Sakakibara Kenkichi (榊原鍵吉)

Kenkichi SAKAKIBARA (December 19, 1830 - September 11, 1894) was a shogunal retainer and professional swordsman from the end of the Edo to the Meiji period. His alias was Tomoyoshi. He succeeded the Odani school of swordplay, a school that belonged to Jikishinkage-ryu style swordplay from Nobutomo ODANI. He famously popularized Gekken (sword-fighting) shows after the Meiji Restoration and performed 'kabutowari' (helmet-splitting) for the imperial audience in 1887.
He is called 'The Last Swordsman.'
It is said that at his best he swung a furibo (wooden sword used for training) with a length of 1.818 meters and a weight of 11.25 kilograms 2,000 times. His arm circumference was allegedly 55 centimetres.


In 1830 Kenkichi SAKAKIBARA was born in Hiro, Azabu, Edo. His father was Masutaro Tomonao SAKAKIBARA, a shogunal retainer. Kenkichi was the eldest of five brothers.

Towards Fully-Proficient Swordsmanship in Jikishinkage School of Swordplay

In 1842 Kenkichi entered the Nobutomo ODANI's dojo, the Jikishinkage school of swordplay when he was 13 years old. At that time the Odani dojo was in Mamiana near Hiro. In the same year, however, his mother died and his father Masutaro moved to Shitaya Negishi, from which it was inconvenient to commute to Mamiana that was a long way. Besides he had to take care of domestic affairs and his siblings instead of his deceased mother. Taking pity on him, Odani urged him to transfer to famous dojos of Chiba, Momonoi or Saito which was nearer to his house and hence more convenient to commute. Kenkichi, however, continued to go to Odani's dojo, insisting that he had no intention of changing dojos once he became his disciple.

He improved in swordplay rapidly. Even though he moved up, he did not apply for a license which cost money, with 'kirigami' (a licensing document) and 'mokuroku' (a register of skills mastered) as he was of a poor family. In 1849 Odani who understood Kenkichi's situation made arrangements to grant him a license of 'menkyo-kaiden' (full proficiency).

The Kobusho Period

Recommended by Odani, Kenkichi became a kenjutsu (sword arts) instructor of the Kobusho in Tsukiji in April 1856. Later he was promoted to the post of 'shihan' (grand master).

When the Kobusho moved to Ogawa-cho, Kanda in February 1860, exhibition matches were held in the presence of Shogun Iemochi TOKUGAWA and the cabinet ministers of the Shogunate including Tairo (Chief Minister) Naosuke Ii at its opening on February 24. Kenkichi had a match with Deishu TAKAHASHI, a master of Sojutsu (the art of spear-fighting). Takahashi had already fought with Kinpei IDO. He entertained the audience by defeating his opponent by 'ashigarami' (leg lock) which the latter was good at. Kenzaburo TAKAHASHI, also known as Deishu, was one of the three personages with the letter of 'shu' at the end of the Edo period. Kenkichi who defeated Takahashi was much applauded by the audience. This pleased Iemochi, leading to the appointment of Kenkichi as his tutor.

In 1863 Kenkichi went to Kyoto, accompanying the shogun. He defeated Sosho (or Shokan) Amano, who was newly appointed, in a match at Nijo Castle.
Amano who belonged to the same Odani school was nevertheless too proud of his new post to say, 'You've got me.'
Kenkichi then pushed Amano hard in the chest with both hands and knocked him over. He also struck down three former retainers of Tosa Domain with his sword in Shijo Gawara, Kyoto.

In August 1866 he returned to Edo as Iemochi passed away at Osaka-jo Castle. In December 1866 the Kobusho was renamed Rikugunsho as it underwent reorganization. Kenkichi resigned to open a dojo at Shitaya Kurumazaka.

Around the Meiji Restoration

During the Battle of Ueno, in 1868, Kenkichi became a guard of the Monk-Prince of Rinoji (later Imperial Prince Yoshihisa of Kitashirakawa) although he did not join the Shogitai troops. He struck down with his sword several retainers of Tosa Domain. He and Sahe ECHIZENYA who ran a bathhouse in Yamashita took turns in carrying the prince on his shoulder as they were fleeing to Mikawashima. Later he returned to his dojo in Kurumazaka as if nothing had happened.

Following Iesato TOKUGAWA, he moved to Sunpu after the Restoration, but he returned to Tokyo in 1870. He received a secret order to serve as Daikeibu at the Gyobusho (Ministry of Justice) from the Meiji government. He however did not accept the offer and recommended instead his younger brother Tetsusaburo OSAWA.

Gekken Shows

In 1872 anyone who belonged to the samurai class or upward was forbidden to wear a sword in public, so that the private dojos for swordsmen were pushed out of business. The martial arts instructors who were no longer needed at the police were made redundant. In 1873 Kenkichi organized 'Gekkenkai' (Sword-fighting Society) to help these masters of martial arts. He put up shows at Saemongashi outside Asakusa Mitsuke. This was how Gekken shows got started, spreading to some 40 other places in Tokyo and also in the country.

On March 25, 1875 Kenkichi defeated Umanosuke UEDA, instructor of Gekken at the Keishi-cho (Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department) in a helmet-splitting match.

In 1876 the Haitorei (decrees abolishing the wearing of swords in public) was issued. Kenkichi invented 'Yamatozue, ' a wooden sword with a lock with which to hang it from one's belt (and which he called 'tsue' (stick), though different from 'jo' used in jujutsu, out of consideration for the government) to replace 'Uchigatana' (a Japanese sword) as well as 'Ganko Ogi,' a wooden fan which was a substitute 'Wakizashi' (short sword).

As 'The Last Swordsman'

In 1878 Emperor Meiji paid a royal visit to Ueno where imperial matches were held in his honour. Kenkichi was the organizer of the matches and also acted as a referee.

On November 1, 1887 Emperor Meiji visited Prince Fushimi in his residence. There is an anecdote that on that occasion Kenkichi cut a warrior helmet by Myochin 11.5 centimetres long with a Dotanuki sword and split it.

In his later years he unsuccessfully ran a 'koshaku' (the telling of war stories) theatre and an izakaya bar. He taught younger people at his dojo in Kurumazaka.

On September 11, 1894 he died of heart failure from beriberi like Shogun Iemochi at the age of 65. He was buried in Saio-ji Temple in Yotsuya. His posthumous Buddhist name is Gikoin Jozan Yamatoo Koji. He had neither untied a topknot nor closed the dojo until he died. The following foreigners visited his dojo in Kurumazaka to learn kenjutsu: Thomas McClatchy, the British Embassy's amanuensis, Heinrich von Siebold who was a good fencer, Erwin von Blaelz, a German lecturer of the University of Tokyo, Wiraley and Kir, Frenchmen (kenjutsu instructors at Rikugun Toyama Gakko (Toyama Military Academy)).