The Life-Giving Sword

The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun
Yagyu Munenori; translated by William Scott Wilson
Kodansha International, 2003
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Heiho kadensho (the title of Wilson’s translation is “The Life-Giving Sword,” which is one of the sections in the book) is one of the most famous and influential texts of Japanese martial arts. It was written by Yagyu Tajima-no-kami Munenori, the youngest son of Yagyu Sekishusai Munetoshi, founder of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu hyoho (strategy and swordsmanship). The system was to become one of two official schools of swordsmanship for the Tokugawa shogunal family as a result of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s meeting and match with Sekishusai, wherein the latter was able to disarm Ieyasu (who was no mean swordsman himself). On being asked to serve as his instructor in swordsmanship, Sekishusai recommended Munenori, who served the first three Tokugawa rulers. After personally saving the life of Hidetada, the second Tokugawa shogun, Munenori was given increasingly important responsibilities as a political advisor and inspector of the entire shogunal government, even as he continued to teach martial arts. He was a personal friend of Takuan Soho, also a confidante of the Tokugawa shogunate, and sought in this book to combine the technical refinements of Shinkage-ryu and the philosophical and psychological insights of Zen Buddhism.

Within Shinkage-ryu, it is said that there are three types of martial arts: for the foot soldier, for the warrior retainer (bushi), and for the great lords who rule the land. What characterizes this third level of martial art is the sublime level of strategic (and tactical) thinking. What was important for a bushi who might find himself in individual combat with a skilled opponent was even more so for the generals and lords responsible for the fates of thousands of men and entire provinces. By mastering particular skills and techniques, one can understand the more general principles of martial arts; by mastering the arts of war, one can realize the principles of proper governance and provide for the good of the nation. Even today, executives and senior officials in the Japanese government and judiciary study the art for this reason.

“Heiho” is a word that can be construed in a number of ways: as martial arts and strategy in a general sense, and as swordsmanship in particular. “Kadensho” means “Writings on Family Transmission.” Taken together, then, the Japanese title means “Writings on [The] Family Martial Transmission.” It was never intended to be read by people who were not members of the ryu or, possibly, direct retainers of the Yagyu family. As such, the material in this book was of great technical importance and confidential in nature; people who received a copy would have been skilled practitioners and trusted members of the ryu. The prestige of Munenori and his school were so great, however, that his work spread throughout Japan quite rapidly and has been a treasured classic of the martial arts ever since.

Wilson’s translation is divided into the original three sections of Heiho kadensho. The first, “The Shoe-Presenting Bridge” (J.: Shinrikyo) is a mokuroku (catalogue) of principles and techniques, and lists all the techniques of the honden waza (original Shinkage-ryu transmission) by Kamiizumi Ise-no-Kami (founder of the ryu) to Yagyu Sekishusai Munetoshi. “The Death-Dealing Sword” (J.: Settsuninto) continues with a discussion of technical aspects of swordsmanship and begins to examine the psychological aspects of the Shinkage-ryu school. The last section of the book is “The Life-Giving Sword” (J.: Katsujinken). This part of the book continues the discussion of technique and goes further into the psychology and philosophy of the martial arts, both as an art for combat and a means of personal transformation. Throughout the work, the influence of Takuan Soho, and especially his Fudochi shinmyoroku, is evident. Munenori’s own work is in part a re-explication of Takuan’s thought from the standpoint of a master swordsman.

Much has been written about the supposed connection of Shinkage-ryu swordsmanship and Zen, especially given the close relationship between Yagyu Munenori and Takuan Soho, author of Fudochi Shinmyorku, Taiaki, and Reiroshu, essays about the psychological and philosophical aspects of swordsmanship/combat. A good deal of Heiho kadensho is also written in “Zen language” as well. In fact, however, according to Yagyu Nobuharu Toshimichi, the 21st-generation headmaster of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, these documents use Zen terminology and constructs because the subject matter is so abstract and difficult and Zen was one of the very few systems that had language sophisticated enough to deal with it.

The final part of Wilson’s book is a reprint of an e-mokuroku (illustrated scroll) written in 1601 by Yagyu Sekishusai. It was given to his friend, the famous Noh actor, Konparu Shichiro Ujikatsu in recognition of the latter’s understanding of the principles of martial arts through his mastery of the Noh drama. It consists of a series of illustrations and brief written explanations of the techniques, these having been written over a hundred years later by Matsudaira Nobusada, a senior exponent of the Shinkage-ryu. It may be noteworthy how very closely this scroll resembles the one given to Sekishusai by Kamiizumi, the original of which is still in the possession of the headmaster of the school.

The Life-Giving Sword is an excellent book. I have some quibbles with a few places, where Wilson glosses the names and terminology a little differently from the way it is done withn the Shinkage-ryu, but these are not major flaws. His notes provide a wonderful (and necessary!) context to the text and make what is very hard even for Japanese reading in the original language to understand, both interesting and enjoyable. There is another translation of Heiho kadensho, The Sword and the Mind, by Hiroaki Sato. Of the two, I prefer the one by Wilson. Taken together, the two books provide an excellent introduction to Munenori’s work.

Very Highly recommended.

Meik Skoss

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