Martial Sincerity: A Reflection on Makoto no Kokoro
February 1, 2004 · 1:47pm EST · Posted by Fujiyama Dojo
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It was the time of the civil wars in Japan. Takeda Shingen, lord of Kai, and Uesugi Kenshin, lord of Echigo, struggled for power over the Kanto district, and dominated the broader historical panorama, but, on a smaller scale, other battles took place which are no less worthy of mention. One of them occurred not far from Harunayama.

Not much is known about why the two men came to face each other in a duel to the death. There are no explanations left as to why they decided to fight. It has been speculated by some writers that the duel was the result of an inane dispute about which ryu was superior. Others infer by the circumstances that the men were on opposing sides of the ongoing war. One of the warriors was a young man in the service of Lord Nagano Norimasa, who had studied Kage ryu and Kashima Shinto Ryu kenjutsu. His opponent was a priest, several years his senior, who claimed to be a disciple of the art of the spear.

The most reliable account of the story relates that, after studying each other carefully, the two men locked in combat three times. The first two were followed by brief pauses in which neither of the seemed to move or take their eyes from each other. The last one ended with the young swordsman's blade cutting down, deeply, on the right side of the priest's shoulder, very close to the base of the neck, causing his death.

The young swordsman had won, or so it seemed. Yet, he dropped his sword and fell to his knees, lowering his head under visible distress. His followers, a group of young warriors known as "The Sixteen Spears of Nagano", some of who were his disciples, surrounded him feeling perplexed with their leader's attitude.

When they inquired, the young swordsman answered, "I have been defeated."

"But your opponent is dead. The victory is yours." they pointed out.

To that the young swordsman replied, "How can you be so blind? I was able to cut him because he had a brief moment of weakness. I took advantage of it, but up until them I was losing. His techniques were superior. My victory means nothing."

By now, every Bujutsu researcher knows that the young swordsman was Kamizumi Hidetsuna, son of the lord of Ougo Castle. But the question remains in the minds of many: Was he defeated? Hidetsuna himself gave us the clue: he took advantage of a moment of weakness. He defeated the man, but he had not defeated the ryu. The man created the opening; the techniques themselves had none. And Hidetsuna was skilled enough and sincere enough to realize it. A lesser warrior, or a lesser man, would have ignored this fact and gone on to boast about his proficiency. But Hidetsuna was not an average man, or an average warrior.

Some writers give the credit for Hidetsuna's sincerity as a martial artist to his study of Kage ryu, and this is not an incorrect assumption.

Kage ryu incorporated philosophical, moral and psychological teachings into its technical curriculum. A number of these teachings have survived. It is unfortunate that most of the writings to date about the Kage school have been done about the ryu's techniques, and to a lesser degree, about the cultivation of the mind and the character as a virtue in itself, inherent and necessary to the actual performance of the ryu's techniques.

Kage ryu's teaching of character development goes beyond mere proficiency in technique; it involves ethical teachings that provide the practitioner of the ryu with a spirit capable of achieving true detachment and an uncluttered mind, which in turn, permits him to "read" his opponent's mind. His mushin becomes, therefore, his greatest weapon, but to attain it, the practitioner must learn the virtues that enable such mushin. A great ego, for instance, would have stopped Hidetsuna from realizing that the priest had superior techniques. Foolish arrogance would have made him consider only the death of his opponent, turning it into a source of pride, and would have stifled his growth as a martial artist. Had he not been able to assess his opponent's proficiency sincerely, even in spite of himself, Hidetsuna would not have been doing Kage ryu.

Is the contemporary budoka taught to have a similar attitude? It would be only proper to do so.

In a sense, Kage ryu's teachings began to define more precisely the essence of Budo, by giving it a reason for its existence beyond its epoch of creation and into our times. The ethical teaching that enable the budoka to acquire the ryu's kill also served as a guideline for his character, and acted as a failsafe for his actions. By advising against the traits of a low spirit, such as cruelty; rudeness; or arrogance; and advocating the virtues of a true budoka, like compassion, proper manners, and humility, Kage ryu was inadvertently giving Japanese martial arts a reason for its longevity.

Dr. Toru Owada wrote in one of his essays about the Mononofu No Dogi: "These ethical teachings constitute the main factor that makes true Budo a beneficial discipline in today's society. Take those principles away and all the value of Budo would vanish, leaving boastfulness as its voice, and aggressiveness as its demeanor."

He adds later on: "had the spiritual side of the training been ignored, the self-defense justification for teaching martial arts today would become void by the fact that self-defense implies self-restraint, for which a mind without humility has very little use. More acts of violence are caused by the impulses of arrogance than by a real physical threat."

Many years after the incident described at the beginning of this article, Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, now known as Nobutsuna, traveled to Nara in the province of Iga. Nobutsuna was now fifty-five years of age. He had developed his own school of swordsmanship named ShinKage ryu (New Kage style) from the teachings of Kage ryu, and had is own disciples. Tow of them accompanied him on his journey.

Once Nobutsuna's presence in Nara became know, In-ei, head priest of the Hozoin temple, arranged a meeting between the aged swordsman and Yagyu Muneyoshi, then known as the best swordsman of the Kinki district (which included Kyoto, Nara and Osaka). The priest In-ei was an expert in the use of the spear, having developed his own style. He had issued an ongoing challenge to anyone wishing to meet him in a match, and had defeated all opponents.

Yagyu Muneyoshi was a bold young swordsman who had made a reputation for himself. He had studied Tomita Ryu, but the true basis for his fighting style seems to have developed in actual battlefield combat. He had an early start when he was sixteen, defending Koyagyu castle. Later, his actions during the battle of Tonomine earned him even greater renown, which increased progressively as Muneyoshi, now the head of a small fief, continued to defeat opponent after opponent. Muneyoshi's swordsmanship had been described as aggressive and effective, yet unrefined. His natural talent had brought him to a level higher than average. However, he had matched his skills against individuals who might have been strong on the surface, but lacked the element that defines true Budo. Until then, Muneyoshi had dealt with force against force, superficial technique against superficial technique, and he had based his confidence on those experiences. Then came Nobutsuna...

It happed on the grounds of the Hozoin temple.

Muneyoshi asked Nobutsuna for instruction, often a euphemism for a request to match skills. Nobutsuna agreed to Muneyoshi's request, and he asked his student, Hikida Toyogoro, to represent him in the match. Muneyoshi was eager and confident. Hikida easily defeated Muneyoshi by making impact with his fukuro shinai first on his forehead, and then on his shoulder. Muneyoshi lowered his sword, and, bowing as he stepped back, said, "I have been defeated." Then Nobutsuna took a shinai and he, himself, faced Muneyoshi. "Now," he said. "I will be your opponent."

Muneyoshi bowed once again and adopted a fighting stance. Neither man moved, just stared at each other in silence, swords poised. Nobutsuna's face showed no emotion. Muneyoshi's expression was much more intense, and droplets of sweat ran from his forehead. Suddenly, Muneyoshi let go of his wooden sword and knelt before Nobutsuna, bowing deeply. In-ei, seeing his, also dropped to his knees before the old teacher.

"Nobutsuna-sensei," pleaded Muneyoshi, "please, permit me to become one of your disciples." Nobutsuna accepted.

This story, however, would mean very little had not Muneyoshi also adopted Nobutsuna's quiet demeanor and sincere modest. He did not study the techniques just to increase his knowledge and reputation. Muneyoshi made Nobutsuna's character and philosophy his own, which was made manifest in the letters he wrote, and the poems he composed, but most importantly in his own teachings, which would eventually become Yagyu ShinKage ryu1. His sword was no longer a tool to take away life, but became satsujin-ken, a sword that gives life.

Both Nobutsuna and Muneyoshi had enough humility not only to recognize lacks in their own abilities, but also in their own characters. And that recognition allowed them to go beyond the ryu's techniques and into the ryu's spirit, which is, after all, its true Hiden.

Such is the way of martial sincerity.


1. Yagyu ShiKage ryu was introduced unofficially into Aizu han by Lord Hoshina Masayuki's decision. He felt that the ryu's philosophy was much more akin to the samurai spirit and code of ethics than any other. Some researchers believe that the style might have influenced not only Oshikiuchi's philosophy, but also provided the pattern for its three-level structure. However, the topic is open to debate since Ono-ha Itto Ryu - which was appointed by Shogunal decree - had a somewhat similar format. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the ryu left its mark in the han, where tales about Kamiizume Nobutsuna, Yagyu Muneyoshi and Yagyu Munenori abound.


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