The History of Shinkageryu

1. The Founder, Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami

Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami was born in 1508 as the son of the lord of Kami-Izumi castle (located in present day Kami-Izumi, Maebashi city, Gumma Prefecture).At this time in history, the feudal lords of Japan were embroiled in a leadership conflict and this period is referred to as "The Era of Warring States" (Sengoku-Jidai_ca.1480-ca.1570).


As the son of the lord of a castle born in such turbulent times, from childhood he devoted his time not only to academic studies, but also to the practice of Zen and training in martial arts. Having mastered the military arts of the Ogasawara school (a style based on the teachings and tactics of the great Chinese militarist and philosopher Sunzi), he earned a reputation as a great warrior and tactician. Although known as the greatest spearman in Gumma Prefecture (then called Kozuke-no-kuni), he showed particular interest in the study of swordsmanship and later evolved the style known as Shinkageryu.


His training in swordsmanship was based largely on Katori-Shinto-Ryu and, later, on the two other major schools, Nen-Ryu and Kage-Ryu. In particular, he used the principle of Marobashi-no-Michi from Kage-Ryu as the cornerstone of Shinkage-Ryu.


It is said that he gained full understanding (or "enlightenment" in Zen philosophy) of the principle of Marobashi upon the realization, during his study of the Enkai-no-Tachi techniques of Kage-Ryu, that the principle of Zen, in which he had immersed himself from his youth, and the philosophy of Sunzi as manifested in the Ogasawara school, blended and became a perfect whole in this Enkai-no-Tachi.


As warrior, Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami was opposed to involving his subordinates, or those belonging to one of his fiefs, in battles in which it was probable that they would lose their lives and, whenever possible, avoided such futile and profitless conflict, thus displaying an attitude unusual among members of the warrior class of those times. It is almost certain that such thinking was born of long years of Zen discipline.


Even so, in an attempt to prevent the fall of Minowa castle, Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami, with only a small number of men under his command, invaded the enemy encampment, although vastly outnumbered and in the knowledge of almost certain death. However, the enemy commander, Takeda Shingen, who valued and respected Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami, ordered his forces to retreat. Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami, who thus escaped what had seemed to be certain death, abandoned the life of a warrior and set out on a journey to spread the teachings of Shinkage-Ryu.


Normally, in swordsmanship, one is taught techniques for defeating and killing one's enemy with the sword; however, during his travels, Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami preached a somewhat different approach. He taught that "the techniques of Shinkage-Ryu are unbeatable; this arises not from the needless taking of life, but from the true courage required to avoid unnecessary conflict."


Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami taught and spread these principles to his followers around the country in the belief that an increase in the number of those who adhered to these principles would herald the end of the era of warfare and the beginning of a peaceful society. Many of his followers understood these principles and, in their turn, did their best to further spread the teachings of their master. Eventually, these concepts came to bear fruit under Yagyu Munenori, master swordsman to the Shogun family, and were established as the basis of the 300 years of the Tokugawa era.
2. Yagyu Munetoshi and Yagyu Munenori

Yagyu Munetoshi trained under Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami from 1563 and perfected "Muto-dori" (the technique of disarming one’s attacker unarmed), following his master's principle of avoiding the needless taking of life. He consolidated the techniques of Shinkage-Ryu and continued to spread the art.


Yagyu Munetoshi's son, Yagyu Munenori, who served as "master of military arts" to the third and fourth Tokugawa Shoguns, Hidetada and Iemitsu, showed a deep understanding of the principles expounded both by his father and Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami.


As a feudal lord (Daimyo), he applied the teachings of Shinkage-Ryu to his political activities within the Shogunate, at the same time spreading the philosophy of the art by sending out his many students to serve as sword masters to the households of various Daimyo. Many of these became direct students of Munenori himself, who became known as "the great living sword."
3. Yagyu Toshitishi and Beyond
While Yagyu Munenori and his followers adhered to the teachings of Munetoshi and Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami, emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the art, Yagyu Toshitoshi, who was sword master to the Owari Tokugawa household (a branch family to the Shogun), adapted Shinkage-Ryu to the times and circumstances in which he lived and modified both teaching and training methods, thus establishing the traditions that have been handed down to modern times.

While the Shinkage-Ryu as taught by Yagyu Munenori disappeared with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the art as developed by Toshitoshi survived and has lived on through the centuries to present times.

The Theory and Philosophy of Shinkageryu

The Theory of Shinkage-ryu can be divided into theory concerning actual sword techniques and spiritual theory. However, it must be remembered that traditionally the two form a whole.  Some of the traditional writings on which studies of the theory of Shinkage-ryu have been based include:

• Shinkage-ryu-Heiho-Kiriai-Kuden-sho

• Motsu-Jimi-Shudan-Kuden-sho

• Shiju-Fusha-sho

• Ren-O-Nana-kajo

• Heiho-Kaden-sho

• Tsuki-no-shou

• Munehisa-Heiho-Monogatari

• Fudochi-Shinmyo-Roku

Although studies of theory of Shinkage-ryu are based on writings such as the above, or commentaries thereof, all of these writings derive from the philosophy of Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami called "Marobashi." As Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami's explained:


"The concept of offence and defense lies in adapting each of one's action to one's enemy, much in the way a sailor will raise the sail when the wind rises, or a hunter will release the hawk on sighting a rabbit. It is usual to think of offence purely in terms of offense and offense and defense purely in terms of defense: however, there are elements of defense in offense and offense in defense. The practitioner of Shinkage-ryu should fully understand the meaning of the line from the Chinese poem about the "cat sleeping under the peonies" (i.e. apparently asleep, but always aware).The term "Marobashi" is usually taken to mean "the way of nature, freedom and energy in life. "However, "Marobashi" has a dual meaning, being used as a term representing the inner truths of the philosophy of the Chinese militarist Sunzi, and also as a term for divine enlightenment in Zen circles. In terms of combat, one must know the enemy and oneself; one must make the enemy conform to one's own will and, when one makes one's move and the "lion" comes to take the bait, respond with all one's power, like an avalanche of rocks down the mountainside into the valley, or water gushing out of a burst damn. At the same time, the swordsman's spiritual state should encompass both the benevolence preached by Zen (the philosophy of peace, none-agression and love for one's fellow man) and constant flexibility (freedom and nature life), enabling one not to become totally absorbed or attached to anything. Accordingly, the practitioner of Shinkage-ryu should purge evil from his heart, deepen his understanding of humanity and confront the forces of evil with the courage born of truth. At the same time, he should always show benevolence to his fellow man, constantly striving to deepen his knowledge of mankind and to rid the world of evil, working towards this end through rigorous training and discipline.


In the history of Japanese martial Arts, Kami-Izumi-Ise-no-Kami was the first to apply such Zen philosophy to swordsmanship. It was in this spirit that he developed techniques for taking one's attacker's sword from him unarmed, without needlessly taking life, and this approach exerted a considerable influence over other schools of swordsmanship.


In Shinkage-ryu, there is a wealth of sword techniques and it is through the study and rigorous practice of these techniques that one can learn not only the movements themselves, but also the underlying philosophy and spiritual significance. It is essential that these two aspects, the physical and the spiritual, blend to become one.


Shinkage-Ryu Sword Techniques: Traditional Japanese Martial Arts, 1993 by Tadashige Watanabe, Ronald Balsom