Deciphering the Story “White Rabbit of Inaba Country” ~ Part 2

Here is part 2 on the series regarding the folklore “White Rabbit of Inaba Country”, which will cover fun facts, real life comparisons, as well as certain research topics. Although introduced as a folklore to many kids, originally this was held with high esteem as a source of Japan’s origin story, as well as the rights of the Imperial line. Of course, this type of literature was only privy to nobles and influential clans as early as 700s, but was made available to the general public from around the mid 1600s, especially as literature in schools.

Here’s a list of some of the sources used as research material for this article:

Oyako de Tanoshimu Suizokukan Blog < https://pengin-omusubi.com/wanizame/ >

Kokugakuin – Kojiki – < http://kojiki.kokugakuin.ac.jp/classics/ >

Sankei News < Click link to article >

Izumo no Kuni Fudoki < https://izumonokunifudoki.blogspot.com/2016/07/blog-post.html >

CHALLENGES IN INTERPRETING OLD TEXT

Before going forward, it’s worth mentioning again that the story of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country is originally part of a bigger tale regarding Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he becomes the head of the earthly gods, as well as the ruler of the central land in Japan, which is all recited in the Kojiki. While it may seem that the white rabbit plays a minor role, it is in fact the opposite, for he was critical in Ōkuninushi’s rise in status, and can even be argued that he judged Ōkuninushi’s fate. While this, as well as all other stories found in the Kojiki, part of the mythological origin of Japan, it is worth noting that the interpretations aren’t as clear cut as one would assume; reading the clear & easily digestible versions of the folklore (including the one from the previous article) paints an acceptable image of the white rabbit and his journey to Inaba Country, but in reality these are based on adjusted, acceptable interpretations. The original text isn’t as clear with the details, nor the meaning behind some of the dialogue used. These, along with not fully understanding the reasoning behind why the Kojiki was written the way it is, has lead to numerous discussions on the meaning behind much of the text. In the end, researchers have to struggle reading in-between the lines, which in itself can lead to more confusion. Some of these issues will be touched upon lightly in this article.

Another point regarding interpretation challenges leads to the idea about aspects of the folklore being a parallel to real social, and political events that are linked to geographical areas of old. While there may be some truth to this (especially later on in the Kojiki, when the “gods” theme tones down abit and focuses more on actual people), it is still challenged by a lack of concrete, factual evidence. Reasons behind this include certain aspects of the past intentionally hidden due to political issues, which can be remedied through either changing names of certain individuals involved, to replacing with a misdirection in the form of a fantasy-like narrative.

LESSONS FROM THE FOLKLORE

As a folklore geared towards children, what types of lessons are young readers expected to take away from the story “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”? There are 2 lessons that I was able to find.

1) GREAT FORTUNE COMES TO THOSE WHO DO GOOD DEEDS – This one points to Ōkuninushi no kami, and how he was rewarded for his kind nature. Unlike his mean and selfish older siblings, he helped an injured white rabbit heal itself & regain his fur. In turn to his kindness, the white rabbit ensured that it was Ōkuninushi be the one to take Yagami-hime’s hand in marriage.

2) AVOID BRASH ACTIONS, LEST BE GREETED BY DISASTER – This pertains to the white rabbit and how he foiled himself as he crossed along the backs of the sharks to reach Inaba Country. While his wit to have the sharks line up unaware is admirable, getting ahead of himself and making them look stupid by bragging about his trick was his undoing. The white rabbit brought bad luck to himself due to this…which is a poor habit we should avoid.

THE REAL OKI ISLAND AND INABA COUNTRY

The country Inaba, from where the events took place, has been deduced by researchers to be modern-day Shimane, in the eastern part of Tottori Prefecture. Shimane is also part of the area that was once called “Inaba Country” or “Inaba Province”, during ancient times. The land of Inaba is painted as an important location where a goddess named “Yagami-hime” resides. This may not be a coincidence, as there is a bit of a parallel with real life. You see, while most of the events in the Kojiki are considered mythological, this possibly was done intentionally as it covers possibly social structures. In the past, Inaba Country was one of the highest ranking lands in terms of powerful clans, coming second to the capital where the Imperial Palace resided. Inaba Country was also close to the capital at a time, so the clans there served the Imperial family directly. In terms of its geography, Inaba Country sits next to the Sea of Japan, which is important to note for the next part.

A map that details the locations of both Inaba Country and Oki Islands in the past. From Wikipedia.

Looking at Oki Island, where the white rabbit was first introduced, there are a few areas that are thought to be this location. Based on distance, as well as the idea that this is a “lone” island, researchers point to an archipelago in the Sea of Japan called Oki Islands, meaning that it wasn’t a single island. Despite it’s distance in the ocean, it is part of the territory of Shimane Prefecture that is called “Oki District” in modern times. While being one of the many smaller islands off the coast of Japan, Oki Islands was considered its own country, as there are records of inhabitants even during ancient times. This also made these islands suitable for political exile. Speaking of which, The full story of Ōkuninishi has a relatively profound political tone, especially later in his life. Some of it is thought to be parallel to real events between aristocrats, warlords, and the Imperial Palace. Is it possible that the white rabbit, being the only one of his kind on Oki Island, was a representation of a reputable individual who was exiled? Or one who escaped from a bad situation? That is a personal theory of mine, one out of speculation.

WHAT’S IN A TITLE

At 1st glance, the modern title “White Rabbit of Inaba Country” seems to be more straight-forward and staying true to the story. Yet, something is off, as this points to the rabbit being from Inaba Country. Isn’t he originally from Oki island? To be honest, the modern title isn’t as straight forward as one would think when reading the Japanese title, yet it’s one of those minor points that’s not easily obvious. Now, if we compare this with how the older title was written, we then discover it is filled with hidden meanings behind the story. Of course, to understand this would be to analyze and dissect the characters used in the Japanese title.

Here’s variations of the modern title. Note that they are both essentially the same, other than that the word for “white rabbit” (shiro usagi) is either written in modern kanji (Chinese characters) or simpler Japanese phonetic characters called hiragana:

  • 因幡の白兎
  • 因幡のしろうさぎ

Now, here’s what the older title looks like.

  • 稲羽之素兎

Inaba (因幡) is the name of the country where the events took place. In the older title, we see “稲羽” used for the name Inaba instead. Other than small nuances such as character presentation, representation of phonetics, and the like based on the time period, both mean the same thing. However, the real point of interest lies in the theory that the name is thought to have a hidden reading, which is “往ば” or “去ば”. Both are verbs with the conjugation “inaba” pronunciation, and have the meaning “to return” or “go back”. If either is used in the story’s title, it’ll properly read “White Rabbit who’s Returning Home”. This theory isn’t too far-fetched, as in many older Japanese literature there tends to be word play through the use of Chinese characters. Also, the white rabbit’s desire to travel to Inaba Country must mean that he knows something about this area….possibly because he’s been there before?

There is one other point, which is concerning the older title “shiro usagi” and how it does not use a character that actually means white. Instead, there was a theory that it actually references him returning back to normal after facing his ordeals. This will be saved for a more in-depth discussion later in the article.

YAGAMI-HIME = GODDESS

Yagami-hime is whom Ōkuninushi no kami and his 80 sibling gods head to see. Is this also true for the white rabbit? There’s some interesting tidbits regarding her, as well as what she represents.

Yagami is the name of an area in Inaba in the past. Thought to have gotten its name from the actual story, the area of Yagami was fairly large, consisting of 12 towns. Today, it is known as “Yazu District” (八頭郡) in Tottori Prefecture. Having such a historical record as such, it’s possible that Yagami was a place of significance, for it’s even thought that the white rabbit, as well as Ōkuninushi no kami and his siblings, were heading to this very area. In parallel to the regalia of Yagami-hime in the story, the area of Yagami may have been controlled by a noble family. Whether or not this family had a daughter of such significance as demonstrated through Yagami-hime in the story is a mystery. Another thing worth mentioning is that her name can can also be pronounced as “Yakami-hime”.

In terms of her position, since the premise of the folklore centers around gods, Yagami-hime is indeed a goddess. So, it would make sense that other gods would seek her out to take her hand in marriage. What about the white rabbit? What would be his purpose in meeting with her? In the version of the story used in the previous article, it’s written that the white rabbit traveled to Inaba to meet a goddess. Is Yagami-hime whom the white rabbit wanted to meet? This isn’t specified. In fact, this appears to be an addition to this version. Going off of the original story found in the Kojiki, readers only learn of his intentions after Ōkuninushi asks what’s ailing him, which the reply include his statement about wanting to visit Inaba. In truth, the white rabbit doesn’t mention about a goddess, let alone Yagami-hime. In the end, most likely he only went to see Yagami-hime as a means to help Ōkuninushi no Kami, and foil the 80 sibling gods’ plans.

A snapshot of statues portraying Okuninushi no kami, Yagami-hime, and the white rabbit. The location of this is the Menuma Jinja (賣沼神社), which is in Kawabara Town, Tottori Prefecture. There is a sign to the left stating that this is a place where visitors can pray for love. From Tottori City Tourism.

One more fact to mention is how Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi no kami’s relationship is considered one Japan’s oldest love story. While this isn’t the only example of a relationship taking place in the Kojiki (nor is it the first one), it is, in a way, appreciated on a romantic level. In true fashion, their relationship did blossom into something special, where they did get married and have a child. Unfortunately, their tale did not have a happy ending, as Ōkuninushi would be forced to leave after an attempt was made to take his life, and would never return back to Yagami-hime.

SHARK VS CROCODILE

In terms of topics pertaining to the story that have no clear resolution, one I’d like to point out in detail concerns the first obstacle for the white rabbit, which are the sharks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t always sharks that were presented in the story, for there was a time when instead the sea creatures that cost the white rabbit’s fur were described as crocodiles. The reasoning behind this has to do with the naming convention used during ancient times, and the confusion that comes with it due to inconsistencies in geographical inhabitancy, as well as changes in the Japanese language in modern times.

First, let’s look at the name used in the story. The creatures deceived by the white rabbit are called “wani” in Japanese, which are represented by the Chinese characters “和爾”. Verbally, wani means “crocodile” or “alligator”. So one would assume that it’s correct to assume that crocodiles were the obstacle. There are a couple of issues with this, the biggest deals with when the story (and as a whole, the Kojiki) was written. It dates back around the 700s, which around this time, crocodiles were not a creature naturally inhabiting Japan. Furthermore, the event with the white rabbit took place out in the sea, where crocodiles would not be at for they are reptiles and not sea creatures. Although they are active in water, crocodiles are generally found closer to land. Sharks, on the other hand, are a type of sea creature that are fish and can be found out in the ocean, which better fits the narrative.

So why use the term wani for a sea creature? There are some theories behind this. One is that the Japanese had knowledge of crocodiles from their interactions with other Asian countries, such as China and, for the sake of fantasy, added them into the story. This isn’t too far-fetch, especially when you consider how many artworks incorporate tigers, which are also not natural to Japan. In fact, this is a pretty strong one, as there are other cases of the word wani appearing in other Japanese folklore, which was used for dragon-like or snake-like reptilian creatures. On the other hand, one thought is that the word wani was used as a label for multiple creatures in ancient times, and not just for reptilian ones such as crocodiles; there is evidence that the name may have been attached to other sea creatures as far back as when the Kojiki was written, which includes fugu (河豚, puffer fish) and same (鮫, shark) . This isn’t too unusual; in fact, this practice is still used today in certain parts of Japan, as apparently the word wani is associated to sharks. This is similar to the difference in pig/boar labeling in Japan when compared to China.

At the end of the day, there is no concrete answer to whether it’s a crocodile or a shark that appears in the story. In current times, the shark theory is more accepted, and is in the majority of versions and art depictions of the story. In fact, to distinguish from crocodiles, the common practice is to use the unique title of “wani-zame” (鰐鮫) for these sharks.

MIRACLE CATTAIL

The cattail, called “gama no hana” (蒲の花) in Japanese, plays a symbolic role for bringing back the white rabbit’s fur. Or, it can be though that it replaces the lost fur completely. For those who are unfamiliar (like myself), a cattail reed has spiky seeds all over it. When ready, these same seed bloom into fluffy cotton. In reality, the cattail is a multi-purpose plant that has been relied on for generations, as it can be used for making utilitarian supplies such as hats & baskets, it can be used for culinary purposes, as well as for medicinal purposes. Quite amazing is how the cotton from the seeds can be used as stuffing and insulation, which is probably where the idea of rubbing a cattail along the white rabbit’s body had the seeds stick to him in order to bloom into a new white coat of fur came from.

Outside of this playfully creative remedy in a folklore, cattail does have actual medicinal usages in Japan in the past, as it is said there are some archaic remedies found in old documentations. One usage was for resolving certain pain-related issues, possibly through boiling or burning down certain parts into some form of concoction. Another medical usage was for bleeding issues, where the cotton from the seeds were probably used to cover up cuts. Speaking of which, there is the idea that the cattail was actually used for the purpose of relieving the white rabbit’s pain and not for regaining his white fur. Could it be that the cotton from the cattail was actually used to cover up and heal his lacerated skin? While this aligns with actual medical purposes, this idea is not incorporated in most (if any) interpretations of the folklore. This is actually a small piece of a much bigger conversation, which will be covered more in depth in the following paragraphs below.

ORIGINS OF THE WHITE RABBIT

Pinpointing where the white rabbit comes from is one with no clear answer. Exploring the origin would be a fruitless endeavor, as there are no concrete method to uncover this. On the other hand, we can look into some fun facts regarding the character used to identify him, as well as the idea of him crossing the sea.

For linguistic buffs, it’s interesting to know that the white rabbit was identified by a different Chinese character. Normally, “兎” is the character that represents rabbits, but in the Kojiki there is a unique variation for this word, which is “菟”. The difference between both characters is the top part of the character, which means “grass”. This is an old character not used in modern Japanese, but is though to be the original character used to identify rabbits. One can say that the old character describes rabbits better, as they do live out in fields and eat vegetation to survive.

The idea of a rabbit crossing the ocean on the backs of sharks is quite unique, but not necessarily the sole example of such story telling. There are other such tales in older Asian lore where animals, such as foxes and small deer, have to cross the sea using various modes of transportation. It’s possible that the author of Kojiki was inspired by other Asian lore from other countries, and incorporated this theme. But why? On another note, what does this tell us about the white rabbit? Was he native to Oki Island, or did he somehow get stranded over there? Does that mean that he’s originally from Inaba? Also, what was the reason to traveling to Oki Island? Could his travel have been a reflection of political conflict? Is the white rabbit a parallel of an important individual sent to Oki Island? Questions like these probably won’t be answered anytime soon. Interestingly, there was a work of literary art produced generations later that expands on the origins of the white rabbit with a unique spin, adding reasoning behind his journey. Since it is out of scope with this article, it won’t be discussed here, but I intend to go in depth about it in another article.

BEHIND THE “WHITE” FUR

In the modern adaption of the story, the protagonist is called “shiro usagi”, which is white rabbit in English, and this name is represented by the characters “白兎”. However, note that this differs from the original text, which includes the point that the color of his fur was never mentioned before he lost his fur. In the Kojiki, he is not called “white rabbit”. Instead, simply the term “rabbit” is used to address him, along with other terms based on the changes of his situation, such as naked rabbit (裸の兎) from when he lost his fur, and rabbit god (兎神) after he elevates to the status of a deity. The name of the book “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” is taken directly from the following line in the Kojiki upon regaining his fur after following Ōkuninushi’s remedy:

JAPANESE: 此稻羽之素菟者也
TRANS: He’s become the “white” rabbit of Inaba

Here we have rabbits that have brownish-to-beige-hue fur (left) during the warm seasons, while a white fur rabbit (right) sits in the snow during winter. Could there be any significance to the white rabbit having white fur in the folklore outside of wintertime? From Photo AC.

Although here the word “shiro” is used, which normally stands for white in Japanese through the character “白”, in the Kojiki a different character is used. This particular character for shiro is “素”, which has a meaning that leans toward “clean”, “unstained”, or “original”. An Edo period scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730 ~ 1801) reasoned that the reading of this character can be white through the same meaning. His reasoning has often been compared to how non-dyed clothing or fabric is often white, and is represented by the characters “素布”. Interestingly, the pronunciation shiro is uncommon for the character “素”, but could be a case where it’s used to represent the idea of “white”, thus allowing readers to understand that the rabbit does indeed have white fur.

On another train of thought, some of the descriptions geared towards the white rabbit is more “human-like”, as opposed to how other animals in the Kojiki are described. For example, when the white rabbit loses its fur, it is called the “naked rabbit”. The characters used for naked feels more of what you’d say to a person, as it has the nuance of meaning “being clothe-less and having a reddish hue”, similar to that of a new born baby. Some thoughts about the white fur likens it to clothing, such as him putting on a white robe. This could be because the white rabbit turned into a deity that is revered today, thus encouraging the words that describe him to be more respectful.

REAL PURPOSE OF ŌKUNINUSHI’S REMEDY

The most problematic conversation regarding the meaning behind “white” is regarding Ōkuninushi’s remedy, and what it truly was for in the original text. If we examine the white rabbit’s condition in the story, he was more than just fur-less, but was wind-burnt and lacerated from the 80 sibling gods’ prank. Seeing the injured body, Ōkuninushi’s remedy of using clean water and the cotton from cattail seeds may have only been to treat the cuts sustained and heal the body, for his intentions were to return the rabbit back to his “normal” state. Following this concept, the use of the word shiro (素) may have actually been speaking towards this, and not actually getting a white (白) fur back, if he even had one from the start.

While the application of medical treatment in the form of a remedy makes perfect sense, it does detract from a story that deals with individuals that are beyond normal. In fact, it takes away from the surreal nature that the narrative hints towards, not just in the “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” story, but from the Kojiki as a whole. It’s possible that the consensus found this idea distasteful, as there are criticism in the unclear and segmented narrative used in the Kojiki and its whole “gods” theme. In truth, reading the older, non-restructured version of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (as well as Kojiki as a whole) can be a chore trying to interpret, as the descriptions are not very fleshed out, which can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. Thus, with this idea ruled out, future interpretations steered toward the notion that the character “素” refers to “white”, and incorporated the vivid imagery of a rabbit with white fur losing it, then regaining it through Ōkuninushi’s remedy.

WORSHIPING THE RABBIT DEITY

There’s no argument that “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” has had an influence on Japanese society. With the likeable image of the white rabbit, it is not surprising to see rabbits play a star role in future stories, traditions, and pop culture. One of the more substantial result of this can be seen in the number of shrines and temples built in honor of rabbits, or that have a rabbit motif somewhere in their structure.

The most well-known shrine that is directly correlated with the iconic folklore is “Hakuto Jinja” (白兎神社), or “White Rabbit Shrine” in English. This is located in Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture, the origin land of the folklore itself. This shrine was built generations later, Here, people revere the same white rabbit as “Hakuto-kami” (白兎神), and pray to receive aid for various situations, such as the following:

Images of Hakuto Jinja, which includes the main shrine hall (left), the torii gate (middle), and statues depicting the white rabbit and Ōkuninushi no kami (right). From Photo AC.

  • Curing skin disease
  • Healing from injuries
  • Recover from various illnesses
  • Animal Healthcare
  • Fate
  • Marriage

All these are related to the folklore one way or the other, especially the last one. In “Inaba no Shiro Usagi”, the deity white rabbit displayed the unique ability to affect the fate of specific individuals, or people of special existence. As such, we see how remarkable he was as the go-between in sealing the fate between Yagami-hime and Ōkuninushi. Thus, why lovers would come to the Hakuto Jinja an pray for a successful marriage.

CONCLUSION

Here comes the end to this article. This became a much longer one than anticipated due to finding a lot of interesting information. This is a testament on the importance of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” in Japanese culture as a whole. There are other interesting concepts based on this folklore, which are currently planned as separate articles to be shared on this blog later this year.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Hah, I tricked you guys!”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LORE

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

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



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

GOJŌ TENJIN SHRINE

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

Pic of Gojō Tenjin shrine. From Wikipedia.

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

KIYOMIZU-DERA

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

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

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

POTENTIAL HISTORICAL INACCURACIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tegumi: A Glance at Coordinated Teamwork

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).

Book featuring manuscripts from the Watanabe collection
Front cover of the book.

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)

#1

JAPANESEENGLISH
五行一段 Gogyo ichidan (5 Methods – 1st level)


黄色

Ao (Blue)
Aka (Red)
Kiiro (Yellow)
Shiro (White)
Kuro (Black)

#2

JAPANESEENGLISH
五行二段Gogyo nidan (5 Methods – 2nd level)

Ao (Blue)
Shiro (White)

#3

JAPANESEENGLISH
五行三段 Gogyo sandan (5 Methods – 3rd level)


Ao (Blue)
Shiro (White)
Kuro (Black)

#4

JAPANESEENGLISH
五行四面法Gogyo yonmenpō (5 Methods – 4 sides trick)



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)

cardinal directions

English Translation:

南/South

東/East       西/West

北/North

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)

Cardinal directions and colors

English Translation:

南/South

東/East        西/West

     北/North

              赤/red

青/blue  黄/yellow  白/white

             黒/black

  

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)

8 teams 1000 troops

English Translation:

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?

ENDING

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”.

Rōdanshū: Evaluating the ninjutsu scroll from Sengoku period

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:

  • Crossing rivers
  • Dismounting
  • 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?

Image of part of the signature page. Here we see ① the signature of Baba Mino-no-mori ② a date of 1827 (嘉永7年) ③ and a recipient name being Matsubara Yukie (松原靭負).

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.

ENDING

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).

Women’s Naginata Training: No secrets, full transmission?!?

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.


JAPANESE: “夫女長刀と云は男子と違い多年きびしく稽古之修行不成故最初より奥儀秘事を伝授せしめ事少にして慥成勝利を極める術を教ゆる事伝授の至極也”

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.”


Kusaka Ichimune Onna naginata menjo
Screenshot of said scroll, with section about how women trained in naginatajutsu is mentioned. From the website “Kobujutsu Hōzonkai ‘Getsurindō’“.

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.

Artwork of women particing with glaive
3-panel artwork from the collection “Chiyoda no Ō-Oku” (千代田之大奥”, Maidens of Chiyoda castle’s Inner Chambers), entitled “Naginata no Keiko” (長刀稽古, Naginata Training). By Yōshuu Chikanobu (楊洲周延). From National Diet Library Digital Collections.

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.

BENEFITS

  • 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.

CONCLUSION

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

Unique Swords with the Finest Edge

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 section for the Shinkage ryū scroll known as “mokuroku”. Here, instructions on kenjutsu is given with the use of an illustration consisting of a tengu. From Wikipedia.

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.

Pic of Ittōseki. From Photo-AC.com

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.

An example of a sword kept in a simple shirasaya, which is meant for storage especially during the cold season.

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.

An example of a sake daru (酒樽), a barrel used for storing rice wine at a shrine. From Photo-AC.com.

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.

An ukiyoe of Hōjō Tokimasa. From Wikipedia.

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.

An image of the face of an oni, or demon. From AC-illust.com.

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.

ENDING

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.


1) These articles can be read here and here.

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.

Evaluating Manuscripts of Takeda Army Strategist Yamamoto Kansuke

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.

Pic of the book “Yamamoto Kansuke “Heihō Hidensho””, with box cover (left) and front page (right).

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.

Pic of the book “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi”, with box cover (left) and front page (right).

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

  1. Fighting forms (形勢, Keisei)
  2. Method of hand-to-hand fighting(拳法, Kenpō)
  3. Method of sword fighting (剣法, Kenpō)
  4. Method of staff fighting (棍法, Konpō)
  5. Long-range weapons – naginata, yari (長道具ー鎗、長刀, Nagadōgu – naginata, yari)
  6. Method of archery  (弓法, Kyūhō)
  7. Firearms (鐵袍, Teppō)³ 

Gunpō Hyōhōki Kenjutsu no maki

  1. Three points regarding kenjutsu (劔術三ツの要といふ事)
  2. Postures with 3 height levels when wielding the sword (上中下段かまいの太刀)
  3. Postures with the sword against unexpected encounters (りんきおうへんかまいの太刀
  4. Forms for utilizing dual swords (両刀をつかふの形)
  5. Forms regarding battles between swords and spears (鎗刀戦いかまいの形)
  6. 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)


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:


Hira jōgo kensei


ORIG: 敵より先に践込みて己を撃とせば其太刀の出るをよく見て左の身足を引て敵の撃出す手をうつべし

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)
  • Yōgan (陽眼)
  • Ingan (陰眼)
  • Murakumo (村雲)
  • Yamatsuki (山月)
  • 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.

ANALYSIS

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 2

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).

Page with this article’s version of “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”. From the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”.

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.

A pic of Takeminakata-no-kami, as he performs a trick called “senbiki no ishi” (千引の石, lifting a stone that requires the strength of 1000 men) when he challenges Takamikazuchi.

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.

CONCLUSION

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”.

Legend of Kōga Saburō ~ Part 1

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.

Cover of the picture book “Kōga Saburō: Shinshu-Yomikikase Minwa Ehon Series”. One of the many visual interpretations of the fabled tale “Kōga Saburō Densetsu”.

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.

Image of the main hall of the Suwa shrine. From Wikipedia.

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.

MOCHIZUKI’S VERSION

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.

Cover of the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”

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.


ENDING

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.