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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (5): Toru Shirai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #109 (Fall/Winter 1996)

Toru Shirai Founder of Tenshin Shirai-ryu

Shirai’s kenjutsu more esoteric than Terada’s

In previous articles in this series I have examined some of the major formative events in the life of swordsman Toru Shirai. In this final installment on Shirai I will explore in greater detail some of the specific principles and techniques of his Mujushin kenjutsu-influcnced Tenshin Heiho.

I have mentioned before that Shirai is generally grouped with his teacher and mentor, Muneari Goroemon Terada, as a proponent of shimpo kenjutsu [esoteric, mind-based swordsmanship, emphasizing the mental or spiritual, as opposed to giho, the technical or physical]. In my view, however, Shirai’s kenjutsu was far more esoteric than Terada’s, to the extent that is seems to me inappropriate to consider the two in the same category. Of course, Shirai’s encounters with Terada were what opened his eyes to the esoteric aspects of swordsmanship, and it is impossible to omit Terada from any discussion of Shirai.

Ironically, although it was Terada who first introduced Shirai to the works and schools — Mugen Kaneko’s Baikashu and the Heijo Muteki-ryu, for example — that would later inform the development of Shirai’s kenjutsu, Terada himself never delved particularly deeply into them and preferred to remain within the framework of traditional kata training. Shirai, on the other hand, his eyes opened by shimpo

kenjutsu, felt increasingly dissatisfied with Terada’s conservatism.

The differing orientations of these two swordsmen may be attributed at least in part to their respective social situations, Terada being employed in the service of the lord of the Takasaki domain and Shirai enjoying the much freer status of ronin (masterless samurai).

Typical of shimpo-oriented styles of kenjutsu, Mujushin kenjutsu rejects specific techniques entirely, suggesting instead that no matter how the opponent attacks, the only thing the defender need do is raise his own sword above his brow and bring it down again. Such an approach may be adequate for self-defense, and it may work if you are able to position yourself in front of your lord; but when there are multiple attackers, when fighting conditions become confusing, or when the topography allows the enemy numerous other options for attacking, it can hardly be relied upon as a means to fulfill one’s duty as a guardian. Tb put it another way, while such techniques may be appropriate to defend against someone attacking you directly, the moment you find yourself turning to pursue an attacker who disregards you and slips past you to cut down your lord from the flank, you have already abandoned everything that could be called Mujushin kenjutsu.

In the transmissions of Mujushin kenjutsu it is written, “When attacked by surprise or in the dark of night, grapple without drawing your sword if you are close enough, or, if you are slightly too far apart to grapple, then down your opponent with a kick; in any case, never attempt to fight with your sword in such situations.” Bushi, for whom protecting their lord was an extremely important responsibility, would undoubtedly hesitate to learn a form of swordsmanship so ill-suited to the exigencies of bodyguarding. We can suspect that Terada’s consciousness of his responsibilities to his lord prompted him to maintain a certain distance from Mujushin kenjutsu.

For Shirai, a ronin, bujutsu was not bound up in such loyalties to the same extent, and for him it became more of a spiritual foundation for life. Turning away from the harsh world of training with shinai and bogu, he started down the path of shimpo kenjutsu and pursued that path with increasing ardor as time went on.

Rentan no ho

Having found in Mujushin kenjutsu what he considered an ideal form of swordsmanship, Shirai also recognized that the esoteric nature of the style deprived it of any clear approach to study and mastery.

Shirai had earlier attempted to pursue the ablution method of spiritual training (kansui no ho) recommended exclusively by Terada, but found it had detrimental effects, weakening him and making him severely ill. He then discovered the abdominal method of training (rentan no ho) advocated by the Zen monk Hakuin, and practicing this he managed to shake off his chronic illness within two short months. After that, Shirai adopted the abdominal method as a means well-suited to learning a style like Mujushin kenjutsu.

The abdominal method seemed to match Shirai’s goals quite well, and thereafter he took every opportunity to recommend it to his pupils. He also became quite critical of the ablution method Terada advocated so unequivocally, although he was relatively reserved in expressing these criticisms openly.

While it is natural that Shirai’s explanations of the principles of kenjutsu should differ from Terada’s, the approaches of the two swordsmen seem to have been even more different than one might expect. In contrast to the heavy Zen flavor of Terada’s teaching, Shirai was fond of explaining techniques and principles through analogies with common everyday items that would be familiar to the general population. He may well have been influenced in this by the ascetic Tokuhon, whose popular approach earned him respect and popularity across diverse social strata, from the lord of Kishu all the way down to the common people.

The “Six Principles”

Shirai established a set of six basic principles to be taught to beginners as an introduction to his style of kenjutsu. Okunojo Yoshida writes of these in Tenshin-den Itto-ryu Heiho.

In this style there are six important teachings taught to beginners. These include three things that must be thrown away and forgotten and three things that must be practiced and mastered.

The three things one must strive to throw away and forget are the opponent’s body or form, one’s own body, and one’s own sword. It is important to avoid being conscious of these three.

The three things that one must strive to practice and master are shinku, one’s own tanden, and nobi at the tip of one’s sword.

The reason you must throw away and forget the opponent’s form is that by recognizing that form and being conscious of it, you will be taken in and led by your opponent’s movements. You will become attached to those movements, your ki and your technique will become restrained, and you will be unable to move.

If you are aware of your own body, your shoulders will tense, your abdomen will tighten, your body will become stiff, and you will be unable to move in a truly natural way.

Finally, if you are conscious of your own sword, you will inevitably attempt to rely on it, and in so doing you will put muscular strength into your hands and arms and will become unable to move naturally. At the same time you will also provide openings to your opponent and show him how he can strike you.

The three things you must practice and master are shinku, Itara (tanden), and nobi. Cultivate shinku and make the space and your consciousness into a sphere that surrounds and envelops your opponent. Further, it is important to train your hara (tanden) and harmonize your body so that it functions smoothly, and to place your entire body within your hara. Nobi means to wield your sword as if it were a long pole thrusting through and far behind your opponent.

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