Certificates, documents, lines of transmission – „too much“ or necessary?

Especially the area of certificates, documents and lines of transmission as well as teaching licenses is often characterized by great ignorance. Or, even worse, is simply ignored… or just flat-out lied about.

But these things are absolutely crucial as far as classical Japanese arts are concerned and simply cannot be neglected or argued away.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a document confirming a certain mastery in a school of Koryū-bujutsu, whether it certifies that one is an approved Geisha, in which tradition of Chanoyū someone stands or whether one has completed a traditional sword polisher education in Japan, for example. This list could be continued indefinitely and includes almost all traditional arts, whether they are arts of war, fine arts, theater, handicrafts etc..

Often, especially among western students or interested people, the opinion prevails that such documents are useless or even a show of arrogance and that anyway one must „see“ which level someone has in an art.

This, however, negates and devalues an extremely important part of such traditions. But often, such rejection also arises from the simple fact of not being in possession of such documents oneself.

There is also a line of argumentation which only would let the (own) experience be of sole value. This usually happens when one did not go through a traditional education with a teacher but displays a certain „shopping“ mentality and therefore picked up things here and there. This can certainly lead to some level of proficiency. But eventually, it’s quite embarrassing when such people want to enlighten others about the „traditional training paths“, which they have never gone through.

A traditional Nafudakake

In schools of Koryū-bujutsu, a student often comes into contact with the subject for the first time when his or her name is entered into the school register. In a traditional Dōjō, the visible token of this is the so-called Nafudakake, the rack containing the names of all the students and masters of the school. The student’s name is written on a rectangular wooden plate and placed in the correct position among the name plates of all the other members.

Thus, anyone who would doubt my credibility regarding membership in my school, for example, could simply go to the Honbu-Dōjō and make sure that my name is listed on the Nafudakake.


However, it should be noted that the Nafudakake is not a unique feature of Koryū dōjō. In Japan, it is also quite common in Gendai-Budō to record members of a group in this way.

The personal Kirigami, Hatsu-Mokuroku und Kajō-Mokuroku of the author (left to right)

Further, there are different makimono for the various ranks or teaching levels within a school. These scrolls should be written by hand and are a very personal document for the respective student. However, some schools no longer do this, as they have become much more informal over time. And some will award makimono for the highest certification only.

In traditional theater arts such as Kabuki, Nō, or Kyōgen, as well as musical traditions (e.g., Gagaku), it is also common to be granted a stage name by your teacher. In Chanoyū, too, a so-called „chamei,“ or „tea name,“ is bestowed upon one after a certain level.

Such aliases given by the teacher have a direct relation to the lineage in which one is a member of and usually follow strict rules concerning their form. In the classical arts of war, there are also schools that bestow so-called „Gō“, warrior names. Here, too, one will find a reference to one’s own teacher or school.

All this is not just „nice to have“ or the fun idea of a Japan geek, but is an essential part of the respective tradition to define and document a traceable line of transmission.

Interestingly enough, these awarded names can hardly be faked. Of course, this is not apparent to the uninitiated, but once you get a deeper insight, certain names make just no sense at all.

The same is true, by the way, for fictitious Ryūha names that pop up from time to time. Either the naming structure is pointless or plain wrong kanji are used. And even the reading style (on-yomi / kun-yomi) may be transcribed badly. All this often leads to great amusement in informed circles. Mimizu-ryū does sound kind of traditional, right? And with the kanji it really looks cool (蚯蚓流)!
But then again: The „earthworm school“ might not be what you’re looking for… Quite tricky the whole thing, isn’t it?

As a matter of fact, one must become extremely suspicious if someone makes a pitch for a „traditional Japanese“ martial art, a craft (e.g. the important polishing craft on Japanese blades) or any other classical art form, but cannot or is not willing to show a reasonable line of transmission or even name a teacher.

In particular to not name your own teacher is quite ridiculous, since the line of transmission is an aspect of which authentic schools are very proud of and certainly do not want to hide.

And in my personal opinion, to shy away from naming your own teacher is extremely insulting.

In modern Budō, the line of transmission may indeed not be too important anymore, since it is often a purely athletic activity governed by national and/or international sport associations and federations.

But for classical arts, lineage and pedigree are THE primary embodiments of their existence. From whom one has learned is the definite „certificate of authenticity.“ Anyone who cannot or will not provide this information has something to hide. Period.

To falsify all this is indeed an impossible task. And that is quite a reassuring fact, I believe.

(This is the translation of an article written and published back in 2018)

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