Thursday, 14 May 2015

After the Golden Age - the Kano school after Eitoku

Signed Kuninobu, this is believed to be by Kano Mitsunobu

1590 was an annus horribilis for the Kano school – the foremost school of painting in Japan. It was the year that Kano Eitoku, the energetic, ground-breaking head of the school, who had made himself the painter par-excellence of his generation, specializing in the bold decorative schemes favoured by the ruling warlords of the country, and patronized by both Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi,  died at the age of 48*(possibly due to the pressures of overwork) leaving his twenty year old son to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Kano Mitsunobu was not the genius his father was (an epithet he bore as a youth was 'unskilled'), and the school faced challenges to its supremacy from other, arguably more talented artists. Yet within 20 years, the Kano school had mapped out the course that would see it firmly entrenched as the supreme school of art in the country for the next two hundred years.  This period of transition is highlighted in the exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum.

The Kano school was so important and powerful that it often appears monolithic – all that gold leaf, all those birds and flowers. The sheer number of artists who worked in the tradition is another problem for all but the most interested viewer - for example, the decorations of Nijo castle involved 11 members of the Kano family as well as numerous unnamed apprentices - and the names have a tendency to blend into one another, as do the works. Nevertheless, the more you find out, the more there is to know, and the monolith crumbles to reveal a pattern of myriad lives hidden behind the gilded surface.

Eitoku's death had left Hasegawa Tohaku as the premier painter of the time, and he pressed his advantage, securing several important commissions from Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (In fact, the Kano school had narrowly snatched back a commission given to Tohaku just a few months before Eitoku's death). This placed the Kano school in a position of jeopardy. While this situation has been put down to Mitsunobu's relative inexperience in the politicking necessary to gain commissions, a quick look at his paintings shows that his forte did not lie in the powerful compositions popularized by his father - indeed, there is a certain timidity in his work compared with the sure hand of Sanraku, who had been adopted by Eitoku, (on the advice of Hideyoshi), and who was certainly the strongest painter in the family at that stage. Mitsunobu tended towards compositions in which the individual elements were small in scale, lacking the power of the motifs his father used, and thus, despite being undeniably beautiful (and beautifully painted in some cases – the small birds in the works are exquisite) failing to deliver the punch his erstwhile patrons were used to. 

Kano Mitsunobu - elegant, but clearly lacking the power of the earlier
Kano painters, and the Hasegawa School

Looking at the work of his rival, Hasegawa Tohaku, it is easy to see how the power and graceful lines of the Hasegawa school, the overall integrity of the composition, (not to mention its freshness) proved to be so popular.
Hasegawa Tohaku

And yet... Mitsunobu developed into a fine painter, following the tenets of the Kano school, which believed that diligent copying was preferable to innate talent. He also picked up on the changes of the times; as the Tokugawa tightened their grip on the country the taste for decoration developed towards a lighter, more naturalistic style, away from the bombast of the previous generations, when larger than life characters wrestled for political and military power. The gentler style also reflected the Tokugawa 'story' that they were the natural rulers of a country at peace, and slowly Mitsunobu's style became accepted.

The Kano school, despite the importance they placed upon the head of the family, was far from a one-man operation which made up for any lack of genius with the breadth of talent and the size and organisational capacity of their school. They also devised a strategic approach to address the volatile situation of the times. They designated specific artists to concentrate on particular areas of patronage, essentially working on three fronts at once. Mitsunobu, as head of the school, could straddle all three areas, but other painters served the rising Tokugawa family, the Imperial and noble families, or the Toyotomi, (whose power was clearly on the wane after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600)). It is interesting to note that it was the adopted son of Eitoku, Kano Sanraku who was placed in this least politically important of relationships, despite being the school's strongest painter. As the school continued to grow in power, the importance of blood relationships was emphasized to an even greater degree, with Sanraku's successor (and adopted son) Sanraku being forced into a marginal position.

The Kano School was fortunate that the heir to the Hasegawa tradition died young (and there are rumors of foul play) which drastically reduced the Hasegawa school's ability to compete with the Kano's on multiple commissions, and allowed them gradually to regain ascendance. They were fortunate, too, that Mitsunobu did gradually come into his own, becoming a sought-after painter in his own right.
However, Mitsunobu died also died young, at the age of 37, when his son, Sadanobu was too young to take over headship of the family, so Mitsunobu's brother, Takanobu (previously assigned as a painter to the Imperial families) became the defacto head of the family. He had a surer hand than Mitsunobu, and it seems, a certain business astuteness that allowed the family to flourish. Sadanobu, Mitsunobu's son, also showed great talent, but died at the age of 26. Takanobu's eldest son, Tanyu, one of the greatest painters the school produced, and the major painter of the next generation, had already taken the position as the head of the Edo branch of the family, leaving the vacant headship of the family to his younger brother, Yasunobu. Despite this, it was Tanyu who would be the powerhouse of the family for the next fifty years, well and truly establishing the pre-eminent position of the Kano school.

Peacocks by Mitsunobu...

...and by Kano Tanyu

*Although Eitoku's death is generally remarked upon as unusual (he was 48 when he died), early death was not uncommon in the Kano family, with several notable members dying at a similar age or younger, including Eitoku's brother, Soshu (age 51); his sons Mitsunobu (37), & Takanobu (47); Mitsunobu's son Sadanobu (26);  Takanobu's second son (and Tanyu's brother) Naonobu (43), for example.

Dates of some of the most important members of the Kano Family
Kano Masanobu 1434–1530 (school founder)
Kano Motonobu 1476–1559 (son of Masanobu)
Kano Eitoku 1543–1590 (grandson of Motonobu)
Kano Sōshū 1551–1601 (brother of Eitoku)
Kano Mitsunobu 1571 –1608
Kano Takanobu 1571-1618
Kano Sadanobu 1597-1623
Kano Tanyu 1602–1674 (eldest son of Takanobu)
Kano Naonobu 1607-1650 (brother of Tanyu)
Kano Yasunobu 1613-1685 (brother of Tanyu and head of the family after Sadanobu)
Kano Sanraku 1559–1635 (adopted son of Eitoku; head of the Kyoto Kano School)
Hasegawa Tohaku 1539-1610

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The flowers of Yagyu: coded language and layers of meaning

It is the beginning of April, and cherry blossom is just appearing. In a week or so, it will be falling, which brings to mind this verse from Yagyu Jubei’s Tsuki no Sho, a verse which, incidentally, Jubei credits to the priest Takuan.

The fine rain that dampens my clothes
Is invisible, yet I see it;
The blossom that falls earthwards
Is inaudible, yet I hear it.

This is part of the ‘secret’ teaching of the school – teaching which was revealed only to advanced students. Like most secrets, it means little if you don’t have some understanding of the concept it is illustrating. In this case, it is describing the kind of awareness necessary for performance of the more advanced techniques.

A Yagyu tsuba: hanaikada design (flower raft)
In modern times, intellectual understanding, the ability to talk about or explain, is common currency; even beginning students of martial arts can read up on information and often consider themselves to be (rightly or wrongly) as well or better read than their teachers (though whether this knowledge is accurate is another matter.)

In traditional ryu-ha in the pre-modern era, knowledge and skill, were far more closely connected.  Knowledge was closely guarded; not only was it given out with the care now reserved for industrial secrets, it was often hidden in code, some of which was simply obscure phrases that had no apparent meaning to outsiders (the waters of the West River from Yagyu Shinkage ryu is a good example) or using alternative characters or pronunciations to give yet more meanings. In addition, meanings could be layered, so that deeper meanings of concepts were taught the further one progressed in a ryu-ha.

Another way in which teachings were structured was to widen the scope of their application; Miyamoto Musashi’s writing on small scale and large scale strategy is comparatively well-known, but as information on traditional ryu-ha becomes more widely disseminated, it seems that this was the norm – many schools included higher level teachings on military tactics, strategy, and a range of other applications that extended beyond hand-to-hand combat. Very few of these would appear to exist in usable form nowadays, and the quality must have varied from school to school, even in those days. This kind of teaching was reserved for students of higher social and or military rank, as well as the most advanced students of the ryu-ha. (Many of these worked in advisory capacities, and thus while they would offer their services, their deeper teachings were kept secret).

It is likely that the nature of these advanced teachings also informed the lower levels of the curriculum, and may account for the somewhat arbitrary seeming nature of techniques at these lower levels.

Some of this language is jargon – professional language to refer to concepts that are out of the normal run of things; some is specifically meant to hide or obscure meanings from the uninitiated.

The Yagyu Shinkage ryu offers many examples of both types in its documents and teachings, but it seems particularly given to hiding meanings. (Compared to Miyamoto Musashi’s writings which, for the most part, are fairly straight-forward.) Perhaps the most well known are setsuninto and katsuninken – the killing sword and the living sword. Nowadays, these are generally given moral/philosophical implications connected with using a sword to kill or using non-lethal means to end a conflict. Indeed, Yagyu Munenori did refer to them in this way; the original and primary meaning, however, was technical, and (roughly speaking) referred to the extent to which one controlled the opponent’s technique or allowed it some freedom.

Other terms are introduced and explained in increasing detail in documents. One example in Tsuki no Sho is the concept of suigetsu, which merits a number of sections including ‘The true suigetsu’, denoting deeper levels of meaning regarding the concept.

The Yagyu Shinkage ryu also had specific ways of writing or pronouncing common terms. Heiho (), commonly pronounced hyoho, and used to refer to bugei or martial arts in a general sense (as well as strategy and tactics), was written as(heiho) when it was used in reference to attacking with the sword; it was pronounced as iwato, which can be written with the characters for one, eight and ten. The strokes used to write these characters are the same as the lines of the strokes used for the principle attacking sword cuts:八十Furthermore, the characters for heiho/hyoho could be pronounced yokehazusu, which meant to avoid/slip aside, as this was a major part of the strategy of the style.

Other ryu-ha might use the same terms, but with different connotations. The Tenshin Shoden Katori ryu also writes heiho using the characters , but the meaning is ‘art of peace’ rather than ‘art of war’, denoting the philosophical stance of the school with regards to the use of  its teachings.

Confusing to say the least. The Yagyu Shinkage ryu was a very public one: as principal sword instructors of the shogun, as well as spymasters and advisors, their teachings were widely disseminated, and so the need for secrecy was likely greater than for many other schools, but it seems that ryu-ha with much lower profiles employed similar means to encode their secrets.

To take but one example, the Katayama Hoki ryu included among its teachings the short scroll entitled Heiso Jirinden Furoku, written by Katayama Hisayasu in 1647, which explicitly explains concepts of individual iai kata as they relate to issues of behaviour concerned with the administrative roles many bushi had. (
Other documents in the tradition also explain the meanings of kata name with respect to tactical and behavioral considerations, and make for interesting reading.

Although I am wary of allowing such intellectual enquiry to effect my actual practice, it can allow us a deeper understanding of the thoughts and ideas of earlier generations of practitioners of bugei and the way they regarded their own arts.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Spirit Forging II - Endurance, Misogi, and the Ichikukai

Practice at the Ichikukai Dojo, date unknown.
Courtesy of

Another form of extreme training that I remembered having come across many years ago was a form of misogi involving continuous ringing of a bell. When I looked into it a bit further, I found that this, too came to be adopted as an adjunct to martial training prior to WWII; interestingly, it also has a connection to Yamaoka Tesshu, and seems closely related to his thoughts on training.

This type of training is chiefly represented by the Ichikukai dojo, which is still inexistence, and is quite widely known for the role it played in the martial development of Tohei Koichi, the famous aikido master.

Ogura Tetsuju
Courtesy of

Founded in 1922, by Ogura Tetsuju, a student of Tesshu (he was known as Watanabe Isaburo while training under Tesshu), Ichikukai teaches misogi and Zen. Ogura Tetsuju was a Zen priest, but the misogi he practised came not from his days with Tesshu, but from a fellow Zen practitioner, Mitamura Engyo (a scholar of literature). There was obviously something in this additional practice that appealed to Tetsuju, and one cannot help but thinking he found within it a corollary to the hard training he had endured in his youth under Tesshu. Despite the fact that misogi is a Shinto practice, there seems to have been no conflict between the simultaneous practice of both disciplines.

The particular type of misogi that Ogura taught, misogi no kokyu no ho, appears very simple. It combines continuous loud chanting coordinated with the rigorous ringing of a hand bell, all the while sitting in seiza. This requires the regulation of the practitioner’s breathing and body movements. This might be hard enough in itself, but the sessions at Ichikukai lasted for many hours a day, for three or four days straight. (The practice, in a far less severe form, has been incorporated into some Aikido dojos in the west).

Ogura introduced this to the university students who came to study Zen at the temple where he was living, someway outside Tokyo, with the challenge that this was practice not for the faint-hearted. The students took to it with the kind of ferocious enthusiasm common to young men and their previously failing rowing team quickly went on to victory. So enamoured were they of this practice, that they persuaded Ogura to relocate and open a dojo in Tokyo. This was what became the Ichikukai Dojo (the 1-9 society), so named because the original meetings were held on the 19th of each month, or because the 19th was the anniversary of Yamaoka Tesshu’s death (or perhaps both).

Of course, in the pre-war period, the combination of hard training and the kudos of practicing under one of Yamaoka Tesshu’s senior students, as well as the open nature of practices – one didn’t have to be a regular member of the dojo to practice – made it an attractive proposition for many serious martial arts students:

            Sensei explained that misogi practice with the suzu bell had been much, much harder at the dojo where he had trained, its special session lasting for three continuous days, with students getting little sleep and only a few raw vegetables for nutrition. In addition, misogi had been carried out by the senior members of the dojo, some of whom were assigned to be kagura, or assistants. The kagura stalked through the rows of seated bell ringers, battering those who lost their rhythm with lengths of bamboo. At the end of three days, Sensei recalled, his back was beaten to a bruised pulp, he could hardly speak beyond a hoarse whisper from the hours of chanting, and he was emotionally drained. But he described the gruelling episode as one in which he had experienced a dramatic breakthrough in his own maturation as a bugeisha.
            “Too tired just to use muscles, too tired to think to keep rhythm. Body finished, then spirit takes over. In misogi, you find spirit is stronger. It can take you farther then your mind or your body. After misogi, I saw that just living on the physical level, the mental level, that’s no good. Man, woman, we are meant to live on a spiritual level.”
            (Autumn Lightning: Education of an American Samurai, D. Lowry)

There is some evidence to suggest that the combination of the gung-ho attitude of the Tokyo University rowing club students who originally encouraged Ogura to open the Ichikukai in Tokyo and the influence of Zen changed the original practice to a fiercer, more outwardly forceful one. Tohei Koichi mentions in his writings how he was told after the war by an older generation practitioner of the Ichikukai that the way they practiced had changed, and the use of the stick to encourage practitioners certainly bears a similarity to Zen practices.
Inoue Masakane
Mitamura’s misogi was, in fact, a religious practice that came from the Misogi-kyo of Inoue Masakane (1790-1849), a ‘new’ school of Shinto, that emphasised chanting practices and breath control to achieve purification and connection with the gods. It also included three day training sessions, including lengthy chanting sessions, designed to lead to realisation of ‘true mind’ (makoto no kokoro) and gratitude to the kami (divine spirits). It was also believed that chanting and breathing practices were effective for dealing with personal problems and troubles, and that by aligning oneself with the divine, such problems could be solved. Descriptions of breathing in Masakane’s writing also supports Tohei Koichi’s viewpoint about the change in breathing practices.

In fact, Masakane taught that the breathing was a way to unite oneself with the gods[1], and that the words of the chant were kotodama; that is to say that they had particular power in and of themselves. This was quite unlike the misogi carried out in the Ichikukai; it may be fair, given the style in which it was practised to regard Ogura Tatsuju’s use of it as being an extension of his Zen instruction, rather than a continuation of Masakane’s original aims. Thus, despite its Shinto origins, it seems, in certain ways, quite similar to the training of Yamaoka Tesshu and Yamada Jirokichi, aimed at developing spirit, or mind, and divorced from its religious origins.

As noted previously, the ‘endurance’ style of training seems to have arisen at a time when shinai sparring was becoming the primary form of practice in swordsmanship. Martial artists seemed to have felt a need for some kind of additional training to replicate the intensity of life and death contests. These types of training were certainly intense, but they were not a part of older traditions of swordsmanship, as far as I am aware. Despite their appeal as ‘samurai’ style training, they were actually ‘post samurai’ for the most part; an attempt by martial artists to find further meaning in the arts they were committed to, and thus a part of the new budo disciplines, rather than the bugei they looked back to.

In the case of misogi, its popularity seems to have been part of a broader search for martial abilities that were present in some teachers (the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, for example) but weren’t being clearly passed down to students, or abilities that had been possessed by masters of the past but were lost to the present generation. (Yes, it’s true that Tohei visited Ichikukai before training with Ueshiba, but the subsequent adoption of misogi derived practices into his aikido teaching speaks to their perceived relevance).

While I wouldn’t argue that such training certainly required a fearsome intensity and commitment, and I am sure the men who undertook such training were not to be trifled with, I view such practices as somewhat removed from the training of bushi prior to the Meiji Period.

It is true that feats of incredible endurance and intensity were performed during previous centuries, but to put this into some kind of perspective,  it is interesting to note how these were viwed at the time.
Wasa Daihachiro engaged in his record breaking feat
Perhaps no examples of martial endurance were more remarkable than the toshiya or feats of archery performed at Sansusangendo Temple in Kyoto. This temple features a particularly long veranda which became the venue for some quite distinctive archery contests. Although they consisted of various types, the endurance shooting is perhaps the most impressive. The record for this, set by Wasa Daihachiro in 1688 was for 8,133 hits out of 13,065 arrows shot in a 24 hour period. Although he took a break of several hours, and had to have blood let from his engorged right hand when he resumed shooting, this averages out to 9 arrows a minute for the entire period! Almost as impressive a record was set by 13 year old Noro Masaaki, competing in the ‘junior’ competition, who shot 11,715 arrows in 12 hours.
A more recent example of toshiya courtesy of the Sanjusangendo site.
However, Hinatsu Shigetaka, writing in the Honchō Bugei Shōden (1716), criticises the whole phenomenon as emphasizing strength and stamina at the expense of skill, and not being the true way of archery. Of course, looking at present day practices and criticising them in comparison with the past is a common enough phenomenon, but in this case, it is interesting to compare the views of a bushi writing in the heyday of the samurai, when warfare was still a common occurrence, and the bushi still viewed themselves primarily as fighting men.
Hojo Yasutoki from a woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshikazu
Hōjō Yasutoki (1183-1242) served both a general and a leading member of the administration of his day (he was eventually to become regent); writing to a relative he recommended making a minimum of three ‘dry shots’ (suhiki) when not at war or actively practising. (He was, of course, addressing a fully trained bushi who had spent years training in archery and fighting in battles.) This may seem a surprisingly small number – certainly, it does not fit the image of men engaged in relentless practice. But we should remember that the warriors of this era had not only spent long hours developing their skills, but that they were also busy people who did not have the time to spend all day in training for an indefinite period.

Hojo Yasutoki from a woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

He goes on to stress the importance of the mental, not the physical element of practice.
“…Every time he releases an arrow, he must think that this very arrow is the last one and that, if it misses the target, in the absence of the second arrow, he will be shot by his enemy or torn to pieces by an animal.”

This is particualrly interesting in that it suggests that he covers both the mental and physical aspects of training, but in a way very different from the model offered by the misogi practices detailed above and the severe training described in the last post, in which repetition was felt to the point of exhaustion was felt to be the way to achieve a mental breakthrough.

[1] Practical Pursuits: Religion, Politics, and Personal Cultivation in Nineteenth-Century
Japanese Religions
  Janine Anderson Sawada 2004, University of Hawaii

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Spirit Forging – the ‘hard training’ of Meiji swordsmen.

Kendo c.1925 (Courtesy of kenshi

One of the distinguishing features of serious martial arts training in the minds of many practitioners, is its severity. This is particularly so in the case of Japanese martial arts, and it reaches some of its most extreme forms in the case of swordsmen from the Meiji period onwards.

That warriors training to develop arts used in life and death struggles should train hard seems beyond question, and the ability to do so raises them in esteem in our eyes. Elite units in the modern military often use extreme training as part of the selection process, and much of this is designed to push people beyond their normal limits, both mentally and physically. There is a darker side as well, with instances of hazing rituals and abuse of power, where the pupose is to establish hierarchy and unthinking obedience rather than to develop individual potential.

This latter aspect became an unfortunate part of Japanese budo in the early of the twentieth century, part and parcel of military recruitment and the rise of nationalism, and has been retained in the regimented nature of these disciplines, which dovetailed naturally with the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship promoted in schools, universities and companies to this day.

Of course, it should be stressed that not all clubs and dojos share these negative characteristics, but it seems that there was a major change in the style of teaching and learning that occurred at much the same time as ‘budo’ (represented by judo, kendo, and somewhat later but similar in spirit, karate-do) was being formed as a set of practices distinct from their forbears.

The transformation to the modern disciplines of budo was not a simple process, but it seems that somewhere within it, the concept of mental strength born of a combination of determination, single-mindedness, and an unwillingness to give up became firmly entrenched as a principle feature of budo. To what degree this was present prior to this transformation is difficult to determine – it certainly didn’t appear from nowhere, and there are enough tales of this kind of spirit to show that it was an attribute that was strongly admired, but admiration for a character trait and placing that trait at the centre of  a style of training are different things.

Training in bugei involves the development of skills that require precision and attention to detail. Repetition for its own sake and far less, mass drilling, are not generally a part of this. It seems that karate, of all the budo, perhaps because it is farthest from what are seen to be (however innaccurately) its samurai forebears, tries the hardest to embody these aspects into its training – slots on the News in early January regularly show members of karate clubs training in snow or thigh-high in freezing water, pumping out repetitious punches during their kangeiko (winter training) – but aikido is also notable for its use of aspects of this kind of training.

In fact, it puts one in mind of the religious austerities practised by some groups, rather than traditional bugei training, which is perhaps not as surprising as it might first sound, as the promoters of such training during the Meiji and Taisho Periods had purposely combined their training with some of the attributes of religion.

Budo as 'religion'
It was during the Meiji Period, when the immediate practical use of the sword was called into question, that several influential swordsmen pursued the study of the sword as a method of self development. It was the legacy of these men, more than anything else, that led to the mistaken belief that the study of the sword was inseperable from the study of Zen.

Interestingly, the dojos of both of these instructors were characterised not only by the severe nature of their regular training, but both of them also instituted periods of particularly severe specialised training.

It was also worth noting that in both these cases, the styles were early adopters of shinai sparring, with the consequent loss of teachings requiring the severity of precision and control associated with older styles. The arguments for and against sparring with shinai and bogu not withstanding, it seems that these severe training sessions were aimed at achieving a breakthrough to a different understanding of both mental and physical aspects of martial training; something that normal training did not provide.

Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888)

Yamaoka Tesshu’s seigan training has become quite well-known in the English speaking martial arts world thanks to John Stevens’ book, The Sword of No-Sword.

Tesshu’s “basic” examination required 1,000 days of consecutive practice, completed by 200 consecutive contests in a single day with other students of the Itto Shoden Muto Ryu.

The second level examination consisted of 600 matches over a three-day period. The highest level examination was a seven day ordeal with 1,400 matches.

Several of his students left accounts of their experiences. This is one:

Yanagita Ganjiro completed the two-hundred-match seigan on the final day of his thousand-day training period. He then practiced five hundred more days in a row and undertook the three-day, six-hundred-match seigan. Blows received from the short, thick Muto Ryu bamboo sword (shinai) were extremely painful. Yanagita recalled: "After the first day my head was full of lumps and my body covered with bruises, but I did not feel weak. On the second day I began to suffer. I thought I would have to give up halfway. I managed to continue and near the end of the day I experienced 'selflessness' - I naturally blended with my opponent and moved in unhindered freedom. Although my spirit was strong my body was weak. My urine was dark red and I had no appetite. Nevertheless, I passed the final day's contests with a clear mind; I felt as if I was floating among the clouds."
            (The Sword of No-Sword, J. Stevens)

Tesshu not only viewed swordsmanship as a way of disciplining the mind; he was also a practitioner of Zen and a master of calligraphy. Only his swordsmanship was passed down directly; the ‘spirit’ of his calligraphy was revived, (and is carried on by the Hitsuzendo) but perhaps it is better to say that it was by his example and spirit that he has most influenced modern disciplines.

Yamada Jirokichi (1863-1930)

Yamada Jirokichi did not study Zen formally, as Tesshu did, but he also regarded kendo training as a means of developing the self. ‘By understanding this Way, man can learn the Great Way of the Universe; one’s character can become complete,’ he once wrote.

Probably the foremost student of Sakakibara Kenkichi, headmaster of the Jikishinkage ryu (who never named a formal successor), he was also famous for pushing his students to extremes. Among his students was Omori Sogen (1904-1994), who later became an influential Zen teacher. Sogen not only studied the sword, but also calligraphy in what may be considered Tesshu’s tradition – he was, in fact, something of a Tesshu enthusiast, lived in Tesshu's old house and was founder of the Tesshukai (Tesshu association). He has also left an account of a training experience that appears quite similar the training instituted by Tesshu.

Omori Sogen

            Onishi Hidetaka, who was captain of the Kendo Club of Hitosubashi University, and I, were told by Yamada Sensei, “In our style, after completing the hyappon keiko (one hyndred time practice) one is able to receive the final certificate.” It was decided that at the end of July, we would be confined to a mountain temple in Yamanashi prefecture. After twenty days of preparation we began the hyappon keiko.
            We got up at 4:00 in the morning, went down the mountain, and bathed in a river. Before breakfast we did the Hojo 15 times. After that we rested awhile then practised 30 more times. After lunch we rested and did the Hojo 55 more times until dusk. We did zazen in the evenings.
            By the third day I could shout more loudly and powerfully during practice, but my voice was so hoarse I could not speak at all. At night my body was so hot that I couldn’t sleep. Food would not go down my throat; Ihad only water and raw eggs. My urine was the color of blood. The arms that held the wooden sword could not be raised. We were resigned to death. I couldn’t go before Yamada Sensei and say, “I failed.” Onishi and I got out our notes and letters and burned them all as we prepared to die.
            On the fourth day, a strange thing happened. The same arms that had difficulty in even holding the wooden sword went up smoothly over my head. As my arms went down, I felt a strength that was not physical coming out of both arms. It felt as if this downward cut extended to the other end of the world.
            For seven days, we practiced the Hojo a hundred times daily in this manner. We finally finished at the beginning of September. Later Yamada Sensei praised me saying, “That is the Muso (No-thought) Style.” I was able to cultivate mental strength entirely because of this Hojo.
                          (Omori Sogen: Life of a Zen Master, Hosokawa Dogen)

Omori Sogen is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the conflation of Zen and swordsmanship; he believed that they were closely linked, and promoted this philosophy in his writing, such as his well-known work Ken to Zen. As a highly experienced practitioner of both Zen and kendo, his experiences cannot be ignored, but at the same time, it should be recognized that the sword art he practiced was quite far removed from that practiced when during the Sengoku and early Tokugawa periods. 

I believe that his combination of the two disciplines, inspired by the example of Tesshu and the leanings of his own master, was a search for something that was missing in the kendo of his time, something that was taught more explicitly in previous generations, but taking Zen as a model could (he believed), only be intuited through hard practice which allowed a practitioner to break through the boundaries established by the normal, conscious control of the body.

A similar approach was adopted by budoka using another discipline, the bell ringing misogi practices taught by, not entirely coincidentally, a student of Yamaoka Tesshu (and, again, Zen) in the Ichikukai, which I shall deal with in my next post. (Spirit Forging II)