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Toyama Ryu: Swordsmanship of Imperial Japan

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Sang Woo Kim of New York Battodo cutting makiwara (photo courtesy Sang Woo Kim).

Toyama Ryu is a style of swordsmanship that was associated with the Japanese military in the early 20th century. It was created in 1925 for use by the Rikugun Toyama Gakko, a school for military officers that was located in Tokyo. Most sources claim the Toyama forms were created by committee, but everyone agrees the outstanding member, if not the sole inventor, was Nakayama Hakudo, the 16th soke (headmaster) of the Shimomura ha (branch) of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido (later Muso Shinden Ryu iaido). Hakudo was the Kenjutsu Shihan (master sword instructor) at the academy at the time. Attempts to standardize the forms in the 1930’s resulted in a split into three branches: Nakamura-ha, Yamaguchi-ha and Morinaga-ha, named for the persons present at the meetings (Hellsten 1998, 2). All three branches are still extant, though the Nakamura-ha, founded by Nakamura Taizaburo (1911-2003) is the best known in the West.

Though Toyama Ryu was designed ostensibly to train Imperial Army officers in gunto soho (military sword techniques) for last-ditch, hand-to-hand combat, some sources suggest that the officers mostly put their skills to use decapitating prisoners of war. There is a famous and chilling photo from the occupation of China showing a Japanese Imperial army officer with a drawn sword, about to dispatch a bound prisoner kneeling at his feet.

Today, Toyama Ryu acknowledges its military origin, but does not dwell on it. Where it exists in Japan, Toyama is practiced alongside the rest of a given group’s curriculum, rather than being the main practice in a given dojo. I could not find one Japanese website exclusively devoted to Toyama Ryu. On the other hand, there is a large web presence based in the US. Dojos are affiliated under the US Federation of Toyama Ryu Batto Jutsu, with prominent practitioners including Guy Power and Bob Elder, among others. Shinkendo dojo under founder Obata Toshishiro around the US and Europe also tout Toyama Ryu as part of their curriculum. I have included some links of interest at the end of this article.

Since military officers had only a short time to master a handful of techniques before being sent to the field, Toyama Ryu consists of simple and direct techniques. Today there are eight solo kata involving drawing the sword, and six kumitachi (partner) exercises. The cuts are very basic and reflect the concept of “happo-giri” (cutting in eight directions): two downward diagonals, two upward diagonals, horizontal in both directions, straight down and thrust outward. The kata have no names and are simply numbered one through eight. The first form deals with an opponent in front, the second an opponent to the right, the third, an opponent to the left, and the fourth an opponent to the rear. Number five involves chasing down an opponent to the front, number six to opponents front and rear, and number seven deals with three opponents - left, right and front. The last kata, number eight, demonstrates an execution.

Hataya Mitsuo, Toyama Ryu 9th dan, explaining a kata, February 2007 (Photo by D. Klens-Bigman).

Practitioners of Nakayama Hakudo’s Muso Shinden Ryu and the related Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (1) will find much in common in Toyama Ryu with the techniques they already know. An experienced practitioner of these styles would have little trouble picking up the rudiments of the Toyama Ryu solo forms. (In fact, at New York Budokai, we have informally practiced a version of the forms for more than 30 years as passed down to us by our founder Otani Yoshiteru, though we are not members of any formal Toyama Ryu group and do not award rank in the style).

Hataya Mitsuo, 9th dan, and a seminar participant, February 2007
(photo by D. Klens-Bigman).

The kumitachi forms, in which two individuals attack and defend with wooden swords, would also look familiar to iai practitioners (2) This is not very surprising, given who the designer most likely was.

Modern Toyama practitioners also place great emphasis on cutting makiwara--test cutting rolled straw mats. Toyama Ryu practitioners have developed standards for mat type and thickness, the better to judge skill in formal competition and ranking. Some makiwara techniques echo or extend the eight solo kata. Practitioners form teams and compete to show their skill in cutting, including skill in cutting multiple targets. Sang Woo Kim, leader of the New York Battodo, a Toyama study group in NYC, explained that the criteria for excellence included the angles of the cuts, and cleanness in execution (i.e. cutting mats without spraying pieces of matting, or having the pieces of mat unravel) (2007, n.p.). Ranking is judged, in part, on skill in cutting makiwara.

Bob elder, senior Toyama Ryu instructor, teaches a student to cut makiwara
(Photo courtesy of Sang Woo Kim).

To that end, practitioners use sharp, steel practice blades. It is probably not a coincidence that the advent of reasonably priced Chinese-made sharp blades has paralleled the development of makiwara competition and by extension, Toyama Ryu in the US. It should be noted that the Chinese-made blades are not technically shinken (i.e., “real swords”) in spite of the popular use of the term here. True shinken are made only by licensed smiths in Japan, and Chinese-made blades are considered illegal weapons there. Real katana (Japanese long swords), made by authorized smiths, are considerably more expensive, though legal to own.

As an iai practitioner, part of the enjoyment of my practice has to do with the aesthetic elements of a given style. Though iai is a very practical art and not given to much impractical movement (with occasional exceptions), its development through the centuries came to include elements of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Toyama has deliberately stripped away any of these elements. Kata are practiced for maximum killing effectiveness.

In a discussion with Hataya Mitsuo, 9th dan practitioner or Toyama Ryu Battodo and Kaisho (chief) of the Zen Nihon Toyama Ryu Iaido Renmei (All Japan Toyama Ryu Iaido Association), he emphasized that the importance of budo (refers to modern martial arts that end with the suffix –do) by way of Toyama Ryu was to “Become strong, to defeat your enemies in battle” (2007, n.p.). Where an iai teacher is philosophical on the contemporary practice of his art, Hataya simply declares its deadly practicality.

Hataya Mitsuo, 9th dan Toyama Ryu, during a seminar in New York City, February 2007
(Photo by D. Klens-Bigman).

The question remains, however: how connected is Toyama Ryu with a samurai warrior tradition? In the the book, “Naked  Blade” (1985), Obata Toshishiro (founder of Shinkendo (3) and licensed practitioner of Nakamura-ha Toyama Ryu states that the reason for Toyama's development was that many former samurai class members became career military officers and kept the spirit of the samurai alive in the Imperial Army. He implies therefore, that the creation of Toyama Ryu was a natural consequence of this remembered identity (1985, 10).

However, this seems unlikely. First, the samurai class ceased to exist by 1875. High-ranking samurai, as former shogunal (refers to military government of Japan during the 17th to late 19th centuries) officials , would have been viewed with suspicion (with good reason, since samurai-led rebellions against the new order took place in different parts of the country). Well-educated, many former samurai became teachers; not exactly a military choice, but probably one that allowed them to pursue relatively trouble-free lives. Second, like all modern armies, the Imperial Army recruited from the general population and had a merit-based system of promotion. Being a member of the former samurai class did not automatically entitle anyone to become an officer. Moreover, the samurai class was not a numerically dominant group; they were well-outnumbered by the general population. Even if some "remembered" samurai values existed, it would only have been true for a relatively small number of people ( by 1925, 50 years removed from reality). That old samurai tenets should have such a profound effect on the Imperial Army in general is not likely. Government propaganda promoting of the “tenets of bushido” (the “way of the warrior”) could well have influenced Imperial Army officers, however. Both Brian Victoria (1997) and Karl Friday (2001) have dealt with issues of state-sponsored bushido, so I will not get further involved in the subject here.

There is evidence that other forms of military swordsmanship existed before Toyama Ryu. One of my colleagues has in his private collection a handbook of Imperial cavalry exercises with sabers that are, as far as he can determine, based on German models. Nakayama Hakudo in a larger sense was fulfilling a need for imparting technique to non-cavalry officers that was quickly learned, practical and efficient.

Therefore, any perceived equivalency of Toyama Ryu specifically with a modern or ancient warrior tradition should be viewed in the context of a modern army and its methods of indoctrination. However, connections to Japan’s imperial past does not mean that Toyama Ryu is not worth studying, or that it is somehow not "authentic." All of the warrior traditions still extant have gone through massive transitions, and none can be said to have arrived in the modern era in pristine condition.

As simple and unadorned as it is, Toyama Ryu is, nevertheless, sort of romantic in its simplicity and the implication that one can dispatch one’s 21st century enemies with a sword. Perhaps that, and being able to easily lay one’s hands on legal, cold, sharp steel, is what has contributed to the appeal of Toyama Ryu in the US. Toyama Ryu is a modern invention, but one developed by an outstanding inheritor of a warrior tradition. As such, it can be both a window on the past as well as a contemporary practice.

Copyright text and photos (except where indicated) 2007 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. and FightingArts.com All rights reserved.

Acknowledgement

The author thanks Sang Woo Kim of New York Battodo (http://newyorkbattodo.com) for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

Footnotes

(1)    Nakayama Hakudo’s Muso Shinden Ryu and the related Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu.  Nakayama Hakudo was the last headmaster of a branch of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido which he renamed Muso Shinden Ryu to set it apart from the others.  It is one of the most widely practiced styles of iaido (along with other still-extant branches of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu).   In content, both styles have more in common than not, though what differences there are are immediately apparent to practitioners.  Practitioners of both styles would easily be able to see the commonalities in technique with Toyama Ryu.

(2) "Iai" is used as a more generic way of referring to both "iaido" and "iaijutsu."  "Iai" itself is a metaphoric term (like aikido), and many Japanese don't recognize it if you tell them. The best generic expression for swordsmanship for non-practitioners is something literal like "kenjutsu" (lit. "sword technique"), though iai has much more meaning to it than that.

(3) Shinkendo is a style of swordsmanship originated by Toshishiro Obata approx. 20 years ago. It emphasizes techniques using a real Japanese sword (i.e., a "shinken") as opposed to a practice sword. That said, much of the practice is done with specially-designed wooden swords. Practitioners also practice cutting makiwara, but do not compete.

Works Cited and Consulted

Friday, Karl
2001 “Bushido or bull? A medieval historian’s perspective on the Imperial Army and Japanese warrior tradition” InYo: A Journal of Alternative Perspectives (March) http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_friday_0301.htm

Hellsten, Pasi
1998 “About Toyama Ryu and sundry” Journal of Japanese Sword Arts #90 (April) http://www.uoguelph.ca/~kataylor/91jjsa.htm

Hataya, Mitsuo
2007 Personal communication with the author.

Kim, Sang
2007 Personal communication with the author.

Obata, Toshishiro
1985 Naked Blade: a manual of samurai swordsmanship Essex: Dragon Books.

Power, Guy
1998“A brief history of Toyama Ryu” Shudokan Martial Arts Assoc. Newsletter (Fall) Online Articles, http://www.smaa-hq.com/

Victoria, Brian
1997 Zen at War NY: Weatherhill.


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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For FightingArts.com she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Rikugun Toyama Gakko, New York Battodo, Sang Woo Kim, Nakayama Hakudo, Shimomura ha, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido, Muso Shinden Ryu iaido, US Federation of Toyama Ryu Batto Jutsu, Guy Power , Bob Elder, Obata Toshishiro, Hakudo?s Muso Shinden Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Hataya Mitsuo, kumitachi, Hataya Mitsuo, Toyama Ryu Battodo, Zen Nihon Toyama Ryu Iaido Renmei, All Japan Toyama Ryu Iaido Association, Obata Toshishiro, Shinkendo, Iai, Nakamura-ha Toyama Ryu, Brian Victoria, Karl Friday, gunto soho


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