The Iaido Journal  Feb 2011
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Legends 3:
Betrayal in Kyoto

copyright 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

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.

Kagehisa named his style of swordsmanship Itto Ryu and assumed the name of Ittōsai. He soon came to have disciples of his own. He is said to have become even more conceited and rude and to have behaved like a tyrant. However, no one dared to complain about Ittōsai right to his face, for it was fully acknowledged that he was incomparably strong with the sword.

During his wanderings, Ittōsai decided to stay in Kyoto and open a fencing school. There, Ittōsai lived a life of ease. However, his easy life in Kyoto was interrupted one summer night by an unexpected incident.

Ittōsai was sleeping beside his mistress under a mosquito net. Suddenly, a number of strangers with drawn swords burst into the room. The intruders cut the strings which held up the mosquito net. Then they attempted to fall on Ittōsai with their swords. Excellent swordsman though he was, he was hard pressed to counter the attack.

Just like a fish trapped in a net, Ittōsai thrashed about and, somehow or other, managed to parry the blows of cold steel launched against him. He reached for his sword at his bedside but found that it was not where it was supposed to be. His mistress, too, had disappeared from his side. Swordsmen with a grudge against him had framed this plot by winning Ittōsai’s mistress over to their side.

Ittōsai, who now realized what the situation was, managed to wrench an intruder’s sword from his grasp. With all of his skill, he slashed with his sword and slew the intruders one after another. After a fierce fight, those who had survived Ittōsai’s counterattack fled. Seven or eight dead bodies were lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

Ittōsai reflected deeply on the incident – not only on the hatred he had inspired in a number of swordsmen but also on his betrayal by his mistress. He felt ashamed of himself. The incident made him realize that his narrow escape was little short of a miracle, and his boast of being a matchless and undefeated swordsman was merely vain.

With this incident, Ittōsai became a man of a different character. He no longer boasted of his talent nor used abusive language to others. Instead, he became a man of few words who did not easily put his trust in others.

Once again, he was a wanderer. However, his purpose was no longer to publicize his Ittō style of swordsmanship. His was a journey to tenaciously seek a genuinely worthy opponent, one skilled enough to carry on the Ittō style in the next generation.

-This excerpt from: Sugawara, Makoto (1988). Lives of Master Swordsmen (pp.167-168), The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan.

Author’s post-script:

Some great lessons to learn from Ittosai’s experiences.

1. Avoid making enemies.

It says he behaved like a tyrant once he realized that no one could defeat him. It says he became conceited and rude. When you are the king of the hill, it’s easy to get a big head. It says no one dared to complain to his face about his behaviour. There is no one left to challenge you. There is no one left to punish you for transgressions. You have no fear anymore. When there is no fear of reprisal, there is no respect.

Ittosai obviously did not have respect for people anymore when it says he became rude and conceited to people. Being that way naturally will eventually engender hatred. People will despise you and once that happens, they will conspire to bring you down. Here is an excellent excerpt from Machiavelli, who discusses this very topic.

“…the prince should, as I have suggested, determine to avoid anything which will make him hated and despised… A prince should… strive to demonstrate in his actions grandeur, courage, sobriety, strength.

The prince who succeeds in having himself thus regarded is highly esteemed; and against a man who is highly esteemed conspiracy is difficult, and open attack is difficult, provided he is recognized as a great man, who is respected by his subjects.

the prince’s chief fear must be a secret conspiracy. He can adequately guard against this if he avoids being hated or scorned…

This is because the conspirator always thinks that by killing the prince he will satisfy the people; but if he thinks that he will outrage the people, he will never have the courage to go ahead with his enterprise, because there are countless obstacles in the path of a conspirator. As experience shows, there have been many conspiracies but few of them have achieved their end. This is because the conspirator needs others to help him, and those have to be men who, he believes, are disgruntled.”

- Chapter XIX The Prince,  Niccolo Machiavelli 1532 A.D.

2. Do not be lulled into carelessness by beauty.

An interesting circumstance. Ittosai was living the high life in Kyoto: he is unstoppable as a swordsman and he has a mistress to help him pass away the days and nights. He must have felt like the king of the world. But he became careless and almost lost his life due to his negligence. Here is an intriguing excerpt from the 36 Strategies about the danger of beauty:

Strategy 31: Beauty Trap

War is a continuation of politics; its result can therefore be affected by political maneuvers outside the battlefield. There are two practices often adopted by military leaders in ancient China: the use of double agents to sow discord amongst the enemy troops, and the use of beautiful women to infatuate the sovereign of the enemy state.

The official history of China contains many stories of women whose beauty was so ravishing that they could topple kingdoms. Sent to a hostile state, such a matchless beauty had the task not of collecting military information but of corrupting the sovereign, making him indulge in lascivious pleasures to the neglect of his duties.

Man, yang (firm and strong) in nature, fights with his fists. Woman, yin (weak and yielding) in nature, fights with her smiles and tears. As dripping water wears through rock, so the weak and yielding can subdue the strong and firm. The strategy therefore points to the general principle of employing the weak to subdue the strong.

-Source: Sun, H. (trans.)(1991). The Wiles of War: 36 Military Strategies from Ancient China, (pp. 284-285). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Ittosai learned a valuable lesson that night in Kyoto and it changed his life thereafter. He was lucky to escape the betrayal in Kyoto… and he knew it.

 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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