Phases of Martial Structuring: Kyūsen no Michi ~ Part 2

This is part 2 of the discussion on Kyūsen no Michi. Here, we narrow our focus more on the components that defined how this militaristic system worked to craft those into warriors according to how battles were engaged and played out. Whereas the usage of the word “kyūsen”, along with militaristic history of Japanese archery was covered in part 1, for part 2 we will go over the known different groups & styles of archery, as well as a few recognized innovators concerning the bow & arrow. This discussion will also include some categorizing within the world of kyūsen, along with some comparing and contrasting, will be in order.

A good number of handy sources were used for this discussion, including the following:

Take note that part 2 became much bigger than intended in order to give a proper insight of Japan’s archery. Despite it’s size, it does not give a 100% definitive overview, as there are some information not added, lest it grows into something on the level of a research paper. Still, part 2 should provide enough insight on how significant and respected Kyūsen no Michi was to the point that many warriors invested their lives into it.

KORYŪ VS SHINRYŪ

In order to properly cover the specifics that make up Kyūsen no Michi, it is important to know that, on a technical and cultural level in relations to combat purposes, there are two types of archery (kyūjutsu in Japanese). The first is called Koryū kyūjutsu (古流弓術, Old-style archery), while the second is called Shinryū kyūjutsu (新流弓術, New-style archery). The categorization of these are both based on time period, equipment, and technique:

  • Koryū – Ancient times, with notable structuring from Heian period until early 1400s period
  • Shinryū – Around late 1400s onward until the abolishment of the warrior class in late 1800s

MANY SCHOOLS OF ARCHERY

Due to how integral kyūjutsu was in a warrior’s career, many groups specialized in it. Some groups preserved the lessons on archery as their own family styles, while others would learn that particular style and represent it usually indicating that they are a branch of it. Below are lists of some of the well known archery styles throughout Japan’s history, along with the founder and the time they were alive.

The first one is for those that fall under the Koryū kyūjutsu category:

Kyusen List01

The next list shows the styles that fall under the Shinryū category:

Kyusen List02

Along with this, are the different branches related to Heki ryū:

Kyusen List03

While the records pertaining to archery found in manuals & documents list these mentioned above and many more, take note that a lot of them are no longer in existance. The styles that are still active include Ogasawara ryū, Honda ryū, Takeda ryū, and Heki ryū Insai ha.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OLD & NEW

Here are some general descriptions between Koryū kyūjutsu and Shinryū kyūjutsu. Note that this is more in reference to how they were conducted before the warrior class was abolished as a whole.

A listing of archers of Taishi ryū, by rank. From Kanbon Nihon Bugei Shoden.

Koryū Kyūjutsu

  • Generally categorized as reisha (礼射), or “ceremonial-centric archery”, due to the emphasis on etiquette, customary practices, and focus on displaying shooting prowess.
  • During battles, archery was primarily use, both from long range to close range
  • Off the battlefield, archers demonstrated great focus and control while shooting targets at various distances.
  • Engaged in outing activities requiring feats of shooting while on horseback, such as hunting, and special target courses classified under Kisha Mitsumono (騎射三物)
  • Unison between rider and horse, called “jinba ittai” (人馬一体) in Japanese, was important
  • Considered a developing practice since ancient times, ceremonial practices within archery slowed abit due to power struggles from Heian period to early Muromachi period, as archers in battle was of necessary use
  • Once the ways of Koryū kyūjutsu was seen non-viable in combat during Muromachi period (around start of 1400s), it was revitalized and preserved in Ogasawara ryu through restructuring.

NOTES

  • Despite being considered reisha due to its high focus in shooting ability and ritualistic customs, Koryū kyūjutsu had fighting elements and was indeed acceptable training for combat
  • While much of the skillset emphasized on shooting from horseback, archers did also practice shooting while on foot
  • On foot, the bow was held at an angle when shooting arrows.
  • Although some existing styles such as Ogasawara ryū Reihō (小笠原流礼法) practice solely reisha, few groups such as Bushido Shinkōkai and Dai Nihon Kyūbakai preserve the fighting element of Koryū kyūjutsu not only with the bow & arrow, but with the tachi and naginata.

Shinryū kyūjutsu

  • Generally labeled as busha (武射), or “military-centric archery”, as this was designed specifically for use on the battlefield according to the new direction wars were approached.
  • Developed during Muromachi period between mid to late 1400s, when the tactics of war switched to large infantry, formations, and close range skirmishes
  • For the sake of combat efficiency, archers primarily performed on foot, but also had knowledge on how to shoot while on horseback
  • Archers were trained to coordinate together using group tactics
  • Trained to work under all types of conditions, including wet/bad weather, at night, on a boat, in a tower, and when the need to switch to close range fighting arised
  • Used barricades, such as tate (楯), as defense against long range attacks, as well as fenced areas as protection against flankers/disrupters
  • Contested with firearms (i.e. rifles, cannons) from mid-ending 1500s.
  • From Edo period (1603~1868) onward, once firearms took precedence in how wars were conducted, groups such as the Shimazu clan retained the effectiveness of archery by studying & incorporating rifle formations.

NOTES

  • Shinryū kyūjutsu isn’t completely unique and different. It was built off of koryū kyūjutsu, inherited certain aspects, then redefined specifically for combat purposes, thus why it’s called “the new style of archery”
  • Yoshida Shigeharu (吉田重春) is credited for implementing customary practices to Heki ryū starting in the mid 1600s. However, as it is not the same as reisha of Ogasawara ryū, Heki ryū’s is called taihai (体拝).
  • Today, existing Shinryū kyūjutsu styles such as Heki ryū retain busha, as well as practice taihai.

DIFFERENCES IN TECHNIQUES/EQUIPMENT

Here’s a short comparison between Koryū kyūjutsu and Shinryū kyūjutsu.

A mokuroku (list of techniques) of Ban Dōsetsu ryū kyūjutsu. Fron Kanbon Nihon Bugei Shoden.

Koryū kyūjutsu

  • Archers used larger bows, such as fusedakeyumi (伏竹弓, made out of wood and bamboo) and marukiyumi (丸木弓, curved wooden bow)
  • During the Heian period, wore large box-like armor called ōyoroi for added protection
  • Smaller draw due to technical issues such as mobility limitations while on horseback, large kabuto (helmet), etc.
  • Archery done by cavalry was called kisha (騎射)
  • Closing the range while on horseback increase accuracy to vulnerable areas
  • Wore tomo (lefthand glove) to prevent string from injuring hand on return
  • Carried tachi on left side

Shinryū kyūjutsu

  • Used smaller bows
  • Archery done while walking was called hosha (歩射)
  • From the Muromachi period onward, archers wore revised, slim fitting armor, which allowed less restrictions in drawing skills and mobility while on foot
  • Used larger draw and other techniques to increase an arrow’s power and penetration capabilities (i.e. allowing the bow to turn ccw in the hand)
  • Carried uchigatana (slightly shorter battlefield sword for upclose fighting) and unique equipment to adapt to certain situations, such as uchine (打根), spear point on top of bow, etc.

DISTINGUISHED INDIVIDUALS

Below are a few renown archers that are pioneers in Japan’s history of archery.

Ogasawara Sadamune / 小笠原貞宗

Picture of Ogasawara Sadamune. From Shūko Jisshu (集古十種). From Wikipedia.

 

  • Born in 1292, Sadamune was a warrior from Matsuo, Shinano Province (present day Ida City, Nagano Prefecture)
  • As a member of the established Ogasawara clan, he worked for the Kamakura Bakufu through Hōjō Sadatoki
  • Made a name for himself in Heian Kyō (Imperial capital, present day Kyōto) during the early-mid 1300s, as he participated in many battles such as the campaigns against the Mongol invasions, assault on Emperor Go-Daigo, the attack on Kusunoki Masanari’s Akasaka castle, and the battle of Kamakura
  • Sadamune earned merits for his efforts, was named “Shinano Shuei” (信濃守衛, Protector of Shinano), and established his residence in Shinshū prefecture.
  • Known for his involvement in zen, and was a worshiper of Marishiten, the “God of War” (武の神, Bu no Kami)
  • Sadamune created “Ogasawara ryu Reihō”, which features the rituals, etiquette, and customs practiced by high-ranking warrior families
  • Ogasawara ryū Reihō contains reisha, the preservation of Koryū kyūjutsu, which includes ceremonial practices, expert level with the bow & arrow, and feats of archery while on horseback
  • Sadamune established the principles of “sha – go – rei” (射・御・礼), which are the standard for reisha
  • His contributions inspired others to learn and add this to further their worth as warriors

Heki Danjo Masatsugu / 日置弾正正次

A picture of Heki Danjo Masatsugu. from the collection of the Toda household of the Bishu-Chikurin branch. From Wikipedia.

 

  • Birthdate is uncertain, although some sources say around 1444
  • Believed to have been born in either Yamato Province (present day Nara Prefecture) or Iga (present day Mie Prefecture)
  • Originally studied Henmi ryū, Masatsugu participated in many battles in the northern parts of Japan, such as Ōnin War (1467~1477)
  • While serving as a warrior, Masatsugu had opportunities on the field to utilize the bow & arrow according to how it would prove useful
  • Main focus on the redivision of archery was on militaristic usage, both in and outside of the battlefield.
  • Established the principles of “kan – chū – kyū” (貫・中・久¹) as the highest level of Heki ryū kyūjutsu
  • After a life of battles, Masatsugu traveled around Japan to test his methods. It is from this time he meets Yoshida Shigekata.
  • After choosing his successor (Yoshida Shigekata), Masatsugu retired by living in one of the temples within the mountainous region called Kōyasan located in Kishu (present day Wakayama Prefecture)
  • Some of the titles he used includes “Rurikōbō” (瑠璃光坊) “Dōi” (道以) , and “Itoku” (威徳)
  • Masatsugu is known as the “pioneer who revitalized the archery of Japan”, as he brought attention to the new ways the bow & arrow could be used in battle during a time where many viewed them as obsolete.
  • Despite his fame through the effectiveness of Heki ryū, much mysteries surround his existence, to the point where some researchers speculate that Masatsugu could be a fabrication

Yoshida Shigekata / 吉田重賢

  • Born 1463, Shigekata came from Gamō County, Ōmi Province (present day Ryūō Town, Gamō County, Shiga Prefecture)
  • Was a retainer of Rokkaku Sazaki in Ōmi Province (present day Shiga prefecture)
  • Shigekata was a skilled archer, studied different archery styles such as Ogasawara ryū, Takeda ryū, and Henmi ryū
  • When Heki Danjō Masatsugu came to visit the Rokkaku clan, he encountered Shigekata and tested him on his archery abilities. Yoshida was able to pass the test, which from there Masatsugu instructed him on the highest levels of Heki ryu before passing successorship to him.
  • Discerned the effectiveness of Heki ryū according to the times by organizing the lessons
  • Shigekata is recognized for passing down the teachings of Heki ryū to others through his family style “Heki Yoshida ryū”, which held the highest teachings of this style of archery.
  • Not much info on him, despite his legitimate family line
  • Due to the lack of info, some researchers speculate if he and Heki Danjō Masatsugu were the same person

CONCLUSION

We’ve come to the conclusion of Kyūsen no Michi. This is just a small sample of the large amount of information found in Japan’s archery history, especially when dealing with the technical side of things. Stay tuned, as we will move on to a different phase pertaining to how Japan’s methodology to combat changed and developed.


1) There is another version, which is “hi – chū – kan” (飛・貫・中). They are not 100% the same. Here’s a quick explanation.

  • kan – chū – kyū = Penetrate the target, always hit the target, and last long enough to keep doing the first two points
  • hi – chū – kan = Shoot from long range to hit the target, always hit the target, and penetrate the target

They are both associated with Heki ryū. The difference may be between the different branches and the methodology that was passed down in each one.

On another note, there are other modernized 3-point principles, but they pertain to kyūdo and are geared more towards one’s shooting form.

Phases of Martial Structuring: Kyūsen no Michi ~ Part 1

The next martial system that influenced how the bushi fought is called “Kyūsen no Michi” (弓箭の道), which translates as “the path of the bow & arrow”. An older term that comes from China, there is very little differences, if any, from Kyūba no Michi (弓馬の道). Much of the practice of archery as a system for military purposes has been covered in a previous post part of this series. Due to the role the bow & arrow played in Japanese history, the topic of Kyūsen no Michi will be divided into 2 parts. For the first part, to avoid restating similar info from before, I will go over the existence of the term in various documents, as well as a brief summary of the use of archery in Japan during warring times based on certain criteria.

DOCUMENTATION

The word kyūsen, which can also be pronounced as “kyūshi” or “yumiya¹”, is but one of the preceding labels that identify the use of the bow and arrows for war purposes. The term may have been 1st adopted sometime after the 9th century, with one of the influences possibly being a song found in “Heishakō²”, which is a collection of war-related songs composed by a renown Tang Dynasty poet named To Ho³. Although short, the stanza goes as the following:

“行人弓箭各在腰”

This line translates as the following below:

“The warrior departing for war carries a bow and arrows at his side”

Artwork called “Ujigawa” (宇治川), which depicts two warriors riding into the Uji River with bow in hand, rushing towards an ongoing battle. Artist is Haishi Kōji. From the book “Jōyō Kokugo Benran” (常用国語便覧).

As much of the culture from China was being brought over to Japan, many aristocrats would share contents such as Chinese poetry and literature, and adopt what was written into their lifestyles. The warrior class would do the same, as they adopted many things related to the bow, from methods on how to make a bow from specific materials, to adding ceremonial customs that would treat archery almost like a religious practice.

The word “kyūsen” would appear later in Japanese works, such as Heiji Monogatari (平治物語), Heike Monogatari (平家物語), Taiheiki (太平記), and Azuma Kagami (吾妻鏡). In the way it’s used, kyūsen depicts someone who’s a warrior, or those who were disciplined for military activities. It is expressed that for one to be accepted as a bushi (武士, warrior) or trained in bugei (武芸, martial skills), learning how to use the bow & arrow was an important part of it.

EARLY HISTORY

We learn that the bow & arrow was placed in the center of the warrior culture from written accounts of warfare from the 12th century onward. With bows in hand while on horseback, warriors were ready to let their arrows fly as depicted in events such as the attacks in Kyōto during Heiji no Ran (1159-1160), disputes between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the Genpei Gassen (1180-1185), and the continual unrest due to the establishment of militaristic governance throughout the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

Pic of part a of picture scroll where warriors using bow & arrow are attacking residence of the burning Sanjō Palace. From “Heiji Monogatari Emaki” (平治物語絵巻).

For combat, common tactics with the bow & arrow included ya-awase (矢合わせ, raining arrows) at the commencing of a battle, and kibamusha (騎馬武者, mounted warriors) using the bow while closing the distance. Despite acting as an army, infantry and elite soldiers engaged with the enemy in 1-on-1 skirmishes predominantly. Outside of combat, warriors spent their time using the bow & arrow in pasttime activities known as “Kisha Mitsumono” (騎射三物). This included equestrian recreations where one displays their skills in shooting. Hunting was also an activity warriors spent their time doing, usually in groups.

Since the Japanese spent centuries battling one another due to internal strife and a struggle for power, their tactics were, for the most part, universal amongst the many warrior families and armies commanded by feudal lords. This would change, however, once their country was in danger to an outside threat.

MONGOL INVASION

In the 13th century, Kublai Khan declared himself not only emperor of Mongolia, but acquired sovereign power in China and made Korea submit as a vassal state. In the mid 1200s, he would then turn his sights on Japan and threatened them to submit under his control and order several times. Despite advise from the Imperial court, the current shogunate at that time (primarily controlled by the Hojo clan) refused. After making preparations, Kublai would set out troops from both Mongolia, China, and Korea, and put forth the 1st Mongol Invasion on Japan in 1274⁴. As the first real foreign threat, almost all feudal lords and warrior families combined their efforts to fight for their country instead of for personal gain against one another. They did their best to prepare their forces and head to the northern border of Kyūshū, which is where the Mongolian forces used to embark on Japan.

While the Japanese expected the same customs for conducting battles based around their tried and true strategies, they were gravely mistaken; their customs and strategies were ineffective against an enemy that did not abide to them. Instead, they were faced with unpredictable tactics from the invaders, which included advancing and retreating tactics by archers, and multiple attackers against single opponents. The Mongol force also utilized weaponry far advanced, such as smaller bows that had a heavier draw, poisoned and fire-rocket arrows, explosives, and swords with more curvature. The leather armor that the Mongol invaders wore also gave them favorable defense against the Japanese weapons such as the tachi; although long, the blade of the tachi was thin, with accounts stating that they broke after becoming snagged in the leather armor. As for the bow & arrow hailed favorably by the Japanese warriors, it did not fair so well either; its initial purpose of shooting down single opponents proved difficult against enemies who would retreat out of its effective range, or close the gap in groups. Such unforeseeable tactics brought much fatalities within the Japanese warriors’ ranks, especially in the earlier battles.

Section of the artwork depicting invaders from the Mongol army fighting against Japanese warriors. Here, a kibamusha (cavalry warrior) is slain. From “Mōko Shūrai Gassen Emaki” (蒙古襲来合戦絵巻)

In the end, the Japanese warriors were able to win through the natural occurrence of high winds that sank many of the invaders ships at night, alongside with night raids on any surviving ships. Defeated, Kublai Khan would wait several years before attempting another invasion in 1281, only to face similar results due to ill-prepared sea vessels against turbulent winds on the sea. Despite their overall victory, the Japanese discovered that there were flaws in their current arms & tactics, especially those that heavily depended on fighting on horseback and using the bow & arrow. In order to compete with the outside world, they had to adopt new weaponry, and improve on their tactics.

NEW TACTICS

Although starting after the 1st phase of the Mongol Invasion, military groups and specialists put great effort in redefining their approach to warfare once the threat of Kublai Khan was over, especially during the later years of the Kamakura period. For starters, greater emphasis was placed on larger numbers of troops. In order to utilize troops better, battle formations were also incorporated, which divided them into groups and serving specific purposes. With a larger army, swarming & rushing upon the enemy became the prime objective, which had troops focus more on using close-range weapons, such as the uchigatana, nagamaki, and the yari.

While the skill level and etiquette associated with the bow & arrow were retained for high-class warriors, it saw less use than normal as they did not fit in well with the new tactics for battle. On top of this, armor was modestly improved with added defense against arrows. Instead, the yari was given precedence in overall use and versatility⁵, as seen in the increase of group tactics of spearsmen. The yari was also used by cavalry, which was specialized on and made popular by certain feudal lords such as Takeda Shingen in the mid 1500s. While raining arrows was still a valuable strategy, archers would stay back, hidden behind cover or surrounded by fences.

Woodblock painting called “Samurai Archer”. Dated 1899. Artist is Mizuno Toshikata (水野年方). From ukiyo-e.org.

At certain points did the bow & arrow see improvements. For example, in the late 15th century, new tactics incorporating groups of archers shooting while walking was being incorporated into the battlefield. Credited to Heki Danjō Masatsugu⁶, this allowed specially trained archers to advance and give addition cover to fellow troops, as well as to better assist with retreating tactics. In the mid 16th century, some armies would have archers work side by side with gunners, and incorporate long range tactics to both deal damage while dealing with flankers. On top of this, the use of fire arrows by archers, which was learnt from the tactics by the Mongol and Korean soldiers during the aforementioned Mongol Invasion, became commonplace, especially by those who commanded navy fleets such as the Murakami clan.

All in all, dwindling use of the bow & arrow would continue throughout the Sengoku period (1467-1600) until the end of civil battles due to the Tokugawa shogunate from Edo period onward. In its demise, the dependency on firearms in battle would grow immensely due to factors such as the influences from Western countries, improvements in the overall technology, potential damage they deliver, and the less demand of skills to use them. Despite the shift in focus, some warrior groups who still saw value in the bow & arrow kept the skills and tradition alive, where it is still practiced even today.

ENDING

We’ve come to the end of this brief overview of what Kyūsen no Michi is and how it depicts the importance of the bow & arrow throughout the history in Japan. In part 2, the discuss will focus on specific groups that represented excellence in the use of bow & arrow, as well as few individuals who are considered pioneers in Kyūsen no Michi.


1) When referring to the kanji “弓箭”, both pronunciations “kyūsen” and “yumiya” share this. “Kyūsen” is a more “foregin” way of stating bow & arrow, whereas “yumiya” is more native dialect. Later, yumiya would use the kanji “弓矢”, possibly to make the term more Japanese-like.

2) 兵車行. Pronounced as “Bīng Chē Xíng” in Chinese. This roughly translates to “Songs of the War Chariot”.

3) 杜甫. Pronounced “Dù Fǔ” in Chinese.

4) This particular matter concerning Kublai Khan is generally known as “Genkō” (元寇). This term was 1st used during the Edo period by the Tokugawa shogunate to refer to this event. Before that, another name was used, which was “Mōko Shūrai” (蒙古襲来). Both literally mean “Mongol Invasion”. Within this event, there was 2 invasion attempts, with the 1st one called “Bunei no eki” (文永の役, Campaign of Bunei period), and the 2nd one called “Kōan no eki” (弘安の役, campaign of Kōan period).

5) Before the Kamakura period, Japanese warriors used another type of polearm called the hoko (鉾), which was a shorter, single or double-edged bladed weapon. Derived from a Chinese variant, it was primarily a stabbing implement. The yari, on the other hand, was a much larger polearm with a longer blade that, depending on design, was versatile for not only thrusting, but for cutting and striking.

6) 日置弾正正次

Eda Koppo for Training

This weekend I finished making a new training tool, called the eda koppō¹. Although I’ve used improvised versions over the years during my time studying in the Bujinkan, this is the first time of making one that is suitable for training in my Chikushin group.

The finished product of the eda koppō. Two are shown in the pic

The eda koppō has a unique meaning that is often difficult to translate correctly in English. To explain simply, it is a short stick, originally made out of a small branch, that was devised to give the user the upper hand in a fight. Given its shape and size, the wielder can use this to attack vital areas through strikes, or assist in joint locks and throws by applying pressure on bony areas. Small in size, it is considered a good self-defense tool, as well as a kakushi buki² (hidden weapon).

It is believed that the eda koppō was developed during more peaceful times after the tumultuous warring period of Japan, when the country was unified under & ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Many martial schools that specialized in jujutsu used small weapons such as this to give them an edge when a more preferable weapon, such as a sword, was not readily accessible.

Example of the eda koppō in the book “Stick Fighting”, by Masaaki Hatsumi and Quitin Chambers.

This version of eda koppō is designed to be a safe training tool. It is made out of the thinner section of bamboo, and hollow through. A thick fabric is attached to both ends for softer impact. Finally, a looped cord is threaded through singularly in order to allow the eda koppō to swivel, as well as allow for different grips. This is a 1st generation design, and I’m planning on different versions, and possibly an upgrade if necessary.

Showing 2 possible positions

This week, if things go as planned, I’ll give it a thorough test run during normal training sessions.


1) 枝骨法

2) 隠し武器

Benefits of Overcoming Difficult Things

In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.

Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.

A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.

Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.

Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.

For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.

Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.

Discerning Measurements for Training Weapons

Great care is necessary when studying weapons in martial arts. In the beginning, there are specific forms or drills one must go through in order to understand the characteristics of the weapon that is connected to the ryuha¹, or style of martial system, one is training in. One of the challenging points to ensure correct study is obtaining a training weapon proportional to your body type. For this post, we will look at how the characteristics of weapons (i.e. measurements, material, etc.) are preserved by traditional schools and the hurdles that come with this, the ups & downs of dealing with manufactures that follow the “one size fits all” model, and how one should go about to training with weapons that match us properly.

IMPORTANCE IN DETAILS VS MARTIAL SYSTEMS

A good martial arts school will ensure that new students obtain a training weapon suitable for them, whether they are buying it or not. For Japanese traditional martial systems this is commonplace. For example, there are numerous types of systems for kenjutsu² (sword techniques), each with their own unique philosophies. Some may specialize a slightly shorter blade length that requires ashisabaki³ (evasive movements with the feet), or a much longer blade where maai⁴ (distance) and chōshi⁵ (timing) are key components. Others may utilize a nitōryū⁶ (2-sword style) system, where two swords that are wielded in each hand are a different size from each other. At any rate, when wielding a sword that does not fit your school’s criteria, unforeseen adjustments will be made, which will prevent a new student from grasping the principles of the particular kenjutsu being studied.

Example of training kusari fundo I’ve made over the years. Each can have a variation in length, weight, size of the weighted ends, etc.

During my years as an assistant instructor at my previous dojo, I was adamant regarding using training weapons that were proportional with those who attended my class. In one case, the monthly theme was a weighted chain called kusari fundo⁷. We used rope versions for safe training. Since I was already making these rope versions for my own training, I did so for those who attended my class to ensure they learned correctly. I had to measure each student’s arm length so to have their rope kusari fundo tailor-made to them.

There is an interesting story⁸ that deals with the weighted chain. A man by the name of Charles Gruzanski, a military officer stationed in Japan during the 1950s, was accepted as a student in Masaki ryu Manrikigusari jutsu⁹ under the 10th successor at the time, Nawa Fumio. One of the challenges that his teacher had to deal with was finding an appropriate chain size for Charles, as he was a tall man with large hands. The weighted chains that Fumio had just were too short, which would’ve made studying the techniques difficult to comprehend. Through some searching, he finally tracked down a chain from a different style that was large enough for Charles to use. This story is an important reminder that appropriateness in weapon size is necessary in the beginning of one’s training.

DETAILS IN ANCIENT DOCUMENTATION

There can be a fascination regarding information in ancient documentations, such as scrolls and manuals. Those that have descriptions of weapon dimensions, for example, are important details critical to the identity of a martial system. However, one must take caution in following these details too literally. When a training weapon is being prepared based on specific dimensions, it still needs to be adjusted based on the student’s body proportion.

3 pics that illustrate different lengths in staves used in Japanese martial arts. When first studying bōjutsu that requires the rokushaku bō, choosing the right length is critical. Click on each pic for descriptions.

Let’s look at a very common weapon used in Japanese martial arts, which is the rokushaku bo¹⁰, or 6-shaku staff in English. A shaku¹¹ is an old measurement unit used in Japan. This “6-shaku” is a length that serves as a standard, a rough measurement for a staff that should be around or slightly taller than your height. In the past, this length would be appropriate for most Japanese martial artists that were above 5 feet, but it was not unusual for the staff to be made shorter for accommodation purposes. Likewise, those who are much taller than 6 feet (especially in western countries) would need a staff slightly longer. In cases like these, access to having weapons custom made according to a practitioner’s needs is a must.

SHOPPING TIPS FOR THE RIGHT SIZES

Shopping for one’s training weapons can be at times difficult. Going to a common martial arts store in your neighborhood that sells everything at only one size is limiting unless you are at that perfect height where everything fits your body type (around 5″6 & up). When shopping around, especially online, what you should look for from retailers is those that A) provide multiple sizes, B) provide customization services, or C) custom make their weapons.

Stores that offer multiple sizes of a particular training weapon is very convenient. Not only does it make finding one that fits you quickly, but this is also convenient for practitioners of all ages. For example, some stores may offer a wooden daito¹² (a standard sized sword) in 3 sizes: large, medium, and small. This ensures that no matter which size you select, it is proportionally designed, from the blade down to the handle. Those needing a smaller size daitō will not need to substitute with a wooden kodachi, which is naturally designed as a one-handed short sword¹³.

Some retailers may offer a customization service, whether they do it on-site or can have it done by another party. This is good when small adjustments are needed, but don’t necessary need to be redesigned from the ground up. Looking at the rokushaku bō as an example, it may be possible to have one adjusted in length in the case where a shorter one is needed.

Here is a comparison of 2 bokken, or wooden swords. The bottom one is a custom made version of the sword that is used in one of the ryuha I study, Togakure ryu. I was given the dimensions as it is said to be written in that system’s scroll, but had to make slight adjustments when getting it designed in order to match my body type.

Possibly the best option is to shop from a retailer who has training weapons custom made. Not only is it possible to have the dimensions tailored to your liking from the smallest detail, but can go as far as craft it and make it unique just for you. While this can be a great option, it can also be more pricier, as time, cost of materials, and labor goes into custom making training weapons. Quality control for custom made weapons tends to be very high, so if money and time is not an issue, then this is a great route to go.

CONCLUSION

As a rule, it is important to train with weapons that proportionally match. Finding what matches the practitioner is a task that can be handled by the teacher, as it will ensure little to no errors when purchases are made. However, when this has to be in the hands of a student, the best choice are from retailers that give many options that can fit one’s needs.


1) 流派

2) 剣術. An older name related to fighting techniques with a sword. The modernized system of kendo (剣道) derives from this.

3) 足捌き

4) 間合

5) 調子

6) 二刀流

7) 鎖分銅

8) You can read the full story, and more about Charles Gruzanski’s life story in Japanese martial arts at “Tru-Flyte Martial Arts Memorial Website“, which is maintained by Robert C. Gruzanski.

9) 正木流万力鎖術. Manrikigusari is another name for a weighted chain.

10) 六尺棒. Usually translated as 6-foot staff in English, thus most are sold as so. However, in reality 6 shaku does not equal to 6 feet.

11) 1 shaku = 11.93 inches.

12) 大刀

11) 小太刀. A big difference between a daitō and a kodachi is that the handle of a daitō is long enough for 2 hands to grip, while a kodachi’s handle is long enough for only one hand. Size difference in handle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to practice kenjutsu that requires a normal sword, such as a daitō.

Metezashi: A Warrior’s Right-Hand Blade

During the medieval period in Japan, the equipment that bushi1 (warriors) possessed while heading to the battlefield were both specific and strategic. Along with bearing the weight of armor, they carried many items on their person, for they were trained to be resourceful. Along with the more larger, primarily used weapons, such as the yari (spear) and yumiya (bow & arrow), smaller weapons and tools were kept close for quick deployment in the right situation. A particular weapon that is a good representation of this methodology I’d like to touch upon today is one called metezashi2.

A metezashi is a short bladed weapon liken to a tantō, which nowadays is translated meaning “knife”. It is believed to have been derived from an older weapon called the sasuga3 (dagger). The metezashi came about sometime around the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), after the Ashikaga clan claimed the shogunate. During this period, the warrior class claimed more power than other social classes, placing more emphasis on controlling territory and their neighbors through military strength. Changes in how large battles were approached were taking place as well, where tactics relying heavily on long range assault were being adjusted to incorporate more upclose melee assaults. Bushi engaged more in skirmishes with medium to close range polearms and swords, with a thirst to test their combative skills. This is where the metezashi comes into play.

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An illustration of a bushi on horseback (calvary), both in full gear. In red, the name “koshigatana (metezashi)” is circled, along with a red arrow showing it carried on the bushi’s right side. From the book “Yoroi wo Matou Hitobito”, published by Yoshikawa Kobunkan in 1857.

By design, the metezashi is a one-handed, single edged weapon, with it’s blade length said to measure under 1 foot. The blade has little to no curve to it, due to its use as a stabbing implement. It is categorized as a koshigatana4, meaning a small bladed weapon carried around the waist. Unlike the tachi5 (battlefield sword) and the wakizashi6 (short sword), the metezashi was worn on the right side of the waist usually inserted into the obi, as it was meant to be used in the right hand. Like its bigger counterparts such as the tachi, it is generally designed with the same koshirae7 (fittings), from an itomaki8 (handle wrap) to a tsuba9 (handguard), although in most cases the tsuka was a smaller, rounder design. The saya10 (sheath) may even have a kurikata11 (small mount with a hole for the sageo12, or cord in English, to pass through), although placed on the right side due to being carried on the right side of the body.

Having such a short reach, the metezashi was primarily used in close quarter combat, as a tool for stabbing. The common scenario to illustrate its use is in the case where 2 armor-cladded warriors have no weapon in hand and are locked in a clinch with each other, struggling to topple one another13. When one of these 2 warriors can get the upper hand and either flank the other off balance, or perform a takedown, he can pull out his metezashi and thrust it into one of the gaps in the opponent’s armor14 for the kill. In other cases, the metezashi could also be used for assisting fellow warriors subduing enemy troops down to the ground to finish them off, such as for claiming an enemy’s head as trophy of battle15.

2 examples of koshigatana from museums in Japan. Click on each of the pictures above for descriptions.

In the case where getting into a clinch with the enemy takes place as mentioned above, one has to be careful not to have their weapon in range for the opponent to seize and used against you when carrying it on the waist. For the metezashi, since it was a right-handed weapon, it had to be easy to draw one-handed by the owner, yet not in reach for the opposition to do the same. While it can be worn at one’s back with the tsuka16 (sword hilt) to the right, or on the right hip with the hilt pointing downwards, many sources state that the metezashi was worn handle up directed towards the back of the wielder. This meant that a warrior carrying the metezashi could reach behind his back and easily grab the handle to draw, whereas if the opponent attempted to do the same from that warrior’s front he could be easily stopped.

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Pic of how the metezashi would be worn, for the sake of fighting hand-to-hand while in armor. From the book “Heiho: Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto ryu”, written by Otake Risuke.

There are a lot of comparisons between the metezashi and another type of koshigatana called yoroi dōshi17. Some sources even state that they are the same, or their names are interchangeable. It may very well be the case, for descriptions in historical sources state that they were both worn on the right side of the body, share similar dimensions, and were primarily for stabbing. It is possible that, based on the time period and/or warrior groups and the region they came from, either name was used for what could be the same type of weapon based on how this type of weapon was used. Case in point, some other names noted to be used for koshigatana of like design includes (but not limited to) the following: kubi kaki18, kubi tori19, and ebirasashi20.

In ending, the metezashi was a vital tool to the bushi. It is a piece of history that gives insight to the creativity and resourcefulness of the Japanese warrior. I hope this post was informative to all as the research was for me.


1) 武士. Bushi is the common word for warrior in Japan. It is a more universal term, more so than the word samurai.

2) 馬手差し. Loosely translates as “(a sword) worn on the side of the horse hand”. This “horse hand” (馬手) is coded as referring to the reins used to control a horse while riding, which is held in the right hand. So the “horse hand” (馬手) is another way of saying the “right hand” (右手). Thus, metezashi can also be translated as “(a sword) worn on the side of the right hand”. The use of “horse hand” is also used in kyudo (archery), referring to the right hand drawing the bowstring.

Note that some English sources, such as Wikipedia, that state that metezashi stands for use with the left hand are incorrect.

3) 刺刀

4) 腰刀

5) 太刀

6) 脇差

7) 拵え

8) 糸巻

9) 鍔

10) 鞘

11) 栗形

12) 下緒

13) This close combat while wearing armor is generally called “kumiuchi” (組打). Some older traditional martial schools still teach this.

14) There are gaps in and around Japanese armor that are vulnerable. This means that bushi were more in danger to weapons that are strong at stabbing and piercing, as opposed to slashes.

15) This practice of taking the head of an enemy warrior is proof of their bravery in battle. The more heads collected the better the rewards.

16) 柄

17) 鎧通し. These are especially renown for having a thicker blade (or in some cases, a thicker spine), which allows it to handle more wear & tear when thrust into the vulnerable areas in armor.

18) 首掻き. This name means “a blade for beheading”.

19) 首取り. Has a similar meaning as kubi kaki (首掻き).

20) 妻手指し. Another coded name having the same meaning for “(a sword) worn on the side of the right hand”, just like metezashi. The characters “妻手” refer to an old measuring tool called “kanejaku”, which is shaped like an “L”. The shorter end of this measuring tool is called “tsumade”, which is identified with the characters “妻手”, and is designed to be used on the right side of the measuring tool pointing downwards.

Bo Shuriken At a Glance

Within Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, there are many different weapons and tools to study. One of them is the bo shuriken1. Part of the kakushi buki2 category, bo shuriken is often used as a secondary or supplementary weapon, when there is a chance to be deployed. While I’ve invested several years in this, recently I’ve been training more with this as to learn how to adapt this into my taijutsu better. In this post I will talk abit about what the shuriken3 is, what is unique about the bo shuriken, as well as some basic tips when learning how to throw this.

DEFINING THE SHURIKEN

Bo shuriken is a type of shuriken, small to average sized blade that can be deployed from close to medium range. These are especially renowned as a projectile weapon, although their usage is not limited to this. The shuriken is a Japanese weapon that, through the course of history, can be crafted in many different designs. Shuriken generally fall under 2 categories, one being “hiragata shuriken4“, and the other being “bo shuriken”. Looking first at hiragata shuriken, these are wide, flat, and have multiple points. These are iconic with being the prized tool of the ninja. There are many different types of this, of a multitude of unique designs. The hiragata shuriken tends to be the more popular out of the 2 categories, with such versions like the “shaken5” (otherwise known as “chinese stars” or “ninja stars” in pop culture”) usually come to most people’s mind when they hear the term shuriken.

A set of antique bo shuriken. The label on the upper right reads “根岸流” (Negishi ryu). From Wikipedia.

Next, the bo shuriken is a single or double pointed, relatively straight bar of metal. These are generally associated with bujutsu schools, and tend to have more formalized training methods. The bo shuriken is considered a much more difficult projectile to accurately throw due it’s design; whereas the hiragata shuriken has to be thrown with a spin and is almost guarantee to connect with at least one of its many points, the bo shuriken has to instead be thrown with as little rotation as possible and calculated from which distance its point will connect. This is especially critical when wielding one that only has one point.

It is not certain when the shuriken was first developed. However, there are documentations that mention it’s use around the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) a time when warriors were active for combat due to warlords struggling for power. On a general basis, the image of the shuriken is associated with the ninja and ninjutsu. This is due to exaggeration through the various ninja boom that took place over the years, first in Japan from the Edo period (1603 – 1868) onward, then followed by many other countries in the late 20th century. The truth is, the shuriken was never solely a ninja weapon, but a tool as a means to hurl a projectile from a distance out of reach of an opponent by warriors and martial artists. While some types of shuriken may have been more frequently used by ninja, the skills to wield this was learned even by samurai.

ABOUT THE BO SHURIKEN

The bo shuriken can be designed in a multitude of ways, although its base still resembles that of a long, spiked bar. It’s body can be rounded, flat, or squared. Bo shuriken are often thin, easy to stack in a bunch, and portable. Throughout Japan’s history, a good number of martial schools and systems trained in the shuriken, especially from Edo period onward. Nowadays, there are a good number of traditional schools that retain their knowledge and history with this projectile weapon and provide training with them, such as Negishi ryu, Meifu Shinkage ryu, and Kukishin ryu. Depending on the ryuha6, or martial school of a specific style, there are special labels for the type of bo shuriken used. For example, in Kukishin ryu these are called uchibari7.

A set of homemade bo shuriken. On the left is live (sharpened) version, while on the right is safe training version.

In the system I study, the bo shuriken techniques are primarily associated with Togakure ryu8 and Kukishinden ryu9. Using it is based on taijutsu, with our kamae a starting point for learning when to throw. One of the basic kamae we learn to launch a bo shuriken from is called Doko no Kamae10, where we stand with our left foot forward and right hand up next to our right ear, holding the point upwards. When training with “live” shuriken (that is, sharpened metal ones), a large target, such as a wooden board or a tatami mat, is used, while safe, non-metallic versions can be used during drills & kata keiko with your training partners.

THE BASICS

When training with the bo shuriken, a key aspect to focus on is one’s form. This is considered basic, and is crucial for beginners to take to heart. Instead of trying to make the bo shuriken stick into the target when throwing it, one should instead focus on how to take proper posture (In this case we’ll use Doko no kamae) before, during, and after the throw. This process has to be repeated many times in this fashion, where your form dictates the bo shuriken striking the target correctly. The key point here is that the technique is within one’s form, and once a person ingrains this into their body, will it be possible to get consistent results.
Once your body has “learned” the form, can one then gradually focus on aiming for the target. One can attempt to control where you want the bo shuriken to strike, as well as progress to throwing multiply projectiles in relative quick successions. The throwing form is not abandoned, as you still need to be aware of how to prep yourself to launch the bo shuriken; instead you put faith in your body being trained enough where you don’t have to think about your throwing form from start to finish.

SITUATIONAL ADAPTATION

In the beginning, when learning the bo shuriken (or any projectile for that matter), we do it stationary. Usually this is from a frontal, standing position. As time progresses and our ability to consistently hit a target increases, we work on being able to throw under different conditions. Some of these conditions include facing different directions, crouching down, and having another weapon in hand. In one example, this can be integrated with kenjutsu as, while holding a katana in Seigan no kamae11, you take out a single bo shuriken with your right hand and skillfully hurl it at the target.

Throwing a bo shuriken can also be accomplished while moving, which includes walking, turning, and leaping. This is is especially difficult while performing Ukemigata Taihenjutsu12, for timing varies if thrown at the start of, during, or after tumbling to the ground. Conditions like these further challenge the practitioner to develop the ability to use the bo shuriken in any scenario.

CONCLUSION

Studying the bo shuriken is demanding, for developing a skill for precision is a must. In the end, it is very rewarding. That about wraps up this post. Hope this was informative, especially to those who have interest in shuriken training.


1) 棒手裏剣

2) 隠し武器. This means “concealed weapon”.

3) 手裏剣. While this is generally read as “a hidden blade in the hand”, I’ve learned that the actual meaning is “a blade held in the hand is thrown outward”. To better represent this meaning, shuriken can be written as 手離剣, with the second character meaning “to gain distance” or “move away from”.

4) 平型手裏剣

5) 車剣, which means a bladed projectile that is round like a wheel.

6) 流派

7) 打針

8) 戸隠流

9) 九鬼神伝流

10) 怒虎の構

11) 正眼の構. A posture in kenjutsu where the tip of the katana is held towards your opponent’s eyes.

12) 受身型体変術. This is an area of training that focuses on breakfalls, rolling, and moving through the air with agility.