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Famous Swordsmen of Japan (3): Toru Shirai

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #106 (1996)

Traveling with Terada to Itsukushima Shrine in Shikoku

Through the rentan no ho (abdominal training method) that he had recently discovered, Shirai took his first steps on the road to attainment of tenshin [understanding one’s own heaven-sent nature, a state of divine purity, characterized in part, it seems, by an empty mind and energized abdomen (hara)]. In so doing he had begun to mature as a swordsman into someone that Terada could talk with on a relatively equal level, and it was probably this that prompted Terada to begin considering him as his successor in the Tenshin Itto-ryu. The ill health that had long plagued Shirai had vanished completely and his determination was stronger than ever. On March 21, 1815, perhaps a month after Shirai’s recovery, the two embarked on a pilgrimage to Itsukushima Shrine in faraway Shikoku. Terada seems to have traveled the entire distance on foot, for in Heiho Michishirube Shirai remarks on his amazing stamina saying, “Master Terada, even at the age of seventy-one, did not once along the way avail himself of a palanquin.”

According to a passage by Okunojo Yoshida (a later student of Shirai) in his Tenshinden Shirai-ryu Heiho Tsukaikata, Terada questioned Shirai in great detail all along the way, and suggests that Terada had intended from the beginning to use their time on the road together to inquire about various aspects of Shirai’s character and abilities.

Shirai, inwardly confident that he had already come to grasp at least a part of his inner nature, was able to answer his teacher fluently. While many in his position would have found this interrogation an arduous training exercise (shugyo,)Shirai likely found it rather enjoyable in the sense that it allowed him to deepen his degree of understanding even further.

No clear record remains of the duration of the journey, but it may be safely assumed that Terada would not have been able to stay away from his official responsibilities for any great length of time. It seems likely that once the pair had reached their destination and completed the pilgrimage, Terada returned to Edo directly while Shirai made a detour to the Bizen Okayama domain, where before he had taught kenjutsu for seven years.

Shirai had left Bizen Okayama four years earlier, rushing home to Edo after receiving news that his mother had fallen seriously ill. When he returned, he found that those he had left to manage the dojo had handled their task well, for they had augmented the funds collected through tuition payments by lending and collecting interest, eventually accumulating a total of two hundred and fifty ryo [Edo era monetary unit that became the modern yen].

Shirai remained to teach the Okayama samurai for another two months before returning to Edo. Back in the capital again, he used the money to build himself a residence and dojo in the Okachimachi area of Shimoyanaka, where he began teaching Itto-ryu.

Receiving a license in Tenshin Itto-ryu

It came to pass that in mid-August, shortly after returning from the pilgrimage, Terada’s lord, Matsudaira Ukyodayu, was appointed to a new position as deputy castellan of Osaka Castle. As a retainer in Matsudaira’s service, Terada naturally was obliged to accompany him. Before he left he met with Shirai, intending to confer on him the succession of his Tenshin Itto-ryu. Shirai writes of their meeting in Heiho Michishirube:

“Matsudaira Ukyodayu was ordered to a new position as deputy castellan of Osaka Castle, and Master Terada was to accompany the entourage as guard and escort to the Matsudaira’s wife. I met him as he was making preparations for the journey and requested a lesson. As we faced one another, our swords drawn, I emptied my mind and ceased to be aware of my four limbs and body. When we had finished our training Master Terada told me, ‘Your technique has come to fruition. I may now rest assured that even if I pass my remaining years in Naniwa [an old name for Osaka], the tradition I have pursued will not fade away and shall continue.” Having said that, he went on to affirm that I was to be his successor. The date was August 15,1815, and with that Master Terada departed the capital for Naniwa.”

In this last meeting with Terada, Shirai had succeeded in pouring the whole of his concentration and being into his tanden, allowing him to manifest his technique more skillfully than ever before. Terada understood that Shirai had finally come into his own as a worthy successor and thereupon awarded him a license (menkyo) in Tenshin Itto-ryu.

Worrying about contradictions between rentan no ho and Terada’s teachings

Separated from Terada, Shirai set off on his own in pursuit of his goal of tenshin. It was not long, however, before he found himself facing a dilemma. While Terada had explained that training in rentan no ho must be conducted while maintaining the truly pure heart, mind, and spirit (kokoro) that is tenshin, he had also suggested that bujutsu, making use of stratagems and artifice as it does, is a path of deception and questionable means, and that when confronting an enemy harboring evil intentions, even a saint would resort to such methods.

Indeed, most people would agree that this is a fundamental truth of bujutsu. Take, for example, a well known episode involving Kamiizumi Ise no Kami, founder of the Shinkage-ryu, who is said to have been one of the most accomplished swordsmen of any age. The story tells how Kamiizumi rescued a kidnapped child, not through valiant swordplay, but by approaching the scene disguised as a Buddhist priest and pretending to offer rice balls to the kidnapper.

As a samurai retainer whose duty was to go to all possible lengths to serve his lord, Terada was undoubtedly able to identify with this episode, and it seems likely that he was well aware of the impossibility of getting through life in the real world on ideals alone. Accordingly, we can assume that Terada’s actual combat technique included the usual repertoire of practical skills designed to deceive and lead an opponent to defeat, and that in this respect his swordsmanship was not so different from that of other swordsmen.

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