Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sendan no uchi – the sandalwood strike of the Shinkage ryu

A small branch of sendan, showing the way the leaves diverge from the
stem in pairs at each node.
Of course, it’s the cherry trees that garner most of the attention in Kyoto in spring, but it was another tree that caught my eye a few weeks ago as I strolled along the canal. Not a shoot or a sign of a bud, (and even now, at the end of April, when everything around it is a mass of new leaves, it is only tentatively putting forth a few green shoots) but the plaque tied around the thick trunk proclaimed the tree to be a ‘sendan’. I’d had an interest I this tree ever since I came across the somewhat cryptic references in Yagyu writings to the technique and concept of ‘sendan no uchi’.

A quick botanical note – sendan (Melia axderach) is also known as the bead tree or sandalwood; however, it is not the true sandalwood (byakudan) (of the incense type), although the word sendan is sometimes used to describe that tree, too. This may be the route of a well-known saying:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The literal meaning if this is sendan is fragrant even in bud, and it is often used metaphorically to refer to the presence of a person’s talent from childhood.

I had come across sendan in the writings of Yagyu Jyubei, and while his style is fairly clear in itself, it is ­– like most of the writings of the period – meant for initiates of the style. His father, Yagyu Munenori, also mentioned the technique, and in both cases the references left me wondering how they related to the sendan tree.

This was obviously also a problem for translators of Munenori’s works into English. In the notes Wilson included in his translation of The Life Giving Sword it says:

“The meaning of Bead Tree (Melia axderach) is obscure, but it may be an allusion to the “Bead Tree Board” or sendan no ita… (a piece of armour) protecting the lacing connecting the chest armour to the back.”

Although, in this case, I don’t believe it has anything to do with the sendan no ita, Wilson’s understanding of the term itself (“This seems to have been a way to avoid striking and being struck at the same time”) is correct as far as it goes ­– unlike Thomas Cleary, who gets it the wrong way round (“The sandalwood state of mind is a code term for slashing twice in exactly the same line.”)
I was hoping Yagyu Toshinaga (20th headmaster of the (Yagyu) Shinkage ryu) would make things clearer: he wrote that sendan no uchi (the sendan strike) was a reminder not to fall victim to aiuchi – the situation in which you are hit at the same time as you hit the enemy. Instead, one strike is just slightly always ahead of the other.  I must admit that, to me, the reference was not altogether clear on this: from what he wrote it could be inferred that sendan no uchi is aiuchi, which is clearly different from what the early generations of the Yagyu had written –  a similar reference occurs in writings from the Eishin ryu attributed to Oe Masaji, a noted headmaster of that school in the mid 1800s, who quite clearly says that sendan no uchi is, indeed, the same as aiuchi.

Oe Masaji (with his daughter)
It also seemed that the both Munenori and Jubei’s understanding of the term is broader. But in all cases, the key feature is that it refers to two of something. In the case of aiuchi, it is two swords both striking. In the case of Munenori and Jubei, the meaning appears to be that of two diverging sword trajectories.

In either case, the meaning derives from the saying mentioned above:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The key to the meaning is in the word futaba (bud), which is written with the characters for ‘two’ and ‘leaves’. The character for leaf, ‘ha’ (or ba) has the same pronunciation as that of blade, and thus futaba can be taken to mean two swords.

In this sense, it is, as Cleary stated, a code term related to two actions.Whilst by the 20th century, it seems to have become a term that referred to aiuchi, Munenori and Jyubei both expressly state otherwise (which we will get to later). In both cases the connection with two swords is clear.

It would have been a little disappointing if the symbolism went no further than the saying (although that seems to be the primary source for it), so I was especially interested to see an actual sendan tree.

What I saw, in the pre-bud stage, suggested that the shape of the tree might have played some role in the adoption of this saying by the Yagyu family. It is also interesting to note that this is attributed to Hikita Bungoro (by Munenori, I believe) who perhaps had an affinity for trees… he seems to have been a bit of a wanderer, and Jyubei mentions another of his teachings that features tree symbolism, koyo metsuke (the red maple leaf gaze).

Hikita Bungoro. He was a student of
Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and senior to Yagyu Sekishusai, and thus
 the generation above Yagyu Munenori.

So, the question remains, how does the symbolism of two relate to the technique Munenori and Jyubei are talking about? What is key, I think is the way that the shoots diverge. Looking at the pictures, what struck me first, on seeing the tree, was how sword-like the bare branches looked. This was especially noticeable with the amount of blossom and new leaves on all the surrounding trees; in addition, each new branch has its opposite, which diverges at an angle from the main branch. To my mind, this suggests the idea of alternative angles/paths of attack, and this is what may have been in the mind of the Hikita Bungoro when he named the concept (if, indeed, it was actually he who did so).

Jyubei says:
My father said the true meaning of sendan no uchi was to be found in the state of mind known as futaba. Although it is bad to strike and step together, it is valid to do so, to avoid the tip of the enemy’s sword and strike his hands. To slip off the line of the enemy’s attack is called sendan (with ‘sen’ being written as tip)….
As two shoots share a single source, the equivalent of that source is the hands. It is a strike to separate the hands from the body.

The concept of angling is key in the teachings of the Shinkage ryu, and seems to be a key element in this technique/concept. Whereas the + is the key shape for syuji shuriken techniques, with sendan, I think it is the V , with the point of the V being the opponent's hands, one line being the line of the opponent's sword, and the other the line of your own sword. It is a technique which enables you to slip off-line and strike the enemy, (so avoiding aiuchi). Both Jyubei and Munenori mention its use against a spear (a very difficult thing in itself) and the possibility of using it as a one-handed technique, but overall, it seems to receive less treatment than syuji shuriken with which it has certain similarities.

Finally, the term kanbashi has another meaning: to be preferred or superior. Thus sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi could also be rendered as 'avoiding the path of the opponent's sword is preferable to aiuchi', a sentiment with which we can probably all agree.


  1. I'm quite interested to know which source you are referring to when you write, "writings from the Eishin ryu attributed to Oe Masaji." Thank you.

    1. I'll have to check my notes and get back to you on this…hopefully in the next day or two.

    2. Thank you. I look forward to your reply.

    3. …and here it is.
      I found it on this blog, under the heading below the link.
      2014年8月 1日 (金)
      It's in Japanese – I don't know whether that is a problem for you, but so much stuff in this area is in Japanese. I hope it's some use to you.

    4. Thank you for your reply. However, while the article you linked to talks about Sendan no Uchi, it is not by Oe Masaji of Eishin Ryu. It is by Soda Torahiko of Eishin Ryu who is quoting from Yagyu Ryu Shinpisho.

    5. Thanks for the correction. I must have misread it, – I thought there was some reference to Oe Sensei.