The year was 1430 AD. On the other side of the world Florence, Italy was about to enter the Renaissance but in Japan the power of the sword still ruled and war was the only absolute dictator.
The coast along Etchu (Toyama Bay on a modern map) housed a fishing village before it became a pirate’s den in the seventeenth century. The people were poor. In winter snow fell heavily. The houses were poor shelter against the winter wind. Part of the village was under common roof as protection from the snows and the winter snow often built up to where a person could not see out from under the common roof.
Hatakeyama Shigetada was a faithful retainer of the Etchu daimyo. He and his family had served as such for ten generations. His wife, Masako, delivered a female child in the springtime, a good omen for the family. The child’s name was Eiko.
Eiko was raised in the family house until she was six. At that time she was placed in the Daimyo’s training hall to receive the education required of a child of her heritage, i.e., as a member of the buke (military family). Her training was to include calligraphy (writing in Chinese characters), etiquette, ikebana (flower arranging), Shinto ceremonies, and the martial arts of naginata and jitte, a sort of short sword.
In later life Eiko frequently told the story of her first day at the dojo (martial training hall). She was only six years old and had been at her uncle’s house for only one day. She tried to enter the dojo carrying a bamboo pole more than twice her height. As she entered the dojo she immediately noticed all the people were so much older than her. She was frightened. Although she had been instructed in exactly what to do after entering the dojo she quickly forgot.
The dojo was silent. There were three lines of people, and then there was Eiko standing at the door holding a big stick. Suddenly she remembered what she was to do. She bowed deeply and began to run to the end of the seiretsu (line-up); at the same time she began to run she accidently dropped her stick. Scrambling after it she kicked the stick right up to the position of the sensei. She was horrified. Falling on her knees by the stick she bowed to the floor looking right at the feet of the sensei. She picked up her stick and retreated. Now red in face and tears of fear streaming down her cheeks she scrambled to the end of the line, head bowed low.
The chief sensei, Kihara Sensei, knelt down. The students followed in linear order. Sensei began to speak. “Hatakeyama Eiko, please come forward.”
Eiko was now uncontrollably shaken. She crawled forward on her knees knowing that to stand at such a time would have been an insult to all those already kneeling.
The sensei continued, “Hatakeyama Eiko begins training today. Her father is Hatakeyama Shigetada, son of Tomoyose, son of Anzo, son of Shigeru, son of Biwan, son of Hidetaka, son of Norikage, son of Yuri, son of Yoritsune, son of the great Toshitsuna who served under Minamoto Yoritomo two hundred years ago. Eiko will henceforth be known as Kosho (little pine tree) until she proves herself worthy of her honorable family name. With a deep bow Eiko, now named Kosho, silently slipped back into seiretsu.
A six-year old girl, then as now, could do little to earn the respect of her family name except perform her duties and try to learn. Her martial training included two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon seven days a week. In addition to the martial training and her other arts training Kosho was required to participate in different community functions ranging from cooking rice, making fire, setting table, cleaning clothes, arranging dormitory facilities, making beds, and raking the leaves from the gardens. Her daily routine was changed on an irregular basis so that Kosho learned all of the necessary functions required for living. In a few years she had been introduced to every household duty and privilege.
About once a month was a special holiday where religious ceremonies were held. These festivals were always a welcome time although often they required much preparation. Kosho was always involved as were all the other deshi (students) of the dojo. The deshi often helped to carry the shrines down the main streets of Toyama while drums beat a cadence and everybody chanted the words of some mysterious mantra. It was so much fun, and after the religious ceremony there was always so much food to eat; sushi, rice balls, sea-weed soup, deep fried fish, mochi and bean cakes.
In the evening before such a day Kihara Sensei met with the deshi in the dojo just after advanced practice. The junior deshi were required to re-appear at this time in full training uniforms (head band, blouse and hakama, a kind of coulat dress-pants). There Kihara Sensei explained the ongoings of the coming day and the responsibilities of the ryu (school). The meaning and reason for the celebration as well as the local history of the ceremony was explained. Training ended with a long meditation (mokuso) in preparation of the upcoming ceremony.
When Kosho had been at her uncle’s house for only four months the townspeople held a ceremony in honor of the great goddess Amaterasu, the sun goddess, just like they had done for three hundred years. The celebration included a swim in the icy Etchu Bay as the sun rose in the morning. Usually, the Japanese people avoided rivers and mountains on New Years day, because the Shinto religion told them that this day was the day that the river and mountain oni (devils) changed places. To be in such a place at the time the oni passed would remove the person’s spirit to a far distant place. But Etchu Bay was sacred and safe. So they held their ceremony every year for the previous 300 years. To begin, the icon of Amaterasu was ceremoniously carried by those people who wished to swim. Two hours before sunrise on the shortest day of the year (our December 21) the townspeople appeared with their candles and lanterns at the Amaterasu shrine in the center of town. The icon had already been placed on a platform and was ready to be hoisted. The drums began to beat as the priestesses chanted the mercy of Amaterasu “Enmei jiku kannon Kyo, Enmei jiku kannon Kyo, Enmei jiku kannon Kyo, Kanzeom.” The pace was at first slow then it began to speed. The icon was lifted in the air and bounced to the rhythm of the people’s chant and the beating of the drums. Down to the sea they marched, a mass of human smiles beaming in the light of lanterns, singing the chants so well known to all of them; “Go raku ga jo, Go raku ga jo, Go raku ga jo.” They danced more than a mile before they came to the sand and the bon-fire blazing six meters in the sky. The eastern ridge began to show pink and a light northwest breeze blew. The icon carriers were sweating from the exhaustion of their long march with a heavy weight. Three times they circled the bon fire, their loin cloths dripping with sweat, their faces beaming with joy. Then the upper edge of the sun broke the horizon. They put the icon Amaterasu down, her face towards the sea, her back to the sun. As the lower edge of the sun passed the horizon the high priestess yelled, “Nen, nen furi shin!” Men, women and children sprang upward. The drums began to beat a very rapid cadence and the people danced their ways into the icy cold waters of Etchu Bay. The swimmers plunged three times into the water, and sprung onto the shore to roll in the sand three times let the light of the sun on them. The sweat was gone but not the smiles. Piercing cries of sudden shock roared along the beachline for ten minutes.
In the water Kosho bumped and fell and laughed with the other children, innocently playing with no regard for the cold, or age, or gender. All of these people had bathed together in community furoba (bath houses) since children. Here in the cold no one noticed.
Back on the beach after the last dip they all sipped the sacred tea which had been brewing by the fire. The day passed with native dances, warm food by the bon fire, and stories of the heroes and gods of the past. Two hours before sunset the people rallied together again. The chanting began as did the beating of the drums. The heavy icon was hoisted and returned to its rightful place at the shrine just as the sun’s edge touched the western water. The day was done, and everybody was joyous.
Back at the dojo the next day the relentless schedule of daily practice began again.
Training at the dojo led to many bruises, strains and aching muscles. Older students, both male and female, tried to teach Kosho the importance and danger of training with the weapons. At first she was clumsy but after a few years she learned to handle the weapons with ease. In addition to handling the weapons she learned the art of katsu, that is, treatment of injuries. She learned the local herbs used for drawing out infections, when to use the furoba (hot bath), how to reset sprains and even broken bones. She learned how to draw a fever, feed an injured warrior, bandage and even wrap a body for burial.
When she was nine years old she was moved into the advanced class. Sensei Kihara stood before her with a yari (straight spear). Kosho had a naginata (curved-tip spear). They bowed to each other. Then they circled each other. Kosho had done this many times before. She was confident she could hold her own. Suddenly Sensei Kihara hit Kosho’s naginata so forcefully that she lost her grip on the weapon. Sensei Kihara relentlessly pursued Kosho across and around the dojo, striking at her with his yari until she lunged at him and grabbed it. He threw her against the wall and held her at bay with the tip of his spear. She knew she was defeated and humiliated.
Kihara Sensei looked at the nine-year-old girl with fire in his eyes. “Do you want that to happen again?” he questioned.
“No!” the girl responded immediately.
“Then you must study to fight with no weapon. Your lessons have begun. Never lose your naginata, but when fighting without one is necessary, do so with abandon of all cares for your life. The art here you will begin to study today is unarmed.”
Kihara Sensei called a woman to him. Her name was Jojo, at least her martial name. Kosho looked at the Chinese characters embroidered on her hakama and read Jojo, knowing that the words meant, the blowing of the wind. Kosho wondered what the name signified.
Kihara Sensei bowed respectfully to Jojo. He took his yari, aimed it at her throat and said, “Jojo, live or die, what do you choose?”
The iron answer came during a flash of intense violence, “DEATH!” she cried as she disarmed Kihara Sensei and pinned him to the ground. Kosho sat next to the wall, mouth gaping open, thinking she had seen a devil in motion and now was in the netherworld.
The two combatants stood up, the fire gone from their eyes. They faced each other and bowed.
Kihara Sensei looked back at Kosho. “This is your new sensei, Kosho, learn from her well. Jojo Sensei this is Kosho. Train her to die and live.”
Jojo Sensei walked over to Kosho and the two bowed. Jojo Sensei then spoke quietly, “Kosho, never fear a man,” she said, “he can do nothing more than destroy your body. He cannot destroy your spirit. Only you can do that. The next time Kihara Sensei attacks you or anyone else attacks you for that matter dive at him relentlessly, pressing him to the wall mercilessly. Your blade is as sharp as his. If you have no blade, your spirit is as strong as his. If he attacks you when you have no weapon, do not back up, attack faster than he can swing. Get inside the range of his weapon. Draw your jitte, if you have one, and hold him at bay against the wall. If you have no jitte, take his weapon from him as I have done to Kihara Sensei, but do not give up until he is overcome or you are dead. You have much to learn, but the first lesson is not to stop.
“Some people say, ‘never say die,’ but I tell you to scream “Death” with all of your body, mind and spirit as you attack. It is far better to die physically by a man’s weapon than it is to die spiritually by your own.
“Training begins now. Line-up!”
That night’s training began then, but for Kosho it had already ended. Her thoughts were nailed to the impressive defeat she had received and the one she had witnessed. She was transfixed.
Kosho was introduced to ukemi (falling practice) as she began juijitsu. Her ukemi training lasted for months, in fact, thousands upon thousands of falls, falling here, falling there, falling front, falling back, falling to the right and left and over obstacles. Kosho fell in her dreams and nightmares. And the practice continued in falling. She began to believe that she would not learn anything else in this art known as juijitsu.
Then, one day about six months after beginning juijutsu, Jojo Sensei called Kosho out of the ukemi room. The ten-year old girl stood before her sempai (higher ranking students. Each of them threw her into the air and deposited her on the tatami (straw-mat) floor. She stood up again and was hurled again. She began to think this was fun. Every adult and every older child in the group tried their skill on her. She was thrown over their hips, their shoulders, their legs. She had never done anything like it. The excitement was exhilarating. She loved it. There was no pain or fear, just the feeling of flying and a gentle landing as she had so long practiced. She was not dizzy, nor fatigued, just happy to see how she could fly as she faced the next throw.
“Yame!” stilled the dojo. “Seiretsu!”
Jojo Sensei stepped to the shomen. She looked seriously at every deshi in the line-up order. “Speak, if you have something to say.” Not one spoke. She then began, “Kosho will be training in this class starting tomorrow. Not one of you object as I can see. She knows how to fall, let us not allow her to forget. Wakarimasu (do you understand)?”
And so, Kosho at ten years old after four years of training in Naginata began the eclectic armed and unarmed combat known as Katori Shinto Ryu. (Katori Shinto Ryu was founded in Sawara city, 50 miles north-east of modern Tokyo at a famous shrine called Katori by Iizasa Choisai Ienao in about 1410. It was one of the earliest ryu formed and was spread from city to city in Japan as masters dispersed. In no way does it limit practice to any one weapon or juijutsu.)
Jojo Sensei withdrew from her uniform a scroll, a pen and a dagger. She explained to the entire seiretsu the necessity of secrecy, although many of them had heard her explanation many times. Jojo Sensei said, “if our rival wants to destroy the school here and hence destroy our linage and take our land he has but to learn our techniques. He must only find one weakness in our defense. Once a single weakness is known we are easy victims of his army. Before we discover that he knows the weakness the main body of our defense will have been destroyed. Our style must be carefully guarded. No one outside of those who are absolutely loyal to the diamyo and to our ryu may learn our style. No deshi may learn the techniques here until the deshi has been here for years and until the deshi has taken a heppan (blood oath) not to reveal the secrets entrusted to the deshi. As a community all of us have the great responsibility of secrecy. To fail only once may cause the downfall of our lord daimyo and the demise of our entire line as well as the death of each of you.”
Kosho understood. She rolled up the sleeve on her left arm. She took the dagger from Jojo Sensei in her right hand. She pierced the skin of the left forearm until the blood flowed. She took the quill from on top the paper, dipped it in her own blood and wrote, “I am Kosho student of Jojo-sama in the art of Katori Shinto Ryu. I hereby solemnly promise in my own blood to uphold the secrecy of this art now and forever. Kosho Eiko Hatakeyama, daughter of Hatakeyama Shigetada-sama and Hatakeyama Masako-sama, the tenth generation children of the great Hatakeyama Toshitsuna-sama.” By the time she finished the blood was coagulating in the wound and on her arm.
The years passed quickly. Kosho became a woman. She was 14 years old and was betrothed to a man she had never met. Her family had selected her husband because of his family heritage and proper upbringing. His name was Kimura Kosaku, the twelfth generation of that family name began from a great lord under Minamoto Yoritomo the same as Kosho’s family line had emerged. The Hatakeyamas were quite pleased with the arrangement for it consolidated two powerful warrior families and offered great prestige to their family.
Only Kosho didn’t want to get married. She was only 14 years old. She was frightened of marrying a man who she had never met. She didn’t know his age or what he was like. She knew only that her family had selected a husband for her from the very prestigious Kimura family. But she didn’t want to get married. On the other hand she didn’t want to shame her family. She remained silent pondering what to do.
Kosho had trained with Jojo Sensei for a little more than four years by this time. She knew that Jojo Sensei was married. Kosho asked her sensei for an audience and was immediately granted one. They met in the garden outside the dojo. It was early May and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Walking down one of the smaller pathways towards the waterlily pond Kosho explained her position to her sensei.
Jojo Sensei listened, trying to grasp what the real issue was for the young woman. Jojo Sensei said that she had been married for more than 50 new suns short days (50 winter solstices or 50 years). She liked being married, having children, raising children and after her children had left home she liked having the opportunity to teach her art to the artists of the future. She said that getting married was not to be feared but to be held in a state of happiness.
But somehow Kosho didn’t understand. She didn’t want to get married, let alone to someone she had never met. Jojo Sensei listened again and recognized that there was fear in the words. “It is alright, Kosho, to be afraid.”
“I am afraid.”
The two walked and talked in the garden sharing both their fears and their experiences. Jojo Sensei was able to relate many experiences that made Kosho laugh, even at her own fear. She began to realize that marriage wasn’t a battle against an enemy but an experience with an ally. Kosho was, however, relieved to learn that the marriage was to occur in three years. For a moment she wondered how Jojo Sensei knew it would be in three years. Then she asked, “Sensei, how do you know when the marriage will take place?”
Jojo Sensei answered, “I know, Kosho, because I found your betrothed and presented him to your parents one year ago.”
Kosho was shocked. But trusting her sensei she now began, “Sensei, what is he like?”
Hours later the two returned to the dojo.