A Bit of Background

I started this series with a column titled “Who, What, When…” and said then that the major topics would be the classical martial arts and ways and the different family and non-collateral schools or styles comprising these various disciplines. I focused on descriptions of specific traditions in my subsequent columns, but what I’d like to do this time is discuss the origins of Japanese kobudo and give a brief overview of the field.

Although systematic training in the use of weapons, and methods for employing them in warfare existed long before, it is generally believed that the development of martial traditions, schools, or styles (ryu-ha) did not arise until after the end of the Heian period (794-1185). Central to this training was study of the bow (yumi), the sword (tachi), and the spear (yari). Initially, these weapons were not studied in separate arts. Rather, since the need was to prepare for battlefield combat, many different weapons and strategic and tactical skills were taught as part of comprehensive systems (sogo bujutsu). From the middle of the Muromachi period (ca. 1480) to the beginning of the Tokugawa period (ca. 1605) people gradually began to specialize in a particular weapon or system, particularly the bow, spear, sword, grappling and horsemanship. Warriors gathered in family-centered groups or trained with other members of their local domains. As the techniques and methods of these groups became more and more individuated, or as teachers gained particular insights into the essential nature and principles of combat, there arose discrete martial “traditions” or “styles” or “schools” (bujutsu ryu-ha). This began happening at the beginning of the Keicho era (ca. 1600), picked up impetus throughout the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), and has continued even into the twentieth century.

The areas most famous for the development of the classical martial traditions (koryu) are located, as the saying goes, in the Kanto region, “Heiho wa Togoku kara”: heiho comes from the East, referring to the Kanto area surrounding Tokyo (heiho means martial or military arts; strategy). The Kashima and Katori Shrines lie on opposite sides of the Tone River in Ibaraki and Chiba Prefectures.

There are enshrined two of the most important Shinto martial deities: Takemikazuchi no Mikoto (Kashima Jingu) and Futsunushi no Kami (Katori Jingu). They, along with the Buddhist goddess, Marishiten, serve as the patron and protective deices for many of the martial traditions. Historical records show very clearly that young warriors gathered, or were sent by their masters, for advanced training at these shrines, which became centers for the martial arts after the end of the Heian era. Eventually this led to the foundation of the oldest known formal traditions in the martial arts, the Kashima Shinto-ryu and the Katori Shinto-ryu.

During the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when the bujutsu ryu-ha were first being formed, such famous warriors as Aisu Ikkosai and Kamiizumi Isenokami Hidetsuna (later Nobutsuna) of the Kage-ryu, Chujo Hyogonosuke of the Chujo-ryu, Iizasa Choisai Ienao of the Katori Shinto-ryu, and Tsukahara Bokuden of the Kashima Shinto-ryu traveled throughout Japan for warrior training (musha shugyo) to improve their skills and understanding of combat, and also to teach their individual styles and systems to local warriors and those they had taught earlier in their careers. Over time this led to the development of branch schools (bunryu) or factions (bumpa), which in turn became the basis for hundreds of other schools established in each of the feudal domains (han).

After the middle of the Tokugawa period and the firm establishment of its military feudal government (bakuhan seido), lords of the major and minor domains (daimyo, shomyo) competed in attracting warriors noted for their fighting skills, and appointed them as instructors in official schools. These men taught the lords and their hereditary retainers as professionals, serving a period of time and then going on to their next position. It was not at all uncommon for a particular school to become established in a specific area and become a permanent part of its martial curriculum. In some cases a martial system was designated as an “official” school (otome-ryu), one sanctioned and sponsored by the local lord. Literally, this official status meant that the style could not be studied by warriors from outside that particular domain. In a few rare instances, the implication was that instructors of the school were enjoined from leaving the domainal areas, or that the art could not be shown to outsiders. Recent scholarship suggests, however, that this ban on warriors from other domains or on teachers leaving the clan areas was never an absolute and was almost certainly the exception, rather than the rule. The proscription was more nominal than anything else, given the fact that warriors were constantly moving between Edo (present-day Tokyo) and their own and other domains on official business. Contemporary records reveal that it was not at all uncommon for bushi to either apply to or be dispatched to train in the martial arts traditions or schools of other clans. The daimyo, then, set up domainal schools (hanko) where their warriors could study both academic and military subjects, including local styles practiced only by warriors of that domain as well as more famous schools that had a nationwide following.

In this way, bujutsu-ryu proliferated tremendously, “sprouting like mushrooms after the rain has ended” in the words of one authority. By the end of the Edo period there were, according to the Nihon Kobudo Sokan (An Overview of Japanese Classical Martial Arts), some fifty-two kyujutsu (archery), 718 kenjutsu (swordsmanship), 148 sojutsu (spearsmanship), and 179 jujutsu (grappling, close combat) ryu-ha. However, the social, economic, and cultural changes that have occurred in Japan during the past one hundred and thirty-five years (since the Meiji Restoration in 1868) have caused many kobudo ryu and/or their affiliated systems (bunryu, bumpa) to disappear, leaving behind nothing more than their names. There are probably no more than a few hundred of these classical martial schools remaining that have maintained their technical curricula in a vital manner, together with the documents detailing their lineage and traditions.

The classical martial arts in Japan occupy a tenuous position in today’s society. They are not widely understood or studied by Japanese or foreigners and this further complicates matters. Bujutsu can be viewed (justifiably from one point of view) as anachronisms totally devoid of relevance to modern life. They can, with equal justification, be seen as an important cultural heritage that can inform and enrich us all, regardless of what we do, where we come from, or who we are. Perhaps the fact that they do still exist, in the hectic environment of life at the close of the twentieth century, is an indication of their vitality and adaptability.

Copyright ©1994 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Aikido Journal #100, vol. 21, no. 3, 1994.