Keiko Shokon

Keiko Shokon

Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, Volume Three
Edited by Diane Skoss.
Koryu Books, 2002
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Deftly edited by Diane Skoss (who holds black belts in several modern martial arts, as well as the classical licenses of okuden in Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu, and okuiri-sho, Shinto Muso-ryu jojutsu), Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan is the third in a fascinating series of compiled of essays and interviews. Of special note are those contributions which are expertly translated from Japanese and focus upon the traditions, martial disciplines, and way of life of the warrior in pre-industrial Japan. From a U.S. marine’s observations on the Japanese warrior traditions, to an overview of the wide variety of sword arts and the men who founded them, Keiko Shokon presents a wealth of information and knowledgeable opinions. Keiko Shokon is especially recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about the history and traditions of Japanese swordsmanship.

John Taylor
The Midwest Book Review

Five years after the publication of their first volume and three years after the second Koryu Books have issued their third and final volume of the series on the classical Japanese martial arts: Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan. The publication is an important event for all those interested in the koryu, due to the level of authority and scholarly ability that their offerings bring to the world of Japanese martial arts publications.

The first volume of the trilogy introduced the reader to the fundamental structures of the koryu bujutsu in form, concept and present status. It also illustrated and defined a template for the discussion and illustration of these little known arts. The second volume continued this pattern further leading the reader toward a richer understanding of the principles and internal make-up of these traditions. The third volume follows this evolutionary path, leading the reader onward not by overloading them with technicalities but by offering a relaxed and informal series of articles.

Each article in the latest volume delivers the level of authenticity that we have come to expect from Koryu Books while offering topics that speak clearly to the contemporary practitioner of the classical arts. It answers both questions that they may already have and which they perhaps should be asking of themselves and their traditions.

The book can be roughly split into four types of essays: scholarly researched articles provided by Dr.’s Friday and Bodiford; personal experiences and observations, provided by Messrs Lowry, Beaubien, Amdur and Bristol; an interview provided by Liam Keeley; and, a basic introduction to some koryu traditions provided by Meik Skoss. In these articles each writer offers their own differing, yet concentric, views and experiences that in sum achieve a strong and impressive holistic offering.

The first article, “The Cat’s Eerie Skill,” provided by Dr. Karl Friday, is a translation of Issai Chozan’s 18th century work ‘Neko no Myojutsu’, which offers a parallel between the skills of a master rat-catching feline and the skill of a master warrior. The story is both curious and interesting and Dr. Friday should be thanked for making the text available to English audiences. I felt his comments before the actual translation promised much more than a single article could possibly deliver and my thirst was therefore only partly sated by the central text. I hope that in the future he will expand on his central theme and offer more examples of texts that illustrate the critical points he raises in the introduction.

Dave Lowry’s article, like Mr. Amdur’s and Mr. Beaubien’s, covers much of interest to those wishing to gain a fuller understanding of the realities of their traditions and personal training, or the realities of those koryu that they adore from afar. In a very real sense, especially in the former two cases, these articles are iconoclastic in their demystification of the koryu and as such are highly welcome in comparison with the hagiographies that often prevail in martial arts literature.

I find Mr. Lowry’s article to be over-laden with metaphors, and his bizarre minefield metaphor could have been quite simply communicated with the word “uncertainty.” I also grew tired of the humorously named ryuha that serve as his examples.

Mr. Lowry does battle through various diversions to give a sound discussion of the different pitfalls that await the koryu practitioner tempted by the possibilities offered by the simultaneous study of more than one tradition. These points also apply to those contemplating new branches of study in arts from different cultures than the art they are practicing at present, and Mr. Lowry’s cautions are worth heeding.

The interview with Nitta Suzuyo Soke of the Toda Ha Buko Ryu is an enjoyable insight into the life and philosophy of a koryu headmaster who has had one of the largest influences on koryu in the West. This petite lady has granted more teaching licenses of the highest level to foreigner practitioners than any other koryu master. In real life her humor, gentleness and sincerity has much impressed me and I think that it is about time this lady was introduced to a world that shovels adoration on male teachers, many of whom have only half her warrior spirit, intelligence and flexibility. No doubt helped by the fact that the interviewer is a senior student of her ryu, this is one of the highlights of the book.

Ron Beaubien’s article illustrates an important potential pitfall that awaits the observer of koryu arts, i.e. that what you see isn’t always what you get. Mr. Beaubien explores the reasons behind the outward appearance of some arts at major demonstrations in Japan. He goes into how these are affected not only by the teachings of the tradition, which may have been codified centuries earlier, but also by socioeconomic influences and pressures on the modern day demonstrators themselves.

Focusing on one memorable and flamboyant movement from a koryu tradition, Mr. Beaubien explores this area, which is familiar to the hoplologist from IHS founder Donn Draeger’s emic/etic (insider/outsider) distinction. Citing numerous interesting and little known tidbits, Mr. Beaubien makes clear the case that true understanding can never be gained through observation by outsiders. However, by considering the influences on demonstrators and throwing away mental obstructions, such as a desire to see a sequential story played out before our eyes, we may be able to gain a deeper insight into arts beyond our personal experience. Readers would do well to read this article before attending the next demonstration that they are privileged to watch.

Although in the introduction to the text, the editor, Diane Skoss states that the Field Notes to the koryu arts seen in the first and second volume have been dropped, in favor of providing a tome specifically devoted to them, it is hard to see how the article by Meik Skoss is not simply these field notes on the arts of the Itto Ryu traditions fitted into a different template. This is not a complaint rather a puzzled statement. Mr. Skoss again gives his usual insightful and knowledgeable introductions, gleaned from decades of study and research and answers more questions than you may have ever considered regarding the various branches of this illustrious tradition.

Dr. William Bodiford’s article relating to the title of Soke in Japanese, originally a reply posted on a public internet forum, is a scholarly and fascinating history of the usage and misusage of this venerable noun.

Much bandied and often misappropriated, this title has for long deserved a closer examination and Dr. Bodiford has done scholars a great favor with this clarifying text, Perhaps, as there is no acceptable succinct definition in any dictionary, Dr. Bodiford could have done the reader a further favor in attempting one for it at the end of the article. Nevertheless, an important piece of research that should act as a benchmark for those attempting to explain other Japanese titles.

Ellis Amdur has provided some of the most interesting articles on classical traditions that have graced any magazine or books pages. Always clear and erudite, Mr. Amdur is yet again in iconoclastic mode as he this time turns his attention to the prickly subject of renovation and innovation of technique in the koryu. There can be few people as perfectly placed to discuss this subject, as he assumes two guises, first as a teacher of Araki Ryu in which it is his duty to achieve contemporary practicality for his art and secondly as a teacher of Toda Ha Buko Ryu who took it upon himself to reconstruct a lost set of techniques.

Mr. Amdur offers readers a painfully realistic and fascinating article that in its openness, especially regarding his own failures, and breadth of scope, demands of the reader nothing less than serious introspection and respect.

It is perhaps in the final article, written by Lt. Colonel George Bristol, that Diane Skoss’s desire to put forward reasons and examples of why the koryu are relevant to modern times is most effectively fulfilled. Lt. Col. Bristol is familiar to Hop-lite readers as a serving officer in the United States Marine Corps, and regular contributor to IHS publications. His article offers a rare chance to hear what a professional modern-day warrior makes of these often arcane looking traditions.

It is reassuring to koryu practitioners that his findings point toward the timeless truth of the principles and teachings taught within them. Intensely personal, the article offers some thought-provoking observations, including the author’s statement that he uses a video of Donn Draeger to show to new trainees as an example of combative intensity. It also details one man’s realization that the contemporary combative man differs little from that of centuries past.

The publications of Koryu Books have effectively paralleled the evolution of their audience. Where previously simple questions on the most basic of matters were the norm, today’s highly-informed readers demand a far greater level of scholarship and depth of understanding. Koryu Books have not only responded to this challenge but have led the field in providing the highest quality materials from contributors who are able to impart knowledge both articulately and authoritatively.

Their books have acted as introducers, guides and finally intimate confidantes to practitioners and, as such, are imperatives for the koryu practitioner’s bookshelf. They also offer fine examples of how to approach the study and introduction of classical traditions of other cultures to hoplologists and all others interested in the traditional Martial Arts of Japan.

Antony Cundy
Hop-lite, No. 13, Fall 2002, p. 17-19.

Judo, karate, kendo, aikido–most of the Japanese martial arts, as practiced today–are relatively recent inventions, taking shape in the era of Japanese nationalism, military build-up, and expansion following the Meiji Restoration. Their forms reflect their times: They are characterized by regimented group practice, a focus on building spirit, an emphasis on competition, and strict systems of ranking. Contrast this with the koryu bujutsu, which are, broadly defined, the martial arts of pre-Meiji Restoration-era Japan. Rather than the hierarchies of the gendai budo, including governing bodies, the koryu are passed down in ryu, semi-feudal “family” traditions, and their pedagogical method is completely different. The late, great Donn Draeger was the first Westerner to bring widespread attention to the koryu bujutsu. Yet, Draeger’s writings presented only one point of view of a complex subject, and left many misconceptions, such as the oft cited “-do” versus “-jutsu” controversy.

Diane Skoss, like Draeger, is a writer who spent many years living in Japan, drinking from the wellspring of these rare arts. Unlike Draeger, her books combine a multiplicity of voices, being composed of essays written by eminent authorities on the classical Japanese martial arts. The first book in Skoss’ series, “Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan,” sought to define what the koryu bujutsu are. The second tried to approach the essence of these arts. Her third book, however, is concerned not with the past or present, but with the future. What lies ahead for the koryu bujutsu in a world grown increasingly impersonal and mechanized, where “martial arts,” to many Japanese, means high-school Phys Ed. kendo, and in which many of those most interested in learning these arts are, in fact, non-Japanese? Can the koryu be successfully transplanted to foreign soil? Does their spirit change?

Essays in this book include a Japanese parable on the nature of skill in the fighting arts, translated by Karl F. Friday; an essay by Dave Lowry on the dangers of attempting to study more than one koryu (which should be required reading for anyone purporting to follow a regimen of “cross-training”); Liam Keeley’s interview with Nitta Suzuyo, the headmaster of the Toda-ha naginata ryu; Ron Beaubien’s insightful observation on the difficulty of trying to leanr about the koryu by mere observation; an overview of the methods and practice of Itto-ryu kenjutsu; a discourse by William M. Bodiford on what exactly the often-misused term “soke” actually means; Ellis Amdur’s essay on the perils of trying to improve on centuries-old traditions; and, finally, United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel George H. Bristol’s observations on the koryu as fighting arts and combat training.

Keiko Shokon, as well as the first two books in the series, is well worth reading by anyone interested in the history behind our modern practice of Japanese martial arts. For those who wish to practice the koryu bujutsu themselves, they are an invaluable resource. Finally, the philosophical questions they raise on such issues as change and tradition are well worth considering in and of themselves. This book is highly recommended.

Ken Mondschein

Diane has outdone herself with this volume – the range of topics, the credentials of the contributors, and the thoroughly engaging writing styles make Keiko Shokon a book you’ll try to read in one sitting (but won’t be able to because you’ll keep returning to savor favorite articles).

A must-have book!

Robert Wolfe
Itten Dojo

Keiko Shokon translates as “Reflecting deeply on the past, illuminate the present.” In this, the 3rd volume in Diane Skoss’s remarkable series “Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan” she does this beautifully. This volume includes Karl Friday’s masterful translation of the Neko No Myoyujtsu one of my favorite parables of ancient Japan concerning the warrior. There is a wonderful interview with Nitta Suzuyo, head of Toda-ha Buko Ryu. William Bodiford has contributed an article which should put to rest the use and abuse of the term “soke” in the west, and George H. Bristol, Lieutenant Colonel, USMC has provided a rather modern practical consideration of koryu budo in his essay The Professional Perspective: Thoughts on the Koryu Bujutsu from a United States Marine. Other contributors include Ellis Amdur, Meik Skoss, Dave Lowry, Quintin Chambers, Liam Keeley and Ron Beaubien. This book is one that anyone who considers themselves serious about understanding the nature and history of Japanese budo, ancient or modern, must have and read and reread.

Peter Boylan
Mugendo Budo

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