The Art of Being Resourceful

There is something to say about being a specialist when it comes down to martial arts. Dedicating time & effort to be a master of a particular style or weapon is no small feat. Yet, we should avoid limiting ourselves as well, and explore different martial systems and disciplines as well.

It is good to be exposed to many different weapons, disciplines, and the like when studying martial arts. This way, we gain knowledge to different approaches towards combat, as well as being able to perceive what others have studied themselves. In the modern times we live in, there is a greater variety of martial arts styles to choose from, whether it be Japanese, Chinese, European, Southeast Asian, and the like. For me, I’ve had the opportunity to do the same; while I’ve dedicated most of my effort in kobudō, over the years I’ve taken the time to explore the basics of karate, taekwondo, boxing, and hung gar. On a technical level, studying other systems has not only helped to appreciate the philosophy behind these different styles, but pick up unique skills and methods of movements that have made essential contributions to my overall studies that I can take with me.

Let’s narrow this down to Japanese martial arts, and how this idea of learning different styles has been important in its growth. When studying how Japanese warriors stayed active during Japan’s Sengoku period, we learn how various weapons were used on the battlefield, from swords, spears, archery, and gunnery. Depending on the time period, warriors who had the resources not only trained with them to understand how they are used, but carried a plethora of weapons in war campaigns. So, it’s not unusual to read details about archers who spent most of their effort in arrow volleys having to switch to drawing out uchigatana slung at their left hip when the opposing army has closed the distance, or a general who’s fighting with a tachi on horseback may switch to a yari which his attendant would be carrying close by.

This idea of being resourceful with multiple weapons continued throughout Edo period, to even modern times. Those who specialize in hand-to-hand systems during the 18th century also made practice to be proficient using smaller weapons concealed on their person, such as suntetsu (寸鉄, a steel bar held in a fist), kakute (角手, a ring with a small spike), and manriki gusari (萬力鎖, weighted chain), which are often categorized as kakushi buki (隠し武器). This ideology has been retained in specific traditional forms practiced today, where practitioners work on being able to switch from one weapon to another.

Let’s take naginata systems as an example. There are forms where the defender, a naginata wielder, will be overwhelmed by an opponent using a katana that manages to close the distance. In response to the opponent preparing to deliver a finishing blow, the defender pulls out a tantō that is kept in the front of their obi and counters appropriately. Interestingly, there are accounts of this in documented records from Edo period where a shorter bladed weapon proved to be the equalizer in situations where their trusted longer weapon was ineffective, such as the skilled spearsman Katsuhisa Umataemon Saitō¹, and the war-hardened swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden².

In closing, martial artists should strive to be as skilled as can be, especially with disciplines we truly favor. However, we must not be closed-minded to other disciplines, for studying & adapting multiple skills can help keep us open-minded, and enhance us even further.


1) This experience changed Umataemon’s views on long weapons. This was covered on this blog, which can be read here.

2) Bokuden spoke about his, as well as other adventures during his time. This can be read in the following post on this blog here.

Unique Swords with the Finest Edge

In a previous set of articles, brave acts with the Japanese spear were covered, as well as a few famous ones that still exist today¹. These examples illustrate the importance this weapon had in Japanese history. The same can be said about the Japanese sword, with a great amount of stories especially coming forth during the Edo period; these are often painted as an essential tool part of the arsenal of warriors during the Sengoku period, as well as being the symbol of the samurai class during the Edo period. Many of the tales concerning swords even touch on levels one would deem supernatural.

For this article, we’ll look at 3 unique stories that tell about amazing feats done with the Japanese sword. Each story has an interesting point to illustrate, which ranges from the greatness of the wielder to the sword itself being nothing short of mystical. As amazing the feat is, keep in mind that they shouldn’t be taken literally.

STORY #1: YAGYŪ AND THE DIVIDED STONE

There is a legendary story that comes from the Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine (天石立神社, Ama-no-Iwatate Jinja) in Nara prefecture, which is home to a very large stone on its property. Measuring at about 26 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 6 feet & 1/2 high, this stone is fabled as the very one used by the Sun Goddess Amaterasu to seal herself in a cave. Today, it is a critical center piece behind the founding of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine. However, the story we will be reviewing isn’t about the shrine’s origin, but concerns one of the more renown swordsmen during Edo period, whose name is Yagyū Muneyoshi (柳生宗厳).

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

A seasoned warrior on the battlefield during Japan’s warring years, Muneyoshi is the founder of Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) during the Edo period, a popular martial system that specialized in combat with the Japanese sword, which many still practice today. Well, it just so happens that the large stone of Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine also plays a significant role in how Muneyoshi founded his style.

There was a time Muneyoshi went on a training journey to further improve his sword skills. For this, he went to Ama-no-Iwatate Shrine and stayed there for awhile. One day, when he was training on the grounds of the shrine, a tengu (天狗, a long-nosed goblin with wings) suddenly appeared, as if challenging the warrior. Muneyoshi fought fiercely with the tengu, as they both went back and forth with blows. Channeling his intention, Muneyoshi swiftly delivered a downward finishing cut that the Tengu couldn’t stop, cleaving him in half. In the next moment, Muneyoshi’s opponent disappeared, and was replaced by the large stone that was originally sitting not too far from him while he was training. He was so intent on victory, that his blade was able to cut through stone.

Pic of Ittōseki. From Photo-AC.com

The large stone would later be called “Ittōseki” (一刀石, stone divided by a single sword swing) once an account of Muneyoshi’s feat was learned. It’s perfectly split from top to bottom at an angle, which would take an enormous amount of brute strength to achieve. The point to take from this tale is that near impossible feats can be achieved through sheer intention, where one is harmoniously in tune entirely on 3 levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.

STORY #2: A BLESSED SWORD AND A WINE BARREL

This next story concerns the Mijima Shrine in Izu, located in Ooshima (eastern part of present-day Tokyo). Ittō Ittōsai (伊東一刀斎), the pioneer of the martial system known as “Ittō ryū” (一刀流), was residing there in his youth during a time when he wanted to learn kenjutsu. After a period of self-training through determination, the shrine’s head priest was moved, and decided to pass on a sword named Ichimonji (一文字) to the youth. This would be the 1st sword that Ittōsai would receive so he could begin to learn kenjutsu properly. Ichimonji was not only fabled to have a fine edge, it helped its young owner develop a skill that is quite a feat.

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

Before he became a renown swordsman, Ittōsai was described as a youth who had much potential in kenjutsu. The head priest acknowledged this as he convinced the youth to head on a journey to find a competent swordsmaster, which he agreed to fund. On the day he received Ichimonji, the sword was blessed with ceremonial rice wine, and passed on to him without proper fittings². Late in the night, right before his trip, Ittōsai heard commotions in the shrine, and learned that it was being looted by a gang of thieves. Unsheathing the sword which only had a wooden handle, he charged at the thieves. Despite them being armed and outnumbering him, the thieves fell to his sword one-by-one, as he displayed great handling. The last thief retreated to a room where wooded barrels used to store blessed rice wine are kept, and hid in an empty one hoping to escape later unseen. Ittōsai gave chase and, upon entering the room, was able to perceive where the thief was hiding. In one swift motion, he rushed at the barrel and cleaved through the barrel, which not only collapsed in two, the thief inside also fell along with it, severed from his torso down.

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

This remarkable feat of cleaving both the wine barrel and the thief would years later serve as a secret technique taught to his highest student, which would be called “dō-giri” (胴斬り)³.

STORY #3: THE DEMON-SLAYING SWORD

This tale involves Hōjō Tokimasa, a figure hailing from the illustrious Hōjō clan. Originally a military commander serving in the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, Tokimasa became the 1st authority figure of the established military-ruled Bakumatsu during the early Kamakura period.

An ukiyoe of Hōjō Tokimasa. From Wikipedia.

After the establishment of Kamakura Bakufu, Tokimasa went through a period of being plagued by tormenting nightmares, which all involved the appearance of a demon. One night, he went to sleep in his chambers as normal, with his sword next to him. He proceeded to go through another round of nightmares, which made him agitated. As he turned on his bed, his right arm bumped into his sword, which then fell ontop of him. Suddenly, as if willed by a power not of his own, Tokimasa subconsciously drew this sword and swung it, instinctively cutting at the demon within his dreams. His sword instead cut off one of the legs from a table which a hibachi (火鉢, small heating pot) sits on. The exasperated Tokimasa woke up surprised at the scene around him. As he examined the damage done to the table, he noticed that the part of the table leg that was accidentally cut off had the carving of a demon on it. Suspecting that this was the cause of his nightmares, Tokimasa had this part discarded, and from then on, was able to have peaceful nights of pleasant sleep.

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

This sword of Tokimasa was actually named “Onimaru-kunitsuna” (鬼丸国綱). Known as one of 5 legendary swords in Japanese history, it is distinguished as being a “reitō” (霊刀), or “spirit sword”. This means the unique trait the the Onimaru-kunitsuna bear was the ability to cut things on a spiritual level. Since the small table was cursed by the carving of a demon, this sword was able to “will” its owner to severe the menace at its roots.

ENDING

This concludes our coverage on stories concerning feats with Japanese swords. These tales were definitely penned to stir the imagination, illustrating famous figures and renown swords in a light of glory. While taking these types of stories as fact is abit difficult, one thing for certain is they are entertaining.


1) These articles can be read here and here.

2) A sword prepared for use would have what is called koshirae (拵), which includes a proper sword handle covered with shark skin and cotton wrap, a sword guard, and adorned with metal pieces. Since the Ichimonji was place at the shrine for safe keeping, it was prepped in shirasaya (白鞘), which consisted of a simple wooden sword handle, and housed in a non-lacquered sheath.

3) There is an article that talks on the general use of this term, which can be read here.

Evaluating Manuscripts of Takeda Army Strategist Yamamoto Kansuke

There are countless examples of old military manuals and martial arts-related scrolls that have survived to present times. Containing important information regarding combative (and sometimes non-combative) topics, they are usually provided to those privy to the knowledge, or copied by said information with permission to do so. That being said, there can be multiple versions from one source, with each having either slight differences, to not resembling each other at all. There are reasons for this, many which can be deducted to when it was written, who wrote the document in question, who the person was that received it, to whom the audience was. One example of this is the many documents that are stated to come from Yamamoto Kansuke, the famed military strategist during the 16th century.

For today’s article, two types of manuscripts will be presented that fit this topic. Both stated to come from Yamamoto as a singular source, they’ll be examined in terms of content, as well compared to evaluate their similarities and differences.

SPECIFICS OF ORIGIN

Yamamoto Kansuke is an individual highly debated amongst researchers and scholars alike. This stems from topics such as validity of his existence to authenticity of various manuscripts that helped structured the Takeda force and associated groups. When looking at these manuscripts, many are signed by him, or reference him for his impeccable knowledge. Let’s look at two that I have in my immediate collection, which are “Heihō Hidensho” (兵法秘伝書) and “Gunpō Hyōhōki” (軍法兵法記), and look into their background info.

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

First up will be the Heihō Hidensho. This was one of select works that are said to come from Yamamoto Kansuke’s knowledge on combat. Going by the date of 1701 as when it was written, it would eventually be compiled together with many other documents into a collection in remembrance of the Takeda clan and their rule over Kai (present-day Yamanashi prefecture) during medieval Japan. This collection is called “Kai Sōsho” (甲斐叢書), and has been reproduced on numerous occasions as a large volume of historical reference books from the 1800s to the 1900s by individuals like Hirose Hirokazu (廣瀬廣一), and the group “Kai Sōsho Kankoukai” (甲斐叢書刊行会). The manuscript Heihō Hidensho is located in the 9th volume of the Kai Sōsho.

For this article, the book “Yamamoto Kansuke “Heihō Hidensho””, published by the company Keibunsha, will be the resource used. It not only shares the same name, contains the entire manuscript have been retained. While one can say its source material is dated, this reproduction can be seen as fairly modern, mainly because the original text has been slightly modified to make it easier to read & understand, while still retaining its old Japanese feel. The modifications primarily relate to updating older kanji not part of the standardized Japanese language. There are more unspecified updates/edits in this book version, which will be spoken upon later in this article.

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

The 2nd resource, “Gunpō Hyōhōki”, is claimed to have been written by Yamamoto upon the order by his lord & ruler of Kai, Takeda Shingen, for the sake of his army. This particular manuscript is dated 1546, and is signed to a Nagasaka Chōkansai¹ by    the strategist himself, which can be determined by the signatures in the manuscript. This resource was drafted into 4 parts.  One of these parts is called “Kenjutsu no Maki”, which is considered invaluable and possibly a glimpse at what the legendary Kyō ryū² may be based on.

In the book “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi”, there is a section dedicated to Yamamoto Kansuke that includes the Gunpō Hyōhōki to its entirety. This is reproduced in this book as-is in the form of photos from the original source. Note that the original source does exist in a book form, which can be accessed at certain libraries in Japan. Visually, it appears to be an authentic document, as it follows the format of similar documents produced in the 16th century. This includes type of speech, and using a cursive writing style, which proves to be a challenge to read. There are lots of text with the context focusing on kenjutsu

COMPARING THE LAYOUT

To get a clearer picture on the similarities and differences between these two documents, we will look at the contents on military combat, particularly from the Heihō Hidensho’s “Mokuroku” section, and Gunpō Hyōhōki’s “Kenjutsu no maki” section. These are much easier to analyze, even if we don’t look at the particulars in the techniques, as well as being accompanied with pictures. Here’s a partial look at their table of contents:


Heihō Hidensho: Mokuroku

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

Gunpō Hyōhōki Kenjutsu no maki

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

At a glance, there are similarities between each book. For example, both put a great emphasis on sword fighting. Although it is not shown above, Heihō Hidensho’s section called “Kenpō” (Method of sword fighting) has its own table of content that, if listed, would require its own separate article, while everything else can be covered together in another article. In comparison to the Gunpō Hyōhōki, the contents on sword fighting is similar as it has many teachings that focus on using the sword against another fighter with a sword, while there are also lessons on using longer weapons against each other, and a small quip on archery. Interestingly, there is a focus on using a sword against different types of foes. Here are some pics for comparison, starting with those from the Heihō Hidensho on the top row, and Gunpō Hyōhōki on the bottom row:

From another angle, Heihō Hidensho has a dedicated section on hand-to-hand combat called “Kenpō” (拳法), which focuses on using restraining techniques such as grappling and strikes against  an opponent while wearing one’s swords sheathed on the side, and whether the opponent attempts to draw their sword or not. For the Gunpō Hyōhōki, it appears that there is no conversation on this. However, it does have several sections that cover this topic, which are “Torite no koto” (捕手の事),  and “Jūjutsu-ate no koto” (柔術当ての事).  Unfortunately, both are not accompanied with pictures, but instead are coupled with long explanations on the topic. If anything, the Torite no koto section does mention about the possibility of iai techniques during torite, so this could be compared with Heihō Hidensho. For the most part, both manuscripts use this idea of hand-to-hand techniques as more supplemental to kenjutsu.

EMPHASIS ON KENJUTSU TECHNIQUES

As mentioned before, great importance is placed on kenjutsu in both documents. The direction both go with discussing the strategies while using the sword is through postures that signify an attitude or state of mind. The terms to indicate these in Japanese vary depending on the source. For instance, the word “kamae” is a common term for this. In the Heihō Hidensho the term “kensei” is another version, while  “kurai” can be found in the Gunpō Hyōhōki. One thing to understand when interpreting these is that these postures, despite which label is used, are not static stances. Instead, they represent strategic points of movement in response to the situation against the enemy.

First, let’s review a list of select techniques in the form of kamae from Heihō Hidensho:

  • Hira jōgo kensei (平上後剣勢)
  • Migi jōgo kensei / Hassō (右上後剣勢)
  • Hira ue musubi mae kensei / Takanami (平上結前剣勢・高波)
  • Hidari ue musubi Mae kensei / Jōdan no Kasumi (左上結前剣勢・上段の霞)
  • Hidari ue mae kensei / Kissaki Oyobi (左上前剣勢・切先及び)
  • Hira ue mae kensei / Tōhō (平上前剣勢・当法)
  • Migi naka musubi Mae kensei / Chūdan no Kasumi (右中結前剣勢・中段の霞)
  • Hidari naka mae kensei / Yoko Seigan (左中前剣勢・横青眼)
  • Migi shita ushiro kensei / Sha (右下後剣勢・車)
  • Migi shita musubi mae kensei (右下結前剣勢)

Each of these kamae are listed on their own page, as there are thorough explanations and examples on how they can be utilized against an opponent. The name for each one is more descriptive in terms of how they are assumed, although some of them do have alternate, unique names that are expresses a concept of imagery, which are used in different martial arts schools. At their core, they are variations of kamae that most practitioners of kenjutsu, kendō, gekiken, and the like should be familiar with. For example, from left to right:


Hidari ue musubi mae kensei = Kasumi (jōdan)

Hidari naka mae kensei = Seigan (chūdan)

Hidari shita musubi ato kensei = Waki (gedan)


For each kamae are explanations on how they can be utilized based on the enemy’s actions. The defender’s response isn’t as strict in terms of the counter attack, which makes things a little open-ended for interpretation. For example:


Hira jōgo kensei


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

TRANS: The opponent takes the initiative and attempts to strike. Carefully watch when the opponent’s sword comes at you, then turn your body sideways with your left leg forward, pull your right leg back, and cut their right hand.


While this paints a rather clear picture in terms of movement using the attacker-defender model, it is also open-ended, for the type of the attack from the opponent is not specified, while the defender’s (us) initial position is not stated. This is pretty much how the techniques play out in this document, making it a supplemental source to any kenjutsu-focused martial arts school that can be studied upon.

Now, we turn our attention to Gunpō Hyōhōki, and look at some of the techniques mentioned:

  • Jōdan (2 types)
  • Chūdan (2 Types)
  • Gedan (2 types)
  • Denkō no kurai (電光の位)
  • Kasumi no kurai (霞の位)
  • Seigan no kurai (清眼の位)
  • Suigetsu no kurai (水月の位)
  • Yōgan (陽眼)
  • Ingan (陰眼)
  • Murakumo (村雲)
  • Yamatsuki (山月)
  • Nyūin no kurai (入引の位)

For this section, it starts off explaining the importance on 3 height levels while wielding the sword. They are the following:


Jō-chū-gedan kamae no Tachi

  • Jōdan (上段) = Upper stance
  • Chūdan (中段) Middle stance
  • Gedan (下段) = Lower stance

In almost all styles of kenjutsu and its modern equivalents, the idea of 3 height levels is a common principle. Illustrations show 2 ways of doing these, generally with one having the sword held in front, and the other with the sword held behind. This is abit different from what is shown in Heihō Hidensho, as there is not a great number of kamae where the sword is held behind. In the pictures provided, lengthy descriptions for these kamae and how to apply them is given based on one’s opponent’s actions. Each of the kamae are labeled according to their height level along with a unique name.

Let’s look at the following example below:


Jōdan – Denkō no kurai

This is the posture on the right. As a small explanation, in response to an enemy’s attack, the defender brings the sword above the head to the right, and strikes from overhead.


Take note that the picture sequences are not necessarily correlating with each other, especially in the later parts of the document. Each kamae, side-by-side, is significant in the Gunpō Hyōhōki; what’s important is the descriptions next to them. In a way, it’s a concise format to present lessons without using a step-by-step method.

The relation between the two documents is that Heihō Hidensho also follows the 3 height levels as specified in Gunpō Hyōhōki. Not only that, it follows the same order starting with high level postures, mid-level postures, then ending with low-level postures.

ANALYSIS

At first glance, when reading the particulars for these, it’s quite normal to think that both manuscripts are authentic & have been kept intact in terms of their original writing. This is certainly not the case for the Heihō Hidensho for a number of reasons which will be explained. As for the Gunpō Hyōhōki, this has a greater probability due to its appearance and contents, for much of the points on combat are done in a conversational manner that is not directly clear unless the reader has initiative knowledge in said topic, as opposed to very detailed, step-by-step descriptions that almost anyone can grasp. Take note that while this fits as what may be expected out of an older manuscript, just how much of it is 100% authentic as the lessons of Yamamoto, and isn’t a product of forgery, is hard to determine.

For the Heihō Hidensho, there are many points to pick up that indicate it’s not the original work. For starters, the original version, which would’ve been handwritten, is not available for view. Instead, we have a reproduction in print type of it in collection of other documents. It is mentioned to be reproduced several times, which most likely includes edits to suit the times, such as the kenjutsu kamae being compared to other unmentioned martial systems by presenting alternate names. Possibly the biggest clue is how the actual contents read; the way combat was approached was vastly different in Sengoku period in comparison to Edo period, and the way Heihō Hidensho reads coincide with the latter. For example, the hand-to-hand techniques demonstrated in it deals with situations in plain clothing and swords sheathed, which was a growing trend during martial artists during mid-to-late Edo period that were focusing more on jūjutsu and iaijutsu. Furthermore, the illustrations for the kenjutsu are not only similar to the style of specific artists during Edo period, but other pictures such as the ones used to illustrate staff techniques are not Japanese at all.

Finally, we look at the connection between both documents. Considering that they come from the same source, one can deduce that they were drafted around the same time period. Of course, this cannot hold up as an argument, since whereas Gunpō Hyōhōki looks to be a more authentic that was kept intact, we only see the typed version of Heihō Hidensho, which is a reproduction of said original source. This is even true when looking at the version in the Kai Sōsho. Despite presentation, if we compare the contents and acknowledge the similarities, (i.e. focus on kenjutsu, scenarios in which strategies for kenjutsu can be applied, etc.) what can be said about the differences? Let’s look at two points that can be considered.

  1. Information may differ based on the person whom was receiving the manuscript – Depending on a person’s rank, or even affiliation, there are cases where one individual would get more clearer notes, while a person may get less. It can be argued that those were highly-ranked group leaders would’ve received a much more detailed documentation, as it would be necessary when training their team. However, for someone who may have been a specialist may receive a more concise version that skims the surface, which could’ve just been enough for that individual.
  2. Manuscript may have been reproduced several times with edits – It is not uncommon that certain contents change and/or get updated by those who own it. This is true for both private documents, those passed on & used in martial arts schools, and those made for public viewing.

If we take Heihō Hidensho and consider it the same as the Gunpō Hyōhōki, then it’s possible it went through much edits and updates. This isn’t a bad thing, for if you think about it, combative knowledge should apply to the current times in order to stay viable⁵. With this in mind, it’s possible that the original lessons of Yamamoto Kansuke are maintained, but altered abit (or alot) so that it could still be applied in a society that still depended on the sword during Edo period.

CONCLUSION

It is great that there are documents written centuries ago that have been preserved for today’s generation. There are those that give credit to Yamamoto Kansuke, whether stated to have been penned by him or copied with permission. Unfortunately, researchers are faced with the task of validating the legitimacy of these, which tends to be difficult especially for those from Japan, as there’s a high chance they were produced during the peaceful times of Edo period by writers who try to pass them off as much older works. This brings our look at old manuscripts to a close. Hope everyone found this as an informative, and interesting, topic to read.


1) 長坂長閑斎. Historians believe him to be Nagasaka Torafusa (長坂 虎房), who was a retainer of Takeda clan of Kai.

2) 京流. This is one of 8 legendary sword systems that make up the collective group called Kyōhachi ryū. This was discussed in an article on this blog here.

3) This section may have been an add-on, after the development of firearms improved.

4) In this manuscript, there is no alternative name for this posture. However, I added the label here for this article due to it, from my personal experience, resembling the commonly used Waki no kamae, but done on the left side.

5) This same case was brought up for kyūjutsu (archery techniques) during Edo period, which was covered in an article on this blog here.

Fame to the Spear ~ Part 2: Tenka Sanmeisō

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

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

NIHONGŌ, THE IMPERIAL SPEAR

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

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

Here are its known dimensions:

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

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

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

Artwork of Mori Tomonobu. From Wikipedia.

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

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

OTEGINE, THE MALLET SPEAR

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

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

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

Here are its known dimensions:

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

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

An example of a tapering mallet. From Wikipedia.

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

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

TONBOKIRI, THE DRAGONFLY SLAYER

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

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

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

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

It features the following known dimensions:

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

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

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

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

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

THREE FAMOUS SPEARS: FUN FACTS

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

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

General

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

Nihongō

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

Otegine

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

Tonbokiri

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

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

4) The descriptions come from Lifehacker Analyzer website.

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

Fame to the Spear ~ Part 1: Shichihon Yari

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

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

SHIZUGATAKE SHICHIHON YARI

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

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

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

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

These seven warriors are the following:

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

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

DETAILS ON THE BATTLEFIELD

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

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

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

LEARNING THROUGH ARTWORK

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

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

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

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

OTHER SHICHIHON YARI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDING

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


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

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

“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.

Tōkenjutsu & Universal Lessons Concerning Element of Surprise

Recently I had a discussion with a good friend of mine regarding techniques for throwing bladed weapons. The premise was based off of a text from a book I am currently translating, “Tsuki no Sho”, which discusses principles around the use of Jūji shuriken (十字手裏剣, a cross-shape throwing blade). My friend, who has spent many years training in Shinkage ryu kenjutsu, also mentioned a similar kata, but which instead uses a shotō (小刀, short sword). While size of both are different, using them in an unperceived fashion is important in both scenarios. For this article, I want to discuss a bit about throwing bladed weapons, and how the element of surprise is an imperative tactic no matter the size of the weapon being used. In my training group, the universal term used is tōkenjutsu (投剣術, techniques for throwing bladed weapons).

When learning how to incorporate throwing weapons, whether they are designed for that purpose or not, much of the instructions tend to lean towards psychological warfare. This is especially true when practicing the timing for surprise attacks through kata geiko. Of course, psychological tactics exist for other usages of throwing weapons, such as offensive purposes. Yet, this tends to get limited to specific weapons, whereas tactics for surprise attacks tend to incorporate a broader range of weapons. Due to the nature of attacking with a thrown bladed weapon in an unexpected manner, a level of mental and physical skill is necessary to pull this off.

One of the 1st steps utilizing psychological tactics is through one’s kamae (構え, posture). In Classical Japanese martial arts, this is one of the basics, so a great amount of time is spent understanding how kamae dictates what we do. This is not just a physical matter but one that pertains to attitude. Some kamae are naturally suited for certain scenarios, making it easier to incorporate movements to launch a throwing weapon without being perceived. For example, in a case were one must flee from an opponent who has a katana, one turns around and begins to run. In that movement, we can use a taijutsu kamae called tonsō no kamae (遁走の構え, Escaping posture) to pull out a hiragata shuriken (平型手裏剣, a flat wheel-like throwing blade) from one’s inner pocket. When the opponent is at a certain distance and preps to strike, we turn and throw the hiragata shuriken. Such a tactic like this can help in aiding one’s escape if done correctly, or to attempt to subdue the injured assailant if necessary.

In another scenario, where both combatants are wielding a katana, you may be perplexed with a very strong and skilled opponent. It’s here where you use an unperceived tactic from tōkenjutsu that can grant victory. As your opponent assumes jōdan no kamae (上段の構え, high posture), you follow in suit. As the opponent comes in with a shōmen giri (正面斬り, downward cut to the face), we crouch down and hurl our katana to impale them. Of course, we have a failsafe in case this doesn’t work, which involves pulling out one’s shotō and quickly closing the distance whether our katana hits the mark or not, for the notion of a person suddenly throwing their main weapon (katana) is enough to create a shinriteki na kuzushi (心理的な崩し, mental break). This can cause one’s opponent to hesitate even just for a brief moment, which may be enough to win.

Or, taking a different approach in the previously mentioned situation, you attempt to go toe-to-toe through kumitachi (組太刀, battling out with swords). At some point, you back away, then assume seigan no kamae (正眼の構え, straight-to-the-eyes posture). As your opponent approaches and attempts to swat away your katana, you pull out a small blade hidden on the side of your sword handle. Hurling it as your opponent is distracted, you then finish with an uncontested downward stroke with your katana. Some katana have one or two holes in the tsuba (鍔, sword guard), where small knife-like blades can be placed through. Such a design allows a warrior to have an additional trick up his sleeve, but it’s one which works only if the adversary doesn’t perceive exists ahead of time.

In conclusion, psychological tactics are very effective when throwing bladed weapons. Learning this through kata geiko is common practice. No matter the situation, using the element of surprise is indeed a universal tool handling a bladed weapon that will be thrown no matter the size.

Hobaku: Visual Presentation of Edo Period’s Capturing Methods

In an article earlier this year I covered the numerous listings of Bugei Juhappan, which consist of essential 18 skills key to being a martial artist. In a few of these different versions were skills related to capturing and subduing, which fall under a category called hobaku (捕縛).

Hobaku is a term describing systematized skills for arresting and subduing criminals used by the policing force established during Edo period. Those who worked for the police and were responsible for apprehending criminals were high-ranking samurai and low-ranking warriors. Some of these skills used include torite (捕手), hojōjutsu (捕縄術), and using the mitsu dōgu (三つ道具). These skills originate from groups specializing in bujutsu training, thus training for the sake of proficiency was a must.

There is a famous illustration book called “Tokugawa Bakufu Keiji Zufu” (徳川幕府刑事図譜) published in 1893, which gives a visual presentation of various crimes that were committed during the Edo period, along with the punishment which criminals would face. There are several images that demonstrate how the methods of hobaku were used by those in the policing force, which give an idea why they were deemed important to those versed in martial arts. The scenarios in which hobaku was performed are specific to those involved, from petty theft by a commoner to treason by a nobleman. In some cases the criminal was apprehended discretely, while in other cases the arresting officers had to use force especially when others try to intervene.

For today’s article, select images that represent hobaku will be used to highlight specific skills and weapons listed on some Bugei Juhappan listings. Japanese text found on the top of these images will be posted in type print, and followed by English translations done by myself. To view the entirety of this illustration book, you can access it at the Meiji University Museum by clicking the link here. Note that while there is English provided to understand the contents of the images, the Japanese text on each image has no English equivalent present.


IMAGE #14

BACKGROUND: A temptress, who’s an accomplice of some criminal, weasels her way into the home of a rich merchant. The merchant is tricked into allowing her to stay in his home, while his wife is forced to cook and serve the temptress. The wife and her child are treated poorly, while the merchant is at odds of how to deal with the temptress’ schemes. (reference image #2)

In the picture above, an officer who was informed of the situation makes a sudden entry and quickly apprehends the temptress.

Not bearing his standard ropes, he uses an improvised method where her hands are brought behind her back, with strings tied to her thumbs and attached to the back of her hair.

One can imagine that being subdued in such a method would make any attempts to escape painful.

TEXT ON IMAGE

“In this image, a magistrate is able to make use of a short string, twine, and the like for capturing when a criminal needs to be immediately subdued, but standard torinawa (捕縄, binding rope) is not available. The capturing technique “Tabo*” is applied, where both hands are twisted behind, and both thumbs are joined together tightly.”

*This name is written only in kana, thus meaning is obscure


IMAGE #15

BACKGROUND: The hideout for a group of thieves. After a careful investigation by a constable from the magistrate’s office, a well calculated raid was set into action. This was successful in putting a halt to any further schemes by the thieves. (reference image #3)

In the picture above, the leader of the thieves is arrested. A woman, who’s affiliated with the thieves, tries to interfere with a knife in hand. One of the arresting officers uses a jutte (十手, truncheon) to knock the knife out of her right hand.

Other than their diligent work in completely subduing the main culprit, this image expresses the effectiveness of the jutte’s non-lethal strength.

On a separate note, certain groups had an influence on the jutte techniques used by different policing forces at the time, such as Ikkaku ryū (一角流), Edo machikata Dōshin (江戸町方同心, Edo town officials) and Kyōto machi Bugyō (京都町奉行, Kyoto public authorities). Meiji University Museum has images of the types of jutte used up on their site, which can be accessed through link 1, link 2, and link 3.

TEXT ON IMAGE

“The striking area of the jutte is shown. The jutte is made out of steel. It measures around 1 shaku 5 sun (57 cm) in size. It also has a hook on the side which can be used to stop incoming attacks from weapons such as a sword.

When there are individuals who are willing to prevent the arrest of a criminal due to prior fondness, the 1st thing to do is to strike them in the right upper arm with the jutte. This method of capturing allows an arresting officer to render a target’s dominate arm useless. “


IMAGE #16

BACKGROUND: Illegal gambling is taking place openly in a field. Gangsters and thieves are putting money and goods up for bets. (reference image #4)

In the picture above, policing officials rush the area to break up the gambling ring, and apprehend those involved. They are using standard arresting tools for this, which include the uchikomi (打ち込み, rod with a loop on the end), yoribō (寄棒, baton), and kaginawa (鉤縄, rope and hook).

TEXT ON IMAGE

“(A) To make a capture, a loop is used to snare (a criminal) by the throat.”

“(B) The method for capturing the criminal is used during pursuit. To overtake the criminal, a stick is thrown inbetween his legs to knock him down. “

“(C) The capture here involves prepping a hook. When the hook is attached onto the criminal’s clothing, a rope is pulled against the throat. Utilizing a rope to pull down a person when their limbs cannot be tied is situational-based.”


IMAGE #20

BACKGROUND: A criminal brandishes a sword in order to resist arrest. He is extremely dangerous, and difficult to take alive.

His pursuers attempt to make an arrest in a non-lethal manner by forming a cage around the criminal with four ladders linked together. Others use barbed implements known as mitsu dōgu (三つ道具, 3 tools for arresting & capturing)* in order to pin him down. These are the following:


Tsukubō (突棒, pinning tool)

Sasumata (刺股, immobilizing tool)

Sodegarami (袖搦, sleeve [clothing]-entangling tool)

*Also called torimono dogu (捕物道具, arresting tools)

TEXT ON IMAGE

“When dealing with criminals using martial techniques that make capturing difficult than normal, ladders are utilized to surround their target. From outside of the encasement are those with arresting implements that will be used to subdue the criminal.

The arrangement of the ladders are as shown in the picture. Four ladders are used in the formation where 2 are held sideways, while one is held above and another held below*. This pattern called i no ji (井の字, well formation) can defend against a criminal’s attempts to jump over and escape by being raised higher.

This capturing method involves gradually falling upon the criminal by closing the space in on him. Then they are able to use their arresting tools by thrusting them upon him to knock him down.”

*Description is based on how the ladder formation appears visually in the image. In reality all 4 ladders are on the same level.


These four images give a glimpse of how hodaku was utilized. Keep in mind that as a whole, the specifics of hobaku were considerably vase and layered; while those who were in the policing force were authorized to use arresting techniques, they still had to follow specific protocols related to an individual’s title and/or societal position. As an example, the manner in capturing a commoner could vastly differ to that of an elite family or of samurai status. This included the type of arresting ropes used and how the knots were made.

This concludes the visual presentation of hobaku used during Edo period. As an elementary approach on such a topic, I hope that the contents were informative for all. For those who want to view the entirety of Tokugawa Bakufu Keiji Zufu remember to visit Meiji University Museum’s website, which can be accessed here.

Kikuchi Senbon Yari: Crafting a Kikuchi-Style Takeyari

Recently I stumbled upon some interesting information. In the book Zustesu – Kobudōshi (図説・古武道史), there is a section that talks about of long battlefield weapons used during the warring times in Japan, such as the spear. While discussing the roots, the many variations used in battle, and the exclusiveness in training among high-ranking practitioners during peaceful times of the spear, one description regarding the origin of the spear caught my eye¹. It mentioned the use of a sharp instrument attached to one end of bamboo, which would essentially make it a takeyari (竹槍). This takeyari, or bamboo spear, is a type of weapon that doesn’t get much talk about. In the past, a takeyari was quite useful due to the fact that it was low cost in production, easy to mass produce, can outfit a large group of soldiers with this, and was simple to use. While a takeyari can be crafted without a blade, placing one on the end of a bamboo would definitely increase its overall effectiveness. This falls in line with a type of takeyari related to my studies in Kukishinden ryu sōjutsu (Kukishinden style of spear techniques) that was made famous by a member of the Kikuchi family, which I will speak on in this article.
 

TALE OF THE ESTEEMED “KIKUCHI  SENBON YARI”

There is a story in many historical books from Japan regarding an individual by the name of Kikuchi Takeshige (菊池武重), who was the 13th head of the Kikuchi family. His family line is related to those of the famed Fujiwara family (藤原家) who had relocated to Kikuchi District in Higo, Kyushu. His family supported the Southern Imperial Court for some time, since when his father, Kikuchi Taketoki (菊池武時), pledged loyalty to the Southern Emperor, Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇).

A snapshot from the website Kikuchi Ichizoku talking about Kikuchi Takeshige and his feat called “Kikuchi Senbon Yari” (菊池千本槍)

During the early mid 1300s, There was much conflict between the Hōjō clan, who claimed Shogunate rule, and those who sided with the Southern Imperial Court. A war general by the name of Ashikaga Takeuji (足利尊氏) made efforts with others to not only regain control over Kyoto, former capital and home of the imperial family, but also Kamakura, ridding the Hōjō clan’s control. In an attempt to avoid potential usurpers, Takeuji took Kamakura himself and lauded himself with the title “Sei-i Taishōgun²”…all in the name of the Southern Imperial court. However, Emperor Go-daigo did not accept these actions, and opposed Takeuji’s plans.

Late in the year 1335, Takeuji and his brother Tadayoshi lead a large force against the Southern Court. The Southern Emperor had his faithful allies take up arms to deal with this threat from the Ashikaga, which included a reputable military Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞). It just so happened that Yoshisada had Kikuchi Takeshige and his men employed in his army, and had ordered them to fight in the forefront. Crossing through the mountainous area of Hakone Tōge (箱根峠, Hakone Pass), Yoshisada and his force made their way to Take no Shita (竹の下), where they would clash with the Ashikaga and their army. This encounter would be called “Battle at Hakone-Take no Shita”³.

Takeshige’s force split from Yoshisada to eventually go head on against Tadayoshi’s force. To strengthen his troops, Takeshige would turn his sights to a bamboo grove, have each of them take a bamboo pole that was around 6~7 feet tall, and craft theirs into makeshift spears by inserting into one split end of it the tantō each of them carried in their belts. Doing so proved to be most effective, for despite being outnumbered 3:1 when facing off against Tadayoshi’s army of 3000, Takeshige’s force consisting of 1000 spears was more then enough to surprise and force the opposition to retreat. This greatly helped to earn a victory for their side against the Ashikaga force.

It is through this improvisation by Takeshige and victory against a much superior opponent that lead to the term Kikuchi Senbon Yari (菊池千本槍, 1000 spears of the Kikuchi clan).

CONSTRUCTION OF THE KIKUCHI-STYLE TAKEYARI

Taking a knife and fitting it on the end of a bamboo pole to make a Kikuchi-style takeyari is generally associated with this tale. This episode is believed to have inspired Takeshige to have a unique style of spear created called the “Kikuchi yari”, which utilizes very long single-edge tantō-like blades made in either hira zukuri (平造り) or shōbu zukuri (菖蒲造り)⁴. However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of a takeyari was invented by the Kikuchi clan, for it is believed to have existed way before in advance.

A snapshot of a page featuring blades of Kikuchi yari mounted for swords. From the website Usagiya

Although I’ve made a safe training takeyari (simple design with a padded end for a point) a while back, making a Kikuchi-style takeyari sounds like it would be a fun little project. From the descriptions found in various sources, the construction of this is not complex, so I figured I would give it a try. Let’s take a closer look at the method for constructing this unique takeyari.

  • Take a bamboo pole of considerable length
  • Use a tool suitable for splitting the bamboo
  • Insert knife (in this case, a wooden training knife) into the split up until where the handle completely fits
  • Take some rope and tie it over the split section to hold the knife firmly in place

The one I’ve made is just an experiment, and a great way to understand how warriors in the past may have had to improvise. Using a bamboo pole near 7 feet, I was able to fit my wooden tantō in it, and reinforce the split end with a good length of rope. The type of wrap used for the rope added more weight, giving a better balance to this takeyari, as well as could double for a tachiuchi (太刀打, wrapping used to reinforce the spear blade against impact).

Pics of crafting a Kikuchi-style takeyari, from start to finish.

ENDING

I hope you enjoy the tale of the Kikuchi Senbon Yari, which is a piece of history held in high regards in Japan. For those who have a knack for crafting, a Kikuchi-style takeyari is a fun one to try, and experiment with.


1) The original line from the book Zusetsu – Kobudōshi is on page 278 in the 1st paragraph, which reads as the following:

「…楠正成の家来天野了簡が、竹のさきに大鏑の根をくっつけて使ったのが、槍の起源であるという…」

“…it is said that the origin of the spear (in Japan) is due in part to the shaft of a large kabura (鏑, signaling arrow) being fitted on the front end of bamboo. This was a clever idea of the Amano clan, who were once retainers of Kusunoki Masanari….”

Of course, this claim was debunked in the aforementioned book, for it was actually the precursor for a small single-handed weapon called an inji yari (印地槍), or better known as uchine (打根). What really interested me from that statement was the mentioning of bamboo and a bladed instrument being used to create a spear.

2) 征夷大将軍. This is generally translated as “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”. Or, the shorter title of “shōgun” works just as well.

3) 箱根竹の下戦い. This title reflects that the clash between the Ashikaga army and the Imperial Court’s army took place somewhere between the Hakone Pass and the bamboo grove in Take no Shita. The area in which the battle took place is now known today as Take no Shita, Oyama Town, Shizuoka Prefecture

4) Both are types of blade-forging methods.

Bugei Jūhappan: The Multifaceted Listings of 18 Weapons

A rather popular list of martial disciplines in Japan is called “Bugei Jūhappan” (武芸十八般). Many martial schools, books, and the like talk about its significance, which has also made its presence to the West. What is the story behind this list? How old is this concept, and how consistent is it? This post will help answer questions like these, as well as provide an overall explanation about certain details that are not readily available in English.

For this post, there’s information both from Japanese sources as well as Chinese sources. A lot of cross-referencing and research was especially done to understand the Chinese information below, and I’m hoping there’s no glaring mistakes, although any corrections are welcomed. Here’s a list of some of the sources used:

ORIGIN AND ROOTS

Bugei Jūhappan loosely translates to “standard 18 martial skills”. Pretty self-explanatory, it is a list of 18 disciplines, primarily weapons, related to martial combat. This is a widely used method for noting what the average martial artists should aim for. However, understand that before this became popular in Japan, this concept was used first in China several centuries prior. 

A portrait of Hua Yue, author of “Cui Wei Bei Zhenglu” (翠微北征録, Northern Expedition of Cui Wei). From zwbk.org.

Within China’s martial and literature culture was the development of a conceptual grouping of 18 skills based on weapons generally called “Shi ba Ban bing qi” (十八般兵器)¹. The 1st source for this was through dramatic performances done from the Song Dynasty to the Yuan dynasty. Here, 18 weapons were mentioned in the lines done by two separate actors, Wang Huan and Jingde. This later would inspire it being used in a 12-volume documentation entitled “Cui Wei Bei Zhenglu” (翠微北征録, Northern Expedition of Cui Wei) by Hua Yue (華岳), which was completed in 1208. Next, several documentations were made during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) which featured their own versions of 18 weapons, which includes:

  • Fictional storybook “Shui hu Zhuan” (水滸傅, The Water Margin), by Shi Naian (施耐庵), sometime in 1300s
  • Illustrated encyclopedia “Sancai Tuhui” (三才圖會, Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms), by Wang Qi (王圻) and his son Wang Siyi (王思義), published in 1609
  • 16-volume “Wu za zu” (五雜俎, Five Miscellaneous Offerings) compiled by Xie Zhao-zhe (謝 肇淛), in 1619
  • 32-volume “Yong-chuang Xiao-pin”  (涌幢小品, Miscellaneous Notes from the Yong-chuang Pavilion) compiled by Zhu Guozhen (朱國禎), in 1621

There are also other sources with their own version of 18 weapons, including the famous Shaolin Temple². Below are examples of the different lists.

Shui hu Zhuan

  • 矛 = mao (spear with snake-like blade)
  • 錘 = chui (hammer)
  • 弓 = gōng (bow & arrow)
  • 弩 = nu (crossbow)
  • 銃 = chong (rifle)
  • 鞭 = bian (iron baton)
  • 鐧 = jian (metal truncheon)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 鏈 = lian (three-sectional staff)
  • 撾 = zhua (claw-mounted polearm)
  • 斧 = fu (Battleaxe)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 戈 = ge (dagger-axe)
  • 戟= ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 牌 = pai (shield)
  • 棒 = bang (club)
  • 槍 = qiang (Spear)
  • 叉 = cha (Trident)

Wu za zu

  • 弓 = gong (bow & arrow)
  • 弩 = nu (crossbow)
  • 槍 = qiang (spear)
  • 刀 = dao (single-edge broadsword)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 矛 = mao (spear with snake-like blade)
  • 盾 = dun (shield)
  • 斧 = fu (battleaxe)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 戟 = ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 鞭 = bian (Iron baton)
  • 鐧 = jian (metal truncheon)
  • 撾 = zhua (claw-mounted polearm)
  • 殳 = shu (three-edge spear)
  • 叉 = cha (trident)
  • 耙 = ba (rake)
  • 綿縄套索 = miansheng taosuo (brocade lasso)
  • 白打 = da bai (empty hands)

Here’s another, called “Nine Long & Short weapons of the 18 Weapons” (九長九短十八般兵器), starting with the 9 long weapons

  • 槍 = qiang (spear)
  • 戟 = ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 棍 = gun (staff)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 叉 = cha (trident)
  • 钂 = tang (spear with two crescent prongs)
  • 鈎 = guo (hooked weapons, such as hook swords)
  • 槊 = shuo (long lance)
  • 鏟 = chan (spade)

Next, the short weapons

  • 刀 = dao (single-edge broadsword)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 拐 = guai (tonfa)
  • 斧 = fu (battleaxe)
  • 鞭 = bian (Iron baton)
  • 鐧 = jian (metal truncheon)
  • 錘 = chui (hammer)
  • 杵³ = huan (iron rings)
  • 棒 = bang (club)
Snapshot of the 18 weapons normally used in theatrical performances. From Arachina.com .

Differences in the lists are due to various factors, such as which were important depending on the time period, land area, groups that had any affiliations, etc⁴. Due to this, there is no one definitive listing, although there tends to be a consistency on which weapons appear on most of these lists.

18 SKILLS OF JAPAN

The concept of 18 weapons as essential disciplines didn’t arrive to Japan until the late mid-1600s, when Wu za zu was 1st published in Japanese. Later to follow were the other Chinese literature mentioned above, such as Sancai Tuhui and Shui hu Zhuan. Chinese literature still had value during this time, so they continued to have influence in Japanese culture.

Picture of Hirayama Kōzō. From the book “Edo no Kengō: Hirayama Kōzō” (江戸の剣豪 平山行蔵)

In 1806, a renown martial artist by the name of Hirayama Kōzō (平山行蔵) from Edo published a book called “Bugei Jūhappan Ryakusetsu” (武芸十八般略説), which served as an adaption of the 18 weapons from the Shui hu Zhuan, but in a way where it fitted with the Japanese methodology towards combat. More than just focusing on a “weapon” (兵器), Hirayama Kōzō used disciplines or skills (武芸) as a means to identify those areas necessary during warring times while on the battlefield, and during peaceful times while in towns and indoors. The development of such a list comes after Japan’s warring history, and during a more peaceful society where martial skills could be structured and represented in a more systematic format.

Just like in China, the listing of 18 skills in Japan is not an exclusive one. There are also variations, each a reflection on what was deemed important in what time period it was made, who was involved in developing such list, and so on. For example, Maki Bokusen (牧墨僊)⁵, an artist who was once a student of the famous Katsushika Hokusai, made a version represented through his ukiyo-e series entitled “Shashin Gakuhitsu” (写真学筆) in 1815. Below are several examples of the 18 weapons listings in Japan.

Bugei Jūhappan Ryakusetsu

  • 弓 = yumi (bow). One type that is iconic is kiyumi (木弓, wooden bow that was common even in early Japanese history).
  • 李満弓 = rimankyū. This represents short bows, such as kujirahankyū (鯨半弓) and kagoyumi (駕籠弓).
  • 弩 = ishiyumi (crossbow). There were 2 types, shudo (手弩, handheld crossbows) and ōyumi (大弓, siege crossbows).
  • 馬 = uma (horsemanship). Refers to bajutsu (馬術, equestrian).
  • 刀 = katana (sword). Refers to kenjutsu (剣術, sword techniques).
  • 大刀 = ōdachi (long sword). This includes nodachi (野太刀, long battlefield sword), and nagamaki (長巻, long sword with an extended handle).
  • 抽刀 = chūtō (drawing sword for cutting). More fitting label would be battōjutsu (抜刀術) or iaijutsu (居合術) .
  • 眉尖刀 = bisentō. Considered a polearm with a smaller blade, liken to a konaginata (小薙刀, small glaive)
  • 青竜刀 = seiryūtō. Considered a polearm with a larger blade, liken to an ōnaginata (大長刀, large glaive)
  • 槍 = yari. This is the spear, with variations including jumonji yari (十文字槍, crossbar spear) and saburi yari⁶(佐分利槍, a spear with prongs for hooking).
  • 鏢鎗 = hyōsō. This is known as nageyari (投槍, throwing spear) and hiya (火箭, fire arrows)
  • 棍 = kon. Generally called (棒, staff)
  • 鉄鞭 = tetsuben. Japanese equivalent would be tessen (鉄扇, iron fan) or jitte⁷ (十手, straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 飛鑓 = hiken (ひけん). Said to be related to fundō kusari⁸ (分銅鎖, chain with 2 weighted ends), kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain & sickle), and koranjō (虎乱杖, staff with a concealed chain)
  • 拳 = Yawara. Also known as jūjutsu (柔術, hand-to-hand)
  • 銃 = ju. Equivalents are teppō (鉄砲, gunnery) and taihō (大砲, artillery)
Select artwork of different weapons in use from the “Shashin Gakuhitsu”. From “Zuzetsu-Kobudōshi”.

Shashin Gakuhitsu

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (equestrian)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming techniques)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain & sickle)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatajutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (sword techniques)
  • 居合 = (sword-drawing)
  • 補縄術 = hōjōjutsu (rope-tying a captured opponent)
  • 鼻ねじ = hananeji (baton with a rope used for arresting)
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small bladed throwing weapons)
  • 鉄砲 = teppō (gunnery)
  • 石火矢 = ishibiya (cannons)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand)
  • 騎射術 = kibajutsu (fighting while on horseback)
  • 甲冑伝 = kacchūden (understanding how to wear armor)
  • 打毬術 = dakyūjustu (cavalry game using a netted pole and a ball, similar to polo)
  • 水馬術 = suibajutsu (crossing rivers, lakes, etc. while on horseback)
An image of dakyū, as illustrated in the book “The Mikado’s Empire (ミカドの帝国)”. From Wikipedia.

Version from the Japanese Dictionary

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (horseback riding)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (sword techniques)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming techniques)
  • 抜刀術 = battōjutsu (sword drawing techniques)
  • 短刀術 = tantōjutsu (knife techniques)
  • 十手術 = jittejutsu (straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small throwing blades)
  • 含針術 = fukumibarijutsu (mouth-activated device that sends forth needles, blinding powder, and other concealed items)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatajutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 砲術 = hōjutsu (artillery)
  • 捕手術 = toritejutsu (restraining techniques through grappling)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand techniques)
  • 棒術 = bōjutsu (staff techniques)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain & sickle techniques)
  • 錑 (もじり) 術⁹ = mojirijutsu (techniques for subduing criminals by snagging their clothing with a polearm featuring many barbs on one end)
  • 隠形術 = ongyōjutsu (concealment and protection techniques)

This next one is considered a popular version at some point

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (equestrian)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (swordsmanship)
  • 短刀術 = tantōjutsu (knife techniques)
  • 居合術 = iaijutsu (sword-drawing)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatatjutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 棒術 = bōjutsu (staff techniques)
  • 杖術 = jōjutsu (short staff techniques)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand)
  • 捕縄術 = hōjōjutsu (rope-tying a captured opponent)
  • 三つ道具 = mittsu dōgu (three arresting tools, which consists of sasumata [刺股], tsukubō [突棒], and sodegarami [袖絡み])
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small throwing blades)
  • 十手術 = jittejutsu (straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain and sickle)
  • 忍術 = ninjutsu (espionage and sabotage)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming)
  • 砲術 = hōjutsu (artillery)

SIGNIFICANCE IN THE NUMBER “18”

When reviewing these lists, or on a larger scale, how skills are categorized in Japanese martial systems, you’ll notice that there tends to be extra skillsets that are grouped in with others, either as a sub-skillset or a paired one. In reality, there was a much greater number of skills that were essential for warring times, as well as peaceful times. Looking at Hirayama’s list, there are extra weapons based on design, which affect their usage. Also, some categories are broad, and can incorporate more weapons. For starters, teppō is a general term for gunnery, which includes various types of firearms such as rifles, pistols, and the like.

What is the significance of the number ’18’? As far as it can be told, nothing has been discovered. Just how old is this concept when it was first becoming publicly known in China is uncertain; if it goes much further back before 18 weapons was mentioned in those performances, then it’s possible the the meaning has been lost. As it became a standard term among martial artists both in China and Japan, its usage was certainly to outline what a person should strive to be verse in if they wanted to become a complete warrior. Mastery of all 18 skills, along with others not mentioned on those lists, was not expected, since each culture held certain weapons with higher regard than others.

ENDING

This concludes our discussion on the origin of the Bugei Jūhappan, along with its numerous interpretations both in China and Japan. As a concept, it works as a reference to which weapons and skills were deemed important based on the time period. Even today, many martial schools not only reference the Bugei Jūhappan, but also build off of it to express to their students what martial skills are connected to what they are studying.


1) Also written as “Shi ba ban wu yi” (十八般武芸, the 18 skills or martial arts). There is another labeling in the form of “武芸十八事”, but this may be a generic, modernized label.

2) From what I can tell, the “18 weapons” of the Shaolin Temple is more figurative. In reality, the weapons focused on exceed 18.

3) Traditionally written as “環”

4) These weapons, while having historical ties with Chinese culture as a whole, have unique backgrounds for being dotted upon. For example, many of the longer weapons came from dealings with the Mongols, while the shorter weapons were designed for use in local areas like towns. Most of weapons that appear in the Chinese version of 18 weapons are pretty old, and may have been associated to specific families for many generations.

5) Also goes by the name “Gekkōtei Bokusen” (月光亭墨僊)

6) Actually, the proper name for this is kagiyari (鍵槍, hook spear). On the other hand, “saburi” is from the name of a style that specializes in the use of kagiyari, Saburi ryū sōjutsu (佐分利流槍術).

7) also can be pronounced as “jutte”

8) also called kusari fundō (鎖分銅) and manriki kusari (萬力鎖)

9) To speak a little further on this, the word mojiri means to “twist” or “wrench” something using some force. As a hobakugu (捕縛具, arresting tool), one can imagine using this in such manner to control someone if it snags firmly onto their clothing. Another name for sode garami (袖絡み), which has a similar meaning.