Yamaoka Tesshū (山岡 鉄舟), also known as "Ono Tetsutarō" or "Yamaoka Tetsutarōne", born on June 10, 1836 in Edo, Japan and died of stomach cancer at the age of 52 on July 19, 1888, was a Japanese samurai who played an important role during the Meiji Restoration (1868) and founded the Ittō Shōden Mutō-ryū fencing school.
Yamaoka was born in 1836 as Ono Tetsutarō in Edo (present-day Tokyo) where his father was an obligatory of the Tokugawa shogunate and his mother the daughter of a Shinto priest of the Kashima Shrine.
Yamaoka began fencing at the age of nine in the traditional style of the Kashima Shinden Jikishinkage-ryū school. His family then moved to Takayama where he began learning the Ono-ha Ittō-ryū style. When he was 17, he returned to Edo to enter the Kobukan government military institute and the Yamaoka school.
He wanted to learn the art of spear handling from the master Yamaoka Seizan, but the latter died just after his arrival. He then married the sister of his deceased master in order to perpetuate the name of Yamaoka.
From an early age, Yamaoka showed dedication and talent in the practice of martial arts. As an adult, he became known for several things: his skill with the sword, his calligraphy and his ability to drink and sleep.
In 1856, he became a fencing teacher at the Kobukan. In 1863, he became the instructor of the Rōshigumi (a unit of rōnin, masterless samurai, who served as a mercenary auxiliary force to the shogun's army). In 1868, he was appointed chief of the Seieitai, the bodyguard unit of the 15th shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
He went to the Sunpu estate with Katsu Kaishū to negotiate with Saigō Takamori the surrender of Edo Castle to the imperial forces. According to Kondō Katsuyuki (keeper of the Daitō-ryū and an acclaimed Yamaoka scholar), direct accounts of the events are unanimous:
Yamaoka Tesshū and Saigo Takamori are primarily responsible for the successful negotiations and a peaceful transition. But later historians tended to overlook the role Yamaoka played in these events, for he himself "always withdrew and left the glory to others, this is another extraordinary aspect of his personality."
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he worked for the Shizuoka estate and then became for a short time the governor of Imari Prefecture. He later served in the court of the Meiji emperor as a chamberlain and advised the sovereign.
He died at the age of 52 on July 19, 1888 of stomach cancer. Just before his death, he would have composed his first farewell poem before sitting down, closing his eyes and falling asleep in death.
Yamaoka studied the art of swordsmanship until the morning of March 30, 1880 when he awakened spiritually through meditation at the age of 45. From then on, he devoted his efforts to maintaining a dojo where he taught his style of fighting called "no sword" - a style in which the samurai realized that he had no enemy and that it was in fact the purity of his style that he had to work on.
Yamaoka is famous for his Zen artworks, estimated at over a million pieces.
Although he lived after the "Golden Age of Zen," Yamaoka appears in a few modern kōan. The three most popular are: