Yamaoka Tesshu

The man who cared “nothing for life, money, or reputation”

The peaceful surrender of Edo Castle has been called the most beautiful event in Japanese history. Representatives of deposed Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu surrendered his castle to the new Imperial government in March 1868. Four months earlier the shogun had abdicated and restored the rule of the nation to the Emperor. Despite Yoshinobu’s good intentions for a bloodless revolution, two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule would not end without a struggle. The shogun was confronted with oppositionists within his camp who resented his abdication. They were determined to defend what they felt was their rightful rule, just as the commanders of the Imperial forces were determined to annihilate them to ensure that they would never rise again.

Occasionally a hero is born upon this earth of such outstanding caliber that his life, or a series of actions within his life, changes the course of human history to such an extent and improves the lot of his fellow human beings to such a degree that he must rightly take his place among the saints. Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi were such men because their heroic actions were not taken for selfish motives but rather for the common good.

Most nations can claim at least one such man among their national heroes, and some can boast two, three or even more. Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the dangerous aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu, was endowed with at least a few such men. They repeatedly risked their lives, set aside their self-interests and assumed a common raison d’etre upon a higher moral ground to spare the Japanese capital from the flames of civil war, to save the lives and property of its more than 1.5 million inhabitants and to ensure the sovereignty of the newborn modern Japanese state. Among them was the master swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu.

Yamaoka Tesshu was born in Edo in 1836, the fourth son of a direct vassal of the Tokugawa Shogun. At age nine he began training in kenjutsu, which, combined with the study of Zen and “service to nation and lord,” would be his lifelong devotion until his death forty-four years later. For all his martial and philosophical training, Tesshu was an unruly maverick within samurai society who lived by his own notions of the warrior’s code. Saigo Takamori, the great military leader of the Satsuma clan, once said, “Unless a man was difficult to control, I would never discuss important affairs of state with him.” Four years after the two had met as enemies, Saigo recruited Tesshu into the new Imperial government, to serve in the vital post of chief attendant and confidant to Emperor Meiji.

In June1853, Tesshu’s eighteenth year, an event occurred off the coast of Edo which would drastically change both his life and the course of Japanese history. This event of course was the sudden arrival of a flotilla of warships led by Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy. The Americans demanded a treaty with Japan, which for the past two and a half centuries had been governed under the peaceful isolationism of the Tokugawa. The Bakufu eventually yielded to the foreign demands, sparking the greatest upheaval in its history. Fifteen years of bloody turmoil ensued, with samurai faction pitted against samurai faction, culminating in the fall of the Edo regime and the establishment of Imperial rule.

During those dangerous times Tesshu did not limit his practice to the training hall. He ate and slept with his bamboo sword, and even brought it with him to the privy. He was constantly challenging people to a match. It made no difference to Tesshu whether a man was an expert swordsman or had never before held a sword, because he believed that a warrior must always be prepared to face any adversary at any given moment in any given situation. But pity the unsuspecting visitor to the Yamaoka home. Even the merchants from local shops were not exempt from a sudden challenge by the unruly swordsman, who reportedly weighed more than 240 pounds and stood over six feet tall. He would rush out of his house into the front yard to meet merchants as they arrived. The merchants were, more often than not, filled with the fear of death. Tesshu would thrust a practice sword into their hands and demand that they attack him. He only ceased his violent behavior when local merchants threatened to withhold services to his family.

Tesshu was a warrior first and last. His family was poor and often in debt, so that when the bill collectors came to his house he was obliged to turn them away. On one occasion a particularly persistent collector would not be turned away easily. He noticed that Tesshu had a sizable sum of money in his purse. When the collector pressed him to use that money to pay off at least part of the debt, Tesshu replied that he would sooner starve than use the money, which he kept as a “war reserve.”

Tesshu’s rough reputation did not escape the authorities in Edo. In the spring of 1863 opposition to the foreign treaties had so intensified that Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi was compelled to travel to Kyoto to promise the xenophobic emperor that he would expel the foreigners. As an advance guard to the shogun’s visit, the government recruited a corps of rough-and-ready swordsmen to suppress the rebels who had terrorized the streets of Kyoto over these past several years. Tesshu was assigned the daunting task of leading the corps, precursor of the notorious Shinsengumi, on the 300-mile overland journey to Kyoto. After Tesshu returned to Edo that spring, having successfully completed his mission, he finally encountered an opponent he could not defeat.

The man’s name was Asari Matashichiro. When Tesshu heard of Asari’s reputation as an expert swordsman, he immediately challenged him to a match. But Tesshu lost the match, upon which he became Asari’s student. He sparred with his new master everyday, and everyday he continued to lose. He developed a mental block for his master. When he closed his eyes to sleep at night his mind was filled with the vision of an unbeatable Asari brandishing a sword. The vision haunted him for years. Even after Tesshu established a fencing school and had a following of his own, he was obsessed with finding a way to defeat Asari. The more he struggled the more unattainable his objective became, and he continued to be distressed by the vision.

Years before, at age nineteen, Tesshu had begun the practice of Zen. He now took to heart the teaching of his first Zen master – that his ultimate objective must be nothing. “Only then,” his master had told him,“ will you remain as steady as a mountain, and never be afraid, even against a drawn sword.” Tesshu continued his rigorous training year after year. He wrote in his diary: “Although I continue to practice diligently, I cannot find a way to defeat Asari. After practicing with him each morning, I have numerous matches with other people in the afternoon. At night I sit alone and meditate, with my eyes closed and concentrating on my breathing. But once I start to think about Asari, he suddenly appears before me invincible. No matter how hard I try, I cannot strike him down.”

Early one morning, after meditating for five consecutive days, Tesshu took his sword in hand and waged a mental battle with Asari. At age forty-four, after training under Asari for seventeen years, Tesshu experienced an epiphany that changed his life. The vision of his master suddenly vanished. He rushed to the nearby training hall to engage his most skilled student. But the student soon gave up, throwing down his practice sword and saying, “I am no match for you.” Tesshu went straight to Asari to request a match. But not even the sword master could stand up against him. Asari laid down his practice sword and proclaimed that Tesshu had mastered the secret of his art.

After the fall of the Bakufu, Yamaoka Tesshu was despised as a traitor by samurai of the Tokugawa camp for his sympathetic ties with the enemy. That he was grossly misunderstood is apparent from his subsequent actions:

In January 1868 civil war broke out near Kyoto. The Imperial forces, led by the clans of Satsuma and Choshu, routed the army of the former shogun in just three days. The new government’s leaders, including Saigo Takamori, demanded that the deposed shogun commit ritual suicide, and set March fifteenth as the date fifty thousand Imperial troops would attack Edo Castle, and, in so doing, subject the entire city to the flames of war.

Yoshinobu was beside himself with anxiety and remorse. He had been declared an “Imperial Enemy” by the new government for the opposition within the Tokugawa camp which had resulted in civil war. While certain of his die-hard vassals continued to resist, Yoshinobu retreated to Ueno, in the northeastern part of the city, where he confined himself to a small apartment at Daijiin temple to demonstrate his “allegiance through penitence” to the Imperial government. At the end of February Tesshu was suddenly summoned by Yoshinobu. The summons took Tesshu by complete surprise. He had never seen Yoshinobu in person, let alone speak with him face-to-face. Wondering why he had been summoned, he hurried to the temple. Yoshinobu asked Tesshu to convey his absolute allegiance to the Emperor and intervene with the Imperial forces to avert an attack and spare his life. Tesshu was the only man in Edo Yoshinobu could count on. He had been strongly recommended by Yoshinobu’s bodyguard, Takahashi Deishu, Tesshu’s brother-in-law and close friend. But before setting out on the dangerous journey, Tesshu first had to pay a visit to Katsu Kaishu, head of the Tokugawa military and the most powerful man in Edo.

Kaishu had composed a letter to Saigo imploring him not to attack. In this letter he wrote that the retainers of the former shogun were an inseparable part of the new Japanese nation. Instead of fighting against one another, those of the new government and the old must cooperate in order to deal with the very real threat of the Western powers, whose legations in Yokohama anxiously watched the great revolution which had consumed the Japanese nation for these past fifteen years. Kaishu intended to entrust this letter to Tesshu to deliver to Saigo, but first needed to confirm one important matter.

“What are your plans for going to their headquarters?” Kaishu asked him.

“Once I get there I am resolved that they will either cut off my head or arrest me,” Tesshu replied. “I will surrender both of my swords. If they say they are going to arrest me, I will be arrested. If they say they are going to kill me, I will be killed. I will leave the entire matter up to them and gladly accept whatever they decide. But I don’t think that even the enemy would be so unreasonable as to butcher a man without first allowing him to say a few words, even if they were going to kill him. So if they are going to kill me…I will say that if they think I am wrong, they should kill me immediately.”

Convinced of his messenger’s “sincerity and determination,” Kaishu entrusted him with the letter and sent him on his way. Tesshu returned home that night with the letter in his pocket. He asked his wife to prepare enough rice for several meals. Ever the warrior, he now consumed all of the rice in one sitting because he did not know when he would have the chance to eat again. As he set out for enemy headquarters in Sunpu (present-day Shizuoka), about one hundred miles southwest of Edo, he told his wife that he was “going out for a while.”

At dawn the next morning Tesshu encountered an advance guard of enemy forces. According to Kaishu’s later recollections, Tesshu “calmly proceeded right through them.” Soon he reached the enemy camp and boldly approached the commanding officer. After introducing himself, he announced in a loud, clear voice, “I am a vassal of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who has been branded an Imperial Enemy. I will now proceed to your headquarters.” Not only did Yoshinobu’s messenger continue unimpeded, but according to Kaishu the commanding officer was so impressed by Tesshu’s courage that he “saw him off” on this last stage of his journey.

When Tesshu finally arrived at enemy headquarters, Saigo agreed to meet him at once. The commander of the Imperial forces was a giant of a man whose magnanimity earned him the epithet “Saigo the Great.” Tesshu handed Kaishu’s letter to Saigo. When Saigo had finished reading the letter, Tesshu asked him bluntly if he still intended to attack Edo Castle and wreak death and destruction upon the capital. Saigo, whose cherished maxim was “Revere heaven, love mankind,” replied that his only purpose was to suppress the oppositionist forces. “Why would you ask such a question?” he demanded.

“My lord Tokugawa Yoshinobu has sworn penitence and allegiance to the Emperor and placed himself in confinement to await for the Imperial Court to decide his fate. Why is it, then, that your army is still preparing to attack?”

“If Yoshinobu is truly repentant as you say, why do his forces continue to challenge us? Where is the proof that he has sworn allegiance to the emperor and put his life in the hands of the Imperial Court?”

Tesshu replied that Yoshinobu had ordered his people to lay down their arms and swear allegiance to the new government. “But some of them have ignored his orders, which is greatly troubling to my lord. Unless his unequalled sincerity is made known to the Imperial Court, I fear that the court will confuse him with one of those insignificants who oppose you. This is why I have risked my life to come here today.”

Saigo was reticent as usual. Since he did not offer a reply, Tesshu continued speaking. “I have come here today to convey this message from my lord. If you will not intervene with the Imperial Court on his behalf, there will be nothing left for me to do but to die. And not only will I die, but tens of thousands of Tokugawa vassals will perish also. How do you suppose that will affect the future of Japan?”

Tesshu was perfectly sincere, and Saigo knew it. He told Tesshu that he would convey the message to the Imperial authorities who were present at the military headquarters. “Wait here. I will return soon with their reply.”

Presently Saigo returned with a set of conditions by which the attack would be called off and Yoshinobu’s life spared. The shogun’s castle and all of his weapons and warships must be surrendered to the Imperial government; all of the shogun’s troops must be removed from the capital; Yoshinobu must agree to be placed in custody.

Tesshu’s reply was terse. He would accept all of the conditions but the last, because, as he told Saigo, tens of thousands of Tokugawa vassals would fight to the death before surrendering up their lord. “Unless you relinquish the last condition, war is inevitable.”

Saigo remained silent. Tesshu groped for a solution to the impasse. The two great men stared hard at one another, engaged in mental battle. Suddenly a solution flashed across Tesshu’s mind. “What if the table was turned?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What if it was your lord and not mine who must be handed over to the enemy? I believe that, like me, you would die first.” The two men continued to stare hard at one another. Tears filled Tesshu’s eyes and Saigo was overwhelmed by the latter’s sincerity. A man who cared “nothing for life, money, or reputation,” he would one day describe this messenger from the enemy camp. “You need not worry,” Saigo assured him. “You’re a brave man, a great strategist and a true warrior. The fate of the nation has rested upon your shoulders.” Saigo promised Tesshu that his will would be done, and in so doing secured Tesshu’s place in history as a savior of modern Japan.


Copyright©2003 Romulus Hillsborough
All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Tokyo Journal.