Densho: The Importance of Note-Taking

The word “densho” is a common one which many who are involved in older Japanese martial systems are familiar with. It has a special place in many people’s minds to be a treasure of secret knowledge of how to do amazing techniques and invoke mystic powers. Did you know that you too can have your own special densho? It’s possible, as long as you bring a pen and notebook to class.


The word densho (伝書) means “a document of transmission” in Japanese. As the name implies, these are documentations that contain information pertaining to a martial system. These were written on different mediums, like orihon (折り本, folding book), makimono (巻物, scroll), tojihon (綴じ本, binding book), etc., depending on the time period. Densho is not only limited to martial arts, other fields used this form of transmission as well.

There are different grades of densho. They can come in the form of listing (目録, mokuroku), varying levels of grading such as shoden (初伝) and chūden (中伝), licensing (免状, menjō), mastery (皆伝, kaiden), and inheritance (継承, keishō). Those that represent inheritance are generally designated to one or few people, as it contains more important yet private information, which generally wasn’t shown to anyone else. Those that inherit a martial system as a new successor have to maintain their particular tradition, and not only have the right to add content to it that they see fit, but can also edit and change original content. This is expected by successors to take the time and update the knowledge every generation if they want the system to stay relevant in each generation.


Online presentation of sections from a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryū (無邊無極流). From Bujutsushi Ryōshūi.


Contents of a densho can range from philosophy of said system, to technique names (plus descriptions, if required), lineage list, poems, deeper instructions, invocations, and so on. Reviewing public densho shows that this is a tradition many martial schools practiced for many generations. The same can be said for this generation as well. The difference is that while in the past generations secrecy was of utmost importance for many martial schools, much of the contents are shared between just about anyone nowadays, especially with the openness and ease of access the internet provides.


A student should take notes of what they are learning each day they go to train in their respective martial arts style. There are several points that are important for this. For starters, taking notes help promote active learning, since it will engage you to analyze what you have physically learned. Note-taking also helps to prevent forgetting the lessons you are learning. Along with this, one should review and ensure their notes are correct, especially through clarification with their teacher.

If you stick with a particular school or style for several years and train diligently, you’ll eventually learn much of the necessary contents. Through note-taking, you’ll be able to maintain your own “densho” of that particular style, as you jot down the basics necessary for structural development, forms, techniques, philosophy, and so on. If a person puts confidence into their training, and are serious about the martial system they are learning, this will be illustrated in the notes they take. Thus, their “densho” can compare to that which is a few hundred years old…at least in terms of practical use.


While it’s possible to make your personal notes just as valuable as many have done generations ago, it still will not outweigh the ones that are in the possession of a headmaster who oversees a martial system. The reason is because theirs represent the tradition that is in their hands to maintain. Along with that, there are contents of said martial system that are not, and should not be, made knowledgeable to just anyone, even to their own students. The exception to this are those who will be selected as the next successor, or possibly to those who will inherit the system themselves. This is nothing new, and has been common practice for hundreds of years. Not knowing these contents are fine, as there is a lot of weight to bear for those individuals given such responsibility.

Two piles of notepads and other random pieces of papers I used for note-taking for most of my martial arts career (2 left pics). They’ve accumulated over the years. To reduce paper waste I’ve resorted to using a digital notepad on my smartphone, which helps in keeping neater and organized notes (right pic). Someday I’ll find time to sit down and compile them into actual books personal to me that I can treasure.


Another thing worth mentioning is it is not necessary to write every single aspect of the art we study down. Other than information that represents the identity of the martial style one is studying, such as poems and stories of the originator of said style, it is seen as near impossible. One reason is that if one is active in their training, then notes are supposed to literally be just notes; your notes are to be an outline and a reminder of key elements of the art we study, but the full art should be ingrained in our bodies. For example, a quick look at our notes should be to remember the specific sequence of a form, or the name of a technique, which after briefly looked upon, we should be able to perform or explain near flawlessly. Notes cannot capture the entire feeling of a movement, or the intention for making slight adjustments in our techniques. If anything, it is important to understand the philosophy and principles behind the techniques of what we are learning, and retain those in our notes. This is how a densho can be made and retained. That way, a student won’t be taught to move in a mechanical fashion, or demonstrate techniques only in limited context.


Densho is a means to pass down a martial system, which has been used for hundreds of years. It is an ageless method, and is used by martial arts schools in Japan today. By understanding its meaning, this is something that many students all over the world also do when they take down notes. Treasure your notes as something valuable, and in turn it’ll be a true densho with contents that can be passed down to future generations.

Shitsuden: Present-day look at past martial systems ~ Part 2

We continue our discussion on the term shitsuden and how it affects Japanese martial systems. In part 1, we learned that shitsuden indicates knowledge of technical skills or actual martial systems that have been discontinued based on one of multiple reasons, which labels them as “lost”. For part 2, we’ll explore the significance of shitsuden and how people not only study from shitsuden systems, but may try to revive them.


Individuals who study classical martial systems, or even modern ones with connects to older styles, may hear about specific martial schools or techniques that no longer exist. The word “exist” is a pretty vague one, but in simple terms it means they are no longer taught officially and/or being represented by a source that has licensing in them. For many this doesn’t affect their training at all, but for some, getting info regarding these, especially in the form of authentic documentation, is very enticing.

In Japan, documented martial systems that are shitsuden are treated in different ways depending on the value of the contexts. Some that are considered treasured works of cultural literature may be printed and sold in bookstores. Military-centric ones fall into this, such as Kōyō Gunkan (甲陽軍艦) and Kinetshu (訓閲集). Those that fit the above description, but possible from private collections and are in older condition may be donated to libraries and museums, where they can be kept and viewed by the public. Depending on instructions by donators, some of these documents are copied and, if permission granted, digitized and made available on particular libraries’ websites. If one is lucky, documents like this can actually be found at novelty 2nd hand bookstores that specialize in old & rare books.


A snapshot of auction listings from <>. Interestingly, a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryu Sojutsu (無辺無極流槍術), which is a branch of Muhen ryu (無辺流), was sold for 7,751 yen (around 74 USD).

Not all documented discontinued martial systems are made easily accessible. There are those that are put up for sale at auctions. Thanks to the internet, there are many Japanese online auction sites that almost anyone can take part in¹. Of course, as one would expect, this can be very pricey as those interested in the same documents may bid highly for them. Other than high prices, authenticity and state of condition of these documents are always a risk.


Once knowledge of particular schools or techniques are deemed lost, does that mean they are inaccessible for good? This is a topic that can cause heated debates, as recovering lost knowledge stirs up concerns regarding proper understanding for an individual to do such a thing, as well as credibility for doing such a thing. In Japan, there are different classifications regarding martial systems and how much change (or no change) has affected them from when they originally started. This can also affect support from into specific culture-preservation organizations, such as “Nihon Kobudo Kyokai” (日本古武道協会).

Here’s a perspective to consider. Martial skills of antiquity tend to have the appearance of value, legitimacy, and a level of unique character. Those that have no break in terms of successorship and years of operation tend to be praised greatly. Katori Shintō ryū (香取神道流) and Kashima Shintō ryū (鹿島真當流) are 2 martial schools that fit such description. However, if there so happens to be a break in successorship, a certain period of inactivity, or lost contents that had to be reconstructed, this gives an indication that said martial system was revived, which tends to “lower” its image of value. Sometimes the break can be as short as one generation, other times it could be longer. Common words used for such a case in Japanese are “fukkō” (復興) and “fukugen” (復元).

Let’s use Hongaku Kokki ryū (本覚克己流派)², a martial system of known for its yawara (柔, techniques for grapples and throws), as an example. This system is going through the process of being restored, as it was discontinued after the last active successor, Ōzu Ikusuke, passed in the late 1900s without designating the next heir. Years later, through the efforts of a researcher by the name of Ota Takemitsu and those members of the bujutsu research group “Bujutsu Kenkyū Keikokai” (武術研究稽古会), the techniques of Hongaku Kokki ryu are being brought to the public once again. From cases like this, we see that words like “fukkō” and “fukugen” isn’t a bad thing or a negative label. Headmasters who are honest with their martial system’s history and their intentions for trying to revitalize a discontinued martial system will state the fact.


A screen capture of one of the few vids of Hongaku Kokki ryu. For this particular one, you can access it through the link here.

Another example, I wrote an article a few years ago about a martial system called “Koden Koppo Taijutsu Genryu Tenshin ryu” (古伝骨法体術源流)³. Once considered a family style under a slightly different title, it was discontinued a few generations sometime during Edo period. It was later revived by a direct descendant, restructured to fit following headmasters’ needs, and is in full operation today. With such openness, it can be viewed that continual functionality is the main focus for martial schools as this. While continual transmission of a martial system is respectable, this doesn’t guarantee effectiveness or overall usefulness. It is really based on the student’s interest as a consumer.

Reviving an entire martial school from ground up is a tough feat, and one without scrutiny. Nakashima Atsumi and Kōno Yoshinori, 2 well-known scholars as well as specialists concerning Japanese martial arts, are headmasters of their own martial systems and techniques that were revived⁴. While the legitimacy of their systems is up for debate to some (i.e. how much of the original principles have be maintain, proper execution of techniques, etc.), this point has not hurt their careers, as they are quite famous even through their knowledge as researchers, and even sought after. On the other hand, in the case of Kurama ryu (鞍馬流)⁵, while it is recognized as a traditional martial system, it is viewed as a revived school that may not resemble its former glory. This is due in part of the main dojo along with official documents of legitimacy, training tools, and weapons of antiquity being lost to a severe fire in the mid 1900s. How much of the “lost” contents of the Kurama ryu was properly retained after being reconstructed cannot be verified due to no official documents to compare.


A screenshot of Kōno Yoshinori demonstrating a jōjutsu waza (cane technique) called “Kagebumi” (影踏み). Due to his popularity, there are many vids of him online conducting interviews, performing technical demonstrations, and so on.



There are instances where just certain parts of a martial system is considered shitsuden. Techniques for knowledge that are seen inapplicable for the times such as sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), eihō (泳法, situational swimming techniques), and kajutsu (火術, using fire-based weapons and strategies) tend to fall into this category for many older martial systems. Sometimes, it is not so cut & dry in terms of immediate usage, but could be based on internal politics between teachers and students, or said knowledge not being properly transmitted for several generations.

It is not uncommon for a headmaster to seek out a way to incorporate lost techniques. For starters, if said scrolls have adequate information, those individuals can spend time training & testing the contents, and at a later time begin teaching their students. If such method cannot be done in house, then there is another method which involves the knowledge being relearned from another branch of similar lineage. If relations are good between the different branches, that is, then this is possible; if there are any internal disagreements of any sorts, or no unity whatsoever, then they most likely won’t work with each other. An example of this is found amongst the different Shinkage ryū branches (新陰流の様々な分派), where certain older techniques and skillsets can be found in one branch, but not in another.

In other cases, certain skillsets that used to exist in a martial system may be relearned from the ground up. As an example, Hontai Yoshin ryū, once a sōgō bujutsu teaching various areas of weapons, primarily specializes in jūjutsu today, as well as bōjutsu and kodachijutsu. In the late 1900s, Inoue Munetoshi, the 18th headmaster at that time, established an iaijutsu curriculum using Toyama ryū Battōdō. This was for the sake of students having a better understanding of how to use the Japanese sword properly. While not considered part of the original transmission, usage of the sword through iaijutsu (and to a greater extent, kenjutsu) was something that most warriors a few centuries ago learned, even on a basic level, from other schools. Thus, there was no need to have a specialized sword system unique to Hontai Yōshin ryū. Since training in the sword is not common knowledge anymore due to how The Japanese society has modernized, newer generations need more in dept instructions without necessarily cross-training at a different school. This is one of the reasons why iaijutsu based on Toyama ryū is available in Hontai Yōshin ryū, even if it is not considered part of the formal curriculum.


We come to a close on this discussion regarding martial systems that are considered as shitsuden. Curiosity naturally attracts us to things that appear unique & exclusive. For others, studying from the past may have value worth sharing to others. While there’s many martial systems of Japan that have ceased, they may not stay buried in the past as long as people can uncover them and decipher their instructions.

1) For many, if not all, you would need to have an account that vouches you have a physical address in Japan. Along with this, a Japanese bank account or similar financial funding method that is established in Japan.

2) This is a martial system of former Hirosaki District (present day Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture), known to have been widely trained in by various warriors in the past. Creator was Soeda Gizaemon Sadatoshi (添田儀左衛門貞俊).

3) More on Koden Koppo Taijutsu Genryu Tenshin ryu can be read in an older post here

4) To be more specific, Nakashima Atsumi and Kōno Yoshinori are both martial artists and researchers on Japanese historical texts. Mr. Nakashima is the owner of several systems, including Katayama Hōki ryū Jūjutsu (片山伯耆流柔術). This particularly is regarded as a shitsuden system that was revived, at least in more lighter conversations.

On the other hand, Mr. Kōno runs his own group where he teaches his unique martial system which has a great focus on using efficient body mechanics according to older methods from Japan’s past. While his experience began with aikidō (合気道) and Kashima Shin ryū (鹿島神流), a great deal of his system consists of techniques and teachings revived from older texts he spends a great deal of his time researching.

5) More on Kurama ryū can be read in an older post here

Shitsuden: Present-day look at past martial systems ~ Part 1

There are many styles of Japanese martial systems that one can study today. From hand-to-hand systems, competition-driven systems like kendō and Atarashii Naginata (sports-centric “New-Style” Naginata), to classical systems, many study both in and outside Japan. Yet, with the variety that’s available, there is an even greater number of martial systems that are no longer available. While they are not physically present, traces of them exist in the form of handwritten scrolls, manuals, and licensing documents. A term for this in Japanese is “shitsuden” (失伝).

Today’s post will be the 1st of a 2-part discussion on shitsuden. This post will give an overview of what shitsuden means, as well as go over the prime causes of shitsuden in martial arts.


The term shitsuden refers to traditions or systems that possess specific types of skills, talents, or knowledge of applicable use that have been discontinued and no longer in practice (whether partially or completely). While commonly used in regards to martial arts, it is not a term solely for this field. Japan has a history of people specializing is certain areas of occupations which feature technical skills that are deemed significant to pass down to the next generation. Examples of this, but not limited to, are chadō (茶道, tea ceremony), nō, (能, theatrical performance), gakki (楽器, music instruments), and chiryōhō (治療法, medical treatment).

Passing traditions down supports the value in them, as well as ensures their survival into the next generation. Certain families would keep these traditions within their family line to elevate their worth, while some traditions are shared and supported by large numbers of people or groups. Martial systems is an area that is especially vast with an unfathomable number of individuals and families taking part in it one way or the other. Due to this, there is a great number of martial systems that have ceased and are considered lost, some more longer than others. Present day Japanese martial arts schools tend to talk about lost styles or skills that are related them, which peaks many practitioners’ interest to the point they do research on shitsuden styles…including myself.


What classifies certain martial systems, whether specific parts of it or its entirety, to be classified as shitsuden? Below are the following cases, which will be analyzed in numerical order.

① Local style

② Loss in value of use

③ Lack of inheritance

④ Sudden death of head teachers

Note that these are not the only causes of shitsuden, but possibly the most common cases.


Local styles were quite common in ancient Japan. Before this country was unified, most of Japan was made up of territories, countries, and the like. These areas were usually governed by a land owner of some sorts. Considering the openness of bearing arms by warriors, having a form of martial training locally was a necessity. Unlike how martial arts is treated today, some areas may have had their own special system that fitted the needs for the locales to be able to defend themselves; even if the knowledge came from a large, reputable style like Chūjō ryū¹ or Yagyū Shinkage ryū², the knowledge may have been reorganized for personal purposes and renamed. In other cases, these local systems may have been restricted from being shown or taught to those from different territories. Systems like these are known as “otomeryū” (御留流).


A portion of a printed scroll of “Shinshin ryu Iai” (真々流居合之巻き), a sword-drawing style once used by the warriors of Owari-han, Koka Prefecture. From “Watanabe Toshi-ke Monjo – Owari-han Kokamon Kankei Shiryō (渡辺俊経家文書-尾張藩甲賀者関係史料)

Due to being small, and possibly of no more use once the constant civil wars were ceased by the governance of the Tokugawa shogunate, local styles like these tend to come to an end. This is especially true for styles that were restricted from being taught to outsiders.


Maintaining value in combative arts differ depending of the time period. When Japan was divided, there was a need to be prepared to fight against invaders, or if needed to go to war. This urgency began to fade once Japan was unified and the people’s way of living changed. With the urgency to go into battle with neighboring territories turned to a thing of the past, training people for combat outside of the military became a minor occupation.

Several turning points played significant parts in affecting the waning need for martial systems. One of these was the unification of Japan in the early 1600s. Accomplishing this feat, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the 1st of the Tokugawa shogunate, wanted to ensure no more large-scale battles ever took place by prohibiting the use of battlefield weapons, as well as restricted the length of bladed. These restrictions affected those martial systems that possessed a curriculum for such purposes, causing them to abandon such weapons like naginata (薙刀, glaive)³ and yari (槍, spear), as well as putting away documented strategies for war like shirodori (城取 establishing a fort), jindori  (陣取, troop formations and positioning), and the likes.

Sections of kamajutsu (sickle techniques) from an old Takagi ryū Chūgokui Mokuroku. Only the names of the techniques are listed, but not how the actual techniques are performed. Thus, this skillset is lost. From “Takagi-ryu Chugokui Mokuroku” by Dr. Stephen Greenfield.


Another turning point took place after the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1868. The lead up to this involved bloody conflicts in public spaces, and assassinations on political figures as different groups struggled either maintain the currently established rule of the Tokugawa family, or reign in a new governing system in the name of the Emperor. With the Tokugawa forces losing in the final conflict called Boshin war, the military-centric government ended along with the abolishment of the Samurai class. This opened the doors for a new way of life for everyone.

After the political turmoil, Japan continues to surge forward in becoming more modernized. Along with focusing on different trades & businesses, citizens took part in more productive hobbies, activities, and recreations. What they steered away from was martial arts, especially the traditional ones. During the final years of the Tokugawa Bakufu, many martial styles still trained with a focus of killing or maiming. The violence that erupted during the power struggle that eventually lead to the end of the Tokugawa rule left a bad taste for many, which caused them to steer away from martial arts even more. Traditional schools either had to adapt their systems to the change of times and make it less “violent”, or to take down their sign boards and move on to another profession. While some schools were able to keep value in their systems through the use of competition such as Hokushin Ittō ryū, for the many that couldn’t adapt let their martial system discontinue.


Inheritance and how it was conducted is an interesting topic. Throughout history, inheritance is important in order to keep one’s family line going. The same goes for martial arts styles. In the past, inheritance is usually given to the older child, usually a boy. If no child by blood was present, then possibly a relative. Adopting someone into one’s family for the sake of inheritance was also a practiced option, as well as allowing certain individuals who are not blood relatives to “inherit⁴” the family name.

While he spoke about ninjutsu as a topic in many books, Fujita Seiko claims that he did not pass down the specifics of his own style of ninjutsu to anyone. Left pic is a page from chapter “Ninjutsu no Hōhō” (忍術の方法, The Methods of Ninjutsu) from his book “Ninjutsu Hiroku” (忍術秘録).


Regarding martial systems, there are cases where there was no heir present, which caused those headmasters to take the secrets of their respected styles to their grave. Then there are those unique cases where a worthy heir could not be found; some headmasters could not find the required traits in those around them to inherit their martial system, even in their own children. A popular case is in Fujita Seiko, who was a person who made a name for himself for his wealth of knowledge in different areas of martial arts in the early-mid 1900s. Although he passed down to his students systems such as jōjutsu, shurikenjutsu, and kenpō, he publicly claimed that the secrets of his family-style ninjutsu would not be taught nor passed down to anyone.


The sudden death of those with knowledge of a martial system is always a big concern. When headmasters, or even senior teachers for that matter, die at a premature time before teaching every aspect of a martial system, this leads to lost information. This is especially true when certain areas of skills are held back because they are “reserved” for those students that have reached a certain level or considered worthy. While there is merit in reservation, this can backfire if those areas are kept to one individual for too long.

An example that comes to mind is Kanemaki ryū⁵ and its current curriculum. During WWII, many teachers are said to have been recruited to fight, and is also stated that many lost their lives in the war. Kanemaki ryū, a school that teaches battōjutsu, is said to have specialized in more areas regarding kenjutsu, such as kumitachi (組太刀, sword techniques done in paired forms). However, this is no longer the case because the successor during the time of WWII went to war and perished before passing down this knowledge. While this is stated in numerous Japanese sites, there is no official word from the current school of Kanemaki ryū. If this case is true, then it is a standing example of how invaluable information can be lost.


This ends our look at the term shitsuden means and how certain martial systems can be classified under this. In part 2, we will look at how lost or discontinued martial systems are are collected, analyzed, and in certain cases, recreated.

1) Chūjō ryū Heihō (中将流兵法), which is well known for its kenjutsu, is an example of a shitsuden (lost) style. For more on this, please visit an older post here.

2) Yagyū Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) is a martial system that specializes in kenjutsu. A branch of Shinkage ryū, this particular line is maintained by the Yagyū family today.

3) This is in reference to battlefield-style naginata, which were longer and much heavier than the ones used for protecting one’s home or castle.

4) In some instances, a family name was given for political reasons, or to boost certain families’ power and influences. Sometimes granting the use of a family name had a price on it, whether it be with money or a different form of payment.

5) Kanemaki ryū (鐘捲流) is once said to have kenjutsu based on the teachings of Chūjō ryū. This included proficient use of a short sword like a kodachi (小太刀). To understand how it may have been, please refer to an older post on Chūjō ryū here.

The Parallel use of Kōhaku (紅白)

In the Japanese language, there is a word called “kōhaku” (紅白)¹, which stands for the colors red and white. Historically², these two colors play a unique role. They can be used in pairs, or at opposite extremes in distinguishing groups. For example, the colors on Japan’s flag are represented by the colors red and white. Other familiar items include “kōhaku maku” (紅白幕, red & white curtain), kōhaku chōchin (紅白提灯, red & white paper lanterns), and other types of decorations used for celebrations. The two colors are also used for food and treats, such as “kōhaku mochi” (紅白餅, red & white rice cakes) and “kōhaku manjū” (紅白まんじゅう, red & white steamed buns with various filings), which are commonly used for ritualistic occasions. In activities and sports, two teams are created for the sake of competition; one team is called “akagumi” (紅組, red team) and the other “shirogumi” (白組), and each may carry a corresponding flag or handkerchief as to indicate which side each member is one.


Examples of how red & white are used in the following: Japanese flag (top-left), kōhaku manjū (top-right), kōhaku chōchin (bottom-left), kōhaku maku (bottom right)


Recently, I came across two words in an old Japanese document I am translating, each based on one of the two colors mentioned above. The document in question is related to warfare and swordsmanship in the past, and features a section that deals with what a warrior can do even when no weapon is in hand. Although used separately, in the context the two words appear in really signifies the parallel existence that kōhaku represents.

Sections from the document Tsuki no Sho (月の抄), which feature the 2 words discussed below.


The first word is “sekishu” (赤手)³. Literal translation would be “red hand”, which is actually correct if we are talking about the color of someone’s hands. However, depending on the subject matter, the use of the color red has a different meaning. Here’s the dictionary definition from one of the resources I use for translations called “Kotobank“:



〘名〙 (「赤」はむき出しの意) 手に何も持たないこと。なんの武器もないこと。素手(すで)。空手(からて)。徒手(としゅ)


The above definition expresses that the manner in which red is used in this word is to mean “exposed” or “naked”. Together, sekishu stands for “bare hands”, or having no weapons in hand. It has the same meaning as other words of similar use, such as “sude” (素手), “karate” (空手), and “toshu” (徒手).

On a separate note, the word “hakushu” (white hand) doesn’t exist historically. Actually, there is the word “shirode” (白手) . It has no reference to fighting, but instead refers to a type of glaze used on porcelain.


Examples of fighting empty handed.


The 2nd word from the document is “hakusen” (白戦). If translated literally it reads “white battle”, but this is not the correct meaning. Taking a look at the definition once more found on Kotobank:



〘名〙 手に何も持たないで戦うこと。


Hakusen means “unarmed battle”, where no weapons are used to fight. The use of “haku” (white) is to express a plain, natural form, without the addition of anything else (in the form of weapons, those will add another flavor, or “color” so to speak). A similar word to this is “hakuheisen” (白兵戦), which also can refer to hand-to-hand combat⁴. As for an equivalent “akasen” or “sekisen” using the color red, none exists as far as I can tell from my research.

In conclusion, kōhaku has a strong cultural influence on words, actions, and events. Based on the context mentioned above, we see how red and white are used to mean literally the same thing through the two words sekishu and hakusen. These are great examples of the parallel use of the two colors that represent the word kōhaku. To this day, these colors are popularly used in special occasions in Japan year round, which can be experienced visually even in public events and festivals.

1) There are several ways of writing the word red. For kōhaku, the character “紅” is used. However, one of the more common ways of writing the word red is with the character “赤”. On top of this, there are different pronunciations for both red & white. Here’s what’s used in the article:

Red = aka, seki, ko

White = shiro, haku

2) There are several theories behind the origin of the word kōhaku. One theory is that the colors red and white were used to distinguish the warring armies as early as during the Genpei Gassen (源平合戦, 1180 – 1185). Another is that the word has even older roots, where the colors represent life (red, such as a new born baby) and death (white, such as the white garments worn by those who have passed away).

3) Can also be pronounced as “akade”

4) Actually, this is partially correct. The full meaning of “hakuheisen” is close-quarter combat, which primarily refers to the distance where warriors were close enough to use their pikes, swords, knives, and (if nothing else was available) fists or grappling techniques during Japan’s warring period in the mid century. The root of this is in the word “hakuhei” (白兵), which is a special terminology that refers to “unsheathed, bladed weapons” used for fighting, which became especially prevalent during 1500s. From Edo period onward, due to less dependency on large battlefield weapons and more development in martial techniques in civilian clothing, the use of hakuheisen adapted according to how fights were later conducted. Especially in the later years, hakuheisen was used to refer to numerous methods for close-range fighting, from bayonets to even CQC.

Nisshin Geppo in Martial Arts

There are many benefits in studying martial arts. While each individual has their own reasons for pursuing martial arts, everyone can gain in different ways if done long enough. In kobudō (Classical Japanese martial arts), which my group studies, we take part in many sessions of repeated drills, going through kata geiko, and engaging conditioning. The reason for this is to develop a mentality of “nisshin geppo”, an idiom of old in Japan that is still used with the advancement of society¹, which hints to how we can utilize what we are learning to benefit in the long run.

The phrase nisshin geppo is written with the characters as “日進月歩”, which translates as “steady progress, rapid advance”. In simpler terms, this phrase also stands for “self-improvement”, and how it’s written describes how we can do so. Self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but is something that we have to work towards on a daily basis. Each day we can get better at the tasks at hand or the activities we are involved in as long as we put time & effort in it. Consistency is the key here, for if we develop a regular routine, in time we can see growth in ourselves. Even if it’s not every day, a few times a week is also fine, just so long as there aren’t too many breaks in between.



Writing of the word “nisshin geppo”

As an example, having long practice sessions in a curriculum is standard for kobudō. This, along with reviewing & challenging what we are learning, keeps us from becoming complacent and thinking that we are already “good”. We have to consider that there will always be plenty of areas for growth, and prepare to adapt to the unexpected. Such as when we are sick or tired, when walking on wet surfaces due to rain or snow, after eating, growing older, and so on. A martial artist being in a constant state of 100% is not possible, which is why one should be ready to accept that training can be a lifetime activity of continuous work. This is an interpretation of nisshin geppo. On a positive side, possessing such an outlook will keep an individual in top shape and help develop a high level of skill.

Outside of combat, martial arts can be used for self-improvement as a human being. From a least noticeable perspective, some skill sets are multi-purpose, which make them beneficial even in our normal daily lives. For example, in our Chikushin group we have a special exercise called “Ukimi no Ho”, which entails training in different methods of stepping. While it’s prime purpose is to develop better footwork when performing techniques both empty-handed and while utilizing a weapon, its overall benefits extend to improving our natural habits for walking as it can be applied at any time during our daily routines. Another example is “ukemigata”, the method of performing breakfalls. Greatly seen by does who practice grappling systems such as jūdō and aikidō, ukemigata is necessary for avoiding damage from otherwise dangerous throws. Outside of the dojo, ukemigata can help to develop a natural ability to avoid serious injuries in unexpected scenarios, such as slipping while walking on an icy sidewalk, or catching oneself if tripping over computer wires while at work.

By understanding the meaning behind the idiom nisshin geppo, it is easy to understand that the notion of self-improvement exists in many fields of activities. Those dedicated in kobudō also have the means to strive for constant betterment in themselves through training. For the martial artist who has patience and desire for this, then walking this path is not at all difficult.

1) While my wife (who is a native of Japan) and I discussed the word nisshin geppo and its roots being that of personal growth for people and the activities they engage in, she also pointed out that nowadays this word can be seen used widely in relations to the advancement of technology in Japan.

Announcement of a New (Translated) Book

Late last year I was involved in a Japanese-to-English translation project for a new book. I am happy to announce that it’s finally being released this month!

The English version of “Ninja: Secrets of the Unsurpassable Heart” (left) will be available this September. The Japanese version, “Ninja “Makenai Kokoro no Himitsu”” (right), came out in July of 2017. Works by Teruhisa Komori.


Entitled “Ninja: Secrets of the Unsurpassable Heart”, it’s written by Teruhisa Komori, a professor of Mie University who specializes in psychiatric studies. To give some background information, this book explores more than just a historical perspective of the origins, activities, and techniques of the ninja, but incorporates Mr. Komori’s research on their physical, mental and spiritual fortitude and how they were able to succeed in their missions. The studies conducted give many hints on how these traits of the ninja can also benefit people in today’s technologically & socially-driven societies in terms of dealing with stress and issues that arise through it.

This is a Japanese-to-English translation of his original book “Ninja “Makenai Kokoro no Himitsu”” (忍者「負けない心の秘密」). As the sole translator chosen for this project, I was fortunate in being able to correspond directly with Mr. Komori to ensure that his writing was transcribed accurately as possible in English.

Unveiling of the book.


This book will be available through your typical retail bookstores and online retail businesses. For those looking for a more analytical and detailed look into what made the ninja who they were and the methods they used to do so, pick it up and give it a good read!

Click here to see its page on

Hayashizaki Shigenobu: Pioneer of Sword-Drawing

For over half a year, we have been working on the basic skills and finer qualities of battōjutsu, as taught in Chikushin Martial & Cultural Training Group. Having a great interest in battōjutsu early in my martial arts career, I’ve personally been training in this based on different instructions received alongside with kenjutsu. For those curious, battōjutsu (抜刀術) is a systematic approach to drawing out a sheathed Japanese sword to cut, often labeled as “sword-drawing” and “draw-cutting”¹. Generally the techniques for sword-drawing are widely recognized by a more modern title, “iaidō²” (iai for short), although there are certain martial schools that still use the term battōjutsu (battō for short)³.

For today’s article, we’ll take a look into the origins of battō (iai), which is tied to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu, the founder of this unique sword system. Sources used in writing this include (but not limited to) the following:



The origins of battō/iai as we know it today takes place around the mid 1500s by a young man named Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto Shigenobu (林崎甚助源重信). While many martial schools give credit to his extraordinary development of techniques for fast “draw-cutting”, the reasoning for him even creating such a sword style was under grim conditions. To understand this, we’ll look further into the family he was born into.

Pic of a statue of Hayashizaki Shigenobu, which is housed in Hayashizaki Iaijinja. From the book “Kanbon Nihon Bugei Shoden”.

While Shigenobu is widely known under the surname “Hayashizaki”, he was originally from the Asano family. He’s the son of Asano Kazuma Minamoto Shigeharu (浅野数馬源重治) and Sugano (菅野). Shigeharu, Shigenobu’s father, was once a guard acting as lead inspector of the northern section of the Imperial palace. From 1538 he was employed as an officer to serve Mogami Inaba-no-Kami Mitsuhide (最上因幡守満英), who was the 6th lord of Tateoka castle in Dewa Country (present day Murayama City, Yamagata Prefecture). Sugano⁴, Shigenobu’s mother, was from the Takagi family of Tateoka, Dewa Country. Shigeharu and Sugano would get married in 1540, and later have Shigenobu in Tateoka in 1542. Upon his birth, Shigenobu was given the name “Tamijimaru” (民治丸).

In the Asano family, their ancestral deity⁵ was “Kumano Myōjin” (熊野明神), whom they prayed to. Kumano Myōjin (also referred to as “Hayashizaki Myōjin” in some sources) was housed in a 3-room shrine within “Arayato no Ji” (荒宿の地), an area located in the northeast section of Hayashizaki grounds of Ōkura forest (present day Hayashizaki, Murayama City, Yamagata Prefecture). Shigeharu continued with these customs and paid his respects with his family when they had the chance to visit Kumano Myōjin shrine.



Sometime in 1547, Asano Shigeharu went to go play a game of Go⁶ with a priest at the Kumano Myōjin shrine. After spending his day doing so, he was returning home late in the night. On his way home, Shigeharu was targeted by a warrior named Sakaichi Unsai (坂一雲斎)⁷, who apparently harbored ill intentions against him. Using the night as a cover, Unsai ambushed Shigeharu and murders him. Later Shigeharu’s death is notified to his family members, as well as the identity of the murderer. Fueled with anguish, Sugano and her son plotted to get revenge against Sakaichi Unsai.

Shigenobu and his mother would remain in Tateoka, where he began receiving training in kenjutsu at the age of 8 from Higashine Keibu Tayu (東根刑部太夫)⁸, who was a warrior of Tateoka castle. In 1554, Shigenobu, at the age of 13, would periodically stay at Kumano Myōjin shrine to pray not only for protection and success in extracting vengeance to his family’s ancestral deity, but to receive further instructions to perfect his use with the sword. Armed with his late father’s family sword called Nobukuni (信國), he trained in the methods of kenjutsu, and worked hard in developing a style that would prove effective against his target. Instead of just merely practicing how to swing a sword in a duel-like fashion, Shigenobu focused on techniques that evolved around drawing the sword out of its sheath to deliver unpredictable cuts. The family sword he trained with was a rather long one, measuring to 3 shaku 2 sun⁹. Possibly made for use on the battlefield, this sword gave him exceptional reach. To effectively use it for fast-draw cutting purposes, especially against someone who used a shorter sword, Shigenobu would need to develop methods for drawing this long sword out with speed.



It is said that in 1556, Shigenobu underwent a special ritual called “Hyakunichi no Sanrō¹⁰”, where he spent 100 days at the shrine devoting himself to prayer for guidance in perfecting his ability in battō. Sometime during the evening of the 100th day, Shigenobu witnessed a divine vision. While sleeping, he was visited by Kumano Myōjin in his dreams, who demonstrated to him a secret technique called “Manji Nuki¹¹”. In learning this, Shigenobu became enlightened to the inner secrets of sword-drawing. With this revelation, he decided to call his sword system “Shinmyō Hijutsu no Junsui Battō¹²”, and set off to train further to a master-like level with the sword.

An insert from ”Jinrin Kinmō Zui, vol. #7″ (人倫訓蒙図彙7巻) from year 1690. Entitled “Iai Torite” (いあいとりて), it depicts a swordsman using methods of iai (sword-drawing method) to defeat 2 opponents. From Wikipedia.

Reaching the age of 18 in 1559, Shigenobu changed his name from “Asano Tamijimaru” to “Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto Shigenobu”¹³. This was to identify his growth, as well as paying homage to the grounds where he was nurtured into a swordsman, Hayashizaki. In recognition of this growth, his sword system today is respectively called “Hayashizaki Musō ryū¹⁴”,  as this title reflects how he was divinely enlightened in the secret methods of battō.

Assuming his new name and role as a swordsman, Shigenobu set out to fulfill his family’s desire for revenge on his father’s murderer, Sakaichi Unsai. This doesn’t happen overnight, however, as time was needed to possibly track down his target. This finally becomes a reality, for in 1561 Shigenobu was able to locate Sakaichi Unsai at his home in the capitol city Kyō (present day Kyōto, Japan). Details of the confrontation varies depending on the source which tells it, so no concrete info on how it transpired. What all sources agree on is that Shigenobu was able to cut down Sakaichi and successfully extract revenge. With his mission completed, he then returned back to his hometown, and paid his respects at Kumano Myōjin shrine. He also offered the Nobukuni sword to the shrine.



Upon returning home, Shigenobu was caring for his sick mother. However, a year after successfully carrying out revenge, Shiguno passed away in 1562. With no other responsibilities at hand, Shigenobu left Hayashizaki to travel around Japan and further refine his martial skills. He crossed into a few areas well known for their martial combat. For example, it is said that in 1563 he went to Kashima and received tutelage from Tsukahara Bokuden¹⁵ (塚原卜傳), founder of Kashima Shintō ryū¹⁶. Shigenobu was able to learn the secret method of Kashima Shintō ryū’s highest technique, called “Ichi no Tachi¹⁷”. It is also mentioned that he studied Tenshin Shoden Katori Shintō ryū¹⁸. Outside of kenjutsu training, Shigenobu studied “Onmyō Kaigō¹⁹ during his stay at Ichi-no-Miya (present day Omiya)²⁰ in Owari Country (present day Aichi Prefecture). The philosophy from Onmyō Kaigō was also incorporated into his sword-drawing style.

Outside of his own personal kenjutsu training, Shigenobu took the role of instructor for his own sword system. For example, in 1563 he resided in Yonezawa, Aizu (Fukushima Prefecture) for some time. During this, he was actively instructing his style of battōjutsu to those in Akai Village, Wakamatsu (Fukushima Prefecture). During the course of his journey Shigenobu gained other students. Notable names that developed their own sword drawing style based on Shigenobu’s teaching include the following:

  • Tōshimo Tsuke-no-Kami Motoharu²¹ (founder of Shinmei Musō Tō ryū²²)
  • Tamiya Heibē Shigemasa²³ (founder of Tamiya ryū²⁴)
  • Katayama Hōki-no-Kami Hisayasu²⁵ (founder of Hōki ryū²⁶)
  • Takamatsu Kanbē Nobukatsu²⁷ (founder of Ichi-no-Miya ryū²⁸)


A pic of Hayashizaki Iaijinja. From Wikipedia.

In his later years, Shigenobu stayed for about a year in the residence of his student, Takamatsu Kanbē Nobukatsu in Kawagoe, Bushū (present day Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture). In 1617, he received permission to leave on a short trip to Ōu (north-eastern section of Japan). However, during the same year he later became very ill in the middle of his travel, and passed away. Although he passed in an untimely manner, his name and his system of sword-drawing lives on. In recognition to his life, the Kumano Myōjin shrine was renamed to “Iaijinja” (居合神社).



This concludes the history of Hayashizaki Shigenobu, and how he developed the martial system of sword-drawing. I hope this was a good and informative read for everyone.

1) Other older names used for the system of draw-cutting includes “saya no uchi” (鞘の内), “iai” (different from the modern naming convention, these are written as either 居相 or 坐合), “bakken” (抜剣), and “nukiawase” (抜合).

2) 居合道. Iaidō is the modern, non-violent approach to sword-drawing, which stems from the older version “iaijutsu” (居合術).

3) There have been many debates regarding the differences between the names “battō” and “iai”. Some points made range from one specializing only in seated forms to one incorporating practices such as test cutting. The truth is, there are no real differences, for they both mean the same thing.

The use of either battō or iai throughout history lies on certain factors. One example falls on which naming convention was popular at given time. Another, depended on current headmaster of specific school and what principles & philosophies that were intended to be expressed. We also have to keep in mind that as Japan moved more to periods of less wars and conflicts, some surviving schools changed their curriculum from being combat-oriented to self-development. Iaidō is a prime example of this.

All in all, while the various sword-drawing styles of today may focus on specializing in certain traits, the underlining meaning between the words battō and iai are the same.

4) Sugano is unusual as a given name. On top of this, she is also associated with another name that is written as “志我井”. This could possibly be her given name, but pronunciation is obscure.

5) Known as “soshin” (祖神)

6) 碁. Go is a Japanese board game where players try to dominate the territory of their opponent.

7) Some sources also indicate that he was known by the name “Sakagami Shūzen” (坂上主膳).

8) “Tayu” is not his given name, as it indicates his position or rank. Why is his given name not revealed is unknown.

9) 3 shaku 2 sun = 96.96 cm or 38.2 in.

10) 百日参籠

11) 卍抜. Another way it is written is “Manjiken” (万字剣).

12) 神妙秘術の純粋抜刀

13) This is done in a ceremony when a boy reaches his coming of age, which is called Genpuku (元服).

14) 林崎夢想流. Also known as “Shin Musō Hayashizaki ryū” (神夢想林崎流). Take note that Hayashizaki Shigenobu himself did not name his sword system this, but later generations did in remembrance of his contribution.

15) There is an article about Tsukahara Bokuden, which can be read here.

16) In Japanese sources, this is mentioned in a vague manner, as it is stated alongside with Shigenobu’s travel to Kashima to study under Tsukahara Bokuden. Under who and exactly where he studied Katori Shintō ryū is not made clear. While historically Bokuden learned Katori Shintō ryū at a young age, as an adult he started his own martial system.

17) The full title of what Shigenobu is said to have been taught is “Kashima Shintō ryū Saikō Hiden Tenka Dai Ichi no Ken” (鹿島新当流最高秘伝天下第一之剣).

18) 鹿島新当流

19) 陰陽開合. While the exact details are not described, this is related to rhythmic exercises, which is found in specific martial systems such as Taikyokuken (太極拳).

20) Old name is 一宮, new name is 大宮

21) 東下野守元治

22) 神明夢想東流

23) 田宮平兵衛重正

24) 田宮流

25) 片山伯耆守久安

26) 伯耆流

27) 高松勘兵衛信勝

28) 一宮流