A Brief History of the Samurai and of Iai-dō

Acknowledgement: The historical aspects of this article borrow heavily from Donn F. Draeger’s book Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice, published by Weatherhill in 1982 and now out of print.


For almost twelve hundred years, Japan was ruled by a feudal system which was brought to an end by its own ruler. In less than a decade, the clans of Satsuma, Chōshū and Tosa together defeated the government of the Tokugawa to restore the rule of the Emperor. Following the slogan of sonno joi (“revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”), and inspired by the writings of scholar Motoori Norinaga claiming Japan’s spiritual superiority, the Meiji Restoration movement created one of the leading powers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries out of a formerly backward and feudal country.

This transformation started in July 1853 when the Admiral Perry’s fleet entered Edo (now Tokyo) Bay and demanded the government end its 250-year old seclusion policy and engage in international trade. In February 1854, the shogunate signed a treaty opening two ports to commercial American ships. Soon the foreign presence spread over several ports and cities and gave rise to a strong movement opposing the government’s capitulation and supporting the Emperor in Kyoto.

The young samurai from the Satsuma and Chōshū clans quickly understood that the only way to overcome the foreign superiority was to adopt radically new ways and to embrace modernization. They rejected xenophobia and conservatism to become the pioneers of a military and social revolution. As a consequence, the samurai class and the privilege of wearing a sword were abolished by 1876. However, the spirit of the sword did not disappear, and thanks to the efforts of Nakayama Hakudō Sensei it was transmitted to us through his teachings and his Musō Shinden Ryū Battō-jutsu style of training.

Admiral Perry’s blackships caricature

The Japanese sword in the shape and style as we know it today was probably born in the eighth century. According to legend, a swordsmith from the province of Yamato, employed by the emperor and called Amakuni, made the first Nihon-tō. In fact, the earliest swords found today can be traced back to the tenth century.

The making of blades of the highest quality developed over a period of several centuries to reach its peak during the Kamakura period (1192-1336) with the Chōshū school of swordsmiths.

After 1603, which marks the beginning of the long peaceful Edo period under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns, the sword lost much of its use as a weapon, and declined in quality, as the emphasis shifted to aesthetics from practicality.

The word “samurai” comes from the verb “saburau”, meaning to serve, to wait on. Indeed, the first samurai were men at the service of horse-mounted bowmen who constituted the main warriors in tenth and eleventh century Japan. The samurai then took control of the country and in 1192 established the first bakufu (field headquarters) government in Kamakura. This form of government relegated the Emperor to a symbol devoted to court matters in Kyotō and remained in power until the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Battle of Sekigahara (Oct. 1600)

Nevertheless, the country was wracked by civil war in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as various local lords fought for control over the country until the Tokugawa bakufu was established in Edo in 1603 and ushered in an era of autocratic peace.

The strong rule imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate over the country was to have a major impact on the samurai class. Previously, samurai were primarily warriors. After 1603, they gradually transformed into bureaucrats at the top of a four-tier social system that stressed service and acceptance. The samurai came to rely more on Confucian philosophy to justify their status and to define the spiritual aspect of the warrior spirit.


Sujibachi Kabuto with Menpō (half-mask)

Sword training has always been practiced under two principles, ken-jutsu and iai-jutsu.
Ken-jutsu (also called heihō, kenpō, tōhō, gekken, tōjutsu, tachiuchi, hyodō…. In various times and schools) is the method of handling the sword once drawn of the scabbard, while iai-jutsu is the art of drawing the sword and cutting in one movement.

With the advent of the peaceful Edo period, the sword lost much of its functional value. The length of the daitō (the long sword worn hanging from one’s side) was shortened to a cutting edge of about two feet and the samurai started to carry it by placing it between the hip and the sash. Therefore, the method of drawing the sword changed.

Example of daitō or tachi

From the eighth century to the end of the fifteenth century, amid the unrest of the Ōnin wars, many sophisticated sword fighting forms developed. Very little is known of the various ken-jutsu and iai-jutsu schools of the time before Edo. The development of iai-jutsu (or battō-jutsu, tachiuchi, battō, iaido) is attributed to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (? c. 1546-1621), who came from Sagami Province, home of some of the greatest Japanese wordsmiths.

Jinsuke Shigenobu at the age of twenty-five is said to have traveled to Ōshū in the North of Japan, where he received divine inspiration while praying to the deity Hayashi Myōjin at Hayashizaki in Okura Village. This spiritual orientation is an important aspect in the devising of Jinsuke’s battō-jutsu art. In 1616, he is said to have journeyed again to the provinces. He was never seen again by those who knew him.

At first called Shimmei Musō Ryū, the sword-drawing art created by Jinsuke was renamed Shin Musō Hayashizaki Ryū and gave birth to many forms of battō-jutsu before becoming Musō Shinden Ryū as we know it today. The original techniques he invented and taught are unknown but they probably were simple, practical and designed for defensive purposes.

Statue of Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu

As listed by Draeger in his comprehensive history of the Japanese sword, the ryū lineage follows a clear line of sōke (head masters) until the eleventh leader :

Founder Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu
2nd sōke Tamiya Heibei Shigemasa
3rd Nagano Muraku Nyūdō Kinrōsai
4th Momo Gumbei Mitsuhige
5th Arikawa Shōzaemon Munetsugu
6th Banno Daemon no Jō Nobusada
7th Hasegawa Chikaranosuke Eishin (Hidenobu)
8th Arai Seitetsu Kiyonobu
9th Hayashi Rokudayū Morimasa
10th Hayashi Yasudayū Seisho
11th Ōguro Motoemon Kiyokatsu

After the demise of the eleventh sōke, a split in leadership brought two major branch lines: the Shimomura-ha and the Tanimura-ha. The first seems to have been the source for the Musō Shinden Ryū and the second later became the base for Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū.

Shimomura-ha Tanimura-ha
12th sōke Matsuyoshi Teisukee (Shinsuke) Hisanari 12th sōke Hayashi Masu no Jō Masanari
13th Yamakawa Kyūzō Yukikatsu (Yukio) 13th Yōda Manzo Yorikatsu
14th Shimomura (Tsubouchi) Mōichi (Seisure) Sadamasa 14th Hayashi Yadayū Masayori
15th Hosokawa (Gishō) Yoshimasa (Yoshiuma) 15th Tanimura Kame no J ōYorikatsu
16th Nakayama (Hakudō) (Yūshin) Hiromichi 16th Gōto Magobei Masasuke
17th Ōe Masamichi (Shikei)
Nakayama named no successor. The succession is uncertain or contested.

Inevitably, Jinsuke’s art was widely modified by its successive leaders, and almost all the descendant headmasters developed their own personal style of swordsmanship and even created ryū of their own.

The first successor to Jinsuke Shigenobu – Tamiya Heibei Shigemasa – founded the Battō Tamiya Ryū that developed into a formidable line of swordsmen who served the Ikeda and Tokugawa families.

Nagano Muraku Nyūdō Kinrōsai, the third headmaster, founded the Muraku Ryū.
The seventh headmaster was Hasegawa Chikara no Suke Eishin. He studied Hayashizaki Ryū under Nobusada, in Edo, during the Kyōhō era (1716-1735), and he gained a reputation of being an exceptionally highly skilled swordsman. He is known for developing many techniques, and he is supposed to have been the first to devise techniques performed with the cutting-edge up in the obi. He took his style back to the province of Tosa and called it Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū, and there it was preserved up until modern times. Eishin’s art of sword drawing became a vital factor in the education of the Tosa warriors who were to play a leading role in the overthrow of the Tokugawa.

The ninth sokei Hayashi Rokudayu Morimasa was in the service of the fourth hanshu (chief of a province) Yamanouchi Toyomasa and was a swordsman of the Shinkage Ittō Ryū . While living in Edo, he studied Shimmei Musō Ryū under the eight headmaster Arai Seitatsu Kiyonobu. He also studied under the direction of Ōmori Rokurozaemon Masamitsu, the founder of the Ōmori Ryū. By applying the seiza (formal kneeling seating) principle of the Ogasawara Ryū reishiki (etiquette) to the techniques from Eishin conditioned by the saya-no-uchi battō gohon, the five forms of sword-drawing technique of the Yagyū Shinkage Ryū, Masamitsu devised eleven techniques that Hayashi Morimasa later incorporated into Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū. This is what is known today as Shoden Ōmori Ryū.

After the Meiji Restoration and the end of the shogunate, classical martial culture was to be revived after wars with China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05). The art of sword drawing became valuable as an educational form for a much larger part of the Japanese population.

The sixteenth headmaster of the Shimomura-ha, was Nakayama Hakudō (Hiromichi). A native of Ishikawa Prefecture, he had intensively practiced the art of swordsmanship in its various aspects: iai-jutsu (battō-jutsu), ken-jutsu and gekken (kendō). He studied Ōmori Ryū, Muraku Ryū and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryū in the province of Tosa, under the direction of Hosokawa Yoshimasa, the fifteenth headmaster of the Shimomura-ha. He also studied under Morimoto Hoskushin of the Tanimura-ha. In addition, he trained under Terai Ichitarō of Shindō Munen Ryū and under Negishi Shingorō of Yamaguchi Ittō Ryū.

All these efforts and dedication to training led Nakayama Hakudō to the development of his own style of sword drawing, which he called Musō Shinden Ryū battō-jutsu (1932).
To the eleven techniques of Ōmori Ryū, Nakayama Hakudō added one, then Ōe Masamichi Shikei the seventeenth headmaster of the Tanimura-ha renamed them and coded them as shoden, the first level of study of Musō Shinden Ryū and of Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū.
Ten techniques taken from Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū were codified to form chūden, the middle level of study. A third level of study, okuden, or “secret” teachings, was developed from the Jinsuke line of teaching called oku-iai meaning “(entrance to) secret iai”.

Nakayama Hakudō

Nakayama Sensei called his style battō-jutsu, the school of drawing the sword, also called iai-jutsu in ancient terminology. It is only in the 1950’s that Nakayama Hakudō’s followers started to use the word iai-dō. Chiba Kazuo, an aikido eighth-dan shihan, who was himself a student of Mitsuzuka Takeshi, teaches the principles of drawing the sword under the name Battō-Hō.

Mitsuzuka Takeshi was a Kendo student when in early 1955 he saw an Iai-dō demonstration given by Nakayama Hakudo Sensei. He then entered Nakayama Sensei’s dojo and trained under him until Nakayama’s death.
Mitsuzuka Sensei is an 8th Dan Hanshi from the Japanese Kendo-Iai-dō Federation; he also holds high ranking positions in Kendo and Jodo.
He founded his own group, San Shin Kai, in the early seventies and has been teaching ever since at the Yotsuya Police Station Dojo in Tokyo.
Mitsuzuka Sensei has also taught seminars in France and in the US.


Mitsuzuka Takeshi


Musō Shinden Ryū Iai-dō in detail



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