An ancient Japanese text for samurai that describes very peculiar combat techniques

The figure of the samurai has been excessively idealized by the cinema and other media, so that the perceived image of this type of warrior contains many inaccuracies of an almost mythical nature. Among them, such a strict adherence to a code of honor that somewhat exceeds what, after all, was the function of the samurai: to fight.

Of course, pursuing victory, and if he had to resort to ungentlemanly techniques to do so, he did it. Can anyone imagine a samurai blowing blinding dust over his opponent’s eyes? Well, that was a resource recommended in a mysterious combat manual from the 16th century that has just been translated: the Scroll of the Sword.

The exact date on which it was written is not known, but there is some idea about its author: a samurai named Yamamoto Kansuke who is usually represented in iconography as one-eyed and lame, holding himself with a naginata (a kind of Japanese halberd) and who is famous for having led the victory of the Takeda clan against the army of Uesugi Kenshin in the so-called Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima, in September 1561. Kansuke was born in 1501, probably in Ushikubo, a town in Mikawa province, which was ruled by the Imagawa clan.

Around 1543 he began to serve Takeda Shingen, one of the daimyos (feudal lords) who tried to seize power in Japan at the time. Takeda Shingen got his goal (although he couldn’t enjoy it because he passed away from an illness in the final phase of the campaign) thanks to his famous twenty four generals, a group of commanders who followed one another at his service throughout his adventure (and some of whom was his lover, such as Kosaka Masanobu); among them was Yamamoto Kansuke.

Appointed commander of the infantry of ashigaru (militias made up of peasants recruited expresslydevoid of armor, equipment -at most one yari or spear- and salary, being paid only with the right to plunder), his role in the aforementioned Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima was decisive, thinking that he had made a mistake in the conceived tactic and trying to compensate him with a charge against the enemy that ended his life . It is not really clear if the Takeda can be considered to have won that set against Uesugi Kenshin, since the casualties on both sides were chilling.

The fact is that Kansuke has also gone down in history for having written a treatise on military techniques and tactics entitled Heihō Ōgisho. Its authorship is not certain and some experts believe that it is later, having been attributed to him because of his prestige, but the work was incorporated into a larger one entitled Kōyō Gunkana collection of tales recounting the adventures of the Takeda clan assembled by Kosaka Masanobu (Takeda Shingen’s lover) and expanded in 1616 by Obata Kagenori, a descendant of Obata Masamori, another of the Twenty-Four Generals.

It was known that in Heiho Okigi-sho techniques for the use of various weapons abounded, from the sword to the arquebus through the bow or the spear, as well as ways to surreptitiously infiltrate the enemy ranks and even Hojōjutsu, an unusual martial art related to Shibari, which is part of the Jujutso (unarmed combat) and describes the ways to capture and tie up opponents using only a rope. But the translation a few days ago of unpublished texts has expanded the treaty.

The death of Yamamoto Kansuke in the Battle of Kawanakajima/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

They were in ancient Japanese and were transferred to modern by Fumio Manaka, a master of Kobudō (another martial art originating from Okinawa and specializing in traditional weapons made of wood or metal); later, a professional translator who specializes in writings of that time – and who is also a third dan in Kobudō -, Eric Shahan, translated them into English. He has baptized them with the title of Scroll of the Sword.

Hard work of the translators, because apparently there are four different versions, each with slight differences in text and illustrations, and it is also believed that some of the fragments are not by Yamamoto Kansuke (assuming that the others are) but by an earlier samurai named Kusunoki Masashige, who lived between the 13th and 14th centuries.

Masashige, born in 1294, is considered a model of loyalty to his caste, faithfully serving Emperor Go-Daigo Tenno against the Kamakura shogunate in 1331, following the fight even when the emperor was taken prisoner. That unbreakable fidelity later passed to his son Masatsura, after Kusunoki Masashige and his officers committed suicide by seppuku in 1336 when they were defeated at the Battle of Minatogawa.

Whoever the author was, he was an expert warrior and provides a series of tips for combat that are quite unorthodox for the idea we have of a samurai. It is true that some things do seem to conform to traditional philosophy, such as when it says that a good fencer should not keep “no evil in his heart” and he has to maintain a balance between his senses (eyes, hands, feet…) and his spirit. But there are others that are more surprising, such as the one that warns that excessive training can cause injuries.

The last position of Kusinoki Mashige/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Another example is the one that advises on how to carry out a fight in different conditions and especially at night: “When fighting in a dark night keep low, focus on the position taken by the enemy and try to scrutinize what kind of weaponry he is carrying.” He also advises taking advantage of the darkness to hide the number of one’s own forces and using the scabbard of the sword as a complementary weapon (placing it at the end of the blade to lengthen it) or as a defense, placing it vertically at the waist to protect oneself from the adversary’s blows at that height.

Now, probably the most peculiar recommendation is to throw some powder into the opponent’s eyes to blind him, especially if the other is the enemy general because that way the battle will be won quickly. There are several recipes that he suggests for the preparation of said powders. One talks about “poke a small hole in an eggshell” and remove the content by adding red pepper, wrapping everything in a paper that will be crushed against the face of the adversary; another consists of a mixture of pieces of mamushi (a poisonous snake), horse dung and chopped grass to be blown into the other’s eyes, causing him to lose consciousness (although, in a display of sincerity, he warns that it has never been tested).

Of course, in the end the supreme lesson is that of logic: “It is better to err on the side of caution and not enter a path infested with bandits”. Or put another way, no matter how many techniques you know, you can end up defeated if you face too many enemies.


Live Science/Brief history of the samurai (Carol Gaskin and Vince Hawkins)/Sword & Spirit (Diane Skoss)/Kawanakajima 1553–64. Samurai power fight (Stephen Turnbull)/Secrets of the japanese art of warfare. From the school of certain victory/Samurai armies 1467–1649 (Stephen Turnbull)/Samurai commanders (1). 940–1576 (Stephen Turnbull)