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Famous Budoka of Japan: Heisuke Wada, Shintamiya-ryu Iai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #112 (1997)


The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Brian Workman of the USA.

The Shintamiya-ryu iai (sword drawing) of Heisuke Wada is considered one of the most representative martial traditions of the Mito area. Strong praise for Heisuke’s iai has come down to us in the writings of the prominent late-Edo period samurai Toko Fujita.

Although Heisuke traced his lineage back to a retainer of the House of Takeda in Kai Province, he was born in 1625 in Mito, Hitachi Province. There he learned iai from Sukemon Asahina who in turn learned from Matabe Yamashita.

Heisuke also studied Mizuno-ryu, a jujutsu and iai tradition, under Ryutekisai Mizuno, so he was probably also skilled at jujutsu. After he established himself as a teacher of iai, his reputation spread far and wide and it is said he taught as many as 3,000 students.

Heisuke exhibited a certain paranoia to which martial artists are prone. His considerable powers of concentration served to amplify the more extreme, uncompromising, even perverse, aspects of his personality. The training methods to which he subjected his son Kingoro, for instance, bordered on the grotesque. He would force him to cut dragonflies out of the air and would attack him suddenly in his sleep. This heavy-handed upbringing caused Kingoro to develop technical proficiency far surpassing the norm and equipped him to succeed his father. But Heisuke was not satisfied and increased the frequency and severity of his surprise attacks. Unfortunately, this endless hounding eventually drove poor Kingoro to a state of collapse and he died on March 8, 1681 at the age of twenty-one.

Following Kingoro’s death, Heisuke’s behavior grew even more erratic. In 1683, he was exiled from Mito and on September 11 that year ended his own life at the age of 59 by committing ritual suicide (seppuku).

The exact circumstances surrounding Heisuke’s exile from Mito are unclear. One account suggests he had incurred the wrath of Mito daimyo (feudal lord) Mitsukuni Tokugawa by taking sides against him in a dispute.

Another records a falling out with his colleague Takatsuna Utsunomiya over the test-cutting of a helmet that had been in the Utsunomiya family for generations. When Takatsuna asked Heisuke to test the helmet for “war-worthiness”, Heisuke initially declined, suspecting that Takatsuna was secretly more interested in testing his sword skills. Takatsuna persisted, however, and Heisuke reluctantly agreed to the request. When he cleaved the helmet neatly in two with a single stroke, Takatsuna was mortified, for he had never imagined Heisuke would be able to split the helmet so easily. The incident became a source of enmity between the two and when the order for his exile arrived. Heisuke was convinced that Takatsuna had had a hand in it.

Heisuke’s iai remained in the Mito domain long after he died. Undoubtedly many of the stalwart Mito samurai took Shintamiya-ryu with them when they were scattered by the upheavals of those tumultuous times.

The tradition was probably ingrained with a good measure of the severe, radical character of its founder. Still, the fact that it continued to be lauded for so many generations after his death suggests that it was not a tradition of reckless and radical valor but of sophisticated techniques.

Let me recount a few anecdotes concerning Heisuke’s iai skills.

One evening Heisuke was talking with friends when a fox appeared on the veranda outside and cast its shadow in the moonlight on the shoji (sliding paper doors). Heisuke said, “Watch this, I’ll bet I can get that fox!” With his folding fan he began to tap out a rhythm on the table causing the fox to draw a little nearer. Heisuke motioned one of the others to continue the taping as he loosened his blade in its scabbard and crept toward the shoji. When he was near enough, he signaled another of his companions to throw open the shoji, and as they slide apart, he drew his blade in a flash and cut the hapless fox in half.

In the port city of Nakaminato, Heisuke and some of his pupils encountered a fellow scraping out a living by challenging passersby to stab his outstretched hand with a kozuka (small utility-knife set into a sword scabbard), betting he would be able to snatch his hand away safely. Heisuke’s pupils all tried but were relieved of their money, for the man was fast and well-practiced at his routine. Heisuke, however, decided that it would not do to disgrace the honor of the good samurai of Mito. Stepping up to the man he said, “I’d stop doing that if I were you; you never know what sort of individual you might run into.” The fellow eyed him disdainfully and said, “I’ve been to Kyoto, Osaka and Edo and no one has ever been able to stab me.” Heisuke said he’d have a try but with a pin instead of a knife so as to avoid causing serious injury. He thrust the pin into the back of the man’s hand with a movement so well-timed that the fellow had no chance at all of avoiding it. Heisuke was able to read the movements of others easily while never allowing them to read his own intentions.

Heisuke was nicknamed “Otonuki” (“Tap-Draw”) for his ability to draw instantly at the sound of someone tapping the floor with a folded fan, his blade flashing out of the scabbard before the echoes of the sound had even had a chance to fade. It was impossible to fool him by only pretending to tap, for such attempts would elicit no reaction from him at all.

Toko Fujita, a student and ardent admirer of Heisuke’s, extolled Matabe Yamashita, Heisuke’s “grandfather” teacher, in one of his writings as “having possessed some of the most incredible skills of any age.” Feats of iai that Heisuke’s teacher Sukemon Asahina himself claimed to have witnessed included Matabe having his arms tied to his belt by a 12 cm cord and still being able to draw a 90 cm sword. He could even draw and resheath his sword while inside a long, narrow chest.

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