48. Oh yeah, and the trouble with koryu…

Lest I be accused of being unduly harsh in my rantings about aikido in the last post, I figured I’d be egalitarian and monku (complain) about koryu budo (or koryu bugei, or koryu bujutsu, or Nihon kobudo, or simply koryu: the classical Japanese martial arts).  It’s what I’m currently involved in, in terms of martial arts practice.

The thing is, not a lot of people outside of Japan (and not a lot INSIDE Japan, relatively speaking) practice these somewhat exotic martial arts, so in terms of the impact of bad koryu, it’s not too widespread. Where a popular budo like aikido or karate can have a whole boatload of bad examples simply from the fact that there are lots of people doing it, in the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands, and therefore you’re going to encounter more bad eggs, real koryu practitioners in the United States number at most in the tens and, if the group’s really, really lucky, twenties as far as membership goes.

But here goes.

…And if you felt personally insulted by my personal opinion about aikido, maybe you’ll feel better knowing that I ended up making a laundry list of things wrong I see in koryu. Aikido has it pretty good, actually. It just has an issue with the expression of techniques. (Well, there’s also the problem I’ve seen and heard of organizational and personality conflicts, but that comes with any big organization full of larger-than-life leaders…)


Because of the exotic nature of the koryu, and the fact that there are so few instructors, so few umbrella organizations policing it, and so little information in English, koryu in the West is overwhelmed by bogus teachers. Because many of these bogus instructors are hucksters who are good at scamming people, they’re much better than legitimate teachers in drumming up students (and the money that comes with enrolling eager members). Some patently bogus teachers have had their scams going on for decades. Others, relative newbies, have only been around a couple of years, since the start of the recent mini-interest in koryu began in budo discussion groups. Some of the fakes do it for money. Others for ego. Others are psychopathic liars, and others are a combination of two or more of the above.

For anyone with a modicum of training in legitimate koryu and a grounding in Japanese language and culture, these fakes are usually easy to spot. However, there’s no official policing or certifying agency that a novice can turn to, who has no idea what koryu ought to really be, to see if his teacher really is what he says. I’m not advocating such an agency, certainly. But the problem is there.  Fakes are giving koryu a bad name.

The few times I’ve called out some fakes in places like e-budo, I’ve gotten a whole range of reactions. Some people were thankful for my comments. Others will adopt a “don’t be hatin’; they are doing what they enjoy so what’s the harm?” or “Well, he may be fake but he LOOKS really good, so I wouldn’t mind training with him anyway,” or “My teacher IS a real student of Otto Maiassu sensei who studied at the foot of Mount Fuji at a camp for the Hello Kitty Yakuza gang and even though the gangsters hated foreigners, the daughter of Maiassu sensei fell in love with him and so he got taught the Seven Deadly Cobra Ninjer Strikes of the Kimchi-ryu! He even gave me a handwritten history of himself written on folder paper as proof!”

Seriously. A friend heads an umbrella organization of martial artists has shown me copies of requests he’s received for affiliation with his group that I can only describe as evidence of serious, psychotic delusions.

But the reaction to my observations turned me off. If so many people WANT to be duped, then why even offer my honest opinion? It ain’t worth the senseless back-and-forth trying to argue with them. Pearls before swine, and all of that. If they prefer to waste their time and money studying with a fake, then let them. Except for many, THAT is what koryu is about, and it hurts real koryu.

The solution? I have no solution. I wish I did.

If not outright fakes, terrible practitioners

The esoteric (from the outside) nature of koryu has created a business opportunity not only for outright fakes, but also for mediocre instructors claiming high rank in the United States.

YouTube is a wonderful invention. I get to see some video footage that would have been next to impossible to dig up only a few years ago, of master instructors in many different martial arts. It’s also a treasure trove of really, really bad “masters” exposing their awful techniques. It’s gotten to a point where if I do a general search for “iaijutsu,” for example, for every really good video, I come up with four or five really, really bad ones.

The outright fakes, I can ignore. The ones who have some air of legitimacy, such as provable ranking, a connection to a legitimate organization, are harder on me to stick in my “junky martial arts videos” catalog. I think it saddens me even more.

In many cases, some judo, aikido or karatedo instructor sees a business opportunity to expand his income. He/she goes to Japan, drops a very nice orei (offering of cash) to a legitimate but gullible and/or greedy headmaster of a school, and bingo. When he returns to the States a couple weeks later, he’s an instant seventh dan master in some koryu system, like iai or jo or jujutsu.

For highly ranked exponents of the same sort of koryu, such inept wannabe’s are easy to spot. A few seconds’ worth of observing such a master’s video and the poor execution become apparent right away. However, such poorly trained teachers, because they’re really good at gathering dues-paying students, tend to have even more students under their wing than most “legitimate” teachers, who toil away at their koryu without much remuneration, if any.

Unfortunately, when others critique what they perceive as unworkable techniques that won’t work “in the streets,” or flowery, ridiculous kata, they’re looking at the outright fakes or those with inadequate experience.

Again, the problem with koryu is that those of us who are trying to do it the right way have no idea what to do about this. We can try to educate, as author Dave Lowry and Diane and Meik Skoss of koryu books do. But unless the outside budo community raises its own expectations of legitimacy and expectations of technical expertise, people will continue to flock to those types of teachers.

Hardheaded members unwilling to change

While I’ve seen this problem rear its head in koryu, I suspect it’s also a problem in other martial arts systems as well. But koryu in particular, as a kata geiko tradition, has a problem of some students getting so entrenched that there is ONE and ONLY ONE way to do a kata, that they don’t go beyond the particulars to see the wider horizon of various interpretations possible, and that another way may not be wrong, but simply another way.

You would think that’s just a minor speed bump on the way to koryu mastery, but I’ve seen some people get so bent out of shape that they have left a group and gone off on their own, sinking further and further into ineptitude because they have no mooring, no teacher, and are left on their own, repeating their same idiosyncratic mistakes over and over again.

One friend I knew had a chance to visit Japan for business, and he thought of stopping into different dojo as he traveled from city to city. His senior in the group said, “Oh no, you can’t do that! You need formal invitations. They’ll never let you train because you’re such a low-ranking student!”

That senior also felt that the group was straying from its core “beliefs” because it had begun to change its expression of kata based on a new technical advisor they decided to work with.  “That’s not how D sensei did it!” he huffed and puffed, as if D sensei was the Alpha and Omega of that koryu.

Well, my friend luckily ignored his senior’s advice. He contacted several different dojo and they were so happy to work with an eager student who had come all the way from Hawaii to study with them. He also learned that there was more than one way to skin a koryu cat.

He discovered that his “style” of koryu most fit the Tokyo dojo’s style. However, when he visited a dojo in Western Japan, he was blown away. Their style, he said, was “a whole lot rougher and tougher…but it was the same system. The sensei at that dojo laughed and said to me, ‘Hey, you’re doing Tokyo style. That’s not wrong, that’s just how they do it in Tokyo. Here’s how we do it in Kyushu!’ And I had a great time learning really cool variations of all the kata!”

So what my friend learned was to be always willing to empty his cup and to learn anew. Sometimes some koryu folk can get so stuck in a rut, that any variation, any nuance, any change in a kata drives them bonkers. Koryu, to them, never, ever, ever changes. In Japan, what I found out was that the most vibrant, the most active koryu are constantly rethinking their traditions, honing methods that are centuries old, polishing and repolishing the methodologies, to get better.

It’s not as if they’re going to replace defense against a wakizashi with defense against a Glock. It’s more like: does this timing work, given a shorter woman against a very tall person wielding the wakizashi? Women and tall Westerners weren’t often considered in many koryu when they were founded, after all, so kata were developed based on Japanese (mainly men) of a generally uniform height and weight from the medieval era. How do you adapt this foot movement so it still makes sense now, for example? Does this cut make sense if done against a partner with an extreme arm reach disparity?  Or do you have to change the distancing here in order to reach that shorter, slimmer person? If it can be adapted, then the logic in the kata still holds true, no matter your change in distance, timing, angle or subtle change of grip or action.

An anology was put to me once by Meik Skoss, of koryu books. He said if a koryu was a river, flowing from the founder, then in order for it to remain vital and alive, it had to FLOW. The river had to move on through time. If the water gathered and stopped, it would become a swamp, a quagmire, a muddy mess. Koryu never changes, yet it changes. The water you step in at one point, at one landing is never the same, yet it’s the same river.


Contrary to what I perceive as popular belief, it’s generally not that hard to join a koryu. From personal experience, most koryu groups are so small, they’d be happy to get another training partner that’s a warm body, without a criminal record, history of drug/alcohol/controlled substance abuse, without any outstanding bench warrants, who has enough mental capacity to remember how to get to the dojo the next time, who can take three steps without tripping over his/her own feet. And the latter requirement didn’t stop some clubs I know from accepting students who literally couldn’t take three steps without doing a pratfall right on their faces.  We’re that hard up for students.

That minimum level of expectation is just minimum, however, and sometimes I wonder if some folk don’t understand the commitment required to do a koryu. It’s not that you have to give up your firstborn; or that you have to train incessantly for hours each day. Most koryu teachers have day jobs, and they themselves usually run very busy lives, working, taking care of their family, carrying on the necessary social and personal responsibilities necessary in this society. They’re normal, busy people.

But when they hit the dojo, they expect their students to have a concomitant commitment to training that will do the ryu proud. Doing a koryu is not, in general, a career. As many koryu teachers have told me, one’s responsibilities, in order of importance, is: family, work, and THEN if time permits, koryu. If the first two aren’t working out, your training isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans.

That said, when training, you should train, not putter around playing at martial arts. Unfortunately, the great danger of any kata geiko training system, is that it’s too easy to get away with sloughing off, not giving your full attention to it when you are training. That is not only lazy and damaging to the overall training atmosphere, it can get dangerous, since a lazy, slovenly performance leads to more mistakes and accidents than a fully engaged mental attitude.

When I got together with some koryu folk in different ryu, we happened upon a discussion of some students in our groups who were physically and/or mentally challenged. One person bemoaned a student who, as I noted, literally could not walk three steps without falling on her face. She had some real problems with her body, and some issues in terms of kinesthetic learning. Doing a kata with her could be frustrating. I noted how I’ve encountered students like that myself, but we all agreed that as long as that student kept coming to class, there certainly was some good coming out of it.

That student couldn’t have her progress measured against other students who were blessed with no physical or mental disabilities. She had to be judged on how hard she tried to apply her own self to the challenges she faced and surmounted, day in and day out.

And because a kata geiko training system allows for such students to keep progressing at their own speed, without getting beat up all the time by the more gifted competitive students, they can find a place, a niche of their own. In other venues, they would be the ones first eliminated, the ones not chosen to be in a dodge ball pick-up game, the ones considered the “losers” in any competitive environment. But in a kata geiko system, they have a place.

While sometimes frustrating for other students, those students with personal challenges are often among the most diligent. They come to class without fail. They try as hard as they can, given their disabilities. They are enthusiastic and grateful that they are part of a social group, maybe for the first time in their lives.

What really disappointed me, and the other people I was talking with, were the students who simply slid along, like training was a kind of “cool” thing but they wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t know how to fully commit. To train hard, to try to really grasp the logic of the movements, to improve with each training session, to enjoy and partake fully of the experience. It was as if, once they got into the group, or once they attained a certain rank, their brains went on cruise control. Being mediocre was good enough for them, and that was it.

Again, while this attitude is evident in some koryu, I know it’s not particular to koryu. I’ve seen this attitude in other pursuits. I’ve seen students of tea ceremony who, when they attained a certain rank, stopped improving. It’s as if for them, further advancement was merely the memorizing of more advanced temae (forms of tea). Yet, the WAY they move, the smoothness of effort, the beauty of their posture, didn’t improve. They look as bad as they looked ten years ago. There’s no advancement.

Incredibly, a friend told me that he once attended a karate seminar in which some people’s attitudes dumbfounded him. There was a lecture on karate history and theory first. That went well. Then people put on their training outfits. Then, as he began the seminar, he noticed a bunch of  black belts walking off the floor to gather at a wall, to shoot the breeze.

“Aren’t you going to train?” he asked them.

Oh no, was the reply. They’re BLACK BELTS, so they don’t need to train.

What? My friend literally dropped his jaw in amazement at this attitude. There’s no need to improve?

A priest friend of mine, who has counseled a lot of people on spiritual matters, noted that it’s not just relegated to a pastime. This laziness is a whole world view. Some people are simply lazy, period. They will only do the bare minimum to get by, in school, in life, in budo. That’s how they are. He said that marriage counseling often has to do with him telling partners that marriage is hard work. It’s not like, okay, you had the marriage ceremony and now you can go back to drinking beer and watching TV all the time. A marriage requires nurturing and attention. It requires time and effort.

Going to school isn’t just about showing up for class. It’s about engaging yourself in the material, studying, reading, taking the initiative and going to the library and doing your own research.

The worst way to lose weight is to just think popping a diet pill and not changing your habits and diet is going to have lasting effects. It’s about focus, attention, hard work.

But that’s how many people are, my priestly friend said. The hardest, often the most impossible thing to do is to change people’s attitudes, because the problem, say, with a marriage, is not the marriage itself, so much as the person’s general attitude about life, which is manifested in the marriage.

You would think that this laziness, this dilettantism, wouldn’t be found in a koryu dojo, but the dojo is simply a microcosm of the society we live in, with the people a sampling of the kinds of people out there, so unfortunately, without a competitive edge to weed them out, sometimes some koryu practitioners are simply…lazy.  And it is they, not the enthusiastic but mentally and physically challenged students, that do real harm to the level of training.

So is koryu perfect? As I argue, not by a long shot. It’s got problems all over the place, same as any other budo system. And sweeping the issues under a rug doesn’t solve the problems, it just hides it.

16 thoughts on “48. Oh yeah, and the trouble with koryu…

  1. I think one “solution” would be to go back to the days when open challenges were common; you’d probably see a whole lot fewer frauds and less dilettantism out there… extreme in this day and age, I know, but still…..

    And there just might be a Glock-izashi, or I guess waki-Glocki application out there!

    1. Kit,
      Taken in good humor, of course! I’m actually considering taking up shooting lessons. I’ve been a gunophobe for all my life but I used to be on a championship junior league archery team. I enjoyed the quiet silence of focusing and shooting an arrow at a target. I might take that up again, or even sharpshooting, as a kind of Western martial art…We’ll see.

  2. Wayne, what timing! Interesting post, as always. I’ve been mulling over how to get across just what a koryu is myself – I’ve chosen it as the topic for my first presentation to students and staff in East Asian studies at Manchester where I’ve just started my PhD. You can see the abstract and follow my progress here: http://lucubrat.wordpress.com/. Only a few steps taken so far…

    1. Anna, I saw your post. Interesting start, and I’m hopeful that you’ll offer more insights into koryu for the academic world to make it a legitimate field of study. Draeger and the hoplology group he instigated was one way of looking at koryu, but there are other ways to approach it, academically. I tend to look at the practice of koryu from the eyes of an artist, as an art form, since my own training is as an artist. But anthropologists, sociologists, behaviorists, historians, philosophers…they can all look at koryu and see different things, as if we were the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant.

      1. Great, I’m trying to go the other direction in controlling the ” wild ape” part of my mind.

      2. John,
        Speaking of which, I’m really into spy and adventure novels, and just finished the book “The Lost Goddess” by Tom Knox. The premise of this fictitious adventure story is that the Khmer Rouge and some Western Marxist scientists experimented on making a super-soldier, bereft of compassion, by trepanation (excising part of the front of the brain), literally turning them into mad apes. Just a passing thought.

  3. You certainly got my atention with your previous post and you kept it going in the this one, your blog is a refreshing discovery, you just nailed it with great stile, and some pretty funny comments. The overlook is sad, but no one said the truth would be pretty. Keep it up

    1. Oliverio,
      No problem with the writing, since my other language (Japanese) is terrible, and I have practically zero skills in any other languages! I am in awe of people who can speak many different languages!

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