Muso Gonnosuke and the Shinto Muso-ryu Jo

by Wayne Muromoto

If we can believe the legends--and there are more legends than facts concerning these two martial artists--the only person to beat Miyamoto Musashi in a duel was someone as outlandish and eccentric as he was. And to top it off, he did it with a wooden stick. In so doing, Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi gave birth to a martial arts system that would elevate the humble wooden staff to one of the preeminent weapons of the bugei of Japan.

We know very little that can be verified about the actual life of Muso Gonnosuke, and the little that we do know must be tempered with the knowledge that much of what has been written has been colored and embellished by later writers to make for exciting reading. Nishioka Tsuneo, head of the Seiryukai organization, cautions that many of the legends purporting Gonnosuke to be a colorful braggart originated long after his actual lifetime. "We just don't know that much about him," Nishioka says.

In any case, records note that Gonnosuke's original family name was Hirano, and that he went by the given name of Gonbei early in his life. He was supposed to be a distant descendant of Kiso Kanja No Taiyu Kakumei, a retainer of the famous general, Kiso Yoshinaka.1

Gonnosuke studied the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu under Sakurai Ohsumi No Kami Yoshikatsu, then he studied the Kashima Jikishinkage-ryu, learning its secret method called the "ichi no tachi".2 According to legends, Gonnosuke thereupon engaged in various duels throughout Japan to test his skills, never losing any of them until he met Miyamoto Musashi.

To be sure, there were wooden staff arts before Gonnosuke's time. The Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu had bojutsu methods using the rokushaku bo (six-foot staff), as did the Sekiguchi-ryu, Bokuden-ryu and Takeuchi-ryu (or, as it is alternatively called, Take-no-uchi-ryu). If we follow the lineage line charted in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, then Gonnosuke was a student of a teacher of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, which is why his style, the Shinto Muso (or Shindo Muso) -ryu contains the appellation Shinto (Way of the Gods).

The Duel With Musashi and Mount Homan

The first duel with Musashi occurred in Keicho 10 (1605), just five years after the Battle of Sekigahara put an end to most internal civil wars and heralded the start of the two-centuries-long Tokugawa peace. The event was supposed to have taken place in Akashi, Harima province. There are different versions of the first duel. A rather silly but entertaining one is concocted by Yoshikawa Eiji in the novel Miyamoto Musashi. However, the first records of such a duel is found in the Kaijo Monogatari, written in 1629. The gist of its version was subsequently published in the Jodo Kyoshi. The following is a synopsis of that episode:

There was a heihosha (martial artist) named Miyamoto Musashi. He engaged in duels from the age of 16 and was in about 60 matches. In the sixth month, in Akashi, Harima province, he met Muso Gonnosuke, who was a six foot tall strapping warrior. Gonnosuke was armed with an odachi (a long sword), a two layer overcoat with sleeves, and a haori with a large hi no maru (rising sun). On his lapels were written: "The best martial artist in the land" (heiho tenka ichi), and "Nihon Kaizan Muso Gonnosuke."

...Gonnosuke was surrounded by about six deshi followers who accompanied him on a journey to Kyushu. He boasted to Musashi that no one was his equal. In his travels, he had apparently encountered Musashi's father, Shinmen Munisai, a master of the jutte (truncheon).

"I have seen your father's techniques, but I haven't seen yours," he said, goading Musashi.

(Shinmen) Miyamoto Genshin Musashi was irritated. He was in the middle of carving a willow branch and replied, "If you saw my father's techniques, I am no different."

Gonnosuke pressed the issue, badgering Musashi to show his martial arts off for the benefit of Gonnosuke's students.

"My heiho is not for display," Musashi snapped. "No matter how you attack me, I'll stop it. That's all there is to my heiho. Do what you will, with any technique."

Gonnosuke pulled out a four-shaku (a shaku is roughly equivalent to an English foot) wooden sword from a brocade bag. (To draw a comparison, the usual practice sword is but a little longer than two shaku.) He attacked Musashi without any formalities. Musashi stood up from his crouch. With what seemed to be very little effort, he forced Gonnosuke back across the tatami mat room with his willow branch and, pressing him against a wall, struck him lightly between the eyebrows.

Another slightly different version of that first duel appears in the Honcho Bugei Koden.3 The book was originally compiled in Shotoku 4 (1714). Watatani, in his edited and annotated version of the Honcho Bugei Koden, notes that the Nitenki, a compilation of Musashi's exploits by his followers, places the event in Edo, but this appears to be a later corruption. The earliest record of this duel appeared in the Kaijo Monogatari, but 26 years after Musashi's death, and it places the battle in Akashi.

The description of the duel in the Honcho Bugei Koden is more or less the same as in the Kaijo Monogatari, with some minor differences. In this version, Musashi was carving the willow branch into a toy bow used for sideshow games. It was a thin piece of wood only two shaku or so in length. Musashi invited Gonnosuke into a seven and a half mat room.

In actuality, it is probable that Musashi beat Gonnosuke by using his special two-swords technique (nito), trapping Gonnosuke's weapon in an x-block, or juji dome, with his long and short swords.4 Musashi was able to trap an opponent's weapon with the block, forcing the attacker to either give up or retreat and face an immediate counter-attack.

Gonnosuke must have been a large, strapping warrior, if he wielded such a large bokken or bo. A wooden sword attributed to Gonnosuke at Chikuwa Shrine is over four shaku, nine sun and two bu (over four feet) long. Gonnosuke's jo, if measured by the width of his outstretched hands held out to his sides, must have been a bit longer than the standard jo used nowadays.

Whatever the case may be, Gonnosuke lost the first duel. Mortified, he withdrew to Homangu, part of the Kamado Shinto shrine atop Mount Homan, in Chikuzen province, (present-day Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture) Kyushu. For 37 days he meditated and performed rites of austerity. On the last night night, while praying in front of an altar, he collapsed and had a divine vision.

In one version, a heavenly child appeared and said, "Holding a round log, know the suigetsu (an attack point on the body)."

The cryptic vision compelled Gonnosuke to whittle a short staff about four shaku, two sun and one bu in length (128 cm.). This was longer than the standard tachi long sword of that period, which was three shaku, two sun and one bu, but shorter than the long rokushaku bo.5

By taking advantage of the short staff's ability to shift rapidly in the hands of a skilled artist, Gonnosuke was able to beat Musashi in a second duel. It is unclear how Gonnosuke did that, but the use of the jo in present-day Shinto Muso-ryu practice might give us a hint. If a jo is blocked by a juji-dome, it is an easy matter to quickly flip the jo out of the block and in the same motion strike a kyusho (weak point) on the swordsman's body.

Gonnosuke also created a system of five secret methods (hiden gyo-i) that incorporated all the techniques of his new jo style.6

Gonnosuke managed to defeat Musashi without causing him great harm. Gonnosuke became artial arts instructor to the Kuroda clan, located in northern Kyushu. Muso Gonnosuke, profoundly changed by his encounter with Musashi and by the divine vision atop Mount Homan, had created a preeminent staff art, the Shinto (or Shindo) Muso-ryu jojutsu. The Heavenly Way of Muso's staff.

The Shinto Muso-ryu

The ryu remained an exclusive art (oteme-waza) of the Kuroda samurai for many generations. The third headmaster after Gonnosuke) Matsuzaki Kinueumon Tsunekatsu, added the Ittatsu-ryu hojo jutsu (rope binding) and Ikkaku-ryu juttejutsu to the curriculum. Other elements crept in, including the incorporation of Shinto-ryu kenjutsu (swordfighting) and Isshin-ryu kusarigama (chain and sickle). Tanjo jutsu (short sick) was added after the Edo period and the abolition of the warrior class. (Examples of the tanjo jutsu can be seen in photographs that accompany the article on Nishioka Tsuneo sensei.)

The lineage passed through various masters until it reached Shiraishi Hanjiro Shigeaki.7 After his death on March 1, 1927, his students continued the art.

Among Shiraishi's top students were Uchida Ryohei, Nakayama Hakudo, Morita Kanya, Takayama Kiroku, Shimizu Takaji and Otofuji Ichizo.

For a while in the early 1900s, Uchida moved to Tokyo and taught jo to a few students at the Naval Officers Club. He later taught at the Shiba Koen park. One of his students there was Komita Takayoshi, one of the founders of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. Another student was the great kendo and iai master, Nakayama Hakudo.

Hakudo, a genius at swordsmanship, attempted to revamp the old Shinto Muso-ryu jo kata in the same way that he was redesigning the old iai system he had learned from swordsman of the former Tosa province. The iai system he promulgated later became known as the Shinden Muso-ryu iai. Hakudo's attempts at reworking jo was apparently less successful. Ryogoro, after that short stint teaching in Tokyo, returned to Kyushu where he continued his teaching

Shimizu Takaji, another student, was certainly the ryu's greatest exponent in the latter part of the 20th Century. Shimizu studied under Shiraishi Hanjiro.8

Shimizu was born in Meiji 29, only 29 years after the samurai shogunate collapsed in 1868. The Shimizu family served formerly as village headmen and minor clan officials. Takaji's father ran a general store. Takaji was the second son among parents' three boys and three sisters. His mother died when he was only ten.

After he finished elementary school, Shimizu worked at a manufacturing company at Hakata. He entered the jojutsu dojo at age 17, initially as a student under Shiraishi Hanjiro.

According to Matsui Kenji, Shimizu practiced jojutsu in the early morning with Otofuji.9 After practice, the two would swim in Hakata Bay and relax before heading off to work. Practice would also be conducted under Takayama at the Fukuoka dojo, where Shimizu was an assistant instructor.10

In 1921, Shimizu and other senior members gave a demonstration of jojutsu at the May festival of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. One of the observers was Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan judo. Kano, an astute observer and active supporter of martial arts, asked to see more. Takayama and Shimizu gave him a private demonstration. Impressed, Kano asked if someone could come to Tokyo and teach jo at the Kodokan. Shiraishi was already very old and other master teachers had prior commitments, so Shimizu first became considered as the person who would most likely move to Tokyo to teach jo.

In 1927, Shimizu gave a demonstration of jojutsu for the National Police Agency.11 In 1931, Shimizu, Otofuji Ichizo and Takayama Kiroku demonstrated jo at the tenth anniversary of the founding of Meiji Jingu shrine. That same year, Shimizu was asked to become an instructor for a special unit of the Tokyo police force. Shimizu left his wife and child in a relative's care in Fukuoka and moved to Tokyo. Shimizu did not part with his family without some sadness and misgivings, but he felt that it was important for someone to spread the art of jodo beyond the backwaters of Kyushu.

Through sponsors, Shimizu opened a school called the Mumon ("No Gate") Dojo, teaching high-ranking judoka, naval officers and police officers. His students were all of the highest social and personal character. As his student numbers grew, Shimizu was faced with a dilemma.

The old way of teaching jo kata was developed for the training of a small, exclusive group of samurai. Shimizu found that he had to make some changes in the training regime for modern Japanese students. After discussions with other jojutsu masters, Shimizu formulated the 12 basic kihon methods. Once Shimizu introduced the kihon in Tokyo, it was adopted by the Fukuoka dojo in Kyushu.

While Shimizu was spreading jo in Tokyo, the homeland of jojutsu-Kyushu-also maintained its jo legacy. Jojutsu training became part of the Fukuoka Agricultural School's martial arts training regime. Takayama also helped spread jojutsu in Ehime, Hyogo and Shikoku prefectures. On the death of Takayama, Otofuji became head of the Fukuoka dojo in 1929.

Shimizu taught select students at his Mumon Dojo and the police academy while other masters taught the art in Kyushu at the Fukuoka dojo. In 1940, Shimizu ventured to Japan-occupied Manchuria to teach. However, although the numbers of students rose tremendously, it was still a rather exotic art compared to the more popular kendo and judo. (As an interesting sidelight, the great judo master Mifune Kyuzo was also a student of Shimizu for a while.) Shimizu became head of the Dai Nihon Jodo Kai in 1940, a move which officially changed the system from jojutsu to jodo.

The still-rather exclusive membership continued until circa 1955, when jojutsu was actively opened to the general public.12 According to Patrick Lineberger, this decision was due to Shimizu's acquaintance with Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan judo, who encouraged Shimizu to make the arcane art more accessible to people as a means of physical, mental and spiritual training.

Another impetus to a wider study of the jo was that after World War II jojutsu was one of the few martial arts allowed by the Occupation forces, since it served the civilian police force. That, according to Nishioka Tsuneo, is why many kendo enthusiasts in the police force picked up the jo during the postwar period. The jo continued to be a part of the training of special police forces, called the kidotai. Shimizu taught a slightly different jo style to the police officers, based on the weapon's practical applications.

Around 1965, Shimizu opened the hombu (main) dojo, the Renbukan. Kaminoda Tsunemori became charged with teaching the police force, while Shimizu concentrated on spreading jo to civilians.

In keeping with the changes in orientation, Shimizu decided to change the term jojutsu to jodo, the "way" of the jo. Shimizu, like the founders of other -do forms, wanted a formerly combative art to also serve a higher philosophical and spiritual purpose. It is important to note, however, that jodo when properly practiced should reflect its ancient combative roots.

In the late 1960s, Shimizu helped in the construction of the Muso Gonnosuke Jinja shrine on the grounds of the Homan Shinto shrine at Mount Homan. The seeds of Shimizu's internationalism bore fruit when the International Jodo Federation was formed in the 1960s, with branches in Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia. In the early 1970s, he journeyed to the United States and Malaysia, spreading the art of jo through the world.

When the novel Miyamoto Musashi was published in 1971 (from a compilation of serialized chapters in newspapers), the art of jojutsu received a boost in popularity. Although it was largely a work of fiction, the book featured the friendship between Gonnosuke and Musashi.

In 1975, Shimizu's wife passed away, and subsequently the great proselytizer of jo died in 1978 (Showa 53), on June 22.

The Shinto Muso-ryu is practiced by various organizations, including the Shindo Muso-ryu Hozon-kai, the main branch of jodo training. Other organizations developed after Shimizu's death, each developing their own following. There is also the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei (All Japan Kendo Federation) Jodo-bu (Jodo Section).

The Kendo Federation's version of jodo is slightly different, due to the influence of modern kendo techniques.

Jo Techniques

What are the Shinto (or Shindo) Muso-ryu characteristics? A cursory examination of the accompanying photographs will show a bit of the flavor of the ryu. It is a powerful art, in which a jo is used against a swordsman.

The jo could be used to strike like a sword, sweep like a naginata, thrust like a spear. Its two ends could be used, unlike the single point of a sword, and its ma-ai (fighting distance) could be varied according to the hand grip you take. Because of its speed and changeable ma-ai, it is a formidable weapon in the hands of a skilled master.

There are 12 kihon, which also form the basis of the modern Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Jodo-bu (All Japan Kendo Federation Way of Jo Section). There are also 12 omote waza ("outward" forms), 12 chudan, 2 ran-ai, 12 kage, 6 samidare, 5 gohon no midare, and 12 okuden ("secret" forms).

Students begin with tandoku renshu (single practice), in which the basics, or kihon are performed solo. This is followed by sotai renshu, practicing in pairs, in which one person assumes the role of a swordsman against a jojutsu person.

Meik Skoss, in describing the proper attitude for practicing kata, writes that "...All attacks are characterized by relaxed movements and postures, maximum focus of energy being applied only at the actual moment of impact. This allows maximum efficiency of movement and conservation of energy and also provides the trainee with a critical margin (yoyu) to be used in the case of something unforeseen occurring".13

Beyond technique, however, there is a poem from the oral tradition that admonishes the student to: "...Concentrate on being a person who causes no injury to others. Our teaching is: In the heart of the jo is an arrow."

In another saying, Shimizu sensei himself taught his students that, "Jodo should be done to build one's character and that jodo should be like a steering wheel. The road is life. And there are all kinds of ways one can go down the road. Use jodo to steer as straight a course as possible through life".14


1 Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, "Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi," by Osano Jun. Vol. 6, 1994. Tokyo, Japan. Page 44.
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2 Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi, Tokyo Koppi Shuppanbu, Tokyo, Japan, 1979 edition. Page 426.
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3 Nihon Bugei Koden, edited, annotated and rewritten (into modern Japanese) by Watatani Kiyoshi, Jinbutsu Ohraisha, Tokyo, Japan, 1963. Page 278.
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4 Hoplos, "Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo An Emic Description," by Meik Skoss, August 1985, Vol. 4, #4, Tokyo, Japan. Page 12.
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5 Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, "Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi," by Osano Jun. Vol. 6, 1994. Tokyo, Japan. Page 45.
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6 The Pugilist, "Jodo, the Art of Stick-Fighting," by Pat Lineberger, Vol. 1, #4, August 1984, Singapore. Page 45.
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7 Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, "Hisareta Jo No Waza," by Matsui Kenichi, Volume 21, 1993, Tokyo, Japan. Page 81.
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8 Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi, Tokyo Koppi Shuppanbu, Tokyo, Japan, 1979 edition. Page 427.
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9 Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, "Shindo Muso-ryu Jojutsu No Zenbo," by Matsui Kenji. #1, 1990, Tokyo. Page 83.
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10 Hiden Koryu Bujutsu, "Hisareta Jo No Waza," by Matsui Kenichi, Volume 21, 1993, Tokyo, Japan. Page 81.
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11 Hoplos, "Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo An Emic Description," by Meik Skoss, August 1985, Vol. 4, #4, Tokyo, Japan. Page 14.
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12 The Pugilist, "Jodo, the Art of Stick-Fighting," by Pat Lineberger, Vol. 1, #4, August 1984, Singapore. Page 45.
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13 Hoplos, "Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo An Emic Description," by Meik Skoss, August 1985, Vol. 4, #4, Tokyo, Japan. Page 16.
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14 The Pugilist, "Jodo, the Art of Stick-Fighting," by Pat Lineberger, Vol. 1, #4, August 1984, Singapore. Page 47.
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Also, the JMAS Newsletter, Vol. 4, #3, January 1987, Tokyo, Japan, contains invaluable information.

Copyright ©1994 Wayne Muromoto. All rights reserved.


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Classical Japanese Martial Arts