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Classical Martial Arts & Ways: Kage-ryu

by Colin Hyakutake

Aikido Journal #104 (1995)

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of training in kendo with a long-time British kendoist, Colin Watkin, who has been living and training in Saga, Japan, for a number of years. When I recently heard of a Colin Hyakutake, who was a mcnkyo kaiden in battojutsu, I wondered if the two might be the same person and got in touch with him to find out more about his art. He is, indeed, the same person, and I was so impressed with what he had to say that I asked him to write about his ryu as a guest contributor to my column. 1 hope you enjoy it as much as I did. [Meik Skoss]

In writing about the Kage-ryu, I should first explain that it has no connections with any other Kage or Shinkage-ryu. There are in all only three people in the world practicing this particular ryu-ha as it is described in the scrolls and manuscripts, all of which live in Japan. It is the last surviving style of authentic long-sword choken in Japan.

In looking at the kanji for kage, readers will observe that it reads keshiki, meaning a view or scene. This is the original kanji for the ryu-ha and it has not been changed since the tradition’s inception in the mid-sixteenth century.

The founder of Kage-ryu was Yamamoto Hisaya Masakatsu of Aki/uki, a part of present-day Amagishi, Fukuoka Prefecture. Next to Akizuki is Kasuya-gun, the home of the first generation of the Tachibana family, who succeeded him as leaders of the ryu. The famous Lord Tachibana Muneshige moved the second generation of his family to form a fief in Yanagawa in 1590. The present location of the old Yanagawa domain is Yanagawa City, and there the Tachibana line remains unbroken to this day. Although Yanagawa castle is long gone, the family still preserves many precious treasures, documents, and traditions that have been passed down through seventeen generations. The current Tachibanas own a hotel, and maintain on its grounds a period mansion, Japanese gardens, and a Hall of History. Within the buildings are some old, original maps of the castle, moat, and surrounding houses where the retainers lived. On reading the maps one can find the family name of the present shihan, Miyoji Takamuku.

The Tokugawa Shogunate standardized the size of swords in Japan to what is commonly called josun, or in written form, teisun, meaning designated length. This was two-shaku three sun (69.7 cms) [a shaku is about equivalent to a foot, while a sun is just a fraction less than one inch]. In order to maintain better control of the country the shogun would frequently arrange for a loyal clan to keep an eye on another, perhaps more independent domain. Thus, the lords of neighboring Nabeshiina, now Saga City, policed Yanagawa for the shogunate. Although Saga City is only a thirty-minute car ride, or perhaps forty minutes on horseback from Yanagawa, there was no love lost between these clans! Even though supervising visits were paid to ensure that the Tokugawa laws were being observed, it seems that the Kage-ryu successfully kept its secret long enough for it to become the last surviving long-sword style in Japan.

Kage-ryu was and is still to this day otome-ryu, literally “that which flows but remains at home,” a term used to refer to schools that were officially associated with a particular domain or fief. Another term used to describe such a school is mongai-fushutsu, which means “not to be shown outside.” One may think it rather sad that entry into the ryu-ha and its teachings is restricted, but this restriction has allowed the tradition to remain unchanged whilst other long-sword styles have long since disappeared or have been changed by succeeding practitioners to the extent that they no longer resemble their original form.

The Kage-ryu today

The Kage-ryu pledges allegiance to the present 17th generation head of the Tachibana family. Therefore titles or dan ranks are unnecessary to maintain its lineage. The ryu is led by a democratically elected shihan. The present shihan is Miyoji Takamuku, who can cleanly draw and cut with a blade measuring three shaku two sun (97 cm) with overawing speed and tenacity. Other members are known as kaiin, meaning simply “members.” These members do have dan grades in other martial arts and were permitted to enter the Kage-ryu based on these grades and experience.

The “minimum length” for blades used in the Kage-ryu is two shaku eight sun (84.8 cm), five inches longer than the length prescribed by the shogunate. At the present time the shortest blade being used is well over this length, and my wife uses a blade measuring three shaku two sun (97 cms), while the longest measures four shaku (121.2 cms). In comparison to these lengths, the blade of the famous Sasaki Kojiro [said to have been killed in a duel with Miyamoto Musashi, who used a bokken he had carved from a boat oar] was reputed to be three shaku one sun.

Only live blades are used in the Kage-ryu! However, for beginners, for learning new techniques, and for reasons of safety when using such long weapons in confined spaces weapons known as sayatsuki-bokken [bokken with a saya] are sometimes used. The size and length of the tsuka or hilt varies as it is, of course, made to suit the reach and requirements of its user. The longest tsuka at this time is two shaku, giving the sword an overall fitted length of five feet ten inches (178 cms).

Having a sword made could be perhaps likened to having a suit of clothes tailored. The sword is made to fit the user. A sword differs from a suit of clothes in that it is not only worn but used. Bearing this in mind, the Yanagawa swords vary also in balance and weight according to the individual. The heaviest one in use at the moment is my sword, which weighs just over seven pounds (3.25 kg).

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