Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~


Sunday, May 29, 2022

How Many Generations?


How many generations does it take to establish a martial art? To make it "traditional?" Does the founder even need to exist?

Ellis Amdur, in his blog Kogen Budo, has examined how new martial arts branch off of the older ones (ryuha) and in the post from which I've posted an excerpt below, how many generations does it take for that variation to stand on it's own as an established tradition. 

The full post may be read here. You may find Mr Amdur's books here.

In a recent blog, I questioned the mythos around the founders of various traditional ryĆ«ha. However, beyond the question of whether the founder truly created his martial system in the archetypal manner that is the usual account, there are several other questions:

  • Did the putative founder actually have any role, direct or indirect in the creation of a particular fighting system?
  • Did the founder even exist?

A Skip in Generations: Miura Yoshin-ryū

In many schools, the lineage can have gaps, sometimes many generations, spanning may decades or even centuries. Let us consider Miura Yoshin-ryū. In Old School (pp. 301- 302), I write:

It is probable that three independent martial ryū, all located in the Nagasaki area, made up the basis of Yoshin-ryū, most likely exchanging principles and techniques. One jūjutsu school in the Nagasaki area was the Miura-ryū, founded by Miura Yojuiemon. Miura was one of three rōnin who studied elements of Chinese martial arts from Chen Yuan’yun, elements incorporated most famously in Kito-ryū jūjutsu.

A second school is Miura Yoshin Koryū, the characters for Koryū meaning ‘old school.’ Primarily known as Yoshin Koryū, it was also called Egami-ryū and Totsuka-ha Yoshin Koryū. This school was founded by Nakamura Sakyodayu Yoshikuni in Miura village, in the Nagasaki area (it is unknown if Miura Yojuiemon had any connection with this village, or if the juxtaposition of names is mere coincidence). According to their own tradition, Yoshikuni created this ryū based on an admixture of Chinese martial arts and medicine with a family jūjutsu school founded by Nakamura Yorifusa, his grandfather. Yoshikuni later changed his name to Miura Yoshin. He died in 1650.

There is a considerable gap in the lineage of this school, possibly indicating that it was passed on within a family or clan, without hewing to the formal ryū structure, or possibly that there was a break in transmission, something I have discussed in regards to other traditions. In any event, the next documented headmaster was the 6th, Abe Kanryū (1712-1770), followed by his nephew, Egami Tsukasu Umanosuke Takesune (1747-1795), who lived and taught in Shiba. The school remained almost unknown, until the next headmaster, Totsuka Hidezumi (1772 – 1847), who changed the name of the school to Egami-ryū. It is unknown if this was merely to memorialize his teacher, or if, in so doing, he was indicating that he had made significant changes to the school (in the latter, it was considered by many to be more fitting to name the school after one’s teacher, who ‘created the person’ who made the changes, rather than trumpeting one’s own name in what some might consider a display of egotism).

In this first example, there is a break of five generations in their lineage. This can mean a number of things, and I have no idea which of them might be true:

  • What Nakamura Yorifusa created was passed down directly, with physical and oral instruction. There could have perfect transmission, but for some reason, the sixth generation headmaster, Abe Kanryū, did not record the names of his predecessors. Why? There could be politics – a scandal associated with one someone in the lineage. On the other hand, Abe may have decided to teach without receiving proper sanction from his own teacher, whoever that was. In not recording the names of his predecessors, he could be either enacting rebellion, wiping them out of history, or offering them respect in not claiming for himself what he didn’t earn.
  • Abe Kanryū may have learned something inchoate, that was ‘passed around the village,’ so to speak, and he formalized things in a typical ryūha format, recognizing debt to Nakamura Sakyodayu Yoshikuni.
  • Abe Kanryū was a powerful creative individual (or possibly was like many martial artists, a charismatic man who impressed people as being formidable), and he developed something quite fine, Miura Yoshin Koryū. In my view, there is a hint of this in the name: in calling what he did ‘old school,’ he made it more respectable in the eyes of people who venerated past arts as being more authentic and powerful than the present. In his speculative origin story, he picked a man, Nakamura Yorifusa, whom nobody had ‘claims upon.’ In other words, other great jūjutsu men of the same era were already named as founders of other schools. Nakamura was known, but had no school; in claiming him as a founder, Abe gave his own school ‘weight.’

Fictitious Founders: Akiyama Yoshin-ryū

Let us consider another tradition from the same area, Akiyama Yoshin-ryū. In Old School, p. 309, I write:

Unlike many koryū, Akiyama Yoshin-ryū was not passed forward within the Akiyama family but instead, via licensed shihan who were authorized to form branch schools. The first direct inheritor of Akiyama Yoshin-ryū was Oi Senbei Hirotomi. Records of the school indicate that Senbei developed a large following of students and embraced a liberal strategy associated with issuing teaching authority. This led to Akiyama Yoshin-ryū cultivating an impressive number of licensed shihan. It is conceivable, as is common in many martial ryū, that Oi Senbei actually established and organized the school. The founder of many ryū engaged in a many year process of research and development, frequently altering, changing, refining and creating new training methods. This barrage of somewhat inchoate information is then consolidated by a successor.

There is another theory that it was Oi Senbei himself who was the creator of the ryū, melding information he acquired from Yoshin Koryū and Miura-ryū along with his own personal studies. One reason for this speculation is that Nakamura Sakyodayu Yoshikuni, the founder of Yoshin Koryū, died around 1650, and Akiyama Yoshin-ryū was, perhaps merely coincidentally, founded in 1651. According to this reading of history, Akiyama is viewed as a mythical rather than historical figure, and Oi, thereby, gives homage to Yoshin Koryū, without placing himself directly in its lineage. By creating a fictitious founder, he removes himself from the spotlight as one who would otherwise, perhaps, be accused as having learned the other ryū I’ve just cited in partial fashion, adding his own immature thoughts. Of course, whatever is created must stand on its own, but in this second ‘origin story,’ Oi would have eliminated an ‘opening,’ whereby others might accuse him of being arrogant. Rather, he appears with a complete school bequeathed to him by a master, his debt to other ryū shaded carefully from too much scrutiny.

Here, again, there are various possible interpretations of this account:

  • The first of interpretation of the origin of Akiyama Yoshin-ryū is quite common. In the Arakiryū Saitan no Jō, a text that describes the founding of Arakiryū, it reads as if the putative founder, Araki Muninsai, is giving an interview to a student, describing how he created the school . . . and notably, he states that the founder of the school is someone else, Fujiwara Katsuzane. Every one of the many lines of Arakiryū that possess this document, all have the same basic curriculum (torite-kogusoku), and all have an individual named Mori Kasumi no Suke as the second generation headmaster. It is very likely that Mori Kasumi not only interviewed his teacher, but also was the one who consolidated Araki’s teachings into a formal structure (this is suggested by the fact that any line of martial arts that claims Araki Muninsai as the founder that does NOT have the same torite-kogusoku curriculum also does not have Mori Kasumi in the second position. I would suggest that in a number of martial traditions,  the founder did a ‘data dump,’ which also included years, if not decades of reworking what he was doing, in collaboration with his students, and it was the 2nd or even further-down-the-line generations who consolidated his teachings into a curriculum.
  • The second of these two origin stories is self-explanatory. It displays a kind of modesty and political sensitivity, where one should not put himself forward Arakiryū had a number of off-shoots: ArakiToryū, Sanshin Arakiryū, Kasumiryū, Seishin-ryū, to name a few. And in each of these schools, the creator of the new line, who developed a radically different curriculum, still named his teacher as the founder, not himself. In a similar type of self-effacement, one that is also politically astute, if Akiyama Yoshin-ryūnamed the other schools that Oe studied, without him having received licensure (for whatever reason), this would be an implied criticism of his teachers, as in: “I chose to leave before they certified me as expert in their school. I know much better than them, so I went my own way and created this new school.” That would put him on the spot for challenges, and also put his teachers on the spot in several ways, that would require a response. Creating a legend of a man who never existed (but with the same mythology as genuine jūjutsuka of the era, he, too, crossing over to China and learning something), would be quite tactful towards his own instructors. Akiyama Yoshin-ryū is able to stand on its own merits (which turned out to be considerable), while avoiding entanglement in quite complex culturally grounded politics.


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