Sighting the Grizzly

Understanding Abuses of Japan’s Classical Martial Traditions

The editor of this publication [Bugeisha] was discussing on the phone with me some of the problems in presenting a serious magazine devoted to the martial arts and Ways. In particular, he lamented that there is a great shortage in those who are qualified and willing to write about the koryu, the classical martial arts of Japan which have become, within the past few years, a matter of considerable interest to Westerners. There are people out there who know a lot about these arts, he said, and why, he wanted to know, won’t they write articles about them for magazines like this one, which would present such arts in a realistic and dignified way?

It was my first conversation with him and since I don’t know the editor here I refrained from being my usual caustic and cynical self. But to myself I thought, “Why should they?” I know that sounds rather harsh; I certainly do not mean it that way. But in all honesty, it has been my experience and the experience of others who have tried to write about and explain the Japanese koryu, that it is often more trouble and grief than it may be worth.

Let me begin to explain this by providing at least a bare-bones background of our subject. By “koryu” (literally, “old schools”) we are referring to those Japanese combative arts which originated before the end of the feudal era in Japan, ca. 1867. In a broader sense, these are arts meant for use on the battlefield, which were practised by and intended for the professional warrior class. They are distinguished from the more modern Japanese budo forms with which most of you are doubtless more familiar: judo, karate-do, kendo, aikido, and so on. These koryu are, in the strictest sense, true “martial arts.” That is, they were the province of the military class. Commoners had no use for them and would have had very, very limited access to the traditions that taught them.

With the end of feudalism, many of the koryu traditions were discontinued. A headmaster would die without having any students to carry on the system. Or the original, feudal-era system was radically changed during the period of Japan’s modernisation, made into a sporting endeavour or some other form and it gradually lost its essence. Then too, some koryu died out long before the end of the feudal era simply because they weren’t combatively effective. All the people who were practising them were killed. Talk about survival of the fittest… However, there have been about 300 of the koryu in Japan which have continued on into the present century. (That is by no means an exact census. It is an approximate guess. There is an office in the Budokan in Tokyo which is responsible for overseeing the activities of many of these koryu still in existence. But some of them are so small or are practised in such out-of-the-way places that not much real official documentation exists on them.) Some of these koryu are actually flourishing. (Although in every case where they are, these ryu have been subject to severe criticism for altering traditional training methods and sacrificing quality for “mass production.”) The Jikishinkage ryu of the naginata (halberd) has several hundred advanced students and its membership is probably into the thousands. Other koryu are literally down to their last members, with masters and headmasters dying without leaving anyone full possession of the entire curriculum of the school. But by any reckoning, all of these koryu are extremely rare in Japan. Especially in those which have retained some measure of their original spirit, membership is strictly limited. They are in no way like a modern budo where aspirants simply need walk in off the street and sign up for lessons and which have millions of practitioners all over the world.

The koryu are much more like apprenticing to an artisan. I was reading the other day about a family in New Jersey that has, for several generations, specialised in manufacturing the enormous fireworks used in public displays and in presenting these displays. There are a couple of sons and a couple of others who’ve married into the family who form the next generation. A koryu is like that in many ways. Sometimes, in fact, the word “koryu” is transliterated as “family combative systems,” and that is not a bad way to think of them. All ryu in Japan, whether they are ryu intended for the study of flower arranging or cooking or martial arts, are not unlikely pyramid schemes, with the originating family at the top of the heap, and licenced instructors forming the body underneath.

Why, the reader might ask, are these koryu so small? One good reason is that training in the majority of them is physically rigourous. I do not mean to say that one must be a Special Forces-type to study them. But there is an element of danger and injuries are to be expected. They can be rough and physically challenging in a way that is entirely different from the demands placed upon the practitioner of more modern disciplines. Then too, they must be taught one-on-one. You cannot have a real koryu where a teacher stands at the head of the class and issues orders and the whole group goes through the exercises. A teacher must be intimately involved in every step of the exponent’s training. And finally, the koryu tend to be small because the headmasters tend to wish them that way. They are not involved in them as a money-making project. They do not have an evangelical desire to “share them with the world.” They are content to do what they do and to have a few people around them who feel the same way.

There is at least one more aspect about the koryu which restricts their uncontrolled growth, a facet of their core which has not been widely discussed in the West. The koryu are deeply, intimately linked with certain religious and spiritual practises of Japan. Not to Zen, as one might imagine. The koryu, nearly all of them, have strong connexions with esoteric Buddhism and with Shinto. The exact nature of the connexion is too complex a subject for here. Suffice to say this: most koryu are affiliated with a shrine or temple in Japan. They have patron deities that will also be associated with it. In many koryu these deities are assumed to be watching over the practises and in some of them, in fact, the only place where the techniques and kata of the ryu are properly demonstrated is within the precincts of the temple or shrine. When they are demonstrated away from there, rituals or special prayers may be invoked. In other words, there is a strong spiritual element, nearly always concealed, in the classical martial arts and it is one which is never going to be broadly disseminated.

As you can imagine, these attitudes do not exist easily in modern society where we have been taught that if we have the desire and the financial wherewithal, everything is available to us. Furthermore, because most of us have virtually no knowledge about what the koryu are actually like, we are susceptible to all kinds of ersatz versions that unscrupulous individuals have foisted off as the real thing. I had one soi disant exponent of a supposed classical ryu define for me the difference between a modern budo or martial Way and a classical bujutsu or koryu. “A budo is a bujutsu you do all your life,” he told me in all seriousness, completely ignorant of the vast differences between the two.

Well, the argument might be made, if what I’m telling you is true, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to write about it and talk about it and educate the martial arts public? Yes, and no. In the first place, there is some information available to the general public which is accurate and reliable concerning the koryu. Anyone even remotely interested in the subject has doubtless read the late Donn Draeger’s three volumes on budo and bujutsu. The problem isn’t in a lack of information. It is in the refusal of the would-be practitioner to take that information seriously. Let me give you an example.

I was contacted some time ago, by a practitioner of “ninjutsu,” from a ryu he insisted was authentic and several thousand (!) years old. He was telling me about one of the masters of this ryu back in the feudal era, who had been, according to him, in virtually every corner of Japan, carrying out clandestine missions and also learning lots of other martial arts as he went. The fellow wanted me to write a story on this. Not unless it’s fiction, I replied. And I explained why the story was utterly implausible. I explained how the roads were constructed in feudal Japan at the time he was talking about, with border guards set up at regularly placed outposts. No one in Japan travelled without a written pass from officials in their home fief. No one went from city A to city D without passing the guardposts at B and C and having their pass stamped and dated. For that reason alone, I explained, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to have travelled very far undetected on covert missions in this way.

In reply to this, I got a letter from the fellow who was angry at me. Hadn’t I ever heard of travelling cross-country, he wanted to know? He dismissed my arguments out of hand and wondered why I “had it in” for his art. Yes, I’ve heard of travelling cross-country. I’ve also travelled in Japan and I know how difficult the terrain is, how full of streams and rivers, how tedious and exhausting and time-consuming it would have been to travel like that. And even if the erstwhile ninja went cross-country and avoided the checkpoints, he would have arrived in the place where his mission was to take place and be subject at any time to being stopped and questioned by authorities and he so he would still have been left trying to explain to authorities in city D how he managed to get there without passing through B and C and having the stamps to prove it.

I was tempted to write the fellow back and to explain this. I admit; there’s a little part of me that enjoys putting irritating people in their place. But there’s a bigger part I must honestly say, that enjoys even more explaining things and sharing my interests with others. That’s a big reason I began writing in the first place. On the other hand, how much time does a person have to explain matters to those who clearly don’t want to listen? Nearly all of the people I know who are involved in the koryu and who also participate on the Internet have told me of similar experiences. They will read something on the Internet about the koryu that is incorrect or be asked a question and try to answer it, and for their troubles they are harangued. At first it is disgusting and then, as all of us began sharing these encounters, we began to realise that what we are dealing with many times are belief systems. These people, some of them anyway, clearly believe in some areas that for them, are beyond rational analysis.

Everyone needs to believe in some things which are beyond the rational. As a Christian, I have some particular beliefs which I take on spiritual faith. I am not interested in your analysis that my beliefs may be wrong, since I consider them beyond analysis in the usual interpretation of that word. To my mind, the personality of a person who doesn’t have at least some of these beliefs is not fully developed. The personality of a person who is too undiscriminating in what he believes, what he refuses to submit to reason, is, on the other hand, not emotionally stable, in my opinion. A belief in a higher power is pretty much beyond proof or disproof. Belief in other people, though, is one that in many instances we can submit to the laws of logic and reasoning. So if I say I believe in an omnipotent God whose presence and works are beyond human understanding, you, can’t say a whole lot to “disprove” my belief. If I say I believe that I have been taught a system of the koryu that is 2000 years old, one which includes the use of automatic weaponry, and the last headmaster of which was Elvis Presley, then you and I might have something to talk about, right?

You could point out that no koryu that you know of, none which is listed in any of the voluminous research that has been done on koryu, can trace its beginnings back further than the 13th century at most. You could observe that no other classical koryu then or now has included automatic weapons for obvious reasons. You could point out that no Westerner has ever inherited the headmastery of a classical koryu, especially not one who had never been to Japan and who never claimed to have any knowledge of it while he was alive. Especially not Elvis.

Now, my example here is obviously an extreme one. But it’s not quite as extreme as you might imagine. There are all sorts of preposterous tales out there concerning alleged koryu that are being taught. And there are a number of individuals training in these disciplines who are so strongly entrenched in their belief systems, in the belief they have in those who are teaching, that no amount of reasoning or logic can cause them to question the legitimacy of the teacher or the art.

In truth, most of these fake koryu or teachers who are fraudulently claiming to be instructing in a real koryu, are relatively easy to uncover. Common sense alone is enough to expose some. For instance, I have been told of a couple of different koryu which were, its practitioners claim, “secret” in the sense that it was so elite the other ryu were not and still are not aware of its existence. Nice story, but of course the ryu in feudal times was primarily a political unit. It existed to advance the power of the family that controlled it or the power of the daimyo under whose auspices it existed. A secret ryu would have made about as much sense as a secret political party in a general democratic election.

Other teachers of alleged koryu are presented as being the sole inheritors of the system. This is absurd. We are expected to believe that a Westerner went to Japan and found a koryu–in itself no small feat–that not even other Japanese know about. There are Westerners in Japan who have been living and training there for more than three decades. They are well-known in the koryu community and they tend to know or know of other non-Japanese who are training in other classical ryu. It is a simple matter for them if, for example, I say that I am doing Kashima ryu, to get in touch with the people at that ryu and ask them if they’ve ever heard of me. It is a very small community, those Japanese and non-Japanese alike who do these arts and so there aren’t too many surprises among them. As I have said earlier, there are no independently verifiable instances where a non-Japanese has been positioned as a headmaster.

There are other cases where Westerners have been teaching koryu without the licence or permission to do so. Some of these people cannot be entirely faulted for this. The problem may lie in Japan itself. I am thinking here of at least a couple of koryu where Japanese exponents who had legitimately trained in the ryu, and then left it before receiving permission to teach. Some of these men are quite prominent in martial arts circles and for one reason or another, the members of the ryu are reluctant to publicly remonstrate these offenders. (Sometimes I think their reluctance has to do with what one koryu member in Japan told me when I asked about this. “Those who want to go practise with those sorts of people deserve the instruction they get.”) Without going into detail, let me say that in almost every koryu, permission to teach must come directly from the incumbent headmaster. Having been a member of the ryu is not enough. If the person claiming to teach the art cannot put you in touch with the incumbent headmaster, if he cannot immediately present documentation granting him official and explicit permission to teach, well, as my friend said, you deserve what you get. I think this deserves a special mention because there are at least three individuals I know who are teaching a koryu in this country and in Europe who actually do have a connexion with the same person in Japan. The problem is, the Japanese, while he trained in the ryu, was never given permission to teach it.

There are still other examples where individuals may have actually trained in real koryu in Japan and who have since returned to the West and are presenting the art in an illegitimate way. Anyone who participates in an open seminar or training camp where a koryu is taught to all who sign up is guilty of this. Anyone proposing to teach a koryu on a mass scale, to large numbers of people, is also grossly misrepresenting the original intent of the ryu.

As I have mentioned, the koryu in Japan are extremely rare. The vast majority of Japanese do not even know they exist. If you were to go to Japan and ask the average Japanese about finding a koryu dojo, he would either have no idea what you were talking about or he would end up sending you to a kendo dojo. This may seem odd. But we have arts here which, while well-known to those interested in them, are complete mysteries to those without a direct connexion to them. If someone came here from another country and asked you about learning to become a falconer, would you know where to send him? Or if he wanted to learn some obscure method of fiddle playing practised by natives of some remote part of Appalachia, would you be of any help?

So, if you can imagine with those sorts of examples how off-beat and out-of-the-way the koryu are to the typical Japanese, you have some idea of how rare non-Japanese practitioners of these ancient arts would be. The truth is, there are probably no more than a hundred or so non-Japanese involved in these arts and only a fraction of those have any real experience in them. Of those I know in the United States, a few actually have teaching licences. None of them teaches their art commercially. None makes a living at teaching. All of them would be mortified at the thought, in fact. The idea that one of them would open a commercial dojo and offer “lessons” in this koryu or that, would be as ridiculous to them, I feel safe in saying, as would be my claim to have mastered a koryu under the direction of Grandmaster Elvis.

If you are fortunate enough to come across one of these people, or if you establish a contact with some of those who train in Japan, you ought to feel free to ask them questions about the koryu. But you ought to listen carefully to their answers. They are not in this to make a buck; they don’t have any reason to lie to you or to unfairly criticise others. All of them have made enormous sacrifices in their lives to follow the koryu at the levels where they are and they have nothing but love and respect for these arts and a sincere desire to maintain them correctly.

As for learning under these people–if they are willing and able to teach–or from anyone claiming to represent a koryu, there is only one bit of advice I can offer: check out their stories. The backgrounds of the people I know who are members of koryu are very interesting. But their background are also relatively simple. From real people you don’t get a lot of stories having to do with mysterious masters who taught and then disappeared into the fog. You don’t hear wild tales of ryu that no Japanese sources list. You don’t hear “mine is the real samurai art that was kept away from all but the elite members of a special assassination squad directly under the command of the emperor,” or similar humbuggery.

A couple of summers ago, I spent an evening talking with one of those rare Westerners who has advanced licences in two different koryu. He has lived in Japan for more than 30 years and he has an extraordinary background, as you might guess, in both the koryu and in modern martial Ways. We were talking about the problems I have mentioned here. My questions to him were these: Why would a person knowingly submit himself to instruction from a teacher about whom there were suspicions? Why would he want to take up an art that was not being taught under the auspices of the headmaster of that art? To me, I said, settling for a person to teach you a koryu whom you even suspect of being dishonest, or training with a group that does not have a clear relationship with the ryu’s headmaster, these are like settling for seeking one’s need for companionship by visiting a prostitute. It is as though you would go to a prostitute and then try to convince yourself you have participated in a mutually satisfying sexual experience. No, he said, it’s like going to a prostitute and then trying to convince yourself you are in a mutually loving relationship.

I think my friend was exactly right. Those who are opting to train in fraudulent koryu or who are apprenticing themselves to teachers who are unqualified to be teaching are often engaged in a belief system, as I have observed. But they are also fooling themselves, pretending they are involved in traditions and systems when, in fact, they are effectively cutting themselves off from any chance they might ever have to train in a real koryu. Look at it another way: you the reader have indulged my analogies so far. Let me close by offering one more. I think all of us would thrill at seeing a grizzly bear hunting, roaming about just as it has done since before man came to this continent. It must be a tremendously stirring sight. But does that mean we’d like to have one enclosed in our backyard? No. We realise it wouldn’t be practical for us and it certainly would not be fair to the animal. There are those fortunate individuals who love the sight of grizzlies so much they are willing to buy property and build on land where grizzlies frequent. But for the rest of us, watching them from a distance or reading about them or observing them through films and TV programmes is the closest we come. We do that as a matter of practicality and because we understand that is best for the bear as well. The koryu are similar. Except for the rare individual who has the time and opportunity to pursue one correctly, the koryu are better left as they are. Admire them. Learn about them through reading and correspondence with those having a first-hand knowledge. But have the integrity to give them the respect they deserve. In doing so, you will demonstrate that you have a far keener and more profound grasp of the essence of the koryu than any of those swinging swords and pretending or hoping to understand these unique traditions.

Copyright ©1997 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.