Divination, fortune telling, astral visions, and spirit and energy reading, were all part of an extensive corpus of military methods premodern Japanese samurai utilized in the conduct of warfare. These warriors incorporated religious practices into their military decision making process by employing monks, divination masters and daoist priests to perform various rituals for success in battle. The images and texts presented here are only a small selection of a much larger body of doctrines and texts, yet reveal an aspect of the Japanese samurai rarely explored.
The authors of the texts presented here use “Ki” as manifested in some type of aura or spirit that might be seen only by specialists, or in the physical form of a cloud or smoke. These manifestations indicate what we might refer to as the energy state of the military compound or castle. That is, if the indication is of a strong energy, it means that the soldiers inside are in strong spirit and the castle is powerful, which means it is lucky. And if the indication is of low energy, then the soldiers are weak, the castle is in disarray, it is unlucky and will not withstand an attack. We can also view it as an indication of the existence or lack thereof of guardian spirits, or alternatively the presence of demons.
There has never been a single unified doctrine, method of divination, Ki reading, fortune telling or anything of the sort that was used by all warrior houses, not even a small group of warrior houses. The diversity among warrior houses shows varying degree of adherence to the many religious options. Some warriors were highly religious, others much less, during centuries of changing religious trends and levels of warfare. Nevertheless, these texts provide a bit more depth to our view of the premodern Japanese samurai. We learn about their attention to Ki, thus the importance of Ki in warfare, and how the spiritual world has played a real and important role in deciding strategies and applying tactics. It reflects the complexity of the ways warriors approached warfare, beyond shooting a barrage of arrows or charging forward with swords drown.
Ki The concept of “Ki 気／氣” is allusive. It is vague, which means that it can have multiple interpretations, yet carries a fundamental meaning that can be translated as “Energy.” It is used in most common compound words such as “weather” (Jp. tenki 天気), which literally translates to “Heaven’s energy,” or “energetic” (Jp. genki 元気), which translates to “original/fundamental energy” but can also translate to “rounded energy” or “big energy.” In other compound words or expressions, the meaning of “Ki” is much more vague and can be understood as “disposition,” “attitude,” “spirit,” “intention,” “soul” and “mind,” among others. In the realm of old martial traditions, “Ki,” as Prof. Karl Friday succinctly defines it, is “a concentration and projection of the spirit” (Legacies of the Swords, p. 85). If we apply this definition to the texts, then it would refer to the spirit projected from a military compound or a castle.
Texts These texts were House (ie., extended warrior family) secrets. They were designed to inform succeeding generations of that House leading samurai. Those in charge of their compilation, editing, updating, teaching, and applying in battle, were specialists who relied heavily on oral transmission. Put differently, the written records were but a summary, while actual knowledge of application was acquired by direct oral transmission. It is worth reminding ourselves that these records were not compiled for mass publication, profit or glory. Instead, they were guarded doctrines to be understood and utilized by the generals of that warrior house. Therefore their inherent vagueness, which we must accept for lack of alternatives, can hardly be overcome with a high degree of accuracy unless this oral transmission is still being practiced today in that House, which, unfortunately is not the case.
For this translation I selected a few sections from four texts that are part of a massive single collection of over ten-thousand documents of one of Japan’s earliest warrior houses related to the Minamoto House. The collection is classified as a National Treasure, and is held in trust by a leading academic institution. Access is limited to permit-holder scholars.
Dating All the texts translated here, and others not included, are signed and dated 5th year of Kanbun (1665)/1st month/1st day. This is obviously an auspicious day that marks the official date of compilation. It is also worth noting that the signatory and addressee on all documents are the same two people: the compiler/editor and the head of the House. However, there are two clear hints about the actual compilation dates. First, on the signature page of some of the documents there are earlier dates and compiler signature, followed by the final date and signatures. For example, the text “Toke gunjutsu jinkizu” is first dated 24th year of Tenbun (1555)/3rd month/auspicious day, followed by the final compilation date in 1665. Second, castles appear in Japan only in the last quarter of the 16th century, but visual depictions of castles already appear in the above mentioned document, before stone-basin castles where common. This means that such an early text was edited later to add the drawings of castles, likely in mid-17th century, when castles were already synonimous with the Tokugawa period daimyo. Similarly, in some 16th century texts, the visual depictions are of military forts. (In Japanese the character for fort and castle is shiro (also read jo) and therefore interchangeable.)
Caution The materials presented here are for illustrating the world view of Japan’s medieval samurai. You will be well advised not rely on these texts to perform any kind of fortune telling or divination for your own purposes. This is not an instruction article on fortune telling in any way. Instead, this is a semi-academic article for the purpose of enriching our knowledge of premodern Japanese warrior society.