This piece is a loose translation of a section of a book called “Miyamoto Musashi to iu Kengo”(The Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi) by Kōzō Kaku. If you have some experience reading Japanese essays, you may be familiar with the style – a mix of fact and opinion, rolled up in one and difficult to separate. On top of that, there is my translation, which includes a few clarifications, and you have a real mix. Despite that, it’s an interesting read, and offers some interesting insights on some tactical aspects of Seijiro’s fights.
There is not much written about this in English – John M. Rogers’ invaluable translation of the Honcho Bugei Shoden in Monumenta Nipponica and William Wilson’s The Lone Samurai (see his appendix) have about the only detailed information I could find, although this merely records Seijiro’s name as Kempo, leading to some confusion.
“According to the popular account, the Yoshioka school’s series of losses to (Miyamoto) Musashi were the chief cause of their decline and fall. The Yoshioka–den, however, paints quite a different picture: it was really the bravery of Yoshioka Genzaemon Naotsuna (Seijūrō) and his youngest brother, Seijirō, that ensured the fame of the Yoshioka family.
In the Kyoto-Osaka area, there was an expression, ‘hitsukoi’, a corruption of the common ‘shitsukoi’, which means annoyingly persistent or bloody-minded. It had distinctly negative connotations, which were even more pronounced in the related term ‘dobitsukoi’, which was formed by the addition of the prefix ‘do’, and referred to a habitual state of ‘hitsukoi’, as well as suggesting something of the sense of dread we attach to a word like ‘stalker’ nowadays. This was the term used to describe Yoshioka Seijirō.
In the Keicho period (1596-1615) the Yoshioka family was well-known in the city of Kyoto for their skill as swordsmen; so much so that their practice hall was widely known as the House of Kempo. However, it is said that people were wary of Yoshioka Seijirō and tended to keep their distance from him. He was one of the three sons of the third generation head, Yoshioka Naokata, with two older brothers who both excelled in swordsmanship (and fought Musashi, according to the popular version). According to one theory, he may actually have been the cousin of Naotsuna and Naoshige, but after his death, it was seen as more proper to refer to them as brothers.
There are many questions that remain unanswered about the Yoshioka School: it flourished from the time of the founder Naomoto down to the fourth generation Naotsuna, and then suddenly disappeared. It’s fame was greatly increased by the affair involving Seijirō, but this also proved to be a source of great trouble for the family.
Although Seijirō was Naokata’s son, there is no record of his posthumous name nor his succession. Of course, it is possible that he was still a child or an adopted child, but there is some likelihood that this was connected to his sullen disposition, which also served to trigger the affair. The fateful event took place on the 22nd day of the sixth month of 1614 (Keicho 19). That was the day that Toyotomi Hideyori, the young son of the late Taiko Hideyoshi, who held the rank of Minister of the Right, held a celebratory feast to mark the completion of the Great Buddha Hall in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto.
Although it seems surprising nowadays, there were times when commoners were allowed to visit the Imperial Palace, and it was said that crowds of townsfolk came to see Noh or Sarugaku performances.
In the Korō Chabanashi, it gives the date as the 11th day of the 6th month of the 16th year of Keicho, but this is slightly confusing as this doesn’t match the date of the completion of the Great Buddha. Similarly, in the Jozan Kidan it gives the date as Keicho 7, but Hideyori was given the rank of Minister of the Right in the 4th month of Keicho 10. If we take the date as the 22nd day of the 6th month of Keicho 19, which appears to be most likely, it was ten years after the contest between Musashi and the Yoshioka school.
A Disturbance at the Palace
That day, the accounts say, Seijirō joined the crowds making their way to watch the Noh performance, but it seems he wasn’t in a very good mood even before setting out. Most of the spectators had to stand to watch, and the jostling of the crowd would only have served as an extra irritation. In several writings there is mention of zoushiki, the attendants and porters of the Imperial archives and the retired emperor’s palace, one of whom, it is written, mistakenly hit Seijurō with the stick he was carrying.
In the Kourō Chabanashi it says that he was hit on the head, but it is difficult to believe that someone as skilled as Seijurō would allow himself to be struck like this by a palace attendant. Reading carefully, one can detect a feeling that the palace attendants would have had no very high opinion of a townsman who had gained prominence as a swordsman: the Yoshioka family were tradesmen, and their occupation, dyers, was not a particularly distinguished one. In any case, the attendant must have been careless – he was probably unaware of his sullen, headstrong nature, and banged into him with the cane he was carrying. If the attendant had apologised, the events that followed would probably never have taken such a fatal course. However, it seems likely that he either didn’t apologize or gave him an insulting look. Even if this was not the case, it is easy to imagine the attendant, who had most likely been drinking, raising his voice threateningly. Both parties probably exchanged a few words, with both of them giving as good as they got. Finally Seijirō must have lost patience and drawn his sword, attacking the man. He would have cut him down easily, all the more so if the attendant was drunk. With his sword still drawn he regained his composure, but the situation was not good. There were many people in the palace who had been watching the quarrel: instantly the attendant’s friends surrounded him.
Seijirō remained unperturbed, typical of his obstinate nature. Taking care not to allow anyone to move round behind him, he slowly closed in on the opponents in front of him, though he had no intention of attacking straight-away. Rather than attacking, he was probably considering provoking their attacks so he could counter. There were a great number of opponents, and he was on his own, so it was important for him not to waste his strength.
Closing the distance can also serve as an invitation: it is almost certain that the enemy will be unsettled by such a manoeuver and take the bait. The strategy known as “go no sen” is relevant here. This teaches how to utilise waiting to your advantage. But there is more to it than this; it can be dangerous to advance. If you expose a blind spot, you will be vulnerable to a thrust from this quarter.
The tension Seijiro had created was too much – his assorted opponents began to attack.
According to one theory, Seijirō was using a short sword – when he was at distance from which he couldn’t cut, he would suddenly raise his sword revealing a momentary opening to the opponent with whom he was engaged; as the opponent attacked Seijirō took that opportunity to enter and cut his opponent down. According to the Honcho Bugei Shoden, he climbed onto the stage to get his breath, jumped down and cut, then mounted it again; when the enemy surged forward dangerously, he could jump down and strike again. Seijirō utilised the art of tengu jumping – reminiscent of Minamoto Yoshitsune’s hassō tobi, it certainly seemed to come from the Kyo-ryu, passed down from the tengu of Kurama.
A number of Yoshioka students saw what was happening from afar, but nobody moved to help Seijirō. It’s true that they needn’t have interceded in the scuffle, but why did they look on passively? That was probably because they put so much trust in his skill and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Here comes the fuzz
The chief magistrate of Kyoto (Shoshidai), Itakura Katsushige, Lord of Iga, was informed immediately of the disturbance in the Imperial Palace. It was his job to deal with it. According to the Jozan Kidan, Katsushige took a naginata and faced Seijirō himself - however, this can be put down to exaggeration. It would have been highly unlikely for Kazushige, who was then in his 60s, to undertake something like this himself. The versions in which he sends his vassal, Ota Chuubei, seem far more probable. Chuubei, whose personal name was Kaneuji, was also known as Ryukage. He came from Hanawa-mura in Omi-kuni (present day Shiga Prefecture), and was skilled in the Yagyu Shinkage ryu. So, Seijirō, with an art directly transmitted from the Kyo ryu, itself descended from the Shinto ryu, would be facing Chuubei, who was skilled in one of the three great streams of swordsmanship, the Kage ryu. And it was not just the Kage ryu, but the extremely polished Yagyu Shinkage ryu that would be contrasted to the art of the, as yet undefeated, Yoshioka ryu – it was definitely something worth seeing.
As far as skill was concerned, both men were on a par. It was impossible to predict the winner. However, when they crossed swords, somehow, from the impact, Seijirō slipped. In the Honcho Bugei Shoden it says the cords of his hakama had come undone causing him to stumble and fall. If we check the Gekiken Sodan, it notes that he fell face upwards. Chuubei then spoke, “Striking a fallen foe is shameful for a bushi. Stand, and we will fight in the normal way.”
Seijirō took these words at face value. No sooner had he heard them than he began to rise. While he was doing so, Chuubei cut him down with a single blow. Those watching praised Chuubei for cutting down his opponent as he rose, but afterward his master, on the recounting of the victory, asked whether he should be proud of killing a fallen foe. With a faint smile, Chuubei replied, “In a situation like this, if you try to cut a fallen oponent, you will be opening yourself, and it is you who will be cut instead. Even when lying down, there is kyo and jitsu. When he was on the ground, Yoshioka may have been kyo or, then again, he may have been jitsu, but in any case, he was not an opponent it would have been easy to cut. While lying on the ground, he may have looked kyo, trying to defend himself, but it seemed that in the next instant he could have cut me as I drew close (jitsu). But whether it is really kyo or jitsu, it is not as if a fallen foe cannot regain his feet. Indeed, it is just at this moment that he is really in a defenceless kyo state. It was this that I was relying on when I struck him down.
The effects of Seijirō’s death
(As the Honcho Bugei Shoden notes, the magistrate Itakura Katsushige decided to take no action against the Yoshioka family because of the restraint they showed during Seijiro’s fight – which seems rather unusual). Seijirō was not head of the family, but if his name was so well known, word went around that the head of the family must be really skilled indeed, and the fame of the Yoshioka ryu echoed around the whole country. The quiet city of Kyoto was in shock … and the Yoshioka family, with its connections to the shogunal house of Ashikaga, came under the close scrutiny of the Tokugawa Bakufu. They were probably under extreme pressure. In the 10th month of that year, on the advice of one of their relatives, Mishuku Masatomo (1566-1615), Lord of Echizen, the Yoshioka family took part in the Winter Seige of Osaka, on the Toyotomi side. There is a theory that, when peace was declared, they took down their shingle, and abandoned the martial arts. After the war, based in the Nishinotoin Shijo-sagaru area, they learned kurocha dying from the Chinese Li San Kan to create what was known as nanban kurozome. The founder of this dyeing wasn’t Naotsuna (i.e. Seijūrō) but Naoshige (Denshichirō), it is said. They specialized in the business of dyeing, building up their fortune through their speciality Yoshioka-zome and kenpo-zome. (I must admit there are several inconsistencies in the way these accounts have been meshed, but I’ll let them pass).
The Yoshioka school of swordsmanship still just managed to survive, according to one account: in the Mukashi Banashi, a journal written by a warrior of the Owari domain, Chikamatsu Shigenori, it mentions that there were records of an adept by the name of Yoshioka Kahei in later years, who showed some of the secrets of the Yoshioka school to the Lord of Owari.”
Just to add to the confusion of names, the picture is Utagawa Kuniyoshi's print of Yoshioka Kanefusa.The picture clearly depicts Seijirō's battle at the Palace, but Kanefusa is also the name given, in some accounts, to Seijūrō, who fought Musashi. It comes from the wonderful Kuniyoshi Project.