Tsukahara Bokuden – part 3

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 2.1, 2003.
From the book
Kenshi no Meigon, by Tobe Shinjuro. Translated by Alex Bennett.

***

Emono wo erabazu

“It shouldn’t make any difference what tools you use…”

 

Even somebody who gets taken out by a 6-shaku yari is still going to get one sword swing in. A naginata is much shorter than that, so even if I get skewered or slashed, they’re sure as hell going to take some serious damage as well. I’m guaranteed at least one good cut.

All warriors think about the weapons they will use. Should they use big or small, long or short, light or heavy? Should they use the weapons they are used to? Is it better to use a longer weapon even though they are not so skilled with it? Or, is a long sword better than short sword any way? These are all questions the warrior must consider.

Bokuden’s favourite wooden sword has become a treasured possession of the Shinto-ryu’s Yoshikawa Dojo. It is almost no different in shape and length to the bokuto used in modern kendo. The legendary warrior Yamamoto Kansuke commented on the length of sword that Bokuden liked to use.

Bokuden always carried around with him a sword 2-shaku 4-sun in length (76cm). However, when he was challenged to a duel, he would use a sword 3-shaku in length (90cm).

In other words, he would use a relatively short sword for training so that he would have to push himself even harder to cover the necessary distance for attack. Then, when crunch time came, he would use a longer sword to add even more potency to his ability to cover distance.

However, Bokuden was a man full of surprises, and always took a very utilitarian approach to what life threw his way. One day he was summoned to see the overlord of Hino (now in modern day Shiga prefecture). While he was staying as a guest at the castle, one of the retainers suddenly leapt out from behind a screen and attacked him. It seems that the rather inhospitable retainer had been involved in a skirmish with Bokuden some time in the past in Kyoto, and was trying to exact revenge for his previous pounding.

Bokuden dodged the attack, drew his wakizashi (short sword), and disposed of the uncongenial rotter forthwith. Naturally, the lord was extremely embarrassed by his retainer’s attempt on Bokuden’s life, but had to ask Bokuden why he chose to draw his wakizashi, when he also had his katana attached to his waist.

“He was close when he attacked me, so I decided to slot him with my wakizashi. Simple as that…”

This is standard thinking for any warrior worth their salt, but there is yet another anecdote worthy of mention which demonstrates his prowess as a warrior. It involves a duel with renowned naginata exponent who went by the name of Kajiwara Chomon.

Chomon possessed a magnificent naginata where the blade alone measured 1-shaku 5-sun (45cm). He would hone his skills by cutting down unsuspecting birds in mid-flight, and even told his foe where he would cut them before he actually did. He was indeed a mighty warrior, and most of his contemporaries preferred to keep a wide birth. Bokuden’s devoted students were apprehensive to say the least. Bokuden attempted to soothe their nerves by explaining to them why he was not worried in the slightest about losing to the guy with the bigger stick.

Obviously you still don’t understand the principles of the sword! The shrike has no qualms about taking on a pigeon which is 5 times its size. But, when a falcon shows up, it flies away like a bat out of hell. To less skilled warriors even the most plain technique looks impressive. That’s your problem you shrikes. Of course, as a naginata is a long weapon, it stands to reason that it can cut things at a greater distance than a sword. But let’s look at it from another angle. It’s not easy to cut someone even with a sword with a blade 3-shaku (90cm). The naginata has a blade 1-shaku 5-sun, and is wielded from a good 2 meters away. Now I ask you, you’d have to be pretty bloody good to take someone out from that distance!

Besides, even somebody who gets taken out by a 6-shaku yari is still going to get one sword swing in. A naginata is much shorter than that, so even if I get skewered or slashed, they’re sure as hell going to take some serious damage as well. I’m guaranteed at least one good cut.

Basically, skill, understanding of weapons, and a determination to at least get one valid cut in before dying are what Bokuden considered the main attributes of a warrior. And, precisely because of these attributes, Bokuden was able to dispose of Kajiwara Chomon in what has become a very famous duel in history. The long and the short of beating one’s opponent has nothing to do with the long and the short of the weapon you use. It’s very similar to the folly of a bad worker blaming his tools. We all know that it’s not the tools that count, but the person putting them to use.