Japanese Martial Arts Creator Myths

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Japanese Martial Arts Creator Myths

Japanese Koryū Creator myths.

Becoming enlightened and making up a whole system.


Some martial arts in Japan have origin stories that borderline on the mystical and some dive right into the supernatural. Are they true? If they are, does it matter? What was the purpose of these stories and myths? Some of these stories are meant to glue or attach the school to a well established tradition or area, mountain or shrine. They were really meant to bolster the legitimacy of the school, as well as make for a new break when a student learns one system and wants to strike out on their own to make  a new one. Let’s briefly explore a few of these myths and discuss them a bit.


Tenshin Shoden KatoriShinto Ryu

Katori Shinto Ryu Japan Demonstration

The name of the school itself indicates the system came from the gods. The founder of that school is Izasa Choisai Ieano, 飯篠 長威斎 家直. The school was supposedly founded around the late 1300’s. All ready a practioner of another system, Izasa, at the age of 60 went to Katori Shrine. There he spent 1000 days practicing martial arts. Day and night and day and night. The deity at Katori Shrine, Futsunushi no mikoto appeared to him in a dream. In this vision he handed down a scroll of secrets of martial strategy,  The Mokuroku Heiho no Shinsho.


Takenouchi Ryu 竹内流, also has a similar story. Founded by Takenouchi Hisamori around the 1530’s. According to their school, Hisamori went into the mountains to train near the Sannomiya Shrine. He was praciting there for six days and six nights using an unusually long bokuto. On the final night he fell asleep, tired from his arduous practice.  Suddenly he was startled awake by a priest of the mountains. The priest, with a long white beard and white hair Hisamori thought it to be an incarnation of a god. Hisamori launched an attack

Though  strong and quick, Hisamori was easily repulsed and defeated. The priest told HIsamori, “When you meet an opponent, at that moment, life and death are decided. That is called military strategy.” The priest then snapped Hisamori's long bokuto in two making a short sword, and taught Hisamori techiniques of kogusoku and instructed him how to use them in grappling and close combat. After which a sudden gush of wind and lighting came and the priest disappeared.



Tatsumi Ryu Tameshigiri Demonstration, Japan

Tatsumi-ryu was a martial art founded around 1520 by Tatsumi Sankyo. Training from a very early age and winning many matches and never being defeated Tatsumi became disenchanted with technical proficency. He didnt look with favor at winning in combat. With that he secluded himself in the mountains to the deity Tsumayama Daimyojin. There he performed intense spiritual training, shugyo 修行. It's said he achieved supernatural abilites and forumulated the large Tatsumi-ryu curriculum.

Sekiguchi Ryu & Shindō Munen Ryū
関口流 • 神道無念流

Sekiguchi Ryu Battōjutsu Demonstration

Then we have Sekiguchi ryu founded around 1570 by Sekiguchi Jushin. Another very dedicated martial artist that went out on shugyo into the mountains and came back with a completely new system, you guessed it, Sekiguchi Ryu.

Finally we have Shindō Munen Ryu.

Founded around 1730 by Fukui Hyoemon a Shin Shinkage Ichiden Ryu trained swordsman. We find yet another bushi unsatisfied and wandering around taking part in duels and shugyo. He traveled around Japan and honed his skills finally settling at a small shrine in the Inazuma mountains northwest of Edo. There he mediated and trained in isolation for 50 days reaching enlightenment and creating the large sword syllabus of Shindō Munen Ryū. 

Edo Period Franchise

Many schools have these stories. When you look at the samurai in the Edo period you find a class that needs to make ends meet. Some of these stories help sell and ad prestige to a school. We should imagine the realm that was the Edo area during the early 1600's to 1865. No major wars. Fighting freely was prohibited by law. This was the time when bujutsu systems greatly expanded and were codified. Some in great detail.

The martial arts were no longer just for the samurai elite. Farmers and merchants now had a chance also to gain status and money in the world of martial arts. One could devote themselves for a few years and depart for another area and open their own school. Even rework techniques and create new systems. And some schools such as Hokushin Ittō Ryū 北辰一刀流 did just that but without the embellishments of mountain spirits bestowing gifts.

Unless you believe in ghosts and  spirits then its hard to imagine someone receiving a scroll or information from such a spirit. So how did these schools come about? My views on this are pragmatic.  When one has training in a martial arts and reaches a good understanding and foundation it is not that hard to begin to create a system.  It is hard but not impossible to come up with a large syllabus of techniques. More than likely it was a refinement while working with another person. Maybe not as romantic but certainly as interesting. I find  it impossible that all these systems sprang out of thin air.

Shindō Munen Ryū Demonstration

You can also trace some similar ideas and movements from one school to another. In a different time it seems it was more palatable to create some mythic origin than to say, "me and kono-san spent two months together in the forest and came up with this. here you go!".

It says more about the genius and hard work of these creators to branch out and create new systems. I would also argue that the forms we know today might not be as polished as those when it first started. It would be foolish to think so, however it seems many people are living with this delusion. Even if one were to think up two person forms on their own it had to have been perfected with a partner.

It would do us good to see the creator myths as they are and nothing more. Enjoy the martial art and don't hold up the origins as the ultimate truth or use it as some marketing ploy to notch your system above someone else's.

©2018 S.F.Radzikowski

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By |2018-05-23T22:25:23+00:00February 28th, 2018|Bujutsu, Culture|0 Comments

About the Author:

Steven lives and breathes in Japan where he heads the sword school of Shinkan-ryū Kenpō.

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