Tsukahara Bokuden – part 2

Tsukahara Bokuden (1490-1571). One of Japan’s greatest swordsmen, he founded the Shinto-ryu, which in turn saw the development of many more great fencers.

Originally printed in Kendo World Issue 1.4, 2002.
From the book
Kenshi no Meigon, by Tobe Shinjuro. Translated by Alex Bennett.


Korashite Katsu

“Win by making them speculate!”

tsukahara bokudenHe was good, but no great. Stubborn fool walked straight into it!”


In the world of heiho, absence of mind is a state sought after. This of course is not referring to forgetfulness, but rather the condition of being freed from distraction or having your mind preoccupied with some small detail. In kendo the definitive kamae is one in which you are able to move freely and uninhibited to match any situation. Your eyes are fixed not on one spot, but in a way in which you are able to ascertain the whole picture. That is enzan-no-metsuke, gazing at a far mountain. Your adversary will not be able to gage where you are looking or where or how you will attack, and you on the other hand must be ready to move in any way of a thousand directions.

The opposite of this state is ‘speculation’. That is to become preoccupied and having your mind fixed on a particular detail. This mindset becomes obvious in the kamae. Usually if someone is fixated, their arms and shoulders will be tensed and rigid, and they will be looking straight at what they are contemplating attacking. No chance! Hence, one way of defeating an adversary is to coax them into fixation through enforced speculation. There is an interesting episode concerning Tsukahara Bokuden in the treatise Bugei Shoden.

There was a rather skilled swordsman who sought to prove his worth by challenging and defeating the famed Bokuden in a duel. Bokuden accepted the would-be swashbuckler, and then set about researching his future foe’s fighting style. He soon discovered that the swordsman in question won most of his fights by use of the rather unorthodox left handed kamae where he attacked using only one hand.

As the date set for the bout approached, Bokuden suddenly proclaimed to his opponent that “the left handed style you utilise is in fact quite cowardly, and so I therefore refuse to fight you.” His opponent then retorted “Listen mate, I’ll use whatever kamae I like, and its got nothing to do with you, so let’s get on with it!” Bokuden persisted with his refusal, but the challenger still insisted that Bokuden carry out his word and meet him in combat, otherwise concede defeat. After much petty deliberation on our hero’s behalf about the lily-livered left-handed kamae the bout was finally set to commence.

The challenger staunchly assumed the dastardly left handed kamae.However, Bokuden’s famed technique Hitotsu no tachi was swift, and he easily succeeded in taking first blood with a slash to the face. He again challenged the challenger by calling the legitimacy of his kamae into question. At this the challenger was convinced that Bokuden was in fact intimidated by his kamae, and this served to bolster his confidence. Thinking the time must be right, he unleashed his secret left handed technique, just as Bokuden planned it all along. He convinced the challenger into becoming engrossed in his own technique, and was thereby unable to see the larger picture. Needless to say, Bokuden won an easy victory. “He was good”, Bokuden admitted, “but he wasn’t great. Stubborn fool walked straight into it!”