Views of Japan

A cultural guide to Japan and its history that you won't find in guide books!

Asayama Ichiden ryu 浅山一伝流

Asayama Ichiden ryu is one of the many hundreds of Japanese schools of samurai martial arts which has no confirmed founding date or even founder. It was active all across Japan, with various versions practiced in just about every feudal domain throughout the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).

The most prominent theory about the school is that it was founded by a gõshi (a farmer/samurai) named Asayama Sangorõ Ichidensai (1610-87) in the early Tokugawa period. The story tells how the young Ichidensai was frustrated that he could not master the arts of warfare and, feeling that he would need some divine assistance, went to the Fudõ shrine in Tanba, in Asayama village (in todays Hyõgo Prefecture) to pray. He prayed to the Great Wisdom King Fudõ Myõ-õ, the Buddhist god of immovability, that he might receive enlightenment and attain the abilities of a great samuraiFudõ Myõ-õ being the compassionate god that he is, blessed Ichidensai with enlightenment and the skills of a great swordsman. Asayama Ichidensai, according to some versions, may also have trained with Kamiizumi Nobutsuna of the Shinkage ryu and Okuyama Zaemon of the Taisha Shinkage ryu.

Another version of the founding of the school states that it was founded by Marume Mondo no Shõ Norikichi, also a gõshi, this time from Usui in Jõshu (present day Gunma prefecture). Marume had studied an earlier school named Ichiden ryuMarume's student Kuniie Yashiemon went on to found a school called Kageyama Shintõ ryu. In this version Asayama Ichidensai is the third head of the school after Kuniie.

The second version is the one found in the Honchõ Bugei Shõden which is a rather reliable source on Tokugawa period schools written in 1716 by Shigetaka Hinatsu.

Later practitioners of Asayama Ichiden ryu went on to found derivative schools, such as Kaneda Ichiden ryuFuden ryu, Jishin ryu, Õhen ryu, Asayama Ichiden Shin ryu, Tsuda Ichiden ryu, Sakura Ichiden ryu, and Asayama Koryu.

Of note is that a typical kenjutsu kata of the Asayama Ichiden ryu known as A-Un was originally chosen by the Japanese police commission in 1886 to form a part of the standardised kata for what was to later become modern kendõ.

Up until the Meiji period (1868-1912) Asayama Ichiden ryu included methods of yoroi kumiuchi (grappling in armour), iaijutsu (fast sword drawing), kamajutsu (sickle), kenjutsu (sword fighting), torite (arresting and tying methods), shurikenjutsu (small throwing darts), bõjutsu (staff), sõjutsu (spear), dokugai (the use of poisons), shinobi no jutsu (espionage, otherwise known as ninjutsuand taijutsu (grappling). All of these methods were eventually dropped from the school as the era of the samurai drew to a close, social circumstances changed and Japan progressed into the modern era.

The school is listed as a taijutsu and kenjutsu school in the Bugei ryuha Daijiten (Martial Arts Great Encyclopaedia)but is today considered simply a school of taijutsu.

Asayama Ichiden ryu was taught in many domains across Japan, with some branches favouring one section over another. In some domains the emphasis was on kenjutsu, in others iaijutsu, and in others only the taijutsu and bõjutsu were taught.

While the school was active in quite a number of feudal domains across Japan, with many branches forming under legitimate headmasters, the school only just survived the Meiji restoration through one line. 

The line that has survived today comes from the Aizu domain (present day Fukushima Prefecture) and concerns itself mainly with taijutsu. In the curriculum there are fifty six techniques that are divided into five sections. 

© James Kemlo

Takeba dori 竹葉捕 

The state of constant alertness (zanshin) cultivated among the samurai was of an extraordinary level. A samurai's need to maintain a state of constant alertness carried over into everything he did, from carrying out his everyday duties to relaxing and enjoying himself.  

As an example of this constant state of alertness, samurai martial arts contain numerous methods whereby a potential attack is defended against while the samurai is sitting in the common posture of seiza (sitting in a kneeling position). 

A samurai sitting in seiza is in a stable, relaxed position, unable to be toppled easily, but at the same time able to rise quickly if action is needed. Sitting in seiza was a part of the reihõ (etiquette) expected of a samurai. When seated in seiza, a samurai does not cross his feet, but keeps them flat with the big toes touching to ensure fast movement.  

When a samurai performed a bow from seiza, the order in which he placed his hands on the tatami was predetermined by reihõ. The left hand was always placed on the tatami first, followed by his right (weapon) hand. Keeping the right hand close to the body ensured the safety of a samurai's weapon hand, which was always the first target for an attacker. When seated in seiza, a samurai always kept his thumbs protected, closed inside the palm and the fists held close to the waist. Damage to one’s thumb meant instant loss of ability and so was consequently a threat to a samurai's livelihood. 

An attack from another samurai seated in seiza would almost always be initiated from an opponent who grabs at the weapon hand, in order to stop the kodachi (short sword) from being drawn in defence. Numerous methods were therefore invented to deal with such an attack.

In the technique of Takeba dori from the Takenouchi Hangan ryu shown above, a samurai with the intention of harming another, either on orders from his lord or perhaps for personal reasons, grabs the weapon hand of a seated samurai in front of him.

Reacting instantly, the defending samurai swings the grabbed hand up, bending his elbow and his wrist into a “z” shape. With the palm facing outwards he pushes the back of his hand against the inside of the attacker’s wrist and pulls his forearm towards himself, pulling the attacker off balance.

At the same time, he grabs on with his left hand, grasping the thumb of the attacker with his thumb to ensure he can no longer let go. He applies pressure to the wrist of the attacker, squeezing the fingers together while maintaining pressure on the thumb and little finger. 

As he does so, he rotates his right hand inward, places the little finger over the wrist of the attacker, and, cutting downward with his little finger and pushing forward at the same time, causes great pain to the attacker’s wrist. As he does this he pulls the attacker’s wrist in to his chest and, turning the attacker’s arm so that he rolls forward in pain, he strikes the attacker in the side of the head with his left foot.

Depending on the result of this defence, the defending samurai could have then followed up by tying up the attacker or beheading him as was the custom of the time.

© James Kemlo

Inariyama Kokaji print by Ogata Gekkõ from his series Gekkõ Zuihitsu (Gekkõ's miscellaneous prints) 1887.
The sword smith Munechika forges the short sword called Ko Kitsune (little fox). The Shintõ god Inari, the god of agriculture and also guardian god of metal workers and sword smiths, assists Munechika. Behind Inari is his retinue of kitsune (foxes) the messengers of Inari and his earthly representatives.
The smithy is decorated with shimenawa with gohei (sacred zig-zag paper strips) indicating that the smithy is purified and is set apart from the real world. The smithy thus becomes, during the forging of a Japanese sword, an otabisho - a  temporary sacred place where the kami may appear. 
Before beginning to craft a sword, the smith will abstain from eating meat and having sex. Women were strictly forbidden from entering a smithy, in accordance with the belief that women defile all that they touch. The smith would undergo cold water ablutions and prepare himself for the forging of the blade. He would perform Shintõ rituals and pray to Inari (or another chosen Shintõ or Buddhist god) and set up the smithy with the necessary Shintõ shimenawa, incense, gohei, etc. The smithy was sometimes also purified by a Shintõ priest. 
Entering the smithy, the smith dresses in court robes or the robes of a Shintõ priest and his assistant/s dress in crisp white court dress. As he was about to begin, before taking up his tools, he would clap loudly three times to call upon Inari. 
With each blow of the hammer and again when quenching the blade, the smith calls upon any chosen Shintõ or Buddhist god, Inari and Amida Buddha were popular. By chanting norito (Shintõ prayers of purification) the smith ensures that the sword that he is crafting will provide safety and success in combat for the person who wields it. 
Japanese swords are thus infused with the abilities and protective powers of the kami or Buddhist gods. 
© James Kemlo

Inariyama Kokaji print by Ogata Gekkõ from his series Gekkõ Zuihitsu (Gekkõ's miscellaneous prints) 1887.

The sword smith Munechika forges the short sword called Ko Kitsune (little fox). The Shintõ god Inari, the god of agriculture and also guardian god of metal workers and sword smiths, assists Munechika. Behind Inari is his retinue of kitsune (foxes) the messengers of Inari and his earthly representatives.

The smithy is decorated with shimenawa with gohei (sacred zig-zag paper strips) indicating that the smithy is purified and is set apart from the real world. The smithy thus becomes, during the forging of a Japanese sword, an otabisho - a  temporary sacred place where the kami may appear. 

Before beginning to craft a sword, the smith will abstain from eating meat and having sex. Women were strictly forbidden from entering a smithy, in accordance with the belief that women defile all that they touch. The smith would undergo cold water ablutions and prepare himself for the forging of the blade. He would perform Shintõ rituals and pray to Inari (or another chosen Shintõ or Buddhist god) and set up the smithy with the necessary Shintõ shimenawa, incense, gohei, etc. The smithy was sometimes also purified by a Shintõ priest. 

Entering the smithy, the smith dresses in court robes or the robes of a Shintõ priest and his assistant/s dress in crisp white court dress. As he was about to begin, before taking up his tools, he would clap loudly three times to call upon Inari

With each blow of the hammer and again when quenching the blade, the smith calls upon any chosen Shintõ or Buddhist god, Inari and Amida Buddha were popular. By chanting norito (Shintõ prayers of purification) the smith ensures that the sword that he is crafting will provide safety and success in combat for the person who wields it. 

Japanese swords are thus infused with the abilities and protective powers of the kami or Buddhist gods. 

© James Kemlo