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Famous Swordsmen of Japan: Toru Shirai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #104 (1995)


Sekiun Harigaya, founder of Mujushin kenjutsu; Ichiun Odagiri, second headmaster of Mujushin kenjutsu; Renshin Yamanouchi, founder of Heijo Muteki-ryu; Mugen Kaneko, founder of Hoshin-ryu—these are the four swordsmen cited as true masters by Toru Yoshinori Shirai, a well-known swordsmen of the closing years of the Edo period and founder of Tenshin Shirai-ryu (a name he later changed to Tenshin Heiho).

Among these four, Shirai thought particularly highly of Ichiun Odagiri and was greatly influenced by him. In his work, Heiho Michishirube (Guideposts on the Path of Heiho), Shirai singles out Odagiri, saying, “While all of these were exemplary masters in their own right, I consider Ichiun Odagiri unparalleled, perhaps the greatest swordmaster of all time.”

As I began my research on Mujushin kenjutsu I wondered why Shirai held Odagiri in such high regard. My subsequent studies suggest that it was because he could discern in Odagiri aspects that mirrored his own experience.

In Sekiun-ryu Kenjutsusho (The Book of Sekiun-ryu Kenjutsu), Odagiri relates how he met his teacher, Sekiun Harigaya, at the age of twenty-eight and received a license [inka; in classical arts usually indicates the highest level of proficiency; originally described the highest stage of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism] five years later at the age of thirty-three. Shirai, too, began to deeply question his own kenjutsu when he was around twenty-eight years old. At twenty-nine he renewed his study under the tutelage of his former sempai, Muneari Goroemon Terada, whose abilities, he realized, surpassed his own. Terada acknowledged Shirai’s skills after about five years.

Further, Shirai and Odagiri seem to have shared a number of personality characteristics, and a comparative reading of the written works of the two clearly reveals that Shirai felt a strong bond with Odagiri.

Still, while Shirai deeply admired Odagiri, in fact it is likely that Odagiri’s Mujushin kenjutsu had nearly died out by Shirai’s time. It seems that Shirai may have viewed himself somewhat conceitedly as the style’s “restorer.”

Adoption by Hikobei Shirai

Toru Shirai was born in Edo in 1783. His father, though a commoner, is said to have been a descendant of Shurinosuke Ono, a retainer (kashin)of Hideyori Toyotomi. His mother was the daughter of Hikobei Shirai, a squire from the Shinshu Nakano region (present-day Nagano).

Shirai was called Daijtro as a child. At a very young age he was adopted by his grandfather, Hikobei Shirai (possibly because Hikobei had no male heir). While many sources claim that Toru Shirai was a samurai in the service of the Okayama domain, this is a mistaken assessment of what was actually nothing more than a close affiliation. Shirai did teach swordsmanship in Okayama, but he was never officially registered as an Okayama samurai and he remained a ronin (masterless samurai) throughout his life.

Hikobei Shirai desired the young Dai-jiro to have a thorough bujutsu education. Fearing that duties associated with any official appointment would interfere with such training, he is said to have ordered his daughter (Daijiro’s mother) to “let him become a ronin so that he may devote his time to fully pursuing his bujutsu training.”

Hikobei himself was employed in the service (koyonin)of the Inaba family, which was a hatamoto family [direct retainers of the shogun]. He passed away when Daijiro was still quite young, but his daughter remained faithful to her father’s instructions. On January 22, 1790, when Daijiro was eight years old, she enrolled him in the study of Kijin-ryu under the tutelage of Hidetoshi Shimpachiro Yoda, a retainer of Lord Shimotsukenokami Aoyama of the Tambasasayama domain.

Kijin-ryu was one of the more fierce styles of kenjutsu. Emphasizing intense, continuous striking accompanied by loud shouts to defeat an opponent’s will to fight, it was most suited to individuals with fierce, competitive personalities. Shirai practiced with the other students during the day and at night went off by himself to practice swinging bokuto and heavy shinai. As a result, by the time he was fourteen his technique was already strong enough that he could match some of the older pupils in the dojo.

His teacher Yoda, however, showed no intention of acknowledging his swift progress and only scolded him frequently. As a result, at the age of fifteen Shirai abandoned Yoda and Kijin-ryu to enroll in the dojo of Tanehiro Chuta Nakanishi, third headmaster of the Nakanishi-ha Ono-ha Itto-ryu [then known simply as Ono-ha Itto-ryu].

Entering the Nakanishi Dojo

The Nakanishi dojo had become well-known by that time for its uchiaigeiko (training through competitive matches using shinai and protective gear). Shirai, always one to apply himself enthusiastically, threw himself into the training. He went to the dojo every day for five years, never missing a single training, even when he was ill. At night he continued swinging heavy bokuto and shinai as he had done earlier while training in Kijin-ryu.

All evidence suggests that Shirai was influenced by a deep devotion to his mother (not uncommon in people in his position given the social structures of the day). His assiduous approach to training likely grew from a desire to become a superior swordsman as his adoptive father had wished, a wish that had been communicated to him most strongly by his mother. It is said that when he went outside at night to practice swinging his bokuto, his mother always stood by counting the strokes, prodding and encouraging him not to neglect his training. Later, Shirai’s devotion to his mother obliged him to refuse an official position in the Okayama domain, primarily because his mother was against him leaving to work in such a remote location.

Shirai’s efforts at the Nakanishi dojo were rewarded. Within five years his skills began to exceed those of his teacher, Tanehiro Chuta Nakanishi. Later, after Nakanishi’s death and after struggling with the limitations of his own swordsmanship, Shirai would come to regard his sempai, Goroemon Terada, as his teacher.

At the time, however, the two did not get along particularly well. Most likely this was because Terada limited his training to kumitachi and refused to practice with shinai or engage in uchiaigeiko, which was the mainstay of the Nakanishi dojo [see AJ#103 for more on Goroemon Terada].

In Heiho Michishirube Shirai writes, “Terada often argued, from his own Zen-influenced point of view, with our teacher Tanehiro Chuta Nakanishi. At the time, however, he was still in the process of formulating his ideas and consequently was unable to explain himself clearly or persuasively, so I did not know which of them to believe. Unable to make a correct judgment I came to tread further and further along a mistaken path.”

Shirai was still unsure of himself when Nakanishi passed away on February 17, 1801.

Training in Kanto and Koshinetsu

Having lost his teacher and not attracted to the idea of training under Terada, Shirai struck out into the wider world, traveling on his own and testing his prowess as a swordsman. For five years, until he reached the age of twenty-three, he traveled throughout the Kanto and Koshinetsu regions, engaging in matches with practitioners of other styles in places like Kazusa, Boshu, Shi-mosa, Hitachi, Joshu, Shinshu, and Koshu. Applying a technique called hassun no nobegane, which he had developed himself, he found very few opponents who were able to match him. [Hassun no nobegane was a “mental technique” or approach to swordsmanship in which the swordsman imagined that the tip of his weapon extended about eight inches further than its physical length. The term hassun no nobegane is also found in other styles, although with different meanings and interpretations.]

One area in which Shirai often found himself weak, however, was sumo wrestling. Often beaten in such wrestling matches, he decided to train for a time under a sumo stablemaster named Tamagaki. Eventually he was skillful enough to match one of the senior-grade sumo wrestlers (tnakunouchi rikishi) by the name of Semiyama.

Always eager for knowledge, during his travels Shirai also studied Naganuma-ryu Heigaku under Shunzo Shimizu, an Edo ronin, and received a license (kaiden)in that style. He also became competent in archery, horsemanship, and grappling (jujutsu,) and for a short time studied the spear techniques of Hozoin-ryu.

To test his skills against practitioners of other styles, Shirai visited the Shindo Munen-ryu dojo of Jumatsu Okada, as well as the Maniwa Nen-ryu dojo of Ju-robei Higuchi in Joshu. Reportedly during such matches he did not hesitate to supplement his sword work with other techniques such as elbow strikes and so on [a common occurrence at that time; not permitted in modern kendo] He also boldly accepted the conditions offered by Maniwa Nen-ryu, to the effect that the match would take place without face protectors, as was the custom in that dojo.

Shirai is also said to have participated in cross-style matches in the Koshu and Shinshu regions as well. In Shinshu he met and studied under a teacher of Taoist thought, which was later to influence his technique greatly. He also came across a two shaku five sun [a shaku is quite close to a foot, while a sun is just under an inch] katana forged by Go no Norishige of Etchu. It became his favored sword, the one he customarily wore at his side all his life.

Shirai discovers his “Norishige”

Shirai is reported to have discovered the Norishige blade rusting in a ropebound bundle of twenty or so swords that he purchased for a reasonable 300 piki [about 3/4 ryo; the ryo became the yen] from a sword dealer or at some kind of flea market. Upon returning to Edo he had it polished and sharpened and brought to the Hon’ami family [well-known for forging and appraising blades] for appraisal. It was discovered to be a particularly fine blade by Go no Norishige, a renowned swordsmith in Etchu.

Norishige is said to have been a pupil of the famous swordsmith Masamune. His blades are well known for their excellence among old-period swords and for their unique, well-defined surface grain, referred to in sword circles as “Norishige” or hijiki [an edible brown algae with a peculiar elongated shape] grain.

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