Japanese martial arts have become almost synonymous with Japan for many decades in the West. Most people think they have a grasp on this aspect of Japanese culture and yet, for the bigger part, have no idea about it.
Of course, this mainly concerns contemporary arts/sports such as Aikidō, Jūdō, Karatedō, Kendō or Iaidō. But the presence of completely different forms and types of Japanese fighting systems is simply unknown to the general public.
Therefore, an overview of this special cosmos, or „jungle“, is certainly helpful.
The modern Budō arts (Japanese: Gendai Budō)
Let’s start with the modern martial arts mentioned above. One or the other reader might already feel uneasy now. Modern?!? But these are all centuries-old “sports”, practiced by these mighty Japanese knights, the samurai!
Well no, not even close … (even if it says so on numerous club websites, unfortunately)
Of course, these arts were not created in an empty space on its own. They were developed from old, traditional forms. But their founders often significantly distanced themselves from these ancient arts of warfare in which they were skilled, both technically and philosophically, and therefore created something “new”. “New” in this context refers to the last two decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.
Jūdō found its way to the West as early as the beginning of the 20th century, Aikidō, Karatedō, Kendō and Iaidō only after World War II.
These new martial arts were furnished by their founders with much different spiritual foundations than the old schools had and still have. Sadly, and almost by default Zen Buddhism, which is so popular in the West, was somehow connected to precisely these modern martial arts, while in fact, this was never a generally applicable phenomenon and only relevant occasionally or just on a private level.
With the creation of these modern Budō arts, the focus was no longer on technical perfection and deadly efficiency, but on philosophical/moral teachings and personal development towards a „better“ human being. This is also underlined by the syllable „dō“, which can be translated as „life path“.
Donn F. Draeger, the Western Koryū pioneer, created a memorable formula in the 1970s for the distinction between Koryū-bujutsu and Budō, based on their respective priorities:
Koryu-bujutsu: 1) combat, 2) discipline, 3) morals
Budō: 1) morals 2) discipline, 3) aesthetic form
Another novel development (although not necessarily intended by the founders) was the creation of associations/federations for administer these martial sports, with all its advantages and disadvantages. The well-known colored belts and the ominous “black belt” are also among these innovations of the 20th century.
Plus, these modern martial arts are trained by a large number of practitioners purely as sports and recreation. In fact, it is not necessary to have advanced and in-depth knowledge about Japan and its culture in order to practice these arts and even to acquire a high level of technical skill in them.
A consequence of this can be that western representatives of such martial arts convey wrong images, simply because the cultural, linguistic and sociological aspects are often alien to them.
The classical martial arts or arts of warfare (Japanese: Koryū-bujutsu)
Let us switch over now to the fighting systems that made the creation of modern Budō arts possible in the first place.
These systems are summarized under the term Koryū-bujutsu (old schools of warfare). However, the schools that still exist today have a traditional line of direct transmission from the source up to the present day and are therefore by no means „ancient“ in the conventional sense. The term Koryū is not limited to military arts. In the fine arts, too, specific teaching lines or schools have emerged and transmitted over the centuries, which are also called Koryū.
Ryūha (schools or literally „a flow“) in the military arts were codified from around the middle of the 15th century and hundreds of such schools emerged in the following centuries.
Since this was military education, these schools are basically weapons arts and have a unified technical curriculum, often covering several different weapons and unarmed portions. A school-specific philosophy and etiquette is part of the curriculum as well. Thus, each school is constructed as an inherently consistent entity, which may have superficial similarities with other schools, but is often entirely different from each other.
Important notice: There was and is no specialization in just one weapon or even exclusively in unarmed techniques in such classical schools. This development is reserved for the aforementioned modern martial arts.
The differences between the individual schools are based on several elements: This includes usually geographical, historical, philosophical, religious and of course technical factors.
Nevertheless, most if not all schools of Koryū-bujutsu share certain similarities:
– Usually the year 1868 (Meiji restoration and the end of the Tokugawa shogunate) or also the year 1876 (prohibition to carry swords in public) is the dividing line between the classical and modern martial arts.
– Typically, there is a line of direct transmission across the various generations of masters back to the founder of the tradition. In most cases such a school is led by a headmaster (sōke) who has taken over the school from the previous master. This means that the responsibility for the continued existence of the school is passed on to him (or her). This „flow“ of knowledge transfer is the core of the tradition.
– Gradings are awarded with so-called teaching licenses. The number varies from school to school, but four to five such licenses are common. These are not colored and black belts but Makimono (scrolls), in which techniques and tactics may be described and/or philosophical teachings of the school. Awarding is in no way standardized, only the headmaster of the school decides when a student receives a license.
– Not all students learn everything or in the same order. Here, too, the headmaster decides who will learn the higher teachings of the school and when. The main element of every school is the teacher-student relationship.
– The curriculum of every school includes both “open” and “secret” (hidden) content. Open or public content is conveyed to all students in training and can also be shown publicly at demonstrations. Secret content is only passed on to advanced and selected students and is not intended to be made accessible to outsiders.
– Most Koryū know a form of oath (Kishōmon), which is often done as a blood oath (Japanese: Keppan) by pupils. This proves full membership and the student confirms to obey the rules set in the Kishōmon and not pass on the teachings without permission. Breaches of this oath can also lead to expulsion from a school. Even if such a measure is often not made public, other schools may eventually learn about it and it is usually not appropriate to accept a student who has already been excluded elsewhere.
Even if Koryū schools have a (more or less distinct) component of “personal development”, the main focus is still on the effectiveness of the teachings. One must not forget what these systems were created for: to ensure one’s own survival on the battlefield or in an armed conflict. No more, no less. Here one can very well argue that this fact alone contributes to a considerable „personal development“.
The greatest difference between the classical arts of warfare and modern disciplines, however, is the unique social structure within the various ryūha. Even western students must learn to understand certain Japanese cultural peculiarities and social behaviors. This includes as well, at least elementary, Japanese language skills.
Highly advanced western students and teachers are often fluent in Japanese and have lived in Japan for a longer period of time. This is crucial in order to pass on the tradition in a genuine manner outside of Japan.
To ensure the preservation and continuity of such a school, a remarkably high level of commitment and duty is required from students. In short, it might not be for everyone.
One can probably best compare authentic Koryū schools with European guilds or student corporations. Here, too, the members are required to be highly committed to their guild or corporation and a particular social structure is in place which must be accepted and respected by all the members.
Especially important in all these considerations is the fact that one can hardly ever make general statements which would be right for all ryūha. Each school is an individual entity with an unmistakable identity and character.