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Famous Budoka of Japan: Sekiun Harigaya Founder of Mujushin Kenjutsu

by Yoshinori Kono

Aikido Journal #114 (1998)

Mujushin kenjutsu, well-known as a style of “mind” kenjutsu (swordsmanship), was founded by Sekiun Harigaya. The details of Sekiun Harigaya’s birth and origins are unclear, but the late-Edo period swordsman Shirai Toru Giken (founder of Tenshin Heiho and a great admirer of the Mujushin kenjutsu tradition) appended the following estimates of Sekiun’s personal history—likely based on his own research—to his Tenshin Roku:

Sekiun was born in the country of Musashi in the village of Harigaya. He was called Goroemon. He first learned Shinkage-ryu, and when he came of age he learned the ways of Taoism and Buddhism, and studied kenjutsu on his own. He later took the name “Sekiun.” He died around the age of seventy. The village of Harigaya was located on the Itabashi Coastal Road about three-and-a-half miles southwest of Fukayajuku in the district of Hanzawa.

The village of Harigaya as described in this postscript would be in modern-day Hongo Harigaya, Oosato County in Saitama Prefecture. Other accounts, however, locate the village of Harigaya in a place called Oaza Harigaya in the city of Utsunomiya. There is no way to tell which of these—or indeed if either—was Sekiun’s true birthplace. Still another account, by Kawamura Yakobei Shuto. a pupil of the third generational Mujushin kenjutsu license-holder (san daime) Mariyatsu Enshiro Gikyoku, had the following to say about Sekiun in the opening chapter of his Zenshu (a compilation of information he received from his teacher Enshiro):

According to Gikyoku Sensei, the founder of this style, Sekiun Harigaya, was born in the country of Ueno as Goroemon Harigaya. He remained a roshi [a ronin, lordless samurai] all his life. In his later years took the name Sekiun and lived, until his death by illness in his seventies, in the Hatchobori district of Edo.

Unfortunately, extensive investigation by numerous researchers has failed to turn up any reference whatsoever to the place-name “Harigaya” in the region formerly known as Ueno (modern-day Gumma prefecture).

Mujushin kenjutsu has occasionally been lauded as one of the highest pinnacles among the many styles of Japanese swordsmanship, and it has been Tenshin Heiho founder Shirai Toru who has probably been the individual most responsible for this positioning. In his Heiho Michishirube (Guideposts on the Path of Strategy), Shirai writes.

“Also, Sekiun Harigaya (originally called Goroemon, a pupil of Ogasawara Genshin and founder of Mujushin kenjutsu); Ichiun Odagiri (a pupil of Sekiun, who later became a priest Kudon, enjoyed both brush and sword all his life); Kaneko Mugen (a retainer of Lord Takada and founder of Hoshin-ryu); and Renshin Yamanouchi (also known as Hachiryusai, the founder of Heijo Muteki-ryu). All four of these rare masters have left us with excellent works on heiho (military strategy) that serve to illuminate the key points and subtleties of their respective styles.”

Then, after establishing these four as “among the giants in the history of Japanese swordsmanship,” Shirai goes on to mention that”… while each of these four masters were distinct in their own ways, Ichiun was by far the greatest,” thereby singling out Mujushin kenjutsu and its second license-holder (dai) Odagiri Ichiun in particular as deserving the highest praise in the history of Japanese swordsmanship.

Shirai first learned of the existence of Mujushin kenjutsu from his teacher, Tenshin Itto-ryu founder Goroemon Muneari Terada, who most likely provided him with information on the style merely as a reference. Shirai’s subsequent elevation of Odagiri and Mujushin kenjutsu was entirely his own, and eventually the style seems to have become for him the singular and ultimate destination of his training. This is particularly apparent in his verbatim use in Tenshin Roku (Record of Tenshin) of passages from Odagiri Ichiun’s Tenshin Dokuro (also called Mujushin Kenjutsu Den), and the fact that he appended to this work several pages describing his findings on the lives of Sekiun Harigaya and Ichiun Odagiri.

What attracted Shirai so strongly to Mujushin kenjutsu was probably not so much its technical characteristics as a style of swordsmanship as the strong philosophical and spiritual qualities he perceived in it. In any age there seem to be those given to reviving past philosophical or religious ideas and adapting them to meet the needs of the age, and Shirai seems to have been just such an individual. There was clearly something about Mujushin kenjutsu that resonated strongly in him, and that he supposed had had a powerful impact on the world of Japanese swordsmanship over a century before.

To his discoveries about Mujushin kenjutsu Shirai added practices such as rentan no ho (“abdominal training method”) to lend the tradition a fresh edge and a new flavor, and took it upon himself to become the reviver, restorer, and inheritor to a tradition for which no legitimate or direct successors remained by that time. That this was his intention we can guess as well from the fact that he deliberately chose not to maintain his successorship to Terada’s Tenshin Itto-ryu (certainly a position of great honor), and instead passed this position to one Meikei Tsuda while he himself went on to found Tenshin Heiho.

Compared to Terada’s Tenshin Itto-ryu, the kata of Shirai’s Tenshin Heiho were actually much closer to Mujushin kenjutsu in their extreme simplicity, being comprised primarily of movements such as “simply raising the sword above the brow to jodan and bringing it down again” and “simply thrusting.”

Although Terada’s swordsmanship seems also to have been colored by a strong emphasis on the psychological aspects (shimpo) of swordplay, the fact that one of his pupils was the extremely rational and practically minded Shusaku Chiba (founder Hokushin Itto-ryu), as well as descriptions by Chiba of bouts between Terada and the other pupils, both suggest that Terada’s kata were of a more or less traditional nature and differed considerably from Mujushin kenjutsu, which adopted approaches such as refusing to respond to individual attacks in favor of simply “raising the sword on high and striking down.”

In any case, Shirai felt considerable dissatisfaction inside with Terada’s ways. He felt that from the perspective of someone like second Mujushin kenjutsu successor Ichiun Odagiri (Shirai’s “ancestral mentor”), even Terada’s Tenshin Itto-ryu would certainly fall into the category of the “brutish swordsmanship” (chikusho kempo) of which Mujushin kenjutsu strived to purge itself.

The Intrepidity of the Young Sekiun Harigaya

Sekiun Harigaya created Mujushin kenjutsu based on insights he gained when he was about fifty years old. Examining a number of different sources, we can deduce that even as a youth he was fond of the martial arts (eventually studying over a dozen styles) and later became a pupil of Shinshinkage-ryu master Genshinsai Ogasawara. considered one of the foremost swordsmen of the day. The written transmissions related to Mujushin kenjutsu suggest that Ogasawara studied directly under Shinkage-ryu founder Kami Izumi Ise no Kami Nobutsuna, however histories of Jikishinkage-ryu list him instead as a pupil of one of Ise no Kami Nobutsuna’s students, Kyugasai Okuyama. Okuyama is said to have identified his style as Shinkage-ryu, which Ogaswara later changed to Shinshinkage-ryu. Based on such scant and conflicting records, there is practically no way now to confirm whether Ogasawara was really a direct pupil of Ise no Kami Nobutsuna. In any case, at least according to the Zenshu (considered to be the written transmissions of Mujushin kenjutsu), he was originally a direct retainer (hatamoto) of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and following the fall of Osaka Castle traveled to China for a year out of a certain diffidence toward the new regime of leyasu Tokugawa. Ichiun Odagiri writes of Ogasawara in his Mujushin Kenjutsu Sho:

Ogasawara went to China and there taught Japanese bujutsu to Chinese warriors. Among those he taught was a descendent of Choryo, (apparently a tactician in the service of a former Han Dynasty emperor) from whom he learned certain halberd [hoko] techniques that had been passed down from Choryo. One of these, called hassun no nobegane, Ogasawara applied to his Shinkage-ryu to great effect. After returning to Japan he tested this hassun no nobegane in matches against pupils of Izumi Kami and could not be defeated, and probably even Izumi Kami himself, had he still been alive, could not have beaten him. Ogasawara then began to teach this technique to others and eventually had over 3,000 students.

The specific nature of hassun no nobegane has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but according to the Kirigami Kyuri Hikai Ben, an Edo-period work describing the kenjutsu of Jikishinkage-ryu, “The technique of hassun is this: ‘While ordinarily a strike extends to 4 sun (sun=1.193 inches), twisting the body without moving the feet in a certain way allows this to become 8 sun. Thus the technique is called the technique of “hassun” [8 sun].’ According to this explanation, then, hassun no nobegane refers to a particular way of using the body during combat.

This story about Ogasawara teaching Japanese swordsmanship in China and learning halberd techniques handed down for generations from a descendant of Choryo should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it is quite interesting that this hassun no nobegane (apparently a way of moving the body during combat, wherever it came from) seems to have exerted something of a “culture shock” on Japan.

Sekiun Harigaya was among Ogasawara’s two or three top students, and as Japan entered a more peaceful era and the smell of blood began to fade, he began becoming deeply introspective about the nature of his own sword skills. Endowed with great physical strength and skill and a fierce fighting spirit, he is said to have survived as many as fifty-two incidences of real combat, and in any case had managed to push onward on his own path without losing his life or his way. Latent within him there seems to have been a bit of the philosopher or the spiritual man, quite evident in his later creation of Mujushin kenjutsu, but in his younger days he seems to have been an individual of extraordinary intrepidity.

One anecdote, for example, relates how Sekiun’s pupil Ichiun once examined a sword that Sekiun had previously used and found that the blade did not even have an edge. He mentioned this politely to Sekiun saying. “The other day I was examining your sword and noticed that it has remained unsharpened. I wonder, would it not serve better if sharpened and polished to a proper edge?”

To which Sekiun replied:

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