The Story of Katori Shintō-ryū

Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū (Katori for short) is the oldest Japanese fencing school, including: the art of katana sword fighting (kenjutsu), staff (bōjutsu), glaive (naginatajutsu), spear (sōjutsu) (see: school program).

Founded in the 15th century, it has survived to this day through direct transmission, making it one of the best-preserved medieval combat systems in the world. Unlike modern martial arts such as iaidō, aikidō or kendō (so-called gendai būdō), it was created for practical use on the battlefield and is classified as so-called martial arts. old samurai schools (kōryū bujutsu) with a long tradition.

Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū calligraphy by master Goro Hatakeyama

It reached Europe thanks to master Yoshio Sugino (1904–1998), who contributed to the popularization of the school in Japan (including choreographing fights for Akira Kurosawa's films and training actors such as Toshiro Mifune; he also introduced Katori Shintō-ryū to schools and universities) and around the world. After his death, his assistant and close student Goro Hatakeyama (1928-2009) and his heir son Sugino Yukihiro continued teaching in Europe.

Founder of the school

Iizasa "Chōisai" Ienao (1387-1488) was born in the village of Iizasa in Shimosa Province. He was an outstanding spearman and swordsman in the service of the Chiba family. After the fall of the clan, he wandered around the country for a long time, finally settling near the Katori temple, which was a popular martial arts center at that time. He was ordained a monk, receiving the name Choisai, and began long-term training, which resulted in the founding of the Katori Shintō-ryū school.

Illustration of Iizas "Chōisai" Ienao

There are numerous (often contradictory) stories about his life. It is known that in his youth he was one of the teachers of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436–1490). For some time he also held the office of governor of Yamashito Province. According to some records, he was also an expert of Musō Jikiden Ryū Yawaragi, being the school's seventh chief instructor ("yawara or yawaragi" is an older term for jujutsu).

The grave of the school's founder - Iizas "Chōisai" Ienao

The legend of the school's founding

Legend has it that at the age of 60, Chōisai began intense, solitary, 1,000-day training at the Katori temple, where he practiced fighting techniques day and night, until one day, when he collapsed from exhaustion and dozed off, a kami appeared to him in his dream ( deity) of the temple and gave him the mokuroku heiho no shinsho scroll, containing descriptions of all techniques and kata.

Katori Temple - Katori Jingū

The name of the school Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū comes from this wonderful dream, which loosely translates as "The way of the deity of the Katori temple in accordance with divine truth." This legend is typical of the time, when many swordsmen attributed their extraordinary skills to contacts with kami.

The square in front of the Katori temple

The fate of the school

Originally, the Katori Shintō-ryū techniques were passed down through the Iizasa family. Currently, the head of the school is the 20th head, Yasusada Iizasa (Iizasa Shuri-no-suke Yasusada), but for health reasons he does not practice martial arts and entrusted teaching to master Risuke Ōtake. After retiring, he announced his eldest son, Nobutoshi Ōtake, as his successor, and gave his younger son, Kyōsō Shigetoshi, the title of shihan-dai. In 2017, Kyōsō Shigetoshi obtained the full title of shihan (lead teacher) and became the official representative of the school. His older brother Nobutoshi Ōtake was expelled from school on December 9, 2018.

Famous swordsmen and the influence of Katori Shintō-ryū on other schools

Many martial arts schools of the time were based on Katori Shintō-ryū. Several famous swordsmen (including Tsukahara Bokuden and Matsumoto Bizen no kami Masanobu) who learned directly from Chōisai or his successors founded their own schools, using variations of its name, e.g.: Shintō written in different characters - Kashima Shintō-ryū (Bokuden-ryū ), Kashima-ryū, Kashima shin-ryū (founded by Matsumoto), Arima-ryū, Ichiu-ryū, Shigen-ryū.

Characteristics of style

Katori Shintō-ryū techniques are intended to be used on the battlefield to fight fully armed. Wide and stable positions were to enable confident movement on uneven terrain and ensure adequate cutting power. Unlike a sports fight, the target of each attack are places not protected by armor (gaps in the armor, so-called female dogs). The school places the greatest emphasis on learning sword techniques (katana), but the training was to prepare the samurai (Japanese: bushi) to fight with other weapons, and in the absence of them, to hand-to-hand combat (see: school program).

Weapons used in Katori Shintō-ryū

Katori Shintō-ryū is known for its extremely original and effective method of training. It is based on learning techniques arranged in training patterns (kata) for two people, with cuts being made to the training weapon instead of the body (which are mistakenly perceived as hard locks), so as to enable safe but uninterrupted training at full speed and force. Thanks to this approach, dozens of techniques and practical solutions could be woven into each kata, which over time become intuitive and reflexive to the practitioners.

Modern masters

  • Kyōsō Shigetoshi – currently the school's chief instructor and the youngest son of the previous shihan Risuke Ōtake.
  • Nobutoshi Ōtake – the school's previous chief instructor and eldest son of Risuke ŌtakeIt became official expelled from school on December 9, 2018.
  • Risuke Ōtake (1926-2021) – previous chief instructor of the school. He studied with Hayashi Yazaemon (1892-1964). Despite his retirement, he continues to live and teach near the city of Narita in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. He died at the age of 95 in Narita.
  • Yukihiro Sugino (1937-) – born in Kawasaki and holds the rank of 9th dan. He was appointed the official representative of the Katori Shintō-ryū branch by Iizasa Yasusada. He continues the teachings and traditions passed down to him by his father Yoshio Sugino at his dōjō in Kawasaki, Japan.
  • Yoshio Sugino (1904-1998) – held the rank of 10th dan. Responsible for the development and popularization of Katori Shintō-ryū in Japan. Currently, his line is continued by his son – Sugino Yukihiro.
  • Goro Hatakeyama (1928-2009) – assistant and close student of Yoshio Sugino. He held the rank of Menkyo Kaiden (9th dan) and conducted numerous seminars in Europe (including Poland) and North America. His line of teaching is continued by his students. He awarded five of them (including Sergio Mor Stabilini and Andrea Re) the rank of 7th dan (Menkyo Okuden).
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