You want koryu? Come to Japan!

Introduction by Columnist Meik Skoss

Several of my statements in recent columns have provoked comment by AJ readers, particularly Messrs. Lake and Baluja, which merit a response. I had intended to reply to both of these gentlemen, but in discussing these “letters to the editor” with Diane, I found her chain of thought regarding the practice of koryu bujutsu to be a good deal more cogent than mine (I won’t burden you with details of how often this proves to be the case). Further, she wanted to convey her thoughts to all of you who read this column, and has done so in a way that I envy. Here she is:

When I read Roger Lake’s reaction to Meik’s comment in a recent column, “You want koryu? You come to Japan,” I experienced a strong sense of deja vu. Six years ago, when Meik and I first started training together in jukendo, he often made startling–at least to me at that time–proclamations of this sort, and expressed strong opinions about who should have access to, or even authoritative information about, the Japanese classical martial arts. It was more than merely an utter lack of interest in sharing his own expertise (I was trying to talk him into writing some articles at the time); his comments seemed to indicate a policy of deliberate obstruction. I was horrified by his attitude.

Now I’m beginning to see his point. Part of the problem lies in a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of the Japanese koryu bujutsu (classical martial arts–sometimes kobujutsu, old martial arts, is also used). We all read our Draeger and discover that the gendai budo (modern martial arts, of which aikido is one) are actually based on older fighting traditions. Modern arts developed primarily for spiritual and social self-improvement; the classical arts were for fighting. “Do” is spiritual; “jutsu” is technical. The bujutsu were the arts practiced by a specific class for use on the battlefields of Japan, the budo have been opened up to folk of all classes and nationalities.

These distinctions seem pretty clear-cut, but, in general, contrast the characteristics of bujutsu of the past with the goals of budo in the present. This seems to cause confusion. Many people don’t seem to realize that arts with names ending in “jutsu” are not necessarily classical or older arts; taihojutsu, for example is most decidedly modern. Another problem is that in Japan today ALL of the classical martial arts are practiced as “Ways.” It’s a bit ludicrous to imagine lugging a seven-foot-long naginata around for self-defense….

The notion of a simple historical continuum–fighting arts evolving into spiritual ways–obscures a couple of crucial differences between the modern budo and classical arts. First of all, in the modern world, the koryu are cultural artifacts, perhaps no longer useful for their original purposes, but worth preserving as part of the heritage of Japan. We do not train in these arts in order to be able to use these techniques on the battlefield, but to further our self-development and to keep four- or six-hundred-year-old traditions alive. In order to do this we must always keep our training grounded in an enormously complex cultural and historical context–one that simply does not exist outside of Japan. While it may be possible for good aikido to flourish under the guidance of someone who has not had extensive experience in Japan, this is not the case for the koryu.

Another point that is often forgotten is that the very definition of a classical art is that it is handed down via traditional Japanese methods of transmission. A koryu MUST be transmitted directly from master teacher to student, jikiden. There is no other way. You can’t learn it through books; you can’t learn it through videotapes. In the modern arts it is sometimes possible (though I’d still argue that it is inadvisable) when no fully qualified teacher is available, for a senior student to take charge of instruction. But this will not work with classical arts. Certainly, there are qualified and authorized instructors of classical schools who are selling books and videos, but no one who uses such books can ever be said to have “entered” or worse, be teaching, that school.

A lot of so-called classical Japanese schools are springing up all over the place these days. Each time an unqualified person claims to teach a Japanese classical tradition it diminishes all authentic traditions. People are, in some cases, forming their impressions of koryu based on what is essentially a lie. It’s as if someone passed off a forgery of a great artist as the real thing–it cheats both the artist and the viewer, and it may well harm the forger too. Just as museum curators diligently guard against thieves and the taint of counterfeits, at the same time caring for and preserving the often fragile items in their charge, so too the montei (student/disciple) of a Japanese classical bujutsu must protect and conserve the koryu. Too much information made too readily available makes frauds and misunderstandings easier to perpetrate. Hence, Meik’s seemingly obstructive comment, “You want koryu. You come to Japan.”

So what is a person who cannot relocate to Japan in order to pursue training in classical Japanese arts to do? One evening after our Wednesday afternoon Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu training session, Meik, Liam Keeley, and I talked about the difficulties people face when trying to identify qualified non-Japanese koryu practitioners outside of Japan. We came up with a set of criteria that may be useful. Such a person is probably over thirty years old (getting competent in koryu takes time); they have spent at least five consecutive years in Japan–this is an absolute minimum, ten or fifteen years is better; they are able to function in the Japanese language; they hold a license, presented to them by the headmaster or a master teacher (menkyo kaiden), in one of the classical traditions that are members of either the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai, or the Nihon Kobudo Kyokai (admittedly, there are a very small number of schools that for political reasons fall through the cracks here, but essentially a tradition must be documentable in Japan); finally they must be able to describe the history and lineage of the school (this doesn’t mean that they can recite these facts off the tops of their heads, but that when queried they can produce and explain the information). A person who fulfills all these requirements can claim to be a qualified practitioner of a koryu. Those who have been awarded teaching licenses are also authorized to teach.

So you do have a choice–come to Japan, or find one of the dozen or so truly qualified instructors teaching outside of Japan and begin training. While a trip to Japan may not be absolutely essential to train in the koryu (and I do believe it is a must for those who would teach), it is vital to learn from someone who has truly “done time in Japan.”

An update [12/21/08]: this topic sparked an interesting discussion at Martial Arts Planet in early 2008. Another interesting tidibt–we crossed paths once back in the States with both Roger Lake (who became our student) and Eric Baluja [2020 update, who also became our student. Also, there are now far more than a dozen non-Japanese outside of Japan who are fully qualified teachers.].

Copyright ©1996 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Aikido Journal #107, Vol. 23, no. 2 1996.