Katori Shinto Ryu – The Ancient Sword School, its Divine Heritage and Journey to the West

Sugino Yukihiro 02

In this essay we are going to present Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū, a school that has lasted more than one hundred years, offering a unique model of preparation for the Japanese warrior. A national treasure of Japan, Katori Shinto Ryu occupies a unique place in the history of Budo thanks to its uninterrupted technical-pedagogical continuity


General Information

Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū: the school (lit. stream, current) of the Gods of the Katori Shrine of Divine Heritage – there are other translations of slightly different tone – hands down a complete more than 600 years old art created to give adequate training to a warrior of the Sengoku Jidai era, the Age of Warring States (1467/1600).

Katori Shintō Ryū (authorized abbreviated form) is a school well known in the West thanks to the essays by the historian and hoplologist Donn F. Draeger, to the out of turn quote contained in Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader, a best seller of the 80s, to Ōtake Ritsuke’s videos and books, as well as for Sugino Yosho’s collaboration as master of arms to some of the most famous films of film director Akira Kurosawa.

The school curriculum today includes one hundred Kata, almost all in pairs: it teaches the handling and use of various weapons and also empty-handed techniques. It also provides theoretical and practical knowledge of various other disciplines, useful both during a military campaign and in daily life, such as medicine, Feng-Shui, how to make smoke or fire signals, how to make special slide rules to interpret the variations of natural Taoist energies, how to carry out surveillance methods on certain areas, how to create amulets and carry out special procedures to focus one’s mental energies. It is understood that some other subjects have not been transmitted over time: archery, swimming with armour, perhaps horseback riding and how to use a sword longer than the one currently used in training.

The breadth of the program is no longer surprising to the informed reader. Thanks to the availability of more sources than even a decade ago, it is recognised that the traditional schools of the feudal period that ended in 1868, called Koryū as a whole, had to deal with many skills to be suitable for all possible scenarios that could engage the national caste of hereditary or independent professional warriors. Accordingly, the schools that arose in the most stormy and anarchic period of Japan above all had to guarantee a complete education.

The creation of this school by the high-ranking samurai Iizasa Ienao has been placed around the middle of the 15th century. The founder was an expert and renowned warrior that, during a period of unrest that anticipated the future Sengoku period, already passed through various local war campaigns, such as Zenshū no Ran, Eikyo no Ran, Yuki Kassel and Kyōtoku no Ran that marked the end of the Chiba clan – of which Iizasa Ienao was a prominent member.

When he retired to the Katori Shrine, Iizasa was an elderly and disappointed warrior.

Katori Jinja

The Shrine

For those who have never been to Katori and have not seen the site itself, and have an impression based only on a few photos from books or the Internet, it is not easy to realize the profound suggestion it produces. Even with the various modern buildings that dot what is still a country landscape, the Sanctuary’s hill retains an intact atmosphere, cut out from the outside world [1]. When you are there, you breathe a particular air. This site has been a sacred one since ancient times, probably already for the Emishi people that lived in the area before the arrival of the Yamato from the West. Ancient documents refer to the foundation of the sacred building and the cult of Futsu-Nushi-no-Kami, the Katori-Daijin, to the first emperor, Jinmu Tennō, in 660 BC.

It has to be clarified, however, that the construction of religious buildings began only with the importation of Buddhism from Korea in the 6th century AD, about one thousand two hundred years later. The original sanctuary was an area, as it is the norm with Shintō shrines, characterised by a main feature, with others spread around in the same location, all defined by small fenced areas, particular stones or trees, or isolated springs and hillocks. During Iizasa’s times, the Shrine was an imposing mixed religious structure, dedicated simultaneously to the Shintō worship for the Katori-Daijin god, and to Buddhism, with a cult of Bishamonten and Marishiten, syncretic warrior divinities. There is also evidence of an even more archaic cult for Hokuto, the deified Polar Star, identified with the proto-indigenous divinity later associated with the Taoist divine figure of Myōken.

This is an example of the Japanese syncretism common in those times, characterised by the complete identification of the same divine entity in different cults: Katori-Daijin / Bishamoten / Marishiten / Myōken was literally called “Shintō Ryū”. In some shrines/temples, such as that of Katori, this was a more marked feature. The same, however, can still be noticed in contemporary Japanese religious complexes, where Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines are next to each other in the same enclosure.

The Founder’s Enlightenment

The enlightenment of a particular individual, generally someone already doted with great gifts, is a fundamental mark common to many oriental disciplines. In the case of Japan, this event is characterised by two different features: one is close to shamanic possession and is typical of Shintōism; in the other Buddhism-related form, the adept receives a kind of “supernatural suggestion” on a particular aspect of his discipline, an aspect that haunts him for some time and engages him in reflections and experiments.

Unlike the “apparitions” of western saints or divinities, this eastern noumenal aspect comes from within the individual: in Shintō it is enticed from the outside by becoming one with a sacred object such as a tree, rock, mirror, sword, spring, a particular animal or other; in Buddhism from any phenomenon, even very plain or natural – although distinctions between the two are not always that pronounced.

Iizasa Choisai
Iizasa Ienao, founder of Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū

Trying to find an answer about his being a warrior and his task in the world, Iizasa underwent a long ascetic period in the sanctuary where, besides training, he devoted himself to continuous Shintō and Buddhist prayer. The enlightenment description left by the founder tells of a dawn dream, appeared after a thousand days of asceticism, where he saw himself practising under a large fist tree. There it would have appeared the god in the form of a child to invest him with the role of teacher, presenting him a scroll of secret texts.

The representation of enlightenment that provides a superior state, here referred to Iizasa sensei, is common to almost all Martial Arts great initiators, and it is often accompanied by sceptical and generally perfunctory reactions. When we consider the above individuals, we are faced with people of exceptional worth and unprecedented personal abilities, endowed with exceptional empathic and analytical skills, unique knowledge of their own body and ability to project a model of themselves on others, that makes them able to read what others are going to do before they actually do it.

Following the enlightenment, the enlightened attains the perfection of these abilities thanks to the universal principle he has discovered, which allows him to act without doubts or hesitations. The combination of innate abilities, superior skills achieved through experience and study, and the discipline of body and mind accomplished through asceticism and prayer, led these people to a particular state of altered consciousness that provided them with the occasion to access particular and unique resources.

It is not important for me if these resources come from areas of our unconscious mind, or there is actually a higher intervention; I leave everyone to believe as they prefer. Certainly, the enlightened swordsman is a historical reality with evident qualities: the subject draws on a “something” that other people do not possess and, in the case of the master-founders, they are also able, in some way, to “share” a part of their exceptional nature through the teachings that they develop, so as to involve the student’s unified body/mind/spirit.

Weapons Beyond Weapons

In the ancient martial arts schools, the fundamental point is to foster the mental and physical efficiency of their students for them to survive on the battlefield. As in the courts of the western knights, training in arms requires that the adept treads his inner path in search of the personal balance that allows him to make as little use of violence as possible, aiming to “save” rather than destroy. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu’s documents, many of which date back to the founder, outline specific objectives and describe techniques and principles. From the outset, they emphasize that the purpose of the school is not destruction, but rather to overcome disharmony and achieve peace. There are two homophonic words – a frequent fact in the Japanese language – written with different ideograms and, consequently, of different meaning, that embody the above concept:

  • Heihō (兵法) is the term with which in the Koryu texts the whole technical and mental corpus of a combat school is defined, often rendered in English with the expressions “Strategy” or “Art of War”;
  • Heihō (平和), on the other hand, means peaceful harmony.

One of the most ancient and fundamental texts of Katori Shintō Ryū begins like this: “Heihō is heihō and everything can teach heihō” (Heihō wa heihō nari), where the first Heihō has the said meaning of Strategy/Art of War, and the second that of Harmony. The meaning of this sentence is that mastering the school brings not destruction; on the contrary, it indicates ways to rebuild harmony and bring peace to people.

The famous maxim “Katsujin-enken”, which means “the sword is a dispenser of life”, was already used in those times. The expression is better known in the later works of Munenori Yagyū, Itō Ittōsai and Takuan. The weapon handled with justice helps the people and defeats the wicked, avoiding sorrow and destruction. More than some New Age slogan, as some like to suggest, this is the transposition of the Latin saying “Si vis pacem para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war).

Sugino Yoshio - Mochizuki Minoru
Yoshio Sugino and Minoru Mochizuki practice a Katori Shinto Ryu naginata kata

The School in the West

Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū was one of the first classical schools to overcome the Japanese inclination to secrecy and open to Western practitioners. Several teachers of the school thaught western residents of Japan already between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The school then expanded into Europe, America and other countries of the world, fascinating those who were also looking for a cultural approach to ancient Japan in the Martial Arts. The teachers of the school who have acted with more incisiveness in modern times are Sugino Yosho from Kawasaki, Mochizuki Minoru from Shizuoka and Ōtake Ritsuke from Narita.

While Sugino sensei and Mochizuki sensei have thought extensively during their travels in Europe and America, Ōtake sensei instead dealt with Westerners who came to learn at his Dōjō.

The western eye is fascinated by the fluid, complex forms of the school, unique in their kind, like long duels characterised by a variety of strokes. The practice requires long hours of work and repetitions, according to traditional teaching. The school’s totem strike, the particular blow called “Maki-Uchi“, is always performed hundreds of times at the beginning of each lesson, accompanied by strong Kiai with alternating sounds.

The interest of western expert of the art has also given a great impetus to the traditional schools at home in Japan, which have found an anchor outside their borders that helps them to close the ranks and raise interest within them. The Westerner that visits Japan because interested in things that go beyond the normal boundaries of mass tourism, arouses a great surprise among the Japanese themselves, but also pride. So now even young people are starting to show a new interest in these national cultural heritages and are approaching, few but good, the classical disciplines.

We Westerners also bring different cultural interests, with our different approach toward history and its investigation, thus attracting more attention in the Japanese teachers towards the cultural material of their schools. In parallel with hard physical practice, they now find pleasure in showing us also documentary evidence, like beautiful sheets full of accurate drawings, striving to make us understand the concepts and knowledge that framed and motivated the technique itself.

The Deception of Appearance and the Voices of the Masters

Observing the Katori Shintō Ryū’s kata, one often becomes distracted by their scenic appearance. Many practitioners, even if they are no longer in their prime, fall for this. It is an effect desired by those who devised these sequences. While chasing the general impression, the eye misses the details.

Sugino Yoshio
Yoshio Sugino

Maybe this is for the best.

Those who really want to study stop running and walk savouring every single step. This is how the school really expresses itself: there are no exotic Samurai in glowing armour that will never know the battlefield, but men of the sword who seek knowledge through the comparison with its inside and outside.

men of the sword who seek knowledge through the comparison with its inside and outside.

In the preface to the latest edition of the book Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū Budō Kyōhan by Yoshio Sugino & Kikue Itō [2], the 20th Sōke of the Iizasa Yasusada school wrote: “(…) I hope that the Japanese spirit of Kobudō has a positive effect on the distinctly materialistic culture of today’s world (…)“; his father, Iizasa Kinjiro, 19th Sōke, in the first edition wrote: “(…) Our main purpose during all this time has always been to train humble people who consider the sword as their own life (…)”; Ōtake sensei, Narita’s Dōjō Headmaster, in a recent interview [3] stated: “(…) one could even say that our lives are fleeting. However, the fact that we have lived is eternal. (…) I believe that every action we take in our daily life will not be lost over time and that they become part of a story that will be told for many generations to come. (…) I believe it is my duty to continue training and improve further so that Katori Shintō Ryū can be handed down to future generations. (…)”; Sugino Yosho sensei, Kawasaki’s Dōjō Headmaster, in a 1961 interview declared: “(…) To study kata in its entirety, and to move freely without being hindered by kata. However, all of this is kata. This is perfection (…)” and “(…) In the sword as in life, if one does not commit himself, then there will be no way he can master the Gokui (secret teachings) that surpass life and death. (…)“[4].


[1] Google Earth: 35°53’09.31”N – 140°31’43.73”E

[2] Yoshio Sugino & Kikue Itō – Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō Ryū Budō Kyōhan – lulu.com

[3] January 2020 interview in Budō, published by Nippon Budōkan

[4] 1961 interview https://www.aikidosangenkai.org/blog/interview-yoshio-sugino-katori-shinto/

Copyright Adriano Amari ©2020
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited

Aikido Italia Network è uno dei principali siti di Aikido e Budo in Italia e oltre. La ricerca e la creazione di contenuti per questo nostro tempio virtuale dell’Aiki richiede molto tempo e risorse. Se puoi, fai una donazione per supportare il lavoro di Aikido Italia Network. Ogni contributo, per quanto piccolo, sarà accettato con gratitudine.
Simone Chierchini – Fondatore di Aikido Italia Network

Aikido Italia Network is one of the main Aikido and Budo sites in Italy and beyond. Researching and creating content for this virtual Aiki temple of ours requires a lot of time and resources. If you can, make a donation to Aikido Italia Network. Any contribution, however small, will be gratefully accepted.
Simone Chierchini – Founder of Aikido Italia Network


Un pensiero riguardo “Katori Shinto Ryu – The Ancient Sword School, its Divine Heritage and Journey to the West”

I commenti sono chiusi.