The school I am a member of, the Hokushin Ittō-Ryū Hyōhō, was founded almost two hundred years ago (in the early 1820‘s).

The first fifty years of its existence are probably the most important and most eventful in Japanese history. The subsequent five decades have been shaped by a boisterous atmosphere of change as well as utter despair, uncertainty and even existential threats. In the following fifty years Japan (and the world) experienced unimagined calamities but also a stellar ascent like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. And in the past five decades many Koryū took the biggest step in their history, the step towards the west.

Quite fascinating how such a Ryūha moves through time, isn’t it?

A bit more on the topic of “time”: I love mechanical watches. For me, the manufacture of these movements is one of the most captivating handcrafts ever.
Imagine a, let’s say, 130 year old pocket watch. The movement (maybe a beautiful Eterna caliber from the city of Grenchen) was always taken good care of. Now the mainspring is wound up via the crown, the watch hands put in position… and this watch doesn’t care if it shows the time when there was only gas lightning or today in the Internet age.

This is the view I have on Koryū: They just exist and should just do what they are intended for. No matter if it’s now 1617, 1817 or 2017.
And this must not be limited only to the technical knowledge but seen as a holistic approach.

I am convinced that martial Ryūha, according to their self-image, have to be timeless. “Keep up with the times” will lead to inevitable dilution.
“Timeless” refers not to external circumstances as they’ve always changed anyway.

Dilution is happening in a subtle way and usually starts with minor things… and leads to the major points.

A few examples:

  • Training is not done anymore wearing Hakama, but a Samue which is the work clothing of buddhist monks (cotton top and standard trousers). One rationale: the teacher is able to see a student’s wrong stance. Well, a good teacher is able to detect that also if the student wears Hakama!
  • Ryūha with a substantial student base abroad put no value to it that these students learn Japanese, usually out of misconceived tolerance. Furthermore, a (japanese) headmaster may fear a loss of students if high requirements are asked of them. Along with that the western pupil hardly comes in contact with standard social practices in Japan. Whereas this is crucial to learn and understand certain coherences.
  • At public Enbu students and teacher do not think anything of it to appear and perform in standard Keiko-gi even if it’s dirty or damaged, meaning representation obligations are thought of “redundant” or even “presumptuous”. Not the slightest idea crosses the mind that this shows a clear dishonor towards the own Ryūha.
    In line with this is the refusal to wear Montsuki. Quite amusing if the explanation is that the respective person cannot perform the techniques of the school correctly while wearing it. But then the garment shouldn’t be blamed for it, right?
  • Ryūha with a Battō/Iai curriculum do not practice with Shinken (the same issue is faced in modern Iaidō as well).
    Of course it became a habit that beginners do not start training with a Shinken because this is „irresponsible“ and „dangerous“. But is this a fact?
    A teacher needs to look after a novice more intensively if he or she starts right off with a Shinken. But this is probably the case for a couple of weeks… the students are adults and self-responsible and know that they handle a weapon and not a toy. Besides, all Kenjutsu Ryūha have been meant for teaching the students the handling of Shinken. In the Edo period every Bushi had to wear his Daishō and did not blunt his swords before training so that he will not get injured.
    Head teachers and Sōke who ban Shinken usually looking for a convenient way to not deal thoroughly with their students.
  • The fact that a Sōke indeed has a certain responsibility for the behaviour and actions of his students does not sit too well with the typical exaggerated western individualism.
    In Koryū and in Japan in general teachers are seen as being responsible for their students. For example, if a high school student is caught for stealing something generally not the parents get contacted first but the school. Most Ryūha in Japan acting accordingly and do take decisive action in case students are stepping out of line. But there are schools who operate on a more feeble level. Especially if it concerns foreign students of such Ryūha. Due to the language barrier (as explained above) a Sōke might have difficulties to communicate directly with his foreign students which in turn will lead inevitably to a huge loss of control on the part of the Headmaster.
    Therefore it would be wise if Ryūha are not managed just like any ordinary sports club and that violations against the Keppan and the school guidelines are dealt with in a strict traditional manner within and outside of Japan.
  • Many teachers are downright proud of the fact that „they don’t deal with politics”. That’s quite odd as Koryū by their nature are very political entities. There is “us” and there is “them”. Always.
    There isn’t „love, peace and harmony“ of all Koryū and this shouldn’t be a desirable objective either. Nevertheless, it is of course possible to be on (very) friendly terms with other Ryūha although each school have to be aware of the innate rivalry. This perception is maybe hard to swallow for some but then a membership in a classical Ryūha might not be the right choice after all.
  • The described rivalry in connection with politics can lead to requests for Taryū-jiai.
    Not really an earth-shattering affair after all but a practice frowned upon by many schools. Often, schools state in their rules that bouts against other Ryūha are “forbidden”. One should bear in mind that virtually all Ryūha have such rules and usually include a „without permission”. This serves the simple purpose to control the own students so that they are not just challenged other schools without having the skill to bring honor to the own Ryūha. Also it helped to prevent Dōjō- and Ryūha-Yaburi, the systematic challenging and wiping out of rival schools.
    In reality, Taryū-jiai are not the „evil thing“ as they are often depicted.  Certainly, the correct form must be respected (e.g. written permission by both Sōke, selection of a Kenbunyaku or Tachiainin etc.). Even so the term can be translated as „duel“ it has nothing to do with a deadly feud (Shinken-Shōbu). Typically, the bout is fought in a Kendō-Bōgu and with Shinai or Bokutō. At times also without Bōgu. The mode of fighting is usually defined by the person who got challenged. Sad to say, but Taryū-jiai remain a rarity. Many Headmasters who do not practice free sparring back off from accepting a challenge and see themselves more in the role of a curator of the school and less as successor of the school’s founder. By all means when it comes to the martial aspect.


As we have seen, there are manifold opportunities to simplify and lighten the training in classical martial Ryūha, thus submit to the spirit of the times and not taking it all too seriously. You just need to pick the right school for that.

But for those who want to experience the classical arts of war of Japan in their pure form there are still a handful of Ryūha out there who offer this. It’s just a bit harder to discover them.

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