The Iaido Journal  Sept 2010
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The Greatest

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Author’s note:
My sincere thanks go to Ms. Satomi Matsuhashi and Mr. Makoto Adachi (4th dan kendo, Kobe, Japan) for their help in interpreting this piece of calligraphy.

In the book entitled “Ittō Ryu Gokui” (“The Secrets of Ittō Ryu”), written by Sasamori Junzo Sensei, the 16th headmaster of Ono-ha Ittō Ryu, the book contains various pieces of calligraphy. One of them is this one:

The Greatest : Doug Tong

「天 下 一 剣 術 の 名 人 」

This piece of calligraphy is attributed to Itō Ittōsai Kagehisa, founder of Ittō Ryu. When I look at the kanji, 「天 下 一 剣 術 の 名 人 」 literally means: "under Heaven, one kenjutsu genius".

I showed this to my kendo colleagues, Ms. Matsuhashi and Mr. Adachi, and they agree that basically it says something to the effect of: “I am the best kenjutsu player” or “I am the greatest swordsman” or “I am the greatest kenjutsu master”.

Ms. Matsuhashi found an interesting story about Ittōsai on Japanese websites.

“Ito Ittosai did not have a fixed address from living in one place. Instead, he traveled all over Japan to look for the next person to fight. He wrote this quotation very big on paper, almost like a name tag. He carried it around with him to seek the next challenger. Anybody who came up to fight, he defeated them easily, so they eventually became his students.”

According to the book, Lives of Master Swordsmen:

“After formally learning a style of swordsmanship under Kanemaki and winning matches against such a famous master, Itō Kagehisa gained confidence in himself. Wishing to try his skill, he decided to go on a journey in search of opponents. Those who aimed at developing their ability with the sword cherished the desire to wander throughout the country challenging swordsmen confident of their ability to fight. It was a time when, almost everywhere, there were many fencing instructors and many other men who wanted to become excellent swordsmen. However, Kagehisa could scarcely find any swordsmen who could parry his quick and heavy blows. Whenever he fought, he won, and his renown as a skilled swordsman spread.” - Source: Sugawara, Makoto, 1988. Lives of Master Swordsmen (p.167), The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan.

Tradition has it that he fought 33 duels in his wanderings throughout the country and never lost one. We have seen this story before. Tsukuhara Bokuden, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and Miyamoto Musashi all went on such pilgrimages to hone their swordfighting skills and discover the meaning of swordsmanship.

“I am the greatest swordsman”…

For more information on Itō Ittōsai Kagehisa, see: Itō Ittōsai Kagehisa

Author’s post-script:

A very interesting quotation. Supreme arrogance or supreme self-confidence? Reminds me of two similar quotations:

“I knew I had him in the first round. Almighty God was with me. I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I'm the greatest thing that ever lived. I don't have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God everyday. I know the real God. I shook up the world, I'm the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!” - Muhammad Ali former American heavyweight boxing champion after defeating Sonny Liston for the first time (25 February 1964)

"Lennox is a conqueror? No. I'm Alexander, he's no Alexander! I'm the best ever! There's never been anybody as ruthless. I'm Sonny Liston, I'm Jack Dempsey, there's no one like me - I'm from their cloth. There's no one that can match me! My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, and I'm just ferocious!” - Mike Tyson, former American heavyweight boxing champion

I see a striking similarity between the world of professional boxing of the late 20th century and the world of swordsmanship of the1500’s. Travel around, challenge other fighters, and fight matches to learn how to fight better, gain experience, and develop your skill. The final objective is the same: to fight your way to the top and be the best around. Gain a name and popularity (or renown). Then you can retire and open a school. Which is exactly what happened:

Tsukuhara Bokuden: Kashima Shinto Ryu
Miyamoto Musashi: Niten Ichi Ryu
Kamiizumi Nobutsuna: Shinkage Ryu
Itō Ittōsai Kagehisa: Ittō Ryu

Professional athletes now don’t open schools. They endorse products. They also write books, make videos, and sometimes do coaching clinics. Which I suppose is almost the same thing: teaching others how to fight the way you did, transmitting knowledge on your style of fighting.

Anyhow, I thought this quotation by Ito Ittosai was intriguing and I thought it would be good to share it with everyone because, in my mind, it illustrates perfectly the psychology of champions. I suppose if you are going to stake your life on a fight, you had better believe you are going to win it…

 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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