The Myth of the Fierce Swordsman
June 4, 2005 · 1:00am EST · Posted by A. Honda (abridged)
Fujiyama Dojo
P.O. Box 20003
Thorold, ON, Canada
L2V 5B3
(905) 680-6389
When conjuring the image of a great swordsman, we very often imagine this laconic, and ornery individual, with a deep voice and perennial frown, with an inveterate bad temper and indifference towards others. Is that the actual truth?

Masatoshi Sonobe was born in the Iyo-Saijo clan in October of 1861, the son of clan soldier. He traveled to Kobe in 1883 to enter the Kobukan dojo, which was founded in 1873. With him, he brought the knowledge he received in the Saijo clan.

It is not known for certain what ryugi he studied. The Saijo clan's typical art is the Tamiya Shinken ryu Iaijutsu, and it is very likely that this was the art he had learned. Still, he was a teachable young man, who had the discipline to leave aside all he knew in order to fully appreciate all the knowledge he was about to receive. As a very quiet and unassuming student, he was described by his teacher as having "the character of a true swordsman".

At the Kobukan, Masatoshi received instruction in swordsmanship and the use of the kusari-gama from Inoue Yushinsai Sensei. His progress was not extraordinarily fast, but Masatoshi had the proper spirit and worked very hard at perfecting the techniques, more than any other student, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the teacher, and for that reason he began receiving special instruction from Inoue sensei.

Eventually Masatoshi went on to marry Ichiyo, Inoue-sensei's daughter.

Masatoshi's swordsmanship skills developed to a very high level under his teacher's supervision. His reputation began to spread and often visitors arrived to the Kobukan dojo with the hope of watching him in action. Masatoshi was also instrumental in thwarting several attempts at dojo yaburi against the Kobukan, and it as been told that after each incident he repeated the same phrase: "What an unsightly thing to do among civilized people! Having such a low spirit as to act as spoiled children!"

One of those visits came from the reputable Tobukan dojo, from Mito. The visiting swordsman had the opportunity to watch Masatoshi in action, and although his initial intention was to issue a challenge, instead he respectfully bowed to him, and commented as he left that Masatoshi was "one of the finest swordsmen he had ever seen".

Ichiyo died in 1893, after giving birth to two sons: Ushitaro and Yu-no-shin. Masatoshi immersed himself in his own training and in teaching his students. It has been said that his skills developed even more during this period and that he paid very little attention to anything other than the ruygi.

In 1894, the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and Masatoshi was chosen as secretary and bodyguard of Chief Iwao Oyama, and with him he traveled to Korea, where he distinguished himself as a brave soldier, capable of considerable courage and self-composed wisdom under difficult and violent circumstances. Upon his return he was treated as a hero.

His second marriage, in 1896, was to Lady Hinoshita, a skilled budoka in her own right, and whose command of the naginata has earned her a well deserved reputation.

Being Masatoshi's wife was not easy. He was devoted to his art and was uninterested in any financial matter or social status, but it is due to her good sense and devotion that this was a very productive period for the Kobukan, and the martial prestige of the couple grew considerably.

In 1926, Masatoshi received the much-deserved recognition of the title of Hanshi Go from the Buttokukai. He passed away on February 15, 1940.

Masatoshi Sonobe taught many great swordsmen during his life. He demonstrated respect, devotion, courage and considerable skill. Still, he never changed from being a quiet and unassuming man, who preferred cake and sweets1 to any kind of alcoholic beverage; who took the time to stop and attend to those who greeted him during his daily walks, for which he wore his old style high geta. One of his greatest pleasures was to absorb the sun's ki, as recommended in the teachings of Kurozumi kyo, and this he advised to many with jovial concern.

Where then does the all too frequently conjured image of the laconic and ornery swordsman with the chronic frown fit in? Does consummate skill inevitably breed contempt for others, rude manners, boisterous or aggressive personality, bad temper, or just plain old self-delusional vanity?

Actually, the opposite is true. True command of the sword requires true spiritual development. Respect, gentleness and sincere humility are the natural and reliable result of that development. The opposite of that is the consequence of the weaknesses of the character, or the smallness of spirit of the individual, which, regardless of his status, make him unworthy of good regard.

To illustrate this point I could retell an anecdote told to my father during a training session at the Ikuta Police Station. It is about a man attending class who constantly boasted about his alleged extensive martial experience and knowledge of superior techniques. One of the senior students was about to correct the unpleasant fellow, when Takahashi Sensei signaled him to stop. "Do not trouble yourself," he said. "It is of no use to try to teach a mediocre man a low bow. He would climb upon a rock and still try to make his head stick up above all the others."

Point well taken.

1. The "sweets" described in the original text are called wagashi.


Current Class Schedule