The Iaido Journal  Sept 2008
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One on One with Kajitsuka Sensei
(Ohtsubo branch of Owari Line, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu)
Part Two: Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and The Living Sword

copyright © 2008 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

The following article is the second part of an interview with Kajitsuka Yasushi Sensei, headmaster of the Ohtsubo branch of the Owari Line of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. In this part of the interview, Mr. Tong has a chance to talk at length with Kajitsuka Sensei about the theory and philosophy underlying Yagyu Shinkage Ryu.

Those interested in this branch of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu can consult his group’s website:

Author’s note: This interview was conducted on July 23, 2008 in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. My thanks to the many people who helped to make this interview possible and who assisted in its realization: Mr. Jack Hathway, Ms. Sawada, Yoshioka Sensei, Mr. David Kawazu-Barber. Of course, my sincere thanks go to Kajitsuka Sensei for his endless patience and his generosity in allowing me to interview him at length about his art and his thoughts.

Question: Please tell us about your branch of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu.
Sensei: Shinkage Ryu was founded by Kamiizumi Hidetsuna*. He had studied Kage Ryu and also Shinto Ryu**. From the two, he created Shinkage Ryu.
(* later he changed his name from Hidetsuna to Nobutsuna.)
(** Katori Shinto Ryu is also known simply as Shinto Ryu in Japan.)

He had three students: Hikita Bungaro, Marume Kurando, and Yagyu Sekishusai*.
(* also known as Yagyu Muneyoshi.)

Hikita Bungaro created Hikita Shinkage Ryu and Marume Kurando founded Taisha Ryu.
Yagyu Muneyoshi taught his son Munenori* who founded the Edo-kei (Edo Line) of Shinkage Ryu.
(* Munenori was the author of the Heiho Kaden Sho, the famous treatise on the Yagyu style of swordsmanship which saw the incorporation of Zen philosophy with swordsmanship.)

Munenori was succeeded by his son Mitsuyoshi* and after him, came Yagyu Munefuyu. However, after him, the Edo Line died out.
(* Yagyu Mitsuyoshi was also known as Yagyu Juubei, a popular and romantic figure in samurai folklore. Mitsuyoshi wrote a book on swordsmanship entitled Tsuki no Sho, in which he interpreted all the secrets handed down by word of mouth through three generations – from Kamiizumi Nobutsuna to Muneyoshi to Munenori)

However, Muneyoshi’s grandson Yagyu Toshitoshi established the Owari-kei (Owari Line), which is based near Nagoya. This line has continued until now. When Yagyu Gencho was the soke, he had many students. Of course, he passed the style onto his son Nobuharu who passed away recently. The style now rests with Nobuharu’s son Yagyu Koichi. But Gencho’s other senior students also taught. One of them was Ohtsubo Shihou. My teacher Mutou Masao succeeded him.

Douglas Tong and Muto sensei

Mr. Tong with Mutou Sensei discussing the Heiho Kaden Sho

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.* Why do you think this is?
(* Yagyu Shinkage Ryu has gasshi-uchi, Kashima Shinto Ryu has hitotsu tachi, Itto Ryu has kiri-otoshi, etc… all of them espouse the ideal of the one perfect cut.)

Sensei: I think because in a real fight, the simple technique works best.
(at this point, sensei draws some kanji on a piece of paper)

We have an expression. It is called “hakka hisshou“, which means “8 directions, guaranteed victory“.
(sensei then draws on a piece of paper 4 lines intersecting at a central point like a compass, so that there are 8 points: N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW)

No matter from which direction they come, if you cut straight, you will win…

The difficult thing is if THEY cut straight. Then this is a problem.

: We get the idea, which we see in Japanese movies like Seven Samurai, that swordfights do not last very long (for example, the fight scene in the town between the silent samurai and the braggart).
Usually the affair is finished in one cut. Why do you think the Japanese swordsman’s mindset embraces this idea of “one cut”?
Sensei (smiling): Because it’s “cool”. (there is laughter around the table)

: Is the “one cut” important in your style?
Sensei: It is the most basic cut but it is the most difficult to achieve perfectly. This is a fundamental principle: the most simple is the most difficult.

: In many sword styles, there is an importance placed on kamae. Is kamae important in your style?
Sensei: In other styles, yes, there are kamae. In Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, there is no kamae. It is free moving.

: No kamae?
Sensei: Yes. There are two types of styles: setsuninken and katsujinken.

Setsuninken is a killing sword and these styles usually have kamae.

Katsujinken is a living sword. This type of style has no kamae.

: Can you explain in more detail?
Sensei: In the killing sword styles, I dictate the circumstances so that you will die. From my kamae, I force you to do something. The kamae is also a defence shield that keeps me safe.

But even better is not to have kamae. At higher levels, there is no kamae. You are then very flexible. The goal is to be free from kamae. Not limited.

The living sword or technique means freedom.

The dying* sword or technique means limitation, like a forced action.
(* or killing sword)

The living sword or technique means freedom because it has its own movement. It is not limited. It has freedom of action and freedom of purpose. It is like a living animal.

The dying sword or technique means limitation because it is like having only one road to travel down. There is no choice. For the opponent, that is all they can do. They are forced into one action and we are forced into one action. It is like a dead animal.

Therefore, the concept of katsujinken, the living sword, is an idea that covers all techniques in this style, like a blanket. It influences everything we do.

Question: Why was the style named Yagyu Shinkage Ryu?
Sensei: Actually, only outsiders call it Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. We call it simply Shinkage Ryu. But outsiders need to distinguish it from other styles and since it was the Yagyu family style, naturally the name came about this way.

Shinkage Ryu came from the fusion of Kage Ryu and Shinto Ryu, both of which Kamiizumi Nobutsuna studied. Essentially, it means the “new Kage“ style.

Question: Is there any other significance to the name?
Sensei: Yes. Kage means shadow. Why shadow?? A shadow doesn’t create its own movement.

Whatever you do, your shadow follows… or reflects.

So whatever my opponent does, I follow and react. I base what I do on what the opponent does.

Like his shadow…

Question: Would you say that Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is focused more on attack, defence, or counter-attack?
Sensei: None of them…. and yet, all of them.

With no kamae and the consequent freedom of movement, it’s all of them.

It depends on what the opponent does and subsequently, what you need to do.

Question: In your opinion, what makes your style unique among sword styles?
Sensei: It was presented to the Shogun. It became representative of the Shogun.*
(* and the Shogun’s new policy)

That’s why it’s famous.

There were many styles that fought for that position but the Shogun chose this style due to the similarity of thinking** and philosophy between the Shogun and the Yagyu style of swordsmanship.
(** Here I will quote an excerpt from Makoto Sugawara’s excellent book that demonstrates this relationship between the Shogun and Munenori:

“Perhaps the strongest principle Munenori tried to instill in his disciples was that swordsmanship was not a skill learned to kill people but rather to fully realize one’s personality, one’s inner being. This concept also played a pivotal role in strategy. Although Munenori had not yet incorporated Zen Buddhism into his swordsmanship during the years he instructed Tokugawa Hidetada, his every move seemed oriented in that direction. To Munenori, swordsmanship was far more than the art of developing fencing techniques; it was life itself, for it trained man to develop his inner self. By training with Munenori, therefore, Shogun Hidetada was learning the essentials of statecraft through swordsmanship.”

Source: Sugawara, Makoto, 1988. Lives of Master Swordsmen, The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan. pp.126-127.)

Question: Can you explain what you mean by “it became representative of the Shogun”?
Sensei: One part in Kage Ryu is that you don’t need a sword. This was developed further in Shinkage Ryu.*
(* the concept and technique of mutō, or “No-sword”.)

You can still not defeat an opponent and still not lose.

Not winning but not losing.

In the Edo Period, not a lot of people were carrying swords**, so a style that doesn’t rely on a sword was needed by the Shogun for the bakufu, for the politicians and the officials to keep the peace, without bloodshed if possible.
(** The Edo Period was an age of peace and political stability. Peace saw the rise of towns and cities and the urbanization of the general society. Swordsmanship became less and less concerned with battlefield fighting and reflected more concern with the urban scenarios (i.e., ambushes, fighting in houses or in the street) and circumstances (i.e., on a hardwood floor, on a level road) that swordsmen would most likely encounter in daily life.)

With the imagination of having a sword, you can defeat an opponent. The sword is not vital. It is just a tool.

Question: In your opinion, what is the fundamental philosophy or idea of budo?
Sensei: In the old styles, the techniques are of course important. But everyone knows the techniques. They have not changed*.
(* i.e., they have been codified and in a sense, are immutable.)

But from now on, finding something new is important.

Let’s take the word “kobudo”. What we do is classified as kobudo. It is formed of these kanji (writes the kanji for “ko”, then “bu”, then “do”, that make up the word). “Ko” typically means “old”. Old usually implies dead, a dead art. But it is not old. It is not dead. It is still alive, today.

I don’t like the term “ko”-budo. It is not dead. It is still living. It is still adapting. It will continue to live and it will adapt to the needs, demands and atmosphere of the times in which it finds itself. It adapts constantly.

So, don’t be afraid of new things or trying new challenges or experiences. This is the essential spirit of budo.

In Japanese, we talk of “challenge”*.
(* here, sensei uses the Japanese phrase “cha-ren-ju”, coined from the English word “challenge”, which has a little different meaning when used in Japanese.)

This means about the spirit of striving and reaching for greater things, greater heights.

Budo has survived by adapting to each era. To continue to survive, it has to adapt and keep adapting.

All styles that stopped adapting, have died out. The Edo Line of Yagyu is no more, unfortunately. This is a prime example.

Question: In your opinion, what is the fundamental philosophy or idea of Shinkage Ryu, or maybe of your Line of Shinkage Ryu to be specific?
Sensei: Our fundamental philosophy is to adapt and change. Change is important.

Well, maybe “change” is not the correct term. Because change has the nuance of eliminating something and replacing it with something else, something new.

“Adapting” is a better word. It means adding to, modifying, to fit new situations and circumstances.

If you don’t adapt, if you just change, then you become like mixed martial arts. Replacing something with something different. You lose the original meaning, the original purpose, and the original spirit of budo.

We don’t want to replace. Rather, we strive to adapt…

Douglas Tong began his studies of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu with the late Mutou sensei (Kajitsuka sensei’s teacher) in Zushi in 1992. Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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TIN Sept 2008