Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Warring States Period
By William de Lang
Floating World Editions, Inc.
26 Jack Corner Road
Warren, CT 06777
Reviewed by Deborah Klens-Bigman
Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Warring States Period, by William de
Lang, takes as its subject two important individuals: Iizasa Choisai Ienao
(Iizasa Yamashiro) (1387-1488), founder of the Kashima Shinto style of
swordsmanship, and Kamiizumi Ise no Kami Nobutsuna (1508-1577), founder
of the Shinkage style. De Lang notes in his introduction (also the best-written
part of the book) that information on his subjects is scant at best, though
legends about both of them abound. With this book, he seeks to put these
legendary individuals into their historical context. Unfortunately, given
the dearth of information, context is almost all there is to be had. The
result is an overview of the times in which the two protagonists lived,
which covers roughly the time of the Warring States period (1469-1573).
Not surprisingly, given the lack of concrete information, the narrative
meanders a lot to the historical times generally and better-known figures;
from time to time de Lang goes so far off the track the reader almost
forgets who the subject actually is. The author grasps what straws he
can, resulting in digressions that can be pages long. For example, when
one of our heroes finds employ in a particular clan, a history of the
clan is given then and there before the narrative thread, however fine,
is picked up again.
In the case of Yamashiro, about whom virtually nothing is known for certain,
the account of his life naturally gravitates toward better-known figures
of the period, such as Minamoto Yoritomo and Ashikaga Takauji. In case
of Nobutsuna we have slightly better information. Nobutsuna’s eventual
association with the Yagyu clan made him better known generally. He also
had the great good fortune to befriend Yamashina Togitsugu, a famous court
diarist of the period. It is in the pages of Togitsugu’s diary that
we find a small glimpse of what this truly remarkable man was like, information
that does not exist in the case of Iizasa Yamashiro.
The most disappointing aspect of the book for martial arts practitioners,
however, is that while de Lang notes that the styles of swordsmanship
founded by Yamashiro and Nobutsuna still exist, the author gives no description
of either of these styles, either then or as they are currently practiced.
While trying to come up with an historical description of either style
would be difficult, it is not wholly impossible. The Tokugawa Bijutsukan
in Nagoya, a private museum, has scrolls of the Shinkage Ryu, which could
have been examined.
[Rip: Put Figure 1 in here.
Caption: Yagyu Ryu partner kata. Tokugawa Bijutsukan 1994: 83]
Yagyu Ryu partner kata.
Tokugawa Bijutsukan 1994: 83
Since contemporary practitioners also hold scrolls from time to time,
the author could also have made contact with them as Kenji Tokitsu did
with Niten Ichi Ryu practitioners in his 2004 biography of Miyamoto Musashi.
Tokitsu’s interviews of contemporary practitioners helped give some
insight into Musashi’s ways of strategy.
There is, oddly, no author bio in the book. A quick Google search, however,
reveals that de Lange is a translator and interpreter, not an historian,
which explains his approach to his subject. His skills as a linguist are
very useful in that he consulted a great deal of Japanese language material
in the preparation of the book, which is all to the reader’s benefit.
The lists of important people, glossary and old-style maps are also useful.
His writing style is very readable; though he is not above the occasional
non-historical remark (for example, that Shinkage Ryu under the Yagyu
clan became “popular” a sentiment that is unlikely given the
However, the question remains: why title the book as a biography of these
two men while admitting that there is almost no information about them
available? Lives of famous Swordsmen is a readable overview of the Warring
States period, and some of the major figures within it, but not truly
a biography of the two individuals named, which is disappointing if the
reader is hoping for some idea of who these people actually were and what
they did. The book is part of a series, however (a “Lives of Famous
Swordsmen of the Two Courts Period” is to follow). Perhaps as de
Lang warms to his research he will be able to give us more information
relevant to the title in his future efforts.
The Tokugawa Art Museum
1999Japanese Sports Expressed in Works of Art Nagoya: Fine Arts Culture
About The Reviewer:
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.