history kendo kenshi

The three crows of Yushinkan

Late afternoon summer 1930, Hongo-shinmasago-saka (in modern day Bunkyo-ku). A tallish slender young man, about 19 years old, walked up to the entrance of Yushinkan, the dojo of Nakayama Hakudo. Dangling on the shinai bag that was resting heavily on his right shoulder was another bag with his bogu in it. In his left hand he carried a further bag, filled with clothes and other sundry possessions. Putting his bags down, he slid open the door and called out “gomen kudasai.” After a few moments a young man appeared. 

“My name is Nakakura Kiyoshi. I’ve come up from Kyushu to join the dojo.”

“Come in, sensei has been expecting you.”

As the time for keiko got nearer, more and more people started appearing at the dojo. Nakakura dropped his stuff off in his allocated space in a room on the second floor. He changed into his keikogi and took his bogu down to the dojo. Being new there he didn’t know anybody, nor the routine. 

A young man who looked to be a little bit older than Nakakura approached him:

“My name is Nakajima Gorozo. I teach kendo at keishicho and before that I lived in this dojo and studied under Nakayama sensei for years.  And who might you be?”

“Oh really? How about a match then?”

Nakajima had been a live-in student (uchideshi) at Yushinkan for six years before – at Nakayama’s recommendation – being employed at keishicho. An “old timer” if you like (despite being only 22), Nakajima was incensed at the impertinence of the newcomer. He might have been tall (for people at the time) but what he had in height he lacked in manners. His thick regional accent probably meant he was from the middle of nowhere, meaning his kendo would almost certainly be terrible. Even though it was his first day in the dojo, he needed to be taught a lesson:

“Wait here.”

He motioned over to his good friend Haga Junichi, who was eyeing the encounter from a distance. Haga had joined Yushinkan four years earlier and, being the same age, he and Nakajima had become good friends. Haga was currently teaching at the Imperial Guards and was notorious both for his rough, even violent, keiko as well as his gruff manner. Nakajima spoke:

“This guy needs a lesson in manners.”

Haga nodded. 

“New guy, put your men on.”

What followed was not as Nakajima had imagined. Yes, Haga was full on – vicious tsuki, strong katate-han-men, full on taiatari – but Nakakura was mostly coping with it, and even striking back. In the midst of it one threw the other and they were both lying on the dojo floor grappling. The battle was going on forever, and neither looked like they would concede defeat. After a while Nakajima stepped in and stopped it.

Taking his men off Haga turned to Nakajima and said:

“Well, he seems like an interesting guy.”

This article will very briefly talk about the “sanba-karasu” or “three crows” of Yushinkan: Nakajima Gorozo, Haga Junichi, and Nakakura Kiyoshi. “Three crows” was a sort of nickname given to the three strongest individuals in a field, and in this case it was the three best (young) kenshi in Yushinkan. They not only sparred and competed together, but they formed a close and long lasting friendship. 

For some reason, I have only ever lightly touched on this subject before, I don’t know why!

Mid 1980s. Pic taken from 私の剣道修行(第一巻)

Nakajima Gorozo (1908-1993)

Brief bio:

- Born May 1908, died in 1993 (85 years old)
- Hanshi kyudan kendo and iaido (became kendo hanshi in 1979, awarded kyudan in kendo and iaido in 1987); he also studied Shinto Munen-ryu and jodo under Nakayama
- Entered Yushinkan in 1924 when he was 16/17 yrs old
- Kendo instructor at Keishicho between 1929-1970 (finally being promoted to the chief kendo teacher)


Every winter Ichi-ko (“First higher school” – later part of Tokyo University) would have a kangeiko event. One year, Nakajima was sent to represent Nakayama, who was always going here-and-there on budo related matters. When Nakajima rolled up at the university and proceeded to get ready to take the role of motodachi the students – who were around the same age as Nakajima – balked at the idea. 

“I’m standing in for Nakayama sensei today.”

“No chance. Pick your stuff up and move.”

Ichi-ko was an elite school, full of students with high academic potential. As such, they were a proud bunch. 

Nakajima relented a bit then got angry. He thought:

“I am studying kendo as a speciality (under Nakayama) and these guys, no matter how good there kendo may be, are just amateurs.”

Putting his bogu on Nakajima proceeded to half-kill the students. He’d throw them, tsuki them, and smash their ears with a powerful katate-han-men strikes. Those he threw he’d jump on and twist and pull their men so as to choke them. 

“Stop! That’s enough….” 

“If you want me to stop, stop me!”

Nakajima is on the left


Nakajima entered Yushikan the youngest of our three crows, and he stayed there (and learned under Nakayama) the longest. Unlike the other two he lived in the dojo as an uchideshi for five years, which meant he lived (he slept on the dojo floor) and practised for free while carrying out various household chores (in comparison Nakakura was a paying student and had his own tatami space on the second floor; Haga payed a fee and commuted to the dojo). Even after getting a job and moving out of the dojo, he would come back as often as possible for keiko. 

Out of the three crows mentioned today, and in spite of the anecdote above, Nakajima was by far the lowest key. He started kendo far earlier than the other two (at six years old) which is perhaps the reason he seems to have approached keiko less… enthusiastically (“crazily” is probable a more appropriate word!) than Haga or Nakakura. There aren’t many stories about him really, especially if you compare him to the other two. Illustrating this perfectly is that fact that although there are a handful of books published about Haga and Nakakura, nobody wrote anything about Nakajima. 

It seems to me that he was a reserved type who respected his teacher and practised hard without much fuss. It is obvious too, that within the three crows group, he was the cool head in between the hard-drinking roughness of Haga, and the (at that time) very arrogant young country bumpkin Nakakura. It’s hard to understand why Nakajima would even hang out with the other two, but if hadn’t been there, the other two would have almost certainly been enemies, I think.  

Nakajima featured on a documentary (early 80s maybe?):

Iaido, 1964. Picture taken from 最後の剣聖・羽賀凖一

Haga Junichi (1908-1966)

Brief bio:

- Born September 1908, died in 1966 (58 years old)
- Butokukai Seirensho; seemingly received full transmission of Hasegawa Eishin-ryu and Omori-ryu iaido from Nakayama; also studied Shinto Munen-ryu
- Entered Yushinkan in 1926 when he was about 18yrs old
- Started working at the Imperial police in 1927 then moved to Keishicho in 1931
- Moved to Korea (modern-day Seoul) in 1934 and had various teaching positions in the police/military until September 1944
- Conscripted and was in the Philippines between Jan-Feb of 1945
- Got back to Japan in March, and was luck to live through the B-29 firebombing of Tokyo  
- After the war he turned his back on the newly formed ZNKR
- Nicknamed “Haga Kisai” which literally translates to “genius” meaning he was exceptionally technically talented, but I suspect (looking at the kanji) that translating it to “Devil Haga” makes far more sense. 
Haga is on the left

Life and impression

Compared to the other two, Haga had a hard upbringing. His father died when he was about 6 years old, leaving his mother to raise four kids by herself. Haga was educated only until about the age of 12/13, when he moved to work in a sawmill in Osaka (far away from his home in Hiroshima). The work was hard and he managed just over two years before contracting some sort of lung-related illness (perhaps tuberculosis) and returning home. His mother had gotten married in the meantime, and his father-in-law had other kids. They didn’t really want a 15 year old sick boy in the house. Still, he managed to live there until 18 when he met an ex-Toyama military academy teacher called Yabuki, who just returned home and started teaching the local kids kendo. This would inspire Haga to go to Tokyo and learn kendo. 

When initial spotted by Nakayama in 1926 his kendo was absolutely terrible. He was basically a complete beginner with no skill at all. What Nakayama spotted was, noted later by Nakajima, was perhaps, his “fight” or “drive.” He fought as if to kill the opponent.

Haga was a complicated character emotionally. The death of his father, his financially poor upbringing, lack of education (he was semi-illiterate into adulthood), experience of illness, and the coldness of his mother and father-in-law, all combined to make him a loner. Kendo for him, it seems to me, was a means of escape. Once his men was on he just went for it, forgetting everything.

At keiko he was fierce – he would never admit defeat, and would continue to attack on-and-on until his opponent gave up. Still, it was amazing that in such a short time he went from a nothing in kendo to working at the Imperial Guards, then keishicho a few years later. Perhaps this is an indication of the state of kendo at that time rather than of Haga’s skill…. 

If it hadn’t been for Nakayama inviting him to Yushinkan, and the camaraderie of Nakajima and Nakakura, I wonder if he would’ve achieved anything at all in the kendo community.

Behind all of this was his wild, uncompromising character. He would drink a lot and speak his mind directly, which rubbed people up the wrong way. Although he was scouted by keishicho in 1931 (after being kicked out of the imperial guards), they also very soon realised it was a hassle to have him around, finally forcing him to take a position in the Korean peninsula in 1934 (due to a kendo benefactor). He would remain there, essentially isolated from the central kendo community, for 10 years. 

After managing to get through the war he returned to Tokyo. He was one of the key members who brought people together in Tokyo for keiko. They would move between dojo and dojo, practicing where and when they could. Nakajima somehow managed to find Haga a job in a some sort of construction company, and he would frantically keiko in-between work. 

Eventually when the ZNKR was founded, Haga was one of the instructors they used when holding practice sessions, but over time the ZNKR and him parted ways. People didn’t want to spar with him because he was too rough, and he started to see the new democratised kendo as turning “soft.”

In the end, a group of adherents formed around him and they nicknamed the keiko “Haga dojo.” The group still exist to this day though and, if I am being honest, I think what they practice is not “pre-WWII kendo” but more something similar to what Haga as an individual would kind of do. It seems far rougher than any actually pre-WWII footage (including that of Haga himself). 

Anyway, from late 1964 he started to develop health problems. He was diagnosed with cardiomegaly (enlarged heart) and high blood pressure (decades of alcohol abuse wouldn’t have helped). At the same time they discovered some spinal damage which he probably got from hard keiko over the years. From then on he could no longer practice, but he would come to the dojo and watch keiko. He passed away a couple of years later. 

Haga doing iaido after the war:

In the over half-century since his passing, the legend of Haga Junichi has grown. Reminisces of people that knew him talk about his amazingly strong kendo and his equally aggressive personality. The group that continues to teach his kendo (or how they imagine it was), which existed for years mostly unknown, has started to spread it’s wings recently, and books and articles about Haga seem to be popping up semi-frequently. 

Through all the reading I have done about Haga I get the strong impression that his kendo was totally different from others at that time. He fought. He battled. Swinging his shinai above his head he’d walk ayumi-ashi style towards his opponent (enemy?). If they lifted their hands he’d smash their dou, often both sides in one action. If they stepped back in fear (seemingly a common reaction) he’d continue to walk in and smash them heavily on the men or kote. If the opponent didn’t give up he’d resort to tripping them up and grappling them. In a word, this was not kendo as we, or people in that time indeed, know/knew it.

However, in the video from 1930 above he doesn’t look so much stylistically different than other kendoka at that time. And the fact is he had quite a good shiai record pre-war as well. This makes me start to question if what I read was actually accurate. Possibly his kendo style changed after the war, maybe in reaction to the “softening” of kendo. A simpler possibility is that his keiko and shiai style were just different.

Outside of the dojo he was equally aggressive, whether he was drinking (which was often) or not. This – his violent kendo and brash manner – inevitably isolated him from those he worked with at the imperial guards and keishicho. Eventually he found a benefactor who took him to the Korean peninsula where he was able to work as a kendo teacher, on the fringe of the Japanese Empire. Without this help (even with the continued friendship of Nakajima and Nakakura) his kendo career would’ve ended as abruptly as it started.  

Coming back to Japan he struggled to make ends meet, eventually having to work for himself (of course). It was obvious that he was not going to fit into any sort of post-war kendo community, as he barely fitted into the pre-war one. Instead, a small group of adherents gathered around him, and stuck with him to the end. 

The group that follows Haga’s teachings (from 2011):

Nakankura (r) vs Ono Soichiro at the Kyoto Taikai (1989)

Nakakura Kiyoshi 1910-2000

Brief bio:

- Born September 1910, died in 2000 (89 years old)
- Hanshi kyudan kendo and iaido (became kendo hanshi in 1962, and was awarded kyudan in both kendo and iaido in 1978)
- Entered Yushinkan in 1930, when he was 19yrs old
- Became an Imperial Guard in 1930/31, started working as a kendo instructor there in 1939
- Became the kendo instructor at Hitotsubashi university in 1934
- Returned to Kagoshima during the war and started teaching police there in 1953
- Returned to Tokyo in 1966 and took up various kendo related positions 
- Due to his success in shiai he was nicknamed “Showa no Musashi” 
- In later life he was the manager of the Japanese team at the 1st WKC and he also travelled to a few countries teaching

Nakakura at the Kyoto Taikai between 1972/3 and 1976:

Anecdote and impression

Out of the three crows, Nakakura was by far the most lauded. This was fuelled by repeated shiai success across many different types of competition, both before and after the war. In general it was said that he fought from a further distance than most and was almost always on the offensive. After an accident with his left leg in the 50’s he changed to jodan and, for a time, he was famous throughout Japan for it (though by his own account it took him 10 years of hard practice to get to a good level). Later on he abandoned jodan completely because it was too simple and less diverse than chudan. 

When he first arrived at Yushinkan, Nakajima thought him arrogant, but it turned out that that was just his taciturn nature combined with his middle-of-nowhere upbringing – once you got to know him he was friendly enough. The fact that he didn’t drink alcohol (by his own account he said he stopped completely once he joined the imperial guards) probably made him seem less friendly that he was, because it was in the post-keiko drinking sessions where kendoka at that time (and to an extent today) bonded. 

In fact, it was perhaps his aversion to alcohol rather than his kendo ability that cemented his place in the Three Crows. After keiko at Yushinkan, Nakajima and Haga would call on Nakakura to go out drinking. Well, Nakajima and Haga would drink, Nakakura would eat, which suited them fine. Not infrequently Haga would cause some sort of disturbance, be it with other kendo folk, or random people in general. Nakajima, though less drunk, was still not on sure-footing, so it would often take the completely sober Nakakura to step in and stop things from escalating. 

In once telling incident the not-very-well-to-do Nakajima and Haga didn’t have enough money to go out boozing. Noting that Nakakura had a fashionable (at that time) Inverness Cape, Haga sneaked into Nakakura’s room, took the cape, and pawned it. Afterwards Haga thanked Nakakura for his donation, to which Nakakura said nothing, then proceeded (with Nakajima) to drink with the proceeds. When Nakakura went to get it back, it had already been sold on. 

Nakakura quote: 

“Haga was strong, but I won more shiai.” 

Note that I deliberately kept this section on Nakakura short because at some point I’d like to write a larger article on him.

Nakakura featured on a documentary (early 80s maybe?):


鬼伝・中倉清 烈剣譜。1998年。
最後の剣聖・羽賀凖一。近藤 典彦。2015年

By George

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