Bokuden and his Live Lesson regarding the Naginata

Today’s post is a continuation of reviewing the Hyakushu, a gunki (軍記, military documentation) written by the famed Tsukahara Bokuden. Whereas in a previous post we went over various rules out of the 100 entries found in the Hyakushu, this time we look at 3 that focus on a particular theme. Along with this, will be a real life story of Bokuden that serves as an example of, through experience, how advice can be passed down with merit.


The 3 rules we will look at are #35, #36, and #37. These 3 rules share a common theme regarding on the weapon known as the naginata (長刀 or 薙刀, glaive). Here’s the rules both in Japanese, and their English translations provided by myself. The source being used is the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓):

Rules #35, 36, and 37 from the Hyakushu, circled in red.


ー、手足四つ持たる敵に小長刀持て懸けるとよもや切られし (三十六)


  • It is a disadvantage to wield a naginata with a blade less than 2 shaku (2 feet) (#35)
  • You will certainly not get cut down by an enemy who possesses many skills, wielding a konaginata (#36)
  • Understand that you, despite how skillful you are, will end up in a mutual kill against an enemy who wields a tachi or katana (#37)

In regards to #35, the standard length of the blade found on an ōnaginata (大長刀, a long-bladed glaive) in the past was 2 shaku 3 sun (87.4 cm) or greater, while anything less would be a konaginata (小長刀, a short bladed glaive).  Here, Bokuden implies that any naginata that has a blade less than 87.4 cm, is a konaginata, which he does not have a favorable opinion on.

For #36, one should not worry about an enemy wielding a konaginata. No matter how skillful he/she is, or tricks they may use, because their reach is short it will not be a problem to defeat them. Naginata’s advantage is reach, but making it shorter, especially the blade, nulls that advantage.

As for #37, Bokuden advises against using a konaginata. It is a continuation from both #35 and #36, except that now he cautions skilled warriors that no matter how good you are, at most you will end up committing ai-uchi (相打ち), where both fighters die at the same time delivering killer blows. It can be said that Bokuden puts more faith in kenjutsu than naginatajutsu.

Note that this is just the opinion of one individual, and these rules are not written in stone that the konaginata is an ineffective weapon. This is probably based on his experience with the weapon, or what he’s seen by those who so happen to use this.

A version of Tsukahara Bokuden’s duel against Kajiwara Nagato, found in the book “Budō Gokui” (武道極意)


Speaking of experience, there are many recordings in regards to Bokuden’s real life experiences in combat, many of them related to duels and fights. One particular story that will be covered here is his bout against a specialist who fights with a konaginata. Note that many sources such as “Nihon Bugei Shoden” (日本武芸小伝) and “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史) reference this story, sometimes in great details, and other times not. Below will be the story as full and accurate as possible. Take note that there are some graphical descriptions in the text, so please read with caution.

During Bokuden’s kaikoku shugyō (廻国修行, journey around Japan for the sake of training and employment), he came across a warrior by the name of Kajiwara Nagato (梶原長門). Through much boasting, Nagato was making a name for himself as a renown fighter with the naginata. He did so by performing feats of leaping into the air, and coming down with a strong strike fast enough to cut down birds such as kiji (雉子, green pheasants) and kamo (鴨, ducks). Nagato also claimed that no warrior has yet to either avoid or withstand his power strikes, as many of them, whether they be swordsmen or spearsmen, were slain in mortal duels. Furthermore, he made it known that he used a peculiar method of first cutting off his opponent’s left hand, then the right hand, before finally finishing them of by cutting clean through the neck. Learning about these points, Bokuden was certainly up for facing against such an individual. So he challenged Nagato to a duel to the death, who willingly accepted.

When the day came, the two held their duel at the lower area of Kawagoe in Bushū (present-day Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture). While Bokuden wielded a tachi (太刀, an older word for sword), Nagato used a konaginata, with the blade length about 1 shaku 5 sun (57 cm). Bokuden’s disciples were there to bear witness¹. At the start of the duel, Nagato leapt at Bokuden like a bird taking flight², and swung his konaginata down at him. Bokuden evaded the attack, with the konaginata’s blade cutting into the ground. Instantly, Bokuden countered with a severe blow, as he sliced Nagato’s face in two.


Depending on the source, Bokuden is usually depicted as expressing the weaknesses of the konaginata to his disciples right before the fight. If stated simply, he mentions that having a long shaft, yet a short blade for a naginata gives no advantage no matter how fast the wielder moves or tricks used. Whether or not he actually spoke such info right before the duel is hard to prove, but for the sake of the readers this could’ve been included to further enhance his views regarding the konaginata. In regards to Nagato’s merit, Bokuden also expressed his opinion about him not being that great, as cutting down wild birds or inexperienced warriors was nothing that impressive. In some sources this conversation is short and just focuses on the size disadvantage the konaginata has, while in others it is quite long and detailed.

In some sources, credit is given to Bokuden for incorporating psychological warfare. As an example, from the tales coming from Kashima City, there is one that states Bokuden lecturing his disciples about the weaknesses of the konaginata…while his opponent was in ear shot. This made Nagato furious, so when the duel started he fought recklessly, which made him lose rather easily. In another source, it is written that Bokuden brought to the duel a much longer tachi than what most would use at the time. On one hand, this supports his views on always giving yourself the advantage with a longer weapon, which can be seen in rule #20 of his Hyakushu regarding swords³.


In ending, Tsukahara Bokuden is an individual portrayed as having a great amount of experience in warfare. His opinion on weapons like the naginata is based on his personal experiences, especially versus those who’ve used them against him in duels. As mentioned before, there are many stories of his life experience, with some that can be compared to the Hyakushu. I may revisit the Hyakushu again, using a different story of Bokuden’s to reference the lessons expressed in a few of the rules.

1) In various sources, the type of bird Kajiwara Nagato is compared to ranges from a tsubame (燕, swallow) to mozu (鵙, shrike). These birds are usually admired for their grace or speed in flight.

2) Unlike other warriors who had to tough it out during their training journeys solo, Bokuden was generally accompanied by a group of individuals, from assistants to personal students. Credit goes to him coming from a rather wealthy family, thus the ability to have support while far away from home.

3)This can be reviewed in a previous post here.

Kaikoku Shugyo

A topic I wish to touch upon deals with a Japanese word “kaikoku shugyo1”. It is not a common word heard about in English. What does this word mean, and what does it pertain to? Here’s an explanation about it, followed by a few examples of it utilized in Japan’s history.

Woodblock print depicting  Kaikoku Shugyo by Kunisada Utagawa
Woodblock print depicting different individuals on a Kaikoku Shugyo. By Kunisada Utagawa. Property of Museum of Fine Arts

Kaikoku shugyo (廻国修業) translates as “going on a warrior’s expedition throughout the land for the sake of refining one’s skills”. Or, can simply be stated as a “training journey”. A practice during the Sengoku Period2 that became more common during the peaceful times of early Edo Period3, many warriors would pick up and leave their homes and families for long periods of time traveling throughout the different areas in Japan engaging in duels, military-driven services, and small-scale conflicts. Some were out for fame, either by dominating others as a means to demonstrate the strength of their skills, or by expanding their system through gathering new students and opening up more dojos around the lands under their name. Others did this to test their own system, and refining it by learning from masters stronger than them, creating the process of adding new techniques to replace ineffective ones. Then there are those who searched for work to raise their status, whether it be an in house kenjutsu teacher or a military advisor.

Those committing themselves on a kaikoku shugyo sacrifice the comfort and ease of a normal lifestyle in their hometown where things are safe and familiar, for a very harsh one on unfamiliar roads filled with fatigue, lack of nutrition, malnutrition, illness, and the constant danger of being robbed or attacked. More than just a test of skills, warriors condition themselves mentally and physically on these journeys, testing their willpower to survive the extreme elements, rugged lands,  and the fate of being cut down in mortal combat. Those who do return back to their homes are said to be different: tempered in body, sharpened in skills, and enlightened.

Statue of Tsukahara Bokuden
Statue of Tsukahara Bokuden, within Kashima City. From Wikipedia

A famous warrior renown for his adventures through kaikoku shugyo goes by the name of Bokuden Tsukahara. Bokuden was born in 1489 as the second son of the Yoshikawa family, who resided in the Hitachi Province of mainland Japan. His father, Akikata Yoshikawa, was a Shinkan (Shinto Priest) of the Kashima Shrine, as well as one of the four Karo (Chief Retainers) to the powerful Kashima family of the Kashima Castle. After his 5th birthday, Bokuden was adopted by Yasutomo Tsukahara, and resided in the Tsukahara residence from there on.

At a young age, Bokuden was exposed to the divine swordplay of the Kashima Koryu4 through his father, and later, the famous Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto ryu5 from his adopted father. Although he grew up in a wealthy environment, Bokuden left it behind after his 16th birthday and embarked on his 1st kaikoku shugyo. The purpose of this was to increase his abilities through challenging other martial systems, as well as to make known the sword style of Kashima throughout Japan. In his lifetime, he left on three kaikoku shugyo, each one lasting over 10 years. When he returned home, he brought back with him new students, as well as strategies & knowledge to expand the sword skills of Kashima no Tachi.

Bokuden Tsukahara pitted his might against other swordsmen in arranged matches with bokuto6 , as well as dueling with shinken (live swords) to either maim or kill. Not all of his opponents wielded swords; in written records of his feats during one of his kaikoku shugyo is one where he defeats Nagato Kajiwara, a warrior famous for winning duels using a naginata7 against swordsmen with ease. At the start of their duel, Bokuden cuts off the blade below the tsuba8 of his opponent’s konaginata9 in one sweep of his tachi10, and claimed victory. Through understanding the strategies of warfare, Bokuden dispelled the belief to those present that the longer the reach of the weapon the most advantageous.

Another incident demonstrating Bokuden’s ability to adapt and survive took place at the estate of Takayori Rokkaku11, where he attended a banquet. After a night of drinking, Bokuden was making his way to the entrance of the estate to head home carrying his two swords in his belt (a tachi and a wakizashi12), when suddenly a swordsman who, previously losing to Bokuden in a match where bokuto were the weapons of choice, jumped out from behind a folding screen close by and rushed towards him brandishing a drawn sword. Leaping back to avoid the sudden assault, he drew his wakizashi and cut his assailant down. When questioned by a witness why he chose his wakizashi to protect himself instead of his tachi, Bokuden answered with the following, quoted in Japanese:


Which translates to “It was faster to utilize the wakizashi since my enemy was very close upon me”. His situational awareness, along with clear judgment on what is required to handle life & death situations is what earned him the title “Kensei”14.

Events like the ones Bokuden Tsukahara, along with many other warriors, faced were commonplace in the past. Eventually, this practice of kaikoku shugyo took a severe decline when the ruling Tokugawa Bakufu banned all forms of mortal combat through live weapons. Since staking their lives for the sake of martial superiority was forbidden, there was a gradual shift towards more formally established dojos, the development of safer ways of competition through items such as shinai15 and padded body armor, and the development of new martial systems to fit in more with the increasing peaceful times in Japan.

There are many written books and documents on the feats of warriors who made their name and fame in Japan history through kaikoku shugyo in Japanese, as well as in English.

1) An equivalent to this word that is more commonly found in English is Musha Shugyo (武者修行)

2) (1467 – 1603) The period where Japan was under constant military conflicts as different various feudal lords fought for unification of and complete control over the lands

3) (1603 – 1868) The period where the Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan and ushered in peace through strict laws

4) “The Classical Martial Arts of Kashima”

5) Considered to be one of the oldest martial systems in Japan. Regarded highly for exemplifying the true spirit of classical bujutsu (martial arts).

6) “Wooden sword”. Another name is bokken, with the same translation.

7) “Halberd”, or “Glaive”

8) “Sword Guard”

9) Type of naginata with a smaller blade and shorter shaft

10) A long battlefield sword predating the katana

11) A feudal lord residing in Oumi Province (present day Shiga Prefecture), who is famous for participating in the Onin war

12) A shorter sword that usually is paired with a longer sword

13) From the book “Nihon Kenkaku Retsuden” written by You Tsumoto

14) “Sword Saint”, in reference to a swordsman whose skills are above the rest

15) “Bamboo sword”