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Famous Swordsmen of Japan: Shusaku Chiba

by Takefumi Hiiragi

Aikido Journal #100 (1994)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Kristopher Gramza of the U.S.A.

Although Musashi Miyamoto is without doubt the most famous Japanese swordmaster, it is not as easy to agree on the second most famous. Shusaku Chiba, the founder of Hokushin ltto-ryu, is one of several swordmasters who might be accorded that honor. During the late Edo period he was, in fact, the most famous swordsman in Japan. If we also consider his great influence on modern kendo, Shusaku Chiba can clearly be considered one of the most important martial artists in kenjutsu history.

Shusaku was born Narimasa Taira in Kese Village (in modern Miyagi prefecture) in 1794. His father, Koemon, was originally a farmer who studied Hokushin Muso-ryu kenjutsu under its founder Kichinojo Chiba, by whom he was later adopted.

Koemon desired a higher status for his family, so in 1809 he moved to Matsudo, near Edo, to further the education of his three sons. At that time, Yoshinobu Matashichiro Asari, a teacher of Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu, was also living in Matsudo. Koemon, who had become a medical doctor, decided to ask Asari to take responsibility for the upbringing of his son Shusaku. Shusaku, who had a good constitution and was naturally talented, became an outstanding martial artist within a few years. To further polish Shusaku’s art, Asari sent him to his own teacher, Tsugumasa Chubei Nakanishi.

Chubei Nakanishi was the fourth successor to the Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu,* and he had the reputation of being the finest swordsman of that tradition. He was able to attain such a high level because there were in the dojo many experienced and skilled senior students, who had been trained by Tsugumasa’s father and grandfather, and these senior students helped to teach Tsugumasa. *The appellation Nakanishi-ha Itto-ryu did not come into use until the Showa era [1925-1989]; Nakanishi himself called what he practiced Ono-ha Itto-ryu.

Several seniors of the Nakanishi dojo established their own branches. One of these was Muneari Goroemon Terada, a samurai of the Takasaki domain. Terada enrolled under Tsugusada Chuta Nakanishi, the founder of the Nakanishi-ha, but later left the school when the second successor, Tsugutake Chuzo Nakanishi, adopted a training method that used protective equipment (bogu) and bamboo swords (shinai). Later, Terada was commanded by his lord to return to the Nakanishi dojo, but he never used bogu or shinai and only practiced forms (kata).

Many students in the dojo were not in favor of Terada’s approach, but Chubei Nakanishi, the head of the dojo, was learning the paired sword forms (kumitachi) from Terada, so Terada could quash any complaints. However, the fact that there were two different training method in one dojo often caused trouble.

For example, a student who practiced shinai geiko (training with bamboo sword and protective equipment) once challenged Terada. Terada let the challenger wear his bogu, while Terada used a wooden sword and did not don any protective equipment In the match, Terada was able to anticipate his opponent’s actions, to the extent that the challenger could not attack at all After this event, complaints against Terada and his training method vanished. We can be reasonably sure of the authenticity of this episode since it is recorded in Shusaku Chiba’s Kenpo Hiketsu (Secrets of Swordsmanship).

Shusaku believed that the shinai training method would dominate future training in swordsmanship, so he practiced shinai geiko regularly. However, he was also very impressed by Terada’s sword forms, and studied them as well, under Terada. He trained hard during the day, and studied theory at night.

But Shusaku trained at the Nakanishi dojo for less than two years. He could not have studied under Terada for even six months, since he had enrolled at the Nakanishi dojo around 1815, while Terada left for Osaka at his lord’s order in the summer of 1815 and remained there for eight years.

There is a story that Shusaku stepped through a dojo floorboard, breaking it, during one of his matches against his senior Matashiro Taka-yanagi, who was known for striking without hitting his opponent’s shinai, in a so-called soundless match.

Shusaku’s first teacher, Asari, was delighted to see Shusaku’s improvement and decided to adopt him. Shusaku married his daughter and took charge of his dojo. Shusaku changed his name to Shusaku Asari. Based on his training experience, he reorganized the method of training. He taught his students kindly and his teaching method was easier to understand than some of the other teachers, so many people enrolled at his dojo.

However, his father-in-law was conservative, and he did not Uke Shusaku’s reorganization of the traditional teaching method. They began to oppose one another. Finally, Shusaku left the Asari family.

It is not known when Shusaku left the Asari dojo. However, since he started to travel in 1820, at the age of twenty-seven, he probably had been at the Asari dojo for between two and three years. In his travels, Shusaku participated in many matches against swordsmen of other traditions (taryu-jiai), but he never found his equal.

Developing Hokushin Itto-ryu

While no one knows when Shusaku adopted the name Hokushin Itto-ryu for his school, he may possibly have been using the name during his extensive tour of the country. It is likely that he named his school soon after he left the Asari family. The name derived from Hokushin Muso-ryu, the style of swordsmanship Shusaku learned from his real father, and the Itto-ryu he later learned under Asari and Nakanishl.

After concluding his travels, Shusaku opened his dojo, which he called the Genbukan, in Shinagawa, Nihombashi. Three years later, in 1820, he moved his dojo next to the academic school of Ichido Tojo in Otamagaike, Kanda.

After Tojo passed away, Shusaku took over Tojo’s school, and vastly increased the size of his dojo. The Genbukan was one of the so-called “Edo san dai dojo” (three largest dojos in Edo), together with Shunzo Momoi’s Shigakukan of the Kyoshin Meichi-ryu and Yakuro Saito’s Renpeikan of the Shindo Munen-ryu. Of these three, the Genbukan was by far the largest in size.

Rationality of Shusaku’s Training System and Teaching Method

Shusaku Chiba played a very important role in the development of Japanese swordsmanship as a result of his reorganization of the traditional training method into a more easily understood curriculum. He simplified the eight levels of the traditional licensing system of Itto-ryu to three levels in Hokushin Itto-ryu—sho-mokuroku, chumokuroku, daimokuroku. Furthermore, he eliminated vain flashiness and instead respected the essence of the techniques.

He stressed to his pupils that they must study theory as well as techniques, and denied the traditional method that emphasized endless repetition of the techniques rather than understanding. As a result, people said that one could master a technique that took three years to learn in another dojo in a single year at the Genbukan, and many people came to enroll.

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