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Ittosai’s Test: Part 2

By Dave Lowry

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two part article entitled "Ittosai’s Test" which is an excerpt from Dave Lowry’s new book, “Clouds In The West.” It is about the eccentric but brilliant swordsman Ito Ittosai Kagehisa, the founder of the sword tradition of Itto ryu, and his efforts to find a successor. Part 1

Zenki was a commoner working a ferry that Kagehisa took across the Yodo River, in the southern part of Japan’s main island. Legend has it that Zenki, even though not of samurai status, had longed all his life to be a swordsman. To achieve his goal, he made a habit of looking over the passengers on his ferry. If any looked as if they might be proficient in the art, his approach would be abrupt and to the point: “Wanna fight?” He would challenge them to a duel on the spot. It was a risky way to learn. Some samurai or others skilled in using a sword would have laughed him off; others might have politely declined. But his method was not all that different than walking into a dark and smoky biker bar today, sizing up the occupants, then sticking one’s face into that of the toughest-looking among them and saying “Let’s dance.” You can learn a lot about combat doing that. You also risk gathering some impressive scars. Zenki used an auxiliary oar as a substitute bokken when he did get takers willing to duel with him, which gives an even clearer picture of the man’s intent. Here’s a guy so desperate to learn swordsmanship that he’s using a spare oar against a live blade. How much he’d managed to learn by the time Kagehisa came on board his ferry we can’t know. But it was not enough. Kagehisa took Zenki up on his challenge once the ferry had reached the far shore, and beat him convincingly. Zenki was intelligent enough to realize he was in the company of an extraordinary warrior. He fell to his knees and begged Kagehisa to take him on as a disciple. Kagehisa accepted.

The other of Kagehisa’s direct students was Migogami Tenzen, a lower-ranked samurai of the Satomi clan, from Awa Province. Migogami was there to answer the ad Kagehisa posted while passing through a town, notifying any and all that he was seeking competition. He wished to test his Itto ryu against all comers. Tenzen was happy to oblige. And when he met the same fate as Zenki, he, too, asked to be taken on by Kagehisa to learn the secrets of the one-sword strike. The trio traveled together constantly. There is no record of Kagehisa ever establishing a headquarters or working permanently for a clan. Zenki and Tenzen learned a great deal more besides technique in this way. They had to adapt to constantly changing conditions. They were often hungry, always seen as strangers. They were susceptible to attacks from bandits who roamed most of the roads in Japan in those days, as well as from those who would have liked nothing better than to say they had killed the famous Kagehisa. Almost as trying would have been living with Kagehisa himself, who, by all accounts, was a cold fish, arrogant and inscrutable in his ways.

By 1588, Kagehisa was already well over fifty years old. He felt the time had come for him to choose a successor, the leader of the next generation of his Itto ryu. Several students had trained with him. Many of them were from other ryu and had gone on to incorporate principles of the Itto ryu into their systems. It was, even in its first generation, an enormously influential school of fencing. Still, of all these students, only Zenki and Tenzen were of the caliber Kagehisa considered worthy of inheriting the headmastery of his tradition. He also knew that the two were so evenly matched in their skills that the technical differences between them were slight, inconsequential. And so he devised another standard, a test for determining which of them would succeed him. It could not have come as a surprise to either that his test was a bizarre one.

The three were in Sahara. (No, not the desert in Africa—although that would make for an engaging story, wouldn’t it?) No, Sahara was a small town in Shimofusa Province, where Kagehisa laid out the details of the test he proposed. “Since you are so evenly matched in your abilities, there is no way for me to make a judgment that would have any validity. Therefore,” he said, “you will have to make the decision for me.”

Tenzen and Zenki could have had no idea what it was their teacher proposed. Kagehisa explained it. “You will fight to decide who inherits the ryu,” he said. “Whatever rules there are, you two come up with them between yourselves.”

The two must have been incredulous. Even accustomed as they were to Kagehisa’s eccentricities, this was extreme. They were fully aware that in a battle of the sort Kagehisa was proposing, there would only be one real way of determining a victor. The one who survived would be the winner. Tenzen and Zenki agreed to the use of shinken, or live, metal swords. The duel was to take place at dawn on the following day.

The site of the duel was a rolling meadow called Koganegahara that is still there, and still looks about the same as it must have on that early spring morning. There are copses of oaks on three sides. Their brown, withered leaves were still clinging to the branches. The sun would have been just striking the ground, sparkling the frozen dew, when the three arrived at the meadow, their footsteps crunching. Without a word, Kagehisa walked to the far edge of the field and sat on a rock. In front of him, he placed a warrior’s uchiwa, a fan made of lacquered elm and tough, leathery paper. On top of the fan he placed one of his most treasured possessions, a sword he’d nicknamed “Ogre Slayer.” Beside the sword he put a scroll with the full transmission of the ryu written on it. Possession of the scroll was proof the owner was the rightful heir of the ryu.

Kagehisa folded his arms, waited. Zenki and Tenzen bowed in their teacher’s direction. Nobody was taking notes for us to read centuries later, but we can imagine the scene. Zenki taking off a heavy overcoat haori and placing it carefully on the ground. Tenzen tying up the sleeves of his kimono with a strip of twisted paper string. When they had finished the rituals surrounding a duel, they took up their weapons and bowed to one another. Since Tenzen was junior to Zenki, having been accepted into Kagehisa’s tutelage later, he may have bowed a bit lower. Zenki, perhaps misinterpreting this as a sign of emotional weakness on Tenzen’s part, immediately raised his sword above his head. Tenzen, more cautious, kept his weapon low, the tip pointed directly at Zenki’s throat.

It is very difficult for us to put ourselves in the place of men like this, to feel the tension they must have felt. In samurai movies, such one-on-one encounters are usually depicted as a kind of deadly ballet. Flashing swords, acrobatic movement, the slither and clang of metal struck. The reality was that in most battles of this nature, about 90 percent of the “action” was carried on in the minds of the participants. Movement was kept to an absolute minimum. The difference between living and dying was going to be measured by fractions of a second in timing or distancing. This would have been especially true in the case of these two swordsmen. The defining strategy of the Itto ryu, of course, was to wait for an opponent to make a move and then counter—or to force him, through posture or “attitude,” to make the first move. Such a gambit, however, did not mean an opponent’s initial move had to come in the form of an all-out attack. Often, all the Itto ryu swordsman needed or wanted was a slight shift in balance on the part of his opponent, a mere flickering of his sword’s tip. A movement that might not, to an observer, look like much more than a twitch would provide the opening. Tenzen and Zenki were experts at discerning these. Their duel must have been carried on so subtly that to anyone unschooled in martial art, the temptation to start admiring the countryside, plan the evening’s meal, or even to doze while waiting for something, anything, to happen, would have been significant. Those unfamiliar with the reality of this kind of close, personal combat, would likely be oblivious to the energy that was being expended before them.

The sun rose fully, drained of the dawn’s angry red, taking on a bright yellow cast, a promise of the spring that was on its way. Dry, dead leaves rustled. The dew shimmered and vanished. And from the two contestants, nothing. Oh, maybe Zenki’s forward foot would slide forward a few inches. Tenzen would pull his back an equal distance. A shifting from side to side, mirrored by the opponent. But there were no blows, no shouts, no slack between them.

Again, few of us can know what goes on in a man’s mind in that kind of situation. So it is nothing but speculation to guess what it was that caused Zenki to do what he did next. Maybe he’d overestimated his own prowess. Maybe his impoverished background led him to be tempted, distracted even for a second or two, by the thought of all the fame that would come with the position of headmaster of such a renowned ryu. Maybe, way down deep inside him, there was a stray vein of fear that the contest had exposed. Whatever it was, Zenki broke. He leaped away from Tenzen, scrambling toward the edge of the field where Kagehisa sat watching. He ran directly for the scroll in front of Kagehisa, grabbed it, and turned, breaking in a sprint for the road.

Tenzen was after him, running to catch up, his sword still in his fist. He gained on Zenki, caught him at the edge of the field. Zenki, sensing the pursuit, whipped around, putting the scroll between his teeth to free both hands. But he did not try to fight; he dropped his sword and snatched for the trunk of a sapling, pulling it over to put the limb between himself and Tenzen. Tenzen never paused. He raised his blade, then cut. The sword passed through the sapling as easily as it cut into muscle and bone. Zenki died on the spot, the scroll still in his mouth.

What happened after the duel between Tenzen and Zenki is well known in martial arts circles. Tenzen took a new name. He became Ono Taadaki and assumed the status of the second headmaster of the Itto ryu. He served as a fencing instructor to the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, and taught a number of swordsmen, some of whom went on to found their own martial ryu. As for Kagehisa, we know very little about him after he walked off the field at Koganegahara that frosty, late winter morning. There is a document that seems to indicate he took the tonsure and became a Buddhist monk. Another source reputes, however, that Kagehisa died not long after the duel between Zenki and Tenzen. Records from Shimofusa Province (now Chiba and Ibaraki Prefectures) note that someone with the same name died at the age of ninety-four there, though whether this is the same Kagehisa is unclear.

The mysterious end of Kagehisa’s life is fitting, in a way. He was enigmatic, to say the least. He discovered a fundamental principle of swordsmanship but was able to pass it on to only two others, one of whom killed the other—at his instigation. He was a master, arguably without peer, in matters of technique. Yet he never seemed to penetrate, as so many other great swordsmen did, into the realms of the spiritual. Whether this was from a disinterest or a dispositional limitation on his part, we can never know. Was he satisfied, watching his two best students try to kill one another? Did he consider his life to be a success? Other sword masters have left their reflections in written form. Even the half-feral Musashi left a book that gives us some hints that he perceived a philosophical path to be the real destination of swordsmanship. But Kagehisa? His life might best be exemplified by that young man, standing in the dark in the middle of the temple grounds, a dead man at his feet, a bloody sword in his hand, and not the slightest idea of how it all happened or what it all meant.


Excerpted from Clouds in the West © 2004 by Dave Lowry with permission from The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT 06437.

The book, Clouds in the West is available in the FightingArts.com Estore


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About the Author:

Dave Lowry is a writer and historian specializing in Japan and traditional Japanese culture. He has been a student of the modern and classical martial disciplines of Japan since 1968 - including karate, aikido, the bo and kenjitsu. His columns have appeared for years in a variety of martial arts magazines and he is also an accomplished calligrapher. His books include "Sword and Brush - The Spirit of the Martial Arts", "Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai" and his new book “Clouds in the West” published by The Lyons Press.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Ito Ittosai Kagehisa, Itto ryu, kenjutsu, Japanese swordsmanship, Onoha Itto Ryu Sokaku Den, Migogami Ono Tenzen, Zenki, Yagoro, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, Kannemaki Jisai, Kannemaki ryu


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