Fame to the Spear ~ Part 1: Shichihon Yari

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

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

SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI

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

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

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

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

These seven warriors are the following:

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

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

DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD

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

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

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

LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK

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

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

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

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

OTHER SHICHIHON YARI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDING

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


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

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

“Dō” and its Influence on Kenjutsu Terminology

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

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

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

THE ROLE OF ARMOR

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

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

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

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

ANSWERING THE “WHY?”

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

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

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

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

  • 籠手
  • 篭手
  • 甲手

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

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

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

OTHER ADAPTATIONS

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

Bokuden and his Live Lesson regarding the Naginata

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

RULES ABOUT THE NAGINATA

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

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

ー、長刀は二尺にたらぬほそ身をは持は不覚の有と知るへし(三十五)

ー、手足四つ持たる敵に小長刀持て懸けるとよもや切られし (三十六)

ー、太刀かたな持たる敵に小長刀しすます時に相討ちとしれ(三十七)

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOKUDEN VS THE NAGINATA SPECIALIST

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


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

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


ANALYSIS

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

Okiku’s Daring Escape

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

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

WHO WAS OKIKU

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

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

DAY OF THE CHAOS

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

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

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

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

TROUBLE AT KYŌ BRIDGE ENTRYWAY

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

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

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

CROSSROADS

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANALYZING THE SITUATION

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking at the teachings from Bokuden Tsukahara’s Hyakushu

When studying Japan’s military history, there are some documents that excel above others due to being based on personal experience. Tsukahara Bokuden, an individual known for his contribution to his father’s martial system Kashima Koryū (鹿島古流), and later developing his own system called Kashima Shintō ryū (鹿島新當流), is one of those famous martial artists who had passed down such a document. Along with his connections to popular martial systems including the aforementioned ones, his experience on the battlefield around the late 1400s to early 1500s of during Sengoku period, as well as in mortal combats in the form of duels during his musha shugyo (武者修行, expedition across the land for the sake of training and employment)¹, also contributed to the knowledge he gained regarding the necessities one who walks the warrior path should know.

Bokuden Tsukahara drafted a documentation called “Hyakushu” (百首), which is a collection of 100 entries that can be looked upon as rules for warriors². As a whole, Hyakushu is a set of teachings regarding military and martial-related practices, confrontations, preparations, and the like through the form of short poems. Like many other documents of similar nature, these poems are not straight forward, and require some research and/or understanding on topics regarding military and martial practices during Sengoku period. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources in Japanese that go over Tsukahara’s writings in detail, helping to grasp some of the more vague entries.

Out of the many documents like this, I find the teachings in the Hyakushu a mix of lessons that are of practical use, those that touch on necessary points that could assist fellow warriors, and others that are informative through what Tsukahara was experiencing during his time firsthand; they are not rules that are the standard that all should follow regardless of the times. What’s also interesting is that I feel many of the poems can be compared to certain practices that are done in modern times, both combative and non-combative.

2 pages showing the many entries from Hyakushu. From the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓).

Below are a select few entries from the Hyakushu. You’ll find the original Japanese, followed by my translation and breakdown of the meaning behind the poems. For some, I’ve also added some commentary to how they may apply to scenarios in modern times, as a means to understand how Tsukahara’s teachings actually transcends generations.


JAPANESE:「近き敵遠き敵をはゐる時は矢の根の習いあると知へし(六)」

ENGLISH: “You must know the teachings regarding different arrowheads when dealing with enemies that are close and far away (#6)”

MEANING: This is in relations to what type of arrowheads are designed better for long range versus those for close range. In terms of basic knowledge, the weight of arrows can prevent them from being used in all types of situations. Along with the draw power of a bow, certain arrows are more effective from far away through ya-awase (矢合わせ, raining arrows), while others are better for picking off troops upclose especially for those who are cavalry.

From my still young experience with archery and shooting at an open range, I have conversed with those who are more seasoned with the bow and arrow. It was explained to me³ that lighter arrows are better for hitting a target at greater distances (say, over 20 yards), as they are able to maintain their velocity and still puncture a target. As for heavier arrows, those are better for targets that aren’t too far out (around 20 yards and less), for they tend to lose velocity quicker if shot beyond their preferred range, making them suffer less piercing power. Although this is from the perspective of modern archery, these points are elementary & universal to archery done for centuries.

On a more fundamental level concerning expertise, archery was a practice highly valued by those who walked the path of a martial specialist, and was even the symbol of what it meant to being a warrior. Considering that many from military families were taught formally how to shoot an arrow extensively from a young age, Tsukahara could also be implying that these very people should know the differences of arrowheads and when they should be used. Those who do not cannot say they are truly versed, or complete warriors.


JAPANESE:「癖有れど強き馬こそよけれとて進まぬ癖の馬を乗るぞよ(十四)」

ENGLISH: “While it may be said that a strong horse is fine even if it has its (bad) habits, riding one that has the tendency to not move forward is problematic (#14)”

MEANING: Those with horseback riding experience develop good judgment about different horses. They can point out each one’s habits, some good, some bad. This is so in all generations. When looking at Tsukahara’s era, generally elite figures or those who assume the role as cavalry would ride horses into battle.

To the untrained, a strong or fast horse would be a perfect choice. One can imagine the benefits of these types of horses. However, Tsukahara mentions about habits of a horse, using the word kuse (癖) in Japanese. This tends to have a strong connotation, usually negative. If we look at the habit of a horse not moving forward when commanded, this is a very detrimental habit. Couple of reasons for this include having too strong a will and difficult to tame, to being too timid and frightened easily.

Regardless of a horse being strong or fast, if it does not follow its rider’s commands on the battlefield due to its bad habits, then it is unsuitable. What would then be considered suitable? Possibly one that falls in between, where it is not too strong, and isn’t too timid.


JAPANESE: 「鎬のなき太刀をば深く嫌うべし、切る手の内のまわる故なり(十八)」

ENGLISH: “A sword with no curve (ie shinogi) is one that is loathed immensely, for in order to use it you have to rotate your hand (#18)”

Earlier in Japan’s history, swords with little to no curve were used. However, later in Sengoku period, especially around Tsukahara’s time, swords with a pronounced curve are the preferred choice. This is true all the way to modern times. In sword terminology, a curve in a sword is called sori (反り). How much of a “sori” is there can be understood visually, or it can be measured by the shinogi (鎬), which is a ridge line that goes up along the side of a sword from the habaki (鎺, copper collar right above the swordguard) to slightly under the tip.

When studying how to use a Japanese sword through kenjutsu⁴, you learn how to cut with the upper part of it. In due time, you can perform solid cuts where you don’t have to move your hands so much. However, cutting with straighter swords is the complete opposite. Since they have no curve, you may have to compensate by twisting and turning your hand.

Note that this was the prevalent view in Japan due to certain events. However, there are other countries that have successful histories using straight swords. Of course, there may be other factors that contribute to this, for example, length and weight of the blade.


JAPANESE: 「切れるとて新身の太刀を帯びる人必ず不覚あると知るべし(十九)」

ENGLISH: “Those who equip themselves with a newly made sword believing it will hold up (ie cut with durability) very well are making a big mistake. (#19)”

MEANING: This is an interesting one. Tsukahara is talking about having more trust in battle-worn swords over newly smitten ones. This is because swords have the risk of bending and snapping upon impact while on the battlefield. This is a normal occurrence. However, this can be minimized by using swords that have been tried and true, for if they have survived one or several battles, then that shows they’ve been crafted properly and will most likely hold up. Untested swords, on the other hand, cannot be verified so quickly.

There is more to this teaching. From the mid to later parts of Sengoku period, as territorial battling grew rampant, there were higher demands for equipping troops with weapons, including swords. Many swordsmiths were commissioned to make great numbers of swords in a short amount of time. Due to such urgency, there was little to no time for quality assurance. Thus, there are tales of swords breaking during clashes, which literally renders a warrior helpless and at the mercy of their opponent if they cannot equip themselves with another weapon quickly. It’s possible that Tsukahara witnessed this…or even experienced this himself.


JAPANESE: 「勝ち負けは長き短かき変わらねど、さのみ短かき太刀な好みそ(二十)」

ENGLISH: “A long or short sword can be used in order to determine the outcome in a fight. However, in terms of advantage, a long sword is preferred over a short one. (#20)”

MEANING: There are stories of martial artists winning a fight in all types of methods. Examples of this include having a superior weapon over their opponent, having an inferior weapon, and even having no weapon. It can be said that skills and experience, with a bit of luck at times, have a great influence in being able to do so. While Tsukahara states that a long sword and short sword can be used to obtain victory, he also admits that he prefers using a long sword. If we read into this, he is hinting about not hindering yourself if you are given a choice. This may have to deal more with duels than battlefield experience.

Around his time, there are sword styles that incorporate techniques for using a shorter sword to defeat an opponent with a longer one, such as Chūjō ryū (中条流), Nen ryū (念流), and Ittō ryū (一刀流). While those are great feats with skills that are invaluable, I think Tsukahara is advising don’t take the chance to win with a shorter sword when you can ensure a better outcome with a longer sword. Of course, I believe there is a limit to the type of swords he’s referring to, such as daitō (大刀) & uchigatana (打刀) as long swords, and shōtō (小刀) & kodachi (小太刀) as short swords. From what I know, there are no duels that had excessively long-bladed weapons (ie nodachi [野太刀]) and short-bladed weapons (ie kaiken [懐剣]).


JAPANESE: 「もののふの夜の枕に二重帯、おかぬはあわれ不覚なるべし(四十七)」

ENGLISH: “It would be a terrible blunder for a warrior not to place their futae obi next to their pillow at night (#47)”

A futae obi (二重帯) is a long Japanese-style belt that wraps around the body twice, with the ends being joined together and tucked in. It is very easy to wrap around one’s body, as there is no need for any cords or such to secure it properly around the body. The reason for keeping one’s futae obi next to the pillow is because warriors were trained to do the same with their sword. So, in case of danger, one could quickly put on their futae obi and insert their sword into the 2nd loop at a moment’s thought. Based on the context, this advice is useful for when one is at home or taking lodge at an inn.

For modern times, an equivalent to a futae obi would be an obi used for dankyu (段級) ranking in many modern martial arts organizations. While a kaku obi (各帯, long & wide belt) is the more standardized choice for many classical Japanese martial arts today, a simple long obi can be used in its place by tying it the same way as a futae obi. This can be a good substitute, plus it is much faster to fasten around the body than a kaku obi.


JAPANESE: 「もののふの道行く時に逢う人の、右は通らぬものとしるべし(七十六)」

ENGLISH: “A warrior should not pass on the right side when encountering a stranger while on a road (#76)”

MEANING: In the past, people traveled on the specified main roads. As a warrior, passing by a lone person can be risky, especially if it’s another warrior. That person could be one who practices tsuji kiri (辻斬り), which is intentionally cutting down a passerby on a road or in the field in order to test your skills or the sharpness of your sword. Passing by on their right gives them enough time to draw their sword out. To neutralize this, you would pass by on their left, which not only makes it difficult for them to attack, but you can actually stop their hand, grasp the sword handle, etc. if you can spot the attempt.

This is opposite of what was normally practiced in towns, where you would pass on the right side to avoid bumping into another warrior’s sword sheath, and accidentally causing a confrontation that could lead to kirisute gomen (切り捨て御免, having the right to cut down someone who disrespected you as a warrior).



JAPANESE: 「もののふの道行く時に曲り角、避けて通るぞ心ありけり (七十七)」

ENGLISH: “A warrior should be aware to avoid making a turn (closely) around a corner while walking on a path (#77)”

MEANING: This is in regards to any type of building structure. When walking by or turning around a corner, we do so blindly, not knowing what’s on the other side. Corners are perfect for ambushes, making it easy for an attacker to strike down those who are unaware. This is especially true if you walk very close to the corner.

To remedy this, one should instead turn the corner widely. This not only gives you a chance to see what’s on the other side from a safe distance away, but gives a warrior enough space to react in case of an ambush. This is especially necessary when making a left turn, as with one’s sword being on the left side of the body, you would need space to draw it out of it’s sheath and not hit the wall.

In today’s generation, this rule still holds true. Even outside of a combative situation, it is a good idea to take care around corners especially in heavily populated areas. For example, when walking on a sidewalk, to avoid bumping into someone who may be carrying something. Or when inside a store, to avoid turning straight into a showcase or display.


These are few of the 100 short poems found in Bokuden Tsukahara’s Hyakushu. It would be nice to add all of them, but I have to refrain as that would become a rather large translation project. Hoping to revisit this in the near future, with possibly examples from Tsukahara’s own recorded history that covers his personal experiences.


1) There is an older article about this on Light in the Clouds, which can be accessed here

2) From sources like “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史), it is mentioned that Bokuden Tsukahara actually wrote around 97. After Tsukahara’s death, the original manuscript that he wrote was kept in the possession of Iizasa (飯篠) family. From there, a person named Katō Sagami-no-kami (加藤相模守) is stated to have added 3 more to the original manuscript.

3) Note that there are still many variables to archery that can affect the distance both light and heavy arrows fly, which includes the arrow’s material, whether they have feather fletching or not, length of the arrow, weight & type of arrowhead, size & draw power of the bow, type of bow, and so on. The example given in the article is based on using a recurve bow that is around 30 poundage, while the numerical figures are not set in stone.

4) The experience varies between each sword school, while there may be slightly different mechanics concerning using a sword if learning through iaidō, battodō, etc.

Tetsujin ryū, an Offshoot of Niten Ichi ryū?

Lately, I’ve been browsing through books and other sources regarding martial systems that specialize in the Japanese sword. Unlike Sengoku period, there are many of these during Edo period, most of which were created during this peaceful era. Just as there are more than one can possibly hope to remember, there are equally many that died out, Sifting through different sources tends to introduce new information. It just so happened that one of the sources mentioned a sword style I’ve never heard before, which is Tetsujin ryū (鉄人流). It has a very strong sounding name, plus seems to specialize in dueling with 2 swords.

EVALUATING ORIGINS

Tetsujin ryū’s full title is “Nitō Tetsujin ryū” (二刀鉄人流). If we break down the title,  we get the following:

  • Nitō/二刀: Two swords
  • Tetsujin/鉄人: Iron man, strong man
  • ryū/流: style, manner, school of thought

This was a martial system that used the method of two swords. It was mainly taught in the far western region of Japan in Saga domain, Hizen province (present day an area divided between Saga prefecture and Nagasaki prefecture). The founder of Tetsujin ryū is tricky to discern based on current sources. On one hand, credit is given to Aoki Kyūshin Ienao (青木休心家直). From what I can understand, there is no birth date or year of death presented for him, but it is estimated that he lived during the early part of Edo period. On the other hand is Aoki Jōuemon Kaneie (青木城右衛門金家), who is the grandchild of Ienao¹. While his exact years are also unknown, it is stated that he was born in Kawachi province (present day eastern part of Ōsaka prefecture). Both claim tuteluge under the master swordsman who created Niten Ichi ryū, Miyamoto Musashi², in available documentations. In fact, Kaneie went by the nickname “Tetsujin”³.

Is it possible that they both were students of Musashi? This is uncertain, but could somehow be possible. It can be agreed that, with both Tetsujin ryū and Niten Ichi ryū being dual sword styles, it would make sense there being a connection. However, there are doubts about Ienao and Kaneie ever studying under Musashi, where for the latter it may have been under a completely different person⁴.

A chart that shows the branching connection between Shinmen Muni and those who studied under anyone connected to his martial lineage. Number 1 (red) indicates Aoki Ienao, who’s connected to Miyamoto Musashi (green). Number 2 (red) is Aoki Kaneie, who’s connected directly to Muni (blue), then has an additional branch to Miyamoto Musashi. From the book “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi”.

COMPARISON BETWEEN BOTH STYLES

Here’s what is known about Tetsujin ryū. This martial system utilizes daishō (大小), which means a pair of swords consisting of one daitō (大刀, larger sword such as a katana) and a shōtō (小刀, shorter sword such as a wakizashi). This is the same for Niten Ichi ryū. From what I’ve been able to uncover, there is a list of dual sword postures, that feature both illustrations and short descriptions. In comparison to Niten Ichi ryū, there are a lot. Furthermore, the naming convention is complex and not easy to decipher.

Looking at Niten Ichi ryū first, we see that there are a total of 5 postures where dual swords are used⁵, which are the following:

  • Chūdan no kamae / 中段の構
  • Jōdan no kamae / 上段の構
  • Gedan no kamae / 下段の構
  • Migi waki no kamae / 右脇の構
  • Hidari waki no kamae / 左脇の構

These are standard posture names used in many kenjutsu systems, and are easy to understand their usage. For example, Chūdan no kamae is a “middle posture”, where the swords are positions slightly above waist height, while Jōdan no kamae is “high posture”, where both swords (especially the daitō) are held much higher.

If we look at Tetsujin ryū, sources indicate that there are a total of 16 stances. Here is, based on my understanding, how the names are read:

  • Tōgō Kiri / 當合切
  • Utetsu / 右鐵
  • Satetsu / 左鐵
  • Chūdō Bassatsu / 中道縛殺
  • In Bassatsu / 陰縛殺
  • Yō Bassatsu / 陽縛殺
  • Yōtetsu / 陽鐵
  • Intetsu / 陰鐵
  • Sōken / 總捲
  • Hitōken / 飛刀劔
  • Yō-i / 陽位
  • In-i / 陰位
  • Shin-i / 眞位
  • Jitte Dori / 實手捕
  • Kōmyō Shinken / 光明眞劔

While there are descriptions about how to assume the postures within the scroll that is public, it’s mentioned that there isn’t much else. The first 6 postures are indicated as the main ones, whereas the other 10 are more advanced postures. How each one is used and when is a mystery. On top of this, the posture names aren’t as clear as to that of Niten Ichi ryū in terms of how they are used. While some names do provide hints when tied to an illustration, such as Utetsu (right iron) and Satetsu (left iron)  indicate body orientation, other names leave alot to the imagination.

Since this martial system is shitsuden (失伝, no longer actively maintained by a successor), there are no vids or pics that’ll give us a clear presentation of it in action, unfortunately. If it is true that one of the two Aoki members did learn under Musashi, why are there many differences, both visually and descriptively, between both martial systems? Unlike today’s standards where many koryu bujutsu (traditionally transmitted martial systems) are organized to preserve the teachings across different generations, centuries ago it was not mandatory to retain the style name. Depending on one’s situation, many practitioners either kept partial of the style name but added another title (i.e. their own name) to it, or renamed it completely if they received a master license. On top of that, it was not unusual to reorganize the contents if what they learned, or even add to it. This could be the case here with Ienao/Kaneie and Tetsujin ryū.

REFLECTION OF THE TIMES

As mentioned before, Tetsujin ryū is a sword style that existed during the Edo period. In fact, it lasted for the majority of this time period. It can be said that Tetsujin ryū is a reflection of the times; as society was governed by one ruling power, groups followed standardized rules as opposed to territorial customs & standards during an unified Japan in Sengoku period. Many martial artists began focusing more on the katana, which was shorter than the battlefield-centric tachi. This was in part due to battlefield weapons being banned by the Tokugawa rule, and the fact that katana became standard amongst warriors at the time. The usage of dual swords (katana & wakizashi) was made popular especially through the efforts of Miyamoto Musashi during the mid 1600s. Being a dual sword style, Tetsujin ryū certainly seems to be a product of Niten Ichi ryū, and openly owns up to that claim. However, there are other martial systems that similarly have dual sword techniques in their curriculum, whether they have a connection or not. Examples of this include the following:

  • Ryōken Tokichū ryū (offshoot of Tetsujin ryū)
  • Tendō ryū
  • Katori Shinto ryū
  • Musashi Enmei ryū
  • Shinkage ryū

There’s not much in terms of how Tetsujin ryū was used in actual combat or competition. There are, however, tales that highlight certain individuals. The first is “Aoki Jōuemon: Tetsujin ryū Gensō” (青木城右衛門 鉄人流元祖). This is a novel-style telling of Aoki Kaneie’s history. From this is where we learn a great deal about his life in Kawachi, and his path to becoming a martial artist, including his tutelage under Miyamoto Musashi. While considered historical text, there is no telling how much is actually truth, and what is fictional/exaggerated for the sake of storytelling.

The second is an actual diary of a Tetsujin ryū’s practitioner’s fighting experience. Entitled “Shokuni Kaireki Nichiroku” (諸国廻歴日録), it is an account of Muta Bunnosuke, who received complete licensing in Tetsujin ryu while living in Saga domain. Afterwards, from 1853 he traveled around Japan to further his skills for 2 years. It sounds like he may have been one of the last people involved with this martial system, so Bunnosuke’s diary is held in high regards. This story sounds interesting, and I personally would like to read more on it.

ENDING

That wraps up my small research on Tetsujin ryū. While it is seen to have a connection to Miyamoto Musashi, Tetsujin ryū apparently was valid enough to exist on its own worth for about 2 centuries. It is an example of one of the many gems in martial arts from the past.


1) To be specific, sources say that Kaneie is Ienao’s older brother’s grandson. Guess that would be the same relationship between the 2 as well…?

2) It goes much further for Kaneie, as it is said he studied first under Shinmen Muni, Miyamoto Musashi’s father, and learned the techniques of the jitte (十手, short truncheon with a hook for capturing swords). Afterwards, he would study under Musashi.

3) Kaneie may have later changed and called his systems “Enmei ryu” and “Enmei Jitte ryu”

4) Kaneie also created his own style for utilizing the jitte, called “Tetsujin Jitte ryu”, which is thought to have come from his studies under Musashi’s father.

5) There are more, mainly in the form of variations of the initial five. Plus, there are postures for when wielding one sword.

Looking at Miyamoto Musashi’s First Treatise

Many people are familiar with Miyamoto Musashi’s famous treatise called “Gorin no Sho” (五輪の書), or commonly called “Book of 5 Rings” in English, which was written in 1645. However, in 1641 he compiled another treatise prior to this called “Heihō Sanjūgō Kajō” (兵法三十五箇条), or “35 Rules of Martial Combat”. Being an expert martial artist in the way of the sword, Musashi wrote this upon the request of Hosokawa Tadatoshi, who was a lord over Kumamoto Domain, Higo Province (present-day Kumamoto Prefecture). Believed to be the first recordings of what would later be Musashi’s self-made style “Niten Ichi ryū” (二天一流), the Heihō Sanjūgō Kajō was preserved in the densho of a kenjutsu school called “Enmei ryū¹“, which Musashi himself had a hand in starting.

Recently, as I was reviewing my copy of Gorin no Sho, I decided to also look through the Heihō Sanjūgō Kajō as well. When comparing both documentations, there are similarities as well as differences. There are those that consider the former a “draft” of the Gorin no Sho, and would sign it off for the sake of the more renown version. Some of the reasons behind this include the following:

  • Gorin no Sho is a much longer documentation with more philosophical commentary.
  • Gorin no Sho possesses much more detail on both taking up the part of a martial artist, and the techniques that are related to Niten Ichi ryu.
  • While the Gorin no Sho directly covers Musashi’s self-made style Niten Ichi ryu, the Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō, which is related a great deal, has more of an association with Enmei ryu.

However, I believe that is a premature viewpoint, especially if you are not familiar with the history behind the first documentation and which audience it was written for. Being a treatise on both fundamental and advanced techniques that can benefit a martial artist, Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō would benefit anyone who has interest in this field, even if just as an addition to one’s collection.

Looking at the similarities between both documentations, some of the rules in Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō are also included in Gorin no Sho. However, take note that the wording and/or approach expressing these differ abit between both. Furthermore, although older, Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō contains some interesting perspectives by Musashi. Let’s evaluate this with a snippet from rule #2. I will present below the Japanese, along with my English translation.


② 兵法之道見立処之事   

此道大分之兵法,一身之兵法に至迄,皆以て同意なるべし。

今書付一身の兵法,たとへば心を大将とし,手足を臣下郎等と思ひ,胴体を歩卒土民となし,国を治め身を修る事,大小共に,兵法の道におなじ。

② Analyzing the Path of Martial Combat 

The path of martial combat is the same throughout, from the militaristic system used for large armies, down to the individualistic combative skills.

In this writing I will use individualistic combative skills as an example for the comparison. Such as, one’s head (mind) is equivalent to the commander, the hands & feet are like close subordinates such as retainers. The torso is like the foot soldiers. If, through this idea, one trains the body as if to take over a country, then the path of martial combat is, without a doubt, the same on all levels.


This is an overall comparison of the discipline for the individualist skills honed by a martial artist being the same as that needed for an army to work well and succeed. It’s an interesting one, as it may directly explain how the mindset and approach to martial combat transitioned from the battlefield to individual skirmishes during the Edo period. Take note that rule #2 of Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō is said to be related to the Earth Scroll chapter of Gorin no Sho, yet this doesn’t mean that this is a direct copy of words from one text to another. Anyone who’s familiar with both will notice that while Musashi makes references regarding the discipline of the martial artist is the same as in all professions in that particular chapter, he primarily makes that comparison using carpentry.

The following rules below are a few that offer new and unique perspectives of Musashi’s philosophy. That is, by how they are worded, as they don’t definitely fall into any of the chapters found in Gorin no Sho. Along with the original Japanese and my English translation, I will follow up with my interpretation of the meaning behind the following rules, as best as I understand. Of course, being my interpretation, this doesn’t mean that it is 100% perfect.


⑦ 間積りの事

間を積る様,他には色々在れ共,兵法に居付心在によって,今伝る処,別の心あるべからず。何れの道なりとも,其事になるれば,能知る物なり。大形は我太刀人にあたる程の時は,人の太刀も,我にあたらんと思ふべし。人を討んとすれば,我身を忘るゝ物也。能々工夫あるべし。

⑦ Making Space

There are many points to this, along with needing to be there in the moment and having a presence of mind, in regards to making space around yourself. To explain this clearly hear, you must not have your mind elsewhere or on other matters. Like all paths, in order to achieve this you must have knowledge. The big picture here is to strike the opposition with your sword. To achieve this, one must have the mind of not being struck even by another person’s sword. When you do make the attempt to strike down someone, you must forget about yourself. This takes knowledge and lots of training.


For this, you control enough space around yourself, allowing room to deliver strikes, as well as avoiding any incoming ones from an opponent. When you do go forth with your attack, you must also commit to it and not hesitate, for that will leave the door open for the opposition to react.


⑳ 弦をはづすと云事

弦をはづすとは,敵も我も心ひつぱる事有り。身にても,太刀にても,足にても,心にても,はやくはづす物也。敵おもひよらざる処にて,能々はづるゝ物也。工夫在るべし。

⑳ Releasing the string

To achieve this is to grasp on both the thoughts of you and your opponent. You pull yourself off line of an attack through your body, sword, legs, and mind. You will understand how to evade based on your opponent’s thoughts. This requires lots of training.


This rule is talking about being able to read what your opponent is trying to do. Simply put, one reacts accordingly to each of your opponent’s actions if you can grasp what he/she is planning next.


㉖ 残心放心の事

残心放心は事により時にしたがふ物也。我太刀を取て,常は意のこゝろをはなち,心のこゝろをのこす物也。又敵を慥に打時は,心のこゝろをはなち,意のこゝろを残す。残心放心の見立,色々在物也。能々吟味すべし。

㉖ Freeing one’s Attentive Spirit

This is a method for you to allow things to take their natural course for some time based on the situation at hand. With our sword in hand, our attentive spirit is released as if things are normal, while our mind stays active. Or, as you strike down an enemy in a timely manner, you rest your mind, while staying attentive through intent. There are many points to be aware of when analyzing this. There is much information to gain from this.


In Japanese martial arts a fundamental skill reiterated a lot is zanshin (残心), which can be interpreted as staying attentive when a conflict has been ended. For the rule above, this goes beyond that, where one relaxes mentally yet stay attentive through intent, or vice versa.


㉛ 扉のおしへと云事

とぼその身と云は,敵の身に付く時,我身のはゞを広くすぐにして,敵の太刀も,身もたちかくすやうに成て,敵と我身の間の透のなき様に付べし。又身をそばめる時は,いかにもうすく,すぐに成て,敵の胸へ,我肩をつよくあつべし。敵を突たをす身也。工夫有べし。

㉛ Teachings of the Door

This is about being like a tobaso (戸臍 or 枢, swinging door), where when getting close to the opponent, you quickly make yourself wider in appearance. This creates a distortion regarding enemy’s sword, and the body. It makes it that everything is exposed within the space between you and your opponent. Or, you make yourself a slim form as soon as possible as you propel your shoulder towards your opponent’s chest.


Musashi is describing how to change your body’s orientation, and uses the image of a hinged door as an example. In theory, squaring up with your opponent can be effective in many ways, including psychologically, as it gives the idea that you are a bigger target. Yet, if the enemy strikes, you turn sideways so the attack sails by, which allows you to deliver a counter strike.


Here concludes our discussion on Miyamoto Musashi’s first treatise. While the Gorin no Sho is truly the more popular one worldwide, the Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō is still an active rule set used in certain Japan martial schools that follow in the lessons of Musashi. On top of that, there are publications on this, as well as plenty of websites that cover this in detail in Japan. While a smaller read, I would recommend those serious about martial arts to read the Heihō Sanjūgo Kajō, even just once.


1) Also known as Musashi Enmei ryu (武蔵円明流).

The Patron & The Ox: Legends of Tenmangū ~ Part 2

We continue with the discussion on the legendary tales from Tenmangū. Since we were able to achieve an understanding behind these shrines through the history of Sugawara no Michizane in part 1, we will now proceed with those tales and get an idea how they have deep ties with the yearly ox Zodiac sign theme. Note that many of these stories were made long ago in Japan’s past, during a time where superstition was prevalent, and natural phenomenons were believed to have been caused by one of many gods. Whether they are believable or not, they do play a big role in the development of both culture and society.

BIRTH & DEATH

Sugawara no Michizane was elevated to the level of a divine being after his death due to his contributions while he was alive. This isn’t so unusual, as there are plenty of examples of this happening not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Interestingly, one could say that this was already predetermined on the day of his birth. A tale that is told at the Tenmangū shrines is that his birth was an auspicious one, and truly denotes his connection with the ox Zodiac sign, which is considered beyond normal. In this particular tale, Michizane’s birth is recorded to not only been in the year of the ox, but was also on the day of the ox, and at the time of the ox¹. What does this mean?

The Zodiac signs have a multitude of purposes, some utilitarian, others mystical. In the past, they were used to denote years, days, and time, which was key for fortune telling. Depending on the period and the tasks that are at hand, a person may believe they will see benefits, or will heed caution and refrain from doing anything important. In Michizane’s case, this repeated occurrence with the ox sign in his birth is pretty auspicious, and viewed as beyond normal. On top of this, Michizane is said to have died on the day of the ox. Such a repetition of a Zodiac sign may point to him as being divine, like a deity who took the form of a human. As for the ox reference, one could interpret it that the ox brought him into the world, as well as returned him to his true realm, since the ox is naturally a vehicle of the gods. More on this point later.

VENGEFUL SPIRIT, WRATHFUL GOD

This tale can almost be seen as a continuation to part 1, based on how it’s told in the visual records of the Kitanō Tenmangū shrine called “Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki” (北野天神縁起絵巻). In 908, just 3 years after Michizane’s death, a member of the Fujiwara clan would die suddenly from disease. One year later, Fujiwara no Tokihira, the main antagonist in Michizane’s misfortune, also dies from disease. In 913, new Minister of the Right Minamoto no Hikaru would tragically die through drowning while out on a hunting expedition. As the Fujiwara clan gained a stronger hold of both the Imperial palace and Imperial family, more tragedy befell upon them. Such can be seen in the 930 incident where a lightning storm would strike down upon a building on the Imperial grounds where many members of the Fujiwara family were, resulting in a few of them dying on the spot, or later passing away due to suffering from lightning burns. The final tragedy befell on 60th Emperor Daigō, who is believed to have been the main target of the lightning storm. After the incident, Emperor Daigō’s health deteriorated, until finally dying 3 months later. The cause of this is viewed to be linked to his agreement with the validity of the accusations made by Tokihira and others, and Michizane being exiled from Heian Kyō.

This entire story is seen as an act of revenge by Michizane’s spirit that took its course over the course of almost 30 years. Initially, as these events were unfolding, the consensus within the Imperial palace was that Michizane’s vengeful spirit was cursing the Fujiwara clan. There were different attempts to try and “appease” him, such as bestowing upon him different titles including Minister of the Right, which was taken away from him through slander while he was still living. The lightning storm was the most severe, which happened later after the Fujiwara clan were able to become part of the Imperial family through one of the women conceiving a child for then Emperor Daigō, making him a prince. As a result, A Fujiwara member was sent to Anrakuji, where Michizane was buried at, to build an enshrinement. This enshrinement was then named Tenmangū. A few centuries later the Kitanō Tenjin Engi Emaki was created, which retells this story.

While there were those who described him as a vengeful spirit, Tenmangū instead envisions him as a wrathful god punishing wrongdoers in an act of justice. As a result, Michizane is called by several other names, including “Raijin” (雷神), which means “Thunder God”. According to old beliefs, a thunder god is generally depicted having the guise of an oni (鬼, demon) with horns². According to the Zodiac signs, the combination of the Ox and Tiger signs refer to demons, both metaphorically (i.e. they point towards the unlucky north-east direction on the typical Zodiac chart) and visually (demons are usually illustrated having ox-like horns and wearing tiger fur loincloth). This goes back to Michizane being born in the year of the ox, which contributes to this image.

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH OXEN

There is a legend that Michizane had encounters with an ox, which may have been his guardian spirit in disguise. During his youth, Michizane found a baby ox wandering alone in a wooded area. Appearing to be lost or abandoned, he took it into his residence, where he nurtured it until it grew into an adult. At some point, just as it suddenly appeared in his life, this ox suddenly disappeared without a trace. While he wanted to set out to search for it, in the end he let the matter go. Fast forward to when he was exiled to live his life in Dazaifu in the south, Michizane would one day travel west to Dōmyōji (道明寺, Dōmyō Temple) in Osaka to visit a relative³. After parting ways, he set out to head back home when he was unexpectedly attacked by an assailant. Before harm could befall on him, a large ox suddenly appeared and drove the assailant away, saving Michizane’s life. Just as quickly as it appeared, this ox would disappear from sight in the same way.

One of the ways to interpret this story is that the baby ox was a spirit. Since Michizane showed kindness and helped raise it, this ox spirit in return acted as a guardian spirit. In a way, it is not so different from many other Japanese fabled tales of similar nature. Although it is just a legend, this contributes to Michizane’s ever-persistent connection with the ox Zodiac sign. On another note, while in this version of the story the color of the ox is not mentioned, I’ve heard another one, although very brief, where Michizane was rescued by a white ox. While I’m not sure if this is a variation of the story mentioned above, there is significance in the white ox to the Buddhist god Shiva, which the Tenjin of Tenmangū is loosely based off of.

AN OX’S STUBBORNNESS AS FATE

Another story is directly related what took place after Michizane’s death and the decision with what to do with his remains. In his final days, Michizane wrote a poem as part of his will that states “people should allow themselves to be pulled along in a wagon by an ox, letting it take us where ever it may desire, and to eventually be buried in the spot where it stops at”⁴. Following this as his last wish, those sent to bury his remains put it in an ox-drawn wagon, and had intended to carry it all the way to Heian Kyō (present-day Kyōto) in the west in a procession. During the journey, the ox suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, laid down, and wouldn’t move. They didn’t make it far, as they were still in the southern part of Japan. Despite efforts to get it to stand up and proceed again, the ox wouldn’t budge. With no other choice, They took Michizane’s remains to a near by temple called Anrakuji, and had it buried there.

At Tenmangū shrines, the underlining point of this story is that everything happened based on fate. Michizane was destined to be laid to rest in the south, and the ox was like a divine messenger to show where the burial spot should be. Interestingly, this is where Michizane was enshrined in the 1st Tenmangū shrine, thus being deified. Again we see the significance of the ox, whether we choose to view this as chance or by fate.

OX AS A SERVANT OF THE GODS

If we look at some of the stories mentioned above, we see the ox had a close role in the life of Sugawara no Michizane, as well as after his death. At the Tenmangū, the ox is often described as a “shinshi” (神使), which can stand for being a servant or messenger of the gods. According to Shinto beliefs, there are spiritual creatures who, acting on the will of the god(s) they serve, come down to earth to handle tasks they were assigned to. At times, humans may also view these spiritual creatures as gods themselves. They would take the guise of earthly creatures such as foxes, monkeys, birds, snakes, and centipedes. In the Tenjin faith of Tenmangū, the ox is the main servant.

From another perspective, the ox can also be viewed as a vehicle for the gods. In Eastern religions and beliefs, gods are depicted as coming down to Earth on the back of a divine creature. These creatures include boars, horses, and oxen. There are artwork that feature Michizane sitting on the back of an ox, although in these he is in his humanly form, as if to say he did this while he was alive. Since Michizane is deified and now recognized as the Tenjin, this is fitting.

ENDING

These are the majority of legendary tales from the Tenmangū. Bearing a lot of references to the ox, one can get an idea how important their underlining messages are especially when the ox Zodiac years come around. This here brings the 2-part series to a close. I hope readers enjoy this piece of history, and get an understanding about how intricately enwoven the Zodiac signs were with Japanese culture.


1) This is commonly written as “丑の年の丑の日の丑の刻”, which reads “ushi no toshi no ushi no hi no ushi no koku”

2) This is more in the vein of a divine demon, who is a guardian of Buddhism. Another way to describe this would be “onigami” (鬼神), or “demon god”.

3) This relative is stated to be an oba (叔母), which could mean aunt.

4) Although written in modernized Japanese, this is an interpretation of the poem:

「車を牛に引かせて、牛の行くままに任せ、牛の止まった所に葬ってくれ」

“Kuruma wo ushi ni hikasete, ushi no yuku mama ni makase, ushi no tomatta tokoro ni hōmuttekure”

Note that during the Heian period, ox-drawn wagons were popular among the populous, which may have had an influence on him writing this.

The Genealogy of Tokugawa Ieyasu & The Advantages when Claiming Power

During a research project a while ago, I came across an interesting point regarding Tokugawa Ieyasu, the feudal lord to unify all of Japan in the early 1600s, and first shogun of the Tokugawa Bakufu (徳川幕府, Militaristic rule of the Tokugawa clan). I came across notes online that state he would have himself addressed as “Tokugawa Minamoto Ieyasu” (徳川源家康) within some administrative-related letters and documents¹. For those who are familiar with the earlier years of Japanese history should know about the Minamoto clan, which was a powerful clan with nobility roots to the Imperial family, and greatly recognized for their prowess in military campaigns by a few exemplary individuals from the Heian period to the Kamakura period. What is this significant link that the Tokugawa family have with this clan?

Before modern Japan, it was commonplace for people to change their names. There are numerous reasons for this, such as to represent one’s (new) living area, job title, adoption into a new family, rise in status, and so on². In most cases, an explanation is given in surviving documents, whether it be in the form of a diary, family records, of official papers. In some of these cases, however, are critical disputes on the validity of these documents and their claims.

For this article, we will look at Tokugawa Ieyasu and the story behind the lineage he established. This ranges from his own personal history, the factors in which prompted him to take on a new name, as well as his family line’s connection to the Minamoto clan. Some of the sources used for this includes the following:

GENJI – MATSUDAIRA STORY

Ieyasu was born in the Matsudaira family, who were from Matsudaira Village in Kamo District of Mikawa Province (present day Matsudaira Town, Aichi Prefecture). The Matsudaira family were an influential one, who would eventually gain full control over their domain for many years once there was no one to challenge them. After becoming shogun and establishing the Tokugawa Bakufu in the early 1600s, Ieyasu presented a genealogy for his family line, which illustrates the Matsudaira line was started by Matsudaira Chikauji (松平親氏). This Matsudaira Chikauji is stated to have a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage (清和源氏), which is but one of the different lines that have ancestry to the noble Genji clan.

Some points to understand regarding this Seiwa-Genji line:

  • This line descends from the 56th successor Emperor Seiwa, making it the most powerful of all the other Genji lines.
  • All Genji lines originate from the Minamoto clan, a family of nobility whom were once one of many imperial families during the Heian period.
  • While they have a long history, the Minamoto clan are especially renown for their on-going struggle for power against the Taira clan which eventually lead to victory within the late Heian period (794-1185).
  • One of the main representatives of this Seiwa-Genji line is Minamoto no Yoshiie (源義家, 1039-1106), who is viewed as a legendary figure being the role model for the brave, armor-clad warriors whom would later rise and establish Japan into a military state.

Here’s an explanation of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s claim to the Seiwa-Genji link. His ancestor, Chikauji, is a descendant of the Serata³ clan, which split from the Nitta-Genji (新田源氏) line (another branching line from the original Seiwa-Genji). The Serata clan left the Nitta Manor in Tokugawa Village (新田庄徳河郷), and later established their own home in Serata Village in another part of Tokugawa (世良田郷徳河) within Ueno Province⁴. According to different sources, early in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Chikauji and his father Arichika (有親) fought alongside with others against the Kamakura bakufu within the Shinano area in eastern Japan. They were on the losing side, and had to flee from the pursuit of Ashikaga Takauji and his force. Not being able to return to their homeland, they escaped to Sagami Province. Reaching the Shōjōkō Temple, Chikauji took vows there to become a Jishu sect monk under the name “Tokuami” (徳阿弥)⁵. Later, he would travel to Matsudaira Village in Mikawa, and became a member of the Matsudaira family through marrying the daughter of Matsudaira Taro Saemon. Thus, Ieyasu’s claim is that his blood line directly comes from Minamoto no Yoshiie through Chikauji, as well as past generations were known as “Tokugawa” due to Serata Village being in Tokugawa.

Above is a genealogy chart I’ve prepared that illustrates the generations that progresses from Minamoto no Yoshiie all the way to Matsudaira Chikauji. It also includes how certain individuals changed their surname generally based on the geographical location they were living in, which led to the establishment of new branching family lines. Some of them even did this multiple times. If we look at Chikauji at the bottom of the 2nd image, he too is a prime example of switching surnames. Apparently he went by “Tokugawa” at one point when he was residing at Tokugawa Village, while he would eventually switch to Matsudaira.

IEYASU AND HIS CHANGE TO TOKUGAWA

Looking into Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal history, he went through a period where his identity changed in stages before establishing the Tokugawa shogunate and ruling all of Japan. As a summary, he was known by the name of Takechiyo (竹千代) during his childhood. When he was given his ceremony of adulthood at the age of 16⁶, his given name 1st changed to Motonobu (元信), then later to Motoyasu (元康) while working under Imagawa Yoshimoto, but kept his family name “Matsudaira” the same. He inherited the role of the 9th head of the Matsudaira clan, yet didn’t spend much of his life with them in Mikawa after the age of 6, for he was sent away as a hostage⁷ by his father, Matsudaira Hirotada. He was 1st under the care of Oda Nobuhide in Owari Province for 2 years, then later sent to his intended caretaker Imagawa Yoshimoto in Suraga Province, who lorded over Mikawa. Eventually, he would gain complete control over Mikawa when Yoshimoto died during the battle of Okehazama in 1560, which was the final of the ongoing war this individual had against the ambitious warlord Oda Nobunaga. His military career truly took off under the title of Matsudaira Motoyasu, and would continue especially after his identity undergone yet another change.

Artwork of Tokugawa Ieyasu as Shogun. From series “Mikawa Eiyuden” ( 三河英勇傳, The Great Heroes of Mikawa Province) by Utagawa Yoshitora. From Wikipedia.

In 1563 he would alter his first name, from “Motoyasu” to “Ieyasu”. 3 years later, he would then change his family name from “Motoyasu” to “Tokugawa” as an official title from the Imperial court. While it is very common to have one’s family name changed in relations to receiving an official rank with some sort of back story, there is none whatsoever in Ieyasu’s case at the time. It would be many years later during the 1st year of the Edo period that Ieyasu would reveal that in his family’s genealogy, which traces back to the Serata clan, there were a few individuals who bore the name Tokugawa. It is through this connection that he believed it was best to reinstate this name. Some researchers question this as there was no mention of this in his earlier years, especially from someone who grew up away from his own clan members during his youth. Another interesting point that is mentioned is that members of Ieyasu’s Matsudaira clan did not change their family name to Tokugawa after his rise in power, but did not hesitate to use this surname when needed.

QUESTIONING THE AUTHORITY TO POWER

By setting up the new Tokugawa bakufu in Edo (present day Tokyo), Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to establish rules, regulations, and territorial development process throughout Japan. Official documentations were also transcribed, which were used to retain all sorts of important information. Some examples of these are the Mikawa Monogatari (三河物語), which is a documentation of historical tales and accomplishments regarding families from Mikawa including the Matsudaira/Tokugawa, and the Kansei Chōshū Shokafu (寛政重脩諸家譜), which is a collection of many different genealogy, including that of land owners and military families. In these we can see the genealogy of Ieyasu, which claims an ancestral link to the Minamoto clan through the Seiwa-Genji line.

Despite these documentations, historians and researchers are skeptical about this claim. Some of these arguing points include the following:

  • There is very little concrete info on those individuals who come before Chikauji
  • There is no evidence of a Serata member migrating to Mikawa, let alone it being Chikauji
  • Outside of Ieyasu’s genealogy claim, there are no other details regarding a family lineage presented by other Matsudaira members

There isn’t much solid proof of where such a well-detailed genealogy comes from. Taking his historical account into consideration, Ieyasu didn’t spend a lot of his time in Mikawa, let alone amongst his Matsudaira clan members. This isn’t an unusual case, to be honest. There are even some questions regarding those that come after Chikauji in this genealogy, but for this article I will refrain from discussing those, as they don’t have the same weight as the ones mentioned above. What’s interesting to note is that Imagawa Yoshimoto, Ieyasu’s primary care taker in his early years, also claimed a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage. Possibly this is where Ieyasu got the idea from and decided to follow suit?

If there is solid ground for skepticism, what would be the benefit of fabricating a lineage? Understand that after military rule was established by Minamoto no Yoritomo as the 1st ruling Shogun during early Kamakura period (1185 ~ 1333), not just anyone could simply use force and claim the title as “shogun”. It had to be acquired through the following 2 points:

1) Appointed by the Emperor

2) It could only be given to those of (according to very old beliefs and fables) “noble families that were descendants of the gods that created Japan and the world”

While we will not delve into the specifics of the 2nd point, we can sum this point up by the fact that the Minamoto clan, like many other noble families, was established with the proclamation of ancestry under a specific god, thus their connection with the Imperial court bearing the status of nobility. This link to nobility, along with other factors, is what granted Minamoto no Yoshiie the qualification to be appointed as shogun by the Emperor during his military career⁸. It is not hard to see the advantage of claiming rights to rule as Shogun through a link to the Seiwa-Genji lineage.

Claims to nobility wasn’t something that only Ieyasu took advantage of, for there were others before him who used the same proclamation to acquire the shogun title. For example, the Ashikaga clan, whom had a long line of shogun successors throughout the Muromachi period (1336 ~ 1573), also did the same and claimed ancestry to the Seiwa-Genji lineage. Toyotomi Hideyoshi also dabbled in such play of claiming a link to nobility, for when he was able to rise to the top through superior military strength over his adversaries, he was initially faced with an issue that would prevent him from becoming shogun. The son of a lower class family, Hideyoshi was not born with a noble surname, meaning he had the blood of a mere commoner. To rectify this situation, he was advised, as well as permitted, to be adopted by an Imperial court noble named Konoe Sakihisa. Through this newly-established noble link, Hideyoshi was allowed to receive the title shogun from the Imperial court.

CONCLUSION

This research on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s claimed genealogy, along with the critical disputes against it is an interesting one. It gives a glimpse of methods those who have the means can use in order to secure their position to achieve success or claim power. Even though this matter is centuries old, researchers still take the time to examine just how real the roots of the unifier of Japan truly is in order to understand the history of his ancestors…that is if any traces of it can be discovered. It’s but one of the many ways to learn about the past and understand Japan when society was structured very differently from modern times.


1) In a related topic, the online edition of Sankei News reported about a letter written in 1586, where Tokugawa Ieyasu used the title addressed as “Fujiwara Ieyasu” (藤原家康) in 1586. It appears that along with the surname change to “Tokugawa”, Ieyasu initially wanted to elevate his status even higher through an ancestral link to the Fujiwara family. For those unfamiliar with this, the Fujiwara family were elite to the point that they were not only the most influential in the Imperial court, but they also had control of the Imperial house behind the scenes through manipulating which member of the Imperial family would be the next successor. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Ieyasu’s predecessor, was another who used the Fujiwara surname at times after he established himself with a noble lineage.

You can see the actual news report here.

2) One of the more interesting cases I’ve heard is that some people would change both their given and family names if they feel their current ones are unlucky. To improve their luck, changing them to ones that are more appealing in meaning is a route that is seen as beneficial.

3) Also pronounced as “Serada”

4) The kanji (Chinese-bsed characters) for “Tokugawa” uses an older way of writing. There are different ways in which this name has been written throughout the ages. Here are the following:

  • 徳川 (most familiar)
  • 徳河
  • 德川
  • 得川
  • 禿川
  • 禿河

5) This is explained in the “Mikawa Monogatari” (三河物語). There is a slightly different take on this in an earlier publication called “Matsudaira Yuishogaki” (松平氏由緒書). This too presents descriptions regarding the Matsudaira genealogy, but for Chikauji’s case he is not written to have been a monk. Instead, he left his hometown on a solo journey across the lands like a wanderer. Because of this, there are beliefs that this part about him becoming a monk is a fabrication, and added to later documentations.

6) This is known as “genpuku” (元服) in Japanese.

7) This “hostage” case is very common throughout Japan’s history. Different from the idea of kidnapping by force, in many situations a clan that is controlled by another more powerful clan would send family members to reside with them. While these members are given to fulfill a particular need by the powerful clan, the gist of it is to keep those family members in order to control the lesser clan. There are also many political usages behind this.

8) Before the establishment of military rule, the title “shogun” had a slightly different nuance, along with a different manner of entitlement. During the Nara and Heian period, certain renown warriors who were recruited to deal with supposed threats (i.e. “barbarians” and “villains”) to the Imperial palace and the aristocratic governing system would be given this title. In Minamoto no Yoshiie’s case, his complete title was “Chinjufu Shogun” (鎮守府将軍), which has the full meaning of “Commander-in-Chief of the army which pacifies threats from the North”.

2/22 & the Relationship between Cats and Ninja

February 22nd is a special day, as it is a day of recognition for 2 separate themes in Japan. The first one is “Neko no Hi” (猫の日), or “Cat’s Day”¹, which has been around since 1987. The second is “Ninja no Hi” (忍者の日), or “Ninja Day”², which started in 2015. In this post I will pay tribute to both by introducing a topic that relates how cats were useful to the ninja.

There is a method for telling time called “neko no medokei” (猫の眼時計), or “cat’s eye clock”. During a time with no electricity and dependency was on the light from the sun, people in the past could use this method to tell the time by looking at a cat’s eye and observe how the pupils adjust based on the position of the sun. This is considered a special method used by ninja when they were active during middle ages in Japan. A few points to keep in mind regarding this is that while the method is indeed old, it was not originated by ninja, nor was it only used by them.

The concept behind the neko no medokei actually comes from a set of documents written in China in the year 860 called “Yūyō Zasso” (酉陽雑俎, Yŏu yáng zá zǔ in Mandarin Chinese). Within this text is a mixture of educational lessons and bizarre stories. Physical traits, coupled with some odd interpretations, regarding cats and their behavior with their eyes, nose, ears, and so on are included in this. Eventually, this text was brought over to Japan during the cultural exchanges in Japan’s earlier history, with the information on cat’s eyes being the inspiration to using it as a method for telling time. Of course, as with many things that have been adopted into their culture, the Japanese would put their own spin on it in order for it to fit with their culture and needs…this includes the ninja as well.

The poem regarding neko no medokei from the Mansenshukai

There is an old text called Mansenshukai (万川集海), which is considered one of the 3 important manuscripts of the ninja³. Within this text is a section called “Tenmonben” (天文編) which details information regarding weather conditions, operating at night, and telling time. There is a poem that describes how the neko no medokei works, which goes as the following:

「猫眼歌二 六ツ丸ク 五七ハタマコ 四ツ八ツ柿ノ實二て 九ツハ針」

“nekome uta ni mutsu maruku itsutsu nanatsu wa tamago yotsu yatsu kaki no mi nite kokonotsu hari”

Although written in code, this poem states simply the different shapes a cat’s pupils would undergo, which is related to the time of day based on sunlight. The details work according to the old clock system used before modern times, which incorporates the Zodiac signs from the Lunar calendar to indicate the specific hour(s) in a day. Here’s a breakdown of the poem:

  • Mutsu (六ツ) refers to the 6th hour of both the morning and evening, which would be at dawn and sunset respectively. At these times, a cat’s pupil will be a circle shape since dawn occurs before sunrise, and evening should arrive after sunset.
  • Itsutsu (五) represents modern time range 6~8 in the morning, and nanatsu (七) refer to 3~5 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will become an egg shape as sunlight is nowhere near being its brightest.
  • Yotsu (四ツ) represents modern time range 9~10 in the morning, while yatsu (八ツ) refers to 1~2 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will look like the shape of a persimmon seed as outside is pretty bright.
  • Kokonotsu (九ツ) represents the time around 12 pm, where the sun is at its brightest. Due to how bright outside is with the sun being at its highest point, a cat’s pupil will become thin and look like a pin.

Prior understanding of how to read this old clock system was critical in deciphering this poem in the past, although nowadays there are plenty of sources that explain it. Visually there are diagrams that interpret the details very clearly, such as the ones presented below.

One would imagine that the neko no medokei would’ve been useful for those who stayed in one location. While it is claimed that a ninja could use this while on a mission, most likely this would’ve been so during the day, for the neko no metokei wouldn’t be effective at night.

For those who own a cat could test this time reading method and see if the results are the same as above. If I did, I totally would give this a shot!


1) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Neko no Hi is because the number 2 is pronounced as “ni” (nee) in Japanese. It is said that if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it resembles the sound a cat makes.

2) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Ninja no Hi is because of how the number 2 sounds close to “nin”, which is one way to say the word “忍” (nin, perseverance) and is usually associated with the image of ninja especially in pop culture. Basically, if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it sounds like you are saying “nin-nin-nin”, which is like a shorthand of saying ninja.

3) These 3 are the following: Mansenshūkai (万川集海, also called “Bansenshukai”), Ninpiden (忍秘伝, also called “Shinobi Hiden”), and Shōninki (正忍記). Together, these are often categorized as “sandai ninjutsu densho” (三大忍術伝書, the 3 great secret texts of ninjutsu) in Japanese.