Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Reflections on Claims of Martial Virtue

Over at Ellis Amdur's excellent Kogen Budo blog, there was a guest post regarding the internal stories martial arts styles have. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Recently, The Secrets of Ittō-ryū (Vol 1) by Sasamori Junzo was published in English translation by Mark Hague, a senior practitioner of Ono-ha Ittō-ryū. The history of this remarkable martial tradition is described within, in great detail. One topic of note includes the claims that the founder, Itō Ittōsai, defeated famous swordsmen Kamiizumi Ise no Kami and Tsukahara Bokuden in duels, and that his successor, Ono Tadaaki, defeated Yagyu Munenori upon meeting him, thus securing his post as instructor to the shōgun.

There are some English translation and summaries of chapters of the famous Honcho Bugei Shoden available at, where several famous ryūha and swordsman are described. Those duels from The Secrets of Ittō-ryū are not mentioned in this neutral, non Ittō-ryū source. I find them, therefore, somewhat suspect. I would like to cross-reference Sasamori’s statements against the history of fencing written by Yamada Jirokichi, but this will have to wait for that work to be translated.

I think there is a small lesson here, that each style will have its own internal stories about its founders and past practitioners, and those might serve an internal almost mythical function, indicating the quality of martial virtue or skill its adherents still aspire to. In addition, each art is itself also a political entity, and not immune to viewing itself in comparison to other approaches. We see this even in the Ono-ha Ittō-ryū, one of the most illustrious styles of Japanese fencing. So, one way to gloss the official Ittō-ryū history is that the art views Kamiizumi, Bokuden, and Yagyu Munenori as having been excellent swordsman, worthy of mention, worthy to measure oneself against.


JSTOR also has an an article entitled:

Initiation to the art of war: A preliminary text of the Takenouchi school” by Szabo, B. in Acta Oreintalia Academia Scientarim Hung. Vol 66 (1) 95-107 (2013). DOI: 10.1556/AOrient.66.2013.1.6]

The author analyses a Takenouchi-ryū initiation scroll titled Takenouchi-ryū Bugei no jo from 1844. There are several sections to the scroll. One quotes different military classics and, in addition to the almost obligatory Sun Tzu, there is a passage from Qi Jiguang’s famous Jixiao Xinshu or “New Treatise on Military Efficiency: Introduction to Martial Arts,” from the section Toryū tai or “Essence of the Style.” I am familiar with this work from my Chinese martial arts studies, and it is interesting to encounter it quoted in a Japanese late medieval-period text.

Chinese General Qi Jiguang is said to have studied a variant of Kage-ryū (the link here connects to a descendent, Hikitakage-ryū) practiced by wakō pirates, taught within coastal Chinese territory occupied and raided by Japan during the 16th century. He later used those methods, especially, it is believed, the odachi (long saber) called miao dao in Mandarin, to revitalize Chinese sword methods and teachings. This revitalization, as well as his principles of formation and combined-arms warfare (described in the same work), and his emphasis on using body conditioning exercises from extant pugilistic and grappling arts for basic training for soldiers, are said to have enabled Qi Jiguang to eventually succeed in driving out the wakō.

Pictures from Qi Jiguan’s book were later used by some martial arts styles in China as a basis for their practice. There are sets of images of postures designed to be preparatory practices for fit soldiers. It should be understood that Qi did not feel they are appropriate for actual battlefield use – and that particular passage is recorded, according to Szabo, in the Takenouchi-ryū text.

It is interesting to see Qi’s treatise providing inspiration in Edo-period Japan, and it provoked some further thoughts I would like to share.

In modern budō or bujutsu circles, we often hear about Japanese koryū being battlefield arts, although large scale warfare ended in Japan with the sieges of Osaka castle in 1614-1615 (and a final, rather inglorious, postscript in the 1638 Shimabara rebellion). We also read in Japan-centric martial arts writings the view that most Chinese combative systems are “civilian” martial arts. While it is true that China regulated the use of arms by civilians in its populace under the Mongol’s Yuan Dynasty, (well before the banning of the wearing of swords in Japan at the end of the Edo period), I think a finer distinction should be made in comparing arts and practices between the two countries. For example, commoners might not have had access to high quality weapons in parts of China, but the military did. This was similar to Japanese samurai having access to field weapons and long swords, while commoners, generally speaking, did not.

In fact, instead of weapons-centric system dying out writ large in China, several merged with existing traditions of pugilism. One example is the famous Liuhe (Six Harmony) spear tradition, which merged into traditions of Bajiquan (Eight Extremes Boxing), which maintains a fierce spear practice to this day. Other examples abound as a counterpoint to the tendency for standardization and performance (e.g., state developed forms, form competitions, etc.) in modern day.


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