20. When it comes to traditional arts…Who’s your daddy?

Two events converged recently to give me the topic of this blog. One was the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, held on nearby Hawai‘i Island (what we once colloquially called the “Big Island,” but which I am informed by my Hawaiian friends is no longer considered proper), and the other was a note from a friend regarding someone’s application to be part of a festival of Japanese arts and traditions held on the continental United States.

Both touched upon the nature of a practitioner of a traditional Japanese art and his/her authenticity, believe it or not.

When it comes to the most classical of Japanese arts, such as koryu bugei (classical Japanese martial systems), tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Nihon Buyo (classical dance), Noh drama, kabuki stage performance, classical musical instruments, and even the arts of the geisha, you are talking about certain rigorous standards of certification.

These standards include technical characteristics, “naming,” documentation and lineal descent; in other words, who’s your (art) daddy?

Granted, some traditional systems have moved out of the old standards. For example, my strain of the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu school of iai no longer has any one single soke, or headmaster. Since about the mid-20th Century, there have been generations of teachers, but no headmaster (other strains do claim to have lineal soke still going strong). Still, verification of one’s credentials in our system rests partly on being able to say who you trained with.

The Merrie Monarch Festival brings together the best hula halau (groups) in friendly competition to decide that year’s best individual dancer and male and female group performances in auwana (“modern”) and kahiko (“classical”) hula. Hula and Hawaiian music has always been popular in Postwar Japan, and in the past few decades kumu hula (master hula instructors) have been flying up to teach and certify branch schools in Japan.

Now, you could certainly put on a plastic hula skirt, stick a coconut shell bra on your chest, pick up an ukulele and start up your own hula club even if you didn’t know a kahiko from an uku, and you could say that you learned your hula from a mystical old Hawaiian named Kamawana Boogie Boogie who passed through your town and then disappeared, when you actually learned all you knew from old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies and Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” but the Japanese don’t play it that way. They treat hula like a classical Japanese art. The Japanese students will find an authentic kumu, they will fly to Hawaii to study under the teacher and/or pay to have the teacher fly up to Japan to teach. They want the real thing with a real connection to the tradition, not some fake plastic skirt b.s. A good number of Japanese nowadays appear in the audience of the Merrie Monarch Festival, soaking up the performances and cheering on their hula brothers and sisters. Some Japanese students have studied so diligently and for so long, they have become certified teachers in their own right, given permission to teach by their kumu, with full access to the more esoteric doctrines of kahiko hula, and with their own hula names signifying their lineage within their specific tradition. But they have accomplished this cross-cultural feat through long years of study directly under a master instructor. There’s no learning from videotapes or YouTube. It costs time, money and effort for this first generation of Japanese kumu to gain their mastery, but for the Japanese, it’s part of the deal. You don’t get something like a kumu title so easily. You have to work for it.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Classical Japanese arts are the same.

So when I got an email from a friend alerting me to a person who applied to participate in a Japanese cultural festival as an American geisha…well, my first response after seeing her own web site was that of being totally flabbergasted. The person tried to skirt the issue of authenticity somewhat by not calling herself a geisha, although she offered the services of a geisha (playing silly games, tea ceremony, music, “escort” services, kimono lectures, etc.).  But there was no proof of authenticity. It was a sham.

…There are, as far as I know, only two instances of Western women ever breaking into the geisha training system as of this date. One is the American, Liza Dalby. Her web site is http://www.lizadalby.com/LD/welcome.html. She trained in Kyoto, in the traditional heart of the geisha and maiko. The other is the Australian, Fiona Graham, at http://www.sayuki.net/. She apprenticed in Tokyo. Both are also academics of the highest standards and have written dissertations and books on the true geisha tradition.

Now, what you do in the privacy of your own home is entirely your own business. If you’re a middle-aged, bored lady who likes to put on kimono and parade around looking at yourself in the mirror fantasizing that you’re a grand seductress…that’s up to you. You’re not making any public claims that you’re a geisha. That’s like me and my fixation with reading spy novels about incredibly handsome, incredibly brainy secret agents who always end up with beautiful women falling in love with them. But I don’t go around pretending to be a spy. It’s a fantasy.

But if you go out and then try to make money from it, or advertise yourself as a master of a traditional Japanese art, then I have a problem with that, because that’s fraudulent business practice. You’re basically lying to people.

Real classical Japanese arts have certain characteristics. I’m not necessarily talking about more “modern” Japanese martial arts, such as karatedo, judo or aikido, although they do retain some vestiges of such characteristics. Some of the characteristics include:

Technical character

When observing a performance of the art, a knowledgeable viewer will recognize the techniques or signature moves. For example, I’m not a student of the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu school of martial arts, but I’ve seen enough embu (demonstrations) in Japan and here to recognize certain body movements and even whole kata from that school. I can even make a stab at figuring out who the demonstrator’s teacher was based on how they move. Someone claiming to do that system and then doing something totally unrecognizable to me in terms of body movements and techniques would put up red flags for me. Conversely, if someone “stole”…er…”borrowed” a Katori Shinto-ryu kata and just stuck it into their fabricated system, I would recognize it. And I would also recognize that the person has no idea concerning the riai (meaning), timing, rhythm or concepts embodied in the kata. Those fakes are just waving swords around.

Likewise, if you claimed to be able to perform or teach tea ceremony, I’d say, “show me.” I’m a certified upper level tea student. I could probably tell if you really learned from a teacher or not from the moment you sat down to do the temae just by watching you. And no, learning it all from books, YouTube videos or instructional DVDs don’t cut it. There’s a lot of things that are missing from those resources, however good they are as crutches to learning. Such resources are valuable adjuncts to actual teacher/student contact. But they don’t replace it.

“Naming” and documentation

In most classical arts, documentation is an important part of validation. In other words, you need the papers, whether it’s verification of a sword, mastery in koryu bugei or being an accredited geisha. Again, the bugei became a bit more haphazard in records keeping, especially after the end of the Tokugawa Period (circa 1868), but in most cases, there’s some kind of documentation. A student who is accepted into a very traditional school is registered in the nyuumoncho; the register of students. When I was back in Japan recently, my teacher said I should be moving up in the ranks soon, since I was in my current level for a while. Both of us forgot what my rank was, so we ambled over to a wall where he had hung the fuda (wooden name placards) of all his students, according to rank. Mine was way up in the rafters, collecting dust, and darkening with age. But I’m there. Anybody with a question about my authenticity can see my name up there, as well as in my teacher’s student enrollment list. I’ve also collected different documentations regarding my level of accomplishment. The first document I was given was a handwritten scroll with my teacher’s personal seal. After that, my sensei said he was getting too old and too tired to keep writing those scrolls one by one, so he put it all on a word processing file on his computer. Whenever a student is given a higher rank, he spits out a copy on his laser printer and then certifies it with his signature and personal seal.

Still, when I learned the “God-given” secret jujutsu techniques of the school, I was given a “kirigami” (folded, cut paper) certification entirely hand written by my teacher, because at that high level, the documentation had to be done by hand.

Some koryu schools no longer do this. They are more informal except for the highest level certifications, if at all. Again, in my iai school, there was no paperwork. If you wanted a dan ranking, you took a test given in Seitei Iai from the All-Japan Kendo Federation. No one thought of specific ranking in the koryu anymore. You sought out the teachers for koryu based on what you saw of their skill, their dan level in Seitei Iai, and their lineage.

In the case of the geisha, or other such arts, you also receive scrolls and certificates, like diplomas, attesting to your having mastered your craft, signed by your teacher(s), and showing your school and affiliation.

The “name” thing is an interesting one, since it’s found in both Hawaiian and Japanese traditional arts. In hula, you are not a master teacher until you are acknowledged as such by your teacher. Along with that, you receive a “hula name,” i.e., a name that is chosen by your teacher to embody your spirit and lineage. Quite often, this is a variation of your own kumu’s hula name.  It’s the same in Japanese arts.  In tea, when I received my first high-level rank, I also received a chamei (“tea name”). The two-character name combined a Chinese character from the headmaster’s name with a character from my Japanese middle name. The name is a reference to my lineage.

A friend who’s a Buddhist priest informed me that the same practice is prevalent in Japanese Buddhism. If anyone claims to be an esoteric Japanese Buddhist priest, he said one of the first questions he’d ask would be “What’s your Buddhist name, and who’s your teacher?” He said he would probably be able to figure out what temple you trained at and what specific sect and subsect you belong to based on the answers. And if your name and teacher was made up, he’d also quickly figure that out too, since the naming followed certain rules that a fake might overlook.

In the jujutsu that I practice, a student will receive a budo name when he reaches full access to the “secret teachings” (okuden) of the school, and it will, as in Buddhist priests’ names, reflect both my family name and my teachers’ name and lineage.

Again, not all koryu schools will do this. Certainly, you don’t get a budo name in Eishin-ryu iai, although I was surprised that, after several years of training and correspondence, my iai teacher started to give me a budo nickname, informally giving me a martial name even though it was no longer part of the pedagogy anymore.

However, like Buddhism, tea, flower arrangement, and kabuki, you DO certainly receive a stage name for any geisha art. And that name will reflect your own geisha house lineage.


That thefore brings us to the whole lineage thing. Modern budo doesn’t focus too much on this aspect. After all, a lot of modern budo is more sportslike, for good and for bad, not who your teacher was or who your teacher’s teacher was. It’s more like, are you technically competent to teach? Technical competence is important in the classical arts as well, but lineage is REALLY important. Who you studied with is a stamp of authenticity. You just simply cannot go up and perform Noh drama on a professional stage if you say, “Well, I learned some from watching a DVD and reading some books…”

It just can’t be done, no matter how technically proficient you may be. Alas for the wannabe’s, whether in koryu or the geisha tradition.  You need a human link. You need to go and find a living, breathing teacher. You can’t just make things up in your parent’s basement. Without the human link, you simply don’t have the connection to the source, the original founder of the system.

As my Buddhist priest friend informed me, you may want to be a Buddhist priest all you like, you can fantasize about it, but unless you have a real teacher, you’re not a priest and never will be, even though you read all the books and saw all the DVDs and YouTube videos on how to act like a priest. Unless you have a human link from you to a teacher to their teacher, all the way back to the historic Buddha, you are not a priest, because you have not had access to the spirit of the Buddha that is only transmittable from person to person.

Likewise, you can post all the videos of yourself in full yoroi armor you like on YouTube, posing and grimacing in the woods to flute music, but unless you actually studied under a koryu teacher, you’re not doing koryu. You’re indulging in some Final Fantasy cosplay.

And, sadly, the same went for the geisha wannabe that my friend pointed out to me. As much as she wants to live the fantasy of being a geisha, a fascinating woman skilled in conversation and all the traditional arts, when I saw her publicity photos and her self-descriptions, they were sadly out of kilter. It was like a geisha wannabe, with things not quite right; the makeup just a bit off enough to look more sad than alluring, the kitsuke (wearing of the kimono) just off enough to look more silly than amorous.

I saw through that charade quickly enough, though, because I’d already seen my share of koryu budo wannabe’s. And like the geisha wannabe, they too were all sadly out-of-kilter and silly.


7 thoughts on “20. When it comes to traditional arts…Who’s your daddy?

  1. Are you saying that right after you told me to get a job, it was because of you that my application was turned down?

    And I spent the last 3 weeks working so hard to become a geisha…

    Oh well, back to the drawing board!


      1. The only thing about rejection is the old saying, “it makes you a better person…” I say this from all my job rejections, girlfriend rejections, college rejections, that I encountered in my younger life. I don’t know if it made me a better person, but in hindsight, whew, I’m glad I didn’t end up at those colleges, jobs or girlfriends. Guess you got to look at it that way.

  2. Hi, its strange that you mention Tenshin – Sho Katori Shinto ryu. I plan to start classes in Katori Shinto ryu as early as this coming weekend. I am aware that TSKS ryu tends to be very strict with its membership. My teacher’s teacher is based in Netherlands. I have seen photos of him training in Japan. But I would like to confirm this. Any ideas how to do this.

    Thanks for your help and sorry to hassle you.



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