In today’s article, I will discuss about a famous story called “Kōga Saburō Densetsu” (甲賀三郎伝説), or “Legend of Kōga Saburō”. Gaining public recognition from the 1600s onward during Edo period, there were many theatrical renditions done by kabuki actors, as well as musicals called “jōruri” (浄瑠璃), which incorporated a musician and puppets. Exposure to this story comes from the collection of esoteric-related writings by shrines, as well as from word of mouth by shugendō followers. While popular as a folklore, the Kōga Saburō Densetsu was especially significant to certain families from Kōga region (also called Kōka) of Shiga prefecture, as it represents the root of their unique martial tradition.
In today’s article, we will look into the specifics of the Kōga Saburō Densetsu, which includes its origin story. We’ll also look at one version of this story, which comes from one particular family reigning from Kōga region.
TALE FROM THE SUWA FAMILY
Kōga Saburō is a heroic figure that is deified and worshiped at the Suwa Shrine located in Nagano prefecture, as well as viewed as a type of warrior god at various shrines. Considered a very old shrine in Japanese history, Suwa shrine itself was built by the Suwa family, whom also assumed the role as priests. The legend of Kōga Saburō dates back some time around the 1400s, with the main character said to be modeled after one of the Suwa family’s sons who took up the occupation of a warrior, went to serve the Ashikaga shogunate by becoming a retainer of the Hōjō clan, and earned many merits due to his accomplishments in battle. For his service, he was also made territorial lord over Kōga. if this is the case, then it makes sense that this individual would be immortalized at their family shrine.
There is another version to this story, which is found within the documents of the Mochizuki family. One of the major allied families in Kōga during Sengoku period, The Mochizuki family have recorded in their family genealogy that they are descendants of a Mochizuki Saburō. Not only was this individual from the Suwa family, but is in fact claimed to be the same individual as Kōga Saburō, for he not only was the territorial lord of Koga, but at one time was a lord over the neighboring Iga region as well.
With the inception of this fabled tale, Kōga Saburō was immortalized as a hero of the Kōga region, as well as throughout Ōmi province (present-day Kōga, Shiga Prefecture). Other than the bigger-than-life trials the character had to go through, he is also revered as having establishing the way of life in that region. Another unique point is that for the Mochizuki family and their allies, the tale of Kōga Saburō is interpreted as teaching the roots of where the unconventional tactics and survival methods the warriors of Kōga specialized in, which today is often dubbed as ninjutsu.
For this article, we will first look at the Mochizuki family’s version of Kōga Saburō Densetsu. This version is taken from the book “Kōga Ninja-kō”, which is authored by Ukai Takehiro.
This story starts off at the beginning, when the protagonist was known by the title “Suwa Saburō Yorikata (諏訪三郎諏方), and was the 3rd son of the territorial lord of Kōga in Ōmi Province. Although youngest, his father made an unexpected move and appointed Saburō as the next successor of their family line due to his talents and likeable personality. On top of this, he had an arranged marriage with Kasuga-hime set up, who was the granddaughter of Kasuga Shrine’s chief priest. Along with his future wife’s unmatched beauty, the union between the two families would ensure that Saburō’s family continue to maintain their prestigious status. His older brothers, on the other hand, were not pleased with the special treatment their younger brother was receiving at all.
One day, Saburō went deer hunting in the woods with Jirō, the 2nd oldest brother. While his younger brother was distracted, Jirō suddenly pushed him down into a pit, where he would tumble into an underground cave. With no way to reach the opening of the pit from where he fell into, Saburō was forced to wander through the tunnels of this underground cave. Trapped with no way out, he was sure to perish, but he maintained his wits and was resourceful with whatever was at hand as he traveled into unknown lands. For example, when there was no food to be found around him, Saburō ate pieces of his sōshi (雙紙)¹. During the night when there was no light peering above him, he used his sword Nikkō no tsurugi (日光剣) to illuminate his surroundings. Lastly, to keep safe from evil spirits and beings lurking about, he placed his keepsake mirror Omokage (面影) close by his side. These 3 items were actually blessed with divine powers, and protected the lone warrior during his journey².
Saburō’s wandering would come to an end when he finally stepped foot onto a kingdom called “Yuima” (維摩) . Although a foreigner, he was welcomed by the King of Yuima, and was also offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. Saburō agreed to this, and lived with them in Yuima for about 13 and a half years. While life was good, after some time he started to long for his fiance Kasuga-hime, and wished to be with her. So, bidding his family in Yuima Kingdom farewell, Saburō embarked once again through the underground in order to make his way back above ground.
Saburō finally discovered an exit from the underground realm, and was able to walk on his native land again. Hungry from his long trek, he decided to engage in his long-time past time and went deer hunting³. However, he soon discovered a terrible matter; for during his time in Yuima, he unknowingly went through a transformation and his appearance had become that of a snake. Not wanting to alarm everyone at his home, Saburō sought a method that would change him back to look like his normal self again. Luck was on his side, as he encountered a mysterious old monk who, seeing the young warrior in his plight, conjured a remedy. Miraculously, the remedy worked, as Saburō reverted back to his original form. What he didn’t know was that the old monk was actually a powerful deity in disguise, and had came to aid him in his return home. Just as he mysteriously appeared, the old monk went his way, without leaving a trace.
Successful in making it back home, Saburō presented himself to his family and explained what had happened to him since his disappearance. He also sought out his older brother Jirō, and drove him out of their home, forcing him to roam the land and never to return. Lastly, Saburō could be reunited with Kasuga-hima, he took his rightful place as the head of the Suwa family, and became territorial lord over Kōga. With everything taking course as intended, Saburō would assume the title “Kōga Saburō Kaneie” (甲賀三郎兼家), and could live the rest of his life happily.
This bring the 1st article about the Kōga Saburō Densetsu to a close. Reading fabled tales like the one above most certainly will bring up questions, especially about the hidden meanings behind certain parts of the protagonists overall journey. Fear not, for many of these will by answered in part 2, where we will go over another version of this story, and do an analysis of the symbolism that shapes this popular tale.
1) Normally this is written with the characters “草紙”. While its usage varied depending on the era, a sōshi is a type of bound notebook.
2) These 3 sacred items parallel the 3 sacred treasures of Japan, which 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).
3) Although not mentioned in this version, one of the differences found in the underground lands is that agriculture was the main source of food. Due to this, Saburō learned a great deal about farming during his time underground. On the opposite end of the spectrum, deer hunting was an important source of food when Saburō was living above ground. A comparison can be drawn from this when looking at class during Japan of old. This will be evaluated more in the 2nd article.
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
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:
…considering things from where I stand right now, I want to prevent my lord from dying in this war, if granted such an opportunity”
”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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anayama Kosuke (穴山 こすけ) – A dedicated retainer of Yukimura, he played the double of his master during the Osaka Campaign.
Yuri Kamanosuke (由利鎌之助) – Once a retainer of Toda Suganuma, he switched to the Sanada side after the Toda were defeated in battle.
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.
Unno Rokurō (海野六郎) – A fellow kinsman, as his family line is from where the Sanada line originates from.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 that the goal was intimidation of 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.
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.
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.
On February 22nd, it is officially “Ninja Day” in Japan. This day is to honor the history and culture of the ninja, as well as the growing movement of adapting the lessons found in ninjutsu of old for innovation, to promote pop culture, tourism, and so on. As a form of tribute to this day, I’ve written a post on a treasure of ninjutsu, called Ninjutsu Kishōmon¹ (忍術起請文), which stands for “Ninjutsu Document of Written Vows to the Gods”. This post will include a brief background info, my translation of the document, as well as an analytical discussion to give a better understanding of this document.
THE WRITER BEHIND NINJUTSU KISHŌMON
The Ninjutsu Kishōmon was drafted by Kizu Inosuke in 1716, who became an inheritor of a ninjutsu system taught to him by Nagai Matabei. Inosuke is from Iga Province, which is home to many families who specialized in ninjutsu. As an agreement to his new inheritance, Inosuke wrote the Ninjutsu Kishōmon and gave it to his teacher.
This document was a form of agreement to uphold the strict ways of the ninja. If he had failed to do so, Inosuke promised to not only return everything he received from his teacher related to ninjutsu (this includes texts and ninjutsu-related tools), but to accept punishment from the gods. The Ninjutsu Kishōmon is a great example of how those inducted into the world of the ninja were sworn to secrecy, while taking the lessons & skills associated with ninjutsu very seriously.
After Inosuke’s death, this Ninjutsu Kishōmon made its way back to the Kizu family, and kept for possibly decades. When exactly was it returned, and why, is unknown.
NINJA ACTIVE DURING EDO PERIOD
After the Tokugawa clan took control of Japan in the early 1600s, many families from Iga Province (present-day Mie Prefecture), and at a later date from Kōka Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture), moved to Edo (present day Tokyo) where they used their skills in ninjutsu for various types of work under the employment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. At the time, which is known as Edo period, the country was strictly run by the new Shogunate, and everyone had to abide to the rules. Different from during the warring periods beforehand, where those ninjutsu experts could sell their abilities to serve one of the many warlords vying for power, ninja during the Edo period took advantage of their unique position to directly serve the Tokugawa Shogunate for rank, merits, and means of work. Kizu Inosuke was most likely in the same position, where he may have had to seek employment under an elite individual who held an important position in the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Times have changed, and modern Japan is very different from the past, as the country is no longer a military-centric state. Much of the skills that the ninja took pride in using are deemed illegal today. Also, such unwavering loyalty and strict dedication to the ways of the ninja through written pacts are not much in practice, for there is a great amount of information regarding ninjutsu (from their ancient documentations, tools, and strategies) made public as a means to study and appreciate a past history. Ninja of old (in reference to those families who were actively using ninjutsu for the sake of work several centuries ago) treated their craft as something of great secrecy, thus the need for such agreements and rules. Nowadays, such things are no longer in use.
UNDERSTANDING THE NINJUTSU KISHŌMON
The follow is a translation done by myself of the 6 rules & concluding pledge found in the Ninjutsu Kishōmon. Note that everything in the picture below is read from right to left, with the text lined up from top to bottom.
1) On this occasion, I receive the teachings of ninjutsu. I will not show or disclose the contents of the ninjutsu and ninki (tools of the ninja) I inherit from you to those who bear a relationship to me, such as my parents and siblings. I will act like I have no knowledge on such information. I will also not allow another person to copy the contents.
2) From the Mansenshūkai, the sections on the Preface, Seishin (Correct Heart), and Ninpō (Treasures of the ninja) will be made viewable, unquestionably, to our lord and his personal administrators, such as his chief retainer, if they desire. I ask for your pardon, for when called upon to do so, I will not refuse.
3) Outside of the ninki, the kaki (tools for fire and explosives), and those from the Mansenshūkai, I will inform you of new & unique ninki and kaki that I am able to devise.
4) If, as a young master, I have strayed from the ways of justice, I will return the documents that I have copied from your possession, and will leave no trace of ever possessing those documents.
5) I will not allow the secret techniques of the Mansenshūkai to be written in another document.
6) I will not use ninjutsu and ninki I am inheriting for the acts of mere thievery. However, anything will be done for my lord’s sake no matter what.
PLEDGE: It is forbidden to oppose the rules written on the right, even by just a little. May the great and minor deities within over 60 provinces of Japan, especially the gods of my home town, extract their punishment upon my own children and future generations wholeheartedly, if my incompetent self, ever so young acts like a betrayer even by just a little.
ANALYZING THE CONTENTS
We’ve just finished a brief overview of the document’s writer of the Ninjutsu Kishōmon, ninja during the Edo period, and the rules in this document. Here is an analytical review based on some informative (as well as contradictory) points regarding this document, and why certain practices were done based on the time period it is from.
From the Edo period onward, those from Iga Province were hired to work for the Tokugawa Shogunate, whom many are said to have specialized in ninjutsu.
Kizu Inosuke is said to be from Iga Province. However, it is not certain if Nagai Matabei was also from Iga Province.
For rule #1, Inosuke swears not to let his family know he studied ninjutsu. Yet, apparently this agreement was given back to his family sometime after his death. This document was give to his teacher, so it is strange that it made it back to Inosuke’s descendants.
While Inosuke promises not to show anything related to ninjutsu to his family, he wouldn’t hesitate to show some chapters of the Mansenshūkai, a very important text on ninjutsu, to the Shogun and his high-ranking officials. Why is this? For starters, if Inosuke were to gain employment serving the Tokugawa shogunate like many others who came from Iga Province, then he would be obligated to share some information of his knowledge of ninjutsu. For example, the 3 aforementioned sections of the Mansenshūkai give an overview of ninja and their art, such as the mindset & spirit they were to develop. Since these didn’t include their techniques, tools, or strategies, then it was no real risk of losing their secret trade. Disclosing some info as such was possibly necessary, especially to the high-ranking officials, for they probably hired ninja and needed to understand who was working for them.
Speaking of which, the Mansenshūkai was offered as an official documentation to the Shogunate on 1789 by several individuals from Kōka Province. Before this, it existed much earlier in secret as a collection of ninja tools, strategies, and philosophy all contributed by many different ninja families. Inosuke received a copy before or around the time he wrote his agreement in 1716. There are supposedly 2-3 variations of the Mansenshūkai, but it is reported that, other than 1-2 sections missing from one that has yet to be shared with the public, these all share more or less the same contents.
In relations to rule #3, it is possible that Inosuke’s personally devised ninja tools (that is, if he was successful in doing so) were added to the Masenshūkai by him or his teacher. There is no way to confirm this, but if this is the case, then these same tools may very well have made it into the the public version of the Masenshūkai.
For rule #4, for Inosuke to return all his possessions on ninjutsu was a grave and serious matter. It meant that if he is judged as failing in his duties, or committed a crime and is caught as doing so, he would have to forfeit being a ninja. In some ways, this rule is more as a promise to be a “good & righteous” person or else. Such promises were common not just for those who study ninjutsu, but for many other occupations throughout Japan.
For rule #5, letting the contents of the Mansenshūkai be copied into another documentation was obviously frowned upon. Other than the lost of secrets that gave ninja of that time an edge, if the version of the Mansenshūkai was unique to Inosuke, and the same exact version was found elsewhere, his teacher would immediately know from whom it came from. This could get Inosuke in big trouble.
Rule #6 is one to take note on. For starters, it has been examined that many of the techniques found in ninjutsu are similar to those used by thieves. What sets ninja apart are the morality they possess, and that they only use their abilities for the greater good. Now, there is an exception to this. If their employer, or better yet, an order from the shogunate, required them to use their techniques for acts that were on the level of thievery or worst, a ninja was required to adhere…for this was also part of the “greater good”. This is what the 2nd part of rule #6 hints at.
To cement his promise to uphold the 6 rules, Inosuke pledges to accept “heaven’s wrath” upon his family line. This is a bold statement, but nothing unusual. Due to the influence of religions such as Shinto and Buddhism, along with the belief in the power of gods, it was natural to put such a superstitious seal in an important document such as this. It’s no different from other promises made, even for those made in other countries in the past.
Written agreements of this nature were not only done by those who study ninjutsu. It has been found that those who belong to military families, as well as many who studied martial arts, also signed similar agreements which express calamity on themselves and their family line if they do not uphold to specific rules. For example, the Mōri family (毛利氏), who once specialized in naval warfare as pioneers, have several documents of written vows done by Mōri Hidenari (毛利秀就). There is also one for those who where accepted as students for a martial system called Asayama Ichiden ryū Bujutsu (浅山一伝流武術).
This here concludes the discussion on the Ninjutsu Kishōmon. A document of antiquity, it serves to help researchers understand more of ninjutsu when it was actively used in the past. On an additional note, this document was originally a planned translation project. Because of this, there is an accompanying page under the “Translations” section, which features the same translation, along with other info not found in this post. You can access the “Translations” tab at the top of the page, or click here.
1) Note that this is a shorter label for the document. The full title is actually “Keihaku Tenbatsu Reisha Kishōmon Maegaki” (敬白天罰霊社起請文前書), which stands for “Pre-written Vows of Declaration of Divine Punishment from the Sacred Shrines”.