Budo World

Tukahara Bokuden

Tsukahara Bokuden (Shinto-ryū)

According to the legends, Tsukahara Bokuden experienced his first life-or-death sword fight at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto when he was 17. After that it is said that he participated in 19 sword duels, took part in military action 37 times, carried out hundreds of fights using a wooden sword (bokutō). During all this time he had to face around 212 people and, apart from 6 arrow wounds, he did not receive any injuries. He is considered to be an outstanding master of the sword in the history of Japanese Budo, who earned his name during the Muromachi period .

Sacred Place of Budo or Genius Born in Kashima

Bokuden is a genius, who was born among unique sword culture that centered itself around Kashima Shrine. Kashima Shrine is considered to be a holy place of Budo. It was built during the reign of Emperor Jimmu and worships the deity of warfare Takemikazuchi. During the reign of Emperor Nintoku (second half of 5th cent.) a priestly celebrant named Kuninazu-no-Mahito built an altar at Kashima Shrine and by praying day and night he attained the secret techniques of the Divine Sword (‘Shinmyou-ken’). After that, these techniques were passed on mainly to the Yoshikawa family by the Shinto priests of Kashima Shrine. These secret techniques are called Kashima-no-Tachi (the Sword of Kashima) and, as the time passed, their name was changed from Kashima Jōko-ryū to Kashima Chuko-ryū.
Bokuden was born in 1489 as the second son to Yoshikawa family that continued the lineage of Kashima-no-Tachi for generations. His childhood name was Tomotaka and he was taught the family heirloom of Kashima Chuko-ryū by his father Akikata. Yoshikawa family was the carrier of martial arts and, at the same time, the art of Urabe. Urabe (divination) is the specialization of Shinto priests in foretelling the future. Every year, the future prediction that is made on 14th January at Toshiyama festival by the foreteller (telling the fortune by the cracks of a burnt turtle shell), is further spread throughout the whole country. This tradition is called “Kashima-no-Kotobure”. Therefore, it can be said that magic was in Bokuden’s blood. Later he took a letter character from the word Urabe (“卜”) and became Bokuden. At the age of 10 he was requested for service and adopted by the Lord of Tsukahara Castle, Tsukahara Tosanokami Yasumoto, and changes his name after initiation to Tsukahara Shin’uemon Takamoto. His father-in-law, Tsukahara Tosanokami, the advanced student of the founder Tenshinshouden Katori Shinto-ryū, Izasa Chousai Ienao, which held a close relation to Katori Shrine, taught Bokuden the style called Katori Shinto-ryū. From his early life Bokuden was taught two styles of Kashima and Katori by his fathers and, during his early years, he already distinguished himself as the one having outstanding skills in swordsmanship.

Bokuden’s Ascetic Training and Secret Technique “Hitotsu-no-Tachi” (The One Sword)

During his life, Bokuden travelled around the country 3 times that lasted more than 10 years in his practice. It is said that his most epic encounters happened mainly during his first pilgrimage (1505-1518). After his first trip, he returned to his hometown and isolated himself for praying in a shrine. It was a rigorous ascetic practice that lasted about 1000 days, during which he stayed at Kashima Shrine and practiced the art of the sword, praying to the deity of warfare, Takemikazuchi. It is said that this practice was proposed by Master Matsumoto Bizen-no-Kami Masanobu, because after experiencing numerous life-or-death encounters Bokuden received significant spiritual damage. Through this ascetic training Bokuden acquires the secret techniques of “Hitotsu-no-Tachi” from Takemikazuchi who appears to him in his dream. From this time on, the style of Bokuden’s techniques is called Shinto-ryū.
“Hitotsu-no-Tachi” was advanced techniques that could only be passed on to one person and, according to the story, it was passed on to the provincial governor of Ise, Kitabatake Tomonori. Bokuden had a foster child, Hikoshiro Mikishige, but as long as “Hitotsu-no-Tachi” could not be passed on directly to more than one person, and it was already taught to Kitabatake, it is said that the latter teaches Hikoshiro, however, the true story remains unknown. It is also said that Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru and the Master of Kashima Matsuoka Hyogonosuke Norikata taught Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu but it is not clear as well. In any case, the stories did not live up to the present and are considered to be lost.

Epic Tales of Bokuden

There are a lot of epic tales about Bokuden. Many of them are very arguable but, nevertheless, we would like to present some of them. One of the famous ones is how he was attacked in a small room, and, having taken an instant decision that the long sword will be of no use, he swiftly took out his small sword and stabbed his opponent in the side. Another one is about a duel with Kajiwara Nagato, a famous master of naginata , who could cut the flying swallows, pheasants, ducks and other birds, and say in advance which part of the body he was about to cut. Bokuden took down his opponent’s small naginata (the length of the blade is about 42cm) and defeated him with one strike, not leaving a moment to hesitation. The other duel he had was with another master, who would fight using only one hand. By repeating several times “Striking with one hand is cowardice, let’s stop”, Boduken made his opponent think that he is scared, and as he became conceited, defeated him with this psychological strategy. These three tales happened during his second pilgrimage around the country (1522-1533). Another famous tale was about winning without fighting (“Mutekatsu-ryū”). As he was travelling across the Lake Biwa by boat, he left his opponent, who wanted to fight him, on a small island while remaining on board. During his third trip, he made a spectacular performance, going to different parts of the country, followed by many people, with three horses and three big falcons.

Bokuden’s Last Years

Drawn by Pinter Peter

Bokuden had a lot of heroic experiences when he was young but as he became older, he would gradually refrain from life-or-death fights. When he returned home after his second pilgrimage, he became the Lord of Tsukahara Castle and took a wife, when he was 45, but, unfortunately, she died 10 years later. It is believed that around 1556 he handed over his place at Tsukahara Castle to his son, converted to Zen and shaved his head. Bokuden, who was born in the house of a Shinto priest of Kashima Shrine, only becomes a Buddhist priest in his late years, and the reason for this can be seen in the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism at that time.
Having lived a long life, Bokuden dies at the age of 83 in 1571 in the house of his student, Matsuoka Hyogonosuke.

Author: Toshinobu Sakai
Translated by: Iuliia Kim