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Ikkiri Jûgiri

By George Donahue

There is a very simple and useful motto that was for centuries kept as a core truth by a particular samurai family in Japan, and that is still observed by some of the descendents of that family: “ikkiri jûgiri.” Literally, it means “one cut, ten cuts.” When I was a child, I understood this motto to mean “If you cut me or mine once, I or we will cut you or yours ten times.” If you offend me once, I’ll retaliate tenfold. Early on, I adopted this motto, with this understanding of its meaning, as my own. This meaning was indeed the most immediately important, for its practice enabled that rather small family to survive centuries of war and aggression by its much larger and more powerful neighbors. It helped the family’s descendents to make it through tough or dangerous modern times, too.

After I had internalized this motto, I learned that it was, in addition to a threat or warning, a statement of obligation. Not only would the family retaliate ten times over, it was the absolute obligation of each member of the family to see that the retribution was carried out. The motto instilled ferocity in its adherents; it made them tough enemies you wouldn’t want to stir up. A good motto for a hornets’ nest.

But there was more to it than that. The motto has always been qualified by the idea of “the sword that gives life,” the idea that you take up arms, reluctantly, to save life or, paradoxically, to preserve peace. I used to think that this was a mere platitude issued to make war and aggression seem more righteous. I’ve often been wrong, and I was wrong about this—or maybe advancing age and arthritis have forced me to be more peaceful in thought and deed.

As I grew older, I saw that ikkiri jûgiri also applied to reciprocation of good actions. If someone did me a kindness, then I had a personal ethical obligation to repay that kindness tenfold. (It took maturity to understand this, even though I had been told often enough.) This understanding led me, for example, to donate ten pints of blood to the Red Cross for every pint that my father had received in transfusions during his surgeries. Although he hadn’t needed a whole lot of blood, as transfusions go, it nonetheless took a long time to pay that debt, even counting the extra pints from apheresis. Once I’d paid it off, I continued to make regular donations, at the shortest interval possible. Blood donation had become habitual, but there was also the feeling that I would be prepaying my reciprocation for kindnesses and good things that might come to me in the future.

As I’ve grown still older, I’ve realized more and more that the simple initial interpretation of ikkiri jûgiri is far from the best. It has been a good motto all these centuries because it has been so complete. It was not only the ferocity of the family that helped it to survive, it was the equally obvious generosity. My own children have adopted this motto, too, and they’re reaching an age where they seem to understand that kindness is to repaid tenfold, as well. I’m glad.

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About The Author:

George Donahue has been on the board of since its inception. He is a freelance writer and editor, providing literary and consulting services to writers, literary agents, and publishers, as well to advertising agencies. He has worked in publishing for more than three decades, beginning as a journal and legal editor. Among his positions have been editorial stints at Random House; Tuttle Publishing, where he was the executive editor, martial arts editor, and Asian Studies editor; and Lyons Press, where he was the senior acquisitions editor and where he established a martial arts publishing program. He is a 6th dan student of karate and kobujutsu—as well as Yamane Ryu Bojutsu—of Shinzato Katsuhiko in Okinawa Karatedo Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He was also a student of Kishaba Chokei and Nakamura Seigi until their deaths. He teaches Kishaba Juku in New York and Connecticut, as well as traveling to provide seminars and special training in karate, weapons, and self-defense. His early training was in judo and jujutsu, primarily with Ando Shunnosuke in Tokyo. He also studied kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) in Japan as a youth. Following his move to the US, he continued to practice judo and jujutsu, as well as marksmanship with bow and gun, and began the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate in his late teens. Subsequently, he has studied aikido and taiji and cross trained in ying jow pai kung fu.

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