Yagyu Munenori (柳生宗矩)

Munenori YAGYU was a Japanese military commander, a feudal lord, and a swordsman in the early Edo period. He was a sword instructor to the Tokugawa Shogun family. He was the first lord of the Yagyu Domain in the Yamato Province. He was a great swordsman as well as a politician, establishing the Edo Yagyu School of Swordsmanship as the sword instructor to the Shogun family.


He was the fifth son of the swordsman Muneyoshi YAGYU (Sekishusai), a local lord of the Yagyu Village in the Yamato Province, who was conferred full mastership in the Shinkage-ryu (Shinkage school of swordsmanship) from Nobutsuna KAMIIZUMI in 1565. His mother was Suketoyo OKIHARA's daughter. Yoshikatsu YAGYU and Muneaki YAGYU were his older brothers. In his childhood, his father lost his fief because his hidden paddy fields were discovered when taiko kenchi (the cadastral surveys conducted by Hideyoshi) was carried out; however, he served Ieyasu TOKUGAWA with his father in 1594. After he performed distinguished services at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he was given a fief of yielding 2,000 koku in the Yagyu Village, Yamato Province, which was a former fief of his father.

In 1601, he became a sword instructor to Hidetada TOKUGAWA, who was later to become the second Shogun; he subsequently served the third Shogun, Iemitsu TOKUGAWA, also as a sword instructor. In the Siege of Osaka in 1615, he fought for Shogun Hidetada and killed seven Toyotomi soldiers who drew swords against Hidetada. It was the only recorded example where Munenori killed people through his whole life. The following year in 1616, he worked hard to settle an attempted rebellion by Naomori SAKAZAKI, who was a friend of his.

In spite of a pledge that the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) would settle the matter, if only Naomori killed himself; the bakufu soon broke up the Sakazaki family and confiscated its fief. Munenori dissuaded Naomori on the basis of that pledge, but after all, he might as well have deceived his friend. He adopted the crest of the Sakazaki family (a pair of straw lampshade hats with ties) and used it along with the Yagyu family's crest (great burnet), probably because he determined to keep this incident in mind throughout his life.

He gradually gained the confidence of the Shogun and had an increase in stipend, and was invested with Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade, and appointed the governor of Tajima Province in 1629. In 1632, he became the first inspector general for bakufu, assuming the task of supervising feudal lords. In 1636, he had his stipend raised to 10,000 koku in total, ranked with feudal lords, and established the Yagyu Domain in the Yamato Province. In his later years, he had another allowance, raised to Junior Fourth Rank, Lower Grade; finally held a fief of 12,500 koku.

He died in 1646 and was buried in the Hotoku-ji Temple located in Yagyu shimo-cho, Nara City, which was founded by himself to pray for the repose of his father's soul, having invited his friend Takuan Soho as the first chief priest. He was seventy-six years old. Besides, his graveyard is also located in the Kotoku-ji Temple in Sakuradai, Nerima Ward; and his gravestone is in the ancient site of 華将寺 Temple in Tayama, Minamiyamashiro-mura, Kyoto Prefecture.

His four children were as follows: Mitsuyoshi YAGYU (Jubei), the eldest son, well-known as a one-eyed swordsman; Tomonori YAGYU, who won Iemitsu's favor, and died young before his father; Munefuyu YAGYU, who succeeded to the post of sword instructor to the Shogun family in place of Mitsuyoshi who died soon after his father's death; Gisen RETSUDO, who became the first chief priest of Hotoku-ji Temple, a family temple of the Yagyu clan.

He was a heavy smoker; he did not give up smoking despite repeated advice from Takuan.

He was fond of dancing and Noh play, and sometimes dropped in at feudal lord houses to perform a dance.

Jubei, his legitimate son, became blind in one eye because Munenori struck him by mistake during a sword-sparring session to instruct a fencing technique called Tsukikage no tachi (Moonshadow sword).

After Munenori's death, when Iemitsu was in trouble, he would often say, 'How would Munenori deal with this problem if he were alive?'

Munenori in fiction
It is well known that Munenori was highly praised by Kaishu KATSU. Sohachi YAMAOKA wrote a novel for the NHK historical drama "Haru no Sakamichi" (slopes in the springtime of life). This drama showed Munenori as a kind and warmhearted master swordsman, and a good instructor to Iemitsu.

However, lately there is a tendency that Munenori has often been depicted as a bad guy in many stories (partly because he served Hidetada).
e.g.: (novels written by Yasusuke GOMI, Keiichiro RYU, and Toru ARAYAMA, including "Kagemusha: Tokugawa Ieyasu" [Ieyasu Tokugawa's body double]; a manga series "Azumi;" a film and a TV drama "The Shogun's Samurai: Yagyu Clan Conspiracy;" the NHK historical drama "Musashi;" and a Play Station action game "Onimusha" [Oni warrior])
To understand Munenori through these works may cause confusion about his character.

The way he is depicted in stories varies according to the era and people's sense of values; from a political point of view, he is regarded as a person with a fine character and distinguished in both literary and military arts, devoted himself to peace; from a view point of genuine swordsmanship, he is regarded as a skillful swordsman but a little inferior to other contemporary great swordsmen, his father, his son Jubei, or his nephew Toshiyoshi YAGYU (Hyogonosuke); and he is also described as an evil individual who distorted swordsmanship by politics. No matter how he was depicted in stories, he was consistently described as a strict person remarkable for both wisdom and courage; Munenori's image as an outstanding figure is commonly observed.