Origins of the Shinden Fudo Ryu

In November 753 CE, the Japanese nobleman Otomo no Komaro returned from a trip to Tang China. it was his second trip to Tang and this time he was sent as the vice ambassador. His first trip was in his youth to study abroad there. Much about his life is recorded but still some things about him remain unknown. It is thought that his father was either the Imperial Minister of the Right, Otomo no Nagatoko, the first Ambassador to Tang China, or the Dainagon (大納言) counselor of the first rank in the Imperial court of Japan, Otomo no Miyuki. Komaro himself, at the time of his retirement, was in the Supreme Court of the 4th rank for the Imperial household. We are not sure of the year of his birth but in 732 CE he was chosen to be sent to China as a student and as a noble he was well looked after in Tang, China. At the time of his return to Japan he was entrusted with bringing the Mahayana Buddhist encyclopedia to Japan by the Tang monk Chen Yanchang (陳延昌), a text that had never before been seen in Japan.

Now he was back from his second trip. This time, after great difficulty, he brought back a Chinese monk named Jianzhen () or “Ganjin” in Japanese. Ganjin helped to greatly propagate Buddhism in Japan. From 743 to 754 CE, he had attempted to journey to Japan six times and after five times of failure he finally made it to Japan in the year 754 CE with Otomo no Koremaro and founded Tōshōdai-ji temple in Nara. Before his sixth attempt he had lost his eyesight as a result of his hardships of the previous attempt. Jianzhen or Ganjin’s life and voyage to Yamato (Japan) are described in detail in the scroll, “The Sea Journey to the East of a Great Bonze from the Tang Dynasty”.

Ganjin and Otomo no Komaro reached Nara in the spring of the next year and they were openly welcomed by the Emperor. Other Chinese monks also journeyed with Ganjin to Japan to introduce Chinese religious sculpture to the Japanese along with other forms of knowledge and skills. According to the Shinden Fudo Ryu school of martial arts, Ganjin also gave lectures on Tang-sho (唐手) or Chinese boxing to the Imperial Court. The lectures so impressed the members of the Yamato court that they later had a Tang lord’s official minister named Li Yi (李義), or Ri Yoshi in Japanese, brought to Japan to teach martial arts. I will discuss more about him in a moment.

In 755 CE, the first Yamato imperial ritual ordination platform was constructed at Tōdai-ji, at the place where former Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō had received their ordinations by Jianzhen a year earlier. So here we can see how important he was and how high in regard he was held. Today Ganjin is credited with the introduction of the Ritsu () school of Buddhism to Japan, which focused on the vinaya, or Buddhist monastic rules. The school that Sō Gyokkan (僧玉観), a headmaster of the Gyokko Ryu in the warring states period, was a Master of Law (律師) in.

Now back to the man named Li Yi that the imperial court had brought over after listening to Ganjin’s lectures on Chinese boxing. According to part of the Shinden Fudo Ryu densho manuscript titled “shiron” (史論) or “historical theories”, Li Yi was a master of the martial arts specializing in Chinese boxing. Upon his arrival to Japan he took up the responsibility of training the young imperial aristocrat Urabe Kanesada (卜部兼貞) in Chinese boxing.

One thing to know about the Urabe family is that they were a clan whose business or occupation was that of imperial diviners. They would confirm the calendar for the court for auspicious days to hold events on. The Urabe were a guild of plastromancers, or oracle shell readers. They would read pieces of turtle plastron or the bottom side of the turtle shell, which were used for divination – a tradition born in ancient China and later brought to Japan. The Urabe diviners would ask questions to the spirits about the upcoming weather, when to plant crops, the fortunes of members of the royal family, military matters, etc. These questions would be carved onto the bottom shell of a turtle in a special oracle bone script. High heat was then used until the shell cracked. The Urabe family would then interpret the pattern of the cracks and write the predictions on the pieces.

Interestingly enough, on top of this, the Urabe family had their own strain of the Shinto religion, the Tatara Shinden (鞴韜神伝), also known as the Amatsu Tatara (天津鞴韜). To this spiritual and martial tradition Urabe Kanesada incorporated what he learned from Li Yi and termed the new style Yawara, instead of Chinese boxing, using the written kanji characters for Dakenjutsu (打拳術).

Kanesada became well known for his Yawara skills and was chosen for the strongest and most courageous units to serve in. He was said to be able to break stones with a single blow of his knife-hand strike (shuto 手刀). In his new art of Yawara the “Kyo” (feinting, deceit, lying, etc.) of “Kyojitsu” (虚実) or the skill of interchanging truth and falsehood as a military strategy, took prominence and was the main focus of its martial theory. Using the skill of unlimited variation in movement, the art was designed to use the fists, sword-hands, the tips of the fingers, the palms of the hands and both feet to tear apart the opponent’s body and defeat them.

Urabe Kanesada’s successor, Urabe Kuniyo (卜部国代), is said to have separated himself from the Emperor Junna (淳和天皇) due to the political intrigue the imperial court was developing against court diviners and their controversial skill set. He later intricately combined Chinese boxing and the Tatara Shinden arts, continuing his father’s pursuit of the ultimate martial art.

This is the origins of Shinden Fudo Ryu Yawara or “Dakenjutsu”.

 Ninpo Ichizoku!  (忍法一族, one family in ninpo!)

 Sean Askew – Dōtō 導冬

Bujinkan Kokusai Renkoumyo 武神館国際連光明 


May 29th, 2020

Share this post

Scroll to Top