Kuki Archives: Deciphering the Name ~ Part 2 ~

We continue with the discussion on the Kuki family’s name and how it came to be. In part 1 of this discussion, the original name “Kukami” is introduced, followed by an explanation about the “kami” kanji in this name. This post will continue this by touching on the sources behind the Kukami/Kuki name, which includes the beginnings of the Kuki family’s history1, their position as a wealthy & powerful family during Edo period, and how the standardization of the Japanese language affects their name. Before that, however, let’s take a few steps back and examine the kami kanji abit further, which should give better clarity in the relationship the Kuki clan has with it.

A pic of the sign board on Kishi Mojin Do, a Buddhist temple in Toshima District, Tokyo. It reads from right to left “Kishi Mojin”, with the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji in use.


The kami kanji, a derivative2 of the oni kanji (demon character), is commonly referred to as “tsuno ga nai oni” kanji (the hornless demon). This kanji is said to represent the “onigami”, which can be described as “a figure reaching a divine status despite being of demonic origin”. To better explain this, let’s look at an insert from a website called “Shinshizo Meguri”3, which includes discussions about the kami kanji in relations to specific temples and shrines, along with some lore, found in Japan. The insert states the following:


My translation of the text below:

“This kanji expresses meanings such as a demon becoming a deity of good through the conversion of Buddhism, as well as a demon that helps people.”

This insert offers 2 definitions to the kami kanji, with the 1st covered in part 1 through the tale “Kishi Mojin”. Note that in this case, a demon turning good is not naturally willed, but a controlled phenomenon; Buddhism is used as a means to convince a demon of rather sinister nature to turn over a new leaf and do good for the sake of mankind. The means for making the conversion happen varies. For example, in an extreme case, the trickster monkey spirit Sun Wukong’s assistance in aiding a holy priest on a pilgrimage to retrieve Buddhist sutras is ensured through a powerful headband made by the Great Buddha in the Chinese literature “Journey to the West”4.


For the 2nd definition, a demon doing good by helping people is an ancient interpretation imbedded in parts of Japan’s history and culture. The idea of an onigami doesn’t only exist in Buddhism, but is incorporated into Shinto, Doukyo, Shugendo, and the like. The roots for religious and esoteric groups to view certain demons akin to deities lie in the development of Japan itself, cultural beliefs, and certain isolated events5. Some are based on mythical figures from the Kojiki6. Others on stories to inspire the best qualities in people by relating it to the fierce powers demons possess7.

Let’s take a look at Aomori Prefecture in Japan, which is home to several temples and shrines that worship these good demons. This has helped to develop a culture in this area where townsfolk pray to these demons for protection and good fortune. Taking Oni Jinja (also pronounced Ki Jinja)8 as an example, this shrine tells a particular lore of how a demon is praised as a god. From the website “Shinshi no Yakata”9, a short summary of that lore goes as follows:


Following this text is my translation below:

“In the past, when the villagers faced hardship and couldn’t harvest crops due to a long drought, they were saved by a demon who climbed down from a mountain (Mt. Iwaki), and made an irrigation channel that delivered much needed water to them. To express their thanks, the villagers chose this demon as a god of agriculture and established the shrine “Oni Jinja” in order to give worship.”10

This demon is addressed as “Onigami-sama”11, which gives an indication that the villagers view it as a good and divine being, as well as a source of successful agriculture. On the torii (grand gate) of this shrine is a sign that reads “Oni Jinja”, but the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji is used in place of the oni kanji. This is to express the belief that the demon of worship is in fact not a horrifying creature, but a deity that brings good fortune.

A page from the book “Shinden Bujutsu” written by Takatsuka Eichoku.


Now that certain key points regarding the kami kanji and its ties to religious cultural aspects have been covered, we can now turn our focus to how the Kukami/Kuki name came to be. The Kuki family are associated with Shinto practice and duties at the Kumano Hongu Taisha. However many learn about them through one of many budo schools that teach a version of the martial system originally devised by ancestors of the Kuki line. The history of this martial system, along with the family line, is said to begin with the originator named Kuki Yakushimaru Ryuushin12.

Yakushimaru’s story is said to be found in a record called “Kongou Hihouhen”13, which is part of the many documentations within the Kuki family’s collection. Below is a short summary of Yakushimaru’s story taken from the book “Shinden Bujutsu”, primarily with key points important to how both the “Kukami” and Kuki” names came to be. Snippets from this book will be used to support certain points, each followed by my own translations.

Yakushimaru was born in the year 1318. His family, of a prestige status due to being descendants of the Fujiwara clan, were well to do and provided him the essentials. This included being educated through literature, and trained in martial arts. Along with this, he received Shugendo training (mountain asceticism) through his father Douyuu, as well as studied Shingon Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism of the Shingon sect) from the monk Joukai while staying at the Sanmakuin (Buddhist temple) in Kyoto. Yakushimaru was also versed in Kuji no Ho, and Ongyou no Jutsu. These esoteric practices involve praying to, and invoking power from, different types of deities and spirits.

At around age 18, Yakushimaru participated in assisting the Ashikaga army of the Northern Court defeat the Imperial forces of the Southern Court13. Emperor Godaigo, of the Southern Court, was captured and held in captivity under harsh conditions, while the 3 Sacred Treasures14 were taken as spoils of war. Learning of this, Yakushimaru made an unexpected move and went to rescue the fallen Emperor Godaigo, as well as retrieve these 3 treasures. With the assistance of close trustworthy warriors, Yakushimaru was successful in freeing the Emperor from the enemies’ clutches, and fighting off pursuers with a broken nagamaki15. He delivered the Emperor to safety in Yoshino, the area where the Imperial line of the Southern Court resides. Later, he managed to retrieve and return the 3 Sacred Treasures back to the Emperor.

After witnessing his prowess, Emperor Godaigo inquired Yakushimaru about his secret techniques. Upon hearing that it was through the use of Kuji no Ho, Emperor Godaigo responded with the following text, as written in “Shinden Bujutsu”16:

“汝の忠心、神の知ろしめすところなり。汝、今日より藤原 改め九鬼と改む可し”

Translation, “The gods know well your display of loyalty. From this day forward, your family name ‘Fujiwara’ can be changed to ‘Kukami’.”

The choice of kanji for the family name is not random; there are significant meanings in the name that indicate how he should be recognized. Starting with the ‘ku’ part of the name, this is the number ‘9’ in Japanese. Ku is significant to Kuji no Ho. This is integral to his family line, as it was considered a secret methodology. Not only was it used to invoke protection, Yakushimaru applied kuji with the shaft of his broken nagamaki during battle as stated in “Shinden Bujutsu”17:


Translation, “…Ryuushin fought wielding the remaining shaft (of his nagamaki), felling the opponent closest to him with a strike. In opposition to the swarming troops, he slashed Kuji in the air with the front end of his shaft.”

The “kami” part of the name means “onigami” (demon god). Some references state that this was chosen because it relates to how fiercely Yakushimaru fought for the sake of Emperor Godaigo, like a benevolent demon god18. It is also believed to be in reference to actual demon gods guiding Yakushimaru to take on this endeavor. In the “Ryuko no Maki”, it is said that Yakushimaru saw Bishamonten19 in his dream. It’s written as so in “Shinden Bujutsu”20:


Translation, “One night, Bishamonten appeared in Ryuushin’s dream and said, “You there, hurry and rescue Emperor Godaigo from his ordeal!”. Excited, Ryuushin bowed his head many times and rose to his feet, accepting the task at hand.”

A pic of my training naginata. This is an example of the polearm believed to have been used by Yakushimaru.

The name Kukami holds the tale of how Yakushimaru gained recognition through his vision of onigami and the power he attained through Kuji no Ho in order to save Godaigo. It is also the defining ideology behind him creating Kukishin ryu, which is deeply rooted in esoteric influences from Mikkyo Hihou in the techniques.


Today, the main Kuki line retains their martial tradition, without physically being involved, through “Kukishinden Tenshin Hyoho”. A system that utilizes the shihanke21 model, the current teacher overseeing the training both within Japan and overseas is Takatsuka Eichoku. However, over the years there is a growing push to acknowledge their original roots, and are using their original name more frequently. For example, their style of bujutsu is now identified as “Kukamishin ryu”.

Why not change their last name back? Why the change in the first place? There are 2 reasons for this, which are the registration as a daimyo under the shogunate, and the standardization of the Japanese language.


During the Edo period, this Kuki line in discussion was prestigious. Not only did they have strong ties with the Kumano Hongu Taisha, they also owned the Ayabe Domain in Tanba Province (present day Ayabe City in Kyoto Prefecture) and served in battle under the guise of the Kuki Suigun22, receiving merits for their efforts & contributions. In order to be recognized as a daimyo23 under the newly established Tokugawa shogunate, certain documentations had to be presented.

An important factor on how the Kuki approached this is based on particular historical data. For starters, the Tokugawa shogunate was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who managed to seize control of Japan after several battles with opposing forces. Claiming as a descendant of the Minamoto clan, Ieyasu and the Tokugawa shogunate were naturally affiliated with the Imperial line of the Northern Court. The Kuki line’s roots, on the other hand, is on the side of the opposing Southern Court, under the name ‘Kukami’. This can be found in older documentation within the Kuki household.

Not wanting to risk losing their status by having this info revealed, they changed their name to ‘Kuki’ (includes replacing the kami kanji with the oni kanji), and omitted much of their history in their presented documentations during registration. It was a necessary move to retain the lands, wealth, and status the Kuki family amassed. They still kept their family documentations, fortunately, so their roots weren’t forgotten.


During the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods, efforts were made to standardize the Japanese language in order to promote unification throughout Japan. This standardized form of Japanese, called Kokugo24, shaped a speaking, written, and reading form of the language the majority of the nation learns. In the case of kanji, there was a considerable reduction of derivatives each kanji possess, as well as reduction of kanji that had the same meaning as others but with slight difference in nuances. Kanji that are obscured, not adapted into the Japanese culture, or forgotten meaning were also excluded from standardized use.

This standardization became even more apparent as society moved towards the digital and electronic medium. In order for the Japanese language (includes kana and kanji) to display on interfaces such as computers, special coding types were developed, one being called JIS coding25. Just about all standardized kanji have been adapted into JIS coding, making them readily usable. Some older and out-of-use kanji also have been converted into JIS coding, and can be downloaded as packets from certain online kanji resource sites. While it is possible to find many kanji that are no longer in use on the same sites, they are only in picture form just for references, however.

The kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji is, unfortunately, one of those out-of-use kanji that are considered dated and out of use. There are no available JIS coding packets for it, thus it cannot be typed. The oni kanji has to be used in its place, with a note identifying it is actually the kami kanji in use. While not considered part of standard Japanese, this does not stop its use entirely; temples and shrines that have a history with the kami kanji still use it when applicable, whether by writing it or having it etched in metallic or wooden signs. Interestingly, the Kuki family use the kami kanji also in printed books. How they’ve managed to acquire the means to do this is unknown. This could be one of those rare cases where it was designed specifically for use by them.


A screen capture of the different variants (異体字, itaiji) of the oni kanji. The kami kanji is circled in red. From the website “字形検索”, an educational resource and database on kanji (Chinese). It can be accessed here.

This concludes our discussion regarding the Kuki family’s name. I hope much has been put to light regarding the acquisition of the Kukami and Kuki names, along with the cultural overview of the kami kanji. A special “THANK YOU!” to those who helped guide me to useful resources and offered detailed explanations regarding the kami kanji. Thank you for reading this, and look forward to more posts concerning the Kuki family and their history.

1) The main line with direct connection to Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the three grand shrines labeled “Kumano Sanzan”. For more information, visit an older post of mine here.

2) 異体字, pronounced ‘itaiji’ in Japanese.

3) Website can be accessed here.

4) “Journey to the West” is a famous fiction novel in China written in the 16th century. It is loosely based on the non-fictional journey by Chinese Buddhist monk named Xuanzang who, from mainland China through the Western regions of Central Asia, traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras. In this novel, the Buddhist priest Tang Sanzang (same as Xuanzang) is accompanied by 4 demons (or demon spirits depending on how you interpret them) to retrieve the Buddhist sutras, each serving as his protector through reformation as Buddhist monks themselves: Sun Wukong (monkey spirit), Zu Bajie (pig spirit), Sha Wujing (sand creature spirit), and Yulong (dragon spirit in the guise of a horse).

Here’s a broader explanation how Buddhism subdued a potentially great but dangerous demon. Sun Wukong, originally imprisoned under a mountain by the Great Buddha, agreed to help the Buddhist priest Sanzang in his journey to India in exchange for freedom. However, understanding that Wukong, through his past crimes, is uncontrollable and unpredictable, a Bodhisattva named Guanyin gave Sanzang a gift in the form of a golden headband made by the Great Buddha, which would help keep Wukong in check. Tricked into wearing it, Wukong put it on his head, but couldn’t take it off. On top of this, Sanzang had only to chant a secret set of words and the band would tighten on Wukong’s head, causing great pain and immobilizing him. Through this, Sun Wukong was made, more or less, obedient to assist in the journey.

5) Japan’s history regarding openness to the idea of good/bad demons is very old in conception. This is apparent if you look into the different religions & esoteric practices, rituals, lore, literature, and artworks. One prevailing point concerning onigami that needs to be understood is they are viewed as not truly evil. This is because onigami are believed to serve specific purposes, sometimes beneficial to humans, and other times, not.

6)The book Kojiki, generally translated as “Records of Ancient Matters”, is a collection of recorded events in ancient Japan by Ou no Yasumaro in the 8th century. The Kojiki depicts the start of humanity, as well as early civilization in Japan. In its earlier chapters are many descriptions of god-like figures, demons, and spirit-like creatures, each interacting with people in Japan one way or another.

For example, Koutai Jinja (皇大神社) , which is located in Kyoto (western part of Japan), gives worship to Amaterasu Oomikami, who is the Sun Goddess as told in the Kojiki. This deity is very important in Shinto religion.

7) As an example, a temple called Kijin Jinja (鬼鎮神社) in Saitama Prefecture (eastern part of Japan) pays homage to red and blue skinned demons that wield kinbou (metal clubs). These kinbou represent absolute victory. So not only do townsfolk work hard in passing examination tests, sporting events, and the like with the vigor of an ‘oni’, but also visit Kijin Jinja to pray for added luck in succeeding in these tasks.

8) 鬼神社. Generally written with the kami (tsuno ga nai oni) kanji

9) Link is here.

10) This tale appears to have been devised to give some mystical flavor to what may have truly happened. Within the Oni Jinja there are many steel farming tools (such as sickles, spades, and hoes) that were given as a form of offerings. Some of these tools are said to be as old as 1000 years. It is believed that this is an indication that the knowledge to take care of their land was actually taught to them by foreigners possibly visiting Japan.

11) The word “sama” is an honorific label. Thus, much respect is given to this onigami.

12) 九鬼薬師丸隆真

13) 金剛秘宝遍

14) In the Nanboku era during the 13th century, the power to rule Japan was left in the hands of the 2 sons of the dying Emperor Gosaga. Both in disagreement in how and when each would hold the power to rule, soon a division spurred, which created 2 factions. One faction, called the Northern Court, resided in Kyoto (northern part of Japan geographically). The other faction, called the Southern Court, stayed in Yoshino (southern part of Japan geographically). Both sides struggled for power during the 14th century, with 6 Emperors from the Northern Court seizing power at one point, while 5 Emperors from the Southern Court claimed power at another point.

14) The 3 Sacred Treasures, also known as the Imperial Regalia of Japan, believed to be handed down by the gods. These treasures are the following: Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍, The Grass-Cutting Sword), Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡,the 8-Span Mirror), and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, Long [approx. 8 ft] string of Curved Jewels).

15) There are conflicting views when describing the weapon Yakushimaru wielded. In “Shinden Bujutsu”, it is mentioned to be a nagamaki. However, in the once available website “Kuki-Shinden”, (a site to help promote the Kuki family’s Kukishinden Tenshin Hyoho martial system, having both an English and Japanese section) in the English section where they described the same story of Yakushimaru, the info about the polearm differs slightly. For starters, it is mentioned that the weapon was a naginata. Secondly, in note 4 for the story, it is mentioned that, in the Kongou Hihouhen and Ryuko no Maki documents, the weapon was a yari (spear). The polearm being a naginata is mentioned in a document called “Kuki Bojutsu Hihouhen no Maki,” which comes from the Chosui line. Furthermore, in the book “Shinden Bujutsu”, it is written that based on the time period when Yakushimaru was alive, it would’ve been “correct” for it to have been a nagamaki.

The naginata-nagamaki reference appears to be interchangeable, for certain details may warrant either weapon to be called one or another. This is dependent on such details like the style of the blade, size of shaft, fittings, and the like. Since there are numerous documents within the Kuki family’s collections that say one way or another, there is no way to get a definitive confirmation.

Whichever weapon it was, what can be agreed on is that Yakushimaru’s weapon was indeed a polearm with a blade at the end.

16) Page 25, line 5-6

17) Page 23, line 10-12

18) It is said to be mentioned in “Kuki Bojutsu Hihouhen no Maki”, for example. This document is part of the Chosui line of Kukishin ryu. It is also mentioned here that the “ku” of Kukami is in reference to how Yakushimaru utilized his broken weapon with ever-changing responses against the opposing forces. This ability is described using the number 9 in Japanese.

19) Vaisravana in Sanskrit. He is one of the Heavenly Four Kings in Buddhism, as well as a guardian deity of Buddhism in Japan. Also one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese folklore.

20) Page 24, note #2

21) A system where a teacher reaching a master level of proficiency heads the training of a martial arts school, or branches out to start a new line. This does not mean, however, inheritance of the entire system is granted to those who reach this level.

22) 九鬼水軍, Kuki Naval Force

23)大名, recognized lord who could privately own their land. Rulers of their territories, they only answer to the shogun.

24) 国語, national-standard language

25) There are other coding types, such as Shift-JIS, EUC, and Unicode.