

Let’s break down technical traits of this year’s zodiac sign. The tiger sign is identified by the character “寅”, which is pronounced as “tora”. Normally, the kanji for the actual animal is “虎”, which also uses the same pronunciation. Although possessing the same animal name, the “寅” character’s root meaning points to “sprouting of seeds”. This is significant as it’s the precursor to the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring.

Along with the 12 Zodiacs, there is the “10 Heavenly Stems” (十干/Jikkan in Japanese), which traditionally associates with each year’s reading. The character that represents this category is “壬”, with the pronunciation being “mizunoe”, and means “light-water”. This is because the 10 Heavenly Stems is a product of Inyō Gogyōsetsu (陰陽五行説), which is the combination of philosophical beliefs pertaining to ying-yang (light and dark) and the 5 Movements/Elements (earth, water, fire, wood, metal).

There are essentially 5 different tiger years within the 60-year Zodiac cycle, with each one representing a different element. For this year, we get both tiger and mizunoe together as “壬寅”, which is pronounced either as “jin-in” or “mizunoe tora”. Thus, the complete way of reading 2022 would be as “year of the water-tiger”.

EVERYDAY USAGE

The Zodiac signs have continued to have an impactful influence in Japan’s society of old. Becoming a staple within the culture, people were educated to rely on these signs for telling time, determining direction, and so on. Below are the different roles of the tiger sign in everyday application, along with its traits for this year.

  • Time = 3 am – 5 am
  • Direction = East-Northeast (abit past 30 degrees)
  • Month = 1st (old calendar); 2nd (modern calendar)
  • Energy = Light / positive (yang)
  • 5 Elements = water

Although archaic for today’s standards, it is still possible to utilize the tiger sign, as well as the other zodiac signs, for calculating time, directions, and so forth. There is a systematic process, which is covered in one of my translation projects entitled, “Many Ways of Utilizing the Zodiac Signs“. This can be found in the Translations section of this site, in the menu above.

2022 PREDICTIONS

As mentioned earlier, the character used to represent the tiger sign possesses the meaning of a seed sprouting. This imagery represents growth & vitality, as well as new beginnings. In essence, 2022 is read as a year for everyone to not only become revitalized, but to start a new endeavor. Realistically, this tends to be a general goal for every year, especially in the West. What the tiger sign emphasizes is an increased success rate on an auspicious level, especially for life-changing, ground-breaking pursuits.

Those born particularly in the water-tiger year are said to have particular traits that makes it easier for them to succeed. This includes having a strong intention to succeed, passionate and able to take on any challenges, and an eagerness to learn. While designated as the personality of those born under this sign, keep in mind this can benefit all individuals universally, as those of different signs can mimic this in order to reap the rewards this year can offer.

Interestingly, as much as an advantage those born under this tiger sign has, there are also significant disadvantages they have to especially be cautious about regarding overdoing things. Then there are those other fortune factors to be concerned about, such as wearable color clothing, lucky numbers, favorable directions, and so on…at least, for those individuals who actually follow this type of auspicious practice.

CULTURAL IMAGE

Outside of the Chinese Zodiac calendar, the image of the tiger has cemented itself into Japan’s culture, despite being a country that originally was not a habitat for such animals. Gaining knowledge about this large, wild cat from sources such as artworks, literature, and folklore from China & Korea centuries ago, Japanese society has incorporated the concept of them representing strength, bravery, as well as something having high value. Thus, it’s not unusual for the tiger image to be used as a form of expression for one’s worth, or to distinguish objects with this animal association to instill an everlasting impression.

Artwork entitled, “Satō Masakiyo toragari no zu” (Satō Masakiyo on a Tiger Hunt). Artist is Utagawa Kuniteru. One of many artwork pieces that follow a popular theme regarding warriors defeating a tiger, usually as a feat to display their prowess.

Let’s look into the historical use of the word tora (tiger) as a label. Since as far back as medieval Japan, it wasn’t unusual for individuals to include this word in their name or given title, especially for warriors or those in the entertainment field.

  • Takeda Shingen (武田信玄) = the renown warlord of Kai province was nicknamed “Tiger of Kai” (甲斐の虎, Kai no Tora), for he was a cunning & formidable competitor in the race to dominate Japan during the 1500s.
  • Akiyama Torashige (秋山虎繁) = a strong warrior & trusted retainer of the Takeda clan that controlled Kai province.
  • Hara Toramasa (原虎胤) = another warrior of the Takeda clan that was an ashigaru taishō (足軽大将, infantry commander).
  • Ii Naotora (井伊直虎) = a female territorial lord during the mid 1500s, as noted in the chronicles of the Ii family.
  • Utagawa Yoshitora (歌川義虎) = an accomplished ukiyo-e artist during the late Edo period to early Meiji period.
  • Nakamura Toranosuke (中村 虎之介) = a young kabuki performer/actor who hails down a family line that specialized in kabuki theater.

In a sense, the inclusion of tora (tiger) in each of these individual’s names or as a label can be taken as an indication of their capacity for success.

Next, is how value is placed on tangible things. For example, within the different areas of artistic practices and performances of old such as bujutsu (武術, martial arts) and chadō (茶道, way of the tea ceremony), documents that contain secret & high-level knowledge exclusive to those worthy were often called “tora no maki” (虎の巻), which literally can be translated as “tiger scroll”. This is still done today, as this label is placed on workbooks & study guides that contain important tips and strategies to help students pass exams, or excel in various fields of interest, such as medical or tech. There is also the term “tora no ko” (虎の子), which usually indicates things of extreme value, such as money. With the term meaning “tiger’s cub”, one can get the idea of how protective a mother tiger is when it comes down to ensuring safety for her own cubs. This is the type of feeling that must be projected for things that are of the status to be labeled “tora no ko”.

Painting entitled, “Fūryū Jūnishi Tora (Appreciation of the 12 Zodiac Animals: Tiger). Artist is Isoda Koryusai. While no official description could be found, this artwork displays an adult tiger with a tiger cub on its back, possibly rescuing it from the strong water turrent.

There are also some interesting old sayings that use the tiger image in an expressive fashion. Below are some examples, from dangerous situations to challenging the road to success:

  • Kogō (虎口) = the tiger’s den
    MEANING = a dangerous place to either avoid or escape from.
  • Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu (虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず) = you can’t steal the cub if you don’t enter the tiger’s den
    MEANING = have to take risks if you want to succeed big.
  • Tora no o wo fumu (虎の尾を踏む) = stepping on the tiger’s tail
    MEANING = beware of stirring trouble, or getting caught in a bad predicament.
  • Tora ni tsubasa (虎に翼) = a tiger with wings
    MEANING = giving someone who is already powerful a level up boost.
  • Neko wa tora no kokoro wo shirazu (猫は虎の心を知らず) = Although similar, a cat doesn’t possess the mind of a tiger
    MEANING = an average Joe cannot understand the mind of a successful person.

CONCLUSION

While our world has faced an amount of setbacks caused by the pandemic, we are gearing to move forward with our lives in hopes to overcome. Let’s hope that this year everyone can make strides towards this, and be successful in our goals, whether it be in helping our communities, starting a new business, or just getting back on our feet. Don’t forget to use the image of the tiger to be inspired to do big!

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.

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.

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.

Okiku’s Daring Escape

Many popular stories from Japan’s history usually based on famous wars and conflicts. These stories generally cover the bravery of warriors clashing in battle, or feudal warlords trying to outdo another for the sake of land, and the power to control it. Many enthusiasts of Japanese history draw inspiration from these tales. Yet, we can also take some lessons from tales that focus instead of warriors on the battlefield, but from those who avoid the conflicts for the sake of survival.

There is a story¹ called “Okiku Monogatari” (おきく物語).  taken from the surviving journal of a woman by the name of Okiku and her plight to escape from the chaos during the famous Osaka Campaign headed by Tokugawa Ieyasu. This journal was supposedly written by her grandchild, Tanaka Motonori (田中意徳)², who was a physician from Ikeda, Okayama prefecture. He had learned that his grandmother, whom he called “Kiku”, was a survivor of the aforementioned war, and wanted to record it³. While the story is short, it is a great example of survival using one’s wits, judgment, along with some luck, from the perspective of one who was not honed in the ways of the warrior.

WHO WAS OKIKU

Okiku was born in 1596 in Ōmi province. Her father was Ogawa Mozaemon (小川茂左衛門), who had served several influential families, such as the Asai clan and the Toyotomi clan. There is no mention as to who her mother was. While there isn’t much mentioned about her childhood, this story covers the point when Okiku was 20 years old⁴ and, at the time, living within Ōsaka castle. She was as a female servant for Yodo-dono, who was of a high ranking aristocrat. While this Yodo-dono did come from an influential military family, as she was the daughter of Asai Nagamasa (浅井長政) and Oichi no Kata (お市の方, late Oda Nobunaga’s daughter), she was also a concubine of the late Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

As stated before, there isn’t much info before the actual events in her story, other than small tidbits regarding when she and her family became associated with the Toyotomi clan. On a related note, Okiku’s father had fought during the Ōsaka Campaign in 1615, where it’s said he died in battle⁵. When last did Okiku see her father before the tragic day when Ōsaka castle would fall? Unfortunately, there are no notes about this.

DAY OF THE CHAOS

in June 7th, 1615⁶, Okiku was in the nagatsubone (長局), which was a long, multi-room living quarters quarters for servant girls within a separate part of the large complex of Ōsaka castle. Being told to go take a break, she made yakisoba (焼き蕎麦, fried noodles) for herself. After finished eating her meal, she returned to kitchen area. At some point she heard commotions coming from outside. She took a moment to step away and go to investigate.

As she stepped out from Tamadukurikuchi (玉造口, the southeast exit of the main structure), Okiku walked along the path in the courtyard towards Senjojiki (千畳敷, a large structure with many rooms famed for having around 1000 tatatmi mats). She heard people yelling, and wondered what was causing this. Then her eyes caught visual cues that showed fighting outside the castle was taking place: fire leaping up over the walls of the castle grounds, along with sounds of gunfire and war shouts. from the troops that were fighting. Startled at the chaos that was erupting on the battlefield and how close it was to the castle, Okiku felt that it was necessary to escape the castle.

Okiku rushed back to the nagatsubone, and made preparations to protect herself before venturing out into the courtyard, joining 3 hats together along with several koshimaki (腰巻, a belt worn with kimono). She used these as a shield to cover herself as arrows were now randomly raining into the vicinity of the castle grounds. At this point, there was nothing worth of any value that would make her stay in Ōsaka castle. Other than her life, she did happen to pick up a keepsake mirror from her room at the nagatsubone that was rewarded to her by Toyotomi Hideyori. This was very dear to her, so she kept it safely in her futokoro (懐), which is an inner pocket within a kimono. As Okiku made her way back to the kitchen area, where she spotted a retainer of the Toyotomi clan, Takeda Eio, who was dressed in armor. Eio was trying to maintain order as the place was in turmoil with many female attendants running around hysterically, while injured soldiers were being attended to.

There were other women who moved towards a gate near the kitchen. As they were asked where they were heading, they replied to leave the castle. Eio refused, insisted that they don’t abandon their castle. The women then pointed to a prized banner that had several golden gourds on top⁷, which represented the Toyotomi clan. This banner, laying down on the floor unattended, meant that it was abandoned by the appointed flag bearer. They refuted, claiming others have already left. From that, the women ignored the flustered soldier, and rushed to the gate to leave the castle grounds and find a place to hide from the ensuing battle. Okiku also did the same, as she moved alongside with the  other women.

TROUBLE AT KYŌ BRIDGE ENTRYWAY

Okiku walked along the outskirts of the assaulted Ōsaka castle, trying to stay on a safe path while avoiding the ongoing conflicts between the Toyotomi troops and the the Tokugawa army. She decided to head to Matsubara-guchi, which was northwest of her (present day southern area of Hyōgo prefecture). There, she would look for safe haven from a daimyo and ally of the Toyotomi clan, Tōdō Takatora, who also happened to be a benefactor to her family. Her father knew him first when he was a retainer of the Asai clan, for at the time Takatora was a minor soldier who was working directly under him. At the time, Takatora was poor, but her mom would call him and make him food. When the Asai clan fell, and her father wandered as a ronin, Takatora had risen to a high position, and had contacted her father to come work for him.

To reach Matsubara-guchi would be a bit of a journey, and Okiku would need to cross over a few bridges to get there. First she crossed over Gokuraku Bridge (極楽橋), which was just north of Ōsaka castle. She moved vigilantly, as she took caution not to run into danger as she journeyed farther away from what was once the safety the Toyotomi clan. Especially as a female traveling on her own, she would be an easy target for thieves and such. The Gokuraku Bridge was one of the few ways over Ōsaka Castle’s natural water defense, as it was surrounded by several lakes. After crossing this bridge, she headed west and made her way towards Kyō Bridge Entryway (京橋口). It appeared that Okiku was still in the clear as she reached the entrance. As she was going to pass by and continue along the path, she then heard a voice calling to her.

To the side of the road near Kyō Bridge Entryway a man appeared, beckoning her to come to him. Okiku did as so, as not to make any sudden moves to turn the situation sour in her favor. As she got close, the man took out a bladed weapon⁸, and asked for money. Okiku cooperated with the thief, and took out a takenagashi (竹流, bamboo container for cleaning small things using water) from her inner pocket, and from it brought out 2 coins. She gave one coin to the thief. Not satisfied, the thief requested the other. Okiku then bargained with him, saying that she would give him the other if he leads her to Tōdō Takatora’s encampment in Matsubara-guchi. Surprisingly he agreed, possibly on the prospect of being rewarded even more for his good “deed”.

CROSSROADS

Okiku and her unlikely companion of a thief continued on their way the Matsubara-guchi. Shortly on the Okiku saw a crowd of people, who were surrounded by many soldiers. Taking a closer look, Okiku recognized one of the people to be a high-ranking aristocrat named Jōkōin. Okiku was familiar with her, as she was the daughter of Yodo-dono through marriage. Accompanied by some female servants and personal male guards, Jōkōin and her companions were off towards Kyōto north of Ōsaka prefecture to gain refuge from the Tokugawa force.

A diagram of Okiku’s intended traveling plan. After escaping ① Ōsaka castle, she went across ② Gokuraku bridge, and west along the bodies of water surrounding the castle. Going on the path that passes by ③ Kyō Bridge Entryway, she would have needed to go over ④ Tenma Bridge, then head west in the southern part of Hyōgo prefecture in order to reach ⑤ Matsubara-guchi. There was the other option, however, to accompany Jōkōin’s group and head north of Ōsaka prefecture to ⑥ Kyōto.

Okiku pondered about Jōkōin’s plan, as it appeared to have some value in terms of survival. It was a big risk, however, and granted safety from the enemy side was not guaranteed. On the other hand, She could continue with her original plan and head to Matsubara-guchi to gain safe haven from Tōdō Takatora. However, there’s no guarantee that she could make it all the way there, especially as she was accompanied by her shady companion.

As she watched Jōkōin and her group start to head off, in a sudden turn of events Okiku decided to accompany them. She followed behind the group, enough where it was obvious she was a part of their party. The thief did not tag along this time, must’ve been a relief on Okiku’s end. As they went on their way, they could see Ōsaka castle in the distance, with the sky lit up around it as it was set ablaze. It was truly a sad and surreal scene, for no one could’ve imagined that they would lose their home, once under the control of the prestigious Toyotomi family, being burned down through the violence of war. Despite the sorrow they felt, Okiku and the group marched on towards a new land, one where they may be safe.

During the group’s trek, Okiku was surprised to learn that Jōkōin was no longer taking them to Kyōto to gain refuge from the Tokugawa side, but instead was making a detour to northern Ōsaka towards Moriguchi (present-day Moriguchi City, Ōsaka prefecture). This was actually Jōkōin’s intention all along, as a means to get away from the bloodshed and violence that was taking place around Ōsaka castle. As members from the Toyotomi side, the group were able to hide amongst the populous in Moriguchi, as they each were taken in and made residence in different homes. Okiku stayed in the home of a rather poor family, but they were nice to her, and made her living as comfortable as possible.

Some time passed after the fall of Ōsaka castle and the demise of the Toyotomi clan. Okiku would receive word that the Tokugawa bakufu would not condemn any of the former female servants of Osaka castle guilty due to association. This was a relief to Okiku and the other survivors, as this was confirmation they could come out of hiding and move on with their lives. Okiku would leave her surrogate family and head to Kyoto, where she would gain employment as a servant for Kyokoku Tatsuko, who has blood relations to the once influential Asai family. Once a concubine of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tatsuko had became a Buddhist priestess and was known by the title “Matsu no Maru-dono”. Okiku’s having the same connections possibly helped with her connecting with Tatsuko, and being accepted. It is said that from there on, Okiku was able to live a good & happy life.

ANALYZING THE SITUATION

While she may appear to be just a common servant girl who knows nothing of warfare, Okiku shows to possess good judgment, and a natural sense of adaptation to her environment and situation.  One could only imagine how difficult it would be to stay calm in the face of pending danger from an ensuing battle right at one’s doorsteps, as well as to run into wild territory not knowing who’s friend or foe. Yet, if this journal is true, then Okiku exhibited this, which is quite remarkable.

  • If Okiku put loyalty over her life and instead returned back to the main building in search of Yodo-dono, things would turn out differently. You see, Yodo-dono and her remaining servants at hand walled themselves up within Osaka castle. When things turned dire and it was obvious that the Tokugawa force were going to take the castle, Yodo-dono and her servants had committed suicide.
  • Takeda Eio was very adamant that the women there calmed down and remain in the castle. If Okiku had listened to him, all could’ve been lost as the castle soon was burning around them. On top of this, Eio himself had seen that the end would come, thus committing suicide.
  • Being able to bargain with the thief was a risky yet brave move. Considering the times, this thief was not such a bad person, as he cooperated with her and was willing to accept getting the 2nd coin after escorting her to her intended location. For all she knew, the thief could’ve been a cold-blooded murderer, plus there really wasn’t any incentive for him not to take both coins by force. It’s possible that her appearance showed that she wasn’t a poor, local girl…which would’ve been even more a reason to rob her. Still, it could’ve been her upbringing in a relatively good environment that gave her the mental fortitude to control the situation as she did.
  • Okiku was not only flexible in her decision-making, but also able to adapt in order to ensure her main objective comes true: survival. Switching to follow Jōkōin instead of continuing her journey to Tōdō Takatora’s location demonstrated just that. It’s still possible that heading to Takatora would’ve also been fruitful. Still, her final decision lead to her having a happy ending.

CONCLUSION

The war story of Okiku is one that demonstrates the trials & tribulations a civilian can go through in order to survive a war that appears at your doorstep. There are not so many old Japanese texts that go into details like this that are transliterated into English. Hope everyone can enjoy this type of story.


1) This is often labeled as a “gunki” (軍記), which means “war (military) text or journal”. It is usually coupled with another war journal called “Oamu Monogatari” (おあむ物語), which is a recording about a women named Oan and her experience actively participating in th defense of a castle during Sekigahara war. One of the connections between both stories is that the Sekigahara war took place before the Osaka campaign, and both deal with the struggle between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa forces.

2) Some trivia regarding Okiku and her name. It is possible that her real name may have been “Kiku”, as that is what her grandson called her. Does that mean the the “O” is an honorific label (which could be the “御” character)? Or is “Kiku” just a shorthand that Tanaka used due to having kinship with her? Unfortunately, none of this has yet to be verified, specifically since Okiku is not written in kanji (Chinese characters) in the original source.

Speaking of which, few sources have written her name with the kanji “菊” or “お菊”, which may be the correct way to write it. However, her employer, Yodo-dono, also went by “Okiku”, and used those very same characters…but that doesn’t mean everyone who had the same name wrote it with thise exact characters. 

As a whole, Okiku’s name is represented in hiragana as “おきく” as that is how it appears in the original.  This is a neutral way of writing it.

3) Motonori as a name is not common nowadays. This is the only reading I was able to find associated with the characters that make up the name.

4) Her age may have been calculated based on kazoedoshi (数え年), where everyone gains an extra year the moment of their birth. This practice was common in Asia.

5) Osaka Campaign took place both in the winter of 1614 and around the summer of 1615. It is believed that Mozaemon died in battle during the one in 1615.

6) Apparently, the year mentioned in the original text is off, as it states June 7th, 1617.

7) The full name of this banner is “kane no Hyotan no umajirushi” (金の瓢箪の御馬印).

8) There is no description of what type of man he was. Considering the times and the threats while walking along paths and bridges, most likely he was a thief or bandit waiting to spring on easy targets. It is possible he was once a warrior who switched to a life of thievery. This may be because his bladed weapon could’ve been a (short) sword.

The Strategic Prowess of Takigawa Kazumasu ~ Part 3

We continue with Takigawa Kazumasu’s history during Medieval Japan under renown feudal lords such as Oda Nobunaga, as he accomplishes many feats through his tact, resourcefulness, and his influence on others. Last we left off where Kazumasu participates in the ambitious campaign by his lord Oda Nobunaga to take over Northern Ise. Will they be successful?

NOBUNAGA TO THE RESCUE

Around the middle of the 5th month of 1569, Takigawa Kazumasu, his force, and his new allies stayed holed up in Kizukuri castle, as they had to hold out against Kitabatake Tomomori and his large force. Kizukuri castle was completely surrounded, so any chances of escape were cut off. Fortunately, word of their plight got back to Oda Nobunaga, was also taking care of other matters at the same time¹. He would command his available top officers to round up their troops and head to assist them. A large army was able to gather at Gifu castle in Mino Province², which consisted of the combined strength of his trusted retainers and their own troops, such as Shibata Katsuie, Ujiie Naomoto from western Mino, and Kinoshita Hideyoshi.

Artwork of Oda Nobunaga. From the series “Taiheiki Eiyūden” (太平記英勇傳, Heroes of the Great Peace). By Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

In the 8th month of the same year, Nobunaga’s large army finally headed into Northern Ise and made their way towards Kizukuri castle. For the last 3 months, Kazumasu and everyone else holed up inside Kizukuri castle did their best to hold out for as long as they could against Kitabatake Tomonori’s force. While they had to endure a long siege, in the long run it paid off; when Tomonori heard how large the incoming army of the Oda force was, he and his troops fell back, and quickly retreated to Okawachi castle.

STANDOFF AGAINST THE KITABATAKE

Kazumasu and his force were finally rescued, and in short time joined Nobunaga’s large force as they moved on to besiege Okawachi castle. Arriving there, Nobunaga had his force surround this castle by making it triple-layered, to prevent any chances of escape. This would be the chance they’ve been waiting for, to take control over Northern Ise in a decisive battle against the Kitabatake family, starting with Tomonori.

Okawachi castle was well equipped, fortified, and suited against sieges, so Tomonori made no attempts to go into battle. Seeing how no confrontation was going to be made, Nobunaga ordered his troops to hold their ground in an attempt to wait their opponents out and weaken their morale. This waiting period lasted for about a month, with a couple of attempts to speed up things. This included building spiked fences around the castle’s perimeter, and a night raid, which ultimately failed due to heavy rainfall rendering their rifles useless. At a later date, Nobunaga ordered Kazumasu to cut off their rations supply by burning down neighboring Tage castle. Kazumasu did as ordered, as well as set ablaze the immediate area around this castle. The fire caused the inhabitants of Tage castle to flee to Okawachi castle, which allowed them in. However, this brought about an even bigger issue as with their food line cut, Tomonori now had even more people to feed, which was an outcome Nobunaga must’ve anticipated.

Although it took time, Nobunaga’s actions did prove fruitful, for eventually Tomonori called for a peaceful surrender. To capitalize over his defeated foe, Nobunaga had his 2nd son, Nobukatsu, become the next heir of the Kitabatake by having him marry with Tomonori’s daughter, Yukihime, then have him adopted by Tomonori’s son, Tomofusa. The way this process worked was Tomofusa had no children of his own, so if Nobukatsu was taken in as an adopted son, he would be able to keep the Kitabatake line going. This also meant that the Oda clan would claim Northern Ise through hereditary means. Along with this union, Okawachi castle was given up by the Kitabatake family, in which Kazumasu was given the responsibility to take control.

At a lost, Tomonori moved to Mise Yakata (三瀬館, Mise Mansion), which was near the Kitabatake-owned Kiriyama castle. There, he would later retire from his military career and become a monk. Clinching control over Northern Ise, Nobunaga went to Ise Shrine to say prayers and pay respect to the new land that is now in his control.

SERVING A RELENTLESS LORD

Gaining control over Northern Ise did wonders in propelling Oda Nobunaga’s power and influence, as well as further cement his presence as a threat to those who oppose him. During the campaign he even was able to establish good relations with Ashikaga Yoshiaki, and helped him gain entry into Kyoto and ascend to being the 15th shogun, continuing the Ashikaga rule…although Nobunaga himself used him as a stepping stone in order to have direct influence in the Imperial court. Takigawa Kazumasu had truly sided himself with a warlord who has the potential to rule Japan, thus he used his talents to achieve victory in whatever task was presented to him. It just so happened that late within the same year, there was some bad relations between a feudal lord within Ise province named Hosono Fujiatsu of Anō castle and Oda Nobukane, who had recently been instated as lord of Ise Ueno castle³. Kazumasu was sent to handle the situation, and he was able to quell the situation by allowing Fujiatsu to adopt his son, Yatsumaro⁴. Through this, Kazumasu was entrusted with Anotsu castle, Shibumi castle, and Kozukuri castle. As can be seen, his story is heavily dependent on much of his lord’s actions, for his story goes hand-in-hand with many of the war campaigns the Oda army took part in.

Artwork of Kennyo in what appears to be suit of armor.

Kazumasu’s next task at hand would soon present itself just one year after the dealings with Kitabatake clan, In Osaka, located in Japan’s western area sits a large estate that acts as a religious ground, with a large temple Ishiyama Honganji in the center. This temple was home of Buddhist monks of Jōdō Shinshu sect, led by the head priest Kennyo. At the time, Jōdō Shinshu Buddhism was not only the most widely practiced at the time, but Kennyo also expressed separation from governing rule. They were in a unique position as they grew in their own political power and influence, and commanded their own force of warrior monks⁵. On top of this, others in the land sided with the the monks’ viewpoint, especially those who suffered a lose due to the Oda force taking over Nagashima castle. This group of rebels collaborated with those of the temple Ganshōji in Nagashima, and were known as the Nagashima ikkō ikki (長島一向一揆). Over a course of time, as he acquired new allies and developed working relations with the Imperial court in Kyoto, Nobunaga also had deteriorating relations with Kennyo, as he expressed his disapproval of this unchecked rising power of the monks of Ishiyama Honganji.

In the 9th month of 1570, Oda Nobunaga had sent a small army to Fukushima in Settsu (present day southern part of Hyōgo Prefecture), north of Ishiyama Honganji. This expedition was to deal with the Miyoshi clan, who were considered allies with the monks of Ishiyama Honganji, as well as supported by 15th shogun Yoshiaki, who was trying to side with those who could help suppress the potential seize of power by Nobunaga. A month later, after declaring Oda Nobunaga a threat to Buddhism as a whole, Kennyo ordered his force to go and attack that army. A battle soon ensued around Yōdō river, which ran along Osaka and Settsu where the Oda army was stationed. Nobunaga’s army won and drove Kennyo’s force back to Ishiyama Honganji, and would also have a few more successful wins in other skirmishes against supporting groups as a small war was on the rise.

Artwork called “Taiheiki Nagashima Gassen: Ise Nagashima Ikkō Ikki” (太平記長嶋合戦 -伊勢長島一向一揆-). Here, the Nagashima ikkō ikki are shown battling against the Oda Force. By Utagawa Yoshikazu.

Kazumasu and other top officers took part in the war, setting up their fortifications for the long haul, including in castles they took over during the war with the Kitabatake family. However, they would soon have to deal with the relentless force of the Nagashima ikkō ikki. At one point, they had harassed Kazumasu to the point where as he and his force retreated from the battlefield, they gave chase. Later, they would assault Kokie castle in Owari Province, where Oda Nobuoki, Nobunaga’s younger brother, was stationed at. Nobuoki would hold out against the assault for 6 days, until the castle was breached and he and his troops had to evacuate. During the assault, Nobunaga had sent aid to save his son. Kazumasu, who was occupying Kuwana castle at the time, was also summoned to help. However, he too was besieged and had to stay walled up in his castle. While Nobuoki managed to survive the besiegers, Kokie castle was lost in the hands of the Nagashima ikkō ikki.

On May 12, 1571, Nobunaga had rounded up a large army, and moved towards Nagajima to deal with the ikkō ikki. He led them through a narrow valley, which was a mistake. The rebel group ikkō ikki laid a trap as they waited on both sides of the valley. As the Oda forces proceeded inside, the opposition ambushed them, initiating it by raining gunfire from their rifles, then closing upon them through upclose skirmishes. Many people of the Oda force sustained a large amount of damage, along with a large number of casualties. In the end, the Oda force was not successful in this campaign against the monks of Ishiyama Honganji and their supporters. Kazumasu and others were withdrawn from the fighting, and returned to their territories to recover from their losses. However, Nobunaga himself was not deterred, as he was determined to continue this war with them until he succeeds in eliminating them.

FACING THE TIGER OF KAI

Not too long after the unsuccessful campaign, Takigawa Kazumasu was yet again summoned to take part in a battle. This time it was against a considerably powerful feudal lord, who was known as Takeda Shingen, the lord of Kai Province. There was abit of history between the two, including during the campaign in Northern Ise⁶. This time around, in an effort to rout Nobunaga, Shingen intended to invade neighboring Tōtomi Province and Mikawa Province from the north-east with a large army split into three. In an effort to prevent this, Nobunaga needed to combine efforts with his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was lord over Mikawa Province.

Section featuring Takeda Shingen from the artwork entitled “Ichimosai Mushae Minamoto Harunobu Yamagata Masakage” ( 一猛齋 武者絵 源晴信 山県昌景 , Ichimōsai’s Warriors Art piece: Minamoto Harunobu (aka Takeda Shingen) and Yamagata Masakage). By Utagawa “Ichimōsai” Yoshitora.

Nicknamed “the tiger of Kai⁷”, Shingen was a particularly well-established lord who maintained a highly disciplined and efficiently organized army that utilized cavalry forces very skillfully, so his presence coming anywhere near Nobunaga was a threat that couldn’t be ignored. Nobunaga mobilized an army of a few thousand troops, as he had to keep the majority behind to protect his lands from other potential invasions. As one of the generals, Kazumasu made preparations and led his troops. He coordinated alongside with other top officers, such as Nobunaga’s senior general an war-harden Sakuma Nobumori, the recently acquired Mizuno Nobumoto, and loyal Oda clan retainers Hirate Hirohide & Hayate Hidesada. While the Oda force wasn’t as large as the Takeda’s, their continual development of using gunner squads was expected to be key component in winning. Being experienced with rifles and firearms, Kazumasu was a good candidate to bring for this.

In the 10th month of 1971, Shingen invaded Ieyasu’s borders, with his sights set on claiming Hamamatsu castle and thus controlling the area. He sent is army to first gain control of Futamata castle, which was under the control of one of Tokugawa’s officers. The combined forces of Nobunaga and Ieyasu worked to intercept this, which led to several clashes. First of the clashes would take place around the slope of Hitogoto-zaka (一言坂, Hitogoto Slope) in Tōtomi Province, just north of Hamamatsu castle.

A map showing the layout of the territories controlled by the major players in the war between Oda Nobunaga , Takeda Shingen, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The flow of the battle was not in the favor of the Oda-Tokugawa coalition, however, as the Takeda proved to be too much to deal with due to their sheer numbers. The Oda force had to retreat from the skirmish. The Takeda army continued to march towards Futamata castle and, although faced abit of resistance for a few weeks, were able to successfully drive out the defenders and claim Futamata castle by cutting off their water supply. After these unfortunate events, Nobunaga and Ieyasu both took time to regroup.

For the next couple months Nobunaga and Ieyasu prepared to trap the advancing Takeda army and attack from different angles. There was also extra fortification put in place at Hamamatsu castle, with trusted generals such as Takigawa Kazumasu and Sakuma Nobumori given the task of defending it. This was certainly a great honor, mostly likely due to Kazumasu’s track record of successfully managing captured castles during the campaign in Northern Ise. In 1572, as the joint forces prepared to set their plan into motion, Takigawa assisted in administrative duties at Hamamatsu castle and the given area around it, along with maintaining diplomatic relations, and administrative duties.

At some point it was discovered that Shingen wasn’t heading for Hamamatsu castle, but instead commanded his troops to pass by and entrap Nobunaga and his force with the Takeda army moving in several parts. Kazumasu and Nobumori of the Oda force, along with other officers of the Tokugawa force tried to advice Ieyasu against the planned trap, especially since his force was still outnumbered. Ieyasu, on the other hand, did not heed to the advice, and continued with the intended plan. Taking position up on Mikatagahara, Ieyasu ordered his troops to charge at the passing Takeda troops. Kazumasu, along with Sakuma Nobumori and other generals combined their efforts with the Tokugawa force, intending to overcome their larger opponents with the newer technology of rifles. Initially this ambush appeared to have worked, as it caused some disarray in their formation. However, it proved to not be enough as Shingen had his cavalry units run through the gunners, disrupting their attack while killing unprepared soldiers.

A 3-section art piece entitled, “Mikatagahara no Tatakai” ( 三方ヶ原の戦い , Battle at Mikatagahara). In the center panel is Takeda Shingen, who’s leading his cavalry in the right panel against the Tokugawa force in the left panel By Yōshu Chikanobu.

Both the Oda and Tokugawa troops were overwhelmed by the Takeda army’s exceptionally crafted strategies and militaristic discipline, while their formations crumbled before the cavalry assaults. In the long run, much casualties were faced on the defenders’ side, especially with the lost of Nobunaga’s close retainer Hirate Hirohide. Kazumasu and others retreated off the field in order to save their lives. Ieyasu not only had to fled back to Hamamatsu castle to save himself, but lost many soldiers and important officers as they tried to cover his retreat.

It was clear that Takeda Shingen was the superior force, while a looming fear crept on the losing side that he would succeed in defeating Nobunaga and capture parts of the eastern provinces. What will happen to Takigawa Kazumasu and his companions? Will they survive? Could the mighty Shingen be stopped? Tune in to part 4 to find out the outcome.


1) Around this time, Oda Nobunaga was making an agreement with displaced Ashikaga Yoshiaki, who was trying to continue his family’s line of shogunate rulers by gaining entry into Kyoto.

2) Interestingly, Mino Province in next to Kuwana, where the Kitabatake family were located in

3) During the Northern Ise campaign, Oda Nobunaga was able to claim Ise Ueno castle through peace relations with Nagano Tomofuji. This was solidified through marriage between Nobunaga’s younger brother, Nobukane, and Tomofuji’s niece.

4) Details about him are scarce. It is not clear if Yatsumaro (八麿) was a biological son of Kazumasu’s. One thing that is clear is that this deal benefited Oda Nobunaga a great deal, for when Fujiatsu is out of the picture, Yatsumaro would claim Anō castle.

5) Around 1568, Nobunaga was multitasking between the Northern Ise campaign and assisting Ashikaga Yoshiaki into becoming the next shogun. As Oda headed to Kyoto to help Yoshiaki gain entrance, there were many that had some connection with the Imperial court who opposed this, such as the Miyoshi clan, Asai clan, Araki clan, and even Kennyo of Ishiyama Honganji. They made a pact called “Nobunaga Hōimō” (信長包囲網, Anti-Nobunaga network). Takeda Shingen was also against Nobunaga, and was recruited by these opposers to help subdue this growing threat. Apparently Shingen had mobilized an army, but was kept back through the assistance of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

6) Here I use loosely the term “warrior monks”, which is sōhei (僧兵) in Japanese, as this is common term. However, it has to be pointed out that there’s a large misconception regarding warrior monks, not on in the West but in Japan as well. While the idea sounds similar to say the Shaolin monks in China, warrior monks were not necessarily Buddhist monks, or fully ordained. Books like “The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History” (Mikael S. Adolphson) goes into deep details regarding Japanese researchers and how they’ve been able to get a better picture through surviving accounts about warriors who represent the military strength recruited by these Buddhist temples. In many cases, they were oftentimes warriors hired to protect the temple. This isn’t saying that monks themselves didn’t go to war, but at what rate can these warriors be called “Buddhist monks” is the point here.

Also, while the popular image has these hired “warrior monks” dressed in robes and have a shawl wrapped around their head and face, in reality their appearance was, in many cases, similar to that of regular warriors. There may have been few who do fit the stereotypical image, but it may be more related to them being of status where they could dress with extra attire to distinguish themselves. This is not unusual.

7) This is “Kai no tora” (甲斐の虎) in Japanese

The Modern and Older form of Kodomo no Hi

Many older holidays and celebrations from Japan have a deep and intricate background. Nowadays they have been simplified one way or another, with the focus on the core component. This has to do in part with social practices of old do not have the same role in Japan’s society as a whole as it once used to. Still, some areas in Japan pay recognition to the older history of these celebrations, while great efforts are made to preserve their details in documentations.

LOOKING AT KODOMO NO HI

Let’s look one of Japan’s more well-celebrated holidays, “Kodomo no Hi” (子供の日), or “Children’s Day” in English, which takes place on May 5th this year. Kodomo no Hi is a celebration for kids, where parents pray for the to grow up healthy and strong. This is similar to how girls’ healthy future is prayed for during the holiday known as Hinamatsuri. There are different ways to go about celebrating this. One way that has a traditional background is where families place a small display featuring a kabuto (兜, tradition helmet used with armor), yumiya (弓矢, bow with arrows in a quiver), and a tachi (太刀, battlefield sword) out in their home, which is symbolic for protection from harm. Another is shōbuyu (菖蒲湯), where stalks of iris are used in conjunction with water or sake in the form of a remedy to drive away bad spirits.

The more popular practice during Kodomo no Hi is to celebrate with koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers. Koinobori are generally strung together in a large mass on a pole or on a cable in between poles in one’s area or around public places, with a yaguruma (矢車, wheel consisting of arrows) on top. Looking at the history behind the concept of koinobori, we learn that It has a connection with the Chinese myth of carps that are able to swim up a particular waterfall will turn into dragons, which was adapted into Japan’s culture. Carp are also seen as a creature of spiritual significance, where they have a long lifespan, and can adapt to different environments. These traits, and more, are what parents pray for in their children. Adding a yaguruma on top of a pole is symbolic for informing the gods of children’s birth and residence in the area in order to receive their blessings, as well as to drive away evil spirits.

Koinobori are made in different colors. The meaning behind these colors have changed over the centuries since mid Edo period. At first the colors used was based on what was popular in one’s region, such as families in eastern Japan would use gold and silver, while families in western Japan would use black and red. Later, the colors became generalized as koinobori were designed in predetermined sizes and colors. They were displayed in a pack on Kodomo no Hi to represent one’s family. For example, the largest koinobori would be a black color and represent the father, the 2nd largest would be a red color and represent the mom, while the smaller one would be a blue color and represent children. Eventually this would be expanded, featuring much smaller ones in a green or pink color.

As mentioned earlier, the design that is commonly recognized as koinobori was popular in eastern and western parts of Japan. Other regions also adopted different designs and shapes as the practice spread. For example, there are hata sashimono (旗指物, flag banners) such as enobori (絵のぼり, picture streamers) and furafu (フラフ, flags), which consists of images of carps, famous warriors from fairy tales, and other artworks that are related to the theme of Kodomo no Hi.

LOOKING AT TANGO NO SEKKU

Kodomo no Hi is actually a modern naming convention petitioned in 1948, in an attempt for reformation of a new holiday that was more suitable to support the new, younger generation¹. Before this change, it was originally known under the title “Tango no Sekku” (端午の節句). Practice of this starting as early as the Kamakura period (1185~1333), the meaning of this title can be interpreted as “the seasonal celebration of the beginning of the 5th”. However, this title has more components due to its connection to the older Lunar calendar and the Zodiac signs, which can be easily explained If we break down the words individually:

  • Tan (端) = Edge, side (beginning)
  • Go (午) = Horse (Zodiac), fifth month (Lunar Calendar)
  • Sekku (節句) = Seasonal festival or celebration

The kanji or Chinese characters used incorporate a bit of play on words in order to grasp the meaning. The use of “tan” here is to identify the start of good weather in the new season, which would’ve been summer according to the old calendar². The word “go” has two sources but line up perfectly in meaning, for while the kanji “午” means horse according to the Zodiac signs, it is designated to the 5th month on the old calendar. On top of this, its pronunciation is the same as the number 5 (五, go) in Japanese. Along with all of these points, Tango no Sekku takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month, which makes it an auspicious occasion to receive blessings from revered gods, as well as has strong ties with divination practice Onmyōdō (陰陽道) and what are considered lucky numbers. With number 5 being one of those lucky numbers, this makes the 5th day of the 5th month an important date³.

Originally, Tango no Sekku was a day to celebrate young boys and pray for their healthy growth. One of the reasons is credited to an older practice of “Shōbu no Sekku” (菖蒲の節句), where shōbu (菖蒲, iris) and other types of herbs & vegetation were used for medicinal practices and environmental purification by Imperial & noble families. As a play on words, “shōbu” (尚武, militaristic spirit) was used to inspire creating a festival were families prayed for boys to grow into strong warriors. Since from the Kamakura era onward the road to success was believed to be in becoming a military family, a large display called “gogatsu ningyō” (5th Month Dolls) was placed within one’s home to represent this belief. On this display were items that symbolized protection from harm and ill fortune, such as a miniature kacchū (甲冑, armor), a musha ningyō (武者人形, a warrior figurine), a toy horse, mock weapons such as bow & arrows and a battlefield sword, taiko (太鼓, drums), kamon hata (家紋旗, banners with family emblems), and so on. Dolls of famous fabled characters were also included, such as Momotaro, Musashi Benkei, and Kintaro. Koinobori is also believed to have been used at some point as well, although not throughout Japan until later in the Edo period.

IMPORTANT DISHES FOR THE CELEBRATION

There are popular snacks and food to eat on Kodomo no Hi today, which were passed down from the older Tango no Sekku:

  • Kashiwamochi (柏餅)
  • Chimaki (粽)
  • Takenoko (竹の子)

Kashiwamochi is mochi wrapped in a kashiwa leaf. Other than mochi being the common treat in many celebrations, the use of the kashiwa was due to the fact that it was a leaf that stayed on a tree for a very long time. This resilience was inspiring, and would symbolize having the ability to keep one’s family line intact. Chimaki is similar to Kashiwamochi, except that it’s made of a sticky rice such as mochikome (もち米), consisting of a variety of fillings, and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which molds it into an elongated or triangular shape. Lastly, takenoko is bamboo shoot that is steamed and eaten in various ways, with it being topped over rice (called takenoko gohan / 竹の子御飯) being one of the more popular ways.

According to the Tango no Sekku theme, these foods are meant to promote a long lifespan for boys using natural ingredients. Of course, this has now been extended to girls as well, as Kodomo no Hi promotes all kids should be taken care of evenly. Note that depending on the region, there are numerous ways in which the following foods are made, with some being more different than others.

ENDING

In conclusion, Kodomo no Hi is but one of the many examples of how a day of celebration can look simple visually, yet possesses layers of deep and complex history once delved into. While its older form, Tango no Sekku, has historical components that are a telltale of how society used to be, this doesn’t take away from the modern development of Kodomo no Hi and how families celebrate it.


1) Along with praying for kids’ health and fortune, Kodomo no Hi also includes giving thanks to mothers for giving birth to and helping to raise kids.

2) While Tango no Sekku was a celebration for boys, there were special events for girls as well almost at the same time. However, they greatly varied depending on the region.

3) These 5 numbers are the following: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. They make up the positive or yō (陽, yang) numbers of the in-yo (or yin-yang). In turn, there are 5 seasonal celebrations, called Go-sekku (五節句), which take place on the following dates:

  • January 7th
  • March 3rd
  • May 5th
  • July 7th
  • September 9th