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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (2): Shusaku Chiba

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #101 (1994)

Dojo Bashing

In his book, Kenjutsu Monogatari, Shusaku relates an interesting story of “dojo bashing,” that reveals some of his true character. One day, an acquaintance of Shusaku’s came to him and told him that he should try the skills of a man named Saijo, who was opening a dojo in Edo.

Shusaku had not met Saijo, but he believed that if Saijo heard the name of the famous Shusaku Chiba, Saijo would not want to fight him. Shusaku told his friend to pretend to want to enroll at Saijo’s dojo, and Shusaku would come along with him as an acquaintance.

At the dojo, while Saijo was teaching Shusaku’s friend a kata, Saijo lowered his guard to Shusaku, who acted like a bumpkin, and answered his many questions. Finally, Saijo started to teach Shusaku with a shinai (bamboo sword). Shusaku laughed to himself, and continued to play the yokel by wearing his armor inside-out and putting a left glove on his right hand. Saijo and his students laughed and taught Shusaku how to wear his gear properly.

When the match was about to begin, Shusaku said, “I don’t know anything about kenjutsu. All I have to do is hit with this shinai, right?” Saijo suspected nothing and answered, “Right, anyway you want.”

Suddenly, Shusaku hit Saijo’s right and left wrists hard and asked, “Like this?” Saijo, however, still did not realize what was happening, and he replied, “Good! Just like that.”

Shusaku thrust, then hit Saijo’s head. Saijo became flustered and seriously tried to hit Shusaku, but Shusaku blocked all of his attacks and struck Saijo’s torso. Again, Shusaku asked, “How was that strike?” This time, Saijo flinched. Shusaku asked, “Could you teach me some more?” Saijo replied, “You are impertinent. No one in this dojo can beat you. Who are you and who taught you kenjutsu?”

Shusaku feigned ignorance to the end, however, and said, “No, no, I have never learned kenjutsu. I have been on a mountain in Shinshu and have never been in a match. From now on I want to do more matches.”

Hearing Shusaku, Saijo was stunned and fell silent Shusaku tenaciously demanded that someone teach him and grabbed a student for a match. This time, Shusaku thrust the student away, pushed him down, and the student lost his shinai. Then, Shusaku left the dojo, saying, “I will return.”

In dosing his account of this episode, Shusaku wrote, “After a while, I heard that because the shihan [Saijo] was conceited, a ghost came and defeated him. It is so funny. You should not do such things, but you must remember never to lower your guard.”

Shusaku’s second son, Eijiro Chiba

Because of Shusaku’s clear explanations and skillful teaching methods, warriors from all over Japan sought him out to learn his kenjutsu, and he was also invited by many clans to become their official swordmaster. Shusaku, however, was interested in spreading his own style, Hokushin Itto-ryu, and therefore wished to avoid becoming attached to any particular clan. He found it difficult, however, to refuse an offer by Nariaki Tokugawa, a lord of the Mito clan (in modern Ibaragi) who was considered to be one of the most powerful of the feudal lords (daimyo). The Mito clan was one of the three branch families of the Shogun’s Tokugawa house, and Shusaku finally decided to enter the clan’s service in 1835, at the age of forty-one. His starting salary was juninbuchi (19 U.S. pints of rice per day); he was later promoted to a salary of one hundred koku (equal to about 4.8 U.S. gallons of rice per day), and was placed on the staff in charge of protecting the Shogun and his generals. Shusaku’s four sons also eventually entered the service of the Mito clan, and all were proficient in kenjutsu, likely due to the skillful teaching methods of their father. Kisotaro, the eldest, was appointed to a salaried rank in 1853, but he passed away on February 14, 1855 at the age of thirty-one. His second son Eijiro also was salaried in 1853 and was transferred to protection duties in 1855. He was promoted to a captaincy in January 1862, but he, too, passed away at the young age of thirty on January 12,1862.

Eijiro was the best swordsman of the four brothers. He was nicknamed “Chiba no Kotengu” (young demon of the Chiba family), and was said to have excelled even his father in kenjutsu.

An episode involving the young Tesshu Yamaoka [famous swordsman of the Itto Shoden Muto-ryu] serves to illustrate Eijiro’s mastery of the sword. One day, the young Tesshu, whose nickname was “Oni Tetsu” (demon Tesshu), came with his friends to train with Eijiro. They had conspired beforehand to tire Eijiro by fighting him in turns one after another with no respite. Eijiro handled them all, however, and in the end it was Tesshu and his friends who were exhausted. Eijiro’s shinai was even broken during these matches, but he used it so skillfully that no one noticed until he told his student to bring him a replacement while Tesshu and his friends were taking a break.

Eijiro handled his shinai so well that when his opponent’s ability was far inferior to his own he would toss it into the air and shift it about, a habit which aroused antipathy in certain quarters and was criticized by some as perverse, dishonest kenjutsu acrobatics.

Nonetheless, Tamekichi Muto, a student of Heihachiro Katoda of the Katoda Shinkage-ryu, gave Eijiro the highest marks in his report back to his own master. Tamekichi had come to Edo in 1851 from the Kurume domain (in present-day Fukuoka Prefecture), with instructions from Katoda to challenge swordsmen from various schools to matches and report back his impressions. He wrote that the criticisms of Eijiro’s kenjutsu as perverse were unwarranted, and they were most likely rumors originated by someone whom Eijiro had defeated. He continued, saying that while Eijiro certainly did use his shinai in an acrobatic way when fighting certain opponents, during his own match, Eijiro had taken a standard seigarn posture [shinai in ready position, with the tip aimed at the opponent’s center just above belt line] and was much quicker than either Momoi (probably Naomasa Shunzo Momoi, 4th successor to the Kyoshin Meichi-ryu) or Shintaro Saito (Shinto Munen-ryu). Tamekichi reports that Eijiro’s techniques were quite different from those of Shintaro, who seemed unskillful by comparison, and he mentions that Eijiro controlled his ki and techniques well, maintained a good combative distance (maai), and was generally very impressive.

Shintaro, of whom Tamekichi was critical, was the first son of Yakuro Saito, headmaster of the Renpeikan dojo, and he was a skilled composer of waka (31-syllable Japanese poems). It seems, however, that Shintaro’s younger brother Kannosuke was the better swordsman. Nicknamed “Oni Kan” (demon Kannosuke), he was said by some to have skills rivaling those of Eijiro, but in fact Eijiro overwhelmed him in actual matches. Eijiro’s skill stood out clearly among sword masters of the period, and it is likely that almost no one could defeat him. Perhaps only Yasuke Busshoji, a student from Saito’s Renpeikan dojo and feared as “Emma Kijin” (King of Hell, fierce god), might have been a match for Eijiro. Both lived in Edo during the same period, but there are no records of them ever having fought a match.

It seems possible that Eijiro and Yasuke never fought a match because of hesitation on Yasuke’s part. He was probably confident in his ability to defeat Eijiro, and to do so would have been a great honor for his school, the Shinto Munen-ryu. But in beating Eijiro he would risk humiliating his own masters, Shintaro and Kannosuke Saito, who stood no chance of beating Eijiro themselves.

Yasuke was from the same village as Yakuro Saito, and Yakuro had brought him to Edo as his servant. At first Yakuro had no plans to teach kenjutsu to Yasuke, but he later recognized the young man’s ability with the sword and decided to train him with the help of his own teacher, Jumatsu Okada. Within two years the talented Yasuke had become virtually unbeatable. Many episodes attest to Yasuke’s superior swordsmanship, and many sword masters who fought him were left dumbfounded and humiliated.

Development of the referee system

As I wrote in part one, Shusaku Chiba had a strong influence on modern kendo. Among his contributions was the development of a system of competition designed to encourage trainees.

Uchiaigeiko,or hard match training using shinai and protective equipment, is more competition-oriented than traditional kata practice, and its competitive nature was augmented even further through the adoption of the use of kensho, or referees.

Since there are referees in both modern kendo and judo matches, we may be inclined to think these existed in martial arts competitions from early on—Japanese TV shows and movies depicting matches in the mid-Edo period usually have a referee present, for example. In reality, however, the first referees in kenjutsu matches probably began to appear in the late Edo period, and while there is no direct evidence, it seems likely that it was Shusaku who began and developed the practice.

As I mentioned in Aikido Journal 100, Heihachiro Katoda came to Shusaku’s dojo in 1883 during his travels to seek matches with swordsmen from other styles, and his students, Kurajiro Nakayama and Ichizo Tateishi, fought against Shusaku’s students. Katoda later wrote that one of Shusaku’s senior students wore a short sword (tanto)and stood between the competitors, just like a referee (gyoji) in sumo wrestling, a practice that he found quite novel and unusual.

Heihachiro had traveled extensively around Japan, engaging in matches against swordsmen of other schools. Beginning in May 1829, when he was twenty-two years old, he traveled for half a year, visiting nineteen provinces and fighting 998 opponents. He had also visited and engaged in matches in many dojos in Edo, including the famous Odani dojo in 1838. In all of his travels, however, he never reported seeing referees being used in kenjutsu matches, and this could be an indication that the referee system was not yet in widespread use at that time.

In those days matches against opponents outside of one’s own style continued until one of the combatants admitted defeat or could no longer fight. When honor was at stake, however, swordsmen sometimes refused to recognize their own defeat, a practice that Shusaku felt rendered the match meaningless as a test of real skill. Shusaku probably modeled the referee system in kenjutsu after sumo wrestling, hoping to introduce a method of technical improvement by removing elements of technical irrationality caused by training with the bamboo sword and protective equipment. In other words, he felt that such matches were conducted in an unrealistic manner, and that in an actual fight using live blades, opponents would not be able to continue fighting after being cut, as they tended to do when using shinai and armor.

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