The Iborō People, Kuya Shonin and the Hachiya-Shu Shinobi

The Iborō People, Kuya Shonin and the Hachiya-Shu Shinobi

After the death of Taira no Masakado in 940 CE, the Iborō clan members that followed Iborō Daijirō escaped to the west while dodging the imperial soldiers that were hunting for the remnants of Masakado’s forces, including the Iborō people. Then they joined up with their colleagues who were covertly collecting information in the capital, Kyoto. For some unknown reason they then hid in the foothills of Atago Mountain just outside of the capital. Many of the Iborō clan members then flee from here to their ancestral home in San’in. But Daijirō is said to have remained behind in Atago and Kyoto with some of his men. He was fulfilling his father’s request that was made on his deathbed in battle. But to this day we do not fully understand the reason for this request.

Around the Atago area there were poor people who lived freely as loggers and woodworkers. It is thought that they were descendants of the followers of En no Gyoja (En no Ozuno) and were like family to the Iborō people. The Atago people were willing to hide them but there was a problem. The number of people suddenly increased in a place where there was only enough food for the original people who lived there. They quickly started to run out of food. In addition, the Iborō clan were being pursued and hunted down. It was not like they could just go down the mountain and get a job. The only thing they could do was help with the loggers and craftsmen, but this was not enough help to feed everyone.

Daijirō was cornered and needed to make a hard decision. Does he let the clan get captured and executed? Do they die hungry? He struggled with what to do for a long time when he finally came to the decision that they would become bandits. He selected members of the clan who were good at ninjutsu and formed a team based out of Kyoto. In the chapter titled “Honcho Hachiya Yuraiki” (本朝鉢屋由来記) of the “Unyougun Jitsuki” (雲陽軍実記), a historical book that describes the history of the Amago clan warlords of Izumo and is considered one of the classics of Japanese literature, it states that at night they would sneak out, not only in Kyoto but throughout the lands, robbing the rich, stripping them of their fine clothes and taking their gold. When the government officials tried to catch them, it was of no use. They were too skilled in ninjutsu. As soon as the imperial forces thought they had them cornered the bandits would appear from someplace else. Like a bird who simply flies away when attacked, they could not be caught.

Then one night the Iborō came across a famous monk, Kuya Shōnin (空也上人 903-972) near Midoro-ga-ike Pond in the north part of Kyoto. Wearing a sword on his side with his kimono loosely open, he softly said to them “Isn’t it stupid to sow the seeds of hell in only fifty years of life?”

Then the leader of the Iborō people (most likely Daijirō) said back to Kuya “we do not like to be bandits; we lost our home due to the death of our Lord Masakado and are forced to do this to feed our families”.

Kuya responded with “Then I will give you the wisdom of livelihood”.

The hungry Iborō clan who had been living as bandits out of desperation then swore to be disciples of Kuya on the spot.

Kuya was a wandering priest and teacher of the practice of nembutsu as a means of redemption and to gain entry to the Pure land at the time of death. He was said to have been of aristocratic or possibly even imperial descent but became a monk while still a young boy. When he travelled, he carried Buddhist images with him and added rhythm and dance to his prayers. He called this new form of worship odori nembutsu (踊り念仏) and is credited with acts of philanthropy such as building roads and bridges, digging wells, and burying abandoned corpses. Because he was active in the towns and places where people gathered, he earned the nicknames “Holy Man of the City” and “Holy Man of Amida”.

Kuya had rugged huts built at Shijo and Gojo in Kawara and let the Iborō people live there. They would now make their living by begging for alms and recite the nenbutsu while hitting a gong. Although this was a low profit way of life, it was better than living as thieves and bandits. But as they were living in serious poverty, most of them could not afford gongs or proper ringing bowls. So instead they used a simple bowl made from a gourd that was cut sideways and painted with lacquer. The Iborō people followed Kuya’s advice and travelled around Kyoto begging for alms. As they would roam, they hit their lacquered bowl like a gong or a ringing bowl. This is how they came to be known as the Hachiya (鉢屋) or “bowlers”. 

However, after a while, officials found out that the Hachiya were the people that used to terrorize the capital as bandits and thieves. They were captured by imperial forces and were about to be executed when Kuya steps in to save them. He spoke to the Emperor Murakami on their behalf and suggested that the Iborō people, now known as the Hachiya, become the guard for the city. Because they survived the turbulent battlefield during Masakado’s rebellion, know how to steal and have excellent ninjutsu skills, he thought they could be of service to the emperor and the capital. No doubt, this is why some believe he was of aristocratic or possibly even of imperial descent. In this era, status was everything. No matter how virtuous, a simple court monk, no better than a vagrant, would never have the sway or clout to move the officials at court who in general thought of anyone below the rank of the nobles were not even human. But it seems in this case Kuya had the ability to do so. Therefore, he most likely had the right blood in his veins to sway the court. Some legends say he was the son of Emperor Godaigo while others say he was the grandson of Emperor Ninmyō.

Given their chance, the security of Kyoto was remarkably stabilized by the activities of the Hachiya. Others who had been living the life of outlaws soon came to them and joined them saying that they also wanted to “rehabilitate”. As a result, the number of criminals and crimes reduced, and the capital enjoyed a time of peace. As their reputation became known nationwide, patrons and state priests from around the country were sending in requests to the capital for help with the security of their lands. Due to these requests the Hachiya (Iborō) scattered throughout the country and settled in the areas they were sent to.  

Thus, the Hachiya began to act as police officers in the various places they moved to and later as shinobi (ninja) in the warring states period. The Hachiya that came from the San’in region (Inaba, Hoki, Izumo, Iwami, etc.) often operated under the name Hachiya Kakubei Sekinen (鉢屋角兵衛石念). It appears that the name Sekinen (石念) was the inherited name/title for the Hachiya shinobi since the times of Iborō Sekinen who served Taira no Masakado.

Sean Askew – 導冬 Dōtō

Bujinkan Kokusai Renkoumyo

February 13th, 2020


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