Analyitcal Review of the Nakamaki & Nagamaki

A few years ago I wrote an article for the previous dojo I was in about a Japanese weapon called the nagamaki. This article was to help support the training theme for that year. Since then I continued to do research on it, which also went in the direction of learning more about the nodachi (the roots of the nagamaki), as well as the nakamaki (predecessor to the nagamaki). For my blog, I would like to share the progression of my research and focus this post on both the nakamaki and nagamaki.

BEGINS WITH NODACHI

Taking a brief look into Japanese history, the birth of the nagamaki was around the late Kamakura period (1185-1333) to early Muromachi period (1338–1573). With the Ashikaga clan in power, new methods of warfare were being implemented. Soldiers and warriors alike began to take pride in very long-bladed swords called nodachi (野太刀), or also known as ōdachi (大太刀). These swords had an appeal over the regular tachi due to their superior length and reach.While those with strong arms were able to wield these long swords, in the long run they proved difficult to utilize properly due the imbalance in weight distribution between the blade and handle. To rectify this, the swords went under different modifications. One route had their regular-sized handles replaced by longer handles, and from the sword guards up to the midpoint of the swordblade was leather or silk wrapped, which had these swords labeled as nakamaki (中巻).

Despite the improvements, such as added support of bearing the weight with one’s hand on the wrapping, the nakamaki did not fully meet the expectations desired. With considerations on a way that did not sacrifice efficient use, yet another design was put into motion. Taking these same long swords, their handles were replaced with even longer length handles, while leather or silk was wrapped around the middle of these long handles as added support. This change gave these particular swords the label nagamaki (長巻).

Illustrations of nodachi (top), nakamaki (middle), and nagamaki (bottom). From the book “Ketteihan Zusetsu – Nihonbuki Shūsei “(決定版図説・日本武器集成).

 

NAKAMAKI SPECIFICS

A long sword with a longer than normal tsuka (handle) with fabric wrapping from the middle of the blade down. Note that “nakamaki” is a shorthand name. The full name is said to be “nakamaki nodachi”, as these are still nodachi (or otherwise called ōdachi).

The wrappings around the blade for the nakamaki allowed a warrior to hold there for better balance. A means to make the nodachi/ōdachi more manageable, one would think that techniques for long swords would apply here. Fortunately, koryu bujutsu schools such as Koden Enshin ryu (古伝圓心流) and Jigen ryu (示現流) have demonstrated publicly their use of such long swords, which can easily be viewed online. Whereas in Enshin ryu the drawing of, as well as the manner for cutting with, the ōdachi is displayed, in Jigen ryu it is shown in simpler usages, such as enhancing the training of kenjutsu. There may be more to the nodachi/ōdachi for each of these schools, so we do have to keep an open-mind for more that is not shown.

As for the nakamaki, one example that is very informative comes from the Shunpukan dojo, which is a Shinkage ryu branch (新陰流) of the Kanbe line. This particular branch has kata for ōdachi. Surprisingly, the ōdachi also incorporates wrapping on the blade. This appears to be similar, if not the same, to a nakamaki.

Screen captures of the ōdachi (nakamaki style) in use. To see the actual videos, click on the links here or here.

 

With the wrapping around the blade, a warrior can safely manipulate a nakamaki as the weight is better distributed. Note that while this is a necessity here, it is not unusual to do the same even for a shorter length sword. In numerous kenjutsu and battō/iai styles, there are techniques such as where a practitioner places one hand (usually the left hand) on the back of their in order to assist in thrusting the sword forward like a yari (spear), or to block & push away an oncoming sword cut as if handling it like a bō. In fact, in some kenjutsu schools this method is called “kenbō” (剣棒).

NAGAMAKI SPECIFICS

A nagamaki is a long sword fitted with an extremely long tsuka, which has leather or silk wrapped around the center of the tsuka. Note that nagamaki is a shorthand name, for the full name of this is recorded as “nagamaki koshirae no nodachi”, and “nagamaki nodachi”. Much like the nakamaki, the nagamaki is categorized as a sword.

The handle of the nagamaki is the same as that for a normal katana, as it is designed in a similar fashion, only longer. There are cases of the handle being slightly curved (reminiscent of past battlefield swords’ curved handle) or straight. The te no uchi (or method of handling in English) for the nagamaki is said to be the same as that for the katana, where the right hand is on top and there is no switching from right to left like a bō. That being said, this doesn’t mean that the nagamaki doesn’t have any unique traits of its own; with the added handle length the nagamaki gains additional usages similar to polearms, such as larger sweeping motion similar to a naginata. This is key to remember.

A screen capture of tameshigiri demonstration with the nagamaki of Enryū (圓流). To see the full vid, click on the link here.

Koryu bujutsu schools that have techniques for the nagamaki are few. While it would make sense for nagamaki training to match that of kenjutsu, from my research and personal experience, it tends to parallel that of naginatajutsu. Why is this? There is an interesting relationship between the nagamaki and the naginata, which will be touched upon in the next paragraph.

NAGINATA OR NAGAMAKI?

The naginata (薙刀), Japan’s version of a glaive, was in use around the Heian period. This was distinguished as a polearm, or naga-e (長柄) in Japanese. There are quite some comparisons to the nagamaki. In reality they are not the same, yet it appears the line blurs due to how some koryu bujutsu schools retain their unique knowledge.

Pic of my nagamaki and naginata, for comparison.

By design, the difference between the 2 weapons are as follow:

NAGINATA

  • has a longer shaft, as a polearm
  • features a shorter blade
  • more defined curve in the blade, and is more wider
  • has a tachiuchi (metal wires wrapped under tsuba)
  • bottom end is an ishizuki (metal piece at the end of the shaft)

NAGAMAKI

  • has a long handle, as a sword
  • features a longer blade
  • blade has a slight curve and is slimmer
  • Definitions of the blade match that of a normal sword
  • handle is wrapped tsuka ito (sword handle wrap), along with wrappings around the center for support

Despite these obvious differences, koryu bujutsu schools seem to have not only adopt, but maintain the concept of training the nagamaki like a polearm.

For example, in an older document called “Heihōyōmu Budōzukai Hiketsu” (兵法要務武道図解秘訣), there is a section that has techniques for the nagamaki from Jiki Shinkage ryū (直心影流). However, from reading the descriptions the words “naginata” and “nagamaki” are interchanged a good number of times. Also the diagrams shown a weapon more closer to the naginata in design. Based on my opinion, it sounds as if nagamaki is another name for naginata…or they share the same techniques. In another example, Kukishinden ryū (九鬼神伝流) has techniques for the nagamaki, which I have studied. Design is similar to what one would expect, although the blade is also very wide and heavy, which dictates the use of its weight and gravity. Te no uchi is the same as with the katana, although the techniques are abit different from that found in kenjutsu and naginatajutsu.

The beginning of the section on nagamaki/naginata of Jiki Shinkage ryū.

Yet another example can be found on the website of “Tenshinden Jigen ryu Heiho” (天真伝自原流兵法). Along with this school’s descriptions on the weapons taught, there is a description regarding the nagamaki. Here’s the original Japanese text, followed by my translation in English.

———-

「長巻術は、一般的には知られていないようですが、戦国時代には、槍と同様に良く使用された武器術です。

柄の長さが三尺、刀身が三尺の構成で仕組みが作られており、非常に有効な武器であり、これも、薙刀と同一の技術で組み立てられています。」

“Although not commonly known, the nagamaki is a style of weapon well utilized similarly to how the yari was during the Sengoku period.”

The nagamaki is a very effective weapon, as it is designed with the dimensions of the tsuka (handle) being sanshaku (around 3 feet), and the blade length being sanshaku (around 3 feet). It is also systematized with techniques that are identical to those of the naginata.”

———-

Could this be the case of adopting the name nagamaki for naginata in later years? Or could it be that the nagamaki, or at least the concept of it, was further refined where it became a long blade on a shorter shaft, and developed from the techniques of the naginata? As the martial arts evolved in Japan especially from Edo period onward, this could very well be the case. From a perspective of practicality, the nagamaki of old (i.e. featuring a long handle) is similar to the naginata in terms of length and concept of design. With the added reach, one can logically utilize naginatajutsu with it.

Understanding this point, it is not difficult to see the similarities in these 2 weapons.

PERSONAL ANALYSIS

Studying the development of martial systems in Japanese history, along with how technical skills & formal structuring of martial schools came about, one can understand that there was a methodical approach to using the nakamaki and nagamaki, but not as systematically developed as other weapon systems. One reason being is there was not much time to do so with the civil unrest that lead to constant warring when they saw usage on the battlefield. On top of this, these two variants of long swords were both short lived as their worth on the battlefield could not match other weapons that outperformed them in the long run, such as the yari (spear), uchigatana (close-range battlefield sword), and teppo (guns & rifles).

As far as koryu bujutsu schools that have nodachi as part of their tradition, it appears that some possess specific techniques, while others may use it as a supplement to their normal kenjutsu training. Techniques for the nakamaki seem to be far & few, while the nagamaki has been retained yet modified in some schools, if not just conceptually.

ENDING

We’ve come to a close on this analytical discussion on the nakamaki and nagamaki. What is written is all based on my own research, training experience, and what I was told by certain instructors over the years. While it helps to give a somewhat clearer picture, I’ve learned that there are still varying opinions and viewpoints regarding this topic even in Japan, so nothing is quite written in stone.

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 TRADITION OF DENSHO

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.

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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.

MAINTAINING A MODERN-DAY DENSHO

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.

DENSHO’S LIMITATIONS

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.

ENDING

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.

OBTAINING SHITSUDEN SYSTEMS

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.

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A snapshot of auction listings from <yahoo.co.jp>. 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.

STATE OF REVIVING DISCONTINUED KNOWLEDGE

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.

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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.

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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.

 

HANDLING LOST TECHNIQUES

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.

ENDING

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.

WHAT SHITSUDEN MEANS

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.

CAUSES OF SHITSUDEN

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.

POINT #1

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).

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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.

POINT #2

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.

POINT #3

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.

POINT #4

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.

CONCLUSION

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“:

__________

せき‐しゅ【赤手】

〘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:

__________

はく‐せん【白戦】

〘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.

 

nisshin_geppo

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 Amazon.com