Students and teachers alike are faced with very particular challenges in the study of Koryū-bujutsu. For the casual observer these challenges are usually not as obvious as they may seem.
One key question is always: Ultimately, what is really the hardest thing of all to be a member of a classical japanese ryūha of warfare?
Is it the kata?
No. Each tradition has a varying amount of kata, which have different lenghts and complexities. At times, it can be of course quite difficult to memorize the flow and procedure of all kata. But constant and meaningful practice is the key to success even when the intricacy is increasing.
Is it the techniques?
No. In order to master the techniques, sensible and supporting Kuden are required by teachers who can vividly exemplify them. Detrimental to successful learning are statements such as „we just do it like that“, „it was always done that way“, „someday it will work“ etc.
To ensure rapid progress (which is the goal of combat training after all) the students have a right to reasonable explanations which correspond to their level of understanding or which is slightly above it in order to push them.
Is it the handling of real weapons (in schools, where this is still the case)?
No. To handle Shinken (real, sharp weapons) is indeed the general idea of this education. The cornerstone to this is utmost respect for the weapon. But by no means fear of it.
Classical japanese arts of warfare are typically practiced by responsible-minded adults. And they should grasp it quickly that many before them were able to control and master such weapons. It’s neither a fancy trick nor something, which can be only touched the first time after twenty years of training. Such rules are modern, artificial boundaries which were created for several, usually not very honorable, reasons. It can be expected of responsible adults to be aware of the consequences of their conduct, especially also in the case of weapons handling. Anything else is only awkward paternalism.
Is it the fighting of Shiai (in schools, where this is still the case)?
No. The best possible use of the studied techniques, tactics and strategies in a free fight is the objective of all combat training. And authentic Koryū-bujutsu IS combat training. People should really not allow themselves to be persuaded any other way.
It takes a lot of effort, sometimes even beyond-nature effort to engage in armed fighting. At the beginning, it is not unusual that students literally „freeze“ as the fear of pain or even humiliation can be enormous. But schools and teachers who act responsibly and who want to advance their students, will guide them in a reasoned approach to the goal of free fighting. Anyway, this needs to be ingrained in the pedagogy of each respective ryūha.
Now I have named four main points which define Koryū-bujutsu but not one of them I deem downright difficult or excessively sophisticated. But what is then?
Koryū-bujutsu is embedded in japanese culture, that’s clear to all of course.
One may argue now that this is also the case for all the modern martial arts, developed in the beginning of the 20th century.
Correct… with one important reservation: Gendai-budō in its entirety does not demand of their students advanced knowledge and application of cultural traditions (possible exceptions are not discussed here).
The situation in authentic schools of Koryū-bujutsu is exactly the opposite, although certain signs of deterioration are also visible here.
While the „cultural part“ in Gendai-budō is often limited to a bow or counting to ten in japanese, Koryū are steeped in meticulous rules and norms due to their history and specific origins (time-wise and geographical), and all of this is an inseparable component of such schools.
Surely, members who spent years in Japan while studying or working there do have a certain advantage, but not unconditional: There are many, who basically know the cultural and social standards in Japan but who harshly condemn them. It was always a big mystery to me, why such people believe to be in good hands in a classical school, really.
And students who never visited Japan or just on a short trip can gradually, in the course of time get involved in these traditions and to a certain degree utilize them. On the condition, that the respective teacher can impart this conclusively, objectively and based on his or her own experience.
Students often find themselves in another quandary: The precedence of the school over personal sensitivities. Put aside personal needs in favor of the school is difficult for many in the era of individualism and for some, it is a reason to turn away from Koryū-bujutsu entirely.
In summary, it can be stated also for Koryū-bujutsu ryūha: You can’t be everybody’s darling.