Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Magic of the Tsurugi

1. Introduction

Discussion to this point has focused on the issues of the mind when facing an enemy, and the consequent development of a system of morals and ethics in relation to the spirituality of these matters. I believe that the comparatively modern style of kendō that we engage in today has much to do with the concepts of the tōken. The discussion from here will concentrate on a slightly uncertain subject. Having become accustomed to contemporary perceptions, moderns are usually sceptical to the notion of ‘magic’ in kenjutsu.

Jujutsu (呪術) ­­­­ or “magic art” is the practice of sorcery. As a child watching cartoons or anime, one may fantasise about the benefits of being able to use sorcery, but this “unscientific” imagination tends to disappear with age. However, kenjutsu back in history were more open to such ideas, and did everything they could to gain an advantage. In their early-modern world of kenjutsu, ‘magic’ did exist.

2. Magic Arts for Evil Spirits

The issue being discussed in this section is certainly odd by modern values, even though we still pray to deities if we have a strong desire for something. One could consider there to be a sense of something magical underpinning this position as well. “Victory seems impossible. There is trepidation at every turn. Yet I must go to battle. All I can do is wait for death.” If ever there were times like these (and certainly in times of war there were), warriors undoubtedly sought something to give them and edge. Magic was one source of power they tried to draw on.

In the ancient period, there was a legendary sorcerer called Abe no Seimei. This seems nonsensical from a contemporary perspective. Yet, in a situation where one is faced with imminent death, it must have made perfect sense to believe in a greater magical power. I am certainly no mystic, but I do believe that life cannot be completely explained by rational theory. Above all, analysis of historical documents shows that magic played an important part in the loves of warriors.  

Although only a simple explanation can be given in the scope of this paper, I refer to the phenomenon of “magic arts to expel evil spirits”. That is, a method of sorcery that is said to cast out evil. Very famous as a sword master, Tsukahara Bokuden founded the Shintō-ryū in which magical teachings were integral, and the secret technique of the school was highly magical.

In the 13th year of Tempō (1842), Ōtsuki Sekihei authored a book about the Shintō-ryū called Heihō jikanshō. In it he refers to this exclusive ‘supernatural’ technique as “Mitama no tsurugi majifuru no tachi” (霊剣呪振乃太刀). The characters alone may evoke a feeling of the supernatural, yet further investigation of this set of characters reveals the following meaning:

“This technique is to ward off away evil spirits. It casts a spell on the opponent so that they can be controlled, and evil can be expelled without a drop of blood on the sword.”

This clearly shows that, apart from the sword techniques that were utilised to defeat an enemy, there were also techniques based on a form of enchantment to banish evil spirits. Unfortunately, only mystical spells along with a record of the basic movement of the sword exists, without any detailed description of the technique. (Incidentally, in places such as Kashima Jingū Shrine, there are reproductions of the Heihō jikanshō on display.) It is a shame that the actual methodology of these techniques have been lost over time. However, despite the on-going secretive nature in which the kenjutsu schools conducted their activities, it is still a wonder that any form of these enigmatic articles remain in written form today at all. In any case, the important point for us to remember is the fact that a ‘magic art’ concerning evil spirits did exist in early-modern kenjutsu.

3. Divination and the Sword

The tsurugi plays a very important part in this belief of magic arts and evil spirits. The use of the tsurugi in is said to be age-old, and is mentioned in the ancient myths recorded in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon-shoki (Chronicles of Japan).

Even recorded in the Heihō jikanshō, the legend of “Yomi no Kuni” (literally the realm of the dead) has a section regarding the tsurugi’s role in the magic arts. In brief, this myth states that the deities Izanagi and Izanami created the heaven and earth, and conceived many other deities (kami). However, when Izanami gave birth to the kami of fire, she lost her life and transcended to Yomi no Kuni. Izanagi follows her, yet finds Yomi no Kuni to be a defiled place filled with maggots and pus. When the horrified Izanagi returns home, he invoked magic while wielding a tsurugi. According to the Heihō jikanshō, “The origin of the art of magic with the sword stems from when Izanagi fled from Yomi no Kuni – the place where Izanami was – and used a magic tsurugi sword to drive away the kami of lightening.” The tsurugi is a time-honoured magical implement, and this is something that was communicated in kenjutsu. The issue as to why the tsurugi became a magical implement interesting. The following passage offers an answer:

“Mitama-tsurugi-majifuru-no-tachi is the Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi wielded by the deity Takemikazuchi”.

Thus, the simple answer to the question of the tsurugi was magical is because it the “sword of the kami”. A point to be covered in more detail later on, the Gods referred to in the mythology would accomplish various great feats with their tsurugi swords. In particular, Takemikazuchi—the God of war—was said to be able to achieve miraculous things with the Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi (sacred sword) that he carried.

In the magic of (Shintō-ryū) kenjutsu, the tsurugi possessed by the deities (a sword that is treated as sacred for this reason alone) and one’s own katana were considered conceptually the same. As such, one could utilise the same magic as the kami – or at least, this was the way they thought. Bizarre as this may sound, one would assume that there must have been some kind of magical occurrences support such beliefs. Moreover, the ability to execute exclusive and marvellous techniques – that the average man could not dream of – would certainly have justified the label of ‘sword master’. Their methods undoubtedly seemed to be godlike.

4. Yamabushi Magic

Although this line of thinking may be considered a strange now, it was not all that peculiar then. The beliefs of the yamabushi (mountain ascetics) clearly demonstrate this. The founder of the Ten-ryū, Saitō Denkibō, was said to have been taught the ways of the sword by yamabushi. The relationship between these men and kenjutsu runs deep – enduring harsh shugyō (ascetic training) in the mountains, the skills that the yamabushi acquire are said to be so strong that they have the mysterious ability to fell demons.

The main object of their worship is Fudō-myō-ō (literally The Immovable, a manifestation of Mahavairocana), a part of Buddhism that essentially invokes the ability or power to overcome both an external foe and the evils within the self. Termed chōbuku (exorcism) the Fudō-myō-ō suggests that it is the sword of chie (insight, prajna – an insight leading to enlightenment) within the self that allows one to achieve this ability.

By emulating and dressing in the manner of the Fudō-myō-ō the mountain priests attempt to reach a unity with the highest spirit, thus endeavouring to achieve chōbuku ability. Carrying a katana called a shiba-uchi, this sword embodies the wisdom of Fudō-myō-ō. They believe that they can adopt the power or Fudō-myō-ō and have the ability perform magic.

The yamabushi way of life is known as shugendō (Japanese mountain asceticism-shamanism). It is a blend of ancient Japanese Shintō and esoteric Buddhist teachings, and is considered the most extreme form of the so-called shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Shintō and Buddhism). Because of this, the magical aspects seen in kenjutsu has the same feeling to it as Shintō and Buddhism; and it can also be said that that kenjutsu was greatly influenced by yamabushi thought.

5. Summary

Although it was normal for the yamabushi, one might also say that swordsmen were also shamans to a certain degree too. Their katana were conceptually the same as the tsurugi that the deities possessed, and as such, it was seen as a magical implement.