Troop formation and group strategies are an interesting topic for those who enjoy studying how wars and battles were conducted from historical documents. Taking a look what texts and illustrations are left behind from medieval Japan, such topics are presented either in a sophisticated manner that leaves a lot to desire in terms of effectiveness, or are heavily-coded that usually those who are privy to the unspoken details can decipher it thoroughly. One of the more popular of these are how specific warlords used certain famous formations with their army, which are normally labeled as “jinkei” (陣形).
In this article, examples of coordinated teams or squads called “tegumi” (手組) will be reviewed. Before this, we’ll look at some background info of the source from where it comes from.
MANUSCRIPTS OF KŌKA WARRIORS’ SKILLS
There are many sources that speak on the topic of military practices, some more obscure than others. In 2017, an Edo-period collection of family-owned manuscripts were reproduced, compiled into one book, and presented to the public. This book is titled, “Watanabe Toshinobu kemonjo – Owari-han Kōkamon Kankei Shiryō” (渡辺俊経家文書－尾張藩甲賀者関係史料).
The specifics on these manuscripts are that they were of the Watanabe clan, who were an influential family for several generations within the Kōka region located in present-day Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Within this collection are important info for whoever was head of the family, which includes lineage, contract-like documentation, military-related strategies, combat-related skills, and shinobi-related practices. Warriors of Kōka are especially renown for their expertise in shinobi no jutsu, which is popularly known under the modern label ninjutsu.
Within the book is a section on the military strategies referred to as “Kōka Gunpō”. Here we see a manuscript called “Inyō Yōkan no maki” (陰陽用間の巻). This appears to have been written for intended use by those who engaged in shinobi activities, for the opening statement includes a point that ninjutsu is a pivotal part of the military strategies of Kōka.
ANALYZING THE TEGUMI
Below will be the text and diagrams from the book. Presentation of source material is very simple, so manually typing the text and drawing the diagrams digitally is the route I’ve taken to make formatting the content easily in this article.
The 1st part of this section is the introduction of a formation which consists of 4 different patterns of formation, and are color-coded.
TEGUMI NO HŌ (手組法, Strategy of Group Operation)
Gogyo ichidan (5 Methods – 1st level)
青 赤 黄色 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Aka (Red) Kiiro (Yellow) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Gogyo nidan (5 Methods – 2nd level)
Ao (Blue) Shiro (White)
Gogyo sandan (5 Methods – 3rd level)
青 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Gogyo yonmenpō (5 Methods – 4 sides trick)
青 赤 白 黒
Ao (Blue) Aka (Red) Shiro (White) Kuro (Black)
Taking a guess, there are different teams within each level, each color-coded. Since we are dealing with troop formations, this makes the most logical sense, especially when you compare with other documentations on like subject. It is even possible that number of members distributed within each team are evenly proportional. The following information below leans toward this.
右人数ニ拾人一組 A team of 20+ members to the right
Were these intended for infiltration purposes or battlefield engagement? Possibly for raiding an enemy fort? It’s possible with a small number of troops, especially during the night. Unfortunately, the use of Tegumi no hō is not stated in the text, so we can only speculate. Let’s move on for more clues.
Next in the section we get our 1st visual troop formation coupled with a diagram. Here’s a digital recreation of both the diagram and the troop formation.
ICHIKUMI YONMENBI (一組四面備, 4-sided arranged team)
This formation gives an example of tactical application. Visually we can see there are four teams made up with 5 lines each, which are determined based on the simple use of cardinal directions north, south, east, and west. There is also one more group, which, assuming it follows the directions style in the manuscript, is positioned in the north-west. Considering how the northern team is positioned, it’s possible that there is someone of importance there, such as a field commander, and the 5th team is added security from a flank. Unfortunately, there’s not enough information to verify this or the purpose of the 5th team.
Something worth mentioning is this is possibly related to the previous Tegumi no hō, for different teams color-coded can easily be applied to this 4-way pattern.
After this 4-way pattern is the following label.
人数百人一手一組 Army of 100-troop divisions
Here, the number of troops in this formation is 100. Should this number be taken as a literal count? It’s possible, but it could be another case where it represents an estimate of a large brigade with individuals operating in groups. If this numerical value is to be taken as accurate, then each team is made up of 20 troops, with each line represent 4 soldiers.
The next insert follows in suit with having 4 teams.
ITTE YONMEN NO ZU (一手四面之図, Diagram of a 4-sided division)
青/blue 黄/yellow 白/white
Once again we get a description of some form of formation according to the cardinal directions, along with the use of color labels from the Gogyo Tegumi no hō. However, this formation may not be for the army itself, for in the diagram we see long rectangle-like structures. It’s possible that these are obstacles like barricades positioned in a way to make advancement for the opposition difficult, while the defending side takes up advantageous positioning to rout them from whichever side they emerge from. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of how to use this.
Along with the diagrams we get the following text.
人数四百人一手四組 Four teams that are made up of an army of 400 soldiers.
If we take the number literally, this could mean that 400 soldiers are broken into 4 teams, possibly with each made up of an even number of 100.
Now we look at the final diagram.
GOGYO HACHIDAN-ZU (五行八段図, Diagram of 5 Methods 8th-level)
same 125 soldiers same
125 soldiers Castle 125 soldiers
same 125 soldiers same
Along with this, follows the text below.
右人数千人 To the right¹, formation consisting of 1000 soldiers
Here we get the implication of the Gogyo Tegumi no hō pattern used on a much larger scale. We can assume that the color labels are applied to each team, making up the north-south-east-west pattern. However, what about the other 4 teams at the diagonals? Seeing how 4-way pattern has been the main theme so far, this methodology can be doubled by applying another 4 teams at the diagonals as well.
At the center of this formation is yet again a point of interest. In the diagram we get a label that stands for “castle”. Could the formation be a defensive one, or an offensive one?
This concludes our look into a surviving manuscript with group teamwork recorded. It’s a shame that the diagrams do not come with more descriptions in order to get a better understand, but this is to be expected with content that could be compromised if it fell in the hands of a rival. This article is the 1st on the topic of troop strategies from medieval Japan, as there are more I have plan to cover soon.
1) The manuscript originally follows the old-fashioned reading style of right-to-left, top-to-bottom, with the text essentially coming after the diagram. Thus, the reason why the text refers to the diagram “to the right”.
Over the years I’ve reviewed several old works that are accredited to one of Japan’s famous historical strategists, Yamamoto Kansuke. Employed under one of Japanese history’s most decorated warlords, Takeda Shingen, Kansuke is recorded as contributing much to the advancement of the Takeda army’s military career, both on and off the battlefield. There are many documents that given recognition to him, some of which have already been covered on this blog site. For today’s article, we will look over yet another one of these documents, which is known as “Rōdanshū”.
IDENTIFYING A SCROLL ON WAR-TIME NINJUTSU
The title Rōdanshū (老談集)¹ can be loosely translated as “A Collection of Conversations from the Experienced”. It is arguably labeled as a ninjutsu scroll, one that is related to a division of the Takeda army that specialized in scouting & shinobi-like activities that is dubbed “Kōyō ryū” (甲陽流), which Kansuke is lauded as contributing to. This is also usually regarded as a “picture scroll”, for it contains many illustrations of different, somewhat exotic, tools that ninja are said to have used as early as the Sengoku period. However, it actually has a 2nd section with no pictures, but instead contains instructions on important skills for those who are active on the field, possibly while doing scouting work.
As a whole, the illustrations found in the Rōdanshū aren’t what one would expect from a ninjutsu scroll; instead of the more stereotypical weapons and items that are iconic to those who would be called a ninja, we see many items that appear to be gear and tools one would use during non-combative scenarios. For example, there is a garment worn around the torso called koshi-ate (腰当て), a type of lantern carried while on horseback, a flotation device using a spear called ukibashi (浮き橋), and a collapsible boat, to name a few. Of course, they don’t appear to be standard items just anyone would use both in design and in the instructions given (which is not included for many), giving the idea that these tools present in the scroll are unique for ninja use. On top of this, the Rōdanshū gives us an idea of what a ninja would actually use during a warring period if their job was to spy on the enemy or evaluate an area.
The written section of the Rōdanshū further supports the idea stated above as it goes over instructions on what a ninja should in relations to certain activities while out in the field. No information about stealth techniques, but instead how-to descriptions regarding certain items that would help for survival, operating in the dark, choosing essential gear for a horse, and so on. With careful evaluation, one can understand that the contents of the Rōdanshū are indeed a representation of the ideology for engaging in scouting and shinobi activities used by the Takeda military, and that they appear to have been put into practice for quite some time.
UNDERSTANDING THE WRITTEN LESSONS
I’ve taken the time to read and research the contents located in the written section of the scroll. Below I will provide some transliteration of each of the topics presented, as well as a concise summary of what is being discussed.
Hyōrōgan (兵狼丸) Energy pills that were carried during field work. Only one type is mentioned here, along with its ingredients, such as urukome (ウル米, type of sticky rice), yokunin (よくにん, coix seeds), and kōri zatō (氷砂糖, rock candy). Interesting, there’s a not about it being okay to feed your horse this alongside with water.
Imagawa-dono no Akagusuri (今川殿赤藥) A red-colored medicine that is accredited to Imagawa Ujizane (今川氏真), a warlord who occupied Suruga Province (駿河の国, present day central Shizuoka Prefecture). Used to relieve stomach ache. Note that in different, yet relatable sources, there are varying thoughts about whether this was designed only for human consumption, or if this can also be fed to one’s horse.
Taimatsu (明松) A torch that uses a bamboo as a tube and kindling. Ingredients include matsubikiko (松引粉, grounded pine), hai (灰, ash), and azukiko (小豆粉, red bean powder). This is also called arimatsu (有松).
Mizu tsuimatsu (水續松) A type of torch-like instrument used on the water. This is possible due to oil being one of its ingredients, to keep the flame going in case it gets wet.
Kusa musubi no hi (草結ノ火) This is similar to the taimatsu mentioned above, but is a lighting instrument used while in a boat. By design, it is supposed to be resilient to bad weather conditions, and stay lit even against strong winds.
Dōmei (同銘) A type of metallic device that can be used with either water or fire for various purposes.
Ōhikaribi (大光火) A type of fire device used by armies at night. One of the main ingredients is the konara no ki (コナラの木), a type of East Asian oak tree identified as “Quercus serrata” in English. There are metal fixtures fastened to it.
Dō no hi (胴ノ火) A body warming device that, once lit, will retain heat up to 12 hours. Used especially during operations in cold conditions.
Ukigutsu tōyu no koshiraeyō (浮沓 唐油ノ拵樣) A type of footwear used for crossing water. Apparently it helps with not sinking if used with a specialized oil.
Fune no tōyu (舩の唐油) Using specific ingredients included with a unique oil, you can easily drag a boat onto land.
Yoruuchi no Tsuimatsu nagebi no koto (夜討ノ續松投火の事) A type of device that is thrown at an enemy’s camp or such to cause a fire during night raids.
Bagu no koto (馬具之事) This covers certain points regarding gear used by horses. Some of these points include:
How to tether a horse while it’s drinking water
Thickness of the pad underneath the saddle
Type of saddle accessories that’ll keep a horse warm during cold periods
Uma no koto (馬之事) Instructions concerning horses, it goes into details regarding which types of horses are essential in specific situations. This includes:
Keeping the horse’s mane in check
Umanori yō no kuden (馬乗り樣之口傳) Advice and lessons regarding horseback riding. This is pretty extensive, as it references scenarios that include:
While wearing armor
When needing to lay low in a river while on horseback
How to stay quiet while approaching a town
ADDRESSING THE INCONSISTENCIES
Now, to talk about some odd points regarding the Rōdanshū. The knowledge found in this scroll is credited to Yamamoto Kansuke, but the one to actually write the scroll is a Baba Nobuharu (馬場信春), one of Takeda Shingen’s loyal retainers. Nobuharu is recorded as a specialized field agent performing shinobi-like duties, so it would make sense that he would have a deep connection to the contents of this scroll. Interestingly, his signature, where he uses his official title of “Baba Mino-no-mori” (馬場美濃守), is in the back of the Rōdanshū, and not Yamamoto Kansuke’s. Did Kansuke actually give important input for this scroll?
Speaking of signatures, there is usually a date and the name of a recipient along with the signature of the one issuing such scroll. This is where things become very inconsistent. For starters, the date in the Rōdanshū referenced in this article is 1827, or the 7th year of the Kaei era (嘉永七年) in older Japanese time keeping. In yet another version that I have, the date is different in that one, where it reads as 1845, or 2nd year of the Kōka era (弘化二年). On top of this, the signatures vary greatly, with the one reviewed here having several, including 2 names of individuals who have received this very scroll at 2 different time periods. Yet, in the other version, there is only one recipient signature. Why is this? What about an original copy?
One thing that needs to be understood is that, from what I am able to gather, there are many copies of the original Rōdanshū. It seems like during the 1800s this was passed down to different people in varying years. While the details of this is unknown, we can play with the idea that the Rōdanshū isn’t an antique relic, but was still in use way after the Sengoku period. This isn’t an unusual practice, to be honest, as some older documents were circulated as “living lessons” during the Edo period. This doesn’t invalidate it as being “authentic”, as long as its core lessons weren’t changed. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see some versions of the Rōdanshū kept in museums, while copies of others being sold in auctions in Japan. As for the original, there are no details regarding this.
This concludes our review of the ninjutsu scroll called Rōdanshū. Out of the many documentations I’ve reviewed, I must admit that this gives a more realistic perspective of the tasks a ninja would have while on the field during medieval Japan’s warring times, and the tools they would’ve needed to utilize. It is very utilitarian, creative, and not heavy on the combative side. Yamamoto Kansuke is said to have learned many aspects of military practices, including ninjutsu. If this is truly the case and his knowledge was incorporated into the Rōdanshū, then the fame he gets is well-earned.
1) Based on the version, the title could be much longer. The one being reviewed here has the full title of “Kōshū ryū Ninpō Hiden Rōdanshū” (甲州流忍法秘伝老談集).
In today’s generation, martial arts schools offer lessons to all, as long as necessary requisites can be fulfilled (i.e. covering fees). Through years of dedication, all can learn pretty much what is offered in a progressive format from basics to advanced techniques, and receive acclaims as proof of such hard work. Furthermore, anyone can continue their training for as long as they want, even to their elderly years. These are great points we can enjoy in modern times. However, this was a different story in Japan of old.
Here’s food for thought, about a different approach that goes against the norm. There was once s a martial system known as Kusaka Ichimune ryū (日下一旨流), which specialized in a number of disciplines, such as sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques) and jūjutsu (柔術, hand-to-hand grappling techniques). This martial system no longer exists, but there are scrolls of it that still remain. On a website called “Kobujutsu Hōzonkai ‘Getsurindō’“, a researcher presents one of the remaining scrolls from this particular system that is called “Onna Naginata”, which is about women’s naginatajutsu. Dated 1854, it contains a list of technique names, but right before this section is something a foreword about this discipline. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my own English transliteration.
ENGLISH: “Our women’s naginata style is different from that of what boys learn. Women will learn all that is to be passed down, for they will be taught gradually the means of attaining victory against an opponent as advanced techniques and secret lessons are taught early in their training. This is due to not being able to engage in grueling training over many years like boys can.”
What is understood from this message is that contrary to the teaching methods most people would imagine, this particular system allows women to learn much of what Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s naginatajutsu has to offer almost from the start. This is a dream for many engaged in martial arts today. However, this is because women could not spend years upon years being engrossed in personal perfection in combative training. Why was that? The answer lies in how Japanese society was structured during the Edo periond.
PROGRESSION OF JAPAN’S MARTIAL ARTS
Let’s go over a quick summary about the development of Japan’s martial systems, as this went through several stages of changes. During Japan’s ancient periods, the methods of warfare was in its infantry years, for families with combat background specialized in combat methods that were either native to them (i.e. archery), or whatever that was brought to this island country from China and Korea. As time went on, certain families rose up and became prosperous as they supported & worked for the Imperial line, and continued to improve on combat methods through campaigns in the northern part of Japan, or against those who were considered a threat. Once Japan became a military state, war became a constant against power-driven elite families that could afford their own military, all the way to the late 1500s of Sengoku period. Within old documentation, martial training is recorded as being designated to elite military families that either had their own tradition, could send their children to learn at a temple, or families that had a background for bearing weapons for survival. This wasn’t only permitted to boys, as there were girls too who, born in military families, were given martial training.
Fast forward to 1600s of the Edo period, martial training transformed into something more formalized and accessible with the opening of martial arts schools, as well as instructions in-house. Documentations about martial training from 1600s to early1800s illustrate this primarily from men’s perspective, where they could spend years perfecting their craft by taking up careers that involved combat, such as an instructor, running a dojo, and doing police/guard work. However, women didn’t have the same chances during these times when Japan was progressing towards modernization, as they were expected to get married, settle down and handle other tasks, such as child care, house work, or working for shops. While wars were not a common thing as pre-Edo period, martial training was still handled with serious attention, which men were given the chances to engage in with full commitment especially as a career; this meant they could invest as much time needed to attain full transmission of a martial system, could teach at their own schools, as well as able to inherit ownership of it. On the other side of the spectrum, women were not generally given these opportunities. While there are few rare cases of martial system being passed into the hand of women, these scenarios come up because there wasn’t a male heir present at the time.
ADVANTAGES OF MARTIAL STUDIES WITH NO LIMITATIONS
Taking the time to research about lifestyle and occupations during much of Edo period, it becomes evident the world of martial arts was a playground for boys. This didn’t mean that women didn’t learn at all; one of the more popular impression is that women born in or hired to work within the household of a military family would be taught a number of different disciplines as a means of survival and to protect the home. In fact, when it comes down to the naginata, it is said that women of a castle in Chikugō Province (筑後国, now present-day southern Fukuoka Prefecture) were taught this to be as a line of defense in case of an invasion¹.
The method for teaching women naginatajutsu in the now defunct Kusaka Ichimune ryū appears to have, theoretically, come with many perks. Let’s take a quick look at what these could be.
Learning the effectiveness of techniques quicker
Having access to most, if not all, of the content
Taught advanced techniques and secret lessons early
If we take the message from Kusaka Ichimune ryū as one that reflects the trend of how women’s naginata² was taught as a standard during early/mid Edo period, then their training should be considered real throughout. When you think about it, if the available time for practice was shorter than men’s, then it is logical to only teach effective lessons so that they can immediately use what is taught. The learning process could be what most would expect: being taught the “secrets” of application alongside the study of the basics, doing repetitive drills, learning techniques, and engaging in set forms. Instructions were probably much straight forward and to the point, with the end goal taught clearly so that women could handle danger immediately. There are many merits to this.
In terms of actual content, there was probably less holding back in the lessons. This can be a two-fold argument, however, depending on how this is viewed. On one hand, if women were trained to be capable of defending their home, then what better way than to teach them everything they would need? This could also include complex or intricate techniques, along with advice & instructions on subject matters that, from a men’s perspective, would only be learn after decades of studying under a teacher and earning their trust. On the other hand, it could be that the level of the skills learned in this naginata style may not have been so complex, which could be why such a curriculum could be used. For example, if Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s women’s naginata was streamlined off of what was once used on the battlefield, it could be that tactics used in formations, against armored opponents, cutting methods, etc. were omitted, leaving a more bare-boned version. Since the intended goal was not to have women run onto the battlefield, but instead deal with one, or a handful of enemies within an indoor setting, then their version of naginatajutsu had to be taught differently. Of course, this isn’t a strong argument anyone can make wholeheartedly, for many martial systems went through this same change and focus was geared towards what was needed during this time once big battles were not a normal occurrence during Edo period. This is especially evident once hand-to-hand martial systems grew in popularity. Realistically, an assertive evaluation on the contents cannot be made, since Kusaka Ichimune ryū has already died out, meaning we can only speculate and make educational guesses.
Now, one of the more interesting points to be discussed regarding women’s naginata of Kusaka Ichimune ryū is the idea of advanced techniques and secret teachings being instructed in the early stages of training. One of the benefits of this is being inducted into the true methodology of this martial system, along with understanding how to utilize it at its fullest in a shorter time. Of course, this probably has some guidelines, as this could be problematic on its own. Considering the proficiency needed for more advanced-level skills, it would not be so fruitful to teach them to those who are brand new on their 1st day as a whole. Most likely they were coupled in with basic training, and introduced progressively so not to become too confusing or difficult to comprehend. Meaning, as each woman developed their foundation in basic movements, executing proper cuts, understanding the concept of distancing, and so on, they would then be introduced to advanced techniques that would cement their potential utilization of the skills being developed, as well as be instructed on the secret lessons that would make all that is being taught usable almost immediately.
While women’s training in martial arts may not have been so extensive during the Edo period, it is much different in modern times, as many women train freely to their heart’s content. There are even renown female headmasters of their own martial systems in Japan today, such as Ogihara Haruko of Jiki Shikage ryū, Kimura Kyōko of Tendo ryū, and Koyama Nobuko of Yoshin ryū, as they run their respective schools teaching young girls, as well as boys, the methods of handling the naginata, along with other weapons. Still, if older martial arts systems like Kusaka Ichimune ryū serves as an example, it’s quite amazing that the training for women’s naginatajutsu was so accelerated in such a short time. While I personally enjoy the traditional way of studying Japanese martial arts, it could be satisfying to engage in learning where all secrets are offered at the start of one’s journey down the path as a martial artist.
1) Part of the history of a different ryūha known as Yoshin ryū Naginatajutsu (楊心流薙刀術).
2) This also should include other disciplines that were available, such as kusarigamajutsu and kodachijutsu
In a previous set of articles, brave acts with the Japanese spear were covered, as well as a few famous ones that still exist today¹. These examples illustrate the importance this weapon had in Japanese history. The same can be said about the Japanese sword, with a great amount of stories especially coming forth during the Edo period; these are often painted as an essential tool part of the arsenal of warriors during the Sengoku period, as well as being the symbol of the samurai class during the Edo period. Many of the tales concerning swords even touch on levels one would deem supernatural.
For this article, we’ll look at 3 unique stories that tell about amazing feats done with the Japanese sword. Each story has an interesting point to illustrate, which ranges from the greatness of the wielder to the sword itself being nothing short of mystical. As amazing the feat is, keep in mind that they shouldn’t be taken literally.
STORY #1: YAGYŪ AND THE DIVIDED STONE
There is a legendary story that comes from the Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine (天石立神社, Ama-no-Iwatate Jinja) in Nara prefecture, which is home to a very large stone on its property. Measuring at about 26 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 6 feet & 1/2 high, this stone is fabled as the very one used by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu to seal herself in a cave. Today, it is a critical center piece behind the founding of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine. However, the story we will be reviewing isn’t about the shrine’s origin, but concerns one of the more renown swordsmen during Edo period, whose name is Yagyū Muneyoshi (柳生宗厳).
A seasoned warrior on the battlefield during Japan’s warring years, Muneyoshi is the founder of Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) during the Edo period, a popular martial system that specialized in combat with the Japanese sword, which many still practice today. Well, it just so happens that the large stone of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine also plays a significant role in how Muneyoshi founded his style.
There was a time Muneyoshi went on a training journey to further improve his sword skills. For this, he went to Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine and stayed there for awhile. One day, when he was training on the grounds of the shrine, a tengu (天狗, a long-nosed goblin with wings) suddenly appeared, as if challenging the warrior. Muneyoshi fought fiercely with the tengu, as they both went back and forth with blows. Channeling his intention, Muneyoshi swiftly delivered a downward finishing cut that the Tengu couldn’t stop, cleaving him in half. In the next moment, Muneyoshi’s opponent disappeared, and was replaced by the large stone that was originally sitting not too far from him while he was training. He was so intent on victory, that his blade was able to cut through stone.
The large stone would later be called “Ittōseki” (一刀石, stone divided by a single sword swing) once an account of Muneyoshi’s feat was learned. It’s perfectly split from top to bottom at an angle, which would take an enormous amount of brute strength to achieve. The point to take from this tale is that near impossible feats can be achieved through sheer intention, where one is harmoniously in tune entirely on 3 levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.
STORY #2: A BLESSED SWORD AND A WINE BARREL
This next story concerns the Mijima Shrine in Izu, located in Ooshima (eastern part of present-day Tokyo). Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎), the pioneer of the martial system known as “Ittō ryū” (一刀流), was residing there in his youth during a time when he wanted to learn kenjutsu. After a period of self-training through determination, the shrine’s head priest was moved, and decided to pass on a sword named Ichimonji (一文字) to the youth. This would be the 1st sword that Ittōsai would receive so he could begin to learn kenjutsu properly. Ichimonji was not only fabled to have a fine edge, it helped its young owner develop a skill that is quite a feat.
Before he became a renown swordsman, Ittōsai was described as a youth who had much potential in kenjutsu. The head priest acknowledged this as he convinced the youth to head on a journey to find a competent swordsmaster, which he agreed to fund. On the day he received Ichimonji, the sword was blessed with ceremonial rice wine, and passed on to him without proper fittings². Late in the night, right before his trip, Ittōsai heard commotions in the shrine, and learned that it was being looted by a gang of thieves. Unsheathing the sword which only had a wooden handle, he charged at the thieves. Despite them being armed and outnumbering him, the thieves fell to his sword one-by-one, as he displayed great handling. The last thief retreated to a room where wooded barrels used to store blessed rice wine are kept, and hid in an empty one hoping to escape later unseen. Ittōsai gave chase and, upon entering the room, was able to perceive where the thief was hiding. In one swift motion, he rushed at the barrel and cleaved through the barrel, which not only collapsed in two, the thief inside also fell along with it, severed from his torso down.
This remarkable feat of cleaving both the wine barrel and the thief would years later serve as a secret technique taught to his highest student, which would be called “dō-giri” (胴斬り)³.
STORY #3: THE DEMON-SLAYING SWORD
This tale involves Hōjō Tokimasa, a figure hailing from the illustrious Hōjō clan. Originally a military commander serving in the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, Tokimasa became the 1st authority figure of the established military-ruled Bakumatsu during the early Kamakura period.
After the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu, Tokimasa went through a period of being plagued by tormenting nightmares, which all involved the appearance of a demon. One night, he went to sleep in his chambers as normal, with his sword next to him. He proceeded to go through another round of nightmares, which made him agitated. As he turned on his bed, his right arm bumped into his sword, which then fell ontop of him. Suddenly, as if willed by a power not of his own, Tokimasa subconsciously drew this sword and swung it, instinctively cutting at the demon within his dreams. His sword instead cut off one of the legs from a table which a hibachi (火鉢, small heating pot) sits on. The exasperated Tokimasa woke up surprised at the scene around him. As he examined the damage done to the table, he noticed that the part of the table leg that was accidentally cut off had the carving of a demon on it. Suspecting that this was the cause of his nightmares, Tokimasa had this part discarded, and from then on, was able to have peaceful nights of pleasant sleep.
This sword of Tokimasa was actually named “Onimaru-kunitsuna” (鬼丸国綱). Known as one of 5 legendary swords in Japanese history, it is distinguished as being a “reitō” (霊刀), or “spirit sword”. This means the unique trait the the Onimaru-kunitsuna bear was the ability to cut things on a spiritual level. Since the small table was cursed by the carving of a demon, this sword was able to “will” its owner to severe the menace at its roots.
This concludes our coverage on stories concerning feats with Japanese swords. These tales were definitely penned to stir the imagination, illustrating famous figures and renown swords in a light of glory. While taking these types of stories as fact is abit difficult, one thing for certain is they are entertaining.
2) A sword prepared for use would have what is called koshirae (拵), which includes a proper sword handle covered with shark skin and cotton wrap, a sword guard, and adorned with metal pieces. Since the Ichimonji was place at the shrine for safe keeping, it was prepped in shirasaya (白鞘), which consisted of a simple wooden sword handle, and housed in a non-lacquered sheath.
3) There is an article that talks on the general use of this term, which can be read here.
There are countless examples of old military manuals and martial arts-related scrolls that have survived to present times. Containing important information regarding combative (and sometimes non-combative) topics, they are usually provided to those privy to the knowledge, or copied by said information with permission to do so. That being said, there can be multiple versions from one source, with each having either slight differences, to not resembling each other at all. There are reasons for this, many which can be deducted to when it was written, who wrote the document in question, who the person was that received it, to whom the audience was. One example of this is the many documents that are stated to come from Yamamoto Kansuke, the famed military strategist during the 16th century.
For today’s article, two types of manuscripts will be presented that fit this topic. Both stated to come from Yamamoto as a singular source, they’ll be examined in terms of content, as well compared to evaluate their similarities and differences.
SPECIFICS OF ORIGIN
Yamamoto Kansuke is an individual highly debated amongst researchers and scholars alike. This stems from topics such as validity of his existence to authenticity of various manuscripts that helped structured the Takeda force and associated groups. When looking at these manuscripts, many are signed by him, or reference him for his impeccable knowledge. Let’s look at two that I have in my immediate collection, which are “Heihō Hidensho” (兵法秘伝書) and “Gunpō Hyōhōki” (軍法兵法記), and look into their background info.
First up will be the Heihō Hidensho. This was one of select works that are said to come from Yamamoto Kansuke’s knowledge on combat. Going by the date of 1701 as when it was written, it would eventually be compiled together with many other documents into a collection in remembrance of the Takeda clan and their rule over Kai (present-day Yamanashi prefecture) during medieval Japan. This collection is called “Kai Sōsho” (甲斐叢書), and has been reproduced on numerous occasions as a large volume of historical reference books from the 1800s to the 1900s by individuals like Hirose Hirokazu (廣瀬廣一), and the group “Kai Sōsho Kankoukai” (甲斐叢書刊行会). The manuscript Heihō Hidensho is located in the 9th volume of the Kai Sōsho.
For this article, the book “Yamamoto Kansuke “Heihō Hidensho””, published by the company Keibunsha, will be the resource used. It not only shares the same name, contains the entire manuscript have been retained. While one can say its source material is dated, this reproduction can be seen as fairly modern, mainly because the original text has been slightly modified to make it easier to read & understand, while still retaining its old Japanese feel. The modifications primarily relate to updating older kanji not part of the standardized Japanese language. There are more unspecified updates/edits in this book version, which will be spoken upon later in this article.
The 2nd resource, “Gunpō Hyōhōki”, is claimed to have been written by Yamamoto upon the order by his lord & ruler of Kai, Takeda Shingen, for the sake of his army. This particular manuscript is dated 1546, and is signed to a Nagasaka Chōkansai¹ by the strategist himself, which can be determined by the signatures in the manuscript. This resource was drafted into 4 parts. One of these parts is called “Kenjutsu no Maki”, which is considered invaluable and possibly a glimpse at what the legendary Kyō ryū² may be based on.
In the book “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi”, there is a section dedicated to Yamamoto Kansuke that includes the Gunpō Hyōhōki to its entirety. This is reproduced in this book as-is in the form of photos from the original source. Note that the original source does exist in a book form, which can be accessed at certain libraries in Japan. Visually, it appears to be an authentic document, as it follows the format of similar documents produced in the 16th century. This includes type of speech, and using a cursive writing style, which proves to be a challenge to read. There are lots of text with the context focusing on kenjutsu
COMPARING THE LAYOUT
To get a clearer picture on the similarities and differences between these two documents, we will look at the contents on military combat, particularly from the Heihō Hidensho’s “Mokuroku” section, and Gunpō Hyōhōki’s “Kenjutsu no maki” section. These are much easier to analyze, even if we don’t look at the particulars in the techniques, as well as being accompanied with pictures. Here’s a partial look at their table of contents:
Heihō Hidensho: Mokuroku
Fighting forms (形勢, Keisei)
Method of hand-to-hand fighting(拳法, Kenpō)
Method of sword fighting (剣法, Kenpō)
Method of staff fighting (棍法, Konpō)
Long-range weapons – naginata, yari (長道具ー鎗、長刀, Nagadōgu – naginata, yari)
Method of archery (弓法, Kyūhō)
Firearms (鐵袍, Teppō)³
Gunpō Hyōhōki Kenjutsu no maki
Three points regarding kenjutsu (劔術三ツの要といふ事)
Postures with 3 height levels when wielding the sword (上中下段かまいの太刀)
Postures with the sword against unexpected encounters (りんきおうへんかまいの太刀
Forms for utilizing dual swords (両刀をつかふの形)
Forms regarding battles between swords and spears (鎗刀戦いかまいの形)
Diagrams of positions during battles between spears and archery (弓鎗戦かまいの圖)
At a glance, there are similarities between each book. For example, both put a great emphasis on sword fighting. Although it is not shown above, Heihō Hidensho’s section called “Kenpō” (Method of sword fighting) has its own table of content that, if listed, would require its own separate article, while everything else can be covered together in another article. In comparison to the Gunpō Hyōhōki, the contents on sword fighting is similar as it has many teachings that focus on using the sword against another fighter with a sword, while there are also lessons on using longer weapons against each other, and a small quip on archery. Interestingly, there is a focus on using a sword against different types of foes. Here are some pics for comparison, starting with those from the Heihō Hidensho on the top row, and Gunpō Hyōhōki on the bottom row:
From another angle, Heihō Hidensho has a dedicated section on hand-to-hand combat called “Kenpō” (拳法), which focuses on using restraining techniques such as grappling and strikes against an opponent while wearing one’s swords sheathed on the side, and whether the opponent attempts to draw their sword or not. For the Gunpō Hyōhōki, it appears that there is no conversation on this. However, it does have several sections that cover this topic, which are “Torite no koto” (捕手の事), and “Jūjutsu-ate no koto” (柔術当ての事). Unfortunately, both are not accompanied with pictures, but instead are coupled with long explanations on the topic. If anything, the Torite no koto section does mention about the possibility of iai techniques during torite, so this could be compared with Heihō Hidensho. For the most part, both manuscripts use this idea of hand-to-hand techniques as more supplemental to kenjutsu.
EMPHASIS ON KENJUTSU TECHNIQUES
As mentioned before, great importance is placed on kenjutsu in both documents. The direction both go with discussing the strategies while using the sword is through postures that signify an attitude or state of mind. The terms to indicate these in Japanese vary depending on the source. For instance, the word “kamae” is a common term for this. In the Heihō Hidensho the term “kensei” is another version, while “kurai” can be found in the Gunpō Hyōhōki. One thing to understand when interpreting these is that these postures, despite which label is used, are not static stances. Instead, they represent strategic points of movement in response to the situation against the enemy.
First, let’s review a list of select techniques in the form of kamae from Heihō Hidensho:
Hira jōgo kensei (平上後剣勢)
Migi jōgo kensei / Hassō (右上後剣勢)
Hira ue musubi mae kensei / Takanami (平上結前剣勢・高波)
Hidari ue musubi Mae kensei / Jōdan no Kasumi (左上結前剣勢・上段の霞)
Hidari ue mae kensei / Kissaki Oyobi (左上前剣勢・切先及び)
Hira ue mae kensei / Tōhō (平上前剣勢・当法)
Migi naka musubi Mae kensei / Chūdan no Kasumi (右中結前剣勢・中段の霞)
Hidari naka mae kensei / Yoko Seigan (左中前剣勢・横青眼)
Migi shita ushiro kensei / Sha (右下後剣勢・車)
Migi shita musubi mae kensei (右下結前剣勢)
Each of these kamae are listed on their own page, as there are thorough explanations and examples on how they can be utilized against an opponent. The name for each one is more descriptive in terms of how they are assumed, although some of them do have alternate, unique names that are expresses a concept of imagery, which are used in different martial arts schools. At their core, they are variations of kamae that most practitioners of kenjutsu, kendō, gekiken, and the like should be familiar with. For example, from left to right:
Hidari ue musubi mae kensei = Kasumi (jōdan)
Hidari naka mae kensei = Seigan (chūdan)
Hidari shita musubi ato kensei = Waki (gedan)⁴
For each kamae are explanations on how they can be utilized based on the enemy’s actions. The defender’s response isn’t as strict in terms of the counter attack, which makes things a little open-ended for interpretation. For example:
TRANS: The opponent takes the initiative and attempts to strike. Carefully watch when the opponent’s sword comes at you, then turn your body sideways with your left leg forward, pull your right leg back, and cut their right hand.
While this paints a rather clear picture in terms of movement using the attacker-defender model, it is also open-ended, for the type of the attack from the opponent is not specified, while the defender’s (us) initial position is not stated. This is pretty much how the techniques play out in this document, making it a supplemental source to any kenjutsu-focused martial arts school that can be studied upon.
Now, we turn our attention to Gunpō Hyōhōki, and look at some of the techniques mentioned:
Jōdan (2 types)
Chūdan (2 Types)
Gedan (2 types)
Denkō no kurai (電光の位)
Kasumi no kurai (霞の位)
Seigan no kurai (清眼の位)
Suigetsu no kurai (水月の位)
Nyūin no kurai (入引の位)
For this section, it starts off explaining the importance on 3 height levels while wielding the sword. They are the following:
Jō-chū-gedan kamae no Tachi
Jōdan (上段) = Upper stance
Chūdan (中段) Middle stance
Gedan (下段) = Lower stance
In almost all styles of kenjutsu and its modern equivalents, the idea of 3 height levels is a common principle. Illustrations show 2 ways of doing these, generally with one having the sword held in front, and the other with the sword held behind. This is abit different from what is shown in Heihō Hidensho, as there is not a great number of kamae where the sword is held behind. In the pictures provided, lengthy descriptions for these kamae and how to apply them is given based on one’s opponent’s actions. Each of the kamae are labeled according to their height level along with a unique name.
Let’s look at the following example below:
Jōdan – Denkō no kurai
This is the posture on the right. As a small explanation, in response to an enemy’s attack, the defender brings the sword above the head to the right, and strikes from overhead.
Take note that the picture sequences are not necessarily correlating with each other, especially in the later parts of the document. Each kamae, side-by-side, is significant in the Gunpō Hyōhōki; what’s important is the descriptions next to them. In a way, it’s a concise format to present lessons without using a step-by-step method.
The relation between the two documents is that Heihō Hidensho also follows the 3 height levels as specified in Gunpō Hyōhōki. Not only that, it follows the same order starting with high level postures, mid-level postures, then ending with low-level postures.
At first glance, when reading the particulars for these, it’s quite normal to think that both manuscripts are authentic & have been kept intact in terms of their original writing. This is certainly not the case for the Heihō Hidensho for a number of reasons which will be explained. As for the Gunpō Hyōhōki, this has a greater probability due to its appearance and contents, for much of the points on combat are done in a conversational manner that is not directly clear unless the reader has initiative knowledge in said topic, as opposed to very detailed, step-by-step descriptions that almost anyone can grasp. Take note that while this fits as what may be expected out of an older manuscript, just how much of it is 100% authentic as the lessons of Yamamoto, and isn’t a product of forgery, is hard to determine.
For the Heihō Hidensho, there are many points to pick up that indicate it’s not the original work. For starters, the original version, which would’ve been handwritten, is not available for view. Instead, we have a reproduction in print type of it in collection of other documents. It is mentioned to be reproduced several times, which most likely includes edits to suit the times, such as the kenjutsu kamae being compared to other unmentioned martial systems by presenting alternate names. Possibly the biggest clue is how the actual contents read; the way combat was approached was vastly different in Sengoku period in comparison to Edo period, and the way Heihō Hidensho reads coincide with the latter. For example, the hand-to-hand techniques demonstrated in it deals with situations in plain clothing and swords sheathed, which was a growing trend during martial artists during mid-to-late Edo period that were focusing more on jūjutsu and iaijutsu. Furthermore, the illustrations for the kenjutsu are not only similar to the style of specific artists during Edo period, but other pictures such as the ones used to illustrate staff techniques are not Japanese at all.
Finally, we look at the connection between both documents. Considering that they come from the same source, one can deduce that they were drafted around the same time period. Of course, this cannot hold up as an argument, since whereas Gunpō Hyōhōki looks to be a more authentic that was kept intact, we only see the typed version of Heihō Hidensho, which is a reproduction of said original source. This is even true when looking at the version in the Kai Sōsho. Despite presentation, if we compare the contents and acknowledge the similarities, (i.e. focus on kenjutsu, scenarios in which strategies for kenjutsu can be applied, etc.) what can be said about the differences? Let’s look at two points that can be considered.
Information may differ based on the person whom was receiving the manuscript – Depending on a person’s rank, or even affiliation, there are cases where one individual would get more clearer notes, while a person may get less. It can be argued that those were highly-ranked group leaders would’ve received a much more detailed documentation, as it would be necessary when training their team. However, for someone who may have been a specialist may receive a more concise version that skims the surface, which could’ve just been enough for that individual.
Manuscript may have been reproduced several times with edits – It is not uncommon that certain contents change and/or get updated by those who own it. This is true for both private documents, those passed on & used in martial arts schools, and those made for public viewing.
If we take Heihō Hidensho and consider it the same as the Gunpō Hyōhōki, then it’s possible it went through much edits and updates. This isn’t a bad thing, for if you think about it, combative knowledge should apply to the current times in order to stay viable⁵. With this in mind, it’s possible that the original lessons of Yamamoto Kansuke are maintained, but altered abit (or alot) so that it could still be applied in a society that still depended on the sword during Edo period.
It is great that there are documents written centuries ago that have been preserved for today’s generation. There are those that give credit to Yamamoto Kansuke, whether stated to have been penned by him or copied with permission. Unfortunately, researchers are faced with the task of validating the legitimacy of these, which tends to be difficult especially for those from Japan, as there’s a high chance they were produced during the peaceful times of Edo period by writers who try to pass them off as much older works. This brings our look at old manuscripts to a close. Hope everyone found this as an informative, and interesting, topic to read.
1) 長坂長閑斎. Historians believe him to be Nagasaka Torafusa (長坂 虎房), who was a retainer of Takeda clan of Kai.
2) 京流. This is one of 8 legendary sword systems that make up the collective group called Kyōhachi ryū. This was discussed in an article on this blog here.
3) This section may have been an add-on, after the development of firearms improved.
4) In this manuscript, there is no alternative name for this posture. However, I added the label here for this article due to it, from my personal experience, resembling the commonly used Waki no kamae, but done on the left side.
5) This same case was brought up for kyūjutsu (archery techniques) during Edo period, which was covered in an article on this blog here.
We continue with part 2 on our discussion about the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. In part 1, we looked into the origin of the story and its possible connection to a real life figure, as well as a version of the story from the collection of the Kōga region-native Mochizuki family. This article will continue in the same vein, where we’ll review another version about Kōga Saburō and how he overcomes the trials of surviving in foreign lands, and managing to make it back home years later. The following version is introduced in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which was mentioned in part 1. This is said to come from the source “Asahi Nihon Rekishijinbutsu Jiten” (朝日日本歴史人物事典).
This tale begins with an individual by the name of Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方). Saburō is the territorial lord of Kōga, Ōmi province. He has a wife, who is known as Kasuga-hime. He also keeps in contact with his 2 older brothers, the oldest named Tarō, while the 2nd oldest is Jirō¹.
One day, Kasuaga-hime was captured and taken away by a tengu (天狗), which is a goblin with a long nose, body of a man, and wings on its back. Saburō, accompanied by his 2 brothers, went into pursuit in order to save her. During the chase, his brothers advised that they take a path that leads through Mount Tateshina (蓼科山, Tateshina yama), a familiar location not far from them. On the surface, it sounded like an easy path to traverse through in order to continue tracking the tengu. However, what Saburō didn’t realize is that this was just an excuse for the 2 older brothers to put a plan in motion they had for a long time; Tarō and Jirō had secretly been jealous of their younger brother’s good fortune, and had conspired to bring his downfall when the opportunity arrived.
As the 3 were walking by a moderately-sized pit, the 2 older brothers suddenly shoved down towards it. Saburō fell a distance down through the pit, and landed in an unfamiliar underground world. With no way up to the pit hole, he had no other choice but to travel through the area to learn his surroundings. Saburō crossed through different lands that were populated by villages. He entered various villages, and witnessed that the inhabitants lived their lives farming on their lands. Blending in where ever he could, he also engaged in farming for as long as needed, before moving on.
Eventually, Saburō’s wanderings through the underground world would bring him to a land called “Yuima” (維摩). In this land, he came upon a village where the locals specialized in deer hunting, and engaged in this on a daily basis as it was their way of life. He was able to make good relations with them, so much to the point that he was able to begin a relationship with the village chief’s daughter, Yuima-hime. Saburō was able to find happiness and piece of mind in Yuima, as he settled in the village doing hunting as much as he likes, and being with the lovely Yuima-hime, he spent many years there.
After some time, Saburō began to reminisce about his actual wife, Kasuga-hime. His feelings for her was getting stronger, to the point that he desired greatly to see her again. Setting his mind to find a way to get back to his homeland, Saburō executed a plan to run away from the village on a particular day, and set once again to search for a path that would get him back above ground. Giving up his life of comfort and heading back into the wild, he had to overcome many hardships. It took time, but Saburō was finally able to return back to the lands above through an opening on Mount Asama (浅間山, Asama yama). Descending down the mountain, he began his final journey back home.
Making his way back to his home country Kōga in Ōmi Province, Saburō saw a Buddhist temple along his path, and decided to stop by and offer prayers at its Shakyamuni Hall². Before entering the temple grounds, he felt something off about him. Feeling himself, he noticed scales all over his body, and realized his appearance has changed into that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm the locals, Saburō hid himself from plain sight. Wondering how to resolve this predicament, he remembered a remedy he had heard about, which involved bathing oneself in a lake where a particular plant called sekishō (石菖)³ grow. Keeping a low profile, he wandered around abit, looking for this plant. Eventually, Saburō came to a lake and, as expected, there was a good amount of sekishō sprouting from it. He stepped into the lake to test this remedy and, after washing his body, sure enough he felt his scaly skin soften up. In no time, he reverted back to his normal self as the his snake-like appearance was no more.
With no more obstacles, Saburō finally returned home. There, he reunited with his wife, Kasuga-hime, and was able to live the rest of his life happily.
BREAKING DOWN THE STORY
After reading both stories, it’s easy to see where both versions are similar, as well as where they differ.
We see Saburō as the protagonist who shares a relationship with Kasuga-hime. He is betrayed by an older sibling and knocked into a hole to sends him into an underground realm. There, he adapts, and is able to start a new life with another person named Yuima-hime. However, longing to go home and be with his first love, Saburō runs away, manages to escape this underground realm, and return back to his homeland. While he had an unfortunate transformation into a snake, he was able to change back, and successfully make his way back home and be reunited with Kasuga-hime. Of course, both stories have their differences in how this tale unfolds, which includes what event with Kasuga-hime that triggers the betrayal, which of his brothers actually commits the betrayal, to how Saburō was able to change back from a snake into a human. Despite these variations, the overall theme is still shared between both versions.
Below are specific points regarding the meaning embedded within the story, which will help understand the development of the protagonist, and how both Shinto practice, as societal structure of that time have an overall connection.
#1: PROTAGONIST AS A DEITY FOR WORSHIP
To understand how Kōga Saburō (and, albeit a minor role in these versions of the story, Kasuga-hime) is viewed is to first look at the source of his invention, which is the Suwa Grand Shrine in Nagano. At this shrine, there are 2 types of gods worshiped there, with the first being Takeminakata-no-kami (建御名方神), and the second being Yasakatome-no-kami (八坂刀売神). Constructed by Suwa Lake, the Suwa Grand Shrine is divided into two locations, with one being the “upper” shrine where Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped, and the other being the “lower” shrine where Yasakatome-no-kami is worshiped.
Both deities come from the ancient texts Kojiki (古事記) and Sendai Kyūji Hongi (先代旧事本紀). From these texts and more recognized sources, Takeminakata-no-kami is presented as one of the sons of Ōkuninushi (大国主), the main god who heads all other local gods within ancient Japan and had ruling power what could be called the earthly realm. When the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照大神) sent 2 messengers from the heavenly realm down to claim control over the land from Ōkuninushi, Takeminakata-no-kami challenged one of the messengers in a contest of strength. One of the messengers, whose name was Takamikazuchi (建御雷神), agreed to the challenge, and had an interesting exchange with Takeminakata-no-kami, which would eventually lead to the young god’s defeat. Takeminakata-no-kami retreated to Suwa Lake, and as the two messengers were going to kill him, he begged them to spare his life, as he confided that the land be given to Amaterasu, and that he would stay forever at this lake.
Take note that in the records from Suwa Grand Shrine, this story has a slight variation to it, mainly where the fight and the scene of Takeminakata-no-kami’s retreat are omitted. As a whole, Takeminakata-no-kami’s bravery is honored dearly. Takeminakata-no-kami is worshiped as the god of wind, water, agriculture, warfare, and hunting, where hunting represents the lifestyle of certain families at that time.
Kōga Saburō is thought to not only be related to the story of Takeminakata-no-kami, but is said to have been the reincarnation of him. Thus, the young god is believed to have been reborn as one of the sons of the Suwa family, and was brave enough to take up the lifestyle of a warrior, become a renown warrior under the Ashikaga Shogunate, and rose to be lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province.
#2: THREE SACRED TREASURES
In the Mochizuki version, it is mentioned that Saburō was protected by 3 sacred items. This is a parallel of the 3 sacred treasures of Japan which are introduced in the Kojiki, the ancient text that presents the mythical story of Japan’s origin. The idea of a protagonist to have such items meant that he himself was special, and was protected by divine powers, as if destined to not lose. This idea most likely comes from the root story regarding Takeminakata-no-kami.
#3: SNAKE / DRAGON REFERENCE
The Suwa Grand Shrine’s god of worship is called “Suwa Myōjin” (諏訪明神). From the shrine’s documents, it is said the Suwa Myōjin would come down from the heavens to the lands below, riding on the back of a giant snake. It is also interpreted that Suwa Myōjin also took the appearance of a snake himself. In other writings, the creature is instead referred to as a dragon.
In Shintō belief, gods often used “shinshi” (神使), or divine creatures for both delivering messages or as a mode of transportation. These divine creatures look like earthly variants, such as the ox, chicken, crane, and carp fish. The snake is one of these divine creatures, so there are shrines that pay respect to these faithful messengers.
In another version of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, the role of the snake / dragon plays a center role in the story, this time between Saburō and Kasuga-hime.
#4: SUDDEN CHANGE INTO A SNAKE
With the importance of the serpent and dragon to the Suwa Grand Shrine established, it’s easier to now look into the scene when Saburō changes into a snake. Here’s one way to interpret this scene. This is a direct reference to Saburō being Takaminakata-no-kami, and the transformation was a natural phenomenon. This came about because he fell into the underground tunnels that actually leads to a supernatural plain, where the lands there are populated by mystical creatures and people. When he left this supernatural plain and emerged back into his own homeland, he did so by transforming into a snake, much like that of Suwa Myōjin. Even though it may not have been through his own doing, this serves as a hint that deities are able to enter the human realm through the body of a divine creature.
#5: CONTRAST BETWEEN THE HOMELAND VS UNDERGROUND LANDS
Kōga Saburō’s homeland and his journey into the underground lands may be a reflection of the differences in classes in Japan, and how Suwa Myōjin is revered by both. In the story, we have both Saburō’s family who are warriors that engage in hunting, and in the underground lands there are those who are farmers. Saburō engaged in both willingly, which is a display of acceptance of both activities. In this respect, both military families and farmers saw it appropriate to pray to Suwa Myōjin for blessing.
From a different angle, the 2 worlds could also represent different cultures & beliefs. If we look at the name “Yuima, it’s a Buddhism term, and relates to certain sutras. The origin is India, where Yuima is the Japanese pronunciation of the name “Vimalakirti”. This name comes from an Indian folklore about an older man named Vimalakriti who was a layman, and had an uncanny understanding of Buddhism despite not being a monk. A bit to unpack, but India has been viewed as an integral place in the development of Buddhism in Asia, plus there has been many shared concepts between Shintō and Buddhism in Japan over the generations. There may be something to this in reference to Saburō’s journey in the underground world.
#6: LESSONS FOR THE KŌGA SHINOBI
This point is an interesting one, which is explained a bit in the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”. The focal point that ties the Legend of Kōga Saburō to the shinobi of Kōga is hunting. It is understood that there was a culture that involved heavily with working in the wild within certain areas like Kōga, and the pioneers of this were woodcutters and hunters. Through these types of occupations, one would gain experience traveling through wooded areas, understand the characteristics of wild animals which would include being able to copy their calls, disguising one’s appearance and smell by wearing animal hide, and so on. Such real life skills are believed to have been some of the building blocks to the shinobi no jutsu (or, as called in modern times, ninjutsu) techniques that the warriors of Kōga used generations later. The thought that hunting being a building block for Kōga warriors’ style of ninjutsu, as introduced in the book mentioned above, is an interesting concept, albeit one that is not stated as fact.
The legendary story of Kōga Saburō is an example of how fabled tales play a significant role in people’s lives in the past due to familiarity of content. How such tales are recorded and transmitted also plays a factor, with there being slightly variations in the story to fit a favorable agenda. This concludes our coverage on 2 versions of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. As I mentioned before, there still more variations to this story, which, if time permits, I hope to take a look at one that gives an even more different perspective on how the story unfolds.
1) In this version, the older brothers are not addressed by name. From other versions, as well as resources, it is understood that these are their names. Using it here is to introduce them as significant figures.
2) A section of a temple or shrine where the Buddha Shakyamuni is worshiped.
3) In English, this is called “Japanese sweet flag”. Its botanical name is “scorus gramineus”.
In today’s article, I will discuss about a famous story called “Kōga Saburō Densetsu” (甲賀三郎伝説), or “Legend of Kōga Saburō”. Gaining public recognition from the 1600s onward during Edo period, there were many theatrical renditions done by kabuki actors, as well as musicals called “jōruri” (浄瑠璃), which incorporated a musician and puppets. Exposure to this story comes from the collection of esoteric-related writings by shrines, as well as from word of mouth by shugendō followers. While popular as a folklore, the Kōga Saburō Densetsu was especially significant to certain families from Kōga region (also called Kōka) of Shiga prefecture, as it represents the root of their unique martial tradition.
In today’s article, we will look into the specifics of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, which includes its origin story. We’ll also look at one version of this story, which comes from one particular family reigning from Kōga region.
TALE FROM THE SUWA FAMILY
Kōga Saburō is a heroic figure that is deified and worshiped at the Suwa Shrine located in Nagano prefecture, as well as viewed as a type of warrior god at various shrines. Considered a very old shrine in Japanese history, Suwa shrine itself was built by the Suwa family, whom also assumed the role as priests. The legend of Kōga Saburō dates back some time around the 1400s, with the main character said to be modeled after one of the Suwa family’s sons who took up the occupation of a warrior, went to serve the Ashikaga shogunate by becoming a retainer of the Hōjō clan, and earned many merits due to his accomplishments in battle. For his service, he was also made territorial lord over Kōga. if this is the case, then it makes sense that this individual would be immortalized at their family shrine.
There is another version to this story, which is found within the documents of the Mochizuki family. One of the major allied families in Kōga during Sengoku period, The Mochizuki family have recorded in their family genealogy that they are descendants of a Mochizuki Saburō. Not only was this individual from the Suwa family, but is in fact claimed to be the same individual as Kōga Saburō, for he not only was the territorial lord of Koga, but at one time was a lord over the neighboring Iga region as well.
With the inception of this fabled tale, Kōga Saburō was immortalized as a hero of the Kōga region, as well as throughout Ōmi province (present-day Kōga, Shiga Prefecture). Other than the bigger-than-life trials the character had to go through, he is also revered as having establishing the way of life in that region. Another unique point is that for the Mochizuki family and their allies, the tale of Kōga Saburō is interpreted as teaching the roots of where the unconventional tactics and survival methods the warriors of Kōga specialized in, which today is often dubbed as ninjutsu.
For this article, we will first look at the Mochizuki family’s version of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. This version is taken from the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which is authored by Ukai Takehiro.
This story starts off at the beginning, when the protagonist was known by the title “Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方), and was the 3rd son of the territorial lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province. Although youngest, his father made an unexpected move and appointed Saburō as the next successor of their family line due to his talents and likeable personality. On top of this, he had an arranged marriage with Kasuga-hime set up, who was the granddaughter of Kasuga Shrine’s chief priest. Along with his future wife’s unmatched beauty, the union between the two families would ensure that Saburō’s family continue to maintain their prestigious status. His older brothers, on the other hand, were not pleased with the special treatment their younger brother was receiving at all.
One day, Saburō went deer hunting in the woods with Jirō, the 2nd oldest brother. While his younger brother was distracted, Jirō suddenly pushed him down into a pit, where he would tumble into an underground cave. With no way to reach the opening of the pit from where he fell into, Saburō was forced to wander through the tunnels of this underground cave. Trapped with no way out, he was sure to perish, but he maintained his wits and was resourceful with whatever was at hand as he traveled into unknown lands. For example, when there was no food to be found around him, Saburō ate pieces of his sōshi (雙紙)¹. During the night when there was no light peering above him, he used his sword Nikkō no tsurugi (日光剣) to illuminate his surroundings. Lastly, to keep safe from evil spirits and beings lurking about, he placed his keepsake mirror Omokage (面影) close by his side. These 3 items were actually blessed with divine powers, and protected the lone warrior during his journey².
Saburō’s wandering would come to an end when he finally stepped foot onto a kingdom called “Yuima” (維摩) . Although a foreigner, he was welcomed by the King of Yuima, and was also offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. Saburō agreed to this, and lived with them in Yuima for about 13 and a half years. While life was good, after some time he started to long for his fiance Kasuga-hime, and wished to be with her. So, bidding his family in Yuima Kingdom farewell, Saburō embarked once again through the underground in order to make his way back above ground.
Saburō finally discovered an exit from the underground realm, and was able to walk on his native land again. Hungry from his long trek, he decided to engage in his long-time past time and went deer hunting³. However, he soon discovered a terrible matter; for during his time in Yuima, he unknowingly went through a transformation and his appearance had become that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm everyone at his home, Saburō sought a method that would change him back to look like his normal self again. Luck was on his side, as he encountered a mysterious old monk who, seeing the young warrior in his plight, conjured a remedy. Miraculously, the remedy worked, as Saburō reverted back to his original form. What he didn’t know was that the old monk was actually a powerful deity in disguise, and had came to aid him in his return home. Just as he mysteriously appeared, the old monk went his way, without leaving a trace.
Successful in making it back home, Saburō presented himself to his family and explained what had happened to him since his disappearance. He also sought out his older brother Jirō, and drove him out of their home, forcing him to roam the land and never to return. Lastly, Saburō could be reunited with Kasuga-hima, he took his rightful place as the head of the Suwa family, and became territorial lord over Kōga. With everything taking course as intended, Saburō would assume the title “Kōga Saburō Kaneie” (甲賀三郎兼家), and could live the rest of his life happily.
This bring the 1st article about the Kōga Saburō Densetsu to a close. Reading fabled tales like the one above most certainly will bring up questions, especially about the hidden meanings behind certain parts of the protagonists overall journey. Fear not, for many of these will by answered in part 2, where we will go over another version of this story, and do an analysis of the symbolism that shapes this popular tale.
1) Normally this is written with the characters “草紙”. While its usage varied depending on the era, a sōshi is a type of bound notebook.
2) These 3 sacred items parallel the 3 sacred treasures of Japan, which are the following: Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍, The Grass-Cutting Sword), Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡,the 8-Span Mirror), and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels).
3) Although not mentioned in this version, one of the differences found in the underground lands is that agriculture was the main source of food. Due to this, Saburō learned a great deal about farming during his time underground. On the opposite end of the spectrum, deer hunting was an important source of food when Saburō was living above ground. A comparison can be drawn from this when looking at class during Japan of old. This will be evaluated more in the 2nd article.
There are amazing tales of warriors accomplishing all types of great feats. Oftentimes in old Japanese tales, these individuals are painted with words that put them on the level of being super-human. This can range from having super strength, impeccable intelligence, and unmatched wit. How about we add voracious consumption of alcohol to that list?
In my 2-part series “Fame to the Spear”, I mentioned about a famous tale that told how a loyal retainer was able to drink his way to obtained a treasured Imperial spear. For this article, we’ll look into the details of this story, which is called “Kuroda Bushi” (黒田節, Song of Kuroda). Along with this, we’ll review where & when it was created, and the lasting appeal it has in the locations associated with the writer and members in the tale. There are different versions of this story, each with slight variations in how it is told and how it progresses. Some versions have more details than the other, while some have dialogue to illustrate how each characters interact with one another. The following sites are but some of the sources used as guides in writing this article:
The protagonist of this story is Mori Tomonobu (母里友信)¹, who is known as an accomplished warrior with the spear, and a retainer of the Kuroda family. He goes by other titles, including “Tahei” (太兵衛), “Tahyōe” (多兵衛), and the official title of “Tajima-no-kami” (但馬守). Among those who served the Kuroda clan, he was a skilled warrior especially with the spear, and was a member of both “Kuroda Nijuuyonki” (黒田二十四駒, 24 Cavalrymen of the Kuroda clan) and “Kuroda Hakko” (黒田八虎, 8 Tigers of the Kuroda clan) due to his loyalty and military service. Tomonobu also has a reputation for being a “sake-gō” (酒豪), which we’ll interpret as “sake guzzler”.
The story takes place around the New Year period of 1569. Mori Tomonobu was about to embark on an errand for his lord, Kuroda Nagamasa, to the lower town of Fushimi castle in the Capital (京, which is Kyōto in present-day Japan). This area was under the control of Fukushima Masanori, who was the feudal lord there. Aware of who he may run into, Nagamasa forbade him consume any alcohol while there, stating, “you must not accept any sake he offers, no matter what!”. Obediently, Tomonobu, promised not to drink any sake while out on his errand.
When Tomonobu arrived, Masanori was brought word of this guest to his town. Wasting no time, Masanori hurried to go see Tomonobu. When He found him, Masanori invited him to his drinking party, so they may celebrate with a couple of rounds of drinks. Remembering what his lord told him, Tomonobu humbly refused. Masanori made a few more attempts to invite the reluctant warrior, which finally he would accept.
Now, why would a person in Masanori’s position go out to get a lower-ranking warrior like Tomonobu to attend his drinking party? For starters, this invite was nothing special for Masanori. In fact, it was just another excuse for him to drink himself drunk. While bearing merits due to the great feats he’s achieved in battle, he also had a reputation for liking to drink sake a little too much. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to report to duty on the field while being drunk! On top of this, Masanori was also aware of Tomonobu’s reputation of being able to consume a lot of sake himself and not get drunk. You can say that this was Masanori’s chance to test if this rumor was true.
Back to the story, Masanori led Tomonobu to his residence, and lead him to a room that was adorned with many nice items, and a table that would be used for the sake party. As his guest sat down and got settled in, Masanori brought forth a very large bowl of sake to kick off their drinking fest, stating, “here, drink this”. Still on duty and concerned about the impact such an amount of sake would have on him, Tomonobu refused. He would try to entice the invite with a wager, offering to grant him anything he wanted in his room if he could consume all the sake in the large bowl. While there were some nice items around the room, as expected by someone of Masanori’s status, Tomonobu once more declined to consume the entire content within the large bowl.
At this point, Masanori was getting annoyed with Tomonobu’s constant declination, as he proceeded to taunt the Kuroda retainer by saying, “What?!? As a warrior of the Kuroda house, you are so disappointing! Even if you, a member of the Mori clan, do hold the reputation as “sake-guzzler”, you certainly have no backbone to back it up. Pity goes to Lord Nagamasa for having a bunch of wimps under his command, for he runs nothing more than a province of weaklings!²“. These words got to Tomonobu and made him very furious. Taking the large bowl, he drank everything straight down. Putting the bowl down, he exclaimed “I’ll have another”. Refilled with sake, he would proceed to drink everything again. He repeated this a few more times, consuming more than anyone could’ve imagined. Finished, Tomonobu maintained is composure as he politely commented “I will now claim my prize in accordance to your promise, which will be that spear over there”. He pointed to a large spear, lacquered in black, and boosting a grand spearhead with exquisite carvings.
This was no ordinary spear, as it was a treasured property that passed through the hands of famous people; commissioned by the 106th Emperor Ōgimachi, it would be rewarded to great military commanders, from the 15th Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, to the ambitious rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masanori was rewarded this spear by his master Hideyoshi after achieving great feats in battle³, and he treasures this greatly. This is none other than the legendary Nihongō⁴, and it was about to be lost due to a silly drinking bet.
While drunk himself, Masanori was fully aware of what was in stake with his treasured spear. He initially tried to protest, pleading how special the spear was in his possession, but Tomonobu refused to listen, and remain steadfast on acquiring the Nihongō, stating, “a warrior does not repeat himself⁵”. Aware that he cannot go against his word, Masanori complied and handed over the spear. With that, Tomonobu made his way out and headed on his way with his trophy, not showing any signs of being intoxicated.
Oh, so many days Masanari lamented as he longed for that treasured spear lost in a drinking contest!
HOMETOWN PRIDE VS ORIGIN PRIDE
Today, the Kuroda Bushi is known as a folklore song of Fukuoka prefecture, where Mori Tomonobu’s grave is. This version is very popular there, as it is represented in businesses (especially sake distributors) and entertainment (i.e. singers and theatrical performers). It grew in popularity thanks to how the actual episode became known in the first place. Mid to late 1600s of Edo period, feudal lords who stayed in the lower town of Fushimi castle spoke freely about the sake party that Fukushima Masanori held and how it brought the lost of his prized spear to the hands of the Kuroda retainer Mori Tomonobu.
Eventually, this tale would reach the ears of a Confucius scholar named Kaibara Ekiken, who was a native of modern-day Fukuoka prefecture. Since the Kuroda family were from Fukuoka prefecture, Ekiken saw value in this story and made it into a song called “Kuroda Bushi”. In the form of a song, it spread throughout Japan, and would eventually be associated with Fukuoka prefecture. This song, along with other tales & info regarding those affiliated with the Kuroda family, was compiled by Ekiken into a collection labeled “Kuroda Kashinden” (黒田家臣伝). This also goes hand-in-hand with the Nihongō being retrieved and placed in a museum in Fukuoka as well. With the reputation as being the birthplace of the once influential Kuroda family, there’s no mistake that the residence in Fukuoka would find it necessary to keep the Kuroda Bushi and Nihongō close to home.
Despite its obvious connections with Fukuoka prefecture, the Kuroda Bushi is also just as important in Kyōto. In fact, the actual location in present-day Fushimi District where the tale took place is a tourist attraction, which is advertised as “”Kuroda Bushi”, Tanjō no Chi” (黒田節、誕生の地), or “Birthplace of the song “Kuroda Bushi””. Historically, Kuroda Nagamasa, Mori Tomonobu’s lord, had good relations with Fukushima Masanori. Interestingly, it is rumored that Nagamasa had a house in north-eastern part of Fukushi castle’s lower town, which is where he would pass away. While possible considering the importance of Kyōto during medieval Japan, it has yet to be proven.
Another point to mention is the strong association to sake the area of Fushimi has. During the early mid 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established, major wars were over, and a movement of development was underway. The town in Fushimi was developing into a hub for business endeavors, as it was close to a port where many traders used. At this point, a sake brewing business was started, and became very successful. While this was not the 1st sake brewery, it did contribute to Kyōto’s long history of sake manufacturing. Thus, the episode of sake drinking in the Kuroda Bushi is synonymous with not just Fushimi, but Kyōto as a whole.
This brings the story of the Kuroda Bushi to a close. It is an interesting tale, one that illustrates a different form of battle & wit⁶. Who’d guess that having an insatiable gut for alcohol like Mori Tomonobu would net a hometown folklore? Also, be on the lookout for a full translation of the Kuroda Bushi as displayed in Kyōto. This will be posted in the Translation section of this site.
1) Originally, the surname “Mori” (母里) was pronounce as “Bori”. Later in the Edo period, this name was not only phonetically changed in official documents of the Tokugawa Shogunate to “Mori”, but the kanji was also changed to a more familiar “毛利”. This may have been done to make it easier to identify the Bori clan. Nowadays, it is common to read the original name as “Mori”, but in Fukuoka prefecture, as well as in the documents of the Kuroda family, it is still read as “Bori”.
2) The actual line in Japanese: “なんだ、酒豪だと言われる母里でさえ、このくらいの酒を飲む自信がないとは黒田家の侍もたいしたことないな、腰抜け揃いの弱虫藩か長政殿もお気の毒に”
3) Fukushima Masanori’s great feat was discussed here
4) This was discussed in details here. On a side note, this event also dubbed the spear “Nomitori Nihongō” (呑み取り日本号, Nihongō the drinking contest prize).
5) The actual line in Japanese: “武士に二言は無い”
6) Did this story really conclude with a happy ending? Sort of, but depends from which perspective you view it from. It’s said that after the event, Fukushima Masamori made many pleas to Kuroda Nagamasa to have Mori Tomonobu return the Nihongō, including offering an exchange with a replica spear. To maintain the peace, Nagamasa also tried his best to resolve the matter by advising his retainer to comply, but Tomonobu held steadfast to the validity to the promise made at the sake party, and refused. This would sour relations between Masamori and Nagamasa for awhile, until another feudal lord named Takenaka Shigetoshi intervened. Watching how bad they interacted with one another from the sideline, Shigetoshi stepped in and resolved the matter by having them make up through an exchange of kabuto (兜, helmet).
The yari (槍), which is the Japanese spear, was once considered the strongest weapon. Boosting a long shaft and large blade, it was advantageous on the battlefield. Some armies used yari that was up to about 20 feet, giving the wielders a great reach that kept them safe against enemies at a distance who were using anything shorter. It was to the point where the yari became a status symbol, and only permitted to elite warriors to train in. Yet, it has been overshadowed by the katana (刀), the Japanese sword that was considered to be the soul of the samurai from the Edo period onward. This is mainly in part of battlefield weapons being banned during the Tokugawa rule from the 1600s onward, and the adjustments warriors had to make with arming themselves with the next best thing.
Looking into when the yari made a huge impact was during the 1500s, which was the time period when many warlords utilized formations that involved soldiers being outfitted with this weapon. It was also during this period where the ideal image of a strong warrior was reflected upon those who rode into battle wielding a yari, dispatching enemy troops, and defeating other strong opponents. Notable figures were recorded who demonstrated exemplary skills while bearing this formidable weapon. A popular tag that begin to emerge in the pages of history-focused books was “Shichihon Yari” (七本槍), which refers to seven warriors who had displayed great bravery on the battlefield with the Japanese spear in hand during Sengoku period. For this article, we will look at the most iconic tale that portrays seven brave spearmen, along with a bit of twists due to actual accounts. Finally, we’ll touch upon different groups that are also hailed by this illustrious title.
SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI
The most popular and renown group to bear the title goes to a select warriors who were employed under the ruling power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Here’s how their tale begins.
In 4th month of 1583, after the death of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose up to claim the rights to continue his master’s vision of ruling Japan. He wasn’t the only one who had their sights on this goal, as he would clash in a power struggle against another former Oda loyalist, Shibata Katsuie. In 1583, they would meet both commanding an army of their own and exchange blows in combat within the rocky terrains of Shizugatake in Ika domain, Ōmi prefecture. This battle will be recorded as the “Battle at Shizugatake” (賤ヶ岳の合戦, Shizugatake no Gassen).
The outcome of this battle had Hideyoshi come out as the victory. What is significant to note is that he praised and gave honors to seven warriors for their exemplary heroics during the battle, whom are recognized today as “Shizugatake Shichihon Yari” (賤ヶ岳の七本槍, Seven Brave Spearmen of the Battle at Shizugatake). This was first mentioned in the 20-volume documentation “Taikōki” written by the Confucian scholar Oze Hoan (小瀬 甫庵) in 1626.
These seven warriors are the following:
Hirano Nagayasu (平野長泰)（1559~1628）
Wakisaka Yasuharu (脇坂安治)（1554~1626）
Katō Yoshiakira (加藤嘉明)（1563~1631）
Katagiri Katsumoto (片桐且元)（1556~1615）
Katsuya Takenori (糟屋武則)（1562~???）
Fukushima Masanori (福島正則)（1561~1624）
Katō Kiyomasa (加藤清正)（1562~1611）
Each of these warriors were not just random individuals, but were born in military families. Receiving the typical martial training many military families offer, they had their fair share of battle experience before the event at Shizugatake. It can be said that this battle did highlight their potential even more, elevating them up in rank even during the early years of Edo period in the 1600s.
DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD
During the battle at Shizugatake, these seven individuals, wielding a spear each, are praised as being ichiban yari (一番槍). This title means not only being the first to engage with the enemy, but to do significant work that benefited the overall outcome for their side. Due to their high spirit and valor, they helped to turn the tides in the Toyotomi force’s favor of what was starting out to be a difficult battle. This was through gaining ground in areas around Shizugatake, as well as eliminating key figures on the Shibata force’s side, which caused a lost of morale amongst their ranks. Especially Fukushima Masanori, for he managed to take the head of Shibata Katsuie’s commanding officer, Haigo Ieyoshi (拝郷家嘉). Masanori received the highest reward of 5000 koku (石, stipend in the form of rice per year), while the others received 3,000 koku each.
Other acclaims that add to these seven warriors’ merits include the following:
Hirano Nagayasu defeating Shibata Katsumasa (柴田勝政), the adopted son of Shibata Katsuie.
Katō Kiyomasa defeating Yamaji Masakuni (山路正国), a warrior who defected to the Shibata side and helped with the initial success the Shibata forces had during the battle. It was through a well-timed counterattack that helped not only turn the ties to the Toyotomi force’s favor, but allowed Kiyomasa to dispose of the traitor¹.
Kasuya Takeyori defeating Yadoya Shichiemon (宿屋七左衛門). This event happened while fellow spearman comrade Sakurai Iekazu was locked in battle with Shichiemon. As Iekazu was injured by a cut from his opponent’s yari, Takeyori joined the fray and ran Shichiemon through with his own yari².
LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK
Just as written accounts are considered valuable resources, the same can be said for visual artworks. There are various paintings that depict the battle that took place at Shizugatake at different museums in Japan. The most well known one is a folding screen version from Ōsaka castle, which has been duplicated by other establishments. These artworks also feature the Shichihon Yari, all with unique interpretations as these warriors engage with the Shibata force with their trusty yari in hand.
Since these are visual artworks, they tend to have slight variations from the popular tale, but usually not without reason. For example, in the version from Ōsaka castle, the Shichihon Yari are located on the right side together, but the line up is different from what is usually recited. Wakisaka Yasuharu is replaced by another warrior named Ishikawa Heisuke. In another, these seven warriors are shown charging into battle together, but the difference here is Fukushima Masanori is located in another area, already defeated his target. In his place amongst the seven warriors is Sakurai Iekazu.
Why is this? Apparently, it was more than just seven individuals who were praised for their efforts during the battle at Shizugatake. There were 2 more names mentioned, which were Sakurai Iekazu (桜井家一) and Ishikawa Heisuke (石河兵助). They too are considered ichiban yari, and are recognized for their efforts on the field too. On top of this, they were rewarded the same 3,000 koku as the 6 others. So, should the group not be called Kyūhon Yari (九本槍, the 9 Brave Spearmen)?
Speculations on this evolve around the untimely deaths of both Iekazu and Heisuke, with the latter actually dying during the battle, which had his son receive the reward in his place. As for Iekazu, he would die later, but the cause is unclear. In a different 5-volume version of the Taiheiki by Kawasumi Saburōemon, it states that Iekazu died from an illness in 1596. However, in a different account, he dies 3 years after the battle due to the injuries he sustained from his battle with Yadoya Shichiemon, and shortly after, from a revenge battle with the younger brother Yadoya Jirōsuke (宿屋次郎助), where they clashed with tachi (太刀, battlefield swords), then wrestled in kumiuchi (組討, armored warriors grappling) before Iekazu successfully took his life with his knife. Whatever the case is, there is no disagreement on the fact that Ishikawa Heisuke and Sakurai Iekazu fell from grace, and are not praised in the same light as the other seven spearmen.
OTHER SHICHIHON YARI
The term “Shichihon Yari” is believed to have been invented in later times, much after Sengoku period was over and these famed warriors had passed. Due to this, it became a coin term that other writers used to speak about exemplified spear-wielding warriors during various battles. Below are a few examples.
1) Ueda Shichihon Yari Early in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Hidetada led a force of his own alongside with his father, Ieyasu. Hidetada’s force would make their way to Ueda castle, which was occupied by Sanada Masayuki. This encounter is known as “Battle at Ueda” (上田合戦, Ueda no Gassen). During this battle, seven warriors from the Tokugawa’s sided are recognized for their valiant efforts. Their names are the following:
Saitō Nobuyoshi (斎藤信吉)
Ono Tadaaki (小野忠明)
Shizume Koreaki (鎮目惟明)
Nakayama Terumori (中山照守)
Asakura Nobumasa (朝倉宣正)
Toda Mitsumasa (戸田光正)
Tsuji Hisayoshi (辻久吉)
Highest merits go to Ono Tadaaki, but in a turn of events he was also punished soon afterwards due to a violation in military orders, which was considered a huge crime. While he would be pardoned at a later date, this incident does tarnish Tadaaki’s image abit.
Another surprising point about this battle is that Tokugawa Hidetada and his force lost the fight against Sanada Masayuki and his force. While noted as a defeat, it’s also important to point out that none of these warriors died during this battle.
2) Azukizaka Shihon Yari Possibly the first real account of skilled spearmen comes from one of Oda Nobunaga’s campaigns. In 1542, Nobunaga lead an army east towards Azukizaka in Nukatagun, Mikawa no Kuni. There, he would clash with the military force of the Imagawa/Matsudaira coalition. This event, the 1st of the ongoing conflict between these groups, is known as “Battle at Azukizaka” (小豆坂の戦い, Azukizaka no Tatakai).
During this battle is the first mention of what can be considered skilled spearmen that controlled the tides of a battle. Here’s the names of these acclaimed warriors:
Oda Nobufusa (織田信房)
Oda Nobumitsu (織田信房)
Sasa Masatsugu (佐々政次)
Sasa Magosuke (佐々孫介)
Okada Shigeyoshi (岡田重能)
Nakano Ichiyasu (中野一安)
Shimokata Sadakiyo (下方貞清)
From the Nobunaga clan’s written account called “Shinchō Kōki” (信長公記), it is said that these seven warriors were formidable in forcing the opposition to retreat, leading to victory. Unfortunately, there is not much detail about what actually took place and the feat these warriors performed on the battlefield. Note that while we know about this battle from this source, the Matsudaira clan’s well-documented “Mikawa Monogatari” makes no mention of this event. What’s even more interesting is that there was 2 battles that took place at Azukizaka, the 1st being 1542, and the 2nd in 1548. Both clans have detailed accounts on the 2nd battle, while the 1st is only mentioned in Shichō Kōki. There are a lot of speculations regarding this 1st battle, and whether it actually happened on the level it is claimed to have been.
This here concludes our look at the yari through literature & artwork from Edo period. The tale of the Shichihon Yari offers a good look at how important and impactful this Japanese weapon was viewed during the Sengoku period, which influenced certain groups to continue to work with it even to modern times. Stay tuned for part 2, where we look at a few yari that were recorded as legendary treasures.
1) In another account, it is stated that a Hazumi Goemon (八月一日五左衛門), one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retainer’s men, had taken Yamaji Masakuni’s head.
2) Depending on the source, who is said to have killed Yadoya Shichiemon varies. While Sakurai Iekazu was outbested by Shichiemon and would’ve died if it wasn’t that he was rescued, it is said that he landed the killing blow. However, Iekazu was only able to do so after Kasuya Takeyori ran his spear through Shichiemon’s chest, incapacitating him.
Recently I had a conversation with a fellow colleague who specializes in Japanese history about fighting between armored warriors during the late 1500s of Sengoku period. We discussed about how techniques like “dō giri” can be performed despite how much protection Japanese armor provided during that time. For those new to this, dō giri means “cutting the torso”. It is made up with the following kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived characters):
dō (胴) = Body, torso
giri (斬り/切り) = cutting, slashing
Like other kanji, dō has other uses, which gives different nuances to its core definition. For this article, We’ll look at the historical use of dō and similar words in the relations of armor, how they work in conjunction with kenjutsu. Also, we’ll touch upon the use of the word dō giri outside of the battlefield and how it became a specialty term in society.
THE ROLE OF ARMOR
The generation where Japanese warriors engaging on the battlefield decked in armor has long passed. Yet, its influence can still be seen today. Both classical and modern Japanese martial arts still make reference to Japanese armor in different ways. In the case of classical systems, those that have a history that dates back before or during Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) tend to possess many poetic naming schemes for techniques. Some of these also include armor references. This is in the form of specific parts of armor representing areas of the body. The most common ones include the following:
Dō = 胴
Kote = 籠手
Men / Menpō = 面 / 面類
As mentioned before, dō stands for the upper body. In the case of armor, the same kanji is used for naming the chestplate of the armor, which usually provides protection from slightly under the collarbone down to the stomach. The kote is the gauntlet, which covers the back of the forearms. Men, or also known as menpō , is a half face mask that generally covers the nose down to the chin. As armor parts designed to provide adequate protection to important areas while on the battlefield, it is interesting to note that these are also prioritized target areas in many martial systems, especially kenjutsu styles that were further developed during Edo period. Those who are initiated into the specifics about these in their respected systems understand how to approach these.
ANSWERING THE “WHY?”
Looking into these aforementioned three parts of armor, it’s interesting to note that they can repel otherwise life-threatening weapon impacts. When you really think about it, why would would armor parts be used to reference areas to attack in kenjutsu? Should it not be the opposite, where words that clearly depict what you are striking at be used instead?
One possible answer to this is looking at the period when martial systems were under development. During the Edo period from mid 1600s onward, society was moving away from raising warriors for war to becoming more business/career-minded. Martial artists focused more on opening training halls where locals and/or certain individuals from elite samurai families could train at. This required a structured approach to teaching large numbers of students, yet still making sure that the contents could not be easily stolen by outsiders. One approach was using non-general words as labels for techniques.
Non-general words ranged from terms related to Shinto, Buddhism, nature, animals, specialty occupations, to even armor parts. These non-general words were like a code, where if you weren’t taught what they meant or what they referred to according the the martial system, then a person couldn’t figure out how to do the techniques. This was especially effective for keeping the contents secret in the event a scroll was ever lost. So, in the case where dō (chestplate) is used, only those students who are taught the particulars behind the usage of this word will understand why this variation was chosen than than the common dō (torso).
Another layer of secrecy was to use different kanji to represent these non-general words. This was against those who were literate and had martial arts experience. Let’s take a look at the word kote, which normally stands for gauntlet. There are a few ways to write this in kanji, such as the following:
Which one is used can be dependent on which region in Japan you’re situated in. So, you may use one of those three ways to refer to gauntlet that is understood in a group far out in the east, yet not familiar at all to another group that resides in the south.
To go even further would be to use kanji that creates an obscured word. In the case of kote, using the kanji “小手” was an Edo-derived variant which, to the unlearned, would not be easily deciphered as referring to gauntlet. Or, to omit the use of kanji and instead write the name in kana (仮名, phonetic Japanese script), such as こて or コテ. One more layer of protection would be to teach the specifics verbally, but have students identify them with numbers in their physical notes. This is common practice in some schools that give out mokuroku (目録, listing of techniques), which is effective in case it ever gets lost or stolen.
Modern martial arts have adopted the use of using these three terms for armor parts, which is especially noticeable in kendō. A sports-oriented martial art that incorporates bōgu (防具, protective gear) that include a men (面), dō (胴), kote (小手). They still serve as protection against the stinging strikes from the shinai (竹刀, bamboo sword) used in competitions, but also double as the targeted areas one can score a point through clean hits.
As Japan’s society headed towards peace & prosperity from the Edo period onward, dō and its significance in kenjutsu found further adaptions outside of the battlefield. Let’s refer back to the term “dō giri”, which can be viewed as a prime example. At some point, dō giri became a coin term for cutting things perfectly in half. This can be found in literature that involves legendary martial artists whose kenjutsu were unparalleled, or near-miraculous feats with swords that belonged to important historical figures. One popular tale involves the famous swordsman Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎) who was active during the late 1500s to early 1600s. It’s told that during his youth, Ittōsai not only defeated a group of thieves attempting to steal from a shrine he was staying in, but expertly sliced in half one of the thieves who had hidden in a barrel used for ritual practices.
Outside of literature, the word dō giri became a means to measure how sharp a sword was, like a counter. This was an old practice called tameshigiri (様斬り). Different from the tameshigiri (試し斬り) where one develops their sword skills by cutting rolled tatami mats, which is popularly practiced by many kenjutsu schools around the world, there was a practice of tameshigiri that involved cutting the dead bodies (in some cases also live bodies) of criminals. Around the 1500s, bladed weapons like swords and spears were commissioned for sharpness testing to a magistrate who would take the role of a tameshimono (様者). The bodies of criminals who were sentenced to death were kept, which where the magistrate can later perform tameshigiri. A version of this was suemonogiri (据え物斬り), where one to several dead bodies were piled on a mound of dirt, and the magistrate would attempt to slice through the torso(s) in one shot. Depending on how many that were successfully cut through would determine the grade for the sword. If only one body was divided, then it would be a hitotsu-dō (一ツ胴), while three bodies would be mitsu-dō (ミツ胴). The highest grade recorded is seven bodies, which is nanatsu-dō (七ツ胴).
The practice of tameshigiri continued into Edo period, where the Tokugawa bakufu commissioned skilled swordsmen to test specially crafted swords. This was not only done on dead bodies, but at times for executing live criminals. This would extend further from just dividing the torso in one stroke, but rating how well a sword would cut through other parts of the body, such as the neck and the leg. The performance of these swords would then be recorded on the nakago (中子, tang) of the sword. Renown individuals to perform as otameshi goyō (御様御用, distinguished test cutters) for the Tokugawa bakufu come from the Yamada family, where each generation adopted the title “Asaemon”.
Understanding history behind words can give a clear glimpse on how they influence the changes in society over the generations. This is true for dō (胴), which has its own unique development in different walks of life. Stay tuned for more of this, as there will be a future post that covers many of the famous depiction of the word “dō giri” from Japanese literature.