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Sasaki Kojirō (佐々木 小次郎 also known as Ganryū Kojirō) (1585 - April 13, 1612) was a prominent Japanese swordsman born in Fukui Prefecture. He lived during the Sengoku period and early Edo period, he is best remembered for his death, in a unique duel that pitted him against the famous Miyamoto Musashi in 1612.
He appears under the fighting name Ganryū (巌 流 enlightened. "Big stone style"), which was also the name of the kenjutsu school he founded. Kojiro is said to have studied the sword fighting Chujo-ryu from the hand of Kanemaki Jisai or Seigen Toda.
Seigen Toda was a master of kodachi. If Kojiro had learned Chujo-ryu from Seigen, he would have been a training partner of his own master. Because of his master's use of the kodachi, Kojiro would use a nodachi (long katana) against him.
He would eventually excel in the handling of the long katana, mastering it with mastery. It was after defeating his master's younger brother that he decided to leave and founded the Ganryū school.
The first reliable account of him tells us that in 1610, because of the fame of his school and his many successful duels, including once when he single-handedly fended off three opponents with a tessen, Kojiro was honored by Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki by being appointed supreme weapons master of the Hosokawa fief in northern Kyushu.
Sasaki would later become a great expert in the handling of the nodachi, and used as his main weapon a nodachi he called "The Washing and Drying Stick".
"The drying stick," Kojiro's favorite weapon during combat, was a straight-edged nodachi with a blade over 90 cm long. By way of comparison, the average blade length of a normal katana is usually 70 cm, but rarely more.
It was called the "Monohoshi Zao" ("Stick for washing and drying clothes", often translated as "The drying stick"). Despite the sword's length and weight, Kojiro acquired great mastery in its handling making his strokes with the weapon unusually fast and accurate.
His favorite technique was as respected as it was feared throughout feudal Japan. It was called "Swirling Swallow Cut" or "Tsubame Gaeshi" (燕返し), and was so named because it simulates the movement of the swallow's tail in flight.
Apparently this cut was so fast and accurate that it could bring down a bird in mid-flight. We have no direct descriptions of the technique, but it was compared to two other techniques current at the time: the "Ittō-ryū's Kinshi Cho Ohken" and the "Ganryū Kosetsu To".
Both techniques involve a fierce, fast downward cut and immediately another swift upward cut. Thus, the "Swirling Swallow Cut" has been reconstructed as a technique consisting of a strike from above downward and immediately afterward another strike in an upward motion from below.
The second phase of the attack could be from below to the rear and then upward at a certain angle, like an eagle rising again after having descended on its prey.
Sasaki Kojiro was a long-time rival of Miyamoto Musashi, and is considered the toughest opponent Musashi has ever faced.
There are various records of the duel between the two, which vary in some details, except for the essential elements, such as Kojiro's defeat.
Kojiro's age is especially uncertain. the "Nitenki" says that during his childhood,
"... He received instruction from Toda Seigen, a master of the short sword school, and was a training partner of his master, who surpassed him in the long sword. After defeating his master's younger brother, he left him and traveled to various provinces of Japan. He founded his own school, which was called Ganryu."
The "Nitenki" account initially seems trustworthy, until it says that Kojiro's age at the time of the duel was 18 years old.
However it is known that two years earlier he had been supreme master-at-arms of the Hosokawa kingdom, implying that he had reached that position at the age of 16, which is extremely unlikely. An additional complication is that Toda Seigen died in the 1590s.
The unreliability of the sources as to Kojiro's age makes his age vary anywhere from 20 years old to about 50 years old at most. Moreover, a number of scholars argue that the identification of Seigen as Kojiro's teacher is a mistake, and that he was actually trained by a student of Seigen's, Kanemaki Jisai.
Apparently, the young Musashi (at the time he was about 29 years old) had heard of Kojiro's great fame and asked Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki (through the mediation of Nagaoka Sado Okinaga, a principal vassal of Hosokawa) to arrange a duel between him and Kojiro.
Hosokawa agreed and set the time and place: April 13, 1612, on the relatively remote island of Ganryujima of Funashima (the strait between Honshu and Kyushu).
The fight was probably scheduled in such a remote location because at that time Kojiro had many students and disciples, and had Kojiro lost, they would probably have tried to kill Musashi for revenge.
According to legend, Musashi arrived in a boat and more than three hours late on purpose in order to psychologically unnerve his opponent (a tactic used by him on previous occasions, such as during his series of duels with the Yoshioka swordsmen).
He landed on the beach where Kojiro was waiting for him. He had only his wakizashi with him but during the boat ride he had polished an oar with the aid of his weapon for use in the duel. The paddle ended up becoming a bokken with an above-average length, known as a suburitō.
According to one version of the legend, upon arrival, he provoked Kojiro by taunting him. When the latter attacked, the blow passed so close to Musashi that it severed his hachimaki.
Throughout the bout Kojiro came close to victory on several occasions until, apparently blinded by the sunset behind Musashi, Musashi struck him in the skull with his long bokken.
Another version of the legend tells that when Musashi finally arrived, Kojiro shouted insults at him, but Musashi only smiled. Angered even more, Kojiro entered into combat blinded by rage.
Kojiro attempted his famous "Swirling Swallow Cut" technique, but Musashi's oversized bokken hit Kojiro first, which made him fall before he could execute the whole move. Musashi broke Kojiro's left rib piercing his lungs and killing him. Musashi then quickly retreated to his boat and sailed away. This was Musashi's last fatal duel.
One theory says that Musashi adjusted the time of his arrival to coincide with the turning of the tide. This would be because he expected to be pursued by Sasaki's supporters in the event of a victory.
The tide carried him to the island and the moment the fight was over he quickly re-embarked, so his escape in the boat was aided by the tide.