Origins of Shinkendo

This article appeared in Budo Journaal # 15,16 and 17 of 2000.

Toshishiro Obata kaiso
Renowned Martial Artist Toshishiro Obata kaiso is the founder, director and chief instructor of The Kokusai Shinkendo Renmei (International Shinkendo Federation) and Aikibujutsu Tanren Kenkyukai (Aiki Buken for short). Both systems are reunifications of traditional samurai arts that have splintered or evolved in recent centuries. Obata Kaiso’s family lineage, experience and exceedingly intensive training in physical aspects of Budo as well as strategic, mental and philosophical areas have allowed him the skills and necessary insight to assume his current position. Obata Kaiso was born in Gunma prefecture, Japan in 1948 of samurai lineage. The Obata family originally descended from the Heike clan’s stream. Mr. Obata is a descendant of Toramori Obata, who served as a general and strategist (one of the famous 24 strategists) for the Takeda family during the civil war, Sengoku era. Toramori would become the lord of Kaizu Jo (castle) in Shin Shu (Nagano) province. Obata Toramori’s son, Obata Kagenori (1570-1644), became a page and companion to Japans second Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada. During this time in Kagenori’s youth, he studied Kenjutsu and general scholarship with Hidetada. Later, during the Osaka winter campaign, Kagenori was directed by the Tokugawa family to infiltrate and join the Toyotomi camps for the purpose of gathering intelligence. Before the Summer campaign began, Kagenori returned to the side of the Tokugawa family and later completed the famous “Koyogunkan”. This work was the foundation of the “Heiho Okugisho” (translated into English by T. Obata), Japans secret book of strategy. During his lifetime, Obata Kagenori became known as the father of “Koshu Ryu Gungaku”, or, “Takeda Ryu”. Gunma prefecture, the birth place of Mr. Obata, is known for producing famous swordsman such as the notable Kamakura patriot Nitta Yoshisada, and the founder of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship, Kamiizumi Isenokami Hidetsuna. Obata had been enamored with swordsmanship from a very young age and dreamed of studying seriously someday.

In 1966, the 18 year old Obata set out to Tokyo to become a professional martial artist. Upon visiting the Yoshinkan Dojo, he witnessed a demonstration by Honbu Shihan and became fascinated with Aikido. Soon after, he was accepted as an ‘Uchi Deshi’ (literally house student or live-in apprentice) under the late Gozo Shioda and remained as such teaching at Yoshinkan Honbu as well as universities, the Metropolitan Riot Police (kidotai) and the Japanese Self Defense Army for 7 years. Looking to expand on the sword work taught in Aikido training, the young Obata cross trained in several other studies, including Yagyu Shinkage-ryu Swordsmanship under the twenty first generation Soke Yagyu Nobuharu, and the study of Zen with the Shiyukai. However, as an uchi deshi he was not allowed to seriously pursue other arts, and as a result left the Yoshinkan in 1973. Obata Kaiso was welcomed by the Tate dojo to be a Bujutsu Shihan, and as such became a member of the Tokyo Wakakoma (an elite group of martial artists, who serve as fight scene choreographers and stuntmen for Japanese television and movies). Under the tutelage of the Wakakoma’s Master Kunishiro Hayashi, Mr. Obata earned the title of Tateshi (film choreographer). Before Mr. Obata joined the Wakakoma, Judo-style techniques were favored for most of Japans T.V. and films; but soon after, Master Hayashi became so influenced by Obata that he began to introduce more Aikido techniques. This type of action became increasingly popular and aided in the spreading of Aikido in Japan’s film and television world. As the head choreography teacher, Master Hayashi also taught or arranged for the study of all aspects of Samurai manner and tradition for the Wakakoma’s members in order to ensure accurate performances. These skills, such as archery from horseback (Bajutsu), the wearing of traditional clothing and armor (Yoroi), spear (Yarijutsu), Naginata and various sword styles, were taught by well known specialists in their respective fields, and are increasingly rare to find in modern Martial Arts. During this time that Mr. Obata sought further outside instruction from noted teachers such as Master Taizaburo Nakamura of Toyama-ryu and Nakamura-ryu Battojutsu, Master Tesshisai Uchida of Ioriken Batto do, Master Tanaka Shigeho of Kashima Shin-ryu, Master Yumio Nawa of Masaki-ryu Manrikigusari, Ouedo Juttejutsu and Ninpo, and Master Motokatsu Inoue of Ryukyu Kobudo. Concurrently Mr. Obata worked as Shitoka (sword tester) for the late swordsmith Kobayashi Yasuhiro.

Through the experience with the Tokyo Wakakoma and the martial arts connections made during this time, Mr. Obata was able to seriously study classical sword arts as well as other budo while developing skills as an action coordinator and actor. His efforts and those of his instructors are only too evident from the fact that for 6 consecutive years Mr. Obata was the All Japan Battodo Champion, Ioriken Battojutsu champion for 4 years and Toyama Ryu All Japan Champion for 2 years. Some of Mr. Obata’s ranks include Menkyo Kaiden, Keisho Denju, Shihan, various certifications and a combined total of 75 Dan rankings. The Opportunity to train with many high level budo instructors during this time, and the knowledge and experience of these masters proved to be instrumental in Mr. Obata’s eventual development of Shinkendo and Aikibuken.

In 1980, Mr. Obata came to the USA after being entrusted with the title of Chief Instructor for North America of Toyama Ryu and Nakamura Ryu Batto Do by Master Taizaburo Nakamura, and Chief Instructor (Soke) of the USA Batto Do Federation by the All Japan Batto Do Federation. Sword related accidents were becoming more common, and the need for a stronger foundation in safety and accurate technique was needed. After about 10 years of teaching Batto Do, Mr. Obata redirected his efforts into developing the fundamentals of his own stylized sword art Shinkendo – a system based upon his experience, knowledge and historical research.

In February of 1994 Obata Soke conducted a rare kabutowari (traditional helmet cutting test) using a sword forged in the Japanese fashion and a Hineno style black lacquer helmet (dated 1573-1602). This practice has existed in cooperation and competition between armor-smiths, swordsmiths and swordsmen for over 400 years. The record length cut of 13 centimeters ( 4 sun, 3 bu) is currently the world record for testcutting an authentic Hineno style helmet. (actual footage is included in the “Shinkendo” video). Then in 1996, he founded the Aikido & Aikibujutsu Tanren Kenkyukai, a research and practice organization of Bujutsu and Budo ranging from the earliest forms of Aikijutsu to modern Aikido. Taihojutsu (control & arresting arts) is also part of the curriculum, and is an art tailored for use in the law enforcement and security fields.

Shinkendo is a comprehensive reunification of what the Samurai once used and relied upon for survival, and can be classified as a combination of Obata Kaiso’s own technical and structural innovations and an amalgamation of several traditions of Japanese swordsmanship that have evolved and splintered over time. Unified, Shinkendo is a historically accurate and comprehensive style of Japanese Swordsmanship. Kaiso’s school emphasizes very traditional and effective technique, which with serious training, leads to both practical ability as well as an understanding of classical martial arts. Shinkendo is steeped in the traditions of Heiho (strategy), Reiho (proper Bushido etiquette) and philosophy.

Sword training revolves around Kaiso’s structure of “Gorin Goho Gogyo” (five equally balanced interacting rings that symbolize the five major methods of technical study). This includes: Suburi (sword swinging drills), Tanrengata (solo forms), Battoho (combative drawing and cutting methods), Tachiuchi (sparring) and Tameshigiri/Shizan (cutting straw and bamboo targets). Students typically train using a Bokuto (wooden sword), and later advance to training with Iaito (or mugito, non-sharpened sword) and finally Shinken, or ‘live blade’. At more advanced levels, the student begins to test their acquired skills through test cutting practice on tatami omote makiwara (rolled up tatami mats, previously soaked in water), and eventually Nihondake or Mosodake (Japanese or Chinese bamboo). While Shinkendo requires rigorous physical training, depth of coordination, and intense focus, one of the most important aspects of Shinkendo is the emphasis on spiritual forging, which inspires “Bushi Damashii” (the Samurai/ warrior spirit), a quality that we feel is as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago. Proper practice of Shinkendo should provide one with not only a strong body and mind, but also a calm, clear and focused spirit.

The purpose of the Aikibujutsu Tanren Kenkyukai (or Aiki Buken for short) organization is to accurately rebuild concepts and techniques from the older styles of Aiki no jutsu used during the Samurai times, as well as to study and continue to develop the “softer” styles of modern Aikido. Kaiso’s system stems from the techniques of Gozo Shioda Kancho, as they were handed down to him by Morihei Ueshiba Sensei (Aikido’s founder). Obata Kaiso was one of the last generations of traditional Uchi Deshi to have trained under Shioda Sensei. In addition Kaiso has integrated concepts, techniques and strategy from Shorinji Ryu Kempo, Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, Taihojutsu and Ryukyu Kobudo. Aiki Buken, known for the toughness and skill of its devotees and the effectiveness of it’s techniques, is often referred to as a “hard style” Aikido. It is unique in its ability to remain effective at faster, realistic speeds, while retaining fluid “Aiki” type movements. The emphasis of Obata Kaiso’s style is on fluid and focused, yet highly practical and efficient techniques that make it ideal for physical training, as well as self-defense.

When not instructing classes or seminars, Obata Kaiso works in the film industry writing screenplays, action coordinating and acting (appearing in movies such as Black Rain, Rage & Honor, Rising Sun, Demolition man, the Shadow, Showdown in Little Tokyo and the Hunted). Along with the various videos he has made Kaiso has written six books including: “Heiho Okugisho” (translation), “Kama: Weapon art of Okinawa”, “Naked Blade: A manual of Samurai Swordsmanship”, “Crimson Steel: Samurai Sword Technique” and “Samurai Aikijutsu”. He most recent work became available in March of 1999: “Shinkendo: Japanese Swordsmanship”. More information can be found at Obata Kaiso’s teachings have grown consistently in popularity over the last decade. Schools now exist in 10 countries worldwide in addition to a widespread network in the US. Continued effort on the part of his family, instructors and students will see the international Shinkendo/Aikibuken family enlarge to make his arts available to all who seek his classical and traditional yet dynamically alive art of the samurai.