Kashima Shinto-ryu

by Meik Skoss

Sometimes it's very difficult to know whom to believe or what to think when those in a position to know cannot, or do not, give you accurate information. A case in point is when I began asking some of my teachers and seniors about the technical antecedents and historical influences in the development of aikido. Daito-ryu jujutsu was generally felt to be the basis for unarmed techniques, but the weapons techniques commonly seen in the art were ascribed to a number of sources. Most people with whom I spoke thought that swordwork was derived from the Yagyu-ryu or Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and that use of the stick came from the Hozoin-ryu. A few people were emphatic in saying that all of the techniques in aikido were entirely the creation of the art's founder, Morihei Ueshiba. After I began to study kobudo (classical martial arts) myself and became familiar with the characteristics of many of the different koryu (classical martial arts traditions, schools, or styles), I was very surprised to see that the weapons training sequences most often associated with Ueshiba-style aikido most clearly resembled those of the Kashima Shinto-ryu. In all of my conversations with teachers and seniors at the aikido dojos where I trained or visited, I never heard the name of this koryu mentioned; people with whom I spoke either professed ignorance or denied any connection, and I never received a satisfactory explanation.

Shortly after I first raised these questions, in 1978 or `79, I visited the dojo of the late Koichiro Yoshikawa, 64th headmaster of the Kashima Shinto-ryu. He very graciously answered many questions about the history and techniques of the ryu. Moreover, he showed me a registry of the people who had entered the Kashima Shinto-ryu and performed keppan (lit., "blood seal," signing the enrollment register and sealing it with one's own blood as an earnest of one's sincerity and serious intent) dating from before World War II. Guess what, sports fans? One of the names in the register was that of Morihei Ueshiba, along with that of Zenzaburo Akazawa, his deshi. I was told that a number of people at the Kobukan, including Ueshiba, studied for a period of several years. Once again, when I brought up the subject of Kashima Shinto-ryu and its influence on aikido, several aikido people, including one of the most senior instructors at the Aikikai, assured me I was mistaken. The only rejoinder I could make was that: a) I can read, and b) I saw the register with my own eyes (one can dispute with one's teachers and seniors in English without seeming impertinent, but it's almost impossible to do so in a Japanese context). Later, I mentioned all of this to Stan Pranin, publisher of Aiki News, and he has since established this and many other hitherto previously unpublished details of Morihei Ueshiba's training in the classical martial arts and the influence of the koryu upon the development of modern aikido. A great deal more work, however, remains to be done.

Kashima Shinto-ryu is one of the oldest martial traditions in Japan. Its members trace the history of the ryu back more than six hundred years to Kuniazuno Mabito, considering him to be the shiso, or progenitor, of the original Ichi no Tachi or Kashima no Tachi. Even if one dates the history of the tradition from the time of Tsukahara Bokuden (b. 1489), who is considered by members of the Shinto-ryu to be the actual ryuso (founder), there is a continuous direct line of succession which has lasted more than five hundred years.

Kuniazuno Mabito was a direct ancestor of Bokuden's. He was appointed to the post of custodian, or guardian, of Kashima Grand Shrine. One of his responsibilities was the maintenance of peace and order within the precincts of the shrine (manorial domain may be a more accurate description--the shrine is big now; it was at one time one of the major landowners in the entire region and exercised commensurate power). A noted swordsman, Mabito created a large body of techniques and training methods and taught many students who served as shrine guards. His descendants were the Yoshikawa Urabe. They served as diviners as well as custodians of the shrine, and providing armed security became one of their hereditary duties. Bokuden was born into this family, later becoming a yoshi, or adopted bridegroom of the Tsukahara clan.

Bokuden is often referred to as a kensei. Translated literally, the word means "sword saint," but it more properly means a swordsman who has transcended merely physical techniques and penetrated to the essence of swordsmanship, one whose art is imbued with an extraordinary spiritual dimension. Bokuden learned the Katori Shinto-ryu from his adopted father and later perfected his skills by engaging in musha shugyo (warrior's ascetic training), traveling throughout Japan and training with most the skillful, knowledgeable exponents of the day. He later systematized the teaching of the Kashima area's local martial arts. After receiving a divine inspiration from Takemikazuchi-no kami, the deity of Kashima Shrine, "kokoro arata ni koto ni atare" ([by] keeping a beginner's mind [fresh perspective; a mind open to change], one will succeed in [be able to confront/deal with] anything), Bokuden took the two characters for new and succeed, along with the name of the shrine and gave a formal name to his system: Kashima Shinto-ryu.

The Kashima Shinto-ryu was formed during the Sengoku Jidai (Age of Warring States), when the entire country was embroiled in a series of wars by feudal lords vying for military and political control. Its techniques naturally are based on experiences gained on the battlefield and reflect the manner in which one fights while clad in armor of the period, domaru and gusoku yoroi. Movements are directed against what would be the weak points or gaps in the armor, particularly the inner surfaces of the arms and legs and the area between the cuirass and gorget or tassets. Many techniques incorporate atemi, striking with the butt or the haft of the weapon, to stun, injure or immobilize the opponent. Movements are large and appear relatively slow in the techniques designed for armored combat. Techniques for combat while dressed in regular clothing or only minimally protected by armor were developed later, and are smaller, faster, more subtle, and target a great number of areas on the enemy's body. Training centers on the sword, but includes spear, staff and glaive.

Generally speaking, kamae (combative engagement stances) in the Kashima Shinto-ryu are deep, with the feet broadly placed and the body somewhat lowered (mi wa fukaku atae). This provides a solid, stable base for movement on open ground and assists in making powerful movements. The intent or psychological stance of the Kashima Shinto-ryu exponent is aggressive (kokoro wa itsumo kakari nite ari) but the body is held in a watchful manner, without brandishing one's sword at the enemy (tachi wa asaku nokoshite). Either by exposing

oneself slightly to elicit an attack or probing the opponent's physical ability and mental state (saguriuchi), one can defeat the opponent by utilizing his weaknesses.

The omote no tachi is comprised of twelve techniques performed with straight bokuto, as though in armor. The first of these, ichi no tachi, is almost identical to an exercise of the same name taught by Morihiro Saito. Ni no tachi of Kashima Shinto-ryu bears several elements in common with Saito's training sequence, as does san no tachi, but there are a number of differences as well. I believe that the differences reflect the teachings which Saito received from Ueshiba, and are related to the purpose of aikido sword training as opposed to that of classical swordsmanship. In any case, it was observing the omote no tachi waza of Kashima Shinto-ryu which sparked my interest in the connections between this classical tradition and the development of aikido.

In addition to the omote no tachi, there are a total of seventeen techniques in the chu gokui. Although they can be done with bokuto, they are usually performed using the fukuro shinai, a training sword made of split bamboo encased in a leather or canvas bag. This weapon allows trainees to experiment with applied training with more safety, as the impact of the shinai does not cause serious injury. Most of the techniques entail training against another swordsman, but several of them involve responses to the spear and the glaive. The kojo okui jukka no tachi are a series of ten techniques with both the long and short swords, singly and together, using metal swords. If the swords are real, with sharpened edges, this can be referred to as habiki; in practice, however, swords with rebated edges (mugito) are usually used. Tonomono tachi is a set of twelve techniques concentrating on subtle aspects and the principles of swordsmanship. There are eight bojutsu kata, giving the Kashima Shinto-ryu student a thorough grounding in the use of the rokushakubo (six-foot staff). The sojutsu (spear) portion of the curriculum contains more than thirty exercises, and includes techniques with and against the kamayari (hooked spear, spear with crossbar), and the naginata (glaive), as well as bajo sojutsu (use of the spear while mounted on horseback). Finally, there are twenty-six battojutsu, or sword-drawing techniques. They include simple techniques for drawing and cutting, dealing with multiple opponents, and surprise attacks.

At present, training takes place only once a week during most of the year. In January, during the coldest part of the winter, however, practice is held on a daily basis. Trainees range from boys in their mid-teens to several men in their eighties. As is common with most koryu, licenses rather than ranks (dan-i) are awarded, indicating the degree of proficiency one has reached and the amount of the curriculum which one has studied. Permission to teach is given only after reaching a certain level, and only with the express authorization of the headmaster of the ryu. At present, four men from England have joined the ryu and trained for a considerable period of time before returning home. Aikido students interested in learning more about the technical roots of their art might well investigate the possibilities of training in this classical tradition.

Copyright ©1993 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.


Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts