Katori Shintō-ryū and Martial Arts of the Samurai

Brief History

Tenshinshō-den Katori Shintō-ryū needs no introduction to the many devotees of the martial arts of the samurai and schools of swordsmanship. Founded in the mid Muromachi period of the fifteenth century, by Ienao Iizasa Chōisai, a swordmaster of some reputation, Katori Shintō-ryū was established in modern day Chiba close to the Katori Shrine where Chōisai Sensei was in retreat. The Deity of Katori Jingū (Grand Shrine) is said to have passed on through divine transmission (Tenshinshō-den) the teachings (kata) of Katori Shintō-ryū. 

This tradition has been passed on through the centuries, and the classical bujutsu is still practiced today, under the leadership of Risuke Ōtake Shihan until his passing in 2021 and the current shihan, his son, Nobutoshi Ōtake. In 1960, Katori Shintō-ryū was awarded the status of Intangible Cultural Asset by Chiba Prefecture. It is the first martial art in Japan to be designated as a cultural asset. Risuke Ōtake Shihan was designated as the school’s guardian. 

Katori Shintō-ryū has an extensive curriculum, with class practice mainly in kenjutsu (swordsmanship), with other martial arts, such as iaijutsu (sword drawing), bōjutsu (staff), naginatajutsu (halberd), sōjut su (spear) and jūjutsu (unarmed combat). Add to this studies in strategy of warfare and you get a sense of being transported back to the age of the samurai.

Otake Rizuki

Director Jon Braeley with Risuke Ōtake Sensei, outside the Shinbukan dojo

You cannot simply walk into Shinbukan (Hall of divine military valor) Dōjō of Risuke Ōtake Sensei, located in the countryside near Narita City in Chiba. You must be invited with an appointment. For this I am indebted to a practitioner of long-standing at Katori Shintō-ryū, Phil Relnick Sensei, who spent forty years in Japan, training in a number of classical Japanese martial arts. Today Relnick Sensei is teaching Shintō Musō-ryū jōjutsu and Katori Shintō-ryū at his Shintōkan Dōjō back home in Washington state in America.

For the visit to Katori Shintō-ryū, I would be taking Paul Martin, who was my guide for the documentary, Art of the Japanese Sword, which I had been shooting that year with many of Japan’s top swordsmiths. Paul, who apprenticed at the British Museum, is a leading expert in the Japanese sword, and holds a license to appraise historical samurai swords, which is very rare for non-Japanese. This turned out to be a very good move. During the interview, Ōtake Sensei produced a magnificent Japanese sword that had been in his family for many generations and drawing the katana out of its scabbard, handed it to Paul for his inspection. That was not the only highlight of the interview. Ōtake Sensei had planned a surprise. We would be filming the rare induction of a new student, who would be signing an oath of allegiance in blood, to Katori Shintō-ryū. 

Below is a video excerpt taken from our interview with Ōtake Sensei in his study. This is followed by the first part of this interview for you to read here. Watch the trailer: Art of the Japanese Sword

Intervew Risuke Ōtake Sensei. Part One.

Can you talk about the history of Katori Shintō-ryū?

To briefly explain the history of Katori Shintō-ryū, the founder of our tradition, Master Ienao Chōisai, was born 620 years ago in the Iizasa district in Tako town, Shimosa in 1387. He served the warlord Naomasa Ashikaga. The domain in which he lived was known as Chida manor in those days.

He participated in numerous battles and was renowned for having never been defeated, but at around 60 years of age, was witness to the downfall of the Chiba family under whom he had served. At this point Master Ienao Chōisai realized that people, households and nations are sometimes powerless to change situations regardless of the efforts they may expend. He thus bequeathed land and money to those who had served him and released them from his service. He himself then underwent 1,000 days and nights of ascetic martial arts practice within the Katori Shrine, and devised the Katori Shintō-ryū.

Since our art is transmitted directly from the deities of the Katori Shine, we refer to it as Tenshinshō-den (direct and authentic transmission from the deities) Katori Shintō-ryū. Following this, a wide variety of martial artists joined our tradition as students, including the swordsmen Nobutsuna Kamiizumi, who went on to teach the Yagyū; Tsukahara Tosanokami of Kashima, the father of Bokuden Tsukahara; as well as Ippasai Morooka and Masanobu Matsumoto. While these men learned Katori Shintō-ryū, they later went on take on students in their own newly-devised martial arts traditions under different names.

So for 600 years, Katori Shintō-ryū, has been considered the fountainhead of Japanese martial arts. However, the founder of our tradition, Master Ienao Chōisai, realized that aspiring martial artists thought that they could become famous by winning in a challenge against the renowned tradition of Shintō-ryū. When such martial artists came to challenge the master, he used a teaching that is still transmitted today, known as ‘kumazasa no oshie’ (lit. teaching of the bamboo grass). The master would sit atop the kumazasa (bamboo grass) and invite the visitor to join him, with the understanding that if the visitor was also able to sit down, the master would accept the challenge.

Such martial artists realized the kumazasa would be crushed if they were able to sit down. While the founder of our tradition would be seated atop the kumazasa, visitors realized they would be unable to attempt such a feat, and would withdraw their challenge. This teaching is still passed on today as ‘kumazasa no taiza’ (standoff sitting atop bamboo grass), suggesting that winning by engaging in combat (such challenge matches) is not true victory.

Otake Rizuki

So the challenge would not take place?

True victory is won by achieving one’s goals without conflict. For this reason, none of our members in the 600-year long history of our tradition have been cut down in challenge matches. Nor have any of them cut others down. This is one distinguishing aspect of our special tradition. To be clear, the martial arts we diligently practice today are highly efficient arts of killing others. Our founder taught that one must not engage in conflict or strike others down, and that winning without conflict is true victory.

Otake Rizuki

Senior students of the Katori Shintō-ryū perform a demosntration at the annual Meiji Jingu Budo Taikai

Did the Samurai belonging to Katori Shintō-ryū participate in combat? 

I once went on an overseas trip to deliver a lecture, and was fielding questions from the audience. Someone put their hand up and asked “Do you really need to learn things people shouldn’t do? However, winning without conflict is difficult unless one is strong both mentally, spiritually and technically. I thus explained that it is fine for one to become stronger through one’s study of the tradition, as long as one did not use what one had learned.

Our tradition taught that martial arts were not for use in conflict, but rather for achieving peace in the Warring States period. So samurai did not enroll in Katori Shintō-ryū during the Warring States period. While several of the swordsmen who studied with our founder were samurai, the actual warlords were unable to join – they had a duty to engage in conflict (civil war). Since they were involved in the waging of war, they were unable to enroll. It was not until the age of peace, the Edo period, that large numbers of samurai enrolled in our tradition. Samurai from many of the respective domains came to study, such as kenjutsu instructors from various domains in Kyushu. 

Famous students from our tradition include students of Master Moritsuna, the 4th generation grandmaster, albeit in the Warring States period, like Shigeharu “Hanbei” Takenaka, a famous strategist who served under the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. These sorts of samurai did enroll in our tradition. In his case, he did not come to Katori Shintō-ryū to study – there are no records of him here – instead, we presume that when the 4th generation grandmaster, Master Moritsuna traveled to various domains, he visited Minonokuni (Mino Province, present day Gifu Prefecture) to engage in ascetic practice and taught him there.

Katori Shintō-ryū transmits lethal knowledge, so we must ensure it is not used irresponsibly or to violent ends in life. Martial artists thus must possess humility and selflessly serve others – what I consider the true bushidō.

Risuke Ōtake Sensei,

Tenshinshō-den Katori Shintō-ryū

Shigeharu Takenaka was strongly influenced by this study, and had a disdain for war, begrudgingly engaging in warfare, and capturing castles without engaging in conflict. He passed away at the young age of 36 of tuberculosis. It is my view that had Takenaka lived to an advanced age, Tokugawa would have not have usurped power from Toyotomi. He was born in the 1544, and passed away at the age of 36. The vast majority of samurai students, such as Kojūrō Katakura of the Date family – a name inherited by several generations- not the Kojūrō Katakura of the distant War-ring States period, but a descendant several generations later named Kojūrō Katakura Muranori, who joined our tradition and received menkyo kaiden (lit. license with complete transmission; initiation and license into the tradition). He was the lord of Shiroishi Castle – present day Shiroishi near Sendai – and a hereditary retainer in Sendai to Masamune Date. Aside from these men, the majority of samurai joining Katori Shintō-ryū did so after the heralding in of the age of peace. You see, Japan was ruled by the warrior class from the Kofun period in the 3rd century to the 6th century, where powerful regional families fought each other, establishing the nation of Japan through ongoing victory and defeat in war.

Much of Japanese culture is thus influenced by the culture of the warrior class. The martial arts are a part of the warrior class culture that has supported Japan’s warrior class and history to date, and it is my desire this be passed on through the generations. At the same time, Katori Shintō-ryū transmits lethal knowledge, so we must ensure it is not used irresponsibly or to violent ends in life. Martial artists thus must possess humility and selflessly serve others – what I consider the true bushidō.

Bushidō that is devoid of this spirit of humility is nothing more than violence. So in Shintō-ryū, applicants are required to take a blood oath, with part of the oath being that one will do no harm or inconvenience others, although this is implicit rather than explicit today. Applicants therefore make a blood oath before the deities and pledge to not inconvenience others before commencing study. Many martial artists in the Warring States period had a penchant for dueling and engaged in shinken shōbu (lit. victory or defeat with live swords; challenge matches with real swords) or fought each other with bokutō (wooden sabre). There are stories that some of them defeated scores, as many as sixty opponents without being defeated. These men were murderers, and thus have no descendants today.

Otake Rizuki

 Risuke Ōtake Sensei, inducts a new student with a blood oath that is impressed into the written oath

So Katori Shintō-ryū flourished even during this time of conflict?

Yes. This is why our founder master Iizasa in Katori lived to the age of 102. Taking average life spans into consideration today, one would have to live to around 200 years or age to replicate this achievement. Not even a single student claiming to study Shintō-ryū in the 600 year history of our school has laid down there life wastefully engaging in challenges. The only related person that did so was Masanobu Matsumoto of Kashima, who, although I do not know if this is fact or legend, is said to have gone on to become the founder of Kashima Shin-ryū, or to have founded Jikishinkage-ryū. Matsumoto must be the only individual in our lineage to have been killed in combat, and was killed in the Kashima Insurrection. No other students in this, the art said to be the oldest of Japan’s martial arts traditions, has been killed wastefully. This makes our martial art an almost miraculous form of ascetic practice.

Our master, Ienao Iizasa Chōisai, had a preference for peace. He purposefully lived this way, despite being the leading martial artist of his time, and prayed for the righteous prosperity of his descendants, as well as for peace and good harvests throughout the land. While people may find the fact the leading martial artist of his time prayed for peace and proclaimed that people should not engage in conflict contradictory, I consider this to be the true way in which martial arts should be engaged.

Otake Rizuki

 Risuke Ōtake Sensei with a family treasure, a katana passed down from his samurai ancestors

So Katori Shintō-ryū is passed on through the generations in times of peace?

It is like this yes. For example, today our government is encouraging the creation of swords by swordsmiths. Yet swords are by their nature weapons. Japanese swords were first created some 1200 years ago, with swords before this time brought from China by swordsmiths.

Metallurgy was thus introduced to Japan by swordsmiths from the continent. Japanese swordsmiths learned this weapon-forging technology from them. Curved swords were first produced 1200 years ago, and have been used in conflict until the era of peace. The Japanese government today respectfully designates some of these fine swords from long ago as National Treasures or Important Cultural Assets. Japanese swords are some of the finest blades in the world – international cultural assets. The government today permits their creation as works of art. They are Tangible Cultural Assets. I consider that few swords as fine are produced during times of war. Such times are gestation periods for fine swords, with such fine swords then reappearing in times of peace. It has been this repetition of war and peace that 60 years after the war, allows swordsmiths to produce swords approaching the quality of the Kamakura period, which pleases me to no end.

Do you see Japanese swords as a work of art today rather than a weapon?

I would like to see Japanese swords preserved for many hundreds of years to come, not as weapons, but rather as works of art the warrior class respected. I would also like to preserve Shintō-ryū – the techniques of using such swords, and a form of warrior class culture – for eternity. I consider the preservation of Japanese swords and the martial arts we study one and the same, in terms of preservation as cultural assets. Both Japanese swords and the combative technology to use them are forms of warrior class culture, and it is my intention to work for the rest of my life to ensure they are correctly preserved. – End of Part One


Masters of Budo

Masters of Budo

Read the entire Risuke Otake sensei interview inside our widely acclaimed book, Masters of Budo. Here is what one customer said, “As with his documentary films, Mr. Braeley is a masterful storyteller in words and images, and those qualities shine through in his book. At over 300 pages it is still a nicely packaged, easy to handle and portable volume. And aside from the aesthetics, the content makes this without a doubt a unique and valuable addition to Japanese martial arts literature and history.” – L.J. Butler