history kendo kenshi

Okumura Nito-Ryu


Early spring 1859. A young 17/18 year old kenshi from Okayama domain, Okumura Sakonta, was nervously standing in the renbujo (an open-air, on earth area used for practicing bujutsu) in the grounds of Tsuyama castle. Facing him was the far more experienced and well known Ikumi Tadaichi. Ikumi, 30 years old, was a Tsuyama domain samurai that studied under Saito Yaguro (Shinto Munen-ryu) at Renpeikan in Edo, where his skill was well known. Normally someone of his status wouldn’t accept a match with a young inexperienced person such as Okumura, but Matsudaira Yoshitomo – the domain lord and known promoter of martial arts – ordered him to. Ikumi was a kenjutsu instructor and was regarded as the the strongest kenshi in the domain. 

Matsudaira, as well as a host of Tsuyama domain samurai, including many of Ikumi’s kenjutsu students, were sitting around the area expectantly. Ikumi looked, and probably felt, confident. 

Okumura’s teacher, Abe Ugenji, was reknowned in and around Okayama and, as such, Okumura’s name as his star pupil, wasn’t unfamiliar. Still, he was very young, so how good could he actually be?

Tsuyama castle

Everyone gathered around the renbujo in the castle grounds. Matsudaira sat at the front watching. Okumura turned pale as he realised the gravity of the situation. Ikumi, in front of the domain lord, senior samurai, and his students, knew the domains face was at stake. 

The signal was given to start. Normally kenshi would go to the middle of the area, bow, take out their shinai, then retreat before the match began (of course reigi wasn’t set at this point in time). However, after the bow (sensing an opening), Okumura flew forward suddenly and struck Ikumi strongly on the head. 

MEN-ARI !!!!!!!

Ikumi stumbled back and kamae-d in chudan. In anger he screamed:

“What the hell!?!?! What is this cowardice?!”

He ripped of his men and kote, threw them to the ground, and glared at Okumura. 

“The tachiai hasn’t started yet. C’mon!” 

Okumura replied calmly:

“Sensei, the tachiai began the moment we bowed.”

Ikumi’s students were all around and the anger in the room was palpable. Suddenly Matsudaira spoke:

“The victor has been decided. Okumura, thank you.”

With that, the tachiai was over. 

(Ikumi committed suicide a few years later at the age of 38.)

Okayama castle (before it was burned down in 1945)

Okumura Sakonta (Torakichi)

Sakonta was born in 1842 to Okumura Anshin, a samurai from Okayama domain, right next to Okayama castle. His childhood name was Torakichi. Anshin’s father was a scholar of Chinese Classics/Confucianism who ran his own private school (for sons of samurai). Both Sakonta’s father and grandfather wanted Sakonta to become a scholar as well. However, things didn’t go as planned and at some point the young Torakichi declared he disliked studying: it just wasn’t his thing. 

The story goes that young Torakichi chose the sword rather than the pen due to the boy who lived in the esate opposite: Kotaro, the son of (and the later first Mayor of Okayama city and successful businessman) Hanabusa Masatsura. Kotaro and Torakichi were the same age, and followed the exact same academic path. Kotaro excelled in academics and Torakichi, being no match for him, evidently decided to give up. Their teacher, at least in part, was more than likely Torakichi’s father and/or grandfather. 

In 1855, when both Kotaro and Sakonta were both 13, they went through the traditional rite of Genpuku, which marked their transition from childhood to adulthood (the exact age of the rite depended on the era – it happened quite young in the late Edo period). Kotaro’s name was changed to Yoshimoto (the English wikipedia seems to have the wrong reading) and Torakichi became Sakonta. Yoshimoto went on to have an illustrious career as a politician and diplomat, before becoming elevated to the Japanese peerage (viscount). Sakonta, however, now free to finally choose his own future, chose bujutsu: in particular he entered the dojo of Abe Ugenji (Jikishinkage-ryu).  

(Sakonta actually also studied and became highly proficient in jujutsu, kyujutsu, battojutsu, gunnery, and horsemanship as well)

Abe was a extremely well known kenshi. When he was 17 he entered the Edo dojo of Naganuma Shohei (Jikishinkage-ryu), Numata domain kenjutsu instructor. Naganuma had over 3000 students and was said to only take his men off to eat lunch and dinner. Abe’s skill made him stand out in the dojo and, after being awarded Menkyo-kaiden at 28, he became Naganuma’s top student. He was often mentioned in the same breath as people like Chiba Eijiro (Shusaku’s son), Momoi Junzo, and Saito Yaguro. Upon returning to the Okayama region (actually Kamogata domain, a sub-domain of Okayama) as a kenjutsu instructor he was grouped with kenshi such as Uno Kintaro from Iwakuni (Katayama-ryu, studied Hokushin Itto-ryu under Chiba Shusaku, and Jikishinkage-ryu under Shimada Toranosuke; died at 35 of Cholera in 1862) and the aforementioned Ikumi Tadaichi. Abe’s son Morie (3 years younger than Sakonta) would become a perpetual rival of Sakonta’s. 

In 1859 Sakonta set out on a Musha-shugyo* before which Abe readied an “Eimeibo” for Sakonta to use. This document – commonly carried by kenshi on these types of trips – served as a form of personal identification with information like name, style, qualifications, domain allegiance, etc. Instructors would normally write an introduction in the front and seal it with their personal hanko. A kenshi’s eimeibo would be presented when they arrived at a dojo, and the names of people who they fought, as well as where and when, were recorded therein. A number of eimeibo are still extant and are invaluable historical documents. 

*(Here things are a little bit blurry. It seems that Okumura did two different Musha-shugyo, one in 1859 and another in 1861, coming back in-between. Although eimeibo exist, there might be more that could corroborate his exact movements. In some sources it says that he travelled everywhere in the Chugoku and Kyushu regions save Satsuma (Kagoshima) whereas others posit that he only went as far east as Shiga and west as Fukuyama.) 

After the incident with Ikumi in Tsuyama domain described above, Sakonta fought some more local kenshi –  there are an incredible 189 other kenshi’s name written in Sakonta’s eimeibo from that one dojo (the Okumura family still have some of them) – but this is probably just a list of all the students in the dojo, not a record of who he actually fought. 

At any rate, at some point during or not soon after his Musha-shugyo Sakonta started to develop a unique kenjutsu style of his own that would make him famous: Okumura nito-ryu

Kyoto Taikai (2013)

Okumura nito-ryu

The story goes that at some point during his travels Sakonta had a chance to see the Nito-ryu exponent Takahashi Senjiro (b. 1832; Tamiya shinken-ryu), a samurai from Saijo domain in Iyo province (modern day Ehime prefecture) in action. It’s unknown when or where exactly Sakonta might have seen Takahashi’s nito-ryu, but we do know (because it is written in Sakonta’s eimeibo) that Takahashi’s younger brother – Mori Shigekazu, also a Nito-ryu exponent – visited Abe’s dojo in 1860. At any rate, Okumura at some point saw “Takahashi’s” nito-ryu and immedietly started working on it. But why?

*Note that there is also a chance that it was Takahashi Senjiro’s nito-ryu that inspired Sakonta to go on his musha-shugyo. The exact order/timing of things here are a little bit blurry.

Sakonta, age unknown


Sakonta was a favourite of Abe. But we musn’t forget that Abe had a son – Morie – just slighly younger than Sakonta. Morie was at the time already an accomplished kenshi (and would go on to be a domain kenjutsu instructor and an early recipient of Butokukai shogo) and almost certainly jealous of Sakonta. Morie’s manner towards Sakonta in the dojo was harsh, and he would often tsuki Sakonta repeatly and fiercly. Morie started to learn kenjutsu from his father at a young age and went on his first Musha-shugyo at the age of 13 (the age when Sakonta started swordsmanship). He was almost certainly someone you didn’t want as an enemy. The theory is that Sakonta decided to work on nito mainly as a way to deal with Morie’s tsuki.  

There are differing descriptions of the nito-ryu that he developed: some saying he kamae-d with his left foot in front whilst holding his odachi in his right hand and kodachi in his left; others said the reverse (gyaku nito-ryu). Some sources have him switching his feet around freely during a bout and mention his use of an overly long shinai with a very long tsuka – he would hold the odachi near the tsuba and, on a strike, he would slide his hand down to the very bottom of the tsuka, thus extended his reach (which seemingly didn’t endear him much to the old guard). 

At any rate, Sakonta would eventually become well known as one of the three nito masters of the age, the other two being the above mentioned Takahashi Senjiro (1832-?) plus Mihashi Kanichiro (1841-1909). 

In late 1863 a new dojo was built for Abe Ugenji in Kamogata domain and there, on the 18th of December, the 22 year old Sakonta received his Jikishinkage-ryu Menkyo Kaiden. It is from this time when “Okumura nito-ryu” comes in to existence (i.e. once he had a certificate of mastery from his teacher he was able to freely develop his own unique style based in his own background, experience, and skill). 

The next year Okayama domain built Buyokan, a bujutsu training facility that must have been quite large as it employed quite a few instructors. Abe was recruited as the chief instructor, with both Sakonta and Morie under him and, for a few years at least, life was peaceful enough. However, change was coming. 

Okayama castle taken from Korakuen


The Meiji Restoration brought mass change (as described in a bit more detail in the last article) and eventually, when domains were dismantled in 1871, keiko at buyokan was stopped and people such as Sakonta (about 30 years old at the time) and Morie lost both their status and jobs. 

While Morie would eventually move in to politics (from 1873), Sakonta’s exact whereabouts are unknown until 1877, the year of the Satsuma Rebellion. He, amongst others, answered a call to arms from a collective of (now) ex-samurai to act as a bujutsu instructor. Sakonta was installed as chairperson of the group and they practiced within the precincts of Okayama castle (somewhat surprisingly considering the political situation – this seems to have somehow been organised via Sakonta’s childhood friend Hanabusa). However, the rebellion didn’t last long and the collective dispersed. A few months later, in February 1878, Sakonta’s son, Torakichi, was born. 

In 1880 he and a few friends pooled their money together and started some sort of investment/financing company. Unfortunately for Sakonta the company failed after two/three years, and by around about the mid-end of 1882 to the start of 1883 he had opened and was operating a dojo again. At some point he managed to get the rights to operate the tourist ferry across the Ashigawa river between Okayama castle and Korakuen which made the family some money (his son operated the ferry after Sakonta’s death, right up until the end of WWII). 

Sakonta was said to have about 300 students at around this time. In 1883 Abe Morie also started some sort of dojo as well. Things were looking up for kenjutsu in Okayama. 

Sakonta in later life


A year later things started to improve vastly for Sakonta. In November 1884, Keishicho held what was its third gekken-kai (shiai) at Mukogaoka Yayoi shrine in Toyko. This time, entrants came from around the country, including Okayama. The star of the competition was of-course Takayama Minezaburo, but Sakonta was a close second. He defeated keishicho stalwarts such as Shinkai Tadaatsu (3-1) and Ueda Umanosuke (4-1), drew against Henmi Sosuke, but lost to Kuchihara Yoshitsugu (Ryuko-ryu; no real information about him other than he was a keishicho kenshi). Sakonta was hailed as second only to Takayama.

On the 20th of July 1885, at a big gekken-kai in Kobe, Sakonta defeated the number one kenshi in Japan at the time, Takayama Minezaburo, 2-1. He also defeated the man who was said to be the inspiration of his nito-ryu, Takahashi Senjiro, 2-1 in a nito vs nito battle.

It is another nine years until we hear of hims again: in 1894 he was one of 26 kenshi selected (all from western Japan) to take part in a shiai in front of the Emperor Meiji in Hiroshima. In fact, a few years earlier – in August 1885 – the emperor had seen Sakonta fight before and had remembered him (probably due to the rarity of nito-ryu). At the 1894 shiai Sakonta drew with Matsuzaki Namishiro before defeating Yamaoko Tesshu’s student Kominami Ekichi 2-1. The Emperor, duly impressed, had two of his own plates of mochi given to Sakonta as a gift. The Okumura family still have possession of the plates and they are seemingly quite valuable. 

In 1895 Sakonta took part in the newly formed Butokukai’s first embu taikai (what today is known as the Kyoto Taikai). The Butokuden was not built at that point, the embu taking place at a makeshift space in the grounds of Heian-jingu instead. Although Sakonta lost to Tokuno Sekishiro (Jikishinkage-ryu), he was amongst the first batch of kenshi awarded Seirensho (as was Abe Morie).

In 1898 Sakonta and Morie had their first official match, held on the Noh stage in Korakuen. The event was a “friendship gathering” between the ex-domain chief and samurai. The result was a draw. Abe Ugenji, Morie’s father and teacher to both Sakonta and his son, died the year before. Perhaps they put off having an official match until after Ugenji’s death out of respect?

The folowing year, in September 1899, Sakonta was asked to become an instructor at the Butokukai. The Butokuden was only just completed and training courses would soon begin. Other people chosen included Naito Takaharu (Hokushin itto-ryu), Mihashi Kanichiro (Musashi-ryu; known as “crab Mihashi”), Sasaki Masayoshi (Suifu-ryu), and Koseki Norimasa (Shingyoto-ryu, Muto-ryu, favourite of Koteda Yasusada).

In 1900 Sakonta secured his son Torakichi a job at the Kyoto-gosho (Kyoto Imperial Palace) where he instructed kendo and learned Musashi-ryu under Mihashi, the shihan there. 

Sakonta, it seems, was at the pinnacle of his career.

Kyoto, Meiji period


Unfortunately, Sakonta’s time in Kyoto would prove to be very short – he was struck by a bad case of pneumonia in autumn 1900 (or spring 1902 depending on the source). He would partly recover before becoming sick again, this cycle repeating a few times. Eventually, fearing for his health, he gave up his position at the Butokukai and returned back to Okayama. Sakonta tried to have Torakichi installed as his replacement, but for whatever reason that didn’t work out.

On a visit back to check on his father the next year Torakichi realised that his fathers condition had worsened and he decided to extend his stay rather than return back to Kyoto as planned. After a couple of weeks his father called him to his bedside:

“Shouldn’t you be getting back to Kyoto now? You’ve things to do surely, plus I have something for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“My swordsmanship.”

From his bed Sakonta told his son the secrets of both the Jikishinkage-ryu he had learned from Abe Ugenji, and Okumura Nito-ryu, the style he had created and worked on himself over the years. Two days later, at the age of 62, he died (chronic pnuemonia was the diagnosis). It was the 11th of January 1903 (or 04 depending on the source)

Torakichi, later kendo hanshi, would go back to Kyoto and work as a police kendo instructor until 1928 before returning to Okayama and teaching kendo at the Butokukai Okayama branch as well as in schools. He passed away in 1971 at the age of 93. Okumura Nito-ryu ended with him.

Sakonta’s son, Torakichi, himself kendo hanshi and known nito exponent



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By George

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5 replies on “Okumura Nito-Ryu”

Another interesting read about budō pioneers from bygone times. Thanks again for all your hard work to keep the memories of these extraordinary people alive.

Thank you for this treat George. It was a joy to read and step back in time. The Tachiai story is a nice reminder for me to be aware and ready with 残心. I hope all is well with you 🙂

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