In the past five decades there have been numerous attempts to explain what koryū-bujutsu actually is or should be. But why was the simplest and most obvious one missing from all these descriptions so consistently?
Koryū-bujutsu can be many things, indeed. It can be a reversion to history. It can be the preservation of cultural assets. There can be something that people miss in their hectic everyday life. And the community that represents a ryūha is certainly an important factor for many.
But isn’t there more? Something that actually defines the essence, the actual nature of an art of warfare? Correct: Fighting.
Which brings us to the big dispute.
After the end of World War II, many of the classical schools went through a difficult period. In addition, the opinion solidified rather quickly that the schools of koryū-bujutsu are actually just „kata-only“, that is, merely practicing pre-arranged forms.
It was deliberately ignored that even in the first decades of the 20th century fighting was a natural part of many of these ryūha.
This fighting came to fruition in different forms. On the one hand, free fighting/sparring within the schools themselves (Shiai-geiko, Gekiken, etc.) or as taryū-jiai, which is a duel between representatives of different schools. The term „duel“ may give some a chill. Well, these duels are not usually designed to seriously injure or even kill the opponent! This was hardly any different even with the vast majority of duels during the Japanese feudal period. Mostly it was about finding out whose technique and strategy is better. So there was actually a lot of curiosity involved. Something very positive, indeed!
It is a fact that not all schools of warfare have an actual gekiken curriculum. Interestingly enough, that doesn’t even matter.
A well-structured free-fight curriculum is certainly helpful, but not a necessity. There are plenty of historical examples where people have been victorious in duels with their strategies even though their schools did not actually practice free fighting. How was that even possible, one might ask. Well, such schools probably did not practice free fighting in a structured manner, but were absolutely ready and able to participate in duels.
Thus, a school doesn’t need to have a gekiken curriculum. What it absolutely needs, however, is the willingness to fight.
No one in their right mind can seriously claim that fighting was never the characteristic feature of classical martial schools.
The question arises: Can schools that flatly refuse to fight actually still claim to stand in their respective traditions? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say that although one does bear the (famous) name of an old school, we don’t want to have anything to do with its past and characteristics?
This may all sound a bit complicated, I know …
So here is a little story, as it might happen in the near future and which may bring some readers a little closer to the above:
A pleasant summer day. There’s a nice car in a courtyard somewhere in a city. Not brand new anymore, but neither a real classic car. Not a luxury car, but not cheap either.
There are numerous people standing around it who admire the car and have all sorts of good things to say about it:
„These leather seats, wonderful! How cuddly they are! Yes, there were real master craftsmen at work with great attention to detail!“
„The space in the trunk is impressive! What fits in there, wow!“
„Look how practical the head-up display is!“
„Well, I love this car body, classic but still streamlined!“
„I find all the safety features really useful!“
„The multimedia system is awesome. Even with gesture control!“
A man strolls by and sees the crowd. Having become curious, he enters the courtyard and listens intently. He also walks around the car, examines it, and thinks about it. Then he asks the crowd: „Does it drive well?“
The crowd falls silent. Some last whispers here and there. An older gentleman steps forward and instructs the questioner: „Dear fellow, that’s not the point. Did you listen earlier? How impressed everyone here is with the beauty and the practical features of the car?“
The man noticed all of this, of course. He likes the car too and discovered a lot of positive things about it. „Yes, in fact I feel very similar. Only … the purpose of the car is to get people from A to B. All of the amenities mentioned are for safety in traffic or comfort on the road. But for this it has to drive first. And that was the reason I asked. “
This discussion was slowly annoying the older gentleman: „Your question may be justified in some way, but it doesn’t matter. Private transport is far too dangerous these days and public transport is so well-maintained and outstanding that I really don’t see why anyone would get behind the wheel anymore. Look, I own some of these cars. But it never crossed my mind to want to drive them. “
However, the man did not give up: „Does the car actually have an engine?“ he asked further.
„What do you mean?“ came back flippantly.
„We’ve all taken a closer look at the car. But those were the obvious or superficial features, weren’t they? I’d really like to take a look under the hood.“ And with a mischievous smile he added: „You know where the hood is, do you?“
The gentleman now lost his composure and started swearing like a trooper. Of course he knows very well where the hood is! And with this he angrily tore it open. All the bystander looked into the void of the engine compartment.
It slowly dawned on some of the observers (not all) that something here was far from what it should be. Unfortunately, however, nobody plucked up their courage to express this fact, which was so obvious to everyone.
The man left the courtyard and went around the corner.
There he got into his car, started the engine, let the windows down and enjoyed the brisk airflow and thought to himself: „How little traffic is today, wonderful!“