Transmission and Succession in the Classical Arts

In the study of the kobudo and kobujutsu (Japanese classical martial arts and ways), one of the more intriguing questions is that of the transmission and succession of the different martial traditions via the soke or iemoto (headmaster or successor to a ryu). The modern martial ways, the “do” forms, generally do not follow the same patterns of technical or cultural transmission and it is easy for people from outside of Japan to misunderstand how the classical traditions were passed down through the generations. Even many modern Japanese are confused, notwithstanding their often professed belief in a common knowledge or practical sense supposedly universal to Japanese people (joshiki).

It is necessary to begin with an understanding of how succession to the headmastership occurred in koryu in the past. The most important methods were isshi soden (the complete transmission of a ryu’s techniques and principles to one’s heir by blood) and yuiju ichinin (teaching all the ryu’s secrets to a single designated inheritor who was not a member of one’s family). Passing on a school in this way, limiting access to the highest-level techniques and principles to one’s successor and a few selected students, served to maintain both the ryu’s prestige and protect the headmaster’s authority. In most cases, there was a strict limit to the number of people (usually only one, seldom more than a handful) who might receive these special teachings and techniques. To prove that someone was a legitimate successor, he might receive a special license attesting to his accession, densho (scrolls which contain the most important technical principles and esoteric matters of the school), and, perhaps, a sword, spear, or other weapon of special significance to the ryu. Even if someone held the menkyo kaiden (the highest level of technical license) or its equivalent, without these emblems or symbols he would not be recognized as a legitimate successor. This is in part due to the fact that, over the years, there were many men who received menkyo and it was necessary to distinguish between fully qualified exponents of a ryu, its licensed teachers, and the legitimate heads of the tradition. This situation is further complicated by the occasional practice of separating the positions of headmaster and teacher in the event that the nominal head of the school does not, or cannot, practice the art. Several of the oldest martial traditions in Japan extant are now in the position where this has become necessary.

In principle, the densho were transmitted directly, from the headmaster to his disciples and students. It has been customary to list the lineage of teachers so that one can tell at a glance whether someone has studied within the main lines of a tradition or in a collateral branch (baikei). Furthermore, to authenticate a license of this sort it is the practice to seal it with the teacher’s and/or headmaster’s personal seal. In some traditions there may be one or more special seals unique to the ryu that must also be affixed for the license to be considered genuine. An example is the license that Morihei Ueshiba is said to have received in 1908 in the art of Yagyu Shingan-ryu jujutsu from Masakatsu Nakai. I have not examined this scroll personally, but the headmaster of the branch of the Yagyu Shingan-ryu that Ueshiba studied has been able to inspect it, and he has told me that the license lacks an authenticating seal over the teacher’s name. It is difficult to determine what the absence of this seal means in regard to this particular densho, as it is very unlikely that it has been fabricated, but it nonetheless poses a problem to scholars and exponents of the kobudo in trying to determine what Ueshiba’s technical antecedents actually were.

The authority of the headmaster rests upon his being able to correctly transmit the physical techniques and principles that are particular to a given school. In some cases, one or more ryu may become affiliated with or incorporated into the “main” school by historical circumstances. For example, the Shinto Muso-ryu is one of the oldest traditions of jojutsu (stick fighting). Many of its exponents (especially those studying the modified version of the art known as jodo) study only the stick. Those interested in the complete range of the tradition, however, can also study a number of affiliated arts: Uchida-ryu tanjojutsu (short stick art), Shinto-ryu kenjutsu (swordsmanship), Isshin-ryu kusarigamajutsu (chain-and-sickle art), Ikkaku-ryu juttejutsu (truncheon art) and Ittatsu-ryu hojojutsu (tying art). Students of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, a noted school of swordsmanship and strategy, can also study the Yagyu Seigo-ryu battojutsu (sword-drawing art) and the set of stick techniques known as “Jubei-no-jo.” The Muhi Muteki-ryu, another school of jojutsu, includes the practice of Iga-ryuha Katsushin-ryu jujutsu in its curriculum. A separate license may or may not be awarded in some or all of these ancillary systems, depending on the normal practice of the main school.

Since the authority of the headmaster was absolute within a ryu, it was imperative that the chosen individual possesses the highest level of technical skills and personal character. Selection of a ryu’s successor has, in theory, always been limited to this sort of outstanding candidate. Over the years, however, circumstances would change within a particular ryu and choosing somebody who met the ideals of personal ability and knowledge wasn’t always possible. Sometimes the sons of the iemoto were not able to train due to limited physical ability, illness, injury or even death in battle. In other instances, there might not have any male children. In such situations, the lack of a suitable person was sometimes met by adopting an outstanding student as the heir (as was the case when Kiyoshi Nakakura was named Morihei Ueshiba’s heir upon his marriage to Ueshiba’s daughter, Matsuko; Nakakura was given the name Morihiro and adopted into the Ueshiba family until he and Matsuko were divorced some years later). Another solution might be where senior students and disciples would work together with the headmaster to preserve the ryu’s technical vitality and social position. Even if one of these people was more skilled than the headmaster, the soke was always regarded as the ultimate figure of legitimacy and infringing on his authority was never countenanced. This way of doing things was followed strictly until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Meiji period was a time of rapid Westernization, when many traditional Japanese arts and customs were discarded in favor of more modern ways. Dan-i (technical ranks) and shogo (teaching titles) could be obtained in a much shorter time than the licenses awarded by the soke of a classical tradition and came to be more highly regarded. The development of national organizations for the gendai budo (modern martial ways) has contributed further to the weakening of the popularity and general recognition of the classical martial arts. In fact, it has only been due to the continuing efforts of a few stubborn, dedicated people and such organizations as the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai and Nihon Kobudo Kyokai, that kobudo ryu have been able to preserve themselves in the face of all the social and economic pressures of the modern era. It is important for those of us who are studying the modern systems to take a close look at the classical traditions lest the lessons they have for us be lost.

Copyright ©1994 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Aikido Journal #101, vol. 21, no. 4.