Hōki-ryū iaidō in Indiana

Hōki-ryū iaidō

at Yobushin Dojo, Indiana


Hōki-ryū, as a classical tradition, is not just a collection of techniques and fighting principles. A product of a particular time and place, it embodies not just profound insights into the combative situations that a man-at-arms in the 16th century might encounter, but also pre-modern notions of aesthetics, ryū transmission and organization among other issues. Learning Hōki-ryū iaidō means becoming a part of this tradition, and understanding this tradition begins with its unique history.

The development of iai as a discipline is generally credited to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu (1546-1621), from whom are descended the two largest iai traditions today, namely Shinden-ryū and Eishin-ryū. This influential figure is sometimes said to be one of the two teachers of Katayama Hisayasu (1575-1650), the founder of Hōki-ryū, and it makes some sense for a major school of iai to have a connection to the supposed origin. However, Hoki-ryū's transmission scrolls (denshō), including those written by Katayama himself, do not suggest any connection with Hayashizaki at all. These records credit his early training to his uncle Shōan, who supposedly taught him their secret family sword art called iai jūhattō (“the eighteen swords of iai”). Whatever his first lessons might have been, Katayama was to undergo a transformation later that profoundly shaped his swordsmanship.

Portrait of Katayama Hisayasu
Left: A portrait of Katayama Hisayasu in formal garb, collected in the Iwakuni Chōkokan Museum. Incidentally, this museum, built during World War II, is well-known for its architecture. Photo courtesy of Nakamura sensei.

Archetypal Japanese legends about the founding of a martial ryū tend to center around an extended musha shūgyō, and during this ascetic training, its undertaker experiences a divine revelation from which he creates a new martial art. Koryū enthusiasts can recount how Iizasa Ienao created Katori Shintō-ryū in the 15th century after training a thousand days at the Katori Shrine, where a deity gave him a book of strategy in a vision. Katayama had a similarly transformative experience in 1596, when he traveled to the Atago Shrine near Kyoto. This was a part of the Atago network of shrines, which supposedly inspired Araki-ryū, Sekiguchi-ryū, and other arts— in other words, western Japan's equivalent of the Katori and Kashima Shrines in the East. Here, Katayama performed austerities for seven days and seven nights, at the end of which, the story goes, he received divine revelation about swordsmanship. This knowledge apparently arrived in the form of the Japanese character of kan 貫 (meaning “to pierce”)— one can only assume Katayama was taught the special, esoteric meaning behind it. In homage to this experience, Katayama included the character in the name for his new art and called it Ikkan-ryū.

Katayama’s art came into being in the final years of Japan’s age of war that had unleashed a great deal of martial creativity— some of the most renowned swordsmen such as Miyamoto Musashi, Yagyū Munetoshi, and Itō Ittōsai, founded their art around this time. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) had unified Japan, and after his death Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) was to seize power, ushering in the age of peace that was to last three hundred years. Though Katayama was hardly involved in high politics, his increasing reputation brought him into contact with some of the potentates during this pivotal moment. He became the sword instructor to Hideyoshi’s nephew and son, Hidetsugu (1568-1595) and Hideyori (1593-1615) respectively. In 1610, Katayama was invited to demonstrate his swordsmanship for Emperor Go-Yōzei (1572-1617). Impressed by Katayama’s secret principle of iso-no-nami (“waves upon breakers”), the emperor ennobled him with the court rank of Jūgoige Hōki-no-kami (the governor of Hōki with the fifth rank, secondary junior grade). Hōki, incidentally, refers to what is a part of Tottori Prefecture in western Japan today. With these honors, the swordmaster’s name also grew impressively into Katayama Hōki-no-kami Fujiwara Hisayasu.

Katayama's Scroll
Above: Scroll belonging to the Katayama family. Iwakuni Chōkokan Museum. Photo courtesy of Nakamura sensei.

This imperial favor indeed is where the name Hōki-ryū came from, even though jūgoige was the lowest court rank, and like the governship, was an honor in name only that did not translate into any actual power. Different branches of the art had names such as Katayama Hōki-ryū and Battō Hōki-ryū, and indeed what survives today is simply called Hōki-ryū. However, within the Katayama family the art was always known as Katayama-ryū. Originally it had a large curriculum, encompassing grappling (koshi no mawari) and swordsmanship (kenjutsu) in addition to iai. Katayama and his disciples eventually developed over a hundred forms to train in these various modalities of combat. The FAQ already mentioned a few unique features of Hōki-ryū. Interestingly, Katayama might have been a younger relative of Takenouchi Hisamori (d. 1595), who founded another comprehensive art called Takenouchi-ryū in 1532, also after a revelatory experience at an Atago shrine.

In 1615, at the Siege of the Osaka Castle Tokugawa decisively defeated the Toyotomi forces, removing his remaining obstacle to become the sole ruler of Japan. Hideyori committed suicide during the siege, and Katayama was left without a situation. In the second half of his life, Katayama traveled and taught in Shikoku, Aki, and Suo— all in western Japan— before settling down in 1616 in Iwakuni. The ruling house of the region were the Kikkawa, who had old ties to the Toyotomi. The elder Hiroie (1561-1625) patronized Katayama as a guest, an arrangement that the son Hiromasa (1601-1666) also honored. Katayama died at 76 years of age, and he was succeeded by his second son, Hisataka, since his eldest son, Hisakatsu, went to Edo and founded his own tradition, called Katayama Shindō-ryū. Though Hōki-ryū never made its way to the movies and became well-known among today’s general public, during the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) it quietly produced a stream of strong disciples who went on to found their own tradition. The budō historian Watatani Kiyoshi counts no fewer than eight ryū that claim descent from Hōki-ryū, attesting to a certain vibrancy in this tradition. These include: Asaga-ryū, Isoyama-ryū, Yamagishi-ryū, Kageyuki-ryū, Tō-ryū , Kumagai-ha Hōki-ryū, Shin-ryū, in addition to the Shindō-ryū mentioned above. Most of these are primarily iai traditions, which suggests Hōki-ryū's strength indeed was in the art of sword drawing. The Katayama family continued transmitting the art until they perished in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. As luck would have it, all the Katayama-ryū documents survived since the last headmaster, Katayama Busuke, donated them to the Chōkokan Museum in Iwakuni the year before. The Katayama were in the ninth generation at the time of their extinction.

Above: Two views of Katayama's grave in Iwakuni. Right shows a priest visiting in rain. Photos courtesy of Nakamura sensei.

Because of this catastrophic loss, Hōki-ryū might have been consigned to oblivion if, way back in the eighteenth century, a certain Hoshino Kakuemon had not decided to take up the study of iai. He was a samurai from Higo (today’s Kumamoto Prefecture), whose ruling family, the Hosokawa, patronized many martial artists including Miyamoto Musashi. Hōki-ryu had already proliferated in this area thanks to a certain Asami Ichimusai, whose teacher was none other than Katayama Hisayasu himself. Hoshino, after studying with an eighth-generation exponent of this line, traveled to Iwakuni to establish contact with the Katayama family in 1776. He returned with a license from Katayama Risuke, and became the first in a long line of Hoshino to teach Hōki-ryū with the approval of the founding family. His descendants maintained ties with the Katayama, periodically seeking instruction and reauthorization from "the source." The Hoshino were also active in Shiten-ryū kumiuchi (grappling) and Yōshin-ryū naginatajutsu (a glaive art). They were featured in Budokan’s video of Hōki-ryū, which actually includes brief footages of Shiten-ryū. Almost all Hōki-ryū practitioners today, including us, descend in part from this line. Hoshino’s focus on the sword portion of Katayama’s more comprehensive curriculum perhaps anticipated the tradition’s eventual fate. Most branches of Hōki-ryū gradually abandoned most of the non-iai components, though a few have retained some kenjutsu. Nakamura Tetsu sensei's Kangyō-kai, for example, practices only the iai kata.

Paul Smith demonstrating for a student the unique Hōki-ryū technique of sōete-tsuki.
Above: Paul Smith demonstrating for a student the unique Hōki-ryū technique of sōete-tsuki.

Today the art is perhaps in its thirteenth or fourteenth generation. Because of the course of its history, Hōki-ryū has no headmaster or an umbrella organization for the different branches. Most surviving Hōki-ryū groups tend to align themselves either with the All-Japan Kendo Federation or with the All-Japan Iaidō Federation, though some choose to be independent. Hōki-ryū is practiced primarily in Kumamoto, Hiroshima, and the Kansai area, including Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo. There are also smaller groups in areas such as Akita. In a very real geographical sense, despite centuries of diffusion Hōki-ryū has stayed close to Katayama Hisayasu’s life itinerary for the most part (see map). Outside of Japan there are very few schools. We are aware of locations in the Belgium, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, and Sweden. Indiana is the only location where Hōki-ryū is taught in the US. Though transmitting koryū is not easy outside of its original cultural context, we hope to rise to this challenge under the guidance of Nakamura sensei.

— by K. Tsai

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