A great Kendo master with Bushido Spirit (part 1)


Story of Jirokichi Yamada (山田次朗吉)、the 15th successor of Jikishinkage-Ryu(直心影流).

When I (Katsuoki Numata) and Mr. Yorihiko Maeno (Kendo 7. dan) were eating with Mr. Vladimir Kindzulis ( leader of Kendo in Latvia, 4. dan) in a restaurant in Riga, Latvia on September 2011, Mr. Kindzulis asked me to translate the biography of Mr. Jirokichi Yamada.

I presented short story of Mr. Yamada to him before on that day. He had an interest in certain things explained by Mr. Yamada about Kendo. I picked up the most crucial points of what Mr. Yamada did and thought. He explained spirit is most important repeatedly. Though my English explanation is poor, so I hope some expert in English will brush up this composition.

Mr. Jirokichi Yamada was born in 1863 and died in 1930. He was the first Kendo teacher in Hitotsubashi University. He taught Kendo from age of 39 till age of 68 (when he passed) though he wanted to retired around age of 60 OB and students begged earnestly for him to continue. He was much respected not only by Kendo practitioners but also by others.

When he died, OB of Hitotsubashi Kendo club decided to document his biography and an excellent book was made. His book was not published for broad audiences so only members of Hitotsubashi University Kendo 

On the Hitotsubashi University Kendo club walls, there are framed works of Japanese calligraphy writings “至誠無息” (pure sincerity is forever), “百練自得” (we can get to our true selves by tens of thousands of practices) - this is the essence of his teachings.club could obtain it.

Jikishinkage-Ryu was a large school of Kendo that existed for about 300 years. Mr. Yamada was born in Chiba prefecture next to Tokyo as the eldest son of biggest farm owner who's farm had been established for 400 years.

When he was 6 years old, Tokugawa Shogunate (bakufu, Bushi’s government, Japan’s feudal government) returned its political power to Meiji emperor.

In Tokugawa era (Edo era), there was class system that divided people into four classes. First class were Bushi, second class - peasant or farmer, third class - craftsman or manufacturers and forth class - tradesman or merchant but in Meiji era all people became equal. This was completely opposite to Tokugawa feudal system which consisted of many lords (274 Daimyo by the end Edo era) who had their own land and Bushi while Tokugawa Shogun governed all Daimyo. So when feudal system was destroyed all Bushi who were nearly 2 million lost their job. They were given one-off allowance from Meiji government and they were not Bushi anymore and being prohibited to wear a sword and the sword was a soul of the Bushi.

Japan was the final target for colonization in south East Asia for great world powers such as British Empire, Russian empire, France etc. at the end of Edo era. Many Bushi (especially lower class) who knew overseas colonial conditions in fear of becoming a colony, persuaded Daimyo to ask Tokugawa to return back political power to the Emperor.

Tokugawa which already had no real power to control Daimyo returned back political power to the Emperor peacefully.

Meiji government was mainly controlled by these lower class Bushi while most of them were still in their twenties and thirties.

In new era, any person who had ability or made effort could become successful.

Policy of Meiji government was to build up rich country with a strong army. “Quit Asia and join Europe!!”“Promotion of industry”, “Import European skill and culture”, these slogans started to color image of tomorrow while era of sword was left behind.

Mr. Yamada was born in the chaos at the end of Edo era and grew up in rapid growth and dramatic changes of new era. Breathing the air of new time he was ambitious to do something outside of his country.

Around same time, Mr. Yamada met Mr. Kenkichi Sakakibara (榊原鍵吉) who was the 14th successor of Jikishinkage-Ryu.

Mr. Sakakibara was invited as a main guest to attend the opening of new Kendojo near Mr. Yamada’s house.

Mr. Yamada was 22 at that time and Mr. Sakakibara was 55 years old. Mr. Sakakibara was very famous as a Master of the Sword (剣聖). Mr. Yamada was deeply moved when he saw Mr. Sakakibara’s dignified appearance and his splendid Kendo.

“There is no other teacher for me beside Sakakibara-sensei in this world and no other things to commit my whole life besides Kendo.”

When Mr. Yamada thought like this, he felt his future target had become as clear as it could be.

He was really delighted that he realized his destiny. “I want to go to Tokyo. I want to practice Kendo under Sakakibara-sensei.” Mr. Yamada was unable to restrain himself from thinking like that.

But his relatives noticed his ambition so they made him marry when he was eighteen years old to discourage him from leaving home. He had three children already, two sons and one daughter.

But once he decided to practice under Sakakibara-sensei even his wife, children and stable life were not strong enough to keep him in the country. “Once a man establishes an objective, he should do that at all cost”. He thought out to test his fortune in an unusual way. He secretly brought out a ladder which was 7.3m long to the back garden and climbed up to the top: “I will leap from here, if I’m not injured I will go to Tokyo, but if I’m injured I will stop with no regrets.”

Moment after he leaped he found himself standing on the ground without a scratch.

He runs away from home without saying anything to his friends or family. His relatives searched for him everywhere and many days later found him in Sakakibara dojo. His relatives tried with all means possible to persuade him to come back home but without a success.

Mr. Sakakibara was born in 1830 November (天保元年11月) in a Bushi family. He entered the dojo of Seiichiro Otani (男谷精一郎), who was the 13th successor of Jikishinkage-Ryu , at age of 13. 

Age difference between Mr. Seiichiro Otani and Mr. Kenkichi Sakakibara was 33 years. Difference between Mr. Sakakibara and Mr. Yamada was 33 years as well.

In Otani dojo, more than 2000 Bushi were practicing. Mr. Otani being superior in Kendo and having the charisma was appointed as the president of school of martial arts (講武所頭取) of Tokugawa feudal government. He studied literature and calligraphy thoroughly and mastered works of pictorial art. He was a big name person at the end of Edo era and respected by many people. He died at age of 67 in 1864 (元治元年) just before Meiji era(1868).

Mr. Sakakibara was outstanding in his personality and skills in Kendo. He became the teacher of Kendo in the school of martial arts of government (講武所) when he was 24 years old but he was a big name star among Bushi from young age already.

When he was 38 Tokugawa era finished after which he lived in adverse circumstance until he die at age of 65 in 1894 September (明治27年9月). But he did not mind such lifestyle.

He was requested to work for Meiji government, but he refused. He dedicated his whole life to Kendo as the 14th successor of Jikishinkage-Ryu.

He left Tokyo following Tokugawa family but returned back 3 years later and opened Sakakibara dojo. It was very small place only 6 x 5.5 meters in size. Up to three pairs could train here though in narrow conditions. But even so his name was famous as master swordsman even among European people. Even the British consul came to study for three years. Exercise in Sakakibara dojo was very difficult. Only the pupil who had strong mind could endure training. Iron face cover (Men面) became dented sometimes. Such things never happened in other dojo.

Mr. Sakakibara was held in high regards by the 14th Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa for his personality and skills in Kendo. When Shogun went to Kyoto he was requested to guard him.

In Kyoto, he was ordered to have a match with a famous expert of spear (槍) in front of many Daimyo. Mr. Sakakibara thought it is impossible to win the match because “spear is long and Shinai(bamboo sword) is short”.

Then at the match he took “Dai Joudan” stance(Shinai high over his head) risking his life, though Seigan (middle position, point of Shinai aims at the opponent’s eyes) is the usual stance to take in match against the spear.

The spear expert, Mr. Deishu Takahashi (高橋泥舟) thought he was looked down upon and became angry. “Eei!!” He speared violently. In the next moment Mr. Sakakibara dodged and thrust into the throat of Mr. Takahashi with Shinai and knocked him down. “Tsuki!!” Big voice echoed. All daimyo in there were amazed by Mr. Sakakibara’s performance.

Mr. Sakakibara was a man with rugged honesty and artlessness and had no interest whether he was approved or not as well as being broad and pure minded person with sincerity.

Mr. Sakakibara treated bad pupils more politely than others. There were pupils who borrowed money by telling a lie and later did not pay back. But Mr. Sakakibara treated such pupils much more kindly and politely. He sometimes said “Right pupil can progress step by step even without my guidance, so no problem with them but a bad pupil is unfortunate and miserable if he does not stay with me, he may return back to wrong way easily. So when such pupil comes here we have to take care and entertain him from bottom of our heart.”

When such pupil came Mr. Sakakibara smiled more than usual and entertained him by serving food.

Mr. Sakakibara got in trouble many times because of stamping his seal on the loan for others. Mr. Sakakibara said “That pupil cannot borrow money if there isn't my seal on loan papers and without it he won't be able do his business he put effort in thinking of. If he can become happy by my seal, it is delightful enough for me.”

Some pupil said to Mr. Sakakibara “If you stamp seals without care, you may be imprisoned.” Then Mr. Sakakibara said “I did not do anything wrong, but if I have to be imprisoned it is all right.”

Mr. Sakakibara treated bad pupils preciously to the end. 

Mr. Sakakibara had no compromise to take first “Ippon” (first strike) when he practice kendo with his pupil. He never allowed first “Ippon” to any pupil. Such severe teacher loved bad pupils with his open (tolerant) mindedness. Uncountable bad pupils who became aware of his deep sincerity soon changed their mind and returned back to right way.

Mr. Sakakibara swung 1.8 meters “Furibo” (wooden bar) which weighted 11kg. He swung 100 times every day. When you hold the grip of this “Furibo”, you will feel like you are holding 6 times heavier than actual weight, which means 66kgs. There was a writing carved on Furibo, “One hundred times every day to brush off depression.”His upper arm measured 55 cm around.

Once he stood in dojo, even at age of 60 his powerful presence overwhelmed the opponent. Kendo in Sakakibara dojo was imaging actual fighting with enemy. Other dojo had lost such severe practice already.

When he was 57 years old (明治20年11月11日), he was requested to attend exhibition of Kabuto-Wari (兜割, cutting iron helmet of warrior by sword) in presence of the Meiji Emperor.

Mr. Sakakibara excused himself from attending that exhibition again and again, because he knew it was impossible and not allowed.

Iron helmet wasn't made to be cut by sword, so usually it's impossible to cut it with a sword. And helmet to be used this time was the one made by famous helmet manufacture using European iron called Meichin (明珍).

Peach shaped helmet.

Mr. Sakakibara thought that if he accepted this request and failed he would bring disgrace to Jikishinkage-Ryu and his teacher Mr. Seiichiro Otani and his predecessors. If so, Mr. Sakakibara may do “Seppuku”(hara-kiri). He purified his body and spirit through ritual austerities and ablutions and tried cutting helmet seriously, changing swords many times, but could not cut it. In the end he reached conclusion that he can't cut the helmet. He explained to the bureau honestly and excused again. The person of bureau answered him “Emperor said even if it is not successful it is no problem, try anyway.” He had no way to refuse anymore.

After that time, he tried again many swords but could not cut. He made up his mind of doing “Seppuku” but even so still tried again and again to cut the helmet. Every day, he purified his body and spirit and prayed to God. There was no other way except for praying to God for aid.

He went to sleep earlier to wake up before dawn and purify his body.

While he was waiting for departure time for where exhibition would be taking place, a sword tradesman whose services Mr. Sakakibara used in past barged into his home. “Sensei! Please use this sword, this is the famous sword called “Dotanuki” (胴田貫)”. Mr. Sakakibara thanked God.

“Dotanuki” was made as a special order from Kiyomasa Kato (加藤清正) (famous daimyo). Shape of Dotanuki was not beautiful, but the blade of Dotanuki was specially forged not to be nicked or bent even if cutting iron. But even using Dotanuki, it is usually impossible to cut iron helmet.

He waited his turn calmly at the place of exhibition. Many excellent Kendo masters tried to cut helmet but nobody could succeed.

Mr. Sakakibara was praying to the God of martial arts for aid. “There is a limit to strength of a human being so please aid me by lending me some of yours.”

His turn came. He walked to the place calmly and took the sword out of the sheath. He raised the sword high over his head. When his spirit reached its peak he brought the sword down with lighting speed. “Eei !!”

Next instant the sword had cut 10 cm deep into the top of iron helmet. Blade was not nicked. God gave him a miracle. Every attendant there was surprised and amazed by this feet.“Cut down! Cut down!”“Unbelievable!” Mr. Sakakibara’s name echoed throughout the Japan.

When Mr. Yamada heard Mr. Sakakibara’s difficult situation, he had returned to his home town. He hurried back to Tokyo to request to attend the exhibition instead of Mr. Sakakibara to save the honor of Jikishinkakge-Ryu by sacrificing himself, but because of flood he couldn't arrive in time.

Mr. Yamada arrived at Mr.Sakakibara’s house right after Mr. Sakakibara left his home for exhibition place.

Long after that Mr. Yamada explained about this “Kabuto-Wari” to his students. “Sakakibara-sensei tried cutting again and again before exhibition but could not cut it so he accepted that this is beyond the effort of human being. After accepting this the only thing he could do was becoming free of all ideas and thoughts and trust God’s will while doing his best. Without thinking of actually cutting the helmet all he did was bring down the sword on the iron helmet when his spirit became full, only then he manage to succeed. The very principle and essence of Kendo is exactly in here.”

And he also explained “Sakakibara-sensei was first class swordsman as expected. He did not use famous sword like Masamune (正宗) but chose Dotanuki. Dotanuki isn't fine-looking but rather seems plain and dull from its appearance yet it does not bend or break when it cuts very hard things and still can be to used afterwards. You should strive to become like Dotanuki.”

Sakakibara dojo was famous for heavy training and because of it Mr. Yamada dedicated his life to Kendo in spite the current of time.

His training was fierce and desperate. He did not have a strong body compared to other pupils who had already been trained by Mr. Sakakibara. Mr. Yamada thought it is necessary to make his body strong like iron and started to swing Furibo day and night whenever he had time. Sometimes, he woke up in the middle of night and started swinging 100 times, 200 times, 300 times and even more than 1000 times, 2000 time at end. In winter, during the swinging, his wooden sandals (geta) would stuck in the ground 3cm deep because the frost iced them and could not pull out.

Furibo was 1.8 meters length and 11kg by weight. When he swung, his hands felt 6 times of actual weight, which is 66kg. Abdomen power and will power are necessary to swing it.

When we are swinging Furibo, we can clear off evil thoughts, delusions and idle habits from our mind.

He made desperate effort. His chest became large and his body became strong and muscular in short time. He became number one player in dojo soon but Mr. Yamada also forged his head. Once he was hit by Sakakibara-sensei, he felt sharp pain and nearly fainted. He knocked his head against pillar many times every day to make his head more durable and it time he didn't feel pain anymore but rather dent pillar itself.

In time Mr. Yamada started to feel that practices with Sakakibara-sensei became easier due to his hard training.

Actually Mr. Yamada became very strong. When he was 27 years old, there was held a Kendo tournament to celebrate the opening of first national Diet of Japanese Imperial government. Many teams each consisting of 10 players were made.

As Mr. Yamada had won every match, he was requested to become the Taisho (captain) of a team.

In one match, player of the opposite team defeated all team members up to sub captain and arrogantly said “Mr. Yamada seems that this match is finished. How about you surrender to us”.

Mr. Yamada, at that time young and reckless, answered back to him, “This is absurd, I will cut down all of you, it is better you to wait with your mask(Men) on.”

Mr. Yamada won all fights up to turn of the sub captain without a loss, but he still had not put mask on. Mr. Yamada provoked him “Hurry up!!”“Do you want to fight without mask?”

The sub captain took hidari (left)-Daijodan(Overhead) which was his forte. Mr. Yamada thrust into his throat (tsuki) with a desperate attack. He managed to hit his Nodo (throat), but he waved his head and avoided, so Shinai caught his collar. As he refused to admit defeat, Mr. Yamada pushed him into the water tank.

Mr. Yamada also attacked next taisho and dropped him into audience seats from the stage.

Mr. Yamada became famous as a distinguished Kendo player. There were times when players backed out fighting against Mr. Yamada.

Mr. Yamada had been thinking “I practiced and trained very hard by myself, so I may have a chance to beat Sakakibara-sensei 3 times in 3 times match.” He became self-conceited. “If I have a chance, I want to show my new strength to Sensei. Sensei has become old (around 60 years), so I may not be defeated easily in the match”.

Sakakibara-sensei soon noticed Mr. Yamada’s self-conceit. One rainy day, nobody came to practice, sensei said to Mr. Yamada “Mr. Yamada, no one is coming to practice in this rain. It is good chance. Shall we try a match?” Mr. Yamada was delighted to hear that. He had been waiting for this chance. “Thank you very much. It is my pleasure to play a match with you.” He thought “If I beat sensei, he will praise me and he will think that I am great!” He stood up with all his might.

Sensei took Jodan (hold shinai over his head), Mr. Yamada took Seigan (middle position). Sensei approached little by little and swayed the tip of shinai left and right. Mr. Yamada thought it was a bit strange, at that moment, suddenly “Men!” (Head). He heard sensei’s voice like a thunder and felt dizzy at the same time.

Mr. Yamada was completely defeated by “Men!” He thought “I cannot believe I was defeated like this.” But actually, he felt severe pain on his head. That day’s match finished. He thought over and over what was wrong with the match and could not accept the result and regret it. “I will not be defeated like this next time.”

Someday later, there came a rainy day. Then Sakakibara-sensei said “Mr. Yamada, today is calm, nobody come for practice because of the rain. Shall we try a match?”

Mr. Yamada had been waiting this chance, tightened loincloth and wore bougu (protector). Mr. Yamada approached little by little with seigan (middle position) especially paying attention not to get “Men” again.

Sensei took Jodan (overheadpositon) again and approached little by little. Sensei lowered shinai to gedan (lower position) suddenly and concentrated his power. “Strange?” Mr. Yamada felt strange feeling as last time, the tip if sensei’s shinai moved left and right. Mr. Yamada thought “Come on! I don’t move!” At that moment, He fell down on his back. Big voice of sensei sounded through dojo.“Tsuki!” (Thrust to the throat)

Even though Mr. Yamada lost the second match, he was still conceited. “It is strange. I cannot be defeated like this.” He thought back to the match but he was defeated completely anyway. He regretted and regretted. “If this defeat is because of my weakness, I will give up, but still I have a faith in my ability, so I have regrets. I will defeat sensei next time. I will not be defeated by the trick of sensei.”

He waited next rainy day. And the day came. Sakakibara-sensei said “Mr. Yamada, today is raining. Shall we try a match?” Mr. Yamada said “Please, I would like to.” This was the third match.

Sensei posed hassou (八相, hold shinai strait up on the right side of head) and hit Mr. Yamada’s forearm strongly. “Kote!” (Hit on forearm).

Mr. Yamada was stubborn and self-conceited until that time. “I am very much surprised. Sensei perceived my self-conceit by his intuition. Sensei admonished me by his Ken. When I recalled three time match seriously, my skill was far away from sensei’s level.”

When he became aware of this, he felt shame. He changed his mind and became modest. He could not imagine how strong sensei is so he devoted himself to hard training much more than before without thinking of anything else.

It is permanent truth in every field. If somebody has any wicked reasons, no matter how small they are like becoming famous or successful, it will be impossible to master or grasp the highest essence of the spirit.

At that time, there was an iron Furibo in dojo which was nearly 56kg (15貫:56.25kg) in weight. Nobody used this. When somebody would want to swing this, he would feel 6 times the weight. That means nearly 340kg.

Mr. Yamada decided to swing this, he swung once, and then he fainted and fell down. He could not awake for two or three days, but challenged himself again and again and again. Finally, he was able to swing it freely.

Mr.Yamada’s photo, swinging this iron Furibo with disheveled hair, was published in the military arts books at that time. The comment on this book said “Mr. Jirokichi Yamada at Sakakibara dojo, he is the man who has incomparable abdomen power.”

After that Mr. Yamada became modest and when he observed sensei’s Kendo, he understood that sensei’s level was nearly the God’s level. He sincerely thought “I am far inferior to sensei.” He changed his mind and respected sensei from the bottom of his heart and devoted himself to train even harder.

He was gradually getting the skill to dodge sensei’s Men, Kote, Tsuki. Sensei sometimes appraised him.

One day, Mr. Yamada returned back to his home town. His body was completely different from the past. He tried sumo (wrestling) with younger brother who was especially strong and used to be stronger than him, but this time Mr. Yamada could throw his brother very easily.

When he was walking on the narrow street in the country, runaway horse rushed forward to him. He stood up in the middle of the street calmly and opened his both arms widely. The horse got excited and stood up on rear legs and attacked him. In no time, he moved one step behind. The horse could not kick him and put down forelegs on the ground. In that instant, he bent his back a bit and rushed to the horse and held its forelegs.

Nobody could understand whether the forelegs touched the ground or not, the horse fell down sideways.

He made a great contribution to save people from the risk of being injured by the horse. Later one pupil who heard this story tried the same thing, but he was injured and lost an eye.

Mr. Yamada respected Sakakibara-sensei deeply and continued training thinking “It is quite hopeless for me to reach sensei’s superior level. I have not reached Sensei yet, he is still so far away.”

He continued hard training every day forgetting twisted mind he once had. On the other hand, Sakakibara-sensei began to tell “Mr. Yamada, you are gaining a better understanding of Kendo step by step, You have made considerable progress.”

One snowy day, Mr. Yamada and Sakakibara-sensei were walking to a military school to teach Kendo. They were wearing geta (wooden sandals) and started to climb a steep hill. Then suddenly, Sakakibara-sensei’s sandal thong got broke. Sensei almost fell down like a big tree. But in that moment Mr. Yamada supported Sensei by his one arm and took off his geta with the other hand and put it in front of Sensei’s feet. As everything was smooth and elegant, there was no time for Sakakibara-sensei to refuse hisgeta. Mr. Yamada realized Sensei’s eyes were full of tears and he said “Thank you, I will borrow your geta.”  Sensei continued walking calmly.

At that night, Sakakibara-sensei asked all pupils to gather in dojo, and said “When I was walking snowy road quietly with Mr. Yamada this morning, suddenly the thong of geta got broken because of my carelessness. There was no time to regret, when I looked my feet, Mr. Yamada’s geta was already prepared in order in front of my feet. I was surprised. I really didn't understand what happened quicker, my geta’s thong tearing or Mr. Yamada who putting his geta in front of me. I never thought in my life I will make my pupil walk on the snowy road with his bare feet while wearing his geta. But Mr. Yamada’s timing was so perfect that I had no time to refuse so I borrowed his geta and was thankful for that.”

Sakakibara-sensei admired Mr. Yamada so much with tears and said, Mr. Yamada’s determined action and quick movement at that time should be learned by the others.

In January 1st 1884, when Mr. Yamada was 31 years old, Sakakibara- sensei was 64 years old at that time, Sakakibara-sensei asked his pupils to make a brilliant altar in dojo. Sensei asked all pupils to gather there. Sensei dressed up in ceremonial clothes and went up to the altar and recited Shinto prayers respectfully.

After that, sensei called out to Mr. Yamada. Mr. Yamada approached Sensei in a respectful manner. Sensei said solemnly “I had been keeping a list of certificates of Jikishinkage-Ryu entrusted to me by Otani-sensei for a long time, but now I will entrust them to Jirokichi Yamada by the order of God. You receive these respectfully.” Mr. Yamada wanted to excuse himself from receiving these because he thought he was not in such a great level yet, but he had no time to refuse. He received these certificates with determination of safekeeping them.


Katsuoki Numata