Tsukahara Bokuden - the Wandering Swordsman

3 minute read

Tsukahara Bokuden was a famed duelist who lived in the 15th – 16th centuries.  Living almost 80 years before Miyamoto Musashi, he is considered one of the most forward-thinking Samurai of all time.  This is his story.

Early Life

Bokuden was born Asako, to a priest of the Yoshikawa family who served the local Kashima clan.  Early in life, he was adopted by the Tsukahara’s, an extended branch of the Kashima clan, due to the early death of his adopted father’s biological son.  Thus, his name became Tsukaraha Shin’emon Takamoto. 

Bokuden learned Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto, one of the oldest Japanese martial arts.  Having mastered the style at the still-young age of 17, he desired to continue his studies, so he traveled throughout Japan, learning from the finest living swordsman of his day.  From a rich family, he did not do this alone, but with a large retinue.

Student Traveler

During this journey, he took part in nearly 20 duels and 40 engagements.  He managed to kill 21 warriors of note.  Around the age of 20, he meant a famed swordsman Ochiai Torazaemon.  Bokuden challenged Ochiai to a duel, which Ochiai accepted dismissively.

Ochiai was twice Bokuden’s age, so he did not consider Bokuden a threat.  Much to his surprise, Bokuden quickly defeated him.  While duels could be to the death, Bokuden chose to let Ochiai live.  Ochiai, humiliated by the defeat, dishonorably laid an ambush for the young Samurai.  When Ochiai attacked, Bokuden had only a moment to react.  Drawing his Wakizashi in an instant, Bokuden fatally wounded Ochiai, who spent his dying moment questioning why Bokuden didn’t draw his Katana.  Bokuden replied that the shorter sword better suited the small distance he had to work with.

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Bokuden would often return home to visit his adopted family, and on one such occasion his father saw fit to cement Bokuden’s place as future clan leader by having Bokuden marry his daughter, Bokuden’s adopted sister.

Bokuden didn’t fight only swordsman.  In one duel, he fought a vicious man Kajiwara Natago, who used the Naginata (a sword on a stick). Kajiwara was famous for causing great pain with his strikes, leaving his opponent to die in horrible agony.  Bokuden simply cut off the sword blade from the rest of the weapon, leaving his opponent defenseless.  Bokuden then easily dispatched Kajiwara.

2 New Fighting Styles

Having gained so much experience, Bokuden eventually developed his own sword-fighting style.  Claiming to have received it from the deity his biological father served, he named it the Kashima Shinto-Ryu (Single cut style).  After his many years of traveling, he went back and served in his daimyo’s (Lord’s) army until retirement age, about age 37.  Then, he opened his own sword school.  One of the students he taught would become a future Shogun (military dictator) of Japan.

As Bokuden aged, he began to turn his thoughts away from how to kill an opponent to how to avoid fighting one in the first place.  This was partially because he was tired of all the young uptight swordsman constantly challenging him because of his renown.  In one instance, he referred to this new fighting style as his “no-sword style”.

There is one famous instance that exemplifies this line of thought, and we would be remiss if we did not include it here.  One day, on a boat, a young, boisterous, and arrogant swordsman claiming to the best challenged all the passengers. The now-aged Bokuden was unimpressed, immediately drawing the attention of the challenger.  Bokuden agreed to a duel, claiming that he would defeat the youngster unarmed.  However, the duel should be held on a remote island so as not to disturb anyone.  The challenger agreed, and when they arrived at the island jumped off the boat and drew his blade.  Bokuden merely grabbed the boat’s paddle and pushed off, leaving the Samurai stranded.  As he paddled away Bokuden shouted “Here is my no-sword school!”


Bokuden lived to the ripe old age of 83. Dying in 1571, he had killed over 212 people in total.  In all his duels, he had never been wounded, and in all his battles, he was wounded only 6 times, by only arrows.

Fun Fact

As stories often do, Bokuden’s skills have grown with the telling, and so many stories have been told about him that it is hard to separate fact from fiction.  One story that we know is false, however, is Bokuden’s supposed duel with other famed master Miyamoto Musashi (Bokuden died 13 years before Musashi was born).  In the story, during a dinner, Miyamoto challenged Bokuden to a duel.  Bokuden accepted, but when Miyamoto drew his blade and attacked, Bokuden calmly blocked the stroke with the lid of the pot he was eating from!

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