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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (1): Kenkichi Sakakibara

by Takefumi Hiiragi

Aiki News #99 (1994)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Brian Workman of the USA.Kenkichi Sakakibara at about age 50

Kenkichi Sakakibara, 14th successor of the Jikishinkage-ryu tradition, was born in November 1830 in Otsuka village, Shitaya Kanasugi, in present-day Tokyo. The district of Hiroo in Azabu also claims to be his birthplace. He was the first son of Masutaro Sakakibara and his given name was Tomoyoshi.

Kenkichi Sakakibara (1830-1894)

Kenkichi began training under Nobutomo Shimosanokami Odani, the 13th successor of Jikishinkage-ryu, when he was thirteen years old and received his menkyo or teaching license in 1856 at the age of twenty-seven. It took him such a long time to receive his menkyo because he was too poor to pay both the fee and cost of the celebration party. Odani was aware of this problem and paid for and arranged everything so that Kenkichi could be awarded this license. Odani also recommended him for the position of assistant instructor at the Kobusho, a martial arts school opened and supported by the Tokugawa government and Kenkichi was appointed to the post. In that same year, Kenkichi married Taka, a daughter of Iwajiro Mihashi, who was a hatamoto or direct retainer of the Shogun. Taka’s mother was a younger sister of the famous Kaishu Katsu [1823-1899; a statesman active during the transition from the Tokugawa shogunate to the new Meiji government].

Kenkichi worked diligently as an instructor in kenjutsu, and two years later, in 1858, was promoted to the position of full instructor. In 1863, he received 300 ryo, or bags of rice, as salary as one of the head keepers of Edo Castle, and he was permitted to go to the castle with a red spear and accompanying attendants. Kenkichi achieved this unusual distinction not only on the strength of Odani’s recommendation, but also because Iemochi Tokugawa, the 14th Shogun, loved and respected his sincere character.

Kenkichi was an outstanding student at Odani’s school, but was reputed to be much inferior to Toranosuke Shimada in kenjutsu. Shimada, who died young at the age of thirty-nine, was Kaishu Katsu’s teacher. However, Kenkichi did defeat Isenokami Takahashi, a famous sojutsu (spear) practitioner, in a match in the presence of the Shogun.

In July 1866, the popular young Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa died at the age of twenty-one and Kenkichi resigned his post. He did not enter the employ of the new Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, but instead began to teach students at his own dojo in Shitaya Kurumasaka in Tokyo.

In May 15, 1868, the Shogitai [a squad of prowar Tokugawa retainers] who were entrenched at Ueno finally engaged the Imperial forces in battle. Kenkichi remained neutral during the battle, believing that his mission was to guard Rinnoji-no-miya, Abbot of the Ueno Kaneiji Temple. He carried Rinnoji-no-miya on his back and escaped to Mikawashima.

Kenkichi later became a Captain of the Guard under Kamenosuke Tayasu, who would have become the 16th Shogun if the Tokugawa government had continued. Sakakibara moved to Shizuoka in August of that year and remained with Tayasu until 1870.

After the abolition of the feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures, Kenkichi moved back to Tokyo and resumed teaching kenjutsu at his old dojo in Shitaya Kurumasaka. It was difficult to maintain his dojo because people had stopped practicing kenjutsu and other martial arts with the end of the samurai era. Because of this, Kaishu Katsu helped out Kenkichi by building him a house.

Kenkichi is well known for staging the first public exhibitions of swordsmanship in the Meiji era. The idea for these demonstrations originated with a kenjutsu match held in 1873 in conjunction with the memorial service for his lord, the 14th Shogun Iemochi, which was open to the public.

A Jodo Sect monk, who was a head priest at Sennenji Temple in Asakusa, came to watch and was highly attracted by the swordsmanship, which he was seeing for the first time. He invested money with a number of others who were also present and asked Kenkichi to conduct a tournament as a kind of public entertainment. Kenkichi agreed, since this idea could possibly save many swordsmen who had been forced into poverty after the Meiji Restoration. The first public exhibition of swordsmanship lasted for ten days beginning on April 15, 1873. It was known as the Kankyo Gekkenkai (government-authorized kenjutsu tournament) and was presided over by Sakakibara. The event was quite successful and many others adopted the idea. Within a month, more than twenty tournaments were held in Tokyo.

However, the new government began to be frightened by the great success of these events. It was concerned that the swordsmen could be used as armed troops against the government and the demonstrations were prohibited in Tokyo starting on July 31 of that same year. This prohibition lasted until 1876.

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