Kendo art 剣道美術品

When the Tokugawa-Bakufu was dismantled in 1867/68 budo education was thrown into turmoil: gone were the domain schools as well as the short-lived Kobusho, and with that budo instructors suddenly lost their profession. Many (now ex-) samurai were suddenly jobless and facing destitution. One person that stepped up to help these people was the ex-samurai, Kobusho kenjutsu instructor, and Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Sakakibara Kenkichi. He instituted what was called “Gekken-kogyo” – the highly popular public budo shows. “Gekken” refers to the nascent form of what we now call kendo. Although mainly sword-based shows, bouts with other weapons also occurred, and women and even foreigners are also recorded to have taken part.

Gekken Kogyo, July 2013

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Ichiban Yari 一番槍

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!!

Sword of the virtuous, sword of the inferior 君子剣、小人剣

Almost straight away after graduating university back in 1996 I moved to the east coast of America and began working in the I.T. industry. I’d already started kendo a couple of years before and wanted to continue while I was over there. It took a while for work to settle down and to find a dojo (at that time kendo was not nearly as popular as it is now), but when I did get back into it I was lucky enough to become a member of Ken-Zen dojo in NYC. Different dojo do things differently and this dojo required that we say some Japanese out loud before keiko began. Not speaking Japanese at the time, I just had to memorise it as best I could:

Ken to wa kokoro nari.
Koroko tadashi kereba sono ken tadashi.
Kokoro tadashi karazareba sono ken mo mata tadashi karazu.
Ken wo manaban to suru mono wa subekaraku sono kokoro wo manabe

This is of course the well known saying by renowned late Edo-era Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Shimada Toranosuke (1814-52). It translates as:

The sword is the mind.
When the mind is right, the sword it right.
When the mind is not right, the sword is also not right.
He who wishes to study kendo, must first study his mind.

Today in 2014, 200 years after Shimada’s birth, I think this still resonates with a lot of modern kendoka… or at least it does with me. I was happy, then, to find another quote from Shimada a while back, and I’d like to present a translation of it for kenshi 24/7 readers today:



There are two contrasting types of people (kendo practitioners) nowadays. The first looks for an opening before pressing forward and striking or, sensing an impending attack, steps back and defends. When calm, he stands like the mountain; when moving quickly, he does so like the wind or rain. This type of person neither celebrates victory nor gets angry at defeat. He learns from those stronger than him by following their example, and educates those less skilled than himself. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the virtuous.”

The second type of person arrogantly runs in to attack with a great shout. He feels joy in victory and annoyance in defeat, and his attacks are wild and without reason. This type of kendo is called “the sword of the inferior.”

Personally, like the “ken to wa kokoro nari” I learned almost 20 years ago, I find that this exemplifies simply the type of kendo I want to do ( = the type of person I want to be).

Virtuous vs Inferior

In kanji, the “virtuous” referred to above is 君子 (kunshi) and it’s opposite (“inferior”) is 小人 (shojin). A man (or woman) who is “kunshi” is one of virtue, someone who is just, moral, dignified, and cultivated. The opposite of this is morally suspect (or even bankrupt), carries themselves in an undignified way, lacks culture, acts unjustly, etc, that is, (comparatively) an inferior person.

A few years ago I was given a t-shirt from a kendo friend in China, the back of which reads “kunshi no michi”:


In a way I feel we have come about circle: “ken no michi” (the way of the sword, i.e. kendo) is the same as “kunshi no michi” (the path of virtue). I say same, but in reality kendo shugyo is just a device that helps orientate people onto or towards a virtuous path. “Help” here is the key word as many people choose not to do kendo with these things in mind. Anyway, you don’t have to believe me, instead re-read the kendo no rinen (the concept of kendo):

The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).

The stream of tradition

The building my main dojo is based in is undergoing renovation. Part of the work involved includes increasing the size of an already existing office at the back of the dojo and to so were told that we would lose a little bit of the space in our changing room (luckily the dojo will remain as is). Due to this we had to completely clean out the changing room, which meant disposing of unneeded bogu and contacting those that didn’t come to keiko often to come and pick their stuff up. Hidden in the back of the changing room, in amongst all the kote and keikogi, was a large horizontal picture frame with some beautiful calligraphy. Quite unexpectedly one of the head sensei turned round to me and said “Do you want it?” A bit surprised I said “Are you sure?” and – after some persuasion (light I must admit!) it was a done deal.

Mori Torao (l) vs Noda Ko (r) in Los Angeles, 1959.
Mori Torao (l) vs Noda Ko (r) in Los Angeles, 1959.

The calligrapher

The kanji is the hand of Noda Ko sensei (1901-1984). Noda sensei became the CEO of Hankyu department store (based in Osaka) in the late 50s and was extremely influential in the resurgence and development of post-war kendo.

After the war he worked with Sasamori Junzo sensei in Tokyo to establish a softer, westernized version of kendo called shinai-kyogi – something more palatable to the occupying Americans. This served its purpose as a Trojan horse and eventually kendo was reborn and shinai-kyogi subsumed within the new kendo federation.

In those early years Noda sensei held various executive positions in the fledgling kendo associations: e.g. vice-president of the All Japan Kendo Federation (ZNKR), president of the Osaka prefectural school kendo association, president of the Kansai universities kendo association, etc. He also served as the honourary president of the Osaka kendo association from it’s foundation in 1954 until his death 30 years later.

A member of the Butokukai before the war, when kendo was finally rebooted and the Kyoto Taikai began again, he would invite such kendo legends as Saimura Goro, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Miyazaki Mosaburo, and Mochida Seiji, to his Hankyu dojo in Osaka (the 1st dojo was built in 1958, a 2nd in a new location in 1978), thus helping to promote and spread traditional kendo in the Kansai area. Included in these keikokai’s would be future leaders of kendo in the area, such as Ikeda Yuji sensei and Matsumoto Junpei sensei.

Not only this, but Noda sensei travelled abroad a bit and had a an interest the development of kendo in America, particularly on the west coast. He practised with Mori Torao in L.A. in the 1950s, attended the 1st and 2nd American Kendo Championships, and invited the American team to Osaka and his dojo after the Sapporo WKC (1979).

Iaido hanshi 9dan, kendo hanshi 8dan, he worked as passionate about expanding the success of his business as he was the promotion of kendo.

Obviously there’s a lot more to the man himself, but I have focused on giving a very brief outline of his kendo background here.


The meaning (流河一)

It reads IKKARYU or maybe ICHIGA-NO-NAGARE (theres a few ways you could pronounce it). The literal Japanese meaning is “one stream” but the image is more likely a large, single, slow-moving river (in classical Chinese the 河 kanji means a large river, but in modern Japanese it’s more likely to be a small stream). Researching the meaning more we can find references to the karmic cycle, of birth and rebirth, but – after discussion with a professional teacher of Chinese classics (who is also an Aikido instructor) and some advice from an extremely knowledgeable iaido teacher, I came to the conclusion that the meaning of the kanji probably refers to tradition.

Imagine that tradition is a large, slow moving river. It exists, always moving forward yet almost unchanging, as a single, branchless, entity. Today we, as those that lived before us did, sit at the bank of the river, cup our hands, and drink from it. In a (roundabout) way, the karmic cycle exists within this tradition, in that what you are taught you pass on to your students ensuring that – even after your are physically no longer on earth – a part of you continues on through them. I guess, in a way, the “stream” flows through people, from one to another, and this is “tradition.”

Like most serious budo practitioners, I believe it’s my duty to pass on what I have been taught in some way. Although it will probably never happen, it’s my dream to build my own dojo one day and to teach both kendo and classical swordsmanship to a younger generation. When the time comes, I will hang this in my dojo to remind myself that I must respect what I have learned from my teachers and – for myself and my students – to point out that although our length of experience may be different, we are drinking from the same river (師弟同行).

For the time being the frame will be cleaned and polished, wrapped up, and placed somewhere safe out of harms way. Before then, I thought I’d share it here on kenshi 24/7. Hopefully I’ll be able to unwrap it and hang it somewhere soon.