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Famous Swordsmen of Japan: Kanenori Dengoro Kurokochi

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #102 (1995)

The Aizu domain was well known for its martial activities, and Kanenori Dengoro Kurokochi is prominent among the many martial artists from that region during the last years of the Shogunate, just prior to the Meiji Restoration. Kanenori’s common name was Dengoro and he was adopted into the family of Kanehiro Jisuke Kurokochi at a young age. His adoptive great-grandfather, Kanetaka Sakon Kurokochi, was a skilled practitioner of Shinmuso Muraku-ryu iaijutsu, the principal art of the family, and as a result of his skills in this art he was awarded in 1750 a domainal position with a stipend of ten koku of rice [one koku is approximately five bushels; i.e. the amount required to feed a person for one year].

Shinmuso Muraku-ryu iaijutsu had been passed down in the Kurokochi family from Kanetaka to his son, Kaneyoshi Jidaiyu, and from Kaneyoshi to Kanehiro Jisuke, then to Kanenori Dengoro, all of whom became instructors.

According to a work titled A Study of Education in the Aizu Domain (Aizu-han Kyoiku Ko), Kanenori practiced a variety of different arts, including Shinmuso Itto-ryu kenjutsu (sword), Hozoin-ryu Takada-ha so-jutsu (spear), Shizuka-ryu (and later Anazawa-ryu) naginatajutsu (glaive), Inagami Shinmyo-ryu jujutsu (unarmed grappling), and Shirai-ryu shu-bojutsu (stick). He was also skilled in shunkenjutsu (throwing darts), haribukijutsu (blowing needles), and kusarigamajutsu (chain-and-sickle), although the specific names of the schools that he practiced are not known. Another work, A History of Kendo in the Aizu Domain (Aizu-han Kendo Shi), records that Kanenori also trained in bajutsu (horsemanship), kyujutsu (Japanese archery), fukiya (blowgun), jutte (metal truncheon), and mitsudogu [a set of three weapons used to subdue criminal suspects without the use of excess force: the sodegarami (sleeve-catcher); a u-shaped leg-pinning hook; a t-shaped pinning pole edged with short spikes to prevent the opponent from grabbing it].

The author of the latter work writes, “As I study the martial arts history of Aizu, Kanenori Dengoro Kurokochi stands out as the figure for whom I feel the greatest admiration and respect. Had he lived in Edo he might very well have been known as the top martial artist of the day. Unfortunately, born and raised as he was in the remote Aizu domain, he never attained the fame and recognition enjoyed by more centrally located martial artists.”

Shinmuso Muraku-ryu iaijutsu was the representative art of the Kurokochi family and Kanenori’s skill at the art apparently was extraordinary. Both A History of Kendo in the Aizu Domain and A Study of Education in the Aizu Domain (probably used as a source for the former) report that when a chopstick was thrown into the air in front of him, he could draw his sword and slice it at will in any number of ways.

Regarding Kanenori’s kenjutsu, one source suggests that he studied the Shinmuso Itto-ryu, while another maintains that it was the Hokushin Itto-ryu. Which school he studied, or whether he trained in both, remains unclear, but I must say that in my admittedly limited studies I have never found any other references to a school called Shinmuso Itto-ryu, which casts some doubt on the notion that he learned Shinmuso Itto-ryu from another teacher.

Curiously, although kenjutsu was generally the primary art of the warrior class (bushi), records of Kanenori’s yari, naginata, shuriken, and jujutsu studies are more complete than those for his study of kenjutsu, and this may be one of the reasons he was considered somewhat unusual.

Records are most abundant regarding Kanenori’s study of the spear, or sojutsu, which he learned from Shigekata Shiga, a teacher of Hozoin-ryu Takada-ha sojutsu.

Shigekata was born in January 1783 in Koshiro, the third son of Tsuneyuki Sozo Noya. Later he went by the name Yosobei after being adopted into the family of Shigeyo Yosobei Shiga as an adult [a not uncommon practice in Japan at the time; if a family did not have a male heir, one was adopted, usually from a related family with too many sons]. His adoptive father, Shigeyo, was proficient in Hozoin-ryu Takada-ha sojutsu, and Shigekata also became a shihan in the style when he succeeded as head of the family.

Shigekata was not a large man, but he possessed a keen mind and strong spirit. In his prime he traveled widely in the Sanyo, Sanin, and Kyushu regions to engage in matches. During that period most domains had relatively little interaction with each other, and as an outsider he frequently encountered hostility. His superb skill with the spear, however, gained him wide respect and many sought his teaching.

Incidentally, the Hozoin-ryu Takada-ha sojutsu originally handed down in Aizu began with Masanobu Harada; however, Harada is said to have received only up to the yurushi license, and had not received inka (permission to teach independently). Consequently, the complete Hozoin-ryu Takada-ha system was not available to Shigekata in Aizu. To acquire the rest of the techniques he visited a descendant of Kakuzenbo Hozoin (founder of Hozoin-ryu) in Nara, thereby becoming the first person in Aizu to teach the complete technical repertoire of the style.

Shigekata traveled to Kurume in Kyushu, accompanied by Kanenori and three of his students, Tsunekata Noya, Shunzo Machida, and Seigo Inoue. There they matched their skills against retainers of the Kurume domain in a makeshift outdoor dojo fashioned from curtains stretched around a sandy area. The visitors dominated their Kurume hosts, however, and the matches took on an atmosphere of greater fierceness and intensity. At sunset, Shigekata suggested breaking for the evening, since it was becoming dark, but the Kurume shihan insisted on continuing. “The sun is still high.” Upset by the shihan’s attitude, Shigekata urged his students to “show them the fighting spirit of the North,” and the four roused themselves to further competition.

A while later, the Kurume shihan began to admit that perhaps a break for the evening would be in order. But this time Shigekata and his students, their own reasonable offer having been turned down once, insisted that the matches continue— and so they did, late into the evening.

When the matches finally were over the students’ faces were pale with exhaustion and their hands were as rough as a bear’s paws (they had rubbed sand on their palms when their hands became sweaty to make their spears easier to wield.) Returning to their lodgings they soon fell to sleep.

Shigekata, however was thinking about the next day’s matches, and found it difficult to sleep. Then, the innkeeper came to warn him that some Kurume samurai were planning some sort of attack and urged him to flee. Shigekata thanked the innkeeper for his concern and advice, but felt that to slip away in the night would be conduct unbecoming of a warrior. Instead, he waited until daybreak, dressed calmly, and the party set off for the Yanagawa domain, leaving a note explaining that they had departed.

After competing in many other domains, they returned to Aizu to find that the Kurume domainal office had sent gifts as tokens of admiration for their behavior. These included a hemp kamishimo (classical ceremonial dress) for Shigekata, as well spear blades and oak spear hafts for his students.

Kanenori is said to have made a copy of a secret text on Hozoin-ryu while in Kurume, which he sent to Shigenori, the son of Shigekata who succeeded his father as shihan. Shigenori is said to have excelled even his father in sojutsu, and throughout his travels as far as Tohoku, Sanyo, and Kyushu, he never found his equal. Visiting the Choshu domain (modern Yamaguchi prefecture), he so impressed Seifu Murata, a well-known chief retainer there, that Murata composed and presented him a Chinese-style poem praising his skills.

In 1844 Shigenori journeyed to Choshu, accompanied by Kanenori, Mitsugu Hara, Kisaburo Hori, and Tatsuji Matsumoto, where he remained for nearly a year teaching the spear. Upon his departure to return to Aizu, the Choshu domain formally expressed its gratitude to Shigenori and offered him a stipend to teach the spear to four Choshu retainers. Shigenori accepted and the four accompanied him back to Aizu.

Later, others such as Goshiro Nobeta and Shichizo Nakanishi from the Saga domain also came to study under Shigenori and sojutsu prospered in Aizu. Shigenori constructed a stone pagoda in which to house the secret Hozoin-ryu text that Kanenori had copied, but unfortunately the book was swept away during a flood. Kanenori went to Kurume again to make another copy, but arrived home to find that Shigenori had passed away in an epidemic in 1850. Kanenori sent the copy instead to Tsunekata Noya, his fellow spear practitioner, who was also Shigekata’s nephew.

After Shigenori’s death, his father Shigekata was re-appointed to the position of shihan, and was succeeded in turn by his nephew Noya.

In addition to sojutsu, Kanenori seems also to have been highly skilled with the naginata, beginning his studies of that weapon in the Shizuka-ryu. Later he happened to learn of a famous naginata master of the Anazawa-ryu who had come to Aizu on his way from the Seishu Tsu domain [modern Mie prefecture]. Kanenori asked the Aizu domainal office for permission to study naginata with the master, but permission was denied and the master departed for Echigo. Undaunted, Kanenori set off in pursuit. Catching up with him at a village called Bange, Kanenori suggested that the master might enjoy a visit to Yanatsu, a scenic area to the west, and offered to guide him there. Arriving at their inn, Kanenori confessed that he had led the master there in hopes of being taught his marvelous techniques.

Moved by Kanenori’s determination, the master taught him the forty-eight techniques of Anazawa-ryu on the spot, and Kanenori was able to perform them immediately. He also questioned the master on certain matters, from the perspective of his Shizuka-ryu. Impressed by the appropriateness of these questions, the master immediately awarded him an inka license, and from then on Kanenori practiced the Anazawa-ryu style of naginata.

Kanenori practiced Inagami Shinmyo-ryu jujutsu and is known for his famous words that “jujutsu is the origin of all the martial arts and mastering jujutsu will enable the martial artist to master other arts easily.”

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