Niju kun of Yamaoka Tesshu 山岡鉄舟二十訓

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I want to introduce one of the last samurais in the Bakumatsu (end of Tokugawa shogunate), (徳川幕府) period. His name is Tesshu Yamaoka (山岡 鉄舟, 1836 – 1888). I respect him for his philosophy and the way he lived. He sets a very high goal but he is my role model. I also want to introduce his Nijukun (twenty principles) which guided his life style.

First let’s look at who Tesshu was. Yamaoka Tesshu was a famous samurai who played an important role in the Meiji Restoration(明治維新). He was also the founder of the Itto Shoden Muto ryu (一刀正伝無刀流) kenjutsu or swordsmanship style.

Tesshu began his study of swordsmanship when he was nine years old. Over time Tesshu studied a number of fencing styles and became highly proficient. Here is a famous story of him meeting his new teacher. When he was twenty eight, Tesshu was defeated by an expert swordsman named Asari Yoshiaki (浅利 義明1822 – 1894, photo below), AKA Matahichiro (又七郎) and became his student. Although larger and younger, Tesshu could not match his teacher’s mental state. During training sessions, AAsarisari was known to force Tesshu all the way to the back of the dojo, then out into the street, knock him to the ground, and then slammed the dojo door. Confronted with this challenge, Tesshu continuously increased his efforts in his training and meditation. Even when he was eating or sleeping, Tesshu was constantly thinking about kenjutsu. He also slept with his sword wrapped in his arms. He would sometimes wake up at night, jump out of bed, and stand in the yard with his drawn sword to explore his new insight. Then, one morning in 1880, when he was 45 years old, Tesshu attained “Enlightenment” while sitting in zazen. Later that morning he went to the dojo to practice with Asari. Upon seeing Tesshu, Asari recognized at once that Tesshu had reached “Enlightenment”. Asari, declined to practice with Tesshu, acknowledging Tesshu’s accomplishment by saying, “You have attained.” After this, Tesshu went on to open his own school of kenjutsu called Shunpukan (春風館).

Tesshu was 187 cm (six feet two iches) tall and weighed 105 kg (231 lbs), unusually big for a Japanese person of his time, and very athletic. Writing 7He was a natural leader and very competitive. So intense was his practice of his three main pursuits (fencing, Zen, and calligraphy), that his nickname was Demon Tesshu. Tesshu was also famous for combining his competitive nature with his love of drinking. He was a master calligrapher. The enormous number of the calligraphy paintings he has created is estimated to be over a million. His art works are considered very important with great value thus even now they are studied by many. One can see many of his works as they are being exhibited in many museums, temples and shrines all around Japan.

Tesshu’s life bridged the time between feudal and modern Japan. Tesshu held a position as a bodyguard for the last Togugawa Shogun. Tesshu even played a role in the transition of power. Then Tesshu became a tutor for the Emperor Meiji during the emperor’s early adulthood.

Tesshu died from stomach cancer at the age of fifty-three. On the day before he died, Tesshu noticed that there were no sounds of training coming from his dojo. When Tessu wStatueas told that the students had canceled training to be with him in his last hours, he ordered them to return to the dojo saying, “Training is the only way to honor me!” Tesshu’s last moments before his death were truly impressive and almost unbelievable. First he composed his death poem, then he predicted when he would pass. On the last day, he sat in zazen position facing toward Edo Castle where Meiji Emperor lived until he took his last breath. This is why I respect him the most out of all the samurai heroes.

This is called Tesshu Niju kun (鉄舟二十訓). He used these 20 kuns to guide his life style. I will translate the original Japanese words. I take all the blame if any part of my translation is incorrect or poor.


Tesshu Niju kunWriting 2

一、 嘘いうべからず候

#1 We must not lie.

二、 君の御恩を忘るべからず候

#2 We must always remember the support received from our lord.

三、 父母の御恩を忘るべからず候

#3 We must remember the love received from our parents.

四、 師の御恩を忘るべからず候

#4 We must remember the valuable education from our teachers.

五、 人の御恩を忘るべからず候

#5 We must remember the kindness and help that we received from others.

六、 神仏並びに長者を粗末にすべからく候

#6 We must show our respect to our seniors and all the gods.

七、 幼者をあなどるべからず候

#7 We must not make light of our juniors .

八、 己れに心よからざること他人に求むべからず候

#8 We must not ask others to do something that we do not want to do ourselves.

九、 腹を立つるは道にあらず候

#9 Getting angry means you are not following the way.

十、 何事も不幸を喜ぶべからず候

#10 We must never welcome other people’s unhappiness or misfortune.

十一、 力の及ぶ限りは善き方につくすべく候

#11 Do your best to support a good man.

十二、 他を顧みずして自分をよきことばかりすべからず候

#12 Do not do a favor only for yourself without considering others.

十三、 食するたびに稼しょくの艱難を思うべし すべて草木土石にても粗末


#13 Remember the hard labor of the farmers when you eat. Do not waste anything including the plants and the stones.

十四、 ことさらに着物をかざり あるいはうわべだけをつくろうものは 心


#14 A person has a cloudy mind if he wears excessively nice clothes and worries about his looks.

十五、 礼儀を乱るべからず候

#15 We must not forget the daily etiquette.

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十六、 何時何人に接するも客人に接するように心得うべく候

#16 Whenever we talk to the others, we must remember to act as if they are all our guests.

十七、 己れの知らざることは何人にでもならうべく候

#17 We must learn from anyone who can teach us about the things we do not know.

十八、 名利のために学問技芸すべからず候

#18 We must not study or practice martial arts only to gain fame and wealth.

十九、 人にはすべて能、不能あり いちがいに人をすて或は笑うべからず候

#19 Each person has his/her strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, do not disregard or laugh at someone for his/her shortcomings.

二十、 己れの善行を誇り顔に人に知らしべからず すべて我が心に恥ざるに


#20 We must not show off our good deeds by our expression or behavior. We must behave, all the time, in ways that we will not embarrass our own character.


I am very much aware that it is very challenging to follow all these principles. But I will do my darnest as I wish to live like Yamaoka Tesshu. Most of all, I wish to take my last breath sitting in a lotus position like he did. In the next world, Tesshu will be my judge and I hope I can face him without any embarassment.

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