Tsukahara Bokuden

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 1.3, 2002.
From the book
Kenshi no Meigon, by Tobe Shinjuro. Translated by Alex Bennett.


Uma ha haneru mono

“Horses kick!!”

tsukahara bokudenBeing able to avoid a horse as it kicks back is indeed an impressive display of technical ability and agility, but forgetting that they kick and walking nonchalantly past the back in the first place is just slipshod.

Tsukahara Bokuden’s kenjustu career started when he was just three years old. From a young age, he made a name for himself with his martial prowess, with both his father and adopted father both being renowned swordsmen in their own right. After many years of training, one day he decided to confine himself within the Kashima Shrine for a period of 1000 days to contemplate the meaning of swordsmanship. One morning, as the story goes, he received divine inspiration and created his Shinto-ryu school based on the principle of hitotsu-tachi or “single stroke”. Although still shrouded in mystery and very difficult to interpret, the hitotsu-tachi philosophy basically states that a sword can be divided into 3 different spheres. The first is the “time of the heavens”, the second is “the advantage of the earth”, and the third is a combination of both of these with the human element added. These principles can now be found in varying degrees and interpretations in other schools, but in Bokuden’s time, it was a revolutionary philosophy which brought him much fame throughout the land.

Bokuden spent much of his time travelling the country in search of challenges (musha-shugyô). His exploits are recorded in the Koyo-gunkan, a text concerning the life and times of one of Japan’s most well known warlords, Takeda Shingen. In this text it mentions that in his third musha-shugyo expedition Bokuden led a troupe of approximately 80 apprentices, 3 hawks, and 3 or 4 horses, and that they were revered wherever they went. This was an entourage almost of the magnitude of a daimyo (warlord), and the purpose was to propagate the ryu. The credentials of a great swordsman were enforced by such actions as wandering the countryside propagating the style. In fact, Bokuden claimed many powerful devotees of his style of swordsmanship including the Shoguns Ashikaga Yoshiharu, Yoshiteru, and Yoshiaki, and many more famous swordsmen such as the legendary Yamamoto Kansuke to name but a few. As a result, many more schools of kenjutsu were formed as offshoots of Bokuden’s school, further attesting to his greatness.

In his career, Bokuden was reputed to have participated in 19 life or death duels and 37 battles without receiving a single scratch. Even in times of peace, his daily demeanour was one of utmost prudence. Being imbued with prudence is an attribute demonstrated by great warriors. Bokuden’s good sense and forethought forms the root of many famous stories concerning him. For example, once Bokuden decided to initiate one of his students into the secrets of hitotsu-tachi. This particular student happened to be walking on the side of a road, and walked around the back of a horse that was standing there blocking the way. The horse suddenly jolted and kicked its back legs out behind it. The student, through superior agility, was able to deftly dodge the horse’s hooves. A witness to this spectacle of dexterity was so impressed that they immediately went to inform Bokuden of the great feat.

Bokuden, however, was not impressed. “This is not what I would expect from someone I was about to teach the secret of hitotsu-tachi!”, he lamented. The witness was rather surprised at Bokuden’s seemingly harsh attitude, and inquired as to what Bokuden would do in such a case. Would he stand there and allow himself to be kicked? Bokuden then went to the horse in question with the inquisitor in tow. Bokuden proceeded to go out of his way to take the long way around, and avoid the horse altogether, much to the disappointment of the onlooker. Singularly unimpressed with this cowardly display, he asked Bokuden again why he would not praise his student for his dexterity. “Horses kick! Being able to avoid a horse as it kicks back is indeed an impressive display of technical ability and agility, but forgetting that they kick in the first place and walking nonchalantly past the back of one is slipshod.

There is another well known story which demonstrates the same point. He placed a pillow on top of the door so that it would fall down when the door was opened. Then he called his three sons into the room one by one. The first son was able to draw his sword in time to cut the falling pillow. The second son was able to dodge the falling pillow without drawing his sword. The third son sensed that there was a pillow on top of the door, and removed it before entering. Bokuden made him his successor.

Horses kick, and pillows placed on top of doors fall down. Dodging a kicking horse, or cutting a pillow as it is about to fall on you is not in the least commendable. Having prudence and foresight and not getting into a sticky situation in the first place is by far a superior attribute, and one personified by Bokuden.