What is Hiden? 秘伝とは何ぞや?

Hiden magazineHave you heard this Japanese word, hiden before? As this word is closely tied with the Japanese martial arts and a popular word in general so you may have heard it. My son told me that the word is used in Naruto games. If you have a chance to visit Japan or to speak with a Japanse sensei you may encounter with this word. Knowing the meaning of this word as well as the other similar terms that are related to this word will be helpful.

Hi () means secret and den () means teach. Thus, hiden means to teach or pass on the secret techniques or methods. It is typically used that this secret technique is passed on only to a particular person who is supposed to be the only deserving student. We have a martial art magazine called “Hiden” (magazine cover, photo right). Don’t you agree that it is almost a black joke to publish the “secret” techniques?

The word of hiden is used not only in the martial arts but also in many other areas such as the arts such as Sado (tea ceremony), Kado (flower arrangement), Noh play and even in the business such as restaurants where they may use the high level of techniques or skills. The use of this word becomes almost too much as many restaurants in Japan claim they have the hiden with their spice (photo below left), taste, preparation, etc. The word is used as a book title for many different subjects. The book cover shown below right is about the “secret” stories of sake (rice wine). I guess McDonal and CocaCola could claim that they have their “Hiden” sauce and taste. Coincidentally, this word can be replaced by an English word, hidden in some cases.

TareSake hiden

Joking aside, as you can see that in Japan this word, “hiden” is very popular and it has been very popular even before the samurai time, Nara-Heian period (奈良・平安期) or the 8th and 9th centuries. Some samurai experts (?) even wrote some books, hidensho (秘伝書 photos below), apparently they had so much to pass on. Of course, not only the modern day kendo and kenjutsu practitioners but also the scholars read these books to learn what were written in them. Most of them were disappointed as they could not find any secrets or the contents did not make any sense.

Hiden sho

Kenjutsu hidensho collection

There is another popular Japanese term that is used often that is, often, connected to Hiden. The word is Mongai fushutsu 門外不出 which means “not to go outside the doors”. It literally means keep the secret inside the doors. This is typically used for something of a dojo or a school such as a rule, technique, training, etc. to be kept among the members of that particular group. If a dojo ora school is big and has tens of students then the matter will not be a hiden. A hiden matter is more exclusive and is typically handed down to only one person.

There is one other term that you may want to know, kuden (口伝). Ku literally means mouth. Den means, as explained previously, to pass down or teach. So kuden means to pass down some information by speaking (not in writing). It also refers to the secret information itself. It is supposed to reduce the possibility of an information leak by not having anything in writing.Hiden book

There are three other terms you may want to know that are related to “hiden”.

They are “kaiden”, “okuden” and “gokuden”. Let me explain briefly on each term.

The second kanji of all three terms is the same, den () from hiden. It means “passing on” or “granting”. Let’s see what are the meaning of each term.

Kaiden 皆伝

Kai () means all or everything. So, kaiden means the instructor or a master has taught you everything or the grading level of fully mastered.

Another popular word that is sinonimous with kaiden is Menkyo kaiden 免許皆伝. Menkyo means license or permit, therefore, it typically means that one has learned everything and now he or she is entitled to teach a bujutsu (martial arts), an art such as flower arrangement, etc. or whatever the specialty the instructor is teaching.

Okuden 奥伝Kenjutsu

Oku () means deep inside, inside and not visible, the ultimate meaning or truth. So, okuden means one is taught the ultimate truth or meaning of the art.

A synonimus is Okuyurushi(奥許し). Yurushi (許し) means permission or grant so you can easily understand the meaning of this term.

Gokuden 極伝

The last one is gokuden. Goku () means extreme or exceeding or ultimate truth. This term is not as popular or known as kaiden and okuden. A synonymous of this word is Hioku (秘奥). You remember that hi means secret and oku means ultimate truth so I do not need to explain what Hioku means. 

Now you have well versed knowledge of the terms. Hopefully, you will not be puzzled when you hear the word, hiden and any other similar words in your class or in your conversation with your Japanese sensei. Despite the fact that this word is popular I doubt very much that you will encounter or discover a real hiden that easily. I have trained many years under three great Shotokan masters but unfortunately (to me) I have not received any hiden from any of them. This does not mean they did not have any hiden as I do not know. Even if they did, certainly, it was my fault as I must have not deserved to receive such a secret.

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