by Curtis Abu
For the last few months, I spent a lot of time researching a female historical figure named Chiba Sana¹. Sana is renowned as skilled in bujutsu and possessed a beauty few others could rival during somewhat peaceful times in Japan. Those who train in Classical Japanese martial arts, especially in her family’s martial system, probably have heard references for her. She has appeared in several Japanese novels and received significant exposure in the historical drama called “Ryōmaden” a few years back in Japan. I will attempt to do a concise coverage of Chiba Sana’s life story and events that she took part in for today’s post.
In reality, Chiba Sana’s history is not well documented, for there is not just one source covering the entirety of her life in one sitting. Much of her story is relayed in different Japanese websites outside of novels, albeit in bits and pieces. Visiting websites such as “Bakumatsushin Shinsengumi“, “Sakamoto Ryōma, Sono Yukari to Tochi to Hitobito”, “Kōfushi Kankōcho“, and “Hokushin Ittō ryu Honbu Kōshiki Site” provides useful insight about Sana and significant events that took place in her life. The only troubling point out of all this is the differences in dates some resources provide. This is partly due to how dates were recorded based on Japan’s varying calendar systems at different points. I’ve done my best to determine the correct date based on certain factors, such as Sana and others’ ages mentioned for specific events.
Born in 1838, Sana (千葉佐那) was the 3rd child & 2nd oldest daughter to the Chiba family. Her original name was Otome² but changed to Sana at some point. Her parents were Sadakichi, her father, and Taki³, her mother. Her siblings include an older brother named Jūtarō, an older sister named Umeo, and several younger sisters named Riki, Kiku, and Hama.
She and her family grew up in Yaesu, Edo (present-day Tokyo). Her father opened a dojo known today as Okemachi Chiba Dojo⁴ in Kajibashi-dori, then moved to Okemachi later. Sadakichi was headmaster of the Hokushin Ittō ryū taught kenjutsu and naginata there. His dojo was one half of this family-style, with the other being the Genbukan dojo run by his older brother, Chiba Shūsaku. While well known for its specialty in kenjutsu, this system was also unique as the Okemachi Chiba Dojo’s doors were open for all to train in, including ordinary folks. This openness made the Chiba dojo popular & sought by many the train, including those from different dojos. Due to this and Sadakichi being employed as a retainer (samurai) to the Ikeda family, lords over Tottori Domain, Sana’s family was considered wealthy and elite.
Sana studied Hokushin Ittō ryū at a young age along with her siblings. She had a great interest in bujutsu as she learned many things, such as kenjutsu. It is recorded that Sana was exceptionally skilled in using the kodachi (short sword), that she received menkyo kaiden (mastery level) in kodachijutsu at the age of fourteen. Her older sister taught her naginatajutsu, which was quite renowned due to Sadakichi’s efforts in developing it. He took the time to refine the naginata techniques while employed under Uwajima District and test against different opponents while on a Takamatsu District training trip. Thus, the effectiveness of this naginatajutsu is also reflected in Sana’s ability to utilise it. When she was an active bujutsuka (practitioner of the warrior arts), she became kenjutsu shihan and naginata shihan, teaching others her family martial system.
Along with her outstanding talent in bujutsu, Sana is also recorded as being admired for her beauty. Bearing such a combination, she had nicknames such as “beautiful devil of the Chiba family” and “Little Miss Beauty Chiba” ⁵. One event that displays both qualities is mentioned in a book written by Date Munenari entitled “Kōhon Ranzankōki” ⁶. When Sana was 19, she went to Uwajima Domain as a kenjutsu instructor for the Date family to train their daughter named Masako (政子姫). During her time there, she had a sparring match with the soon-to-be 9th domain head, Date Mune’e (age 27), and was able to win against him. Besides physically losing, Mune’e was also defeated by her looks, as he also deemed her beauty surpassing others. As mentioned above, in the book, it is written of him saying, “Sana is a lady of beauty that surpasses all in both noble establishments (of the Date family)⁷.”
The most notable aspect of Sana’s life is her relationship with the imperial loyalist named Sakamoto Ryōma. In 1853, Ryōma, a country samurai from Tosa Domain in Kōchi Prefecture, travelled to the Okemachi Chiba dojo (when it was still at the original location in Kajibashi) to further his martial arts training. Taken in as a student, he would learn Hokushin Ittō ryū. With Sana and her siblings as his seniors, he trained with them, studying kenjutsu and naginatajutsu.
Within a few years⁸, Sana and Ryōma would get close during their short time knowing each other. At some point, Ryōma requested from his teacher Sadakichi permission to marry Sana. He was granted this permission, and preparations were made for an engagement through a wedding ceremony. Ryōma had no gift from his family to offer. Instead, Ryōma had a montsuke (clothing that featured his family’s crest) made, which he wore to represent the bonding of 2 families. From Sana, a tantō was given to Ryōma as a gift. From there, they became engaged.
In 1858, sometime after the engagement, Ryōma ended his training at the Okemachi Chiba Dojo and quickly returned to Tosa Domain to further study at a few other locations. Despite the engagement, Sana would lose communication with him for several years. Sana would see him again in 1862 when Ryōma visited the Chiba Dojo as a safe haven after running away from his hometown. While there, it is said that Sadakichi encouraged a full show of commitment to Sana from him. Ryōma gave her a sleeve with nothing else at hand that had his family’s crest on it. Through this gesture, Sana and Ryōma would be considered as a married couple.
This was short-lived, as Ryōma would leave with Sana’s older brother, Jūtarō, and head to Edo, where he later gets involved in stirring political movements against the Bakufu and specific political figures. In 1864, he would meet another woman named Narasaki Ryō, or generally called Oryō. The 2 would get officially married in 1866.
It is said that during his absence, Sana held on to the belief that she was his wife and was unaware that Ryōma had married another woman. However, she would learn in 1868 of his untimely death at assassins’ hands, and she attempted suicide. But was stopped by her father. She would keep his single sleeve as a memento and proof of their union.
MANY BUSINESS VENTURES
In 1871, things changed for the Chiba family. Sana’s father would retire as head of their household. Jūtarō, who was the 2nd successor by blood, went to work as a sword instructor for Tottori Domain. His adopted son Tochiro would become the 3rd successor and have permission to run the Chiba Dojo in his place. Soon afterward, Sana and Tochiro, alongside Chiba Shūnosuke from the Genbukan Dojo, started the Chiba Gekikenkai. Gekiken, an older form of today’s kendo, became popular for the sake of competition and drew lots of attention. Many sword practitioners of different styles participated in the Chiba Gekikenkai and those students of the Chiba Dojo. As a whole, the number of students in the Chiba Dojo grew tremendously, and the Chiba Dojo flourished for many years.
At some point, Sana would leave home and purchased an old apartment complex in Yokohama⁹. As a business venture, she acted as a landlord and earned revenue. In 1873, Sana got involved with Yamaguchi Kikujirō, who was also residing in Yokohama. Sana and Kikujirō got married in 1874, and their union would last until 1876, where they separated due to personal issues. At the same token, she gave up the apartment complex and left Yokohama. Needing to relocate, she contacted Tokubei, an individual who had worked for the Chiba family years ago and stayed in his residence in Kawasaki.
While in Kawasaki, Sana began working with her hands at moxibustion therapy¹⁰. This is something she learned from her father at some point while growing up. Reaffirming that she can perform what she was taught correctly, Sana put this into practice, began treating people, and was greeted with successful results.
In 1883, Sana accompanied her elder brother Jūtarō as they both went to Edo for work. While Jūtarō continued his occupation as a sword instructor, Sana gained employment as a school dormitory dean at Kazoku Jogakkō (Noble family Women’s School)¹¹. She revealed to the graduating class her relationship with the late Sakamoto Ryōma and showed them the keepsake sleeve she had received as proof of their bond. In her spare time, it is said that she continued to perform moxibustion therapy, which helped to maintain her skill.
LONELY LIFE AS A HEALER
In 1885, Jūtarō passed away at the age of 61. Sana continued with her position as dormitory dean for a few more years until finally retiring from Kazoku Jogakkō in 1888. She made no effort returning to her hometown, for there was too much internal strife; many of her relatives struggled amongst themselves for the Chiba household’s successor-ship. Instead, to make use of her talent for healing, she would rent a small building and started the “Chiba Moxibustion Therapy Clinic” ¹² in Senju, a town in Adachi District, Edo. Her business did very well, as many people would visit her clinic for treatment. Although her clinic would have to relocate at one point due to the construction of a government office, her business progressed smoothly.
Word got around about Sana’s treatment, which attracted those from far away. Itagaki Taisuke, a statesman from the same hometown as Sakamoto Ryōma, paid her clinic a visit. Getting familiar with Sana and her practice, he requested that she treated an acquaintance of his who was ill. Later, following Taisuke’s recommendation, his friend Otagiri Kenmei and his wife¹³ made their way to Sana’s clinic. While receiving treatment, Sana and the Otagiri couple made a meaningful connection, primarily due to Sana not having any immediate family members living with her. Kenmei’s wife offered at one point that when she passed, that she’d have her body sent to be buried in the Otagiri family’s grave located in Seiunji Temple in Kōfu City, Yamanashi. That way, her grave would be tended to regularly, and she would not be alone in the next world. Sana agreed to this, and Toyoji (Kenmei’s wife) made sure that preparations were made.
While she didn’t have children of her own, Sana did adopt Yūtaro, her nephew, as her own in 1892. Yutaro was the oldest son of Sana’s younger sister, Kiku, who had passed away in an accident. Yūtaro lived with Sana until 1895, where he passed away at 26 due to ailing health. Although she lived alone most of the latter portion of her life, she had good relations with her siblings and kept in contact with their children.
Sana lived up to the age of 59, where she would pass away in 1896. Her body was moved into the burial site of Seiunji as arranged. Interestingly, the Chiba Moxibustion Therapy Clinic was maintained as a family business and was run by the remaining Chiba members well into the 1970s.
HOW TO WRITE SANA’S NAME
There are 2 ways to write the name, Sana. In a Hokushin Ittō ryū mokuroku (list of technique names) given to Sakamoto Ryōma, it is written in kanji as 佐那. Honorary monuments and signs use this one today as well. However, in a mortuary tablet, it is written as 佐奈. The difference in writing the 2nd character is unknown, but it is possible that for the mortuary tablet, it was not known which kanji was used. In any event, both ways of writing are used to identify Sana.
Apparently, for the name Sanako, this is what was written on her grave at Seiunji in Kōfu City, Yamanashi. It is written as “さな子,” with the 1st 2 characters written in hiragana.
From a letter that Ryōma sent to his older sister Otome in 1863, we learn about the other talents Sana was adept in. Other than martial arts and healing practices, Sana was well versed in other areas such as horseback riding, drawing pictures, and playing the koto (Japanese 13-stringed instrument). There may have been more, but this is all that has been uncovered so far.
There are a few popular portraits that float around the web, said to be Sana. Actually, they are not. Interestingly, there are no photos taken of her while she was alive. This is not an unusual case. Researchers have yet to come across an official image of Sana from her family.
Below are 2 common ones that are mistaken to be her.
This is actually a picture taken of Saitō Kichi, a geisha and hair stylist during the 1800s. She also bears the nickname “Tōjin Okichi” (唐人お吉). Kichi had this picture take when she was 19.
This pic is of a girl named Takako, the daughter of a Kusumoto Ine, the 1st Japanese woman to specialize in Western medicine. This was taken in 1872 when Takako was 20 years old.
While the 2 women’s bios are official in Japan, and almost all Japanese websites do not reference them to Sana anymore, it is unfortunate that some websites outside of Japan still do. I hope this post can bring awareness about the matter and prevent further accidental use of these 2 photos.
GEKIKEN COMPETITION AND THE MYSTERIOUS WOODBLOCK PRINT
In a document put out by the present Hokushin Ittō ryu Honbu, Sana is stated as assisting in starting the Chiba Gekikenkai. This establishment was significant, for it helped bring popularity back to gekiken and reinvigorate interest in the martial arts. As Japan entered the Meiji period (1868~1912), much changed in terms of government and the people’s direction and lifestyle. As times were becoming much peaceful, people were focusing on progressive means of living, including work.
Interest in bujutsu was fading drastically, as most schools taught techniques styled for combat on the battlefield. Many people did not want to get involved in such practices anymore due to the violent events that had taken place in the late-mid 1800s, which ushered in the new Meiji period. A significant number of dojos closed their doors, family styles were being forgotten, and the warrior class was becoming obsolete. The Chiba Gekikenkai, on the other hand, gave way to a new direction for applying the martial spirit in a competitive environment.
There is a famous woodblock print of a female utilizing a naginata against a male using a shinai. This is an artistic scene of how gekiken took place at the Chiba Dojo. For the longest, this female is said to be Chiba Sana, yet has not been proven 100% yet. One of the issues is that the name next to the woman is different.
On February 13th, 2010, an article was published in Asahi Newspaper, where researchers detailed their search into the woodblock print matter. The label next to the woman reads “Chiba Tei – woman” (千葉貞女), with woman as an indicator of her gender. One rumor is that this is Chiba Tei, the grandchild of Chiba Shūsaku, Sadakichi’s older brother and 1st headmaster of Genbukan Dojo. However, the article states that there are no records of any women from Shūsaku’s family line participating in the gekiken competition. Another point mentioned is that only about 3 women took part in the Chiba Gekikenkai, and Sana is believed to be one of them. Furthermore, there appear to be no records of any women bearing the name of “Chiba Tei.”
Why label Sana as “Chiba Tei”? From my personal assumption, it is possible that the label wasn’t stating a name but is actually a compliment — most likely towards Sana. If you look at the Japanese characters “千葉貞女” again, and read 貞 (tei) and 女 (onna) together, they make up the word “virtuous woman.” So the label may be stating “the virtuous woman of the Chiba family.” Why “Sana” was omitted is a mystery to me, but there are numerous cases where individuals’ names are omitted from historical or artistic works, especially for women.
OTHER FEMALE WARRIORS OF THE CHIBA HOUSEHOLD?
In Ryōma’s Hokushin Ittō ryu mokuroku, it has the names of those members of the Chiba family who not only trained with him, but as proof of his training within this martial system. The names are the following:
千葉周作 – Chiba Shūsaku
千葉定吉 – Chiba Sadakichi
千葉重太郎 – Chiba Jūtarō
千葉佐那 – Chiba Sana
千葉里幾 – Chiba Riki
千葉幾久 – Chiba Kiku
Along with Sana, the names of her younger sisters Riki and Kiku are written as well. This is a good indication that they, too, studied Hokushin Ittō ryu. On what skill level did they reach and how long they trained is not mentioned. Still, this indicates that Sana was not the only female of the Chiba family who trained. This also includes her older sister Umeo (梅尾), from whom she learned naginatajutsu.
SANA’S MARTIAL ARTS PERFORMANCE?
On the website, “Hokushin Ittõ ryū~Chibake, “it is mentioned that Sana did a form of martial arts performance that earned her much acclaim. Found in documentation relating to the Chiba family, it is stated that when she was 16, Sana displayed her martial prowess before the wife of the lord of Takamatsu Domain. There is not enough information, however, on the particulars of this.
For example, a Takamatsu Domain is located in Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku (southern part of Japan), a long journey from Edo (present-day Tokyo). While there was a villa established in Edo by the 1st Takamatsu Domain lord Matsudaira Yorishige (originally from old Hitachi Province, a section of present-day Ibaragi Prefecture) for him to reside in 1664, it is not known whether later successors utilized the same villa. Also, what type of performance Sana took part in (whether the demonstration of techniques or 1 vs. 1 match) is not explained. This all has to be taken with a grain of salt.
That’s all I have regarding Chiba Sana. An individual quite active until her last days, Sana lived a life with many impactful events, which should have better documentation. Hope you all find this and the previous post informative and enjoyable.
1) 千葉さな、佐那、佐奈. She is also referred to as Sanako (さな子).
3) Also called “Takiko” (瀧子）in some sources.
4) Also known as the “Ko-Chiba” (小千葉), as it was originally one part of the Genbukan Dojo, or “Oo-Chiba Dojo” (大千葉道場) located in Nihonbashi Muro Town in Edo. Genbukan Dojo was opened by Shūsaku, Sadakichi’s older brother. Since Shūsaku was older and started his dojo first, it was considered the main, while Sadakichi’s was considered the minor. This meant that admittance into the Genbukan was exclusive to more advanced, higher-skilled individuals, while those of lower skill level were sent to Okemachi Chiba Dojo.
5) Original nicknames in Japanese are “千葉の⿁⼩町” (Chiba no oni komachi) and “⼩千葉⼩町” (Ko-Chiba komachi).
7) The original is written as so in Japanese, as shown on Wikipedia:
There is a note that explains it further:
This refers to women in the 2 households of the Date family and how Mune’e feels that Sana surpasses them all.
8) Ryōma trained twice at the Okemachi Chiba Dojo. Starting in 1853, he would end his training briefly and return back to Tosa Domain in 1854. During his absence, the Chiba family’s dojo suffered severe fire damages due to an earthquake and relocated to Okemachi in 1855. The new dojo was back up and running again, and in time for Ryōma’s return in 1856.
9) Several theories exist why Sana moved to Yokohama, but no concrete evidence to back them up. For example, one view is that one of Sana’s younger sisters lived in that complex, so Sana was able to purchase it.
10) This is known as Tokugawa Nariaki Jikiden (徳川斉昭直伝). This a moxibustion treatment passed within the Chiba family. This method was that of Tokugawa Nariaki, landowner of Mito Domain. Sadakichi learned it from his older brother, Shūsaku, and would pass it down to Sana and Jūtarō.
11) 華族女学校. The name has been changed shortly after its conception to Gakushūin (学習院).
12) 千葉灸治院, pronounced “Chiba Kyūji-In”
13) 小田切謙明. Kenmei was a pioneer in the movements for freedom and people’s rights in Japan during the Meiji period.
Genmei’s wife’s name is written as “豊次.” Toyoji