Koryu Training in Japan

There’s no question that people all over the world are interested in learning authentic Japanese classical martial arts. Ever since we began publishing articles on the subject, and particularly since the start of Koryu.com, we’ve received inquiries from readers. “I’d like to come to Japan and study koryu. How can I do this?”

If you’ve read Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, you’ll have already guessed the answer to this one: there isn’t one perfectly proper way to find, make contact with, and enter a classical martial tradition in Japan. Sometimes the process is rigorously formal, with elaborately brushed introductions, probationary periods, and solemn blood-oaths; at others it can be as simple as walking through the door. It’s impossible, as with so many other things in Japan to offer a “one-size-fits-all” recipe. What I can provide, however, are a few generalizations distilled from the experiences of the successful non-Japanese koryu practitioners I know here in Japan, for their tales have a number of points in common.


1. If you haven’t already, begin serious training in a modern Japanese budo. It doesn’t matter which art; what matters is that you find a solid, qualified, respectable instructor, who has current connections in Japan. Often, but by no means always, this will mean looking for someone who has spent some time in Japan. How can you tell? Well, obviously native-born Japanese instructors fit the bill. Otherwise, inquire about how often the dojo hosts Japanese visitors, either formally or for “just passing through” training. Find out how often the instructor visits Japan to continue his or her own training. The important point is to find an instructor or organization that can help you make appropriate connections after you reach Japan.

A second goal is to get into decent shape; no need to go crazy with iron pumping, but good health, a sturdy constitution, and strong flexible physique will help protect you from injuries and illnesses and make your path that much smoother.

Be sure to read Meik’s article, “Training in Japan.”

2. Learn Japanese! I can’t stress strongly enough how important this is, not merely for coping with life in Japan (which ain’t always easy), but for training in a koryu. As my esteemed spouse remarked recently, you can’t really consider yourself a fully qualified practitioner/instructor of a classical art if you can’t read, let alone study and ponder the mokuroku and other documents of your tradition. Guess what? These are not available in English.

So hie thee to your local community college, take Japanese courses while in university, or start a SERIOUS self-directed study program. Plan on continuing your studies when you reach Japan, and don’t skip learning to read and write. Quite frankly, not studying Japanese was by far the biggest mistake in my martial arts career, one I am still struggling to compensate for. Sure, I rationalized, I’m only going to be in Japan a few years and my time’s better spent in the dojo. Phooey! To study koryu properly, a few years (a not inappropriate amount of time to train here in a modern art) MUST stretch to five or ten or more. You’ll need Japanese to succeed. Period.

3. Do some serious career planning. As Meik explains at some length in his “Training in Japan,” the job/visa situation has changed dramatically in the last five years or so. Unless you are a fully qualified TESOL instructor with relevant experience, you are unlikely to find work teaching your native language (and even if you do, making ends meet on what they pay you is a whole `nother challenge). If you are lucky enough to be a citizen of a country with some sort of reciprocal “Working Holiday Visa” arrangement with Japan, you have a reasonable range of options. You should contact your local Japanese Consulate or Embassy for details. Be warned, however, that such visas typically have a maximum age limit, and tend not to be renewable for as long as you’ll need. What they can do is help you get here in the first place, where you can start hustling for connections and a situation that will be renewable for the ten or so years koryu training minimally requires.

Americans, unfortunately, do not fall in this category and must do some serious career planning. If you are still in school, consider a major that involves a year (or more) of study in Japan. While on your year abroad, train in your modern art, and use your free time to lay the groundwork for a later return. Even if you can’t get a preliminary trip to Japan, start investigating which companies typically post employees to Japan. What specialties are needed in Japan? Identify these and get the training and certifications you need. The financial sector, certain types of engineers, journalists, the hotel industry–these are some outfits that hire Japanese-speaking non-natives in Japan. If at all possible, arrange for your employment ahead of time; the alternative is to bring $10,000 (U.S.). This will give you enough time to find a job before you run out of funds.

4. If you are single, stay that way. If this isn’t realistic, or you’d rather not abandon a treasured life partner, be absolutely certain that said partner has an equally compelling dream that can be pursued effectively during your long years in Japan. If you have kids, wait until they’ve left home. I know this sounds harsh, but the plain fact is that the daily stress of living in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, is horrendous. Compound this by years and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, even for the most well-balanced individual. The only way to keep the dragons at bay, at least most of the time, is a passionate commitment to your reasons for being here. If your significant other doesn’t have one, or if it differs too greatly from yours–well, my own first marriage lasted little more than a year after landing here.1

5. Finally, read as much as you can about the koryu, both in general and specific (see Meik’s “Good Books” article). But remember one very important point–no one of us writing on this topic in English has a complete understanding. In Japan, two diametrically opposed “facts” can be equally true at the same time. The old fable of the six blind men and the elephant is a useful analogy. Each extrapolated from the part of the elephant he was touching, and came up with a description that differed dramatically from all the others. The koryu are like that elephant. Keep your mind flexible (essential to your training as well) and realize that what you read or see represents only one possibility among many. (An aside: this is good practice for living abroad in general, as pre-conceived notions get shot down daily in droves. If you have a high investment in being right or in control, start engendering new attitudes now).

Come to Japan

Okay, so much for the “prior pre-planning” phase. Once you’ve completed your preparations, arrange for your instructor to provide you with introductions to as many people in Japan as possible. The fabled face-to-face connections of Japan are no joke. Make sure your instructor lets his or her contacts know you are coming. Opportunities might well start cropping up as a result of this; be prepared to take advantage of those that wend your way, even if they aren’t EXACTLY what you had in mind.

Once in Japan (and I leave logistics to Meik’s article and future writings) start looking around for a place to train in the modern art you’ve been practicing (you’ll probably be shodan or so by now, if you’ve followed the plan). The best training situation isn’t always the most obvious one. The folks you train with will become like family, so choose wisely. Also remember that it could take several years to find yourself the right koryu and right instructor, and that even when you do you’ll probably want to continue with your previous art. Unless your instructor has made special arrangements, shop around. Visit dojo, ask foreigners that you meet at each where else they train. Visit more dojo.

After six months or so you’ll probably have gotten your feet on the ground, with a place to live, a regular work, training, and study schedule. Now is the time to start investigating your possibilities for koryu training. Attend every kobudo demonstration you can find (the major ones are listed here). Talk to foreign spectators at these events. In general, it’s wisest to refrain from bugging folks who are demonstrating unless you have arranged to do so previously. But there are plenty of foreign koryu practitioners in the audience who will be happy to answer your questions.

Be sure to talk to your regular training partners too. There’s a good chance that one of them will know someone who trains in the koryu. Follow up all leads persistently and politely. When you find someone you really think can help, arrange to speak with them further, but be considerate of busy schedules; you are the petitioner, if compromise needs to be made to find a suitable time, you do the compromising. Don’t call someone at home without an introduction or prior arrangements. And don’t try to dazzle these people with your “knowledge.” I once listened to a non-stop monologue from a young man in the States (on the phone, on his nickel) who quoted some stuff from Draeger, then told me very emphatically that he intended to come to Japan to train in a “real kohroo”, that foreigners couldn’t become members of koryu anymore, and that there were no koryu available in the Tokyo area (where I happen to be located). This, just minutes before I had to hop on my bicycle to get to my Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginata practice.

Another important point to remember along these lines is that an introduction, especially the act of introducing you to a teacher, but even when it consists of merely giving you an address or a phone number, constitutes the personal recommendation and guarantee of the person who gives it to you. Your subsequent behavior reflects on the person who introduced you and you’ll find that many will be extremely reluctant to do more than make general suggestions unless they know you well enough to be willing to risk their word and reputation on your behalf. Patience, and taking the time to let people get to know you, are essential.

Begin visiting koryu groups. Not all training sessions are equally open to the public, so make sure you are going as the guest of a member or someone close to the school. Avoid dropping in unannounced. Visit as many different koryu as you can.

When you do find a dojo with the right atmosphere and have visited several times, ask your “host” how to go about asking for permission to join. But don’t do this until you are willing to make your five to ten year commitment.2

Do whatever is required, enter the ryu, and start training. That’s all there is to it. Good luck.

Copyright ©1997 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

  1. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, most of the successful koryu practitioners I know are married to very supportive partners. But most of them did not come to Japan already mated for life. This whole topic is extremely complicated and deserves an entire article. ↩︎
  2. There are a couple of exceptions–if you come from a place where there is a qualified instructor in an art, you might be okay to start training in that art in Japan for a shorter period, then return home to continue your training. Check this out ahead of time first. ↩︎