Iaido Journal Aug 2008
One on One with Sasamori Sensei
(Ono-ha Itto Ryu)
copyright © 2008 Douglas Tong, all
Part Two: Ono-ha Itto Ryu and True Perfection
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
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
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
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)
(kamon) is the property of Takemi Sasamori Sensei and is used by
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
One line continues, to end in a circle.
The small circle is perfection
(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
(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)
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
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
is very important?
Sensei: Yes. Think of Japanese
for one, “ichi” (draws a line).
Add another “one” (this time, he
draws a line but intersecting perpendicular to the first line, making
This makes the character for ten or
“jyuu” in Japanese. In Japanese, the kanji for ten represents
“One” plus “one” equals
Question: I’m sorry, I don’t
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
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.)
of the lineage chart for Itto Ryu.
Question: So, is Ono-ha Itto
original Ittō Ryu as Itō Ittōsai practiced and taught?
Sensei: Yes. Authentic and
Question: In your opinion, what
your style unique among sword styles?
Question: Do you mean the
technique from kata #1 “Hitotsu Kachi”?
Sensei: Yes. Kiri-otoshi is
technique and idea. **
(** we may perhaps consider here the
term “idea” to be interpreted as “the driving
concept and philosophy of the style”)
Question: Ono-ha Itto Ryu is
famous. Why do you think this is?
Sensei: It is a very
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
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
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
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
important in Itto Ryu. Can you tell us why?
Sensei: The main characteristic
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,
is an importance placed on kamae. Why is this, and why is kamae
Sensei: Yes, well, kamae is a
your thinking, of what you will do. You are showing your opponent
your way of thinking, showing concretely what is your thinking.
Is kamae for attack or
Question: Would you say that
is focused more on attack, defence, or counter-attack?
Sensei: Both. It is for attack
is for defence.
Sensei: Itto Ryu includes
I’m not sure I understand.
Sensei: You are ready to win,
sure to win – THEN you start moving. After you win, then you strike
After I win, THEN I hit him?
Sensei: Yes. Before you start
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:
“ittō” – everything starts from one
kiri-otoshi – the one cut
“ittō saku ban tō” – one sword
equals ten thousand swords*
(* recall: one + many
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: