Thursday 30 May 2024

Unlocking the Secrets of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū

The late Otake Risuke, master of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto R

 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū is one of the oldest extant schools of martial arts in Japan, with an unbroken lineage from late medieval times, blessed (until recently) with an open and charismatic sōke who oversaw the teaching and passing on of his skills and knowledge to the next generation while managing to maintain quality control at the same time as expanding its popularity.

It was also notable as the principal koryū studied by Donn Draeger, and through his influence became the point of entry for many non-Japanese interested in older martial traditions. Because of this connection, it was also featured in the BBC documentary ’Way of the Warrior’, becoming familiar to another generation of practitioners outside Japan and it was because of both of these that I learnt about it first myself.

It has a broad technical repertoire utilizing a number of weapons and, unusually in traditional Japanese martial arts, involves quite long kata which are done at speed (and also, at least at one time and depending on the circumstances, also practiced out of doors). Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening in these kata, especially as targets are substituted for the real target to allow a longer sequence and to hide the true nature of the attacks from outsiders. There are several videos online of Otake Risuke demonstrating and explaining parts of these kata, and one can only assume this is the tip of the iceberg. Although such explanations give us an insight into the meanings of the kata, it must be viewed as a partial explanation of the system as a whole - there is, no doubt, very much more that is kept within the teachings. However, it gives enough to have good idea of how deceptive surface appearances can be. 

At first glance, the kata appear more combative than those of other schools - there is much clashing of bokken and the pace is fast. In fact, they look like the kind of choreography you might see in a movie. When Otake explains the techniques it opens a window to understanding, but there is more left unexplained. Two of the points he stressed were that targets are predominantly those areas that would be left minimally protected by armour, and that the targets which are shown in the kata are not the real targets. Strikes made in the kata are typically blocked (for want of a better word) by the opponent’s bokken, or avoided, and although it is sometimes easy to see where the cut is aimed, often the intended target is purposely obscured.

Looking at the kata more closely, there are several other points common to much of Japanese swordsmanship. Many schools of sword stress the ability to make a straight downward cut; their kata feature this as an attack (albeit often an unrealistic one) and often begin with a number of cuts that are obviously not directed at the opponent. (You can see this in the introductory kata of the TSKSR.) Putting aside considerations of reigi (proper behaviour and respect, custom, even religion) that may have influenced these kata (and these aspects should not necessarily be downplayed) what purpose does this have? I believe it is intimately bound up with the style of fighting, one which relies on assessment of line and distance, and one which sees attack as the best defence. These initial cuts are a means of establishing one’s own awareness of the line of the sword, the line which you use to attack and, vitally, must defend against. Understanding and being able to see this line is a vital component of effective swordsmanship: creating and manipulating this line within oneself is an important step towards this.

Otake explaining the finer points of technique to a student

The kata of TSKSR feature a wide variety of attacks to different targets, but still, many of them derive from this basic downward stroke; some other schools keep this focus through whole series of kata. In branches of the Ittō Ryū, for example, understanding this is basically the main point of the whole school. It is not something that a student can develop quickly, but continually returning to this motion will, it is hoped, bring an unconscious understanding. The vital corollary to this is being able to read the line of the opponent’s sword, and this is the basis of all the defensive (for which also read 'attacking') moves.

If line does not seem to be as immediate a focus in TSKSR as in some schools, the same cannot be said of distance, and this, indeed, is key to a proper understanding of the kata. An awareness of this can be seen in the avoidance of cuts by stepping back or taking one hand off the hilt to avoid a cut to the wrist. The importance of this is greater than it first appears, for it is axiomatic in this school that “if you can block, you should cut”, which is to say, in principle, all the ‘blocks’ or ‘parries’ in the kata were actually meant to be cuts, either to the attacking arm or to some other part of the body. (I have seen many a discussion online in which people marshal a variety of evidence - often including reference to TSKSR kata - in argument against this, usually along the lines of “it’s in this kata” or “if it’s a matter of life or death…”, largely unconvincingly). 

I don’t train in TSKSR, nor do I make any claim to understand all the minutiae of the style, so feel free to disregard my opinion on this, but I think the above gives an accurate insight into what makes the sword techniques work. It is an interesting training method, and not having experienced it from the inside, I can’t give any direct comparison with other modes of training. From an outsider's perspective, it seems that some of the kata moves involve strikes of bokken against bokken that are far from the intended usage, even though the speed and rhythm of the kata is much closer to how the techniques might have been used 'for real'.  Like all kata, the effectiveness will depend on how good the attacks are and how much pressure is put on the student, and of course there are trade-offs. 

The vexed question of just how to conduct effective training was something that remained on people’s minds well into the twentieth century. I suspect that, in many cases, kata devolved into a choreographed performance in which the participants relied on foreknowledge of the attack to defend against it, not to mention attacks that were not committed enough to cause much damage even if they had hit. Overcoming these problems is where the advanced levels of training come in, and at least one commentator, Joseishi, an adept of the Shingyōtō ryū, noted that the inner teachings of a style are a development of what was taught as the basic principles, and the importance of sensitivity in developing skill.

For an insider’s view of TSKSR, I recommend listening to this online talk given by Aiden O’Reilly, who does a good job of introducing the style, as well as making some interesting comparisons with another style he practises. (See if you can spot my question towards the end).

Friday 26 April 2024

Golden Spring - Japanese historical fiction

                                                    FREE novella available here: Golden Spring

It has taken me long enough, but finally I have my 1930's mystery novel, The Tiger’s Gate available on pre-order on Amazon and most other online bookshops (only as an e-book so far but that may change).

Not only that, but my prequel novella, Golden Spring is available for download free here. You have to sign up for my newsletter to get it, but I promise I won't flood your inbox with emails.

The series is set in 1930's Tokyo, and in Golden Spring, our hero, Oshima Kai, is reminiscing about his time as a soldier in Manchuria and his old friend, Boss. Hired to escort the daughter of a local industrialist as she travels to the Golden Spring Resort, the two comrades look forward to a break from the monotony of a soldier’s life.

Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as they planned and instead of the relaxing weekend he’d hoped for Oshima finds himself involved in a deadly intrigue.

For those of you who enjoy period details and immersing yourself in a culture a little different from your own, this might be just the book. Throw in a shadowy fixer, bandits, a military spy master and mysterious woman and there's a bit off something for everyone! And if you like it, why not take a look at The Tiger's Gate. I hope you enjoy them!

For more information, see my website:

Now I've sorted that out, I might get down to writing a few more blogs!


Saturday 16 March 2024

Passing of a master – Kuroda Tetsuzan (1950-2024)


Kuroda demonstrating battojutsu (screen shot from

Tributes to Kuroda Tetsuzan, master of the Komagawa Kaishin Ryu kenjutsu (as well as related schools of iaijutsu and jujutsu) have been slowly appearing online, marking the passing earlier this month of a martial artist of rare skill, who had polished and refined his skills, passed down through his family, into something quite unique.

I never met him or had any connections with his school, but he clearly displayed impressive and unusual body skills developed, as he explained, through strict adherence and analysis of the kata passed down to him. He was able to illustrate facets of these skills in a variety of ways, opening aspects of his art to those outside his school. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of this approach in Japan, of bringing the body skills of traditional Japanese arts to a wider audience, through books, seminars and DVDs. Kono Yoshinori (who was a friend of Kuroda's) and Akuzawa Minoru (founder of Aunkai) are two others who were (and still are) similarly involved in making such skills more widely known, but it was Kuroda who kept strictly to the art that was passed down to him. He has preserved and passed on the kata he was taught, and it is these that he sees as being invaluable to developing the skills of former generations of bugeisha. 

Watching him in action, his movements are clearly different from other schools of classical martial arts – the sudden change from one position to another and the very specific use of the body, for example. You can get a good idea of his concerns from an old (rather long but highly illuminating) interview by Stanley Pranin from the Aikido Journal. This is a short extract:

Since we stress kata [forms] training just as is done in other traditional Japanese martial arts, I don’t think there is anything that can be said to be particularly different in our method. I teach concrete, practical mental and physical techniques to enable students to realize the essence of the art through these kata.

A teaching called zegoku itto no koto has been transmitted in Japanese swordsmanship from olden times. When confronting an opponent one aims for a level where the movements of his mind and body control the opponent before he swings his sword. This is the highest level of swordsmanship. It seems to be a rather abstract spiritual teaching, but that’s not at all the case. It is an “invisible” technique which consists of advanced technical movements and the workings of the spirit based on these movements. All martial arts training begins with learning how to perceive this invisible element.

Kuroda Tetsuzan (2002)

The interview is from 2002, but from what I've seen, I assume his approach has not changed, however much his skills might have developed. What I think the interview gives is a sense of the importance of kata and how they can be used to develop particular skills. In these times when so much is available on video to be endlessly critiqued, when various forms of combat and combat sports are being practised and researched across cultures, when so many arguments are reduced to whether something works in sparring, it is not always easy to see the value of closely held secret methods of training or stylised kata that are not clearly (or clearly not) applicable to combat or self-defense. Some people have looked deeply into classical arts and derived real value from them, developing skills beyond the ordinary. Kuroda was one of those people.

Sunday 31 December 2023

Musashi’s Dragon Painting

Close up of the cover of the book on Musashi's ink painting (I've only ever seen one).


Another year draws to a close and the Year of the Dragon begins here in Japan (yes – it is a somewhat odd combination of the Chinese lunar New Year that begins a couple of months later, and the western New Year).

The imperial connections of the dragon in China are well-known; in Japan there was a strong connection with esoteric arts and Zen Buddhism in particular (at least in art) where they are seen as protectors of the Buddhist law. In this respect, they are still to be seen on the ceilings of many temples in Kyoto – some of them dating back to the late Muromachi  period (late 1500s). Some of these are on public display, some in areas only open to the public during the special openings in the spring and autumn, and some are rarely to be seen at all - perhaps only when peering through the wooden slats into the gloom. Some of these are very evocative, some less so, but they certainly have a power in situation that is difficult to reproduce in photographs.

Ceiling by Kano Tanyu at Daitokuji, Kyoto

The same may be said for the many dragons depicted on sliding doors and screens, some of them very powerful, others quite strange (or even both in the case of some of Kaiho Yusho’s paintings, where the dragons loom out of the darkness as presences quite different from the scaled creatures of Chinese lore. I wrote about some of the great dragon paintings (Master Dragon Painters), and strongly recommend seeing them in the flesh if possible. The reality of a painting is more than the image itself - the setting, the lighting, the size, the texture, the sense of antiquity, - all these add something to the experience that make it more than visual alone. With ink, the age of the paper, the way the ink has sunk in, faded or worn off – the patina of age, I suppose you could say – is part of the work. 

Kaiho Yusho on display at Kennin-ji, Kyoto

Kaiho Yusho's dragon from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto (close-up)

For whatever reason, I have always found the works of Miyamoto Musashi particularly powerful in the flesh (not something I’ve had the chance of doing very often, mind you), but I have not had the chance to see his dragon painting. Of course, he is better known for the more modest creatures he depicted, things he had seen with his own eyes, but at least one dragon painting survives (and there is supposed to be another, even more elusive one, too). 

It's not a good reproduction, but I hope you get the idea.

This painting is little known; it is scarcely visible on the internet, even on Japanese sites, but it exemplifies his art in several ways and is well worth closer examination. 

Like many of his paintings, it combines strong brushwork with a sensitivity to tone and depth. The brushwork is dynamic, using layered light and dark ink in increasingly powerful strokes to delineate the dragon’s head and claws. There is a dryness, almost asperity, in the use of dark ink in the claws, the teeth, and the barbels (whiskers) that extend whiplike into the empty space on the left of the composition. These echo the sharp curves of the waves and the dragon’s neck as it emerges from the blurred depths of the clouds. 

The dragon faces left into space, but his eyes look elsewhere. The look on his face is mild, even sheepish, recalling some of Kaiho Yusho’s dragons. (It is quite likely that Musashi had seen and perhaps made copies of Yusho’s work). What is he looking at? 

As I’ve written before, there is recognition now in art circles that the pairing of dragon and tiger had strong associations with military divination, and these connotations would have been familiar to many warriors. It is possible that this painting was one of a pair – I have seen it suggested there could have been a tiger, or as in the case of Kaiho Yusho’s works, another dragon. Perhaps the eyes are a clue. 

If this was painted as a stand-alone piece, Musashi was a knowing enough artist to be aware of the tension that a single element of a pair would create. Japanese (and Chinese) art emphasized the interplay between elements in a variety of ways. These might be purely visual, or they might be symbolic. The balance could be achieved in a single work, or in a pair, such as the tiger and dragon, or in the sliding doors on all four sides of a room. Sometimes, it would be in the mind of the alert viewer, where a clue might furnish the missing element, or the mere absence might give cause for consideration of what was not there.

Rhythm and the interplay of kyo and jitsu (empty and full - a kind of yin and yang pairing that was used in a variety of technical explanations) were key features of martial arts, so it should come as no surprise that Musashi would be particularly alert to such possibilities in his art. 

In this work, perhaps, the dragon is a symbol of the wisdom of both the natural and higher realms and it is the viewer who is approaching as a student hoping to gain the treasure of understanding. Here we are putting ourselves in the place of Musashi, who had spent his life on such a quest. And perhaps, in the guise of a dragon, Musashi is looking back at us.

You may also be interested in the following two posts from last time the year of the Dragon rolled around.

The Master Dragon Painters

A Deeper Reading of Musashi's painting

Also, for more on the connection between paintings and military divination: Tiger Paintings - a martial dimension 

Saturday 16 December 2023

The Last Maple Leaves - a spot of samurai tourism and historical impressions of the passing season

Detail of a pair of screens showing the 4 seasons © The Trustees of the British Museum  

The last of the leaves of the cherry trees have dropped, the light is sharper, and the chill of winter is here. Even so, traces of autumn remain - drifts of yellow leaves below the ginkgo trees and the deep crimson of the maple leaves serve as reminders of the passing season. Traditionally, Japanese aesthetes hint at the coming season in their choice of hanging scrolls or flower arrangements, but with a season as beautiful as autumn, it is hard not to look back.


It is a season that has particular resonance in poetry, and it is no surprise that the nobility of Japan, the cultured elite who had spent long hours in the study of poetry and appreciation of fine turned words as much as the scenic beauty of the season, made the most of seasonal allusions in their work. Very often, they used images that brought a sense of loneliness, of the shortening days and the growing chill that seem in stark contrast to the beauty of the season's foliage. These included flying geese, the autumn moon, and the mating call of deer.

This is a typical example by Minamoto no Shitago (911-83)

This world –

to what may I liken it?

To autumn fields

lit dimly in the dusk

by lightning flashes.



The warrior class also took pleasure in this season, though their means of enjoyment were a little more active. A screen painted by Kano Eitoku (rediscovered in 2005) is a fine example of this. It shows the pleasures of spring linked to Uji, to the south of the capital, and those of autumn being enjoyed in the Sagano area, which now lies on the north west edge of Kyoto. Small groups of figures can be seen enjoying pass times such as visiting temples and falconry.

The Sagano area is a prime destination for tourists today, too, and the screen shows the Togetsukyo Bridge, still a major draw. The pleasures of travel have long been enjoyed in this country, with those who could afford it indulging in many of the same behaviours as we do now - particularly, or so it seems from this account, whirlwind visits to famous places:


 Off to the right we passed by Shūryūji, where Hosokawa Hyōbu Daibu (Fujitaka) had his castle; next we went to Matsuo Shrine, then to Hōrinji, near the gravesite of Lady Kogō; next to Arashiyama and Tonase Waterfall. We then crossed the Ōi River and reached Tenryūji, in front of which we found a memorial stone stupa for Lady Kogō under a cherry tree...


From Shimazu Iehisa's entry in his travel diary for 26th May 1575 (from M.P. McKelway, Screens for a Young Warrior, Impressions no. 30)


The enjoyment of autumn leaves has a long tradition, too. Momiji-gari (hunting maple leaves - although the hunting is to be understood as a leisurely walk) was a popular autumn pass time of the nobles and samurai classes, trickling down to common folk at a later date. It was also the title of a Noh play (and subsequent reworkings in other forms) dating from the late 15th century, in which Taira Koremori dallies his time away with a beautiful woman in the mountains, only to be put into an enchanted sleep from which, his companion does not intend him to wake. A divine messenger appears in his dream, alerting him to his danger, and with the help of a magic sword, he is able to dispatch the woman, now revealed to be a fire-breathing demon. There are several variations of the basic story, but the play on words in the title is interesting, as the female protagonist (she is actually a kijo, or female oni) is called Momiji (Maple Leaf).






























In this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi the reflection of the oni's face can be seen in the sake cup at the bottom of the picture in a common variation of this story. In the top right of the picture is a reference to Chapter 7 of The Tale of Genji, in which Genji attends a maple viewing party and takes part in a dance (hence the small hand drum).


Above all, the autumn foliage is something that should be enjoyed in company, perhaps as an antidote to the solitude and melancholy also associated with the season, so I will leave the last word to Murasaki Shikibu (the writer of The Tale of Genji):

‘A sheaf of autumn leaves admired in solitude is like damasks worn in the darkness of the night.’



Tuesday 21 November 2023

Sound principles - sound and awareness in swordsmanship

Ichikawa Raizo playing the blind swordsman in the film
Daibosatsu Toge: Ryu no Maki. His character (who was
blinded at the end of the first film in the series) was famous
for his otonashi no kamae (lit. noiseless kamae)

The days shorten, the leaves turn red, the scent of kinmokusei fills the air and in the evening the crickets chirp mournfully. As the autumn kicks in, it is not only the sights, but the scents and sounds that make up our experience of the season. The same is true of my training in traditional martial arts.

Anyone who has spent time training in a traditional dojo, especially in Japan, will have been struck by the sound of bare feet on wooden boards, the resounding thud as a body hits the mats, or the clash of wooden weapons, part and parcel of the environment in which the training takes place and the equipment used. There are other sounds that have more specific and deeper resonances and uses, in training.

Unsurprisingly, much of the training in traditional martial arts involves training the body – not just making it stronger or more flexible, but learning to use it differently. Indeed, training is largely a process of embodying skills to the extent that the body takes on a new identity as it moves. To do this needs powers of observation and sensitivity to a whole variety of physical and mental processes, some of which may not have been noticed previously or were not thought to be important. Becoming aware of and then using these is not an easy task - they are open to misinterpretation and difficult to nail down. Developing them so that they may support functional skills requires sensory input on multiple levels.

Katsu Shintaro as Zatoichi, the most famous blind swordsman

The role of sight and touch goes without saying, but sensitivity to the quality of certain sounds can also play a role. Below are just two examples from my experience of learning to use a sword.

The sword puts particular demands on the trainee – you cannot always look to see where your sword is, and even when it is within your field of vision, it may be moving too fast to be able to adjust its movement based on visual feedback. This is especially true of a live blade, when mistakes can have immediate and dramatic consequences. Dave Lowry makes a comment in his book Autumn Lightning about his worried demeanor as a teenager – it wasn’t girlfriend troubles but worrying about how many stitches it might take to sew him up if he made a mistake sheathing his sword that occupied his mind.

An awareness of your blade is vital when wielding a sword. This includes not only the path it takes, but the angle of the blade, too. This may be obvious, but it is sometimes more easily said than done. You can’t look to see where it is or gauge its angle, and so you become more alert to other clues. Sound is part of this.


A bamboo thicket - a familiar location for those tasked 
with keeping a dojo in bamboo for cutting practice

One of the acid tests of sword use, for those schools that practise it, is cutting. It is not the kind of practice which you can perform slowly to make sure you get it right. The pull of the left hand must be fast, the cut must be fast, too. It is not something you can do repeatedly, either – at least not if there are a number of other people hoping to cut and the supply of cutting material – always green bamboo in my own experience –  is limited. The cut is a confirmation of your practice, or a chance to correct your technique more-or-less on the fly. Either watching others cut, or cutting yourself, the blade can move too quickly to allow accurate visual judgement. You cannot watch yourself, or even check the position of the sword for much of the technique.

The sound of the cut, of the sword going through the green bamboo (or the horrible crash of the uncut piece of bamboo hitting the floor) can give important feedback on the quality of the cut. As a rule of thumb, the quieter the cut, the better it is. A wetter sound often indicates a better cut than a dry ‘crack’. The type and quality of a sword blade can affect the sound, too – a thicker blade will sound different from a thinner blade. And some swords are just exceptionally good at cutting – they are exceptionally sharp, well-balanced and responsive to good technique. Sufficient experience, especially in a dojo with a strong cutting practice, allows students to develop a fine appreciation of the sound as they develop and refine cutting technique.

Nakadai Tatsuya (r.) playing the same character as Raizo 
in another version of Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword
of Doom). Here we see him practicing his otonashi no kamae.

Leaving cutting aside, many other aspects of sword use can be difficult enough. In drawing the sword, for example, the line the sword takes as it leaves the saya, or sheath, is vitally important. This is not something the trainee can check visually – much of the movement is taking place outside their field of vision, so it is important to develop this through ‘feel’. The sound made by the sword through this part of the movement becomes part of the experience of the movement, and is also a useful means of gauging if this aspect of the draw is correct.

A common mistake in what is one of the most fundamental draw and cut movements, yoko ichimonji, (which involves drawing the sword, then cutting horizontally from left to right), is to begin moving the sword to the right before it has fully cleared the saya. Even if this movement is slight, it will cause the sword to scrape along the inside of the saya. Concentrating on completing the draw as correctly as possible, the trainee may not feel this contact – it may also be all but impossible to see by those watching –but the sound it makes is a giveaway. In fact, the sword should leave the saya with just a whisper – the mune or ridge of the sword runs along the corresponding surface of the saya, almost soundlessly. If the sword does not run straight, that characteristic sound will not be heard.

Raizo again, this time from one of the Nemuri Kyoshiro series. This series
also highlighted the swordsman's unusual (but plausible) technique.

Watching other students, one by one, drawing their swords, what might escape the eye will not escape the ear. When it is your turn, you are well aware that the eyes and ears of the dojo are upon you – mistakes will not go unnoticed. As a student, your ear becomes attuned to the quality of sound of the draw, and this becomes a useful yardstick for judging your own technique.

The descriptions above may sound a bit mechanical, but the experience is far from that. Sound is just one of the sensations that form the technique. There is so much going on, even in simple movements, that the conscious mind is frequently overloaded. Indeed, you cannot think your way through the movements. Much of the awareness and control occurs behind the scenes. As training continues, the student becomes more familiar with the mental and physical processes the techniques depend on, as well as enlarging the range of sensory perception and increasing sensitivity to a range of stimuli as a step on the road to control and mastery of him/herself, the art and the enemy.

As alluded to at the beginning of this post, the everyday sounds of a traditional dojo also make up a part of the experience of training, and can remain deep in the memory long after they are no longer a part of everyday life. I have only to think of the Kyoto Butokuden to hear the sound of the taiko drum in my mind, even though it is more than a decade since I was last there. 

The drum at the Kyoto Butokuden (now Budo Centre).

On a similar note, but a rather more grisly one, I remember, but one of the senior members of the dojo was talking about how his grandmother used to tell him off, as a boy, for dropping his wet washcloth on the bathroom floor. She told him the sound was just like that of the heads she had heard fall under the executioner’s sword when she was a girl! When all’s said and done, it is sometimes good to remember what swords were all about. 

Sound was just one part of the highly developed awareness
of a master swordsman - here we have Raizo again.


Monday 10 July 2023

Everyday Training the Samurai Way

All study and no (sword)play... what is a bushi to do?

It is sometimes tempting to think of the practice and training of martial arts in pre-modern times in monolithic terms, as if there was an ideal model, perhaps followed by a master in retreat at some secluded temple or shrine. On closer inspection, this seems unlikely as social conditions and the role of the warrior changed as the times moved from a period of perpetual war to one of relative peace, not to mention the varying requirements dictated by different roles and relative professional positions, even within the warrior class in Japan.

Having given that caveat, it must be conceded that traditions of martial practice in Japan enjoyed far greater continuity than those of Western Europe, even if it is generally acknowledged that the techniques that have reached us today are very likely not the same as those practiced by the founders of those traditions. One aspect that must have been of great concern at all periods was how to develop and refine skill.


There was, of course, the demanding, often repetitive physical training that must have formed the basis of most trainees’ experience. This is likely to have been intense, and yet quite unlike the military style drill common in some more modern disciplines, a development that seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of militarism in the early 20th century.  

Omori Sogen performing a kata

There were other sides to practice, too. Omori Sogen (1904-1994), a 20th century Zen priest and practitioner of the Jikishinkage ryu who had clearly put plenty of time and energy into his physical practice (this was a style which includes strong elements of both kata and sparring (in the style of kendo) in its curriculum), spoke of his approach to the practice of kendo in his younger years. He explained that he developed the attitude that life itself was a perpetual series of contests. Every encounter or situation in life could be seen as a clash with an opponent in which any negative reactions he felt meant the situation had scored a point over him.


As he matured, he saw the mind that could be developed during kendo practice as being the same as that developed by the practice of Zen:

 “For example, a person who practices Kendo holds his bamboo sword and faces his opponent. If he forgets his opponent and his ego, enters samadhi, and truly experiences this state, then even when he puts his bamboo sword down, he must be able to maintain this frame of mind. Usually, however, it is a different world when he puts his bamboo sword down.

(Omori Sogen: The Art of a Zen Master by Hosokawa Dogen)



A kendo dojo from a postcard dated 1915

This might be seen as typical of the Zen inspired approach of the later C19th and early C20th, a time when a measure of social freedom combined with the idea that personal efforts could reshape the world (efforts that were often centered around violence, it must be said). It seemed to have a particular appeal to young men, and was a direct factor in Japan’s road to war, both with the wave of assassinations that removed some of the less militaristic politicians from office in the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as the precipitating event in the invasion of China. It must also be said that Sogen was closely involved with groups advocating such methods, (to the point of being hunted for by the police) although his own account stresses that he felt the time was not right for assassination. (He also attempted to persuade Prince Konoe to appoint a less hawkish minister of war, so it is difficult to categorize him in political terms).

This approach, to life as well as martial arts, stresses the power of intention and the strength of will over technique. To be sure, this is always a major factor in confrontation, but one that has inherent weaknesses (exemplified in aspects of Japanese military doctrine in WWII, not to mention the unfortunate tendency to veer towards extremism). Older martial disciplines were shaped by the greater range of resources, technical, psychological and social, from which they drew the elements of their curricula.

Detail from a painting by Noguchi Tetsuya

While Sogen pursued mastery in Zen, swordsmanship and calligraphy, seeing commonalities in them all, Matsura Seizan (1760-1841), writing some 150 years earlier, presents an interesting contrast. A man of wide learning, he is known principally for his literary accomplishments, in particular his multiple volume collection of essays, Kasshi Yawa (Nighttime Tales of The Year of the Rat). He came from a very different social background – he was the daimyo of Hirado, a small island just off the coast of northwest Kyushu (where the English sailor, Will Adams, landed) – and although he retired at the age of 46, prior to that he set up a school for academic and martial studies, the Ishinkan, and a library that eventually had some 10,000 volumes (Rakusaikan Bunko). He was also a noted swordsman and author of several works on that topic.

It is clear from his writings that he considered sword use far more broadly than Sogen did, which is unsurprising, as swords were routinely carried by bushi until 1876. What may be more significant is that he stresses care and attention to surroundings rather than Sogen’s emphasis on single-minded determination, as a key to understanding the deeper teachings of the art, a reflection both of the more complex demands of Seizan’s social position, as well as the perspective of swordsmanship as training for use (in protection and for ceremonial uses as well as, potentially, for war), rather than primarily for personal and spiritual development. (It may added that it is entirely possible that Sogen did not receive the deeper teachings of his style – Sogen says his teacher did not consider any of his students to be his successor.) The flavor of his writing may be seen here:

…for those who are recommended to accompany their father, older brother, or master, it is necessary to be familiar with etiquette. Because this spirit of etiquette stems from the spirit of vigilance, if you perform this duty well, it will carry over to the heart of swordsmanship. Those who feel they cannot understand this roundabout explanation do not have the real spirit of swordsmanship. But when it is time to impart the himitsu ken (lit. the secret sword) from the inner teachings of our school, those who have resolved to maintain this excellent spirit of caution in daily life will already have the necessary attitude and approach.” 

(From Joseishi Kendan in The Samurai Mind by Christopher Hellman, p.54)

Training in calligraphy started young for a well-brought up samurai.

To take this a step further, Seizan’s insights may also reflect another aspect of many traditional ryu-ha. These schools possessed great depth and breadth of teachings, some of which were reserved for those of the requisite social or professional standing. They might include teachings on strategy and generalship, as well as more esoteric subjects such as divination. Students who were generals or daimyo were likely to be exposed to more than simply fighting techniques and tactics, and though Seizan’s writings give no direct evidence of specific teachings, it is very likely that his social position would have had some influence on the teaching he received.

While Sogen saw kendo as a way to achieve the same state of mind that was sought through seated Zen meditation, Seizan’s approach was rooted in everyday experience:

The master always said, you should go beyond the importance of winning contests in the practice hall. On the contrary, your normal state is of primary importance.”… (here he uses the example of maintaining a serious demeanor at a mourning ceremony to show that a superior man does not show his true feelings in his countenance.) “…for those who value courtesy, we might put the analogy forcefully and say this is the essence of swordsmanship…The wise certainly took care not to lower their guard. Swordsmen also think like this.

(The Samurai Mind, pp 92-3)

I will leave the last word (almost, anyway) to Miyamoto Musashi from Alexander Bennett’s translation of Gorin no Sho:

“The mindset in the Way of combat must be no different from one’s normal state of mind. In the course of your daily life, and when engaged in strategy, there should be no change whatsoever in your outlook.”

Miyamoto Musashi exhibiting heijo-shin. 
(Actually, this is Mifune Toshiro in one of the films in Inagaki Hiroshi's Samurai Trilogy)

This is what terms Musashi heijo-shin (everyday mind); however, it is not everybody’s ‘everyday mind’. As Hidy Ochiai (A Way to Victory: The Annotated Book of Five Rings) comments, “The everyday mind of an ordinary person is not called heijo-shin, for it is not based on the true inner strength that can be attained only through a hard and authentic training.”

And that is something I’m sure both Omori Sogen and Matsura Seizan would agree on.

For more about Omori Sogen:

For more about Matsura Seizan - I spelt his family name wrong – it should have a single rather than double u – at the time I was translating his work I took the pronunciation to be the same as the nearby Matsuura City (written with the same character).