Who is Sasaki Kojiro
Sasaki Kojiro, known as ‘Demon of the Western Provinces,’ was a master swordsman who was born in Fukui prefecture. He earned this nickname because of his skill with the nodachi, since nodachi swords were often depicted as something that a demon would use. Legend says that Kojiro was a very flamboyant man. He quite often wore the clothes of a Kabuki actor which made him stand out — although a man of Kojiro’s skill level didn’t necessarily have to worry about what people thought of his attire.
Kojiro was also known as Ganryu, a name shared with the sword style he eventually came up with. Ganryu means ‘large rock style’ and involves the use of the nodachi. Kojiro was known for a particular technique called Tsubame Gaeshi, which translates to “the turning swallows cut.” Swallows move very fast and erratically, and they can also change directions very quickly which is where the name of this technique came from. The speed from one swing to the next was quite surprising, considering that Kojiro wielded a very long sword.
The weapon used by Sasaki Kojiro was a sword with a three shaku blade, approximately 35.5 inches long. There’s a lot of debate as to what kind of sword it actually was. Some say that it was a nodachi that barely had any curvature, while others say that it was his family tachi or a tachi remounted as a katana. There are even some that claim it was actually a chokuto — an earlier straight sword. In other words, no one really knows. All we know is that it was a three shaku blade, possibly forged by Ichihara Nagamitsu who worked in the Bizen tradition.
Legend has it that his sword went by a few names because of its size. One name was Monohoshi Zao which translates as “the drying pole” or the “clothes rod,” harkening back to its great length and resemblance to bamboo clothing rods that were used at the time for drying clothes. Another name was “Silver Frost.”
Sasaki Kojiro chose to use the nodachi because the man who taught him, Toda Seigen, was a master of the kodachi (short sword). Since he was his master’s sparring partner, Kojiro ended up using a long sword in order to achieve a range advantage. The style which Kojiro utilized is believed to be Chujo-ryu — one of the oldest schools of Japanese martial arts.
Dueling Sasaki Kojiro
Some of the duels Kojiro fought before the one against Miyamoto Musashi included spectacular displays of swordsmanship where he was known to battle against three different opponents at a time. While they were armed with swords, the only thing he wielded was a Tessen, or war fan with outer spokes made of plates of iron. Even without a sword, he still defeated every one of them with his fan, a feat of skill and no small talent. It also shows Kojiro’s knowledge of sword fighting in general, as he was familiar with the strategies and techniques his opponents would use.
Other legends include one in which Kojiro defeats his own uncle and the one in which he duels Musashi. Unfortunately, the duel with Musashi is the only story we know in detail.
On the day of the duel against Miyamoto Musashi, Musashi arrived a few hours late — a psychological tactic that he was known for. Sasaki Kojiro waited by the beach, and once Musashi arrived, ran up with his long sword in hand and said to him, “Are you late because you are afraid?” He then drew his sword and threw away the scabbard, some say on the ground or into the ocean.
Musashi replied, "If you have no more use for your scabbard, you are already dead.” This taunt enraged Kojiro even more, and he ran towards Musashi without bowing. It would have been seen as cocky to arrive late, but Musashi also arrived late wielding a wooden sword. This was a huge insult — as if to say that a piece of wood was all he really needed to kill his opponent. The bokken that Musashi wielded was made out of a boat oar which was carved a few inches longer than Kojiro’s sword, now turning Kojiro’s advantage of reach against him. Not only that, but Musashi fought with the sun on his back so Kojiro had to deal with the blinding light in his eyes.
Sasaki Kojiro, wielding his nodachi, went in for his famous turning Swallow’s Cut. Supposedly the cut missed Musashi’s head by inches, though other sources say that Musashi's headband was cut off and that he may have taken a minor cut to the head. After Kojiro’s failed attack, Musashi took his bokken and swung down on Kojiro’s head, bringing him to the ground.
Musashi then lowered his gaze down towards Kojiro, and Kojiro, with a little bit of life left in him, made a swing for Musashi’s legs. Musashi backed up just enough to dodge the attack, and then came down with his bokken on Kojiro’s chest, breaking one of his ribs and piercing his heart.
Finally, the duel was over.
Afterward, the island where the duel took place was renamed Ganryu Island after Sasaki Kojiro. If you visit Ganryu Island today, there are still two statues there, one of Musashi and one of Sasaki Kojiro, locked in a moment of combat to memorialize their famous duel.
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