The Iaido Journal  Aug 2008
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One on One with Sasamori Sensei (Ono-ha Itto Ryu)
Part Two: Ono-ha Itto Ryu and True Perfection

copyright © 2008 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

The following article is the second part of an interview with Sasamori Takemi Sensei, soke of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. In this part of the interview, Mr. Tong has a chance to talk intimately with Sasamori Sensei about the theory and philosophy that underlies the conception of Itto Ryu. This will be of particular interest to students of kendo, as Itto Ryu had a major influence on the development of kendo, both technically and philosophically.

Those interested in Ono-ha Itto Ryu can consult sensei’s website:

Author’s note: This interview was conducted on July 26, 2008 in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo. My sincere thanks to Sasamori Sensei for his time and generosity in granting me an interview and allowing me to speak to him at length about Itto Ryu.

Question: What is Itto Ryu?
Sensei: 500 years ago or so, in the Muromachi Jidai, Itō Ittōsai* started this school.

(* a mysterious swordsman born in the mid-1500s, little is known of him. He did study Chūjō Ryu but left the school when he bested his teacher and felt that he had sufficiently developed his own style. Here is an abbreviated version of the story of how Itō Ittōsai came to discover the technique that would eventually be the foundation of one of the greatest styles of swordsmanship:

The founder of Itto Ryu was a man named Yagorō. At fourteen, Yagorō arrived on the beach of a little seaside village named Ito. According to legend, he floated across the narrow Sea of Sagami from the island of Oshima on a piece of timber. Villages were closed societies in those days and not overly friendly to strangers. But the young Yagorō soon earned their friendship when he drove away six bandits who attacked the village one day. He ended up staying for years. The villagers saved up some money for him to travel to seek out a master since he had professed a wish to become a great swordsman. He went to Kamakura to the famous Hachiman Shrine to pray to the gods. He stayed there for six nights, practicing and praying. On the seventh night, he was attacked from behind by some unknown assailant. Somehow he had sensed it, drew his sword, turned and cut the man down in one stroke. His technique was spontaneous and done unconsciously. He did not understand the meaning of the technique which he had used this night until many years later, but it would become the fundamental technique and philosophy of the style he would eventually create.
Source: Sugawara, Makoto, 1988. Lives of Master Swordsmen, The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan.)

He found that everything starts from one and ends with one.
By ends with one, I mean goes back to one.
Everything starts from one and goes back to one. Like a circle or a ball.

In our school, we use this symbol.
(at this point, sensei shows me the mysterious symbol which is the crest of his school)

Ono-ha Itto Ryu crest
Symbol (kamon) is the property of Takemi Sasamori Sensei and is used by permission.

We start with one point.
(on a sheet of blank paper, he starts to draw a dot, then he draws multiple dots in a straight line)
Many points become one line.
(at the end of the line, he continues the line with his pencil and makes a perfect, small circle)
One line continues, to end in a circle.
The small circle is perfection of myself.
(at the end of the perfect, small circle, he continues without taking his pencil tip off the paper to draw the bigger circle, and ends the big circle exactly where it started – at the small circle)
The big circle is the bigger Self, the True Self.

(I give him a confused look because frankly, I am confused…)

The True Self is the (he struggles to find the right English word for what he is trying to tell me) … cosmos.
The meaning of the two circles is that you should be perfect with the True Perfection.*
(* Sasamori sensei is also a Christian priest and runs a church in Tokyo. He studied 10 years in New York. I am wondering whether he is referring to a Christian idea, a Buddhist idea, or a Shinto idea.)

But everything starts from one point.
(he is referring to the first dot he made on the paper. Then he goes through the process of re-drawing the entire symbol)

Then go back to the start point.
Kata 1 is the first point. And many points makes one line….
(he starts to draw again…)

Everything starts from one and goes back to one. That’s Itō Ittōsai’s idea.

Question: So the concept of “one” is very important?
Sensei: Yes. Think of Japanese kanji for one, “ichi” (draws a line).
Add another “one” (this time, he draws a line but intersecting perpendicular to the first line, making a cross).
This makes the character for ten or “jyuu” in Japanese. In Japanese, the kanji for ten represents Perfection.
“One” plus “one” equals Perfection.

Question: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Sensei: One plus many ones…
(here he intersects the lines repeatedly from all directions)

…makes a whole, or a ball.

One + many ones = Perfection.
(I can see how the many intersecting lines now make it look like a ball, or circle)

I will tell you an old Japanese idea.
First you have a raindrop. Many raindrops becomes a small stream. With many more raindrops, the small stream becomes a big stream. Becomes a river. Then becomes an ocean.
And then back to one raindrop…
Old Japanese think this way.

Question: Please tell us about your branch of Ittō Ryu.
Sensei: Ono-ha Ittō Ryu is the main line. The founder was Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki, who was the person who took over from Itō Ittōsai.*
(* here, he shows me the official lineage chart. This is no dispute. It is the main line.)

Ono-ha Itto Ryu Lineage Chart
Part of the lineage chart for Itto Ryu.

Question: So, is Ono-ha Itto Ryu the original Ittō Ryu as Itō Ittōsai practiced and taught?
Sensei: Yes. Authentic and original.

Question: In your opinion, what makes your style unique among sword styles?
Sensei: Kiri-otoshi.

Question: Do you mean the kiri-otoshi technique from kata #1 “Hitotsu Kachi”?
Sensei: Yes. Kiri-otoshi is both technique and idea. **
(** we may perhaps consider here the term “idea” to be interpreted asthe driving concept and philosophy of the style”)

Question: Ono-ha Itto Ryu is very famous. Why do you think this is?
Sensei: It is a very traditional form. Very authentic.
Also, modern kendo started from a branch of this style: Nakanishi-ha Itto Ryu. It’s almost the same as the main line.

Question: What is the relationship between Itto Ryu and kendo?
Sensei: Well, kendo came from Nakanishi-ha Itto Ryu. They developed the shinai and this branch was the main influence in the development of kendo. There are many similarities between kendo and Itto Ryu such as the kamae used and the way of using the sword.

Question: Other types of swordfighting like Chinese styles or Western styles seem to have many exchanges of blows. Japanese sword styles typically seem to rely on one cut.* Do you think this is true?
(* Yagyu Shinkage Ryu has gasshi-uchi, Kashima Shinto Ryu has hitotsu tachi, Itto Ryu has kiri-otoshi, etc… all of them, one perfect cut.)
Sensei: Well, we also have many types of cuts and maneuvers, as you have seen in our kata. Which one you use really depends on how the opponent attacks.
But in the final point, it is one cut.

Question: Why do you think many Japanese sword styles or the Japanese swordsman’s mindset embraces this idea of “one cut”?
Sensei: A difficult question! (Laughs)
I think because it is simplified, simple. That is the Japanese ideal. The perfect idea. That is why Itto Ryu is famous, because of the “one cut”.

Question: The “one cut” seems very important in Itto Ryu. Can you tell us why?
Sensei: The main characteristic of Itto Ryu is one cut. The main point is not using so many maneuvers. Just one technique. One movement. The perfect movement…
That is why we practice kiri-otoshi over and over again.

Question: In many sword styles, there is an importance placed on kamae. Why is this, and why is kamae important?
Sensei: Yes, well, kamae is a symbol of your thinking, of what you will do. You are showing your opponent your way of thinking, showing concretely what is your thinking.

Question: Is kamae for attack or defence?
Sensei: Both. It is for attack and it is for defence.

Question: Would you say that Itto Ryu is focused more on attack, defence, or counter-attack?
Sensei: Itto Ryu includes everything.

Question: I’m not sure I understand.
Sensei: You are ready to win, you are sure to win – THEN you start moving. After you win, then you strike him.

Question: After I win, THEN I hit him?
Sensei: Yes. Before you start moving, you should have won.*
(* an interesting tactical idea. Reminds me of Sun Tzu’s tenet that “The battle is won before it is ever fought”.)

We have an expression in Japanese: “aite no saki”
Another concept is “sen” (before). It is like anticipation.*
(* in both cases, the translation is: “you are “before” your opponent”.)

I am making him attack me, so I control him. I make him move, then I take action…

Question: What is the fundamental philosophy or idea of Itto Ryu?
Sensei: There are three fundamental ideas in Itto Ryu:
  1. “ittō” – everything starts from one

  1. kiri-otoshi – the one cut

  1. “ittō saku ban tō” – one sword equals ten thousand swords*

(* recall: one + many ones = Perfection….)

Douglas Tong began his studies of Ono-ha Itto Ryu with Sasamori sensei in Tokyo in 1992. Mr. Tong can be reached via email at:

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TIN Aug 2008