Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Ins and Outs of Koryu Martial Arts

Ellis Amdur, at his blog Kogen Budo, had a great article on Japanese Koryu martial arts. Koryu are "old" martial arts (various forms for kenjutsu and jujutsu for example) as opposed to Gendai, or "modern" martial arts (judo, karate, etc). 

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Some time ago, I was sent a set of related questions on licensure and succession within koryū:

  • What are your thoughts on koryū that predominantly only give out one menkyō kaiden, essentially declaring that person to be sōke. Would that mean the rest of the senior practitioners are not allowed to teach or open their own school, since they didn’t achieve the highest possible teaching license?
  • What’s your thoughts on those who stay for decades, even though they would never receive a full teaching license, or how about other schools that might take a person thirty, forty or fifty years to get a license. Is it fair to a practitioner in one of these schools who, even though they have already learned and mastered everything there is to know, they are blocked from teaching? At the same time,  they are unable to break away because they would lose legitimacy or recognition to be a certified instructor?
  • How about those that face discrimination against them as foreigners, whether it is openly shown or not? In other cases, there’s clear favoritism, either to a family member, or to someone who plays the school’s political games–only Japanese people–or people the sōke or shihan likes–ever get promoted. What’s your thoughts on that?
In what follows, I address these questions as if talking to someone specific: “You.”  I do not mean the person who asked the initial questions who honestly, I don’t remember (it’s been three years since I received the questions). It’s a rhetorical device only.

First of all, the sōke (宗家 ‘head of the house/family’) may not be a menkyō kaiden. He or she may not even practice martial arts. The sōke is the lineal successor of a family enterprise. Strictly speaking, he or she should be a member of that family, either by blood or adoption; however, in some ryūha, particularly in modern times, this is pseudo-familial (there is no real familial relationship whatsoever). In that sense, the term has eroded from its original meaning in many ryūha to a generic term meaning ‘headmaster of the school.’
Menkyō kaiden (免許皆伝) is a ‘license of total mastery’ of the curriculum. This term means nothing outside the specific ryūha, as another ryūha or even another instructor of the same school may have different criteria in mind for such an attainment. Furthermore, many ryūha use other terms for essentially the same attainment. It is an abstract concept—there are no specific tests to pass in order to receive such recognition. It should mean that the individual has not only mastered the physical techniques, but also that which makes the school unique: its essential character, so to speak. In many schools, there was a blood oath that one not engage in duels before receiving menkyō kaiden or its equivalent – implicit in this, of course, is that anyone who receives this rank is an exemplary fighter who is expected to win his or her battles, and never shame the ryūha. 
Beyond this, for some schools, this is considered to be a teaching license, with permission to set up one’s own dōjō, or in some cases, one’s own line. In other schools, however, one also must receive a specific teaching license, such as a shihan menjyō (師範免状) to be permitted to teach. In other words, you may be the best technician in the school, but you are not trusted to pass on the tradition to others.
In many traditions, there was no sōke; merely one or more shihan, each with the authority to teach and pass down the ryūha as each saw fit. Other schools have both sōke and shihan

When the sōke does not teach (or in some cases, is not fully versed in the tradition), there may be one, among the shihan, who is designated as shihan-ke (師範家), the ‘house shihan,’ responsible for maintaining the line in the sōke’s home dōjō. Other shihan may teach elsewhere. Before modern times, when the membership and reach of various ryūha was much wider, shihan often had full permission to teach and pass down their own lineage in different locale – they were independent. In other schools, as the original questioner mentioned, there is only one teacher, be they referred to as sōke or not.
Most often, the sōke functions as a center of gravity, rather than the ‘head.’ Tōda-ha Bukō-ryū (戸田派武甲流) is an example of this: we currently are centered around our sōke-dairi (宗家代理) Kent Sorensen (also a holder of a shihan menjyō), and we have, in addition, five shihan, who each lead independent dōjōs. There are certain aspects where Sorensen sensei’s word or decision will direct us all. In most others, we are independent.

Koryū Are Hermetic, Closed Systems
Each koryū has survived by maintained itself as an ‘enclosed’ entity. By this, I mean that it is circumscribed not only by the martial techniques that it practices, but also by its traditions, including leadership structure, which enables it to be passed down, generation after generation. People make a mistake in assuming that this means that it is utterly unchanged for hundreds of years, even though this is a claim that many koryū themselves make. In fact, each generation changes, yet claims that it hasn’t changed at all (and this can include leadership structure!). A perusal of films of Tenshinshō-den Katori Shintō-ryū (天真正伝香取神道流) ranging from 1930 through the present reveals a remarkable range of interpretations of the same kata; a perusal of this school’s various websites shows radical changes in administrative and political structure have occurred within the last several years, changes that ten years ago were unimaginable to most people.
Beyond this, many ryūha have radically altered kata, have even added kata and new weapons sets into their curriculum throughout their history. To cite a single example, one line of Yagyū Shingan-ryū (柳生心眼流) added sets of naginata kata to their curriculum within the 20th century, using their extant bōjutsu kata as a template. Nonetheless, conservatism is an ideology necessary for these entities to survive, for better or for worse. If an autocratic, lineal succession, clinging to one family’s (or a ‘virtual’ family descendant’s) leadership, and squelching others from teaching, either independently or within the dōjō, whether that sōke or shihan is competent or not, is the mode of transmission, then so be it. 

Without it, there would be no koryū today – the proof is the dearth of extant European martial traditions, which died out because they did not have anything similar to koryū‘s method of transmission from generation to generation. If you do not know this entering a koryū, you’ve got no business joining in the first place – you are not suitable as a member. If your attitude upon entering is, “Wait until I get some authority – I’ll make some changes then,”  you are a threat to the survival of the koryū itselfIt is like entering a marriage thinking, “This person is so remarkably unique! There is no one else like them and that’s why I’m so drawn to them. My mission is to destroy all of that, and make them into someone comfortable to me and my predilections.” By and large, I think such autocratic structures are a good thing. As stated above, through this, what otherwise would be lost is saved. Furthermore, some people learn humility through submitting—just because they want something doesn’t mean they will get it. Through this process, they learn to function productively within a group.
What should we make of  those who train, knowing they’ll never be licensed, because that is the way the system is set up, because of prejudices of the teacher, or who ‘wait’ forty-fifty years, despite mastering the curriculum, what then? First of all, is the metric of the value of that person, either intrinsically or to the group, their own perception of themselves?  There are two ways to judge your competence. The first is that of the ryūha’s, as embodied by the head instructor(s), who judges what he or she believes best suits the ryūha’s survival. You may think you are competent, but perhaps you are not. You may be missing something essential, an essential understanding of either physical or psychological principles, that establishes that you do not, in fact, embody the ryūha (Read the saga of Komagawa Tarōzaemon of Komagawa Kaishin-ryū  for an example of this). On the other hand, you may not be as good as you think; you may be abysmally incompetent—a physical idiot. (I’ve seen this far too often, by the way, a misperception of one’s skill that approaches delusion, all too common in schools that have no ‘live training’). Or, you may be physically brilliant, but have character flaws or other deficits that would make you a detriment to the school, at least as far as your teacher is concerned.
On the other hand, what happens if there you are a hot-blooded, independent, powerful young trainee? Please read my chapter on Honma Nen-ryū (本間念流) in Old School  or Ukei Kato of Kitō-ryū in Hidden in Plain Sight for examples of how a martial tradition can do justice to such powerful individuals who, for various reasons, are viewed as not suitable to succeed to the leadership of the school. These chapters describe situations, historically, that went well. If such an accommodation could not be made, in order to keep this person within the orbit of the ryūha as a planet of particular gravity, such a person still had options.
The first alternative is to be a bitter, complaining, individual, who centers his or her life around his or her entitled resentment. No matter how skilled they are, their presence is destructive to the ryūha—and this is true even if, with theoretically better leadership, they would be properly recognized and everyone would benefit—or at least so the resentful person believes. On the other hand, they might be right, but that doesn’t change the situation at all.  In such cases, the problem may eventually be solved when such a person is expelled, known as hamon (破門); in others, the person remains, stuck for years, perhaps a lifetime.
The second alternative would be to accept one’s situation, and live with dignity. For an analogous example, consider a less than perfect marriage. One or both parties is committed to the marriage, for whatever reason and they resolve to live with the other person with as much respect and dignity as they can. They can imagine another life, but they choose this one. In this case, you endure, a virtue uncommon in modern times. You not only endure, you do so without complaint or bitterness. Frankly, this is a perfect embodiment, in microcosm, of one of the core purposes of martial training–facing the reality that, some day, you will die. You learn through this process to live with integrity despite things being not to your liking. If you can live well with death inevitably waiting for you, then perhaps you can train for the sake of training itself, even if it is inevitable that you will not receive what you believe to be your due.
The third alternative would be to quit the school entirely, perhaps joining another faction, or even another school and starting over. Some people will quit budō training altogether.  This could be a superficial act: quitting at the first point of difficulty. It could also be an exemplary choice. You found the wrong school, the wrong teacher, and there, over the next hill, so to speak, is a school better suited to you–and you, better suited for it.

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