Jun 29, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Mysterious Samurai Scroll Describes Mystical Fighting Powers

A legendary samurai scroll has been translated into English for the first time, revealing some of the mysteries of the elite Japanese swordsmen. The scroll is known as the “Sword Scroll” and is believed to have been written by two elite samurai who served medieval Japanese nobles. The exact date of the scroll’s writing is unknown but it is believed to be at least 500 years old.

A colorized photo from the late 19th century of the last living samurai in Japan.

The Sword Scroll was first translated into modern Japanese by Fumio Manaka, a Japanese master martial artist, and then translated into English by Eric Shahan, a Japanese translator with a speciality in translating Japanese martial-arts texts. The text largely consists of teachings and parables intended to instill the classic samurai philosophies and doctrines, such as these warnings:

It is best to err on the side of caution and not enter a mountain road infested with brigands [...] There is a saying that goes, 'a little bit of military training can be the cause of great injury’

However, the Sword Scroll also contains instructions for some of the samurai’s more mysterious techniques such as how to fight in darkness and how to make eggshells full of special blinding powders to throw in enemies’ eyes. One version uses crushed red pepper, while another uses chopped grass, horse manure, and the powdered remains of venomous snakes.

Yamamoto Kansuke e1498668611192
A scroll depicting Yamamoto Kansuke, a legendary samurai reported to be one of the authors of the Sword Scroll.

Despite being recently translated, the scroll remains somewhat of a mystery. While the text claims that the scroll’s authors were two elite samurai, Yamamoto Kansuke (1501-1561), and Kusunoki Masashige (1294–1336), it remains unverified whether these two legendary warriors actually wrote the scroll. Furthermore, several different versions of the Sword Scroll have been collected over the years in various Japanese history books and martial arts texts, each slightly different from the others, making it difficult to tell which, if any, is the original.

heiji scroll
A scroll depicting samurai warriors' nighttime attack on the Sanjo Palace during the Heiji Rebellion in 1160.

Shahan, the scroll’s English translator, says there are scores of more samurai texts waiting to be translated and that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of these warriors’ legendary history.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

Join MU Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions & much more! Subscribe Today!