Some readers who don’t know me very well may think that all my rants and diatribes against the negative excesses of gendai budo (“modern” Japanese martial arts such as judo, aikido, kendo and karatedo) mean that I’m completely negative about them. I’m a koryu snob. That’s far from the case. I started off in a gendai budo as a kid, training in judo at a rented sugar plantation wooden building held together by the termites holding hands. I continued to aikido and karatedo, with some sidetracks to rudimentary kendo, and a bit of iaido and naginata-do. I covered as many bases as I could before I settled down into focusing on koryu (“classical” Japanese martial arts that predated the Japanese modern era, circa 1868).
What I decry are stuff like the rampant commercialism, the politicking and personality power plays, the large organizations that have forgotten the individual, and the forgetting of the martial nature of the budo, among other things. I love gendai budo. I just wish it, ideally speaking, wasn’t so full of such problems.
When looking at the technical aspects of modern budo, I will admit that when I began a focused study of koryu, I had some severe criticisms regarding their seeming distance from real applicability. This belief was no doubt inspired by the later writings of Donn F. Draeger, one of the first Westerners to write about budo and bujutsu (older martial arts, or koryu: you can call it koryu, bujutsu, koryu bujutsu, or even koryu budo) in a factual and very knowledgeable manner. Not only did I read his books from cover to cover, I had the unforeseen luck to have trained with him several times, and to have had several informal discussions with him, one-on-one, about his experiences and martial arts in general.
Draeger, a formidable judo and karate practitioner, moved more and more into koryu in his later years, becoming a master practitioner of the Shinto Muso-ryu jojutsu and the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu schools. He also studied with some Chinese martial arts teachers and did field work in Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese martial arts. When I met him, he had grown sour on modern budo politics, and that was reflected in his criticisms of it as having missed the boat, gone astray, forgotten its roots.
Yet, even Draeger would wax nostalgic when he would shoot the breeze about doing randori in the old Kodokan judo hall, in the days before it had taken to being so money-hungry that it started to announce on a big banner draped against the side of its building: “Black Belt in One Year! No problem!”
Draeger once laughed and talked to me about his first encounter with the judo legend, Mifune Kyuzo, the last 10th dan master ranked by the founder of judo, Kano Jigoro.
“This little old guy walks up to me and wants to do randori, and I thought I would break his bones if I threw him!” Draeger recounted. It turned out that he was a lot harder to trip up, until finally Draeger gripped him by the lapel and sleeve and heaved him over his shoulders…And then, he was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the mat in front of him. He looked up. He looked left, he looked right. No old man in a jumble of bones on the floor. Then he felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw Mifune standing exactly where he was before he thought he threw him, a big smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes.
“I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m in for it now!’” he said. And he was. Mifune then proceeded to bounce the strapping ex-Marine officer all over the mats like he was a rag doll.
So Draeger had a complex love-hate relationship with gendai budo. He did so much of it, contributed so much to the spread of it, but was so disappointed in how it had seemingly forgotten its own roots.
As I noted, I held that attitude for quite a while until a fellow koryu martial artist changed my opinion. My friend, K-san, was in Hawaii on his honeymoon. Luckily for him, his wife also did a budo art and was understanding of his love for jujutsu, so he was allowed to pack his keikogi and spend some time with me and my other jujutsu friend, training outdoors in parks and secluded jungle clearings. Although we got a lot of mosquito bites, we managed to learn a lot from him. K was at most 135 pounds dripping wet, but he moved literally like that old adage, like “greased lightning.” When he executed a grappling or throwing technique, I felt like I was hanging on to the Warner Brothers’ cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil. It was like being thrown, choked or arm-locked by an unstoppable force of nature. He had incredible technique.
Besides being a master technician, K-san, even as a young man at the time, had done intensive studies in other martial arts, such as tai chi chuan and a very powerful style of aikido, in order to further his understanding of jujutsu. He did historical research into obscure branches of our jujutsu school and, when he was single, had enough time to even talk with and cross train with other jujutsu schools to compare methods and techniques.
After one training session at the grounds of a school I used to teach at, he said he wanted to walk across the campus to go to the University of Hawaii’s Bookstore. The college campus was right next door, so while I did some tech work on my computer graphics classroom, he wandered over, did some shopping, and came back in time for me to drive him back to his hotel room.
I saw that he had gotten his expected assortment of souvenirs from the UH Bookstore: logo t-shirts and hats. But what weighted down his shopping bags were books. Piles and piles of books on martial arts, all in English, from a variety of authors, from very respected writers to just plain weird stuff.
“Why are you buying all these books?” I asked. “You can get more and better stuff in Japan. Like this guy, he’s so full of shit. Why buy this book?”
K-san got philosophical. He said, “…Because I live in Tokyo, and our dojo is going to get more and more students from abroad. I need to understand how non-Japanese look at budo, how they think about budo in order to understand how to teach them. So any knowledge and information is good, even books by these people who you think are fakes. They tell me that this is how you Americans think about budo.”
He had a lot of books about modern budo. I thought of him as someone who had an encyclopedic knowledge of koryu. Why bother to learn about gendai budo? He had a reason that really impacted my whole understanding of koryu and gendai budo. If you take away the personality power plays, the stinky organizational politics, the bad teachers, the money grubbing, the debasing of gendai budo due to too much competition…modern budo has an important role to play in the evolution of martial arts.
I may be guilty of paraphrasing K-san here somewhat, but in essence, he said:
Don’t think of it as being koryu good, gendai budo ineffective. Think of it more as koryu is what it is, like classical music, and Gendai budo took that classical foundation and transformed it so that budo could survive in the modern era as a kind of sport, because most people would not be interested in koryu training purposes. They can relate to “sport” training, however. So were it not for gendai budo, all Japanese budo, including koryu, would have suffered and perhaps even died out.
What gendai budo did, K-san said, was that it distilled the essences of the various koryu. I can agree with that. I saw it happening in iaido, for example. When I started, there were only seven iai kata in the All Japan Kendo Federation’s seitei iai sets. Then they added three more, and then two afterwards, and altogether, the 12 kata were meant to represent the essence of several different koryu iaijutsu schools.
But K-san also made a deductive leap of thought. He said, take a look at the Kodokan judo’s kata sets. They represent not only the intact preservation of forms from a specific jujutsu school (like the Koshiki No Kata), but they are also revamped, rewritten and rethought sets of kata that are like the purest theoretical essence, the distillation of the purest form, of the theory of jujutsu (like the Ju No Kata).
People may look at such kata and think, ‘Oh, that’s just too symbolic. They have no real “street application,” but they were never meant to be directly used as combative or self-defense applications. They are the theoretical foundations put into physical movement, however, of what is BEHIND the seemingly more applications-based kata of jujutsu, or kenjutsu.
Having had some training in aikido, K-san even showed me an aikido technique. The way it’s done, it describes a large circular movement, he says. Then he showed me how a traditional jujutsu person would do a similar technique: smaller circle, less movement. But they’re basically the same, technically speaking, he said. What the aikido kata does is render the movement larger, to show the underlying theoretical basis of the technique. Understand that, and you can understand truly how the smaller, subtler movement works.
I suspect, too, that K-san had this insight from having studied tai chi chuan. Critics may decry it as impractical because most tai chi training focuses on going through the main form very slowly, making large, smooth movements, but K-san showed me how those large movements can be easily shortened and turned into practical jujutsu grappling and striking methods. By training large and slow, you pay attention to how you use large muscle bundles, body alignment and posture in the right way. Then, when you speed it up, your body strikes out like a whip snapping, but it only works because you have already developed a strong leg and hip foundation from which to strike, thanks to the slow, large movements you practiced.
It’s the same with the gendai budo kata. Large, stylized movements are the theoretical essence of concepts originally scattered in different koryu, repurposed and reframed.
The power of modern budo is when you combine proper training in those kata with competitive training. The combination should produce exponents who have proper technique for martial purposes, as well as the physical stamina, fast instinctive reaction and natural movements from sportive practice. The danger is if this balance is lost, and the practitioner only trains for competition, losing sight of the original purpose of gendai budo: it should be both a sport and a martial Way.
The weakness of koryu, K-san said, is that the way it is practiced nowadays, there is very little room for competition. In and of itself, competition is not ever going to be a goal of koryu, he said. But the intense training and catch-as-can manner of competition helps to make a student very physically capable and flexible in his/her reactions, something hard to reproduce in kata-based training.
In both systems, there are workarounds that ameliorate the weaknesses. K-san noted that good modern budo training always includes some form of kata to strengthen the use of proper muscles and posture for application of techniques. In koryu, there are built-in training methods to deal with developing conditioning, instinctive reactions, and the problem of dealing with a resistant opponent. K’s ideas and observations of such training methods go beyond the parameters of this little blog, so suffice it to say that I was really impressed with how he laid out his observations and approach to teaching koryu.
Koryu is not gendai budo, and vice versa. They are different. But they are not antithetical. Gendai budo is the distillation of koryu. But koryu is the roots of modern budo, and it would be a shame to lose those koryu arts, since they are the unprocessed origins of Japanese martial arts.
Draeger mentioned to me several times that, if I had enough time, I should study some kind of Chinese martial art. In doing so, I would see the contrasts and similarities, and come to understand my own Japanese martial art much better. In like manner, if one did or had done a modern budo, and then studied a koryu, or vice versa, you would come to understand one’s core system of study much better. So it’s not a matter of whether koryu or gendai budo is better. It’s a matter that they are parts of a whole fabric of martial arts systems, each with the potential to add to the whole pot of knowledge, if done right, and if approached with the right attitude.