50. The “feeling” of koryu budo

The Yagyu Shinkage-ryu was a sword style taught to the Tokugawa shoguns, hence its emphasis on etiquette and finesse.

(Note: I posted this as my first post at hub pages: http://koryubudo.hubpages.com/hub/49-koryufeeling as a test. I’m not sure if I like it or not, so I reposted it to this WordPress web site.  The other site offers more linkages and a possibility of some kind of link-through profit sharing, but this site seems to look more clean and uncluttered. Let me know what you think on either site.)

Most budo practitioners in the West, from what I can tell by online discussion sites like e-budo, are at the very least curious about the koryu (or koryu budo, koryu bujutsu, or Japanese kobudo; Japanese martial systems generally considered to have been developed before the Japanese modern era, or 1868 CE), the classical martial arts of Japan, but most of them are practitioners of what has been defined as modern budo, the shinbudo, such as judo, karatedo, aikido, kendo, and the like.

That situation should come as no big surprise. In the latter half of the 20th Century, the large organizations that created the modern budo movement in Japan actively proselytized outwards, to other countries. The structure of those organizations, with boards and directors rather than small clannish groups, was well suited for internationalization, as did the standardized techniques of the arts themselves, which could be adapted to large scale teaching and training. In addition, the emphasis on creating a sportive, competitive component to many of these budo helped make them popular among young people eager to test themselves against each other for awards and individual accolades.

The koryu, adhering to its older practices, remained relatively small and unknown, even in Japan, its place of origin, although in the past decade or so it’s been experiencing a mini-boomlet of a sort. Where maybe a group might have struggled for its very survival with two or three regular members, now you may have ten students. That, in a koryu organization, is a big group.

Those without direct access to observing or joining a legitimate (and there are, because of the exoticness of the koryu a lot of fakes) koryu can catch a glimpse of them thanks to modern technology.  Various koryu groups have videos posted on YouTube, for example. The koryu.com web site by publishers Diane and Meik Skoss are a treasure trove of articles and resources regarding koryu, as are the writings of martial arts columnist Dave Lowry, among others.

By perusing such resources, you can get an idea of the technical, historical and philosophical differences that underlie the separation between the koryu and the shinbudo.

One thing, however, that I want to highlight is that the koryu are not just different historically, organizationally and philosophically, they are different in feeling. It’s hard to put into words. I’m still wrestling with trying to successfully convey this sense even to my own students. The koryu aren’t just another kind of martial art. Done properly, they have a whole different FEEL from what is the general attitude of most modern budo.

To be sure, there are pockets of modern budo practitioners who teach and train in a koryu-ish fashion, and there are koryu groups who do not adhere to this general “feel,” but by and large, there’s a great deal of difference not only in techniques and training methods, but in the feel of koryu, in the fun’iki (as they say in Japanese) of the entire experience.

This fun’iki is so hard to express that I’ve rewritten this section over three times already, each time trying to reach some clearer vision of what this “feeling” is and each time I think I wasn’t able to really express it clearly enough. So let me try one more time.

The koryu came out of a hereditary warrior class. While the lower rungs of that caste were little more than itinerant farmers turned soldiers whenever the season called for it, many of the samurai, or bushi, were literate, educated, and cultured, and a good deal of them had familial links to the ranks of the nobility, the kuge, or royal clans. The warrior culture was influenced by its earthy roots in agrarian landholders, but it was also influenced by the aesthetics of the imperial court. In turn, it inspired or influenced the development of various art forms, such as the Noh drama, haiku (the great haiku poet Basho was originally a samurai from Iga Province), shakuhachi (bamboo flute), tea ceremony (the founder of wabi style tea, Sen No Rikyu, was a merchant, but many among his top students were samurai), and so on.

Surrounded by such aesthetic pursuits, attempting to raise themselves above simply being “killers for hire,” the samurai adapted their fighting arts as well to become not just training in killing methods, or simply for athletic endeavors. The koryu were also an expression of their culture, their tastes, their morals, ethics (combative and otherwise), rituals and mind set.

As one would probably surmise, the mind set was somewhat pessimistic. When, after all, you figured that combat had three outcomes, two of which were NOT positive for your personal well-being (you either were: killed, were killed and also killed the enemy in a mutual killing; or managed to kill the enemy without dying yourself), koryu martial arts masters were rather negative about the odds of plying their stock in trade. All the training would amount to a hill of beans if you slipped on the Japanese equivalent of a banana peel, after all, and even the dorkiest of enemies could then kill you, simply through an accident which you have no control over.

This pessimism led to most koryu having a very negative attitude towards young bucks eager and anxious to go out and do battle at the drop of a hat. It also fostered a mindset that I would compare to that of the Stoics in the West, and the Epicureans: because life is hard and short, one should compose oneself and do one’s duty. One should also enjoy the brief life you have on Earth, savoring each moment to the fullest.

Ephemeral beauty, like that of the cherry blossoms that bloom and then quickly drop to the ground, was celebrated as symbolic of the warrior’s life. What made something so beautiful was its fleeting nature, its natural place in the cycle of life and death.

So therefore, elements of warrior esthetics became part of the koryu, especially those practiced by the higher classes of warriors, such as:

 Shibui: the “astringent,” tart beauty of something. Shibui is the quiet beauty of, say, one bamboo flute playing in the distance, sounding like a forlorn deer calling for its mate on a winter night, as opposed to the loud, gay, exciting music of a marching brass band.

 Wabi and sabi: Both terms are originally common adjectives to describe homeliness and rust, or a patina. They came to be used to describe the aesthetic beauty of chanoyu,  Japanese tea ceremony. Wabi cha as espoused by Sen No Rikyu is subtle, refined, elegant but rustic. It’s the play of soft light coming through a paper screen, shining on the tea utensils sitting on the tatami mats in a tea hut. It’s the beauty in the imperfection of a round Raku tea bowl, with its handmade, unique feel. It’s the feel of the patina on a bamboo tea scoop, worn and polished by centuries of use. You could compare it to the popular attraction for worn-out, faded, imperfect jeans rather than brand new, dark blue jeans.

Yugen: A term that can mean “mysterious beauty.” It was first popularized as an artistic term by the Noh master Zeami, in describing the indescribable beauty that a master artist can display, as opposed to a talented, gifted novice’s verisimilitude, which might still be lacking in maturity. I like to think of it as “imminent transcendence.” How to further describe it to a Western audience is problematic. If you watch Noh drama, and read the librettos, which are full of Buddhist and spiritual references, you might get a glimpse of the beauty of yugen. Perhaps, in a different context, it is reading the texts of Shakespeare’s later plays, and feeling his vision, of looking at a life well lived, with its triumphs and heartaches.

Mono no aware: an aesthetic from the Heian court poets, which found its way into warrior culture. Graduate students have written whole thesis on this term. I can poorly describe it as the awareness and appreciation of the fleeting nature of all natural beauty. The cherry blossoms, which bloom in a dazzling, array and then quickly fall to the ground. The unsullied beauty of a young maiden, soon to be crossed by the wrinkles and cares of old age. Transient beauty is made all the more beautiful and precious just because it is ephemeral. “All things must pass,” as they say. Or “To every thing, there is a season, and time to every purpose under the heaven,” as the Bible (and the Byrds) said.

So how do these aesthetics manifest themselves in many koryu?

Well, take a look at the outfits. Most koryu use simple keikogi: a formal hakama of black or white, with a top (uwagi) of white, black or dark indigo blue. That’s it. Hardly any patches or distracting signage save for perhaps the name of the practitioner and the dojo. Contrast this with the modern budo (especially the very modern styles of karate or MMA) outfits, in which every manner of patches and promotional endorsements are considered a mark of coolness, the more the better, until training outfits end up looking like robes for Indy 500 race car drivers.

Consider the way the koryu recruit (or don’t recruit). At a recent Japanese cultural festival I attended, an aikido school stuck flyers for “discounted beginners classes PLUS a free training ‘gi’” under nearly ever car’s windshield wiper in the parking lot. My koryu friends were first aghast at this blatant display of mercantilism, and then they spent the rest of the afternoon making fun of that mindset. Koryu clubs are small partly by their very nature: they don’t want to attract a mass audience of screaming kids. They are also small because advertising their clubs like that is considered kind of crass commercialism, akin to promoting oneself like a used car salesman on television. It may sound elitist, and I suppose it is, but koryu teachers look at themselves more as artists teaching an upper class cultural tradition, not a carnival barker looking to increase attendance any way possible. Posters and flyers, sure. I’ve posted a couple up on rec center bulletin boards myself. But sticking them under windshield wipers, having students dressed up in their practice outfits and passing them out like Hare Krishna acolytes passing out flowers and asking for donations: not cool, at least for koryu.

Another observation from that same festival: I passed a karate group trying to drum up new members by inviting onlookers to jump in and have a hand at following their kata, or trying a punch or a kick with them. I could not see any koryu that I performed demonstrations with asking for audience participation. That would be considered gauche, and on top of that, extremely dangerous for all involved. Koryu kata are carefully structured but skirt close to disaster with many of the techniques. Done by a novice, even a misplaced strike with a wooden sword can cause a whole lot of hurt. Moreover, it would just look like horse dung, without the aesthetics of proper rhythm, timing, focus and body movement.

To be sure, I’m not sure how many koryu folk actually think about this “feeling” part. We approach our endeavors with a lot of preset attitudes. As a former student of Japanese literature and a one-time graduate student in art, and currently as an art and computer graphics instructor, I see the aesthetic elements in koryu because my training guides my perceptions and allows me to see them. Perhaps an active duty military officer may see the emphasis on combative skills more. Or a musician may home in on the patterns and rhythms of the kata, which are much like musical compositions.

But in trying to draw comparisons, the fun’iki of koryu, compared to much (but admittedly not all) of modern budo schools, is a powerful contrast, in my eyes, and one way to tell the two apart. Kudos to the modern budo schools that try to inculcate some of the aesthetics of the koryu in their curriculum. It ain’t easy, especially in a society that values money and size over value and quality.

10 thoughts on “50. The “feeling” of koryu budo

  1. Thank you so much. I have trained for 10 years in aikido, and am basically questioning its benefit, and veracity too..are there any koryu bujutsu dojos in the US ?

    1. Mark,

      There are, indeed, but aikido, done well, is an excellent martial art. I did it for several years myself. That said, there are people doing koryu on the East Coast, the Midwest and the West Coast. Depending on your inclinations and where you live, you might be able to transition to a koryu. Check out koryu.com for a listing of koryu places. You can also PM me (wmuromoto@hotmail.com) and tell me where you live and maybe I can offer suggestions.

  2. My friend,

    Your opinion is absolutely true – from your personal perspective and experience . I first ran into your, and koryu.com’s writings when I was living in Japan and studying koryu. Many of us young artists at the time in Japan read and debated the thinking presented on your publication and koryu.com’s website.

    Some people are ‘exclusive’ thinkers in the martial arts. They try to draw lines around the differences of what they do versus the subtle nuisances of other artists of different groups. I myself have grown to see things differently in my thinking patterns. I see more commonalities between practices – possibly because of my training in anthropology and psychology.

    I myself never felt a great rift between koryu and gendai. I respect that you do, but I want to voice a different perspective. Some of us have played in many dojos; koryu and gendai; eastern and western. I myself have largely found the experience, as a student of martial culture, to be very similar in essence. It is just my experience. I understand koryu folks like to think they are part of something special. I believe they are. They are martial artists. They are marital artists like every aikido, karate, krav maga and really every other artist. We all see ourselves as something different. Every art and ever dojo has a different feel. But for me the essence is the same – budo.


  3. My friends and teachers had a talent for personal combat. A couple could be called “Mokes”. They came from families of experienced martial artist. Really proficient in their arts. But they were “Do” forms. My present teacher is a Aikido guy, nothing lacking in real world skills. I do not feel shorted in his training.

    I guess I’m saying even though it not a Koryu I’m learning, I’m learning “intent”. My old friend always said he was surprised he came out alive from that SE asia war.

    1. John,

      Yes. I grew up surrounded by mokes, so I know what you’re saying! Do forms are fine as serious budo pursuits, if taught with the right intent. Same with bujutsu forms. Some are great, but some are silly, in my opinion, and some are in between.

  4. In my experience, many searchers/students/participants of martial arts, martial ways, philosophical schools, zen, yoga, music, etc. that are wanting something, to become something as a result of their searches and training miss the mark. They accumulate some knowledge physically and mentally but quite often not the essence of the art or system of knowledge through a forging process. Instead of the experiences of training and learning deeply from the touch of their teachers, seniors, and fellow students by “giving up” to the practice they are always picking and choosing what they want and “managing” their experience (often by taking the “easy” way) without ever really “giving up to the practice process.”

    Going through the process of giving up your own concepts and experiencing something that is beyond your experiences in order to learn a master teacher’s way and then develop your own ownership is extremely difficult, especially in this modern world of instant gratification and getting information from a database that seemingly has what we want.

    The shu, ha, ri process is the way. Finding a teacher and system to commit to is difficult. Whether it’s koryu or a modern system, the process is similar.

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