Iizasa Choisai

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series sWords of Wisdom

Iizasa Choisai (1387-1488)

Founder of Katori Shinto-ryu, and hence one of the pioneers of traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

Originally printed in Kendo World Issue 1.2, 2002.
From the book
Kenshi no Meigon, by Tobe Shinjuro. Translated by Alex Bennett.

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hyōhō wa heihō nari

“The Way of War is the Way of Peace”

Victory over one’s enemy is superior to killing one’s enemy. The way of war is the way of peace. Strive to attain victory without resorting to violence. 

In Japan there is an old saying “War from the East, Music from the West”. This is drawing distinction to the sophisticated court culture which was centred in Western Japan during the medieval period, namely Kyoto and the surrounding regions, as opposed to the rough and ready fighters from the Kanto region in the east of Japan (Azuma no Kuni). Eastern Japan is the home of such shrines as the Kashima Jingu, and Katori Jingu, where bushi worshipped the gods of war.  Azuma no Kuni is considered to be the birthplace of Japan’s martial culture.

Iizasa Choisai was born in Shimosa (now known as Chiba Prefecture) in 1387. he was an avid practitioner of sword and yari techniques from a young age and never failed to shine among his peers through his martial exploits in the many battes he participated. He became so well known that he was even summoned to the capital to serve the Ashikaga Shogun.

This was a time of great turmoil, and the house of Chiba, to which he belonged was destroyed, and its members scattered with the wind. Sensing his vulnerability in the world, Choisai at the tender age of 60 something ventured to the foot of the Katori Shrine and set about reassessing the meaning of hyoho, or martial arts and strategy. Day and night he tempered his mind and body with a harsh regime of self-inflicted training until he saw the inner secret of swordsmanship. He then proceeded to form his own school which he named Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu as he interpreted his enlightenment as being a direct transmission from the deity of the Katori Shrine.

The revelation Choisai experienced was the realisation that “the way of war is the way of peace. That is the way of attaining victory without engaging in combat.” The term heiho “way of peace” is not unusual in other martial traditions. In fact, this concept was aspired to by many warriors, and he was by no means the only foloower of the martial way to reach this revelation. However, his legendary exploits show that he had a profound understanding of what it was meant to win without confrontation.

After he became famous throughout the land for his martial prowess, many a warrior would pay him a visit to try and extract some of his skill and wisdom. Of those travelling swashbucklers, some were determined not so much to learn from him, but to quash the mighty reputation of Choisai thereby enhancing their own. When confronted by such brash challengers, Choisai would quietly retreat to a kumazasa bamboo grove and sit himself down on top of the stalks (sasa albo-marginata– a low striped bamboo). The bamboo would neither wilt nor buckle, and it seemed as though he were floating above the stalks. Then he would invite the challenger to follow suit and join him on his chair of bamboo. “If you can do what I am doing, I will take up your challenge for combat” he would inform his bewildered antagonist. Suspicious, amazed, and frightened, they would retreat losing their will to fight altogether.

Choisai was confident that if he were to fight, he would not lose, but he could not see the point of defeating a foe that was obviously inferior in skill. To do so would only invite enmity, and such bad feeling is something to be avoided. “Hostility is fired by hostility, and the vicious circle will continue perpetually. It is not until hostility is dispelled that peace will prevail. This is the natural way of things.

In the Shinto-ryu, this concept is still revered as the ‘bamboo teaching’ (kumazasa no oshie). It is not retreating to avoid a fearsome enemy. After all, who could have been more fearsome than Choisai, one of the most famous warriors of his time?

There is an interesting anecdote from WWII concerning the famous General Yamamoto Isoroku. He was an advocate of arms reduction, and was against entering into an alliance with Germany and Italy (Tripartite Pact). Because of these attitudes, which ran counter to the prevailing ultra-nationalistic militarist attitudes of the time, he was ostracized by many who accused him of being a coward, weak, and unpatriotic. One day, a group of his colleagues decided to go and confront him openly about his views, and hopefully convince him of the error of his ways. It wouldn’t do to have a general of the Imperial Army going against the grain of populat thought. They entered his quarters only to find him standing on his head. Apparently, he was skilled at the art of head standing, and was able to remain in this awkward position for hours at a time. His would-be impeachers were gob smacked, and timidly retreated not knowing quite how to react to this bizarre display.

General Yamamoto was well aware of their grievances, and did not need to be informed of them any further. It would only end up in him having to reiterate his stance, and such argument would do nothing but create further awkwardness and an air of hostility. Thus, the problem was averted, and no unnecessary enmity resulted. This is the essence of kumazasa no oshie.

Choisai died at the grand old age of 102, and his tradition was continued by famous warriors such as Matsumoto Bizen-no-Kami, Tsukahara Bokuden, and Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami. It is still practised to this day at the dojo in Katori, and the bamboo grove at the back is as thick as ever.

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