Ichiban Yari

One of my primary reasons for coming to Japan (other than kendo) was to learn the language. I’m nor sure why, but I’ve loved listening to Japanese for as long as I remember, at least since primary school when I was first exposed to it via the 80s television drama Shogun (based on the James Clavells novel). Even now, after more than a decade in Japan, I still find joy in learning new phrases or interesting (sometimes surprising) combination of words.

Pretty much everything I read, and a large percentage of conversations I have, are about kendo or budo related matters and because of this I’ve found myself learning anachronistic uses of words/terms, and not an insignificant amount of budo jargon. Recently, reading a book published over 30 years ago, I came across quite a cool usage that I’d like to share with kenshi 24/7 readers. Using this as an excuse I’d like to explain some other terms as well, which you may or may not know (and which may or may not be of interest!!).

1. Ichiban yari (一番槍) – the first spear


During the sengoku-jidai (the warring states period) here in Japan warrior-retainers used to be rewarded by their lords for their brave deeds in battle. Rewards would be money and/or land, but with bravery also came fame and prestige (infamy even?), something possibly more valuable than material resources. Armies would line up and face each other, often impatient to get things going. Waiting for the lords order to commence battle (or sometimes not!) the warriors would dash forward and engage the other side. The first warrior who breached the enemy line was termed “ichiban yari” (the first spear). Their courage in the face of mortal danger would be recognised post-battle… if they survived!!

(Remember of course that the sword was an auxiliary weapon at this time, the brunt of the fighting would be done with bows, guns, spears, and – in very close contact – daggers, hands, and feet.)

The book mentioned above was written by a now deceased kendo hanshi. He attended and graduated from Busen (Budo senmon gakko) in the 1920s-30s, and it was during the description of his time there that where I discovered a kendo-use of “ichiban yari” :

“One more characteristic of Busen was the competition to be named ichiban-yari, that is, the competition to get your men on the quickest and get to the best sensei. In the Butokuden, after the opening etiquette – “Shinzen ni rei! Sensei ni rei!” – everyone would rush to put their men on and go to the sensei they want to practice with. I think I took about 15 seconds to get my men on then.” (Bunbufuki, Kozawa Takeshi)

I think this is a pretty neat term: get your men on first, run to the top sensei (in Busen at that time that would’ve been Ogawa Kinnosuke), and be rewarded with the title ichiban yari!!!

Thinking about it, if you ran a kids class there is no reason you couldn’t keep record of who gets their men on first every class and (say, after a set number of weeks or so) award one of of the students that title: perhaps it comes with benefits for the following month, the student gets some sort of prize, or they get to wear a special dou, etc etc, I’m sure there are any number of creative ways where you could use this in a kids class.

btw, a related term is “shichi-hon yari” or “the seven spears” which was a title awarded to the strongest warriors in a battle. For example, Ono Tadaaki (founder of Ono-ha itto-ryu), was known as one of the 7 spears at the siege of Ueda. Kamiizumi ise-no-kami (founder of shinkage-ryu and major figure in the history of Japanese swordsmanship) was known as “Kozuke-no-kuni ippon-yari” or “the number one spearman in the Kozuke domain.”

2. Soheki (双璧) – the matchless pair


This refers to the 2 greatest authorities or masters of something who live or lived contemporary to one another. Kendo-wise, this could be used to refer to Naito Takaharu and Takano Sasaburo.

3. Sanba-karasu (三羽烏) – the 3 crows

This is a term that refers to the 3 most powerful individuals in a particular (specialist) field. It’s difficult to know the exact origin for the term but we can surmise it was because crows are seen as particularly intelligent animals, which may be why they are sometimes seen as messengers of the gods.

In Nakayama Hakudo’s Yushinkan, the 3 strongest kenshi – Nakakura Kiyoshi, Haga Junichi, and Nakajima Gorozo were known as “The 3 crows of Yushinkan.”

btw, sword-wise, it’s also interesting to note the connection between crows and tengu.

(in the video above, Nakajima Gorozo is on the left hand side)

4. Shi-tenno (四天王) – the 4 heavenly kings


This Buddhist term refers to “the Four Heavenly Kings” who “are four gods, each of whom watches over one cardinal direction of the world.” Figuratively it refers to the four best people at something, the “big four” if you like. It can be used to refer to the 4 strongest kendoka in your kendo club, region, or even country if you like.

This most recent article is a little bit different from the usual posts on kenshi 24/7, I hope you found it interesting nevertheless!!

By George

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7 replies on “Ichiban Yari”

As I understand it from Stephen Turnbull, the term “ichiban nori” was used for the first to breach an enemy wall, and was also a big deal. In the Korean invasions’s one of Kato Kiyomasa’s retainers, seeing that he was being beaten over a wall by a rival, threw his master’s banner over the wall in order to give pride of place to him.

There are of course other terms that were used, for example to refer to the first head taken or the first arrow shot, I selected 1, 3, and 4 above because they are (or were…. they are less common now) used in kendo contexts. I added in 2 simply for flow purposes only.

It’s a great post. I love reading all that historical trivia/references. Good idea about incorporating this “ichiban yari” concept to kids classes. I’m going to suggest that one.

Hey Scott,

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, when I was writing about it I immediately imagine using it as part of a kids class…. let me know if you get it up and running !

Though “ichiban yari” may have been born in battle, it could be described as a double entendre or homophone I think. Japanese is full of them. The first thing that came to mind with the phrase was the usage of “yari” which is also means in the familiar “to do” (i.e., the first to do in this case). The base form “yaru” is often used in situations when someone is extremely motivated or enthusiastic about doing something. Both meanings fit very well both on and off the battlefield and certainly in the dojo!

An intersting comment! I guess that only applies if the language today is the same as it was hundreds of years ago. I’m sure the verb “yaru” hasn’t changed much (though people in Tokyo use it differently to us here in Kansa which is, ostensibly modern Japanese that retains an older flavour).

As mentioned in a comment above – there were like-phrases such as 一番乗り, and “spears” (賤ヶ岳七本槍) and “arrows” and I think sometimes “swords” (though I’m not sure about the last one) were sometimes used as titles of honour bestowed on courageous warriors.

On a similar point, in the early 1990’s in the UK, I was told I drank at “15 pounds an hour” which I have never forgotten !!!!

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