When studying Japan’s military history, there are some documents that excel above others due to being based on personal experience. Tsukahara Bokuden, an individual known for his contribution to his father’s martial system Kashima Koryū (鹿島古流), and later developing his own system called Kashima Shintō ryū (鹿島新當流), is one of those famous martial artists who had passed down such a document. Along with his connections to popular martial systems including the aforementioned ones, his experience on the battlefield around the late 1400s to early 1500s of during Sengoku period, as well as in mortal combats in the form of duels during his musha shugyo (武者修行, expedition across the land for the sake of training and employment)¹, also contributed to the knowledge he gained regarding the necessities one who walks the warrior path should know.
Bokuden Tsukahara drafted a documentation called “Hyakushu” (百首), which is a collection of 100 entries that can be looked upon as rules for warriors². As a whole, Hyakushu is a set of teachings regarding military and martial-related practices, confrontations, preparations, and the like through the form of short poems. Like many other documents of similar nature, these poems are not straight forward, and require some research and/or understanding on topics regarding military and martial practices during Sengoku period. Fortunately, there are plenty of sources in Japanese that go over Tsukahara’s writings in detail, helping to grasp some of the more vague entries.
Out of the many documents like this, I find the teachings in the Hyakushu a mix of lessons that are of practical use, those that touch on necessary points that could assist fellow warriors, and others that are informative through what Tsukahara was experiencing during his time firsthand; they are not rules that are the standard that all should follow regardless of the times. What’s also interesting is that I feel many of the poems can be compared to certain practices that are done in modern times, both combative and non-combative.
Below are a select few entries from the Hyakushu. You’ll find the original Japanese, followed by my translation and breakdown of the meaning behind the poems. For some, I’ve also added some commentary to how they may apply to scenarios in modern times, as a means to understand how Tsukahara’s teachings actually transcends generations.
ENGLISH: “You must know the teachings regarding different arrowheads when dealing with enemies that are close and far away (#6)”
MEANING: This is in relations to what type of arrowheads are designed better for long range versus those for close range. In terms of basic knowledge, the weight of arrows can prevent them from being used in all types of situations. Along with the draw power of a bow, certain arrows are more effective from far away through ya-awase (矢合わせ, raining arrows), while others are better for picking off troops upclose especially for those who are cavalry.
From my still young experience with archery and shooting at an open range, I have conversed with those who are more seasoned with the bow and arrow. It was explained to me³ that lighter arrows are better for hitting a target at greater distances (say, over 20 yards), as they are able to maintain their velocity and still puncture a target. As for heavier arrows, those are better for targets that aren’t too far out (around 20 yards and less), for they tend to lose velocity quicker if shot beyond their preferred range, making them suffer less piercing power. Although this is from the perspective of modern archery, these points are elementary & universal to archery done for centuries.
On a more fundamental level concerning expertise, archery was a practice highly valued by those who walked the path of a martial specialist, and was even the symbol of what it meant to being a warrior. Considering that many from military families were taught formally how to shoot an arrow extensively from a young age, Tsukahara could also be implying that these very people should know the differences of arrowheads and when they should be used. Those who do not cannot say they are truly versed, or complete warriors.
ENGLISH: “While it may be said that a strong horse is fine even if it has its (bad) habits, riding one that has the tendency to not move forward is problematic (#14)”
MEANING: Those with horseback riding experience develop good judgment about different horses. They can point out each one’s habits, some good, some bad. This is so in all generations. When looking at Tsukahara’s era, generally elite figures or those who assume the role as cavalry would ride horses into battle.
To the untrained, a strong or fast horse would be a perfect choice. One can imagine the benefits of these types of horses. However, Tsukahara mentions about habits of a horse, using the word kuse (癖) in Japanese. This tends to have a strong connotation, usually negative. If we look at the habit of a horse not moving forward when commanded, this is a very detrimental habit. Couple of reasons for this include having too strong a will and difficult to tame, to being too timid and frightened easily.
Regardless of a horse being strong or fast, if it does not follow its rider’s commands on the battlefield due to its bad habits, then it is unsuitable. What would then be considered suitable? Possibly one that falls in between, where it is not too strong, and isn’t too timid.
ENGLISH: “A sword with no curve (ie shinogi) is one that is loathed immensely, for in order to use it you have to rotate your hand (#18)”
Earlier in Japan’s history, swords with little to no curve were used. However, later in Sengoku period, especially around Tsukahara’s time, swords with a pronounced curve are the preferred choice. This is true all the way to modern times. In sword terminology, a curve in a sword is called sori (反り). How much of a “sori” is there can be understood visually, or it can be measured by the shinogi (鎬), which is a ridge line that goes up along the side of a sword from the habaki (鎺, copper collar right above the swordguard) to slightly under the tip.
When studying how to use a Japanese sword through kenjutsu⁴, you learn how to cut with the upper part of it. In due time, you can perform solid cuts where you don’t have to move your hands so much. However, cutting with straighter swords is the complete opposite. Since they have no curve, you may have to compensate by twisting and turning your hand.
Note that this was the prevalent view in Japan due to certain events. However, there are other countries that have successful histories using straight swords. Of course, there may be other factors that contribute to this, for example, length and weight of the blade.
ENGLISH: “Those who equip themselves with a newly made sword believing it will hold up (ie cut with durability) very well are making a big mistake. (#19)”
MEANING: This is an interesting one. Tsukahara is talking about having more trust in battle-worn swords over newly smitten ones. This is because swords have the risk of bending and snapping upon impact while on the battlefield. This is a normal occurrence. However, this can be minimized by using swords that have been tried and true, for if they have survived one or several battles, then that shows they’ve been crafted properly and will most likely hold up. Untested swords, on the other hand, cannot be verified so quickly.
There is more to this teaching. From the mid to later parts of Sengoku period, as territorial battling grew rampant, there were higher demands for equipping troops with weapons, including swords. Many swordsmiths were commissioned to make great numbers of swords in a short amount of time. Due to such urgency, there was little to no time for quality assurance. Thus, there are tales of swords breaking during clashes, which literally renders a warrior helpless and at the mercy of their opponent if they cannot equip themselves with another weapon quickly. It’s possible that Tsukahara witnessed this…or even experienced this himself.
ENGLISH: “A long or short sword can be used in order to determine the outcome in a fight. However, in terms of advantage, a long sword is preferred over a short one. (#20)”
MEANING: There are stories of martial artists winning a fight in all types of methods. Examples of this include having a superior weapon over their opponent, having an inferior weapon, and even having no weapon. It can be said that skills and experience, with a bit of luck at times, have a great influence in being able to do so. While Tsukahara states that a long sword and short sword can be used to obtain victory, he also admits that he prefers using a long sword. If we read into this, he is hinting about not hindering yourself if you are given a choice. This may have to deal more with duels than battlefield experience.
Around his time, there are sword styles that incorporate techniques for using a shorter sword to defeat an opponent with a longer one, such as Chūjō ryū (中条流), Nen ryū (念流), and Ittō ryū (一刀流). While those are great feats with skills that are invaluable, I think Tsukahara is advising don’t take the chance to win with a shorter sword when you can ensure a better outcome with a longer sword. Of course, I believe there is a limit to the type of swords he’s referring to, such as daitō (大刀) & uchigatana (打刀) as long swords, and shōtō (小刀) & kodachi (小太刀) as short swords. From what I know, there are no duels that had excessively long-bladed weapons (ie nodachi [野太刀]) and short-bladed weapons (ie kaiken [懐剣]).
ENGLISH: “It would be a terrible blunder for a warrior not to place their futae obi next to their pillow at night (#47)”
A futae obi (二重帯) is a long Japanese-style belt that wraps around the body twice, with the ends being joined together and tucked in. It is very easy to wrap around one’s body, as there is no need for any cords or such to secure it properly around the body. The reason for keeping one’s futae obi next to the pillow is because warriors were trained to do the same with their sword. So, in case of danger, one could quickly put on their futae obi and insert their sword into the 2nd loop at a moment’s thought. Based on the context, this advice is useful for when one is at home or taking lodge at an inn.
For modern times, an equivalent to a futae obi would be an obi used for dankyu (段級) ranking in many modern martial arts organizations. While a kaku obi (各帯, long & wide belt) is the more standardized choice for many classical Japanese martial arts today, a simple long obi can be used in its place by tying it the same way as a futae obi. This can be a good substitute, plus it is much faster to fasten around the body than a kaku obi.
ENGLISH: “A warrior should not pass on the right side when encountering a stranger while on a road (#76)”
MEANING: In the past, people traveled on the specified main roads. As a warrior, passing by a lone person can be risky, especially if it’s another warrior. That person could be one who practices tsuji kiri (辻斬り), which is intentionally cutting down a passerby on a road or in the field in order to test your skills or the sharpness of your sword. Passing by on their right gives them enough time to draw their sword out. To neutralize this, you would pass by on their left, which not only makes it difficult for them to attack, but you can actually stop their hand, grasp the sword handle, etc. if you can spot the attempt.
This is opposite of what was normally practiced in towns, where you would pass on the right side to avoid bumping into another warrior’s sword sheath, and accidentally causing a confrontation that could lead to kirisute gomen (切り捨て御免, having the right to cut down someone who disrespected you as a warrior).
JAPANESE: 「もののふの道行く時に曲り角、避けて通るぞ心ありけり (七十七)」
ENGLISH: “A warrior should be aware to avoid making a turn (closely) around a corner while walking on a path (#77)”
MEANING: This is in regards to any type of building structure. When walking by or turning around a corner, we do so blindly, not knowing what’s on the other side. Corners are perfect for ambushes, making it easy for an attacker to strike down those who are unaware. This is especially true if you walk very close to the corner.
To remedy this, one should instead turn the corner widely. This not only gives you a chance to see what’s on the other side from a safe distance away, but gives a warrior enough space to react in case of an ambush. This is especially necessary when making a left turn, as with one’s sword being on the left side of the body, you would need space to draw it out of it’s sheath and not hit the wall.
In today’s generation, this rule still holds true. Even outside of a combative situation, it is a good idea to take care around corners especially in heavily populated areas. For example, when walking on a sidewalk, to avoid bumping into someone who may be carrying something. Or when inside a store, to avoid turning straight into a showcase or display.
These are few of the 100 short poems found in Bokuden Tsukahara’s Hyakushu. It would be nice to add all of them, but I have to refrain as that would become a rather large translation project. Hoping to revisit this in the near future, with possibly examples from Tsukahara’s own recorded history that covers his personal experiences.
1) There is an older article about this on Light in the Clouds, which can be accessed here
2) From sources like “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史), it is mentioned that Bokuden Tsukahara actually wrote around 97. After Tsukahara’s death, the original manuscript that he wrote was kept in the possession of Iizasa (飯篠) family. From there, a person named Katō Sagami-no-kami (加藤相模守) is stated to have added 3 more to the original manuscript.
3) Note that there are still many variables to archery that can affect the distance both light and heavy arrows fly, which includes the arrow’s material, whether they have feather fletching or not, length of the arrow, weight & type of arrowhead, size & draw power of the bow, type of bow, and so on. The example given in the article is based on using a recurve bow that is around 30 poundage, while the numerical figures are not set in stone.
4) The experience varies between each sword school, while there may be slightly different mechanics concerning using a sword if learning through iaidō, battodō, etc.