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Kobudo & Kobujutsu: A look at Kashima Shinto-ryu (2)

by Meik Skoss

Aiki News #98 (1994)


The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Joan Reid of Australia.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to know whom to believe or what to think when those in a position to know cannot, or do not, give you accurate information. A case in point is when I began asking some of my teachers and seniors about the technical antecedents and historical influences in the development of aikido. Daito-ryu jujutsu was generally felt to be the basis for unarmed techniques, but the weapons techniques commonly seen in the art were ascribed to a number of sources. Most people with whom I spoke thought that swordwork was derived from the Yagyu-ryu or Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and that use of the stick came from the Hozoin-ryu. A few people were emphatic in saying that all of the techniques in aikido were entirely the creation of the art’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba. After I began to study kobudo (classical martial arts) myself and became familiar with the characteristics of many of the different koryu (classical martial arts traditions, schools, or styles), I was very surprised to see that the weapons training sequences most often associated with Ueshiba-style aikido most clearly resembles those of the Kashima Shinto-ryu. In all of my conversation with teachers and seniors at the aikido dojos where I trained or visited, I never heard the name of this koryu mentioned; people with whom I spoke either professed ignorance or denied any connection, and I never received a satisfactory explanation.

Shortly after I first raised these questions, in 1978 or’79, I visited the dojo of the late Koichiro Yoshikawa, 64th headmaster of the Kashima Shinto-ryu. He very graciously answered many questions about the history and techniques of the ryu. Moreover, he showed me a registry of the people who had entered the Kashima Shinto-ryu and performed keppan (lit., “blood seal,” blood as a pledge of one’s sincerity and serious intent) dating from before World War II. One of the names in the register was that of Morihei Ueshiba, along with that of Zenzaburo Akazawa, his deshi. I was told that a number of people at the Kobukan, including Ueshiba, studied for a period of several years. Once again, when I brought up the subject of Kashima Shinto-ryu and its influence on aikido, several aikido people, including one of the most senior instructors at the Aikikai, assured me I was mistaken. The only rejoinder I could make was that a) I can read, and b) I saw the register with my own eyes (one can dispute with one’s teachers and seniors in English without seeming impertinent, but it’s almost impossible to do so in a Japanese context). Later, I mentioned all of this to Stan Pranin, publisher of Aiki News, and he has since established this and many other hitherto previously unpublished details of Morihei Ueshiba’s training in the classical martial arts and the influence of the koryu upon the development of modern aikido. A great deal more work, however, remains to be done.

Kashima Shinto-ryu is one of the oldest martial traditions in Japan. Its members trace the history of the ryu back more than six hundred years to Kuniazuno Mabito , considering him to be the shiso, or progenitor, of the original Ichi no Tachi or Kashima no Tachi. Even if one dates the history of the tradition from the time of Tsukahara Bokuden (b. 1489), who is considered by members of the Shinto-ryu to be the actual ryuso (founder), there is a continuous direct line of succession which has lasted more than five hundred years.

Kuniazuno Mabito was a direct ancestor of Bokuden’s. He was appointed to the post of custodian, or guardian, of Kashima Grand Shrine. One of his responsibilities was the maintenance of peace and order within the precincts of the shrine (manorial domain may be a more accurate description—the shrine is big now; it was at one time one of the major landowners in the entire region and exercised commensurate power). A noted swordsman, Mabito created a large body of techniques and training methods and taught many students who served as shrine guards. His descendants were the Yoshikawa Urabe. They served as diviners as well as custodians of the shrine, and providing armed security became one of their hereditary duties. Bokuden was born into this family, later becoming a yoshi, adopted bridegroom of the Tsukahara clan.

Bokuden is often referred to as a kensei. Translated literally, the word means “sword saint”, but it more properly means a swordsman who has transcended merely physical techniques and penetrated to the essence of swordsmanship, one whose art is imbued with an extraordinary spiritual dimension. Bokuden learned the Katori Shinto-ryu from his adopted father and later perfected his skills by engaging in musha shugyo (warrior’s ascetic training), traveling throughout Japan and training with most the skilful, knowledgeable exponents of the day. He later systematized the teaching of the Kashima area’s local martial arts. After receiving divine inspiration from Takemikazuchi-no-kami, the deity of Kashima shrine, “kokoro arata ni koto ni atare” ([by] keeping a beginner’s mind [fresh perspective; a mind open to change], one will succeed in [be able to confront/deal with] anything), Bokuden took the two characters for “new” and “succeed”, along with the name of the shrine and gave a formal name to his system: Kashima Shinto-ryu.

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