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Listing the top five sword saints in Japanese history: Miyamoto Musashi can only be ranked fourth, with the top two being difficult to distinguish.

Por LongquanSwordier 04 Apr 2024

Japan is a country where the way of the samurai prevails. As the rulers throughout its history have been supporters of militarism, the entire Japanese society reveres martial prowess from top to bottom. Samurai are highly respected, and becoming one is considered a great honor, as not everyone can claim the title of samurai. In addition to the samurai, Japan also boasts its unique sword culture. The samurai sword is the most revered weapon for a samurai, while the sword is also the most trusted companion for a swordsman.


In Japan, there are specific distinctions among swordsmen. Generally, anyone proficient in swordsmanship can be called a swordsman. However, those with deep expertise in swordsmanship are given different titles, such as "hitokiri," which refers to a swordsman who has killed many people with their sword. Apart from "hitokiri," there are other titles like "meijinken" (master swordsman) and "kengō" (sword master). However, the most formidable title is undoubtedly "kenshō" (sword saint), but not everyone can attain this honor.

Firstly, one must have achieved high proficiency in swordsmanship and made significant contributions to Japanese swordsmanship to be considered for the title of "kenshō." Merely mastering sword techniques in isolation is insufficient to earn the title. Among Japan's sword saints, Miyamoto Musashi is perhaps the most renowned, with his deeds known to many worldwide. However, in the list of Japan's top five sword saints, Miyamoto Musashi can only be ranked fourth.


Fifth place: Yagyū Jūbei (Shin'inryū·Kai)

Yagyū Jūbei, full name Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyan, is one of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history. Jūbei, along with his grandfather Yagyū Sekishūsai Muneyoshi and father Yagyū Dōsaku Munenori, are collectively known as the "Yagyū San Tengu" (Tengu being a mythical creature in Japanese folklore). Yagyū Jūbei is one of the most renowned and romanticized samurai of Japan's feudal era, and he is also a character in the TV drama "Tenkaichi."

Regarding Yagyū Jūbei's missing eye, it is said that during his childhood sword training with his father, the intensity of his father's swordsmanship caused him to inadvertently use his full strength, resulting in an injury. Fortunately, they were practicing with bamboo swords of the Yagyū Shin'inryū style, preventing the premature demise of this legendary swordsman.
At the age of 13, Yagyū Jūbei became a personal servant to Tokugawa Iemitsu, where he also served as his swordsmanship instructor. At the age of 20, he committed a faux pas and returned to his hometown, known as "Yagyū no Sato" in Nara, to dedicate himself to studying military strategy. He authored military treatises such as "Gekka no Shō" and imparted his school of swordsmanship to disciples who traveled from across the country to learn from him.

By further refining the Yagyū Shin'inryū style, Yagyū Jūbei established the Yagyū Shin'inryū·Kai. At the age of 44, while reportedly hunting with falcons in the southern mountains of Kyoto Prefecture, he met an accidental demise. The circumstances surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery to this day, with speculations ranging from assassination to poisoning. His graves are located in two places: the Hōkō-ji temple in "Yagyū no Sato" and the branch of Kōdai-ji temple in the Roppongi district of Tokyo.
Fourth place: Miyamoto Musashi (Yagyū-ryū)

Miyamoto Musashi was a swordsman, strategist, and artist from the late Sengoku period to the early Edo period of Japan. He gained fame through his duel with Sasaki Kojirō. In a nation that reveres martial prowess and swords, Miyamoto Musashi's influence in Japan was significant, so much so that sayings like "Sanada's spear, Musashi's sword" exist. Apart from swordsmanship, he was also proficient in various martial arts such as shuriken (throwing stars) and grappling techniques, establishing his own style called "Niten Ichi-ryū" in his twenties.

In "The Book of Five Rings," Miyamoto Musashi recounts defeating Arima Kihei, a practitioner of the Shintō-ryū, in his first duel at the age of 13, and defeating the renowned swordsman Akiyama from the Kage-ryū at the age of 16. At 21, he traveled to Kyoto to challenge swordsmen from across Japan. Records show that from the age of 13 to 29, Miyamoto Musashi fought in over 60 duels, emerging victorious in all of them.
Miyamoto Musashi's life spanned from the period of Oda Nobunaga's unification of Japan to the mature phase of the Tokugawa feudal system. This period marked Japan's transition from turmoil to peace, as well as the rise of swordsmen seeking lordship and service. During the era of strife, Musashi embodied the growth process of samurai, while the Tokugawa peace era represented the contradiction in his later life as he served as an official but remained unwilling to abandon his individuality.

By the time Miyamoto Musashi was born, Japan's three major schools of swordsmanship had already been established. In Japan, being recognized as a master requires acknowledgment from the swordsmanship community. During Japan's Sengoku period, the three most prestigious swordsmanship schools were the Shindō-ryū, Ittō-ryū, and Yagyū-ryū, which formed the backbone of swordsmanship during that era. However, Miyamoto Musashi did not belong to any of these three schools. Therefore, it can be inferred that Miyamoto Musashi could only be considered as a partial master. 
Third place: Yagyū Munetoshi (Yagyū Shin'inryū)

Yagyū Munetoshi was a Japanese swordsman and the founder of the Yagyū Shin'inryū school. He hailed from a prominent family in Yamato and was renowned as the top swordsman in the Kinai region. Munetoshi suffered a defeat at the hands of Hasegawa Tōgurō, a disciple of Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and subsequently joined the school of Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. Shortly afterward, he grasped the secret of "muto-dori" (the art of disarming without a sword) and was granted permission to teach the Yagyū Shin'inryū style.

The Yagyū family established the Yagyū Shin'inryū school of swordsmanship. Originating from a prominent family in Yamato, the Yagyū family served as the swordsmanship instructors for the Tokugawa shogunate from Tokugawa Ieyasu's time onwards, making them the foremost swordsmanship lineage in Japan. After studying swordsmanship under Toda Seigen, Yagyū Munetoshi became a disciple of the founder of the Shin'inryū school, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and mastered its teachings. Subsequently, he served Oda Nobunaga and his descendants, and the Yagyū family continued to be instructors of martial arts for the Tokugawa family for generations.
Among the Yagyū clan, the most famous figures are undoubtedly Munetoshi, Munenori, Mitsuyan, and Muneo. These four individuals were renowned swordsmen of their time. Yagyū Munetoshi, Yagyū Munenori, and Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyan are known as the Three Swordsmen of the late Sengoku period to the early Edo period, collectively referred to as the "Yagyū San Tengu." The Yagyū family passed down martial arts manuals such as "The Killing Sword," "The Living Sword," "The Scroll of No Sword," and later, "The Scroll of the Moon," authored by Yagyū Jūbei.

The essence of the Yagyū Shin'inryū lies in "muto-dori," the art of disarming an opponent without a sword, which distinguishes it from other schools. Unlike some other schools, the Yagyū Shin'inryū does not advocate for honing swordsmanship through killing. In "The Living Sword" and "The Scroll of No Sword," the significance of the Yagyū philosophy of "muto-dori" is evident: "We achieve victory by not killing; our victory lies in not being killed." Following Yagyū Munetoshi, his descendants served the Tokugawa shogunate as the Edo Yagyū and Owari Yagyū, respectively, maintaining the image of respected swordsmen who contributed to maintaining peace and prosperity for centuries.
Second place: Kamiizumi Nobutsuna (Shin'inryū)

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna was a military strategist during Japan's Warring States period. He founded the renowned school of Japanese swordsmanship, the Shin'inryū, and along with Tsukahara Bokuden, he is revered by later generations as a "sword saint." In his youth, he studied the Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryū and Kashima Shintō-ryū under Matsumoto Bizen no Kami, and the Kashima Chūkō-ryū at Kashima Island. At the age of 16, under the guidance of Tsukahara Bokuden, he completed a special training of a thousand matches over three days and three nights, as part of the Kashima family's traditions.

As an adult, he studied the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū under Edo Yoshikatsu and received certification at the age of 23. He extensively researched various sword techniques and eventually created the Shin'inryū school. He later became a vassal of Nagano Yorimasa and Takeda Shingen. However, in order to popularize Shin'inryū, he traveled extensively across the country during the 6th year of the Eiroku era. In the 7th year of Eiroku, he went to Kyoto to teach military strategy to Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the 13th shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, and was bestowed with the title of "the greatest swordsman in the land." In the 8th year of Eiroku, he passed his teachings on to Yagyū Munetoshi.
First place: Tsukahara Bokuden (Ichimonji)

Tsukahara Bokuden, also known as Tsukahara Takakatsu, was a true sword saint of Japan's Warring States period, renowned for his undefeated record throughout his life, making him arguably the strongest swordsman of the era. His style was the Tenjin Shinyō-ryū of the Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryū, and he was simultaneously revered as the founding master of the Shinto Munen-ryū. Throughout his life, he participated in 37 battles, killed 212 enemies, engaged in 19 real sword duels, and never sustained a single injury. One of his most famous duels was against Kajiwara Nagato at Kawagoe Castle.

Due to his unparalleled swordsmanship, Tsukahara Bokuden encountered few worthy opponents, earning him a place as one of Japan's two greatest sword saints in history, alongside Kamiizumi Nobutsuna. Tsukahara Bokuden and Kamiizumi Nobutsuna are both revered as sword saints by later generations, each with their own merits, making it difficult to determine who was superior.

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