While the famous Tachikawa Bunko series of books are fictional, legends say that Sarutobi Sasuke, one of the Sanada Ten Braves, was modeled after a few different individuals that historically served the Sanada family, so let’s look at the story of Sarutobi in some detail.
In Kakumakeikoku valley of Sanada-Cho in Ueda City, there is a scenic spot called “Sarutobi Sasuke’s Training Grounds”. Here, the fictional story says, Sasuke was discovered playing with a monkey in the mountains of Togakushi by the hermit Tozawa Hakuunsai and became his apprentice. He trained hard and studied ninjutsu diligently. For those that are unaware, Bujinkan tradition says that Tozawa Hakuunsai was the founder of Gyokko Ryu ninpo, possibly even Iga Ryu ninjutsu.
Togakushi was traditionally a mountain village where Shugendo practitioners were known to gather. In the Kamakura period (1192-1333 CE), it was held as a sacred place comparable to Mount Koya and Mount Hiei, and there was an area close to the inner shrine and temple where many special lodging houses for monks called “Togakushi Sanzenbo” could be found. In the Muromachi period (1333-1573 CE), Togakushi continued to be a mecca for ascetic monks and the faith of the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano city became widespread throughout Japan.
In the novels Sarutobi Sasuke, who trained as a ninja at Togakushi, is said to have been a ninja of the Koga (Koka) school of Ninjutsu even though he never trained in the village of Koga. So, I personally feel the author of the stories must have been being completely creative in this respect and taken several liberties with the historical aspects of Sasuke’s story.
The first possible historical figure I would like to discuss as the true Sarutobi Sasuke is Ibe Busuke (井辺武助), the son of a local samurai named Washio Sadaifu (鷲尾佐太夫), who lived at the foot of Torii Pass in Shinano, the home of Sanada clan and birthplace of Sanada Yukitaka.
According to Japanese historical researcher and author Takenaka Ryo (竹中亮) in his book titled “Otani Keibu Senki” (大谷刑部戦記), Ibe Busuke was an Iga Onmitsu agent that was retained by Otani Yoshitsugu, the grandfather of Sanada Daisuke and Sanada Morinobu. His specialty was said to be intelligence activities and using trained animals such as monkeys, shinobi-inu (忍び犬) or stealth-dogs and shinobi-hato (忍び鳩) stealth-pigeons. He was highly skilled at training birds, especially hawks and pigeons. According to Takenaka, the tradition of using pigeons to carry messages made its way to Japan from the mainland over 1,000 years ago in the Asuka Period, and of course the art of falconry was used to counter its effectiveness since the very beginning.
The second potential candidate for Sarutobi Sasuke that I would like to introduce is Kogetsu Sasuke (上月佐助). According to the secret oral traditions of Toda Shinryuken, this historical “Sarutobi” Sasuke was from the school of ninjutsu known as Gyokushin Ryu (玉心流), one of the nine systems passed on within the Bujinkan martial arts organization. This means that his fighting skills were based on the Koppojutsu of the Gyokushin Ryu developed by the Sasaki family of Koga (Koka). The Gyokushin Ryu of Koppojutsu has a total of 38 standard forms but it is said that there are 12 forms that are the most useful.
In Hatsumi Soke’s book titled “Ninja/Ninpo Gaho” (忍者/忍法画報), he writes that both Sarutobi Sasuke and Kirigakure Saizo are indeed fictional characters but modeled after historical figures. He states that in Sasuke’s case the real identity was Kogetsu Sasuke and claims that Kogetsu was a low level “Kizaru” operative under Momochi Sandayu. “Kizaru” is another term for shinobi or ninja that was used in old times in Iga.
Jogetsu Sasuke was from the part of Iga known as Shimotsuge (下柘植) and therefore nicknamed “Shimotsuke no Kizaru” or the “tree-monkey from Shimotsuke” and he was said to be exceptionally skilled at leaping and jumping. When Oda Nobunaga invaded Iga and decimated its people, he is recorded as fighting in the battles but disappeared afterward and was never heard from again…
In my book, The Hidden Lineage, I also discuss a few other possible candidates for the ever-popular ultimate shinobi, Sarutobi Sasuke. You can get your copy from Amazon or from my website. Order yours today and discover the legends and history of ninjutsu for yourself!
Sean Askew – Dōtō 導冬
Bujinkan Kokusai Renkoumyo
August 20, 2020