Yamamoto Kansuke, named as author in the Sword Scroll text

Samurai Secrets Revealed: English Translation of the 500-year-old ‘Sword Scroll’ Provides Fighting Tactics Including ‘Egg Them’

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A medieval samurai text recently translated into English gives many practical tips on fighting an enemy and advises all warriors to be ‘pure of heart and in balance in their spirit’. Although presumed written by two members of the highly equipped samurai elite, it interestingly provides instructions on how to make a homemade projectile from everyday kitchen items. The translator says there are many other Japanese martial arts texts remain to be translated.

An 1860 photo of a samurai warrior in complete armor

An 1860 photo of a samurai warrior in complete armor ( Public domain )

A story describing the “Sword Scroll” on Live Science says it is attributed to two medieval Japanese writers and may date back 500 years, though experts are not certain of when it was written.

Eric Shahan, who translated the scroll into English, says it reads in part:

‘It is best to err on the side of caution and not enter a mountain road infested with brigands.’

In other words, don’t fight with too many enemies at one time lest you be overwhelmed by numbers.

And hearkening to an old cliché in English that notes a little learning can be a dangerous thing, the scroll states:

‘A little bit of military training can be the cause of great injury.’

Fumio Manaka, a Japanese martial artist in the style of kobudo, translated the medieval text into modern Japanese. Mr. Shahan, a Japanese translator and third-degree black belt in kobudo, then translated it into English, Live Science states.

Scene featuring samurai, Yamamoto Kansuke (1501-1561), who was killed in the battle of Kawanakajima. He is thought to have written the majority of the text.

Scene featuring samurai, Yamamoto Kansuke (1501-1561), who was killed in the battle of Kawanakajima. He is thought to have written the majority of the text. ( Public Domain )

Just who wrote the scroll presents somewhat of a mystery, Live Science says. The text itself says two men wrote it: Yamamoto Kansuke, who lived from 1501 to 1561 and worked for a warlord named Takeda Shingen when war was tearing up Japan; and a smaller amount of text is attributed to Kusunoki Masashige, a national hero who lived from 1294 to 1336 and served Emperor Go-Daigo.

This statue is a depiction of Kusunoki Masashige, a medieval Japanese hero who attributed as co-author of the scroll.

This statue is a depiction of Kusunoki Masashige, a medieval Japanese hero who attributed as co-author of the scroll. ( CC BY 2.0/Jim Epler )

Complicating matters further is the fact that four versions of the text survive, all differing and all published in Japanese books through the centuries. The text and illustrations vary from version to version, though much of the content is similar. Mr. Shahan’s translation is the first English version, according to Live Science.

Many other Japanese martial arts books could be translated and studied more, Mr. Shahan said. He told Live Science:

‘Then, they all need to be dated correctly, and then we can lay [out] the whole scenario of how martial arts evolved from the 14th-17th centuries. It is important to note that in Japan it wasn't until after the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate [in 1603] that books about martial arts began to emerge. Before that, everyone was too busy fighting.’

Yamamoto Kansuke and the remnant of his troops on a hillock mown down by the Uesugi musketeers at Kawanakajima on October 12, 1561

Yamamoto Kansuke and the remnant of his troops on a hillock mown down by the Uesugi musketeers at Kawanakajima on October 12, 1561 ( Public Domain )

Some of the other tips in the scroll include:

  • Blinding powders: The text advises opening a small hole in an eggshell and letting the yolk and whites flow out. Put red pepper in the egg and wrap it in paper. Shahan’s translation takes over: “When you are faced with an enemy, smash it on their face.” Another type of blinding powder involves blending animal manure, grass and the venom of a poisonous mamushi snake. Blowing this stuff at an opponent will cause them to pass out, though the text says the author had not tested it yet.
  • Another tactic included in the text explains how to fight on a moonless night. “When battling on a dark night, drop your body down low and concentrate on the formation the enemy has taken and try to determine how they are armed.” From a lower position in terrain that is not to your advantage, “move in and engage the enemy.”
  • The scroll has some practical advice on sword fighting, including lengthening the striking distance of a sword when on horseback by extending it with the scabbard. It also says to turn the scabbard straight up and down when under attack on horseback to protect from an attack on the guts.

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