“Famous Swordsmen of Japan (1): Kenkichi Sakakibara,” by Takefumi Hiiragi

Kenkichi Sakakibara

Kenkichi Sakakibara, 14th successor of the Jikishinkage-ryu tradition, was born in November 1830 in Otsuka village, Shitaya Kanasugi, in present-day Tokyo. The district of Hiroo in Azabu also claims to be his birthplace. He was the first son of Masutaro Sakakibara and his given name was Tomoyoshi.

Kenkichi began training under Nobutomo Shimosanokami Odani, the 13th successor of Jikishinkage-ryu, when he was thirteen years old and received his menkyo or teaching license in 1856 at the age of twenty-seven. It took him such a long time to receive his menkyo because he was too poor to pay both the fee and cost of the celebration party. Odani was aware of this problem and paid for and arranged everything so that Kenkichi could be awarded this license. Odani also recommended him for the position of assistant instructor at the Kobusho, a martial arts school opened and supported by the Tokugawa government and Kenkichi was appointed to the post. In that same year, Kenkichi married Taka, a daughter of Iwajiro Mihashi, who was a hatamoto or direct retainer of the Shogun. Taka’s mother was a younger sister of the famous Kaishu Katsu [1823-1899; a statesman active during the transition from the Tokugawa shogunate to the new Meiji government].

Kenkichi worked diligently as an instructor in kenjutsu, and two years later, in 1858, was promoted to the position of full instructor. In 1863, he received 300 ryo, or bags of rice, as salary as one of the head keepers of Edo Castle, and he was permitted to go to the castle with a red spear and accompanying attendants. Kenkichi achieved this unusual distinction not only on the strength of Odani’s recommendation, but also because Iemochi Tokugawa, the 14th Shogun, loved and respected his sincere character.

Kenkichi was an outstanding student at Odani’s school, but was reputed to be much inferior to Toranosuke Shimada in kenjutsu. Shimada, who died young at the age of thirty-nine, was Kaishu Katsu’s teacher. However, Kenkichi did defeat Isenokami Takahashi, a famous sojutsu (spear) practitioner, in a match in the presence of the Shogun.

In July 1866, the popular young Shogun Iemochi Tokugawa died at the age of twenty-one and Kenkichi resigned his post. He did not enter the employ of the new Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, but instead began to teach students at his own dojo in Shitaya Kurumasaka in Tokyo.

In May 15, 1868, the Shogitai [a squad of prowar Tokugawa retainers] who were entrenched at Ueno finally engaged the Imperial forces in battle. Kenkichi remained neutral during the battle, believing that his mission was to guard Rinnoji-no-miya, Abbot of the Ueno Kaneiji Temple. He carried Rinnoji-no-miya on his back and escaped to Mikawashima.

Kenkichi later became a Captain of the Guard under Kamenosuke Tayasu, who would have become the 16th Shogun if the Tokugawa government had continued. Sakakibara moved to Shizuoka in August of that year and remained with Tayasu until 1870.

After the abolition of the feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures, Kenkichi moved back to Tokyo and resumed teaching kenjutsu at his old dojo in Shitaya Kurumasaka. It was difficult to maintain his dojo because people had stopped practicing kenjutsu and other martial arts with the end of the samurai era. Because of this, Kaishu Katsu helped out Kenkichi by building him a house.

Kenkichi is well known for staging the first public exhibitions of swordsmanship in the Meiji era. The idea for these demonstrations originated with a kenjutsu match held in 1873 in conjunction with the memorial service for his lord, the 14th Shogun Iemochi, which was open to the public.

A Jodo Sect monk, who was a head priest at Sennenji Temple in Asakusa, came to watch and was highly attracted by the swordsmanship, which he was seeing for the first time. He invested money with a number of others who were also present and asked Kenkichi to conduct a tournament as a kind of public entertainment. Kenkichi agreed, since this idea could possibly save many swordsmen who had been forced into poverty after the Meiji Restoration. The first public exhibition of swordsmanship lasted for ten days beginning on April 15, 1873. It was known as the Kankyo Gekkenkai (government-authorized kenjutsu tournament) and was presided over by Sakakibara. The event was quite successful and many others adopted the idea. Within a month, more than twenty tournaments were held in Tokyo.

However, the new government began to be frightened by the great success of these events. It was concerned that the swordsmen could be used as armed troops against the government and the demonstrations were prohibited in Tokyo starting on July 31 of that same year. This prohibition lasted until 1876.

Some criticized these exhibitions for reducing kenjutsu to a vulgar show; however, it cannot be denied that the tournaments contributed to the popularization of kenjutsu at a time when many swordsmen had lost their positions and the martial arts were in danger of disappearing.

After the demonstrations were prohibited in Tokyo, Kenkichi took his exhibition on the road and held public tournaments in Chiba, Saitama, Yamanashi and other prefectures. In conjunction with these performances, he held a kind of show and sale. He also started to produce and sell “hard” fans and staves made of oak and opened up a neighborhood pub and theater. However, none of these ventures proved successful.

The prohibition against public displays of swordsmanship in Tokyo was lifted in 1876, but Kenkichi declined to become a participant in future exhibitions. He left his student Teijiro Nomi in complete charge of the tournaments.

On November 11, 1887, Kenkichi achieved the crowning point of his career in a helmet-splitting demonstration held at Prince Fushimi-no-miya’s house in the Imperial presence. Kenkichi succeeded in cutting a pointed helmet forged by the famous helmet-maker Myochin, using a sword made by Dotanuki. He accomplished this feat after Sosuke Henmi, an instructor of the Metropolitan Police Headquarters [also a skilled exponent of the Tatsumi-ryu], and Yoshitada Umanosuke Ueda had failed in their attempts.

Sakakibara was dedicated to mastering kenjutsu and lived in exciting times. He did not cut off his topknot after the 1871 government order encouraging men to abandon their old-fashioned hairstyles and discard their swords. He died on September 11, 1894 at the age of 65. He now rests in the Saioji at Jodoshu in Suga-cho, Shinjuku-ku.

Kenkichi had a great many students, however, two of the more unusual ones were Thomas McCluthie, a clerk at the British Consulate, and Bertz, a German medical doctor. Sokaku Takeda, teacher of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, also studied kenjutsu as a live-in student under Kenkichi during the early Meiji period.

After the death of Kenkichi Sakakibara, the Jikishinkage-ryu was inherited by two men. One line descends through the 15th successor [the term soke, or headmaster, was evidently not widely used in the martial arts context until quite recently] Teijiro Nomi to the 16th, Hamao Nomi, and 17th Koryusai Ishigaki, while the other line passes through Jirokichi Yamada, 15th, to Kawashima Takashi, 16th, and finally to the present 17th generation inheritor, Hidetaka Onishi. Today, few are aware of the first line of descent, but Teijiro Nomi worked as Kenkichi’s right-hand man on the public demonstrations of swordsmanship from their inception and he is said to have been one of Sakakibara’s most loved and trusted associates.

Jikishinkage-ryu belongs to the Shinkage-ryu family, but it is the only school of this group that claims Bizennokami Sugimoto as the founder of the style, while Isenokami Kamiizumi (or Koizumi), who is considered by most of the other Shinkage-ryu systems to be their founder, is the second in line.

Kunisato Shirozaemon Naganuma was the eighth successor after the founder Bizennokami Sugimoto. He had learned kenjutsu from his father Ippusai Yamada since childhood. He further perfected the protective equipment that had already been developed by his father and instituted a form of practice with faceguard, gloves and shinnai1. This training method is thought to be the precursor of modern kendo. Naganuma’s training method became widespread after the Nakanishi-ha [also known as Ono-ha] Itto-ryu broke with its own tradition barring such training and adopted it. However, it seems likely that there were others who were also trying to develop protective equipment.

Naganuma had many students and several created their own branches of Jikishinkage-ryu. Kenkichi Sakakibara’s branch was handed down to him through Tsunasato Shobei Naganuma, Chikayoshi Yajiroemon Fujikawa (originator of Fujikawa-ha), Tamasuke Gunjibei Akaishi, Yoshitaka Gennoshin Danno and Nobutomo Shimousanokami Odani. Akaishi called his school Jikishinkage Seito-ryu. His successor was Yoshitaka Danno. Danno was a courteous man, who trained many students, and he is well known as the teacher of Nobutomo Odani.

Odani was the thirteenth in the Jikishinkage line and was considered to be the premier swordsman of his time in Japan. When the government martial arts school Kobusho tried to create standardized forms, Odani recommended that they adopt the kata of Itto-ryu since it was not much changed from the old style, rather than using the kata of his own school. Clearly, Odani was not prejudiced against other styles and was a broadminded man. Largely due to Odani, Jikishinkage-ryu became one of the most famous styles of kenjutsu from the end of Edo era to the present.

Takefumi Hiiragi is the pseudonym of a well-known Japanese budo practitioner and writer.

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Brian Workman of the USA.


  1. …how the survival of particular martial arts has less to do with their combat efficacy than more mundane considerations…

  2. Chris Covington says:

    Mr. Pranin,

    Thank you for posting this article here on AJ. It seems like the information on the present Shihan-dai is a little old. Onishi sensei died in 1966. He was followed by Namiki Yasushi sensei the 18th Shihan-dai. Namiki sensei passed away in 1999. His successor Ito Masayuki sensei (19th) passed away a short time later in 2001. The current and 20th Shihan-dai is Yoshida Hijime sensei. There are also a couple active lineages that have come from Yamada Jirokichi sensei, Onishi sensei and Namiki sensei.

    I think mordern Jikishinkage-ryu really gives an accurate taste of the power of Bakumatsu era swordsmanship. I’m glad when I see more information about it show up!

    Best regards,
    Chris Covington

  3. Beautiful article, thank you.

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