The Iaido Journal  Nov 2010
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Legends 1:
The Fall of Ochiai

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

One day in May, the capital was gripped with a rumor that spread like wildfire among the nobility and the soldiers; even the lowest classes could be heard whispering, “Could it really be true that someone has challenged Ochiai Torazaemon, the renowned swordsman, to a duel in the precincts of Kiyomizu Temple?”

Everyone in the capital had heard of Ochiai. He represented one of the eight schools of kendo which were dominant in and around Kyoto. At forty years of age he was at his peak. He represented the epitome of skill and mature spirit. No one was his equal in the mysteries of his craft – even his sturdy build and his height of six feet made challengers think thrice before approaching him.

And who was this upstart of a challenger? No one knew his name. It is said that he was from the Kantō District. How bold of him to actually challenge the great Ochiai in writing!

Thus, upon receiving the challenge, Ochiai had little choice but to accept at once. Even Ochiai, who had weathered so many duels, felt excited by the prospect of fighting an opponent from Kantō in a deadly competition with a steel sword. His confidence never flagged. To impress the populace of the capital who would praise his skill in even more flowery speech if they actually saw the spectacle with their own eyes, Ochiai announced the exact time and location of the duel throughout the city.

And so it came to pass that on the appointed day the flocks of spectators wound their way up the hillside to Kiyomizu Temple to see the much trumpeted duel. Each and every one knew Ochiai’s reputation; so the outcome was never in doubt. In no time they knew they would see the Kantō swordsman flat on the ground lying in a pool of his own blood.

The Kantō fencer arrived at the exact time but the crowd could not help emitting cries of surprise. Some were so indiscreet as to even laugh contemptuously. “Look at him! He couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen!” “He looks so slight, so short, so weak! How can he possibly withstand Ochiai’s mighty blows?” “What a waste of youth! and they are going to fight with real swords!”

But the youth bravely stepped forward. His piercing eyes studied the famous Ochiai as he took his stance with great composure. Ochiai glanced at his opponent – just one glance was enough for waves of anger to rush to his head as he muttered to himself, “How could such a stripling dare to challenge the great Ochiai?” Ochiai knew he would make short shrift of such an insignificant opponent. Throwing a contemptuous look at the Kantō fencer, he waited impatiently for the referee to give the signal.

“Take your positions!” yelled the referee.

And with that, the two men bowed to each other as was the custom and drew their swords. Ochiai sneered at his opponent and took his usual stance, gripping the hilt of his sword and brandishing his blade in the middle attack position. But after marking off the correct distance, the youth slid his right foot back and drew his sword downwards from in front of his chest until it was perpendicular to his hip, thereby leaving his chest completely unprotected. The spectators drew in their breath in fear and surprise. They had never seen such a bold stance, such a fearless youth. It was almost as though the Kantō swordsman was laughing at the Ochiai, laughing in the face of death itself. Yet almost immediately, the duel was over: the youth inclined his body slightly forward, the swords reflected the glimmer of the sun and there was Ochiai flat on his back with the youth standing with the blade of his mighty sword at Ochiai’s shoulder. The youth’s biceps bulged – there was little doubt that he could have split Ochiai in two with a single stroke. But just at the point when he could have cut Ochiai open and robbed him of his life, the youth turned and walked off.

The spectators screamed with surprise, “Why doesn’t he slay the famous swordsman? Why doesn’t he kill Ochiai to seal his victory?” Yet how much more honorable to win totally, to be recognized and praised as the best swordsman in the land without having to shed one bit of his opponent’s blood! The spectators were drunk with excitement at the spectacle. And within hours the name Tsukahara Takamoto** and his feat had spread throughout the capital.

This excerpt from: Sugawara, Makoto (1988). Lives of Master Swordsmen (pp.15-18), The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan.

* Kantō: the geographical region of Eastern Japan encompassing seven prefectures: Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa. The largest city is the Greater Tokyo Area. Historically, it was the heartland of feudal power in the Kamakura and Edo periods. For more information, see: Kantō Region

** he would later change his name and be better known throughout history as Tsukahara Bokuden.

Author’s post-script:

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
The Book of Proverbs, Chapter 16, Verse 18, The Bible, King James Version.

A good lesson to learn here. Never be too proud of your accomplishments or your abilities. They can blind you to your true situation. Excessive pride gets in the way of clear observation and calm judgement. Sun Tzu, the famous strategist once advised about just this case:

“Leaders may have Five Weaknesses… First, the overly reckless can be destroyed…”
Wing, R. L. (1988). The Art of Strategy: A New Translation of Sun Tzu’s Classic The Art of War, Chapter 32. New York: Doubleday.

Tactically, the description of the fight preparations is interesting.

“… the youth slid his right foot back and drew his sword downwards from in front of his chest until it was perpendicular to his hip, thereby leaving his chest completely unprotected. The spectators drew in their breath in fear and surprise. They had never seen such a bold stance, such a fearless youth. … the youth inclined his body slightly forward, the swords reflected the glimmer of the sun…”

Compare that description with this one from the Heiho Kaden Sho (from the first kata, Ittō Ryōdan):

You face the opponent sideways, holding your sword on your right, downward, the sword tip facing away from you. When the opponent swings his sword down at your left shoulder, swing your sword up and, in a semi-circle ( the wheel ), strike his fists. As you do this, your left shoulder will twist away from its original position and escape the enemy sword.

Source: Sato, H. (trans.)(1986). The Sword and the Mind, (p. 26). New York: Overlook Press.

This exact episode was played out in the famous scene of the first swordfight in Akira Kurosawa’s monumental film, Seven Samurai. In the fight scene, which takes place in a local temple’s grounds, Kyūzō (the serious, stone-faced samurai) squares off against an arrogant samurai. The boastful samurai assumes jōdan, while Kyūzō assumes a deep form of waki-gamae.

Kyuzo in Wakigamae
Kyūzō in wakigamae

And it is interesting how Kambei (the experienced Samurai leader) remarks to Katsushirō (the disciple) as the fighters are eyeing each other that he knows exactly who will win the fight. “It’s so obvious…”, he says.

A beautiful fight scene and wonderful drama.*
(* the fight scene was choreographed by the late Yoshio Sugino Sensei of Katori Shinto Ryu.)

Kyuzo the victor
The culmination of the fight: Kyūzō is the victor.

Tactically, how did Takamoto escape? Good question.
Perhaps this excerpt from the Heiho Kaden Sho might offer a starting point from which to begin to think about how he might have accomplished this feat.

Be struck to win.
If your opponent wants to strike, let him; be struck, then win.
Even if the opponent strikes thinking to slash you, you do not have to be surprised but can let him, as long as you are aware that the striking distance is great enough… The opponent’s first strike misses, enabling you to get your first into him.
Source: Sato, H. (trans.)(1986). The Sword and the Mind, (p. 66). New York: Overlook Press.

Regardless of exactly how he did it, the point is clear. He left something seemingly unprotected and lured the overconfident Ochiai to attack this apparent vulnerability. This reminds me exactly of Strategy #17 from the ancient Chinese treatise entitled Secret Art of War: 36 Strategies:

Cast a Brick to Attract Jade

Translation: Lure the enemy with counterfeits. Punish the callow youth.
Purport: In a military context, the brick and the jade refer respectively to false and actual maneuvers. To use another popular idiom, it is a trick of “passing off fish eyes as pearls.” First, the commander offers the enemy some bait. At the prospect of gain, the enemy will advance to swallow the bait. Thus the commander has gained the initiative by maneuvering the enemy at his will, and the battle has actually been half won before it is fought.
Source: Sun, H. (trans.)(1991). The Wiles of War: 36 Military Strategies from Ancient China, (pp. 151-152). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Many good lessons to learn here from the fall of Ochiai.
Pride goeth before the fall; it really does…

 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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