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


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks Chris for this superb article and of course all the articles are superb.