The Symbolism Behind Kagami Mochi

Over the years I’ve written several articles on a new year-related celebration called Kagami Biraki, which takes place on the 11th of January. Possibly the most iconic component of this is the kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a rice cake made of a type of sticky rice that can be eaten. It is designed as 2-tier (either in one mold, or two separate pieces), and is often decorated in a beautiful manner. There is also a segment where a mallet is used to divide it by “breaking” the top surface, which means opening it to release the blessings kept inside by the toshigami (歳神), a deity that comes to visit one’s residence at the start of the new year to bring good fortune. Although this is a widely-known tradition, having kagami mochi isn’t practiced widely throughout Japan today due to modernization, although some families, or certain organizations for specific events, still keep this tradition going on.

Kagami mochi

As with most things in Japanese culture, there are plenty of symbolic meanings behind the kagami mochi and its appearance. For this article, the back story behind kagami mochi will be covered. We’ll look into the traditional practices regarding its shape, the superstitions behind the types of decorations used, as well as its relations to the mallet instead of a sharp instrument.

MEANING BEHIND SHAPE

The accepted practice for kagami mochi is to make it circular. This is obvious when this rice cake is looked at from above. There is one prime reason behind the circular shape, one that pays homage to ancient beliefs and practices.

Example of an ancient bronze mirror.

Centuries ago, mirrors were made in a circle shape out of bronze. Going as far back as the Yayoi period (before 300 BC ~ 300 AD), these were valuable objects where only those of prestigious status could obtain one. From that time forward a strong belief regarding how mirrors can grant eternal life, or deliver good fortune to one’s descendants was attached to mirrors, giving it an auspicious nature. Also, shintō belief added to this with the idea that mirrors were like a gateway to different gods that were worshiped, such as the sun goddess Amenoho Akari no Miko (天火明命)¹.

Today, much of that ancient practice has been carried to present day, and influences the practice of Kagami Biraki. This gives us a clue as to the ancient bronze mirror being the reason for kagami mochi being circular, as well as a means to receive blessing from the toshigami for a long life.

WHY 2-TIER?

One of the more interesting features of the Kagami mochi is that it’s made as a 2-tier rice cake. While it may seem unusual, especially for something that should be more recognizable as, say a mirror. However, this 2-tier structure is symbolic, with reasoning behind it. Below are a few acceptable theories regarding this:

Why 2-tier?
  1. Having the kagami mochi as 2-tier is believed to reinforce the blessing one receives, to ensure good fortune, and longevity for one’s life.
  2. Having a 2-tier design is a representation of the phrase fūfu wagō (夫婦和合). This phrase stands for happy union between marriage couples, and can be viewed as following the philosophy of inyō (陰陽, ying yang). The layers of the kagami mochi represent this union, and is important for those who are married.
  3. Under Shintō and Buddhism practices, the layers represent the connection between humans and the gods. Due to the influence of these two belief systems, Japan had a long history of being polytheistic, with many people revering gods for all purposes and matters in their lives.

Each of these theories are feasible and can honestly be identified as so based on the Japanese culture. It would be wrong to just pick only one, for there are many ways of life styles in Japan’s past, and it’s not common for different groups to celebrate the same theme, but with a different reasoning behind it.

DECORATIONS

The items used to adorn a kagami mochi is not random. Over several centuries a formalized practice was devised in how to visually present it. Below is an explanation of the items used as decoration, based on the image provided. Note that there are slight variations in the arrangement of the decoration, as well as items used, so this design is not written in stone as the only way to go.

Popular decorations
  • Shide (垂) – A new year decoration consisting of 2 strands of square-shaped papers hung on either side of the kagami mochi. This is a type of gohei (御幣)² used in Shintō practices. Generally white can be used, or can be mixed with red color. This is symbolic as warding away evil spirits that can bring bad luck and misfortune.
  • Sanpō (三方) – A small stool to sit the kagami mochi on. Based on Shintō and Buddhist practices, this is a necessity. In the past, those of prestigious status could afford to obtain this. Present day, sanpō is an easily obtainable item at many outlets that can be purchased.
  • Daidai (橙) – Originally a fruit called daidai (橙, bitter orange) would be placed on top of the kagami mochi. Nowadays, a small mikan (蜜柑, mandarin orange) is used in its place, although the title “daidai” still remains. The meaning behind using this fruit is “seimei saisei” (生命再生), which is “restore one’s life”³. Another thought on this is how daidai do not fall off of the tree they grow on even after ripening. This signifies having a strong family line.
  • Urajiro – A type of leaf that comes from the fern species, called shida (歯朶) in Japanese. Two of these are used. This is not the only type of leaves that can be used for decoration of the kagami mochi, but this is the most common.
  • Shihōbeni – This is a square white sheet of paper with red trimming placed underneath the kagami mochi. The meaning behind this is protection from misfortune, sickness, and disaster from all four cardinal directions.

Since all these are part of Japan’s culture, acquiring these items is relatively simple. This is especially true when new years is around the corner, for many stores and retail outlets will have these in stock and put out advertisements.

TABOO OF SPLITTING WITH SHARP INSTRUMENTS

For those who’ve seen images or an actual Kagami Biraki event would notice that a mallet is used to split open the kagami mochi. This is the same for a taruzake (樽酒), which is a barrel full of blessed sake used in the same fashion as kagami mochi at certain gatherings and events, especially at shrines. Although I’ve spoken about this in another article, I’ll reiterate it here as well since it’s related.

Bladed instruments are not allowed!

Early in the practice of Kagami Biraki, there are recordings about it once being known by the title “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), which can be interpreted as “splitting the mirror”. This is because a bladed instrument was used to open up the kagami mochi. As a practice devised by prestigious military families, this makes sense as a to-go action. However, over time this was frowned upon due to its rather violent connotation; for a practice that was auspicious, “cutting” something that is said to be inhabited by a deity felt like a direct attack. It also didn’t help that the practice of seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly) was a form of ritual punishment that forfeited a person’s life.

A mallet is just fine!

A movement was made to change the interaction with the kagami mochi that appeared both humane and non-violent, which is where the mallet was introduced. For this, one taps the top layer in order to “open” it, which means to separate it into two. This is a more acceptable depiction to release to blessing one would receive from the kagami mochi. On another note, it is OK to simply use both hands to separate the kagami mochi.

ENDING

This covers the significance of the kagami mochi during the new year, and the symbolism behind its presentation. As mentioned earlier, Kagami Biraki is not widely practiced nowadays throughout Japan, except by those families or groups that have reason to keep this tradition going. One thing for sure is there is still many images and public coverage on kagami mochi, much like this article, so it won’t easily be forgotten.


1) Hailing from Japan’s legendary tales. Known under many different titles, too numerous to mention. However, all point to the same goddess who shut herself in a cave after being the target of mean tricks by her brother, which brought darkness to the world. The other gods set into motion a plan to get her to come out, including having a mirror be the 1st thing she sees, to convince her that she was the most beautiful goddess of all.

This episode can be read in old texts such as the Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀).

2) Gohei is a stick consisting of streams of paper that is carried at the front of a procession or during a ceremony.

3) Daidai’s importance is based off of the tale concerning the deity Tajima Mori no Mikoto (田道間守命), and how he traveled to China to retrieve this bitter orange from China in order to make a medicine that would save the 11th emperor’s life.

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

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

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

UNDERSTANDING TORADOSHI

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

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

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

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

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

EVERYDAY USAGE

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

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

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

2022 PREDICTIONS

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

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

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

CULTURAL IMAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

2022 & Plans for the New Year

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope everything is off to a good start for all as the world transitions into a period where we can have a fresh start with new endeavors, as well as prepare to tackle our normal actives revitalized after some rest during the holiday festivities. I, too, have been working on my schedule for 2022, which I will to share in this post.

BLOG

This being my 6th year running Light in the Clouds blog, things will continue in the same fashion, along with some additions. Sticking with the intentions for running this blog, topics will contiue to focus on certain Japanese-centric historical themes, from famous individuals to familiar events. Of course, more effort will be put into not-so-well-known pieces of information. Will also try to finish up some on-going projects (yes, you haven’t been forgotten Takigawa Kazumasu), as well as catch up on some topics that were mentioned briefly and have articles in the works. Much of this has to be balanced with real life, however, especially with the new line of work in the tech field I have recently switched to.

TRANSLATIONS

Still playing catch-up on various translation works that have been started, but not quite ready for public release. Mostly due to balancing my time with a better schedule. Some of these works include a break down on select military manuals and mythical tales. As for the few projects that are slated to be released as books, they are in still in the works, although slightly side railed due to facing spme real life changes caused by the Pandemic. This setback also includes endorsements I was intending to get during a planned trip to Japan since 2020. With certain things currently out of reach, I may consider releasing one or two of the books in a different fashion. Time will tell.

KOBUDŌ

With everyone being vaccinated, as well as receiving their booster shots, everyone who participates in kobudō training at Chikushin group made great progress in 2021. Our curriculum focused on an older form of taijutsu (hand-tp-hand), as well as kenjutsu that covers principles more related battlefield tactics from Sengoku period. To continue with this momentum, we will stick with the same curriculum, while reviewing past training materials during our open sessions or monthly Theme weeks. Some schedule changes are about to be implemented, however, to supplement martial arts & Japanese studies in a more accessible fashion. The new schedule will be up on the official Chikushin group website once that is updated in the next upcoming days.

These are the goals set to happen this new year. Hope to accomplish this, and more, in good health. Hope the same for everyone with their own plans for 2022!

Wintertime Visuals of Edo

Every year I look forward to snow when Winter’s upon us. Since my childhood, NYC received a great amount of snow that blanketed the entire city. I have a lot of good memories, from having a white Christmas, shoveling snow with my father in front of our home, to trekking for hours around my neighborhood while bundled up with a heavy coat, gloves, and snow boots. Snow days are essential for kobudō training, as it offers another environment to challenge & evolve our skills. Lately, due to modernization through the advancement of technology, as well as climate change affecting all over the world, snow is becoming a rarity where I live, or the snow fall is so small that in a few hours it all melts away!

Recently I’ve been spending some time doing research on past lifestyle of people in Japan during wintertime. While there are all sorts of records pertaining to specific time periods, the most appealing are the visual ones, namely ukiyoe (浮世絵) and hanga (版画). For this article, I’m sharing some of the artworks I’ve come across that present iconic wintertime visuals, which should be appealing to those reminiscing about snow-filled days that was once common in NYC. It’s a mix between artworks showing different activities to famous locations during Japan’s snow-filled winter season.


#1

TITLE: Yukikorogashi (雪転がし)

MEANING: Playing a game of yukikorogashi

ARTIST: Suzuki Harunobu

Suzuki Harunobu was active as an artist during the mid 1700s. In this artwork, he illustrates several boys playing yukikorogashi. Meaning “rolling the snow into a ball”, It’s a simple game where you take a handful of snow, place it ontop of snow on the ground, and proceed to roll it across. If done correctly, the snowball will gradually grow as it accumulates, soon becoming massive in size. A game played during Edo period, it has also survived into modern times.


#2

TITLE: Yukikorogashi (雪ころがし)

MEANING: Playing a game of yukikorogashi

AUTHOR: Utagawa Sadashige

Another interpretation of kids playing yukikorogashi, by the renown artist Utagawa Sadashige. With a greater number of kids this time around, a larger yukidama (雪玉, snowball) is being created in the bottom left. In the upper right, some kids are making a yuki usagi (雪うさぎ, snow bunny) out of the snow. To the upper left, one kid is raining snow balls on unsuspecting targets. This artwork is a fine example of how kids spend their time enjoying the snow-related games during winter.


#3

TITLE: Sensō Kinryūzan (浅草金龍山)

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: Meisho Edo Hyakkei (名所江戸百景)

Here, we are presented a visual of the temple Kinryūzan Sensōji in Asakusa, Tokyo. Possibly being one of the more popular tourist spots around Tokyo, Asakusa is generally crowded as it has many attractions, including this location. Sensōji (the label “Kinryūzan” is its Buddhist tag) is treasured as being the oldest temple in Tokyo, as it dates back to 645. Along with visiting this temple, many come to take pictures at the front gate Kaminarimon (雷門), and shop at Nakamise Dōri (仲見世通り), which is a long path lined up with different types of shops along both sides.

Utagawa Hiroshige painted this artwork in the late 1850s as part of the collection of famous sights around Edo, now known as present-day Tokyo. The viewpoint is from under the gate Hōzōmon (宝蔵門), which is located in the more north-eastern part of the area. From this gate we can see the grounds, Kaminarimon & other structures, trees, and the people walking along the grounds covered in snow. There are some people making their way towards Kaminarimon to the left, while others appear to be heading towards Gojū no Tō (五重塔), or “Five-Storied Pagoda” to the right.

On a side note, I’ve personally visited Sensōji in the winter during my earlier trips to Japan, but it wasn’t covered in snow like in this artwork. Wish it was tho, as it would’ve been a cool experience in my book.


#4

TITLE: Shiba Zōjōji (芝増上寺)

MEANING: Zōjōji of the Green Lawn

ARTIST: Kawase Hasui

Here we see another temple blanketed in snow. Not just any temple, Zōjōji has a deep history with the Tokugawa clan, as they had it relocated from further east to what is now known as present-day Tokyo city.  Recognized for being within a large area having beautiful green lawns, through this artwork one can imagine there would be little traces of them considering how much snow is covering the ground.

Kawase Hasui captures a view of Zōjōji’s main gate Sangedatsumon (三解脱門) on a day of a snow storm in this piece made in 1925. He does a great job in showing contrast on the areas around the temple that would naturally be snowed on, as well as showing weight on the branches of the tree to the left as they accumulate snow. We also get an idea of how fierce the storm is by the angle in which the snow is falling, as well how the woman walking the grounds narrows her umbrella to protect herself from the frosty winds.


#5

TITLE: Yuki no Miyajima (雪の宮島)

MEANING: Miyajima on a snowy day

ARTIST: Tsuchiya Koitsu

Japan is famous for the many torii (鳥居, Shintō shrine archways) around Japan. Many feature unique designs, while some are in the most unexpected locations. In this artwork we get a visual of the popular Ōtori (大鳥居), or Grand shrine archway of the national treasure shrine called Itsukushima Jinja (嚴島神社), located in Hiroshima prefecture. This archway sits out in the waters of the ocean, while most of the shrine itself is constructed along the edge of the ocean as well.

In this1936 artwork, Tsuchiya Koitsu conveys the natural phenomenon of the Ōtorii and other objects around it being covered in snowfall. There is light snowfall, but apparently it’s been snowing for awhile, considering the amount of snow that sits on the branches of a tree to the upper right.


#6

TITLE: Biku ni hashi secchū (びくにはし雪中)

MEANING: Bridge unexpectedly covered in snow

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: the Meisho Edo Hyakkei (名所江戸百景)

Another artwork from around 1858 by Utagawa Hiroshige, the theme of this centers around the bridge known as Kyōbashi (京橋). It’s built over Kyōbashikawa (京橋川), a river that runs through Hiroshima city in Hiroshima prefecture. The scenery covered in heavy snowfall, the artist uses the viewpoint from the snow-covered bridge, as we see a townsfolk with an umbrella about to make it across, followed by a messenger. We get a clear understanding of how deep the snow is by the messenger, who’s feet are completely submerged under the snow.

Take note of the 2 shops on either side of the artwork, which appear to still be open despite being blanketed in snow. The shop on the left with the sign “Yamakujira” (山くじら) sells boar meat, while the one to the right with the sign “〇Yaki Jūsan-ri” (〇やき十三里) sells roasted sweet potatoes with chestnuts. The aroma must be good, as it’s attracted a few dogs despite the weather condition.


#7

TITLE: Chūshingura Youchi Ni – Rannyū (忠臣蔵 夜討ニ 乱入)

MEANING: Chūshingura’s “The Night Attack Scene 2” – Storming the Mansion

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: Chūshingura Kazari-e Collection (忠臣蔵飾絵コレクション)

Lastly is an early-mid 1800s artwork of warriors dressed for battle on a wintry day. Utagawa Hiroshige has done all types of artworks on different themes, both realistic and fictional. This one is based on the fictionally-interpreted tale entitled Chūshingura (忠臣蔵), or “Treasury of Loyal Retainers”, which is set around the early 1700s according the factual accounts its based off of. In the West this is primarily known as “47 Rōnin”. This tale is popular all over the world, with many artistic adaptations over different generations.

This artwork captures the scene where these masterless warriors prepare to storm into their destination, being the home of a Kira Yoshihisa, who was responsible for their former master’s death. From a combative perspective, it is interesting to see the attire they wear as they travel along the snowy grounds. Dressed in what was standard for 1700s, one can imagine that the material was durable for the cold, and that they were dressed with a certain number of layers. Yet, they do not looked weighed down by bulky & heavy clothing, meaning they were still nimble enough to handle any opposition they would encounter along the way as they were set to extract revenge on Kira Yoshihisa himself.


This concludes our viewing of wintertime-themed artworks made by different artists during Japan’s Edo period. Looking at renown works as these are a great way to see, as well as compare, certain locations present-day to their past appearances. Shame that these won’t satisfy my hunger for a snow-filled winter. Well, here’s looking towards some real snowfall in the later part of winter in the New Year!

Competitive Training = Adaptive Training

At least once a week our group engages in dōjō jiai (道場試合), which can be viewed as a form of competitive training. While this has the nuance of being a competition among practitioners in-house, this really isn’t the case for us, as this is more of an umbrella term for a collection of active training methods designed as a means to drive our skills, and see how our martial systems work. As a whole, competitive training assists in flourishing our skill, as well as show which areas need improvements. All these points lead to one critical principle that’s necessary to being a exemplary martial artist: the ability to adapt.

Kumitachi using fukuro shinai.

For those that train in sports-oriented systems such as boxing, mixed martial arts, kendō, and the like, and either fight competitively or just focus on the possibility of self defense, competitive training is a useful tool. In kobudō, there are schools that also utilize competitive training. Generally, it is not the main focus of transmission of a martial system, for instead focus is put on kata geiko (形稽古, practice of preset forms) as the main tool for teaching. In kata geiko, we learn to develop structure, and understand key principles of our specific style, or techniques and how they would work under specified conditions. The more we can execute these forms with the correct energy and movements, the better we can present the core essence of our martial system. This is a fine example of “art”.

On the other hand, at some point students need to be tested in some fashion to not only see their level of proficiency, but for themselves to actually use what they are learning in a “live” environment. Many forms of competitive training assist with this, such as sparring, randori, kumite, kumitachi, and so on. While there are different degrees of control that can be placed on this type of training (ranging from rules restricted areas of attack, limitation of specific techniques that can be used, to being completely free form), they all serve the purpose of conditioning us to adapt, which makes it possible to deal with stress and develop insight on how to stay in control in order to win or survive.

Perfectly executed techniques are a testament to one’s ability, but considering an actively resisting opponent won’t just allow it, we must also understand there are moments where we need to adjust our techniques, or reinforce them with other skills, in order for them to work. Just because a technique is done in a particular way during kata geiko doesn’t mean it is valid in all situations. Preset forms can be viewed as “snapshots”, and give validity to the usefulness of the technique itself. However, forms can also be viewed as “not alive”, since in an actual conflict people do not move or respond in only one preset manner. Conflict of all types represent the notion of “war”, and we generally cannot approached them in a scripted manner.

To teach students the concept of adaptation is not only done in competitive training, but more preferably during regular kata geiko itself. Let’s look at a component normally tied with this, which is technique. Fundamentally, we first learn how to do techniques in a set manner to understand its mechanics under set conditions. When those conditions differ due to an attack being at a different height, range, or even scenario, can these techniques still be applied? Realistically yes, for we have to naturally adjust the techniques where they can be applied, enabling them to adapt and be effective according to the vision of one’s martial system. This is only true if techniques themselves retain their core principles. Before this can be achieved during competitive training, bunkai (分解, breaking down the components for analyzing) needs to be incorporated into kata geiko at some point, especially when students show a level of understanding and have grasped the basic movements.

Another aspect of adaptive training is giving students the chance of failure, which is necessary for them to understand this feeling, and how to proceed forward. The idea of “losing” to another can be tough, especially when we hold onto thoughts about being a great & unstoppable martial artist. Yet this is fine, as this can be a demon of sorts that needs to be overcome. Once this is achieved, a person’s perception regarding conflict will change from being a personal endeavor to one that is in tune with everyone and everything around us. Failure can make or break a student, which becomes their own personal challenge when growing as a martial artist, as they’ll need discover that capacity to adapt, and mover forward in order to look at the big picture. Another good point about failure is that it can help to crush ego, which is a big obstacle just about all of us encounter, and need to deal with at some point.

A Japanese saying I learned many years ago that has a strong connection to the idea of adaptation is “banpen fugyō” (万変不驚). Literally, this reads as “10,000 changes, no surprise”. In martial arts, this can be interpreted as how chaotic things can become during a fight, for one’s opponent(s) may attack freely with whatever knowledge or tools they have at hand. Yet, with proper conditioning and a solid foundation, one can stay calm and handle things accordingly through adaptation, no matter what comes at you.

Nengajō: Happy Wishes on New Years Day

As the year comes to a close, people send different forms of heartfelt messages around the world. This is done for all types of purposes, whether it be reaching out & staying in touch between family and friends, or keeping good relations between businesses and customers. In the US, many usually do this in the form of holiday cards, such as Christmas cards or New Years cards. Similarly, Japan has a practice of using cards as well, which is called nengajō (年賀状). What is the story behind nengajō? In this article, we’ll explore the history behind these letters of happy new year wishes & when they came about in Japan, along with the iconic appearance that has become a mainstay. We’ll also touch upon the rules & hardships that come along with following this tradition, as well as how technology is changing people approach sending out new year wishes.

MEANING AND HISTORY

The word “nengajō” stands for a written letter used to wish good fortune in the new year. In today’s standards, this is labeled simply as a holiday card. Such practice in Japan was recorded around the later part of Heian period (794 ~1185). Evidence of this is found within the collection of letters called “Unshū Shōsoku” (雲集消息), which were of the possession of Heian aristocrat and Confucius scholar Fujiwara Akihira. In this collection, there are exchanges of messages of New Year wishes between him and others. Considering the time period and how aristocrat families primarily had access to literacy education, it is believed that the practice of nengajō started with this group. Other examples of expressing new year wishes can be also found in educational resources called “Teikin Ōrai” (庭訓往来), which were used at private temple schools starting sometime in the 1300s during the Muromachi period. In the past, the most common phrases found in these letters included expressions of fortune or wishing happiness to the recipient as Spring was opening up throughout Japan. Along with the elite families, military families would also follow this tradition, as many warlords saw it important to uphold good relations with their allies.

Here’s an opening page in a version of Teikin Ōrai from Sakamoto Ryumon Bunko & Nara Women’s University Academic Information Center that was written in 1520. The underlined section is an example of nengajo, where the message is expressing luck and plenty of fortune to the recipient as Spring is upon them. This reflects the time period when the old calendar was prominent in Japan’s past, for the new year fell on the beginning of today’s February.

In the Edo period, this practice was slowly being adopted by the common people. This is due to literacy education being made available through private elementary schools, which helped society as a whole develop with each generation. Still, the catch was that family had to be making a well enough income to afford education lessons. Education as a whole made it possible for many towns & prefectures to incorporate cultural traditions primarily elite families partook in the past. As nengajō became a growing practice among the masses, one form of transportation that became essential was the mobility of machibikyaku (町飛脚), or express messengers in English. This special service was introduced as a simple solution to meet the demands of Japanese citizens having their holiday cards reach their families, friends, and acquaintances on the exact day of gantan (元旦), or 1st day of the new year. Machibikyaku were depended on for this task up until the ending of the Edo period, as this service would be replaced by a more systematic process known as the postal system.

The postal system was introduced in Japan around 1871, with post offices slowly constructed in each prefecture throughout the country. The postal service would become fully established around Japan within the years, which from there a formal delivery service could be provided throughout the country. Citizens took advantage of this, for in late 1880s onward post offices had to handle the bulk of these holiday cards from everyone throughout Japan in the last month of the year, as postal workers had to work around the clock to ensure each and every nengajō made it to their destinations on the 1st day of the new year. This approach was adopted from how the machibikyaku were used for express deliveries in short periods of time.

DESIGNS AND FEATURES

Over the course of history, nengajō went through several visual and physical transitions. More ancient examples can be seen from resources like Unshū Shōsoku and Teikin Ōrai, where In the beginning this letters were sent that contained new year wishes in the form of one to two line greetings. Once Japan was unified by one sole power called the Tokugawa Shogunate and giving birth to Edo period in the early 1600s, nengajō retained its letter form as common people emulated what was done in the past. In some of these, illustrations were added along with the message depending on the sender’s taste. These new year letters were folded into a smaller, compact size, which made easy to carry by those who could travel, or be piled with other letters in a square box and easily distributed by machibikyaku once they reached their destination.

An example of nengajō in modern times. From Wikipedia.

As Edo period came to an end, with Meiji period taking its place in late mid 1800s, advancement in modernization would influence how people would send out nengajō. With an actual postal system in play, actual holiday cards called nenga hagaki would be made available for purchase. This version was especially well received during the early to mid 20th century, as people could go to their local post office, book stores,or specialty shops and purchase these pre-made cards. This period saw a very iconic look for these holiday cards, where on one side would be for the address of the sender & recipient and the stamp, while the other side would feature some form of illustration followed by space for one’s message.

An example of otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, with the inclusion of the card design came other features that gave sending nengajo more appeal. The 1st one being otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki (お年玉付き年賀はがき), which are holiday cards equipped with lottery numbers. These lottery numbers are issued by the postal system and give the recipient a chance to win small prizes. Take note that these cards are only purchasable from post offices, as this is one of the ways the postal service makes money. There are 2 periods in which these lottery holiday cards can be purchased, with the earliest being July, and the latest during August. These lottery cards are different from regular cards used as nengajō, which are generally made available from November 1st. Surprisingly, these lottery holiday cards became the “expected” way of sending new year wishes at one point.

The other appealing feature would be the nenga kitte (年賀切手), or new year stamps. These specialized stamps were introduced to the public in late 1935, and were designed to be placed on nengajō. Over the years, these stamps featured unique art themes to make them more eye-catching, such as having a national landmark, a symbol attached to a specific prefecture or island in Japan, a person in an attractive outfit, and to the ever familiar Zodiac animals. New year stamps are still in play today, both physical and digital stamps (more on this later).

RULES & HARDSHIPS

Nengajō has a pivotal place in Japanese society. In modern times, people took sending these holiday cards out seriously, especially for maintaining good business relations. Since their purpose is to wish the recipient a fortunate new year, they need to be prepared & sent out at on time. There are actual protocols that need to be followed when sending these out.

  1. The period for sending out nengajō is from the last week of November to around 2nd~3rd week of December
  2. Cut off time for the post office to receive nengajō is December 25th
  3. While any type of holiday card can be used, official ones issued by the post office were the expected type
  4. Nengajō had to be bought at a particular time, especially otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki

While this is a seasonal practice, just keeping in mind when to prepare for this isn’t too much of a hassle, especially when sending out personal holiday cards for family and friends. On the other hand, businesses are hard pressed with getting all of their holiday cards out at a timely fashion. Companies are expected to take seriously the custom of sending out new year wishes to everyone they communicate throughout the years, whether it be customers, associates, and vendors. This includes individual workers who are the position of working directly in business transactions.

Picture of a Print Gocco. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, there was a point where sending nengajō was a serious endeavor that equipment was needed to assist with the volume of holiday cards that was required to be to sent out. From the late 1970s to early 2000s there was a handy device called “Print Gocco” (プリントごっこ), which allowed anyone to custom design their cards with the typical designs found on nengajō. It was small & simple to use, and would allow anyone to fully design a typical holiday card in a short amount of time (specially-supplied cards from the post office generally were used). Of course, what a Print Gokko could not do was duplicate a hand written message, which a person had to do themselves. In terms of experience with a Print Gokko, my Japanese father-in-law invested in this during his years of full-time employment at a company. It wasn’t for personal use though, but instead needed to prepare nengajō for customers and business partners he interacted with over the years. Every year he had to prepare around 200 of these holiday cards at home using the Print Gocco, and making time to write personal messages based on recipient. My wife explained that was a daunting task on him, and how others in Japan had the same routine as him. This is an example of how important keeping good relations through nengajō was viewed upon throughout the years.

Another example of the importance nengajō presented was impacted on the Japanese postal system. Pressure was placed on post offices around Japan for many years, especially during the late 21st century, when the economy was at its highest point and many high-profile businesses doing well worldwide. During this period, the volume of mail that included nengajō was unmanageable during regular postal schedule. This instilled a critical end-of-the-year overtime during the last week of December, where Post Offices had to hire part-time workers, usually students, to handle the task of delivering nengajō on January 1st. This is reminiscent of how machibikyaku worked during the Edo period. As of recent, this end-of-the-year overtime was lifted off the post office, due the lesser volume of physical holiday cards they see nowadays.

DECLINE DUE TO MODERN ADVANCEMENT

Nengajō has cemented its place in Japanese culture. However, how people continue this tradition of new year wishes is changing. Advancement in technology has given the world options for ease of accessibility for many areas of interest with the introduction of computers and smart devices. People can enjoy nengajō through these methods, but in return interest in sending out physical mail has dwindled considerably.

Let’s take a look at how technology has given people options with nengajō. From the late 20th century to early 21st century, print shops, as well as online services that can be accessed on one’s personal computer, offer options to customizing and designing unique holiday cards. Through such service, customers do such things like choose font type, adjust layout, to adding their favorite pictures, including of family members. The popularity in this was due to the departure from the more traditional look of nengajō since the start of the Meiji period, to a modern standard that fit everyone’s personal taste and style.

Snapshot of new year stamps that can be purchased for use in messages, which can be used through Line app.

Technology of smartphones in the early 21st century would further give people greater ease of sending holiday wishes through digital nengajō using SMS, such as Line app. Along with one’s personal message and decorated picture, users can add cool looking new years stamps. Digital nengajō is a very cost-efficient way of staying in touch and is extremely popular way among different age groups in Japan. Of course, with this ease in communicating with both family and friends through tech, the more traditional method of “snail mail” using paper cards and physical stamps is not relied on as it once used to be decades ago.

ENDING

This concludes our look at nengajō and its impactful history in Japanese culture. As a well-documented practice, there are some really nice designs that can be viewed online of cards & stamps used within the last century. Even though there’s a departure from physical nengajō, sending them digitally is also cool, as it still retains the spirit of wishing a happy new year to loved ones & friends. As a whole, one can have fun making a comparison of this holiday card practice in Japan with one’s own country’s standards.

Kuroda Bushi: Story of the Sake-Guzzler named Mori Tomonobu

There are amazing tales of warriors accomplishing all types of great feats. Oftentimes in old Japanese tales, these individuals are painted with words that put them on the level of being super-human. This can range from having super strength, impeccable intelligence, and unmatched wit. How about we add voracious consumption of alcohol to that list?

In my 2-part series “Fame to the Spear”, I mentioned about a famous tale that told how a loyal retainer was able to drink his way to obtained a treasured Imperial spear. For this article, we’ll look into the details of this story, which is called “Kuroda Bushi” (黒田節, Song of Kuroda). Along with this, we’ll review where & when it was created, and the lasting appeal it has in the locations associated with the writer and members in the tale. There are different versions of this story, each with slight variations in how it is told and how it progresses. Some versions have more details than the other, while some have dialogue to illustrate how each characters interact with one another. The following sites are but some of the sources used as guides in writing this article:


THE FULL STORY

Artwork of Mori Tomonori. From Wikipedia.

The protagonist of this story is Mori Tomonobu (母里友信)¹, who is known as an accomplished warrior with the spear, and a retainer of the Kuroda family. He goes by other titles, including “Tahei” (太兵衛), “Tahyōe” (多兵衛), and the official title of “Tajima-no-kami” (但馬守). Among those who served the Kuroda clan, he was a skilled warrior especially with the spear, and was a member of both “Kuroda Nijuuyonki” (黒田二十四駒, 24 Cavalrymen of the Kuroda clan) and “Kuroda Hakko” (黒田八虎, 8 Tigers of the Kuroda clan) due to his loyalty and military service. Tomonobu also has a reputation for being a “sake-gō” (酒豪), which we’ll interpret as “sake guzzler”.

The story takes place around the New Year period of 1569. Mori Tomonobu was about to embark on an errand for his lord, Kuroda Nagamasa, to the lower town of Fushimi castle in the Capital (京, which is Kyōto in present-day Japan). This area was under the control of Fukushima Masanori, who was the feudal lord there. Aware of who he may run into, Nagamasa forbade him consume any alcohol while there, stating, “you must not accept any sake he offers, no matter what!”. Obediently, Tomonobu, promised not to drink any sake while out on his errand.

When Tomonobu arrived, Masanori was brought word of this guest to his town. Wasting no time, Masanori hurried to go see Tomonobu. When He found him, Masanori invited him to his drinking party, so they may celebrate with a couple of rounds of drinks. Remembering what his lord told him, Tomonobu humbly refused. Masanori made a few more attempts to invite the reluctant warrior, which finally he would accept.

Artwork of Fukushima Masanori. From Wikipedia.

Now, why would a person in Masanori’s position go out to get a lower-ranking warrior like Tomonobu to attend his drinking party? For starters, this invite was nothing special for Masanori. In fact, it was just another excuse for him to drink himself drunk. While bearing merits due to the great feats he’s achieved in battle, he also had a reputation for liking to drink sake a little too much. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to report to duty on the field while being drunk! On top of this, Masanori was also aware of Tomonobu’s reputation of being able to consume a lot of sake himself and not get drunk. You can say that this was Masanori’s chance to test if this rumor was true.

Back to the story, Masanori led Tomonobu to his residence, and lead him to a room that was adorned with many nice items, and a table that would be used for the sake party. As his guest sat down and got settled in, Masanori brought forth a very large bowl of sake to kick off their drinking fest, stating, “here, drink this”. Still on duty and concerned about the impact such an amount of sake would have on him, Tomonobu refused. He would try to entice the invite with a wager, offering to grant him anything he wanted in his room if he could consume all the sake in the large bowl. While there were some nice items around the room, as expected by someone of Masanori’s status, Tomonobu once more declined to consume the entire content within the large bowl.

At this point, Masanori was getting annoyed with Tomonobu’s constant declination, as he proceeded to taunt the Kuroda retainer by saying, “What?!? As a warrior of the Kuroda house, you are so disappointing! Even if you, a member of the Mori clan, do hold the reputation as “sake-guzzler”, you certainly have no backbone to back it up. Pity goes to Lord Nagamasa for having a bunch of wimps under his command, for he runs nothing more than a province of weaklings!²“. These words got to Tomonobu and made him very furious. Taking the large bowl, he drank everything straight down. Putting the bowl down, he exclaimed “I’ll have another”. Refilled with sake, he would proceed to drink everything again. He repeated this a few more times, consuming more than anyone could’ve imagined. Finished, Tomonobu maintained is composure as he politely commented “I will now claim my prize in accordance to your promise, which will be that spear over there”. He pointed to a large spear, lacquered in black, and boosting a grand spearhead with exquisite carvings.

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

This was no ordinary spear, as it was a treasured property that passed through the hands of famous people; commissioned by the 106th Emperor Ōgimachi, it would be rewarded to great military commanders, from the 15th Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, to the ambitious rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masanori was rewarded this spear by his master Hideyoshi after achieving great feats in battle³, and he treasures this greatly. This is none other than the legendary Nihongō, and it was about to be lost due to a silly drinking bet.

While drunk himself, Masanori was fully aware of what was in stake with his treasured spear. He initially tried to protest, pleading how special the spear was in his possession, but Tomonobu refused to listen, and remain steadfast on acquiring the Nihongō, stating, “a warrior does not repeat himself⁵”. Aware that he cannot go against his word, Masanori complied and handed over the spear. With that, Tomonobu made his way out and headed on his way with his trophy, not showing any signs of being intoxicated.

Oh, so many days Masanari lamented as he longed for that treasured spear lost in a drinking contest!


HOMETOWN PRIDE VS ORIGIN PRIDE

A statue in Fukuoka of Mori Tomonobu carrying both a large sake bowl and the Imperial spear known as Nihongo. From Wikipedia.

Today, the Kuroda Bushi is known as a folklore song of Fukuoka prefecture, where Mori Tomonobu’s grave is. This version is very popular there, as it is represented in businesses (especially sake distributors) and entertainment (i.e. singers and theatrical performers). It grew in popularity thanks to how the actual episode became known in the first place. Mid to late 1600s of Edo period, feudal lords who stayed in the lower town of Fushimi castle spoke freely about the sake party that Fukushima Masanori held and how it brought the lost of his prized spear to the hands of the Kuroda retainer Mori Tomonobu.

Eventually, this tale would reach the ears of a Confucius scholar named Kaibara Ekiken, who was a native of modern-day Fukuoka prefecture. Since the Kuroda family were from Fukuoka prefecture, Ekiken saw value in this story and made it into a song called “Kuroda Bushi”. In the form of a song, it spread throughout Japan, and would eventually be associated with Fukuoka prefecture. This song, along with other tales & info regarding those affiliated with the Kuroda family, was compiled by Ekiken into a collection labeled “Kuroda Kashinden” (黒田家臣伝). This also goes hand-in-hand with the Nihongō being retrieved and placed in a museum in Fukuoka as well. With the reputation as being the birthplace of the once influential Kuroda family, there’s no mistake that the residence in Fukuoka would find it necessary to keep the Kuroda Bushi and Nihongō close to home.

Despite its obvious connections with Fukuoka prefecture, the Kuroda Bushi is also just as important in Kyōto. In fact, the actual location in present-day Fushimi District where the tale took place is a tourist attraction, which is advertised as “”Kuroda Bushi”, Tanjō no Chi” (黒田節、誕生の地), or “Birthplace of the song “Kuroda Bushi””. Historically, Kuroda Nagamasa, Mori Tomonobu’s lord, had good relations with Fukushima Masanori. Interestingly, it is rumored that Nagamasa had a house in north-eastern part of Fukushi castle’s lower town, which is where he would pass away. While possible considering the importance of Kyōto during medieval Japan, it has yet to be proven.

Another point to mention is the strong association to sake the area of Fushimi has. During the early mid 1600s, the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established, major wars were over, and a movement of development was underway. The town in Fushimi was developing into a hub for business endeavors, as it was close to a port where many traders used. At this point, a sake brewing business was started, and became very successful. While this was not the 1st sake brewery, it did contribute to Kyōto’s long history of sake manufacturing. Thus, the episode of sake drinking in the Kuroda Bushi is synonymous with not just Fushimi, but Kyōto as a whole.

ENDING

This brings the story of the Kuroda Bushi to a close. It is an interesting tale, one that illustrates a different form of battle & wit⁶. Who’d guess that having an insatiable gut for alcohol like Mori Tomonobu would net a hometown folklore? Also, be on the lookout for a full translation of the Kuroda Bushi as displayed in Kyōto. This will be posted in the Translation section of this site.


1) Originally, the surname “Mori” (母里) was pronounce as “Bori”. Later in the Edo period, this name was not only phonetically changed in official documents of the Tokugawa Shogunate to “Mori”, but the kanji was also changed to a more familiar “毛利”. This may have been done to make it easier to identify the Bori clan. Nowadays, it is common to read the original name as “Mori”, but in Fukuoka prefecture, as well as in the documents of the Kuroda family, it is still read as “Bori”.

2) The actual line in Japanese: “なんだ、酒豪だと言われる母里でさえ、このくらいの酒を飲む自信がないとは黒田家の侍もたいしたことないな、腰抜け揃いの弱虫藩か長政殿もお気の毒に”

3) Fukushima Masanori’s great feat was discussed here

4) This was discussed in details here. On a side note, this event also dubbed the spear “Nomitori Nihongō” (呑み取り日本号, Nihongō the drinking contest prize).

5) The actual line in Japanese: “武士に二言は無い”

6) Did this story really conclude with a happy ending? Sort of, but depends from which perspective you view it from. It’s said that after the event, Fukushima Masamori made many pleas to Kuroda Nagamasa to have Mori Tomonobu return the Nihongō, including offering an exchange with a replica spear. To maintain the peace, Nagamasa also tried his best to resolve the matter by advising his retainer to comply, but Tomonobu held steadfast to the validity to the promise made at the sake party, and refused. This would sour relations between Masamori and Nagamasa for awhile, until another feudal lord named Takenaka Shigetoshi intervened. Watching how bad they interacted with one another from the sideline, Shigetoshi stepped in and resolved the matter by having them make up through an exchange of kabuto (兜, helmet).

Ushi no Koku Mairi: Dark Ritual for Vengeance

Today’s Halloween here in the States, so it is time to put out an article that goes with the occasion. There are rituals and processions that one would associate with occult practices, black magic, and spells. Some are so out there that they would fit perfectly as a thriller or horror film. In this article, we’ll cover one practice that is pretty out there, and could make for a cool costume!

Since Edo period, there was an unusual practice in Japan which may have roots to the divination system Onmyōdō (陰陽道) called “Ushi no Koku Mairi” (丑の刻参り)¹. This can mean “Late Night Ritual Procession at a Shrine²“. While the title sounds harmless, what takes place is not. Records on it state that this was a practice where when some women were slighted by a cheating man, whether be boyfriend or husband, they would embark on this personal journey of revenge at the back of a local shrine to place a curse on him. The origins of this is believed to have come from old texts dating back as far as Heian period (794 ~ 1192), such as the military text titled Heike Monogatari (平家物語) and a book of songs called Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集). These have short inserts of a woman who becomes slighted by a lover who failed to keep his promise, and transforms into an oni (鬼, demon) through the will of an enshrined deity after praying to it at a shrine that houses it. With this new found strength, she swears vengeance and terrorizes the area. Fast forward to Edo period (1603~1868), cases of women going to shrines and performing a ritual in the dead of the night appear to have been a thing.

A ukiyoe depicting Ushi no Koku Mairi. The woman presented has a demonic look, as if transformed by the ritual herself. By Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

The purpose of Ushi no Koku Mairi was to put a curse on a cheating man that would bring him death. This was a means for a woman to successfully break any eternal ties with him, plus for him to face retribution. This process did take place behind a shrine, where there were plenty of trees. In advance, a tree would have to be chosen to where this ritual of vengeance would take place. The following steps would need to be prepared to make this all work:

  • white robe-like outfit with a white belt
  • metal band around or on top of the head
  • 3 candles fixed at 3 points on the metal band
  • small mirror hanging from the neck
  • a small kushi (櫛, a semi-round comb)
  • high wooden geta (下駄, clog-like footwear)
  • long white sash with one end fastened to the body or belt

Of course, the most important items that are very critical for this ritual are a small straw doll, decent sized nails, and a metal mallet.

Instruments necessary for acts of revenge.

When it’s pitch-dark outside and the designated time frame is near, the woman must change into her outfit and, with no one around to see her, must run through the wooded area behind the shrine all the way to her designated tree. From there, she will insert the nail through the straw doll, and hammer it to the tree with her mallet, screaming obscenities throughout the process. Once the woman is done, she takes all her items and returns home. This process must be done for 7 days straight in order for her desire for vengeance to come true. It is expected that the targeted man will die within those 7 days. If not, then the process was a failure.

When you really think about it, the outfit may sound and look bizarre. However, there is a purpose behind this, which is to give the woman a rather demonic look. She is to appear as if she too has turned into an ogre as she carries out her mission, much like how it’s depicted in ancient tales. Here’s some more detailed info regarding the preparations for Ushi no Koku Mairi:

  • There are no special words or chants. The individual can use any words, labels, and otherwise, curses that best describe her target.
  • The long white sash encourages the woman to run as fast as she can and keep it up in the air as she makes her way to the tree used for the process. The reasoning for this is that the white sash must not touch the ground and get soiled before she reaches the tree, or else the process will not be completed. Take note that this is a difficult feat to accomplish due to the next note….
  • The type of wooden geta the woman must wear is the one with long ha (歯), or pegs. How long should the pegs be it is not stated, but one thing to keep in mind is that high geta makes it very difficult to walk, let along run.
  • Feet have to be bare while wearing the geta.
  • The comb must be carried in the mouth while running.
  • The woman must have her hair down and not tied. She may wash it ahead of time.
  • It is recommended to have “keepsakes” of the target that the woman wants to curse inside the straw doll, such as his hair or fingernails.

As mentioned earlier, this ritual was documented. In fact, there was even theatrical performances in the form of Noh (能) plays about this in Japan during Edo period. Now, as for the particular shrines that may have been used in Japan, one that stands out is the Kifune Jinja (貴船神社, Kifune Shrine) in Kyōto, due to the fact that was used as a source of power for a vengeful woman in the Heike Monogatari. Take note that this shrine is not designated for that purpose, nor is the deity that is worshiped there.

A painting of a woman perfoming Ushi no Koku Mairi on a tree near a shrine. Part of the series called “Hyakunin Isshu Ubaga Etoki (百人一首姥がゑとき) by Hokusai Katsushika.

As with many things that are based on supernatural occurrences, there is no real evidence that Ushi no Koku Mairi actually works, nor are there cases that anyone has died due to its ritual. Another interesting point is that while wishing ill fortune is not illegal in Japan, the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi is in fact a crime. This also includes entering the grounds that belong to a shrine, which is deemed as trespassing, while hammering a nail into a tree is called defacing of private property.

CONCLUSION

Being Halloween, dark tales such as Ushi no Koku Mairi can be interesting and add an element of fun for the occassion. It is certainly one that has inspired manga, anime, and other aspects of pop culture. It does have a dark history with a theme that can be considered black magic. This ends our look at the practice of Ushi no Koku Mairi. Please remember, while the attire described in this article could make for a nifty outfit, the actual ritualistic practice is not really something to try…especially running in high wooden geta late night.


1) Also can be called “Ushi no Toki Mairi” (丑の時参り).

2) The word “Ushi” is related to the Ox zodiac sign, which is the same as this zodiac year. Ushi no Koku is “Time of the Ox”, which is the time frame 1 am ~ 3 am.

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.