Saito Denkibo

Saito Denkibo (1550-1587)

Student of Tsukahara Bokuden and founder of the Ten-ryû tradition.

Originally printed in Kendo World Issue 2.2, 2003. Translated by Alex Bennett.

Hito no hyoteki tare

“Stand out from the crowd be the target of others”

Tsukahara Bokuden, who we have featured in the last few issues had many disciples who also shone as great warriors. Of them Saito Denkibo was one of the brightest, if not the most pugnacious. Denkibo was born in a small village in Hitachi (modern day Ibaraki prefecture.) He learned the sword and spear from Bokuden. Denkibo was not happy about learning from Bokuden as there were already many people in the area who were also students of the same great teacher. This would make it difficult to create a name for himself, so he really wanted to stand out from the crowd and do something different.

He decided to go on a pilgrimage to the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. There, he saw a vision which inspired the name of his own school, the Ten-ryu, also known as Tendo-ryu. He continued with his training and made his way to the capital where he attracted many pupils of his own and was even granted an official title.

The flamboyant and remarkably arrogant young Denkibo then returned to his hometown in Hitachi much to the surprise of all who knew the lad before he set out on his errantry. Here he was calling himself by some fancy official title and founder of a new style of swordsmanship he called “The Way of Heaven”! Besides that, he was wearing a ridiculous feathered cloak reminiscent of those worn by the legendary tengu, the mythical half crow-half human figures who were expert sword fighters.

His conceit resembled that of a tengu as well, and there were many individuals who were jealous of Denkibo and took exception to his audacity, which was quite in contrast to the serene temperament of Tsukahara Bokuden. One of Denkibo’s most ardent haters was Shinkabe Aki-no-kami Ujimoto. He thought Denkibo’s manner was disgraceful. Shinkabe had a student, a youth called Sakurai Kasumi-nosuke, who possessed considerable talent in the combat arts. Those who disliked Denkibo considered Sakurai as being a potential champion for them, and attempted to encourage him to put Denkibo in his place once and for all. Scandalous comments were rife.

“Denkibo! Huh! He’s dead meat. I’ll take feather-coated birdbrain out with one strike!”

Denkibo heard of these boastful claims, and challenged Sakurai to a duel. That was the end of Sakurai. He was mercilessly cleft in twain by a single stroke. The difference in their levels was significant, and Denkibo probably didn’t need to terminate the poor lad. However, this was typical of Denkibo’s pugnacious nature. Shinkabe was enraged when he heard of his pupil’s untimely slaughter, and decided to exact revenge.

“Don’t make me laugh old man! You’re just going to be another dent in my sword.” scoffed Denkibo, as he made his way to the designated place for the fight.

However Shinkabe was waiting with ten soldiers for backup. As Denkibo entered the temple grounds he was met with a volley of arrows. He knocked aside a number of the arrows with his long-handled sickle, but was eventually mortally wounded by ten arrows piercing his body. He was 38, and now looked like a porcupine.

Many people did not like Denkibo, and readers are probably thinking what a pompous moron he must have been with all his boasting and ostentatious behaviour. However, all this show was very much for a purpose. Because of his haughty name and bizarre taste in clothes, people took notice of him. He was the centre of their attention, and he was ready to take on anyone, anywhere, and at anytime.

Naturally, to be able to put yourself on the line in this way required considerable confidence. He was like a magnet for trouble, and had to take on any challengers who dared, thereby persistently putting his own life in jeopardy.

In actual fact, Denkibo was by no means unique in this sense. Many wandering swordsmen throughout history would wear garments embroidered with bold statements to provoke a reaction, and hopefully lead to an opportunity to test their skills in mortal combat. If they lost, they would become a laughing stock, but the point was not to lose. Such individuals were resolved to better themselves or die horribly in the process. To this purpose, they had to be noticed. They needed other people’s attention.

Maeda Toshiie, a well-known warlord of the Warring States period and a member of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s council of “Five Great Elders” once said “it’s good for youth to try shocking things every so often.” In other words, flamboyant behaviour and appearance is not something to be scorned, and all people probably need to let go and be flashy at some stage in their life. Put yourself on the line and see how well you hold…