Ōsōji: Starting the New Year Clean & Fresh

As the year comes to an end, households, business establishments, and religious grounds have a traditional practice performed called ōsōji (大掃除). This is a common word one will hear especially in December, as it refers to cleaning the entirety of one’s house or living space. While this practice is well throughout Japan, there is even an older one, which is considered a rarity, yet still practiced today. For today’s article, we’ll look into the origins of ōsōji, when the best time to start, and what entails in keeping your home clean.

ANCIENT PRACTICE OF CLEANING

The older form of ōsōji is believed to be the practice of susuharai (煤払い), which stands for cleaning the soot that would have accumulated in one’s living space within the span of a year. This soot is from the smoke created from the burning of candles, stove while cooking and the like. It was a form of ritual that went further than merely cleaning the house, but in ridding & preventing akki (悪鬼, bad spirits). Through this, kami (神, divine spirits or gods) could enter into each household in the new year, which ensured fortune to be bestowed there.

2 pages depicting a large cleaning within the home of a merchant, called “Shōka Susuharai” (商家煤払). From the 5th volume of “Tōto Saijiki” (東都歳事記)

The roots of susuharai is traced to the Heian period (794 – 1185) as an ancient ritual in the Imperial palace. This is during the time when the Imperial family and noble families alike were learning a great deal from religious teachings that stemmed from China. Within an old rulebook called “Engishiki” (延喜式), is explained about how this ritual was conducted. Later, as the Heian period transitioned to the Ashikaga-ruled Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), 6th Ashikaga shogun by the name of Munetoshi Shinō (宗尊親王) wrote about the practice of susuharai within the old text called “Azuma Kagami” (吾妻鏡). It seems that from these ancient texts the word itself stood for more than keeping the Imperial palace and its grounds completely clean, but to ensure great fortune from the Toshigami (年神, deity that visits during the early new year), as the act of cleaning also included warding away evil spirits.

From the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), susuharai became a large task performed within the shrines and temples respectively. Monks and priests worked together to ensure their halls were clean in accordance to appeasing the deity they worshiped. This ranged from wiping clean the numerous butsuzō (仏像, statues and figures depicting Buddhist gods) placed in a temple, to using a takesao (竹竿, long bamboo pole) that has a branch full of leaves or straw at one end in the form of a broom to sweep the ceiling of the hondō (本堂, main chamber). Centuries later, the practice of susuharai was passed down to civilians throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) . To ensure everyone had ample time for this, the 13th day of the 12th month was designated as the time to accomplish this.

MODERN DAY APPROACH TO ŌSŌJI

Today, ōsōji is designated for December 31st according to the modern calendar. This day is called Ōmisoka (大晦日), which means “last day (nightfall) of the year”. Along with cleaning, other traditional activities take place, including the eating of toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦, buckwheat noodles served at midnight of ending of the year) and visiting temples for Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘, listening to the temple bell ring for the sake of good fortune).

Sample of simple cleaning tools for your ōsōji needs! From AC-Illust.

While the 31st is an important day, it is also a very busy day if one intends to prepare and participate in the numerous events that take place. In regards to ōsōji, depending on the house size, or even one’s schedule, families may start earlier. For example, my wife often told me that while growing up in Tokyo, her mother, who had a busy work schedule including running her own shop, would clean a single room or an area in the house one day at a time as the 31st approached. She would finally finish on the 31st, if needed, with one room remaining.

What is needed to perform ōsōji nowadays? Your everyday cleaning implements, and water! While considered a tradition, the rules are not as strict as one would think. Generally, family members dust and clean every possible inch of their household, includes on top of cabinets, in corners, around windows, inside the sink and toilet, and so on. Water is also fine for wiping surfaces clean to ensure dirt is removed, as water is symbolic for purification in Japanese culture.

Traditionally, when ōsōji is completed, kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) and shimenawa (注連縄, purified rope made out of rice paper or hemp) are placed around the entrance of the home, business establishment, and shrine & temple grounds. These are the final touches believed to be excellent invitations for the Toshigami to visit and bring everlasting fortune. This is still in practice today as well.

CLOSING

This covers the history of ōsōji, and how it is observed even today. My family and I also carry this tradition forward in our household. Ōsōji is something everyone around the world can practice, as there are so many benefits gained from this outside of the ritual implications. If anything, going into the new year in a clean house is great hygienically.

Shiwasu: How busy monks coincide with the last month of the year

Japanese can be a very colorful language, especially before standardization took place in recent times. Many words that have survived hundreds of years and is still part of modern speech due to their inclusion in the culture have some very interesting back stories. These can range from the name of towns, types of clothing, professions, or celebrations. One topic I’d like to bring up is the naming convention of the months within a yearly cycle, which was a project just recently finished. This can be found in the Translation section under “Topics Related to the Lunar Calendar”. Some points regarding the origins of how these months were named left a lasting impression on me, one particular I want to elaborate on just a little.

The characters for the 12th month name, Shiwasu. From Illust-AC.

According to the old Lunar calendar called “inreki” (陰暦)¹ once used in Japan’s past, each of the months have a “standard” name alongside which number month it is. They were also accompanied with many variants, which were devised with a relatable concept. These names are not as significant as they once used to be, but provide a cultural glimpse several hundreds of years ago of how people lived, how they viewed the seasons, or what activities were significant at specific times. Some are easy to understand and give you a clear visual once you hear the description. Others are not so clear, or have a description that may not really make sense at all. The biggest culprit of this is “Shiwasu”, which is designated as the 12th month of the year². The name Shiwasu has a unique meaning of “teacher (Buddhist priest or monk) rushing about”, which in turn indicates the ending of the year. How can such a description have any relations to indicating what month it is? And why a monk?  

Below are a few quoted sections from an article about Shiwasu, which comes from the website “Setagaya Byori”. It provides a few nice examples, and gives a slightly different take from my own write up in the project mentioned earlier. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my English translation.


“「師走」はもともと旧暦の「12月」を指す言葉です。具体的には今の12月末から2月上旬ごろを指すのですが、今では陽暦の12月の異称としても親しまれています。”

“The word “Shiwasu” was the designated label to the “12th month” of the old (Lunar) calendar from the very start. To be entirely clear, it points to the later part of the 12th month all the way to the earlier part of the 2nd month. However, it is more familiar to us as an alternative name for the 12th month within the new calendar.”

“「師が走る」という字面から、まさに年末の慌ただしい気分までうまく表した言葉のように思えますが、この漢字は「当て字」ともいわれ、語源も諸説あってはっきりしないのです。”

“The term “shi ga haseru” (師が走る), which means “teacher is hurrying about”, gives us vivid thoughts of a very busy end of the year. However, the characters used in this name is said to be an ateji (当て字), or alternative label for naming purposes only, for the explanation behind it doesn’t match up properly with the actual roots for the name.”

“語源として有名なのは、師走の「師」は僧侶であるという説。かつては冬の季節、僧侶を招いて読経などの仏事を行う家が多かったため、お坊さんが東西に忙しく走り回ることとなり、「しがはせる」から「しはす」になったといいます。この説は、平安時代末期に成立した古辞書『色葉字類抄』に「しはす」の注として書かれているのですが、この説をもとに、のちに「師走」の字があてられたと考えられます。また、「師馳せ月」が誤って「師走」になった、という説もあります。”

“The explanation for “shi” of “shiwasu” is that it stands for Buddhist priest or monk, and is a famous one as being the roots of its origin, which goes something like the following. During the winter season, monks were busy running back & forth from east to west because there were many homes that required Buddhist services, which included calling for a monk to recite sutras. Due to this practice, the term “shi ga haseru” was shortened to just “shihasu” (しはす). This explanation is based on the writing of the word “shihasu” in the late Heian period ancient dictionary called “Iroha Jiruishō”. It is thought that the characters “師走” were being referenced in the word “shihasu”, thus the origin for this explanation.  Another explanation is that “Shiwasu” accidentally became a word from the phrase “Shihase Tsuki” (師馳せ月), which shares the same meaning.”


Just by reading this, one can get an idea where some issues would pop up. One of the biggest is the pronunciation. Why change to “shiwasu”? Ease of pronunciation? Apparently in the Iroha Jiruishō only the phonetic “しはす” (shihasu) is written, with no indication that the characters “師走” is being referenced. One linguistic point here could be that, as witnessed in some older documents, the character ha (は) represented the sound wa, which may be why it was assumed that the reading should be “shiwasu” instead³. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence in this case that leads to such a point.

A monk hurrying along during the last month of the year. Is this truly the origin behind the name Shiwasu?!? From Illust-AC.

One thing worth mentioning is that studying up on Japanese history will show that there was a strong presence of Buddhism during the late Heian period, especially in Kyoto, where the Imperial palace was present throughout the majority of Japanese history. Many nobles also lived there, and kept up with what was popular, which including growing interest in Buddhist practice. Due to this, it is most likely that monks were busy fulfilling requests of visiting homes and reciting sutras. However, was this truly the basis for the naming convention for the last month of the year? Most likely not, especially since many other activities were taking place at the same time that may have been more significant. There is a strong belief that this is a more recent creation that puts a bit of poetic spin on the name, which would then spread and become popular. Fortunately, there are more solid theories behind the root word “shihasu”, which are stronger and closer to the actual end-of-the-year description. This can be read in the last page of “Months” here.

Here’s yet another theory that is interesting, for it supports a different spin on the busy religious teacher theme, but from a Shinto angle.



“師が忙しく走り回る説にはバリエーションがあります。「師」は「御師」という神職のことで、この季節は神社の参詣者の案内をしたり、祈祷を行ったりするのに忙しくなるから、という説…”

“There is another variation to the explanation regarding a teacher busily running around. It states that the character “shi” (師) comes from the title “onshi” (御師), which is a rank in Shinto tradition meaning “low level Shinto priest”. The story here is that during the winter season, onshi were very busy with tasks such as guiding worshipers who come to visit the shrine, and conducting prayer services…”


This is just one of the many different theories placed on this unique name “Shiwasu”. Unlike the Buddhist priest theory, the Shinto priest theory is not a popular one. On top of this, it is most likely a recent theory.

Honestly, researching about “Shiwasu” while working on the months of the Lunar Calendar project was one of my highlights that left me scratching my head all too often, but not entirely due to frustration. Oddities like this give a glimpse of some of the creative liberties with the Japanese language in the past that individuals took that shine a light on cultural aspects and topics. If I were to point out every word like this that I’ve come across over the years, I could write about each one in an article everyday for about a year!


1) The Lunar calendar coincides with what was used in most of Asia in the past. Compared to the western Gregorian calendar, the Lunar calendar has a different starting point by almost a month. That means that new years took place at the start of today’s February! Also, the length of each month varied due to certain conditions.

2) According to the Lunar calendar, this was most of what we would designate as today’s January. Japan has long switched to the Gregorian calendar, so Shiwasu begins at the 1st of December and ends on the 31st. On a side note, this adjustment actually affects the meaning of certain names, as they were originally designed to match up with corresponding seasonal changes.

3) Here’s an example of Japanese grammar for those interested. On page 69 in the 3rd volume of the Takeyazō-sho version of Iroha Jiruishō is the word “貫河”. The phonetic for this is written as “ぬきかは” (since it is an official documentation, it actually is written in katakana as “ヌキカハ”).

At 1st glance one would think that this is read as “nukikaha”, but in reality it is “nukikawa”. The reason is the character “河” is pronounced “kawa” as a standard. In the past the character “は” doubled for the sound “ha” and “wa” visually. Basically, you would have had to have been educated to know this point so as to not read it incorrectly depending on which word it was being used in.

Looking at the True Sanada Yukimura ~ Part 2

We continue with part 2 regarding the true image of Sanada Yukimura. In part 1 we established that his real name was Nobushige, took a brief overview of his historical bio, and examined the source behind the label “Yukimura” along with the idea behind it. In this post we will look at the fictional side spurred on by the Yukimura image, and how real life accounts fit into this. Take note that when addressing non-academic source materials such as movies and novels, one should not automatically assume that these are completely false info which can can be discarded in a blink of the eye. Depending on the author/director’s intentions, these could very much follow along accurately with historical events in order to make a solid and entertaining story. They may even contain info that tends to be difficult to find. However, what is important is to recognize which points are fiction in these works, and how to discern the correct info that can be compared to factual sources.

PERSONALITY OF A HERO

A common image of Sanada Yukimura in today’s generation.

When analyzing the image of Sanada Yukimura, we see him represented as one of Japan’s greatest war heroes. This is in part to how he’s portrayed in novels, shows, and movies, both old and new. Depending on the literary work, Yukimura is given a personality that portrays him as stoic, righteous, and heroic figure. This is common especially if the individual is the main character. He is usually depicted as one who stands by his principles and doing whatever it takes to ensure victory, especially for the Toyotomi family. In instances regarding the Osaka Campaign, Yukimura is shown leading his troops head-on into the thick of battle, while in others he is resourceful with carefully analyzed plans that lead to successful outcome. One of the themes that is considered memorable is him commanding his elite warriors and having them operate as kagemusha (影武者, body double) of himself, which was a deceptive tactic to disrupt the enemies’ focus and lower their morality as they get overwhelmed dealing with multiple “Yukimura”.

Take this as an example. In the novel “Chōbō Sanada Yukimura” (智謀真田幸村), Yukimura is shown to be ever protective of his master, Hideyoshi Hideyori after the defeat during the Osaka Campaign. As an escape to Sasshū Province (western part of present-day Kagoshima prefecture) has been established, he is portrayed saying the following lines to a fellow comrade named Gotō Matabei¹:



“…今日評定の席にてあのようにもうしたものゝ、ねがはくば御身は討死を止まっていただきたい”

…considering things from where I stand right now, I want to prevent my lord from dying in this war, if granted such an opportunity”


“そのうえ時節をまって島津家において人数をまとめ、ふたゝび豊臣家を再興せんと言う所存、よって貴殿は誰れか影武者をもって、表面討死をいたしたと言う体裁になしくださるよう”

”On top of this, my thoughts are to gather a number of people, and have them reestablish the Toyotomi clan through the help of the Shimazu (Shimadzu) clan. Through this, I would want to have someone play your double, and then have him die in (the next) battle where everyone can see.”


To the very end, Yukimura dedicates his life in preserving the true Toyotomi line, even when the odds are surely against them. Establishing a new Toyotomi family, and using doubles for certain individuals that would continue the fight and eventually die at the hands of Tokugawa Shogunate would stop any pursuers coming for them. As impressive as this may sound, this is just a novel. Yet, this also goes in hand with the narrative regarding him avoiding death and managing to survive Osaka Campaign.

ADDITIONAL/SUPPORTIVE CHARACTERS

In fictional works there tends to be characters that don’t have a real historical presence, but used for the sake of the story. In the various novels that feature Yukimura, there are cases of this, sometimes being minor individuals who help to fill in the gaps where history leaves open. Other times a real figure is used to model a new character placed in the story. Since literary works regarding Sanada Yukimura were stated to be based on true events in the past, like many other novels of its kind, future generation may inadvertently mistaken fictional characters as to being actual people.

A collage of thumbnails depicting the Jūyūshi (10 brave warriors) who served Yukimura, drawn woodblock-style. From “Ueda City Digital Archive Portal Site”

Other than Yukimura himself, possibly the largest example of fictional characters is found in the “Sanada Jūyūshi” (真田十勇士), which is a label given to 10 brave warriors representing families that were allies to the Sanada clan. The appearance of this Sanada Jūyūshi is often attributed to “Sanada Sandaiki” (真田三代記), a Sanada-supportive narrative produced in the Edo period. Although viewed as fictional, these characters grew in popularity and appeared in modern-day novels, manga, movies, and the like. Some of the individuals even appeared in works centering about them, which further developed their background story to the point where they sound like they truly came out from the pages of history. The following is a list of the those individuals of the Sanada Jūyūshi²:

  1. Sarutobi Sasuke (猿飛佐助) – a famous ninja employed by the Sanada clan, he is said to be the student of the legendary Koka ryu ninjutsu master named Tozawa Hakuunsai.
  2. Kirigakure Saizō (霧隠才蔵) – a ninja who was the student of Momochi Sandayu, lord of one of the 3 powerful families of Iga Prefecture.
  3. Miyoshi Seikai Nyūdō (三好清海入道) – A monk employed by Yukimura who is renown as a hero fighting to his death during the Osaka Campaign.
  4. Miyoshi Isa Nyūdō (三好伊三入道) – Younger brother of Sekai who was also a monk, and hailed as a hero dying in battle during the Osaka Campaign.
  5. Anayama Kosuke (穴山 こすけ) – A dedicated retainer of Yukimura, he played the double of his master during the Osaka Campaign.
  6. Yuri Kamanosuke (由利鎌之助) – Once a retainer Toda Suganuma, he switched to the Sanada side after the Toda were defeated in battle.
  7. Kakei Jūzō (筧十蔵) – From the Kakei family, allies of the Sanada clan. Apart from Jūzō, other members of the Kakei family also appear in different Sanada-related stories.
  8. Unno Rokurō (海野六郎) – A fellow kinsman, as his family line is from where the Sanada line originates from.
  9. Nezu Jinpachi (根津甚八) – Once a pirate for the Kuki navy, he later becomes a retainer of Yukimura. His family line, like the Sanada line, also originates from the Unno line.
  10. Mochizuki Rokurō (望月六郎) – A mysterious ally of Yukimura who specializes in explosives. Rokurō is also known under different titles depending on the story he appears in.

Note that while they make up the Jūyūshi due to their inclusion in various works as allies of Yukimura since as early as the Edo period, this wasn’t an official title for them until sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Some other things worth mentioning is that while these characters are deemed fictional, most of them are considered to have been inspired by actual people from history. For example, the concept of Sarutobi Sasuke is believed to have been based off of one of several different individuals whose names appear in different texts. The most popular theory is Sarutobi Nisuke³ (猿飛仁助), who is said to have been a thief hired to assist in the “Battle of Kanegasaki” (金ヶ崎の戦い) by a Kinoshita Tokichirō (木下藤吉郎) in 1570⁴. In another example, Miyoshi Sekai and his brother are believed to have been modeled after Miyoshi Masakatsu (三好政勝) and his family. Masakatsu became head of the Miyoshi clan and served under Hosokawa Harumoto after his father, Miyoshi Masanaga (三好政長), retired.

RED ARMOR

A staple that will probably be forever associated with Sanada Yukimura is red armor. This is something Yukimura and his troops donned on right before the Osaka Campaign. The concept of wearing red armor is thought to be intimidating due to its fiery color. It’s said that it has such a psychological effect on his enemy Tokugawa Ieyasu that his umajirushi (馬印, a battle flag on a pole inserted into a slot on the back of one’s armor) fell down, which is said to be a bad omen. Yukimura is, with no hesitation, depicted in red armor in novels and visual in artworks from Edo period. Due to these, the trend continues in modern times. This association to the red armor is not limited to Yukimura, for the Sanada clan as a whole is included as well.

News article regarding the discovery of red armor, possibly related to the Sanada clan. From Sankei News.

Of course, this claim of red armor doesn’t come without critical disputes. One of the more recent claims is that the Sanada red armor is just as much as a myth as the name Yukimura, for this famed red armor of his (Nobushige’s) has yet to be claimed and placed in a museum. One argument is that the actual armor that Nobushige wore was found, and that it was actually black. Another argument is that within certain households in Japan that have some form of link to the Sanada clan have preserved these old red armor, but the color is not a vibrant red but a dull brownish-red color. Considering how wars in the past were conducted, it is not unusual for certain things like armor to have been taken by the victor, or lost during the chaotic fray. Interestingly, in 2017 there was an article in a Japanese newspaper regarding family in Nagano, Japan coming forth with what looks to be the remains of a very old red armor, along with an aged note stating it was the possession of the Sanada clan. It was up on display at the Sanada Hobutsukan (真田宝物館, Sanada Sacred Treasures Museum) that same year.

As a side note, the idea of wearing red armor isn’t an original concept by the Sanada clan, nor was a it a rare sight. Historical sources point to the warlord of Kai province, Takeda Shingen, as being the first to devise this strategy around the mid 1500s. It’s said of intimidation the opposition with this type of color. Shingen had a designated team of soldiers wear red armor in order to catch the enemy force’s eyes and instill fear as they rushed into battle. It is from here which Sanada Masayuki (Nobushige’s father) adopted the idea of red armor within his clan. Whether or not members of the Sanada clan donned on red armor prior to the events in Osaka Campaign is still up for debate, but there is one evidence that points to this as being a thing. In Hirayama Masaru’s book “Sanada Nobuyuki: Chichi no Chiryaku ni katta Ketsudan-ryoku” (真田信之 父の知略に勝った決断力), he reveals that when an order from Toyotomi Hideyoshi came regarding being prepared for military service in 1593, Sanada Nobuyuki (Nobushige’s older brother) replied that the warriors of the Sanada clan were always ready to serve while donning on red armor. Years later, during the Battle of Sekigahara a retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu known as Ii Naomasa (井伊直政) also adopted the idea of wearing red armor and outfitted his troops the same way. What’s unique in this is that he was a comrade to Nobuyuki, who at the time sided with the Tokugawa-Eastern forces as ordered by his father Masayuki as a means to ensure the Sanada line survives no matter which side wins.

SANADA = NINJA?!?

Since the Edo period all the way to the present, the Sanada clan is presented as heavily associated with ninja. Employing a large number of these shadowy figures, ninja from both the regions of Iga and Koga are portrayed as serving Sanada members like Masayuki, Nobuyuki, and Yukimura. While it starts off small in earlier works in the Edo period, this image became more pronounced in later works such as novel Sanada Sandaiki, where all 10 members of the Jūyūshi are ninja or related to a ninja. This even lead to more focus on the ninja theme in modern works, including movies such as “Ninjutsu Sanada Jūyūshi” (忍術真田十勇士) and “Sanada Fuunroku” (真田風雲録), as well as 2016 drama “Sanada-Maru” (真田丸)⁵.

What is the reason behind this large focus on ninja being employed by the Sanada clan? Is it just a ploy to bolster the image of Yukimura (Nobushige), which in turn developed into its own entity entirely? In some ways, yes. However, this is not a baseless creation or idea. There are records that point to the Sanada clan having a working relationship with different groups that specialized in the fundamental skills that would become what we call “ninjutsu” in modern days. According to some, the Sanada clan are also said to have engaged in ninja-like activities themselves. The root of this is generally connected to Takeda Shingen and when he was ruler of Kai Province during the early-mid 1500s. Shingen is recorded as utilizing not only a network of different groups taking part in espionage and information-gathering, but establishing an in-house system of ninjutsu, which a select number of his generals were privy to learning in order to assist in maintaining it. At the time, Sanada Yukitaka (Nobushige’s grandfather) was serving Shingen and not only had knowledge of utilizing ninja, but is said to have taken part in ninja-like operations. Yukitaka’s son Sanada Masayuki would continue this as one of the 24 top generals of the Takeda clan. In fact, some claim that after Takeda Shingen’s death and the fall of the Takeda clan, Masayuki would keep up this network of utilizing ninja.

One piece of evidence for this is found in an old historical memoir called Kazawaki (加沢記), which is an account of activities that took place in areas around Kosuke Province (present-day Gunma prefecture) during the 1500s. Ninja-like groups from Higashi Agazuma area (東吾妻方地) are written to have been utilized by Takeda Shingen and members of the Sanada Clan. This is significant due to Higashi Agazuma area featuring densely wooded routes that were used not only by the local ninja, but it said that members of the Sanada clan also had access to these as well.

A genealogy chart of the Yokotani family. On it is the name of Yokotani Sakon (Shigeuji), circled) who was a ninja employed to the Sanada clan. From the book “Sanada Ninja no Matsuei” (真田忍者の末裔)

This leads to the famed Yukimura and his Jūyūshi. The ninja members such as Kirigakure Saizō have been identified as fictional characters. Claims are that they were inspired by real life figures who may not have actually had any connections with Yukimura. Yet, could it be that there were actual ninja working closely to him? There is one that is worth mentioning. Sources point to the Yokotani family (横谷氏), who are said to have been ninja from Shinano Province (part of present-day Nagano Prefecture). While there is not a lot of info on them, it is believed that they were active throughout the 1500s to about the early 1600s as members of a ninja group from Agazuma area, who were under the employment of Ideura Morikiyo (出浦 盛清), a vassal of the Sanada clan. Notable members are Yokotani Yukishige (横谷幸重), who is said to have served Sanada Nobuyuki (Nobushige’s older brother), while his younger brother Yokotani Shigeuji (横谷重氏) had served Nobushige. Shigeuji, who also went by the title “Sakon” (左近), died during Osaka Campaign, just like others who were serving Nobushige during the battle. Some researchers believe that Yokotani Shigeuji could have inspired the idea of Sarutobi Sasuke, but this hasn’t been proven yet.

So the idea of a ninja employed under Nobushige, fighting during the Osaka Campaign, and dying as possibly a kagemusha for him is a strong possibility. On top of that, with the Sanada clan’s deep connection with utilizing ninja groups, it can be understood why they are presented the way they are. However, it is too far of a stretch to say everyone around Nobushige was a ninja, and that the Jūyūshi were composed entirely of them. See, when you have a forced portrayal of Miyoshi Seikai Nyūdō being the son of the fictional thief ninja Ishikawa Goemon as depicted in Shibata Renzaborū’s novel “Sanada Yukimura~Sanada Jūyūshi” (真田幸村~真田十勇士), it’s hard not to say that this is due to the popularity of ninja in modern society.

CONCLUSION

Here we conclude the discussion on this famous hero. In ending, writing about Sanada Yukimura (Nobushige) is a tough topic to pick up and try to address from a historical point of view. To be exact, this was a several months-long project, which included acquiring a Sanada-related books, reading through well-known novels, researching historical sources, and going through sites that spoke about both the real side and the fictional side of Yukimura, to say the least. In the long run, due to how history was recorded hundreds of years ago, it is hard to get a definitive answer on certain points, especially when writers add their creative perspective to make a war story sound more epic.


1) Chapter 54, page 431

2) Depending on the source material, some of these characters bear a different name or are presented in a revised way. The one above is a standard listing.

3) The credibility of the source that mentions Sarutobi Nisuke is also under scrutiny, thus historians feel that he may have been made up to fit some agenda.

4) This was another alias used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warlord who managed to seize control of Japan in the later part of the 1500s

5) The terms ninja and ninjutsu are used loosely here, as they are modern words used to identify those who engaged in clandestine activities such as spying, and information gathering. While in the past there were different labels depending on the region and who they were employed by, the universal term was often considered to be shinobi (忍び), and their methods called shinobi-no-jutsu (忍びの術). For the sake of ease in understanding for casual readers, the terms ninja and ninjutsu were chosen to be used in this article.

Looking at the True Sanada Yukimura ~ Part 1

Those who invest time in studying up on the Sengoku jidai (戦国時代, Warring States period) of Japan will eventually come across accounts concerning the Sanada clan. Possibly one of the more popular figures, the Sanada clan are renown for their brave, unorthodox methods of warfare while under the allegiance to warlords such as Takeda Shingen and Hideyoshi Hideyori. Out of the known members of this clan, the most talked about would arguably be the one named Yukimura. To some it would be due to his fame, yet this in turn is riddled with discrepancy. Who was this Sanada Yukimura?

Primarily inspired (mainly from curiosity) through the Kai Kokushi project found in the Translation section of this blog¹, I decided to take a shot at presenting the true face of Yukimura, as well as separating him from the fabled image that is currently predominant around the world. What I’ve found out, however, that this is a task that, in the very end would still have holes due to a lack of solid factual evidence, making it near impossible to paint a perfect picture. A plus to all this is understanding the situation enough where I can at least explain it where readers can discern just how difficult it is to claim what is historically real and what is fabricated through fiction.

In this 1st post of this 2-part discussion, we will touch upon the historical story regarding of the true Yukimura, the origins of the fictional Yukimura, and the proposed reasoning behind the name.

BRIEF LOOK AT THE LIFE OF NOBUSHIGE

Picture of Sanada Nobushige (Yukimura). From Wikipedia

To understand the legend of Sanada Yukimura is to learn about how historical sources view him. For starters, Sanada Yukimura’s actual name is said to be Nobushige (信繁). His active participation in war is often recited to be around 1600, when the Western forcess of the Toyotomi clan went to war against the Eastern forces of the Tokugawa clan for control over Japan during the “War at Sekigahara” (関ヶ原合戦, Sekigahara Gassen)². During this time he was fighting alongside his father, Sanada Masayuki while establishing a strong fortification in Ueda Castle on the side of the Toyotomi clan. Records point out that Nobushige and his father went into hiding at Kudoyama (九度山) in northern Wakayama prefecture after the Tokugawa-Eastern force came out victorious in the battle and had Masayuki exiled.

Many years later, Nobushige and his troops joined allies of the remaining Toyotomi clan to occupy Osaka Castle, as well as took part in the fighting against the Tokugawa shogunate that ensued afterwards, known as the Osaka Campaign (大阪の陣, Osaka no Jin) in 1614. Nobushige is said to have been a skilled strategist, as he performed effective tactics such as securing a weakpoint on the side of Osaka castle with his own fortification called “Sanada-maru” (真田丸), which proved to be near impenetrable. He also divided his troops into smaller squads around the battlefield and attacked their enemies from multiple directions, disrupting the opposite side’s advancements a few times. As talented as he was, however, in the long run Nobushige met his end during one of the smaller conflicts that took place during the war called “Battle at Mikatagahara” (三方ヶ原の戦い, Mikatagahara no Tatakai). It is recorded that while he was wounded and tired amongst a grove of trees, Nobushige was successfully killed and decapitated. The rest of his troops shared a similar fate.

Yet, there is much mystery surrounding his death as well, as there are claims that he had managed to escape to Satsuma province (present-day Kagoshima) through the use of many kagemusha (影武者, someone posing as a double of another). These kagemusha perished in battle posing as him³. This is a recent claim made in 1941 by researchers who came across the grave of one of Nobushige’s grandchildren in Kagoshima, who’s name was Sanada Daisuke (真田大助). Speaking of graves, supposedly Nobushige has many graves around certain areas in Japan; while this isn’t an unusual thing in Japan, a few of these are in areas where certain individuals claim he traveled abit during his escape before making his residence there. Of course, these claims are made during modern times.

Is it a possibility that one of these claims are true? Could it be that the myth created from the novels that portray Sanada Yukimura as a legendary figure was the inspiration for random people to devise such plans that support the notion of Nobushige having survived the Osaka campaign? This goes against the official report by the Tokugawa shogunate where, despite soldiers claiming to have brought back the head of this fearless warrior, they were able to confirm his death through using an acquaintance of the Sanada clan to identify the correct head of Nobushige.

Image of a newspaper article from 1941 regarding the discovery of a grave of Yukimura’s grandchild. From “Rekishi Kenkyu Unno“.

In the actual records before Nobushige’s untimely death, the name “Yukimura” doesn’t come up at all. However, it becomes widely used later. In reality, surviving records show that this figure is known by the name of Nobushige, along with other titles he took on during his military career⁴. While he is a recognized warrior of the Sanada clan, Nobushige’s military career is somewhat underwhelming. When comparing merits and achievements, it appears that a few of his predecessors accomplished more. For instance, his father Masayuki is a much more renown individual due to his illustrious career on and off the battlefield serving different lords, including his long time servitude under Takeda Shingen as one of his top 24 generals.

BIRTH OF “YUKIMURA”

When does the name “Yukimura” start to come into play? The earliest example is in the war chronicle “Nanba Senki”⁵ (難波戦記), which was written in 1672, years later after the Tokugawa Shogunate was well established and had complete rule over Japan. This covers the actual events that unfolded during the Osaka Campaign, told from the supportive side of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his allies. When it comes down to speaking about the Sanada clan and their forces, who were on the opposing side, the name used to identify Nobushige was not his real name, but “Yukimura” instead.

This trend continued, as the name Yukimura also appeared in other places, such as the official family registry for lords and their retainers called “Kanseichōshu Shokafu”(寛政重修諸家譜), the Sanada lineage & history compiled in Matsushiro district (present-day Matsushiro Town, Nagano), as well as fictional war novels such as “Chibō Sanada Yukimura” (智謀真田幸村) and “Sanada Sandaiki” (真田三代記). These were all written during the Edo period. The continuous use of this name gave many the perspective that this was the official name, thus the Yukimura tag further its inclusion in historical-related subjects, especially in pop culture. For example, fans of manga may be familiar with the heroic portrayal of Sanada Yukimura in “Goshimei Bushō Sanada Yukimura: Kageroi” (御指名武将真田幸村 かげろひ -KAGEROI-), or game enthusiasts may enjoy playing as him in the video series “Sengoku Basara” (戦国BASARA).

One would think through the evidence of Nobushige being his real name, that the current descendants or affiliates of the Sanada line would dispute this fabricated name being used as almost an official identification. Surprisingly, it appears that the name “Yukimura” has not only been accepted, but also promoted as well. As mentioned before, a Sanada lineage chart was officially released from Matsushiro domain many years ago. This was under the control of Sanada Nobuyuki (真田信之) & his descendants at one time, and they compiled this lineage chart which includes Yukimura⁶. It is possible that, due to the large recognition and popularity the name brings to the history of the Sanada clan, that they have “accepted” Yukimura being a nickname of Nobushige.

THE REASON BEHIND THE NAME

Why use “Yukimura” instead of “Nobushige”? It is not 100% confirmed, but there appears to be some logical patterns behind this. For starters, it is not unusual in Japanese documents of old to change a particular figure’s name if they were on the losing side. Doing so may imply some things, such as if they are viewed as significant or not, referencing the actual individual directly may be a taboo, or in order to take some creative liberties with their story. From another point, changing Nobushige’s name may indicate a little of each of what was just mentioned with the following explanation.

A historian by the name of Atobe Ban published a book entitled “Sanada Yukimura ‘Eiyū Densetsu no Uso to Shinjitsu'” (真田幸村 “英雄伝説のウソと真実”) in 2015. In this book, Mr. Atobe explains how Yukimura (幸村) is an acronym for certain traits of the Sanada clan that bears some weight depending on how one views it⁷. He does this by dissecting the name into separate components.

Cover of Atobe Ban’s book regarding the facts and fiction surrounding Sanada Yukimura

Taking the first character Yuki (幸), the pronunciation is used for naming purposes. This character was originally used in the given name of different members of the Sanada family (such as Nobushige’s father, Masayuki), as well as the preceding clan they originate from, being the Unnō family. Bearing positive meanings such as “bountiful harvest”, “good fortune”, and “happiness”, it is no wonder why Yuki would be an acceptable component in a given name. Yet, why wasn’t Nobushige named in a similar vein? Who knows. Possibly as a nod to this, the writer of Nanba Senki may have thought the same thing when conceiving the name Yukimura.

Now for the last character mura (村). This character is in reference to the Muramasa (村正), a type of sword forged in the style by the famous swordsmith named Sengo Muramasa (千子村正). There are supposedly 2 theories why “mura” is used, but they arrive to the same conclusion.

  • The 1st one is that Nobushige, his troops, and even possibly other members of the Sanada clan used the Muramasa (村正) swords as their preferred style of blades. While there is no proof regarding this, it is one that is also not unreasonable. Muramasa swords are known for their sharpness, to the point that they would cut and harm everything and everyone indiscriminately…including the wielder (more on this in the 2nd theory). For the sake of war, these types of swords were ideal and sought after. Between the late 1400s to throughout the 1500s the Muramasa swords were mass produced and said to have been used by many throughout Japan. It would make sense that the Sanada clan would also add this to their equipment.
  • The 2nd theory spurs from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s superstition regarding the Muramasa swords. It is stated that from his youth onward, he had repeated bad experiences with these popular swords, despite the fact that it was originally a favorite in the Tokugawa household. At one time, when inspecting this type of sword, he had cut himself when drawing out this blade from its scabbard. As he got older he viewed the Muramasa to be bad luck to him and his family line, as he saw it having the possibility of bringing his family line doom. Once establishing his reign over Japan, it is said that Ieyasu ordered these Muramasa swords banned, and to have them be dismantled. Now, seeing how strongly he was against this type of sword, you can imagine how this can be applied to those who were his enemies and how they willingly armed themselves with Muramasa swords. Interestingly, it is recorded that the Sanada clan were extremely difficult to defeat due to their unconventional battle tactics and their resourcefulness. Ieyasu and his allies had many difficulties with subduing them during the battle at Sekigahara and Osaka Campaign. You can say that Nobushige (Yukimura) was like the Muramasa, as he was a thorn in the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu that could not be overlooked.

CONCLUSION

Now that a clearer picture of who the real Yukimura/Nobushige was, we’ll end part 1 here. While there is a definitive record of who he was up until his speculated death, in actuality there are some things that remain unclear due to a lack of proper documentation, as well as claims made by Sanada supporters. Part 2 will continue with looking at the fictional Yukimura, traits and items that are iconic to him, and how they may have been inspired by real life evidence associated with Nobushige.


1) You can access it by clicking on the “Translations” tab from the menu above, or you can go directly to the Kai Kokushi page here.

2) In actuality, Nobushige was active much earlier than this. Since 1592 he, his brother, and father were serving Toyotomi Hideyoshi, handling different tasks over the years such as managing Nagoya Castle in Bizen Province (present-day Saga Prefecture), taking part in the construction of Fukumi Castle in Kyoto, and occupying Ueda Castle in Nagano Prefecture.

3) Out of these kagemusha, 5 have been identified. Their names are Mochizuki Yoemon (望月宇右衛門), Yamada Kichibei (山田喜知平), Anayama Kosuke (穴山小助), Takabashi Shikibu (高橋式部) and Anayama Ichiemon (穴山市右衛門).

4) These names include Genjirō (源次郎), Saemon-no-suke (左衛門助), and Kōhakusai (好白斎)

5) Another name for this is “Osaka Gunki” (大阪軍記)

6) Some writers such as Hirayama Masaru wrote about this point. Originally, Sanada descendants in Matsushiro domain compiled “Sanada-ke Bunsho” (真田家文書, Records of the Sanada Family), which included a lineage chart. Within this only the name “Nobushige” was used. At a later date, this was converted to “Sanada-ke Keifu” (真田家系譜, Genealogy of the Sanada Family), which would include the name “Yukimura”. These were both produced during the Edo period.

It appears that these descendants accept the “Yukimura” name as being used for Nobushige after the Osaka Campaign. That doesn’t necessarily mean they believe Nobushige used it himself.

7) Apparently there is another way to write the name. In relations to the news report about the discover of his grandchild’s grave in Kagoshima made in 1941, supposedly a gravesite for Yukimura was also found. On the headstone the name “Yukimura” is on it, but using the characters “雪丸”. These characters may have been used to keep his grave hidden…that is, if this story is true.

Translations Page Update

Just a quick announcement, there are new updates being added to the Translations page. For starters, both “Kai Kokushi” and “Bukijutsus Zusetsu” have new entries added today. There will be another update in a few days as well. On top of this, a new translation entry will be added soon, possibly at the ending of this week. Just like blog entries, there will not be a shortage of translation works present on this site.

Speaking of which, one of the nice things about doing translation work is some of the new & interesting topics that pop up from them. For example, I’ve spent some time on & off working on the entry under “Kai Kokushi”, which covers several military commanders who held the prestigious title of “Hayato”. Since it covers inheritance, family genealogy through arranged marraige, and the like, I needed to do a lot of research on different individuals and family lines. This also encouraged me to read certain older novels in Japanese, as these were referenced as well. While this entry mainly focuses on the Hara family of Kai Province, the Sanada family are also mentioned abit…including the famous Sanada Yukimura.

Considering the popularity of the Sanada clan, one would think that it’d be easy to get information as needed. However, this is not the case when a great deal of their fame, especially due in part of Sanada Yukimura, is through fictional novels and artworks. Lotsa fact-checking is required in cases like this to understand what’s real and what’s fiction. So, thanks to the translation work on the Hara family and the Hayato title, I will be releasing a post on Sanada Yukimura this week.

Stay tuned!

Understanding Te no Uchi

A topic that often comes up no matter how long a person studies martial arts is what he/she should be doing with their hands during x, or how they should manipulate their weapon during y. These examples are generally related to te no uchi (手の内), which is an important area of training that is introduced to many beginners of martial arts, yet is deep enough in principles that even advanced practitioners continue to work on.

Te no uchi refers to how you wield a weapon in your hands. It is not limited to just how one holds a weapon, but goes as far as how to manipulate it, how to do certain strikes, how one’s hands change grips, how it is held based on one’s posture, and so on. You’ll hear this used for many weapon-based martial systems such as kenjutsu (剣術), kyūdō (弓道), sōjutsu (槍術), and so on. However, it is not just used for when you possess an object in your hand, for te no uchi is also used for hand-to-hand martial systems like karate (空手) and taijutsu (体術), for in essence even a martial artist’s hands are a “weapon”.

Let’s refer to the te no uchi of the naginata. One of the basic te no uchi often taught very early is keeping a consistent grip style with the right hand on top and left hand on bottom similar to wielding a katana. This is reminiscent to how it was used on the battlefield in the past especially in troop formation. Another te no uchi taught is how to switch hand positions, which is important depending on the situation and type of naginata being used. The following example below illustrate this when doing repeated horizontal cuts.

① The initial grip (left pic) is important, as it determines the te no uchi for the right horizontal swing.

② Finishing the swing, the right hand turns the naginata vertically (left pic), from which the left hand slides up and switches place with the right hand (middle pic). Through this a transition to a horizontal swing using the intended te no uchi can be established.

③ Finishing the left horizontal swing, same action is performed again, this time left hand bringing the naginata vertical (middle pic), then switching with the right hand (right pic). Repeat.

This is a step-by-step demonstration on how to achieve this switching of hands in order to maintain a specific reach with the naginata. Of course, as one becomes proficient, this manipulation will become smoother & natural. However, the overall execution of this te no uchi will still remain as long as it’s properly ingrained in the body.

Another scenario concerning te no uchi can be seen during kenjutsu, when two practitioners lock their katana together in tsuba zeri ai (鍔競合い). When the skill level between the two are about even, the one with the better te no uchi can get the upper hand. For example, it is advantageous to understand the moment when to push the opponent’s hands up through the use of one’s tsuka (柄, sword handle), or how to twist one’s hands to utilize the tsuba (鍔, sword guard) to push the opponent’s sword to the side in order to break through their defense, which is possible through the use of advanced te no uchi.

In ending, te no uchi is one of the basics found in Japanese martial arts that is learned very early in training. It’s critical that beginners practice this in order to progress in their respectful martial system. Yet, it is something that can not be forgotten and left behind, as it continues to define a practitioner’s proficiency even in advanced techniques. Thus, te no uchi is a fundamental skill that can be worked on even for a lifetime.

Today’s Understanding of Warrior Virtues of Old

In these modern times, warrior virtues are associated with Japanese martial arts. These virtues are said to help build character, fine tune one’s spirit, and make you an exemplary being in modern day society. The fact that these are taught in many martial schools around the world is a good thing, as it helps us to be a better neighbor to those around us in these relatively peaceful times. Yet, were virtues also valued the same way during times of war & strife many centuries ago in Japan’s history? Let’s look at the different listings of virtues, their origins, their roles from a historical standpoint, as well as how they are interpreted in today’s generation.

SANTOKU

One of the earliest set of virtues is said to be based on the theme of 3 simple principles called “santoku” (三徳). This concept called santoku¹ originally comes from Confucianism, a belief developed first in China way before Japan started developing its culture as we know it. Within 4 major texts used in the study of Confucianism, such as the 10-volume series called “Lúnyǔ” (論語), and “Zhōngyōng” (中庸) are examples of values people are instructed to follow. When Confucian teachings were brought over to Japan in its earlier years, it slowly was integrated into the lifestyles of nobles and the Imperial household. They also were adapted by those in the warrior class.

There are 3 virtues that stand out the most, which are said to make up santoku as known in Japan. They are the following:

  • Chi (知) = Knowledge
  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence     
  • Yū (勇) = Bravery

These were virtues that were highly regarded, and expected to be followed not only by warriors, but those in leadership positions. When analyzing these, one can see how influential and essential they can be, especially for those who have to deal with conflict. Those involved in military activities stress the necessity of knowledge in many things concerning going to battle, including strategies, preparing troops, scouting, and so on. For benevolence, despite taking up a violent profession, a warrior was expected not to lose their humanity, as well as keep order for those around them and when entering other lands. As for bravery, this is a valued virtue necessary to go into battle and face the enemy that threatens their border. This scope ranges within the different territories in Japan when the military clans were becoming a powerful group as early as 1100s.

The idea of santoku doesn’t just stop here, as the concept of “3” continued to have a great influence in Japanese culture. Religious systems like Buddhism and Confucianism are known to employ 3 principles related to food, personality, and so on. There are even modern-day usages as well.

GOJŌ

Next is another set of virtues said to be followed by those who took up military profession during the Medieval period in Japan, called “gojō” (五常)². Translated as “the 5 natural habits”, gojō also comes from Confucianism. The concept of 5 habits were devised by Dong Zhongshu, who was known as a philosopher, politician, and Pro-Confucian supporter in the early Han Dynasty.

The 5 virtues under gojō are the following:

  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence / Humility
  • Gi (義)    = Righteousness
  • Rei (礼)   = Respect
  • Chi (智)   = Understanding
  • Shin (信) = Belief

Like many lessons influenced by religious beliefs, gojō was meant as an example everyone must follow, as it outlines the most natural traits of humans that must be maintained. Depending on those interpreting it, how these 5 virtues play a role in one’s daily lives is different. For warriors during the Sengoku period, they were outlined in a way in which how to conduct themselves both on and off the battlefield. On another note, gojō is an example of how the number 5 was a significant number in Asia, as there is plenty of other examples similar to gojō. For example, there is “gogyō” (五行), which outlines five elements that represent the creation of life, cycle of death, parts of the body, medicine, and so on. There is also “gorin” (五倫), which is seen as a precursor of gojō, as it has a similar focus on values based on a person’s relationship other people in their lives.

Many generals in Sengoku period are said to have expressed the concept of gojō during their military career, especially during the 1500s. Date Masamune is one of those generals, who also had his ow way of expressing this. His version was called gojōjun (五常順), where he warns not to be over-absorbed in the 5 virtues of gojō, possibly hinting the need of ruthlessness at times.

Interestingly, gojō was paired with santoku at some point in time, for while gojō was a set of virtues a warrior mustn’t forget, santoku was a set of virtues a warrior needed to ingrain within his/her being.

BUSHIDŌ

Last, we come to a very well known and popular set of virtues known as “bushidō” (武士道). Usually interpreted as “the code of the samurai”, it is a word 1st seen in the “Kōyō Gunkan” (甲陽軍鑑), a historical recordings of the Takeda clan which was compiled by Kasuga Toratsuna during early 1600s of Edo period. The following are the 7 virtues of bushidō:

  • Gi (義) = Righteousness
  • (勇) = Bravery
  • Jin (仁) = Benevolence / Humility
  • Rei (礼) = Respect
  • Makoto (誠) = Honesty
  • Meiyo (名誉) = Honor
  • Chūgi (忠義) = Loyalty

There are a few not-so-well known facts that are important even today when referring to bushidō as representing 7 virtues of the warriors in the past³. For starters, the word was written after wars were rampant, and when the Tokugawa shogunate ushered in centuries of relative peace. Whether or not the word was actually in use beforehand can be debated. Also, since it only appeared in this sole documentation known as Kōyō Gunkan, it may have been a specialty word made up for use by the feudal lord Takeda Shingen and his retainers. Furthermore, there was no list of virtues accompanying the term bushidō, so what was it truly dotting on in terms of what made an exemplary warrior is pretty much a mystery.

Pic of the 1st cover design for “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”

Possibly the biggest fact worth mentioning is bushidō was not a general term publicly known in Japan, so it didn’t have any real influence on the populous. Instead, the word first was introduced in an English book from the early 1900s called “Bushidō: The Soul of Japan”, which was written by Nitobe Inazō. Mr. Nitobe’s intentions was to teach the West about Japan, and how they were both civilized and peaceful to the world. He also included a list of virtues that outlined what bushidō stands for. At a later date, the book would be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.

THE BAD…AND THE GOOD

One of the issues primarily with bushidō is that it is a modern invention, yet is declared as being the virtues followed by Japanese warriors during warring times. This isn’t true at all. There was much criticism even by the Japanese after the book came out, which still exists today. For starters, Mr. Nitobe, despite descending from a samurai family, was not raised as a warrior, but instead as a scholar⁴. He also studied much about Western culture, and made his faith in Christianity. Some critics express that the virtues made for bushidō and how they were presented were inspired by his Christian beliefs, and how the West viewed soldiers at war at the time. On top of this, Japanese scholars, and later many of the general public in Japan, did not sit well with bushidō and what it stood for, as it was a contradictory of the factual behavior of warriors and those of the samurai class, as there was plenty of examples from historical documents & stories of uncivilized behavior they have shown. This even proves true up till the mid 1800s right before the samurai class was finally abolished due to the violent end of the Tokugawa reign, followed by the induction of Imperial control through the Meiji Restoration.

Despite whether or not the virtues mentioned above where truly influential historically, they play a very large role in today’s world. As many countries have governments that focus more on non-violent means for economical growth and citizens live together in environments that promote peace & prosperity, having santoku, gojō, and bushidō act as vehicles that can inspire people to be humane and live together in harmony, whether they are your neighbors or from overseas, is definitely a good thing. This holds true for those who study martial arts; where a person learns skills that can be lethal if used for the wrong purpose, being taught alongside with virtues designed for warriors can help to keep practitioners on the straight path and become exemplary individuals within their community. Even bushidō has been accepted in Japan society today, as the term, along with its virtues, are beneficial in promoting Japanese culture to other countries around the world.

From a different perspective, it can be argued that bushidō and the virtues that represent it are nothing more than a collection of the same virtues revered in the past. While this is actually true (excluding meiyō and chūgi), it is still argued that warriors did not actually have a list as such that they had to live their lives by. This can be said even for santoku and gojō; while these virtues were built into Japanese society and valued by certain military experts, how warriors behaved during war and how leaders engaged in power struggles against one another were not guided by these virtues many times. Although virtuous praise of certain famous warlords and legendary fighters are often written in stories and recited in songs & theatrical plays, it is usually done so by those who are the victors and by those who support them.

ENDING

Warrior virtues, although considered a piece of history, can be very inspiring and help guide people to be civil amongst one another in these modern times. Like most things from the past, however, certain pieces of history may become romanticized, thus taken out of context. While warrior virtues may have been conceived in the past, it is important to understand their factual use on a historical level, lest we view them in a skewed manner today. This wraps up this discussion on warrior virtues. I hope this helps clear the air and bring light on understanding warrior virtues associated with Japanese martial arts.


1) There is a santoku from Buddhism, but the ideas in this version is different

2) Also known as “gojō no michi” (五常の道)

3) There is actually an 8th virtue associated with bushidō, which is called “jisei” (自制). Jisei is the final product of those who uphold the 7 virtues by exhibiting restraint and self-control. While it is a demonstration of a fine quality, jisei (self-control) is said to not stand on its own like the other 7 virtues, thus it tends to be omitted from the list.

4) Nitobe Inazō was about 7 years old when the Meiji Restoration took effect (1868), which came along the end of the samurai class.

Learning from Coded Instructions

When studying kobudō (Japanese traditional martial arts), you tend to run into many terminology that are coded. This use of wording is a form of encryption to hide the true nature of said lessons or techniques from falling into the hands of a rivaling martial system in the past. In modern times, it is much easier to decipher such jargon due to the openness of martial knowledge by many teachers and avid students. On one hand, these coded words express a lot about the mentality of past Japanese masters based on the environment they lived in, as well as the culture they grew up with, which in itself can be lessons to enrich one’s training.

An example of coded description can be seen in this one line from a document I am currently translating called “Tsuki no Shō” (月之抄), which is a study guide for those who are training in the kenjutsu of Shinkage ryū Hyōhō (新陰流兵法). The line goes as the following:

水月にて 座ト太体之手字ニ身ヲひねり掛ケ 一尺ヲカカへて打へし」

To summarize the line, it outlines how to go about trapping an opponent’s sword. While everything is straightforward, what is not is the part that is in red, which is read as “suigetsu¹”. This is a very common, poetic word that is used within many different fields of interest throughout Japan’s history. A general translation for this would be “water & moon”. In Japanese martial arts it tends to represent the area near one’s solar plexus. However, in the line stated above this would be incorrect. Not to be translated literally, it’s actually interpreted as “when the moon is visible on the surface water”. When read during a description of a sword dueling technique, one would be perplexed as to why this rather flowery, out-of-place visualization is there in the 1st place. Fortunately, after conversing with those who study Shinkage ryū Hyōhō, as well as doing some research on my end, I’ve come to learn that this simple word is actually a coded word for taking proper distance.

Much of what is learned from coded instructions require proper guidance from an instructor, as well as a great amount of training which entails going through trial & error. Just because it is understood that suigetsu refers to distance, distinguishing the point when “the moon is clearly visible on the water” still requires experience. This can be applied to even to the basics of kenjutsu. Let’s take Jōdan no kamae² (上段の構え) as an example. Jōdan no kamae is a universal posture in many martial systems where a sword is held above one’s head. It is considered to be a very strong posture due to being able to deliver a lethal blow to one’s opponent’s head. On the other hand, it is also deemed the most vulnerable, as there is little defense offered for most of the body. Even with these points explained, there are still factors that play a part in how one can take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of Jōdan no kamae. At what range would you get cut if you assume this posture? When can you successfully strike down the opposition through this posture? Actively training and going through trial & error as you put these points to the test will usually provide an answer.

Within the kenjutsu of Kukishin ryū (九鬼神流) which my group studies, are also coded instructions. One of the 1st lessons students learn is the concept of issoku itto (一足一刀), which helps to understand the range where two people’s swords meet. Of course, it goes further than this, as students learn the proper footwork to advance or withdraw in regards to the reach of their swords. Another one can be seen in the kata called kasugai (鎹止). The name for this kata comes from a small interlocking staple-like bolt used to join two pieces of wood together when constructing buildings centuries ago in Japan. For this kata, the idea of “bolting down” one’s opponent is taken from this carpenter’s tool. Of course, the type of footwork, distance and angles required to make this happen requires proper explanation and demonstration in order to grasp this idea.

In conclusion, learning from coded terminology in Japanese martial arts can be a perplexing experience, even when guided by proper instructions. Yet, if one takes the time to understand the reasoning behind it, as well as make use of the visual representation that is part of the Japanese culture, coded instructions can help boost one’s training experience. Of course, this is a case-by-case matter, and depends on whether a practitioner is able to embrace such a manner of instructions.


1) Depending on the martial system, can also be referred to as mizoochi (鳩尾).

2) Depending on the martial system, this kamae is also referred to by different names.

Translation 101: Understanding Old & New Japanese

Translating Japanese into one’s native language is a skill of its own. Depending on area of interest, some prior independent or specialized study & research is required when attempting to transcribe info from one language to another. It is separate from just studying the Japanese language alone; even for a native Japanese person, attempting to explain the contents of something they have never heard of or are unfamiliar with is a very difficult task. For those individuals who wish to go down the path of translating, years of exposure to said field of interest, along with lots of trial and error is needed in order to get a proper grasp. 

In the case of older Japanese documentation on martial & military-centric topics, it is imperative to be familiar with the time period the document was written versus modern day standards in order to understand the differences. For instance, when reading older Japanese texts, it is common to see the use of kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived written characters) that differ from the ones used for the same words used today, yet need to distinguish if there are any similarities at the same time.  As an example, here’s an entry from Buyō Benryaku (武用便略), an 8-volume compendium of general items, gear, and practices used by warriors, martial artists, guards, and the like. This was compiled by Kinoshita Yoshitoshi in the early Edo period. In the 6th volume, there is a section regarding methods of arresting wrongdoers, which also contains a short entry and picture regarding the mittsu dōgu¹ (三つ道具), which are staves with special implements on one end.

ANALYZING OLD & NEW TEXT

Below is the aforementioned page, followed by the original text and my translation.



三つ道具之圖

釻棒 
 
挟脵 今云桎
 
捻ル ヒネリという

右或番所ノ三道具ト云捕手ノ三道具ト云アリ

 
Picture of the mittsu dōgu (from right to left)

Tsukubō

Sasumata (known as a shackling tool nowadays)

Nejiru (called “hineri” as well)

To the right are some of the tools you will find in a guardhouse, called the mittsu dōgu (3 tools). These are also known as the “torite no mittsu dōgu” (3 arresting tools).


In 2 other articles² I had mentioned about the mittsu dōgu. What’s interesting is the difference between how they are written in their respective sources. Below I will explain the kanji used for those mentioned in the Buyō Benryaku, and compare them with the modern day writing style.

1)
DESCRIPTION: Tsukubō is a T-shaped tool that a person would thrust at one’s target to push and pin them down. The barbs on the T-shape implement helps to increase its effectiveness.

tsuku・bō / 釻・棒 
The reading of tsuku (釻) is a unique one. Originally the name of the metal fittings that secures the string on a bow, it was later used to describe the 2 metal bars that protrude outwards at the end of a stick. Bō (棒) means “stick”.
 
Comparing this with the more modernized written version:

tsuku・bō / 突・棒
This tsuku (突) means “to thrust” or “to stab”. It’s pronounced in its plain verb form, which is unusual. This may have been done so the same “tsuku” pronunciation could be retained. The kanji for bō remains the same.

It can be said that the older kanji for tsuku is more descriptive to design, while the modern version indicates the manner to which this tool is used.

2)
DESCRIPTION: Sasumata has a U-shape implement on the end, and is used to capture a part of the body to hold a person down.

sasu・mata / 挟・脵
The use of sasu (挟) here can indicate “to grip from both sides”, “to sandwich inbetween” or “to trap”. Although used in this older document, this kanji is still used in modern times. For mata (脵), this is an older kanji that refers to the crotch or thigh. At times the kanji used for mata is “叉”, which is another older version that means the same thing.

If we compare this to modern written form:

sasu・mata / 刺・股
The kanji used for sasu (刺) here generally means “to stab”, but also has an alternative meaning of “to catch”. The modern-day version of mata (股) is used.

On a technical note, both versions of sasu are in their plain verb form. Although still a name, it is done so in an unusual manner. Also, while both versions imply catching a supposed criminal by their leg, sasumata wasn’t only used there, but could manipulate other parts of the body when necessary.

3)
DESCRIPTION: The purpose of the nejiru is to snag a person’s clothing, with the sleeve of the jacket being the main target.

nejiru / 捻る
There is only one kanji used here. Actually, an action verb is used as the name. Nejiru means “to twist” or “to wrench”. The name actually describes the action used, which is to twist this tool once it’s snagged onto a person’s clothing in order to capture them.

While the reading “nejiru” is correct, it seems to be an alternative name…or that there were other names used depending on group, area, etc. “Hineri” (ヒネリ) is also used, and, despite being written in katakana³ (片仮名, a written form that indicates the phonetics of words) in the text above, is an alternative pronunciation for the same kanji. Another name that was used during Edo period was “mojiri” (錑). In this case, it was viewed that there’s a technical approach to using the mojiri, which was called “mojirijutsu” (錑術). For the most part, all names indicate the physical motion of how this tool is used.

sode・garami / 袖・絡み
In modern times tools like this are universally called “sodegarami” (袖絡み), which means “sleeve-snagger”. This is probably due to its effectiveness to control a weapon-wielding suspect with the sleeve of a jacket being the target area. This is a more direct labeling that identifies its purpose.

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES

Why are there different ways to identifying the same thing? There are some factors that play a role in this. For starters, since the time when when Japan adopted the writing style of kanji from China, there was no one universally accepted style of using the Japanese language. Before a standard was developed in the early 1900s⁴, there were different colloquial speeches depending on the prefecture, education, area of residence, group of association, and so on. As an example, within a group that lives in the south of Japan they may identify one thing with a particular label, but within another group that live in the North may use a different label.

This lack of standard also can be seen in the written style individuals used hundreds of years ago. In some cases a writer may have used one version of a kanji because it was what was familiar to him, yet another writer may choose to use a different kanji that had the same meaning just because that is what he was familiar with. This happened a lot if the contents were learned verbally, and had to be transcribed however the writer could do. Fortunately, furigana (振仮名, identifying kanji phonetically with kana next to or above it) was used in some older documents, which help to understand not only how to pronounce an unfamiliar kanji, but to understand what it’s describing in case it’s something that most are familiar with verbally.

Finally, some things were coded intentionally through aliases. This was possibly done to hide the real identity of a topic from those who are not part of a certain group. This was common practice in many martial systems and military manuals. Since guardswork and policing were also performed by martial artists, this practice also came into play. The downside to this is if the original term is forgotten and only the alias has been documented, it is hard to figure out what is being discussed if there are no pictures associated.

After the Japanese language became standardized, many older, unusual words & kanji were dropped, and replaced with modernized versions. If the change is minimum, it could be as small as replacing with modernize kanji that help making the reading easier. However, if the change is more drastic, some labeling could be replaced entirely with a new word. It’s points like these that make doing research important.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, it is important to learn how to research older documents to compare the contents to that which are known in modern context. This is important to remember for those who wish to be a translator of topics that have an old history. It’s impossible to think you’ll know everything no matter how related it is to your area of interest, or that you’ll remember every single word or kanji that you’ve come across. Keeping notes, having reliable sources for referencing purposes, and further updating one’s knowledge on said area of interest is critical in order to produce acceptable work.


1) This is not the only case where the term mittsu dōgu is used. It is a common one used to identify 3 things that are considered valuable or important. For example, in the same document used above, the jutte (十手), manriki (万力, nowadays known as the kakute [角手]), and hananeji (鼻捻) make up a unique category called “Kingoku no mittsudōgu” (禁獄の三つ道具), which were essential for handling imprisoned criminals. Next, there was 3 methods for shackling those who were held in captivity, which was by the hands, feet, and the neck. Then there are 3 different types of Japanese designed boats recognized at one point in time. Finally, 3 important farming tools necessary were the. suki (鋤, plough), kuwa (鍬, hoe), and kama (鎌, sickle).

2) Those two articles are here and here

3) Generally, katakana is used to indicate foreign words, unusual words, and visualizing sounds. However, it was also commonly used alongside with kanji in official government documents, books, manuals, and so on before modern times.

4) Small details about this effort to reform the Japanese language was discussed here

Chōyō no Sekku: The Fall Festival

When following traditional festivals and celebrations in Japan, you find out a few interesting things, such as specific ones may have more than one date depending on the prefecture, or goes by a different name depending on the history of each town. For this article, I will introduce Chōyō no Sekku, a festival with a long tradition.

UNDERSTANDING THE TRADITION

Chōyō no Sekku (重陽の節句 ) is 1 of the 5 seasonal festival that originates from Inyō Gogyo Setsu. Before modern times, this took place on the 9th day of the 9th month based on the inreki (陰暦, old calendar). One of the reasons is that according to auspicious readings in ancient Chinese philosophy, odd numbered days are viewed as lucky, while even numbered days are seen as unlucky days. Since 9 is the highest single-digit odd number, Chōyō no Sekku was designated on this date. After Japan adopted a more modernized calendar, this date was changed accordingly by about a month, and takes place on a different day each year within that month. For example, this year it falls on the 25th of October.

In the old calendar, this festival took place around the same time chrysanthemums were in bloom. According to the adjustments the new calendar brings, this still holds true. Due to this, it also received the alternate name of “Kiku no Sekku” (菊の節句, Chrysanthemum Festival). This isn’t coincidental, but possibly intentional due to what chrysanthemum stands for.

Since ancient times in China, these flowers were believed to give a longevity of good health and fortune by warding away evil spirits. This belief was also brought over to and adopted in Japan. Amongst specific groups, they are deemed valuable and used for important activities, such as in Shintō and Buddhist rituals. There is an old phrase that describes the chrysanthemum as “senkyō ni saku reiyaku¹”, which means “the elixir that grows within the enchanted lands²”. This truly expresses this sense of value the chrysanthemum had in the past.

ORIGIN AND HISTORY

Origins of this festival is said to have 1st passed on as a ritual in China during during ancient times. When it started to become a regularly practiced festival during the start of the Heian period (794~1185) in Japan, it entailed going to designated areas within the Imperial grounds of the Capital and viewing the beautiful gardens that were full of chrysanthemums. This was called “Kangiku no En“ (観菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Viewing Party) or “Kiku no En” (菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Party) for short. Noble families also grew these chrysanthemums on their property as a means to ward away bad luck. Over the centuries, this value for chrysanthemums trickled down to common folks living in different areas of Japan. Due to its wide popularity, it became recognized as an official seasonal festival.

Outside of viewing these flowers, people decorate their surroundings with chrysanthemums. For example, they may be placed on top of certain objects, put inside of a pillow, have petals float on the bath water, or put them in a special pouch within their clothing. Along with its appealing visual appearance, the fragrance from the  chrysanthemums are said to aromatic.

FESTIVE FOODS & DRINKS

This festival is not only just about looking at or surrounding yourself with chrysanthemums; like the other seasonal festivals, Chōyō no Sekku also has the custom of consuming specific foods and drinks.

Pic of kikuzake. From Photo-AC.

One example is kikuzake (菊酒) , which people would drink as they strolled through those beautiful floral gardens an gazed upon at these flowers In the past. Kikuzake stands for “chrysanthemum wine”, which is made with the actual flower. If placed in a cup, then the actual flower or a few petals would be placed inside to float on the surface. This went along with the celebration, as consuming it in this fashion synonymous to getting eternal life and/or warding evil. In actually, chrysanthemums are filled with nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and Glutathione. Even though these wouldn’t really grant you eternal life, drinking kikuzake would at least help you to stay healthy just for a little bit.

A bowl of kurigohan incorporated in a meal. From Photo-AC.

Another is kurigohan (栗ご飯), which is a simple dish of rice with diced chestnuts on top. Like chrysanthemum, chestnuts grow in the Fall. Being a source of food that was gathered in villages in the past, it was used to make sweets. During preparations for Chōyō no Sekku, kurigohan became a popular dish to eat.

ENDING

With Fall in effect, Chōyō no Sekku is one of the seasonal events that can be participated in different ways, whether through flower viewing, home decor, or through a meal. Take note that while the date from the old calendar may be recognized and referenced, the date on the new calendar is generally followed. As mentioned earlier, this year Chōyō no Sekku will be celebrated on 10/25, but will fall on a different date within October in the following years.



1) 仙境に咲く霊薬. Senkyō refers to the enchanted and often fairytale-like world that sennin (仙人, miracle workers in the form of monks, holy men, wise men) reside in through mysterious powers. Usually regular people who have “evolved” through enlightenment from their studies and training, they visit the human plane at free will. When given a more realistic spin, senkyō refers to areas where these enlightened individuals choose to reside far away from normal civilization, such as mountains and forests. 

2) Reiyaku is equivalent to an elixir or miracle drug that is said give a person enteral life. This can also be in the form of a drink. Usually associated with concoctions made with medicinal-like ingredients such as herbs, plants, pure water from the mountains, etc.