Rōdanshū: Evaluating the ninjutsu scroll from Sengoku period

Over the years I’ve reviewed several old works that are accredited to one of Japan’s famous historical strategists, Yamamoto Kansuke. Employed under one of Japanese history’s most decorated warlords, Takeda Shingen, Kansuke is recorded as contributing much to the advancement of the Takeda army’s military career, both on and off the battlefield. There are many documents that given recognition to him, some of which have already been covered on this blog site. For today’s article, we will look over yet another one of these documents, which is known as “Rōdanshū”.


The title Rōdanshū (老談集)¹ can be loosely translated as “A Collection of Conversations from the Experienced”. It is arguably labeled as a ninjutsu scroll, one that is related to a division of the Takeda army that specialized in scouting & shinobi-like activities that is dubbed “Kōyō ryū” (甲陽流), which Kansuke is lauded as contributing to. This is also usually regarded as a “picture scroll”, for it contains many illustrations of different, somewhat exotic, tools that ninja are said to have used as early as the Sengoku period. However, it actually has a 2nd section with no pictures, but instead contains instructions on important skills for those who are active on the field, possibly while doing scouting work.

As a whole, the illustrations found in the Rōdanshū aren’t what one would expect from a ninjutsu scroll; instead of the more stereotypical weapons and items that are iconic to those who would be called a ninja, we see many items that appear to be gear and tools one would use during non-combative scenarios. For example, there is a garment worn around the torso called koshi-ate (腰当て), a type of lantern carried while on horseback, a flotation device using a spear called ukibashi (浮き橋), and a collapsible boat, to name a few. Of course, they don’t appear to be standard items just anyone would use both in design and in the instructions given (which is not included for many), giving the idea that these tools present in the scroll are unique for ninja use. On top of this, the Rōdanshū gives us an idea of what a ninja would actually use during a warring period if their job was to spy on the enemy or evaluate an area.

The written section of the Rōdanshū further supports the idea stated above as it goes over instructions on what a ninja should in relations to certain activities while out in the field. No information about stealth techniques, but instead how-to descriptions regarding certain items that would help for survival, operating in the dark, choosing essential gear for a horse, and so on. With careful evaluation, one can understand that the contents of the Rōdanshū are indeed a representation of the ideology for engaging in scouting and shinobi activities used by the Takeda military, and that they appear to have been put into practice for quite some time.


I’ve taken the time to read and research the contents located in the written section of the scroll. Below I will provide some transliteration of each of the topics presented, as well as a concise summary of what is being discussed.

Hyōrōgan (兵狼丸)
Energy pills that were carried during field work. Only one type is mentioned here, along with its ingredients, such as urukome (ウル米, type of sticky rice), yokunin (よくにん, coix seeds), and kōri zatō (氷砂糖, rock candy). Interesting, there’s a not about it being okay to feed your horse this alongside with water.

Imagawa-dono no Akagusuri (今川殿赤藥)
A red-colored medicine that is accredited to Imagawa Ujizane (今川氏真), a warlord who occupied Suruga Province (駿河の国, present day central Shizuoka Prefecture). Used to relieve stomach ache. Note that in different, yet relatable sources, there are varying thoughts about whether this was designed only for human consumption, or if this can also be fed to one’s horse.

Taimatsu (明松)
A torch that uses a bamboo as a tube and kindling. Ingredients include matsubikiko (松引粉, grounded pine), hai (灰, ash), and azukiko (小豆粉, red bean powder). This is also called arimatsu (有松).

Mizu tsuimatsu (水續松)
A type of torch-like instrument used on the water. This is possible due to oil being one of its ingredients, to keep the flame going in case it gets wet.

Kusa musubi no hi (草結ノ火)
This is similar to the taimatsu mentioned above, but is a lighting instrument used while in a boat. By design, it is supposed to be resilient to bad weather conditions, and stay lit even against strong winds.

Dōmei (同銘)
A type of metallic device that can be used with either water or fire for various purposes.

Ōhikaribi (大光火)
A type of fire device used by armies at night. One of the main ingredients is the konara no ki (コナラの木), a type of East Asian oak tree identified as “Quercus serrata” in English. There are metal fixtures fastened to it.

Dō no hi (胴ノ火)
A body warming device that, once lit, will retain heat up to 12 hours. Used especially during operations in cold conditions.

Ukigutsu tōyu no koshiraeyō (浮沓 唐油ノ樣)
A type of footwear used for crossing water. Apparently it helps with not sinking if used with a specialized oil.

Fune no tōyu (舩の唐油)
Using specific ingredients included with a unique oil, you can easily drag a boat onto land.

Yoruuchi no Tsuimatsu nagebi no koto (夜討ノ續松投火の事)
A type of device that is thrown at an enemy’s camp or such to cause a fire during night raids.

Bagu no koto (馬具之事)
This covers certain points regarding gear used by horses. Some of these points include:

  • How to tether a horse while it’s drinking water
  • Thickness of the pad underneath the saddle
  • Type of saddle accessories that’ll keep a horse warm during cold periods

Uma no koto (馬之事)
Instructions concerning horses, it goes into details regarding which types of horses are essential in specific situations. This includes:

  • Crossing rivers
  • Dismounting
  • Keeping the horse’s mane in check

Umanori yō no kuden (馬乗り樣之口傳)
Advice and lessons regarding horseback riding. This is pretty extensive, as it references scenarios that include:

  • While wearing armor
  • When needing to lay low in a river while on horseback
  • How to stay quiet while approaching a town


Now, to talk about some odd points regarding the Rōdanshū. The knowledge found in this scroll is credited to Yamamoto Kansuke, but the one to actually write the scroll is a Baba Nobuharu (馬場信春), one of Takeda Shingen’s loyal retainers. Nobuharu is recorded as a specialized field agent performing shinobi-like duties, so it would make sense that he would have a deep connection to the contents of this scroll. Interestingly, his signature, where he uses his official title of “Baba Mino-no-mori” (馬場美濃守), is in the back of the Rōdanshū, and not Yamamoto Kansuke’s. Did Kansuke actually give important input for this scroll?

Image of part of the signature page. Here we see ① the signature of Baba Mino-no-mori ② a date of 1827 (嘉永7年) ③ and a recipient name being Matsubara Yukie (松原靭負).

Speaking of signatures, there is usually a date and the name of a recipient along with the signature of the one issuing such scroll. This is where things become very inconsistent. For starters, the date in the Rōdanshū referenced in this article is 1827, or the 7th year of the Kaei era (嘉永七年) in older Japanese time keeping. In yet another version that I have, the date is different in that one, where it reads as 1845, or 2nd year of the Kōka era (弘化二年). On top of this, the signatures vary greatly, with the one reviewed here having several, including 2 names of individuals who have received this very scroll at 2 different time periods. Yet, in the other version, there is only one recipient signature. Why is this? What about an original copy?

One thing that needs to be understood is that, from what I am able to gather, there are many copies of the original Rōdanshū. It seems like during the 1800s this was passed down to different people in varying years. While the details of this is unknown, we can play with the idea that the Rōdanshū isn’t an antique relic, but was still in use way after the Sengoku period. This isn’t an unusual practice, to be honest, as some older documents were circulated as “living lessons” during the Edo period. This doesn’t invalidate it as being “authentic”, as long as its core lessons weren’t changed. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see some versions of the Rōdanshū kept in museums, while copies of others being sold in auctions in Japan. As for the original, there are no details regarding this.


This concludes our review of the ninjutsu scroll called Rōdanshū. Out of the many documentations I’ve reviewed, I must admit that this gives a more realistic perspective of the tasks a ninja would have while on the field during medieval Japan’s warring times, and the tools they would’ve needed to utilize. It is very utilitarian, creative, and not heavy on the combative side. Yamamoto Kansuke is said to have learned many aspects of military practices, including ninjutsu. If this is truly the case and his knowledge was incorporated into the Rōdanshū, then the fame he gets is well-earned.

1) Based on the version, the title could be much longer. The one being reviewed here has the full title of “Kōshū ryū Ninpō Hiden Rōdanshū” (甲州流忍法秘伝老談集).