74. Koryu is not a sport

Note: I sent an email to my students and made a note about what was bothering me at the previous practice. Because it was primarily for my own few students, it was informal and blunt. But I needed to make a point. Perhaps this may also help in illuminating my own views on koryu bujutsu.

My TR folks:

Just a note that this Friday we are going back to kogusoku, omote. For more senior students, you guys really need to nail the first ten kata down better. For beginners, the kogusoku is one of the three main bodies of study in Takeuchi-ryu: bladed weapons, bo (staff) and jujutsu (taijutsu). It’s a basic foundational skill.

Also, another note:

Takeuchi-ryu, and classical koryu bujutsu is not sport. Get that out of your heads. This may be a new concept for the newbies among you, but for the older timers, this should be atarimae; it goes without saying. But I had to say it and after I thought about it, it really upset me to even have to say this after all these years of training. You folks should know better and should teach the kohai better.

Here’s the concrete example: The other week we were doing some quick studies of standing jujutsu work. I noticed that one pair was doing something really weird, but couldn’t quite put a finger on what was wrong because I was busy helping the other paired group and trying to help everyone get the basic waza right. Then it hit me. You guys were helping each other up off the mat after the throw. What the heck was that about???!!!!

Okay, look: say you’re in a wrestling club, or a judo club. Yeah, you help the guys off the mat because that’s sportsmanlike. Like after a good hit on a quarterback, you help him up in football. Good sportsmanlike conduct. Very nice.

But in koryu, the kata doesn’t end with the throw or the “finishing technique.” The kata ends when you end up back where you started from, ready to start another kata. When you throw the guy down, you do a finishing move and then step away carefully, so that the opponent doesn’t have a chance to harm you in a last ditch attack. That’s the notion of the ending zanshin. You find that attitude in TR, you find it in our Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu class, you find it in every koryu style you can think of. You do NOT help the enemy get up off the ground so he can beat you up again. This has nothing to do with sportsmanship. The koryu originally had to do with sheer survival. It’s not a game. You don’t score points and then shake hands. You are being trained to survive an encounter with someone who wants to do harm to you and/or your family, if even only in a classical, remote sense using sticks or swords or whatever. Same same.

If you want to be mindful of your training partner, you do so by being sure of your technique so you do not harm him in a needless manner. You train to their potential and abilities. You be the best sankaku and maru you can be. You do not “break” the kata and do it wrong, thereby causing a wrong reaction or non-reaction, unless you both can handle it. You perform the proper etiquette before and after the kata with mindfulness and appreciation, not just for form. You do NOT lend a helping hand in the middle of the kata.

I have told you all the true story over and over again of the police officer who trained to take away a gun pointed at him. But in practice, he would immediately give it back to his training partner. Well, one day he actually walked right into a dangerous situation and the bad guy pointed a gun at him, point blank. By instinct, he quickly snatched it out of the surprised criminal’s hands. Then, without thinking, he gave it back to the perpetrator! He did it because he was operating on autopilot. He acted the way he trained. Luckily he recovered quickly enough to wrestle away the gun again and survive the encounter.

So let’s say there’s a guy who invades your home. He wants to rape you AND your wife and kids, then cut you into little pieces while you’re still alive, and then burn your house down, dog included. You have no choice. This is not a pissing match or a bar fight where you don’t have to prove your stupid manliness. You can’t walk away. This is life or death. You have no recourse. You have to knock the guy down and stop him. So you do that. You throw him to the floor, and he’s stunned. What do you do? Offer him a hand to help him up? No! Of course not. He’s just going to get up and rape and kill you. You make sure he’s knocked out, tie him up or something, and then call the cops.

Or (for Joel), let’s say some crazy Jihadi got it into his mind to go knife everybody he saw in the street, and you just happened to be walking along minding your own business when that happens. Thanks to your superb training, you take the knife away and knock him down. Then what? Do you help him up and give him back the knife? Heck no. You make sure he doesn’t get up, and then back off very, very carefully, making sure he doesn’t have a concealed weapon, bomb, or he doesn’t have any buddies lurking around. That’s zanshin. It has nothing to do with being a nice guy or not in a sporting match. It has to do with training to survive. Sports and koryu are very, very different mindsets.

So if in practice you help the guy up, guess what. You are going to do that subconsciously when it’s for real. You are how you practice.

See, that’s the difference between koryu training and training for sports. Sports is fun. Sports budo is great for letting off steam, for competition and getting in condition and so on. But koryu bujutsu is not a sport.

That said, I therefore make it REQUIRED that you read every book by Dave Lowry you can get your hands on, and go through every article posted on the koryu.com web site so you understand what koryu is all about. If you have a hard time reading stuff online, then support the folks at koryu books by buying their books, which are collections of the essays. I used to recommend that you read these resources. Now it’s required. I know you all work, so it will take time to go through all the writings, but you need to read them, especially if the above explanation about zanshin and koryu has you scratching your head in puzzlement. If you still don’t get what the big deal is about, then seriously, there’s better sports budo schools all over Honolulu where you might get better training at. Without zanshin, there is no integrity in koryu training. Train hard, train with mindfulness.


22 thoughts on “74. Koryu is not a sport

  1. One of my teachers likes to say, “You won’t rise to the occasion; you’ll default to your level of training.”

  2. Tkank you for the article and sharing your thoughts to community! You are right in fighting aspects but on training get someone helping to go up is a friendly sign for good dojo spirit. Maybe it helps to understand and communicate each other — an aspect a budoka has to learn also.

    1. Conny, with all due respect, sportsmanship and “dojo spirit” are good ideals to strive for, but stopping a kata in the middle to play buddy-buddy is not good training at all, especially when it’s unnecessary and antithetical to zanshin. The kata doesn’t end at the throw. It ends when both partners go back to where they started from, watching each other so neither attacks again. It trains one for “zanshin,” or as a student of mine (who’s now on his third tour of Afghanistan) said, it helped to give him a mindset that saved his okole (butt) by giving him a mindset of preparedness and watchfulness, such as when the birds were unusually silent when crossing a field or when he realized something was wrong about the setup when he was turning a corner and there was a dark, unchecked alley. It’s not about friendliness and sportsmanship as I noted, it’s about developing a mental attitude that goes beyond physical training and sports. That is not to say that the attributes of sports is wrong. It has its place. I often wish many of my students did more sportive, competitive grappling or kendo so they would get more intense training and develop themselves physically. It’s just misplaced if trying to describe what the goals of koryu are.

  3. I am not from a Koryu system, Okinawan Karate-goshin-do, and I have read all of the koryu books by Mr. Lowry and the two from the Koryu web site.

    1. Charles,

      I had a private email also note that when this person did judo back in the 1960s and 1970s, the same attitude in koryu existed in “sport” judo. He saw someone execute a throw, the judge scored waza-ari (half point), and then the thrower extended a helping hand. The person who was thrown took the hand, and then did a foot sweep. The judge, from Japan, scored an ippon, a full point, awarding the match to the person originally thrown. The latter’s judo coach protested, but the judge said, in effect, that if it was a real fight in the streets, the guy would have lost by extending a helping hand to an attacker. My correspondent friend also noted that after you were told to stop and back away by a judo judge, his sensei told him that you were never to turn your back on your opponent because you wouldn’t do it in a “real” fight. He even saw an incident where a judge told two contestants to separate. One person turned his back and walked away, and the other contestant snuck up behind him, grabbed him, and did a foot sweep. The judge scored a full ippon. Again, the loser’s coach protested. The judge replied, “You never turn your back on an opponent in a real fight.”

      So even in modern budo, that attitude can exist, although it’s getting more and more rare.

  4. Also, I have a student who is now serving a third tour in Afghanistan. He is like a budo “brother” to me. While koryu are NOT modern combatives, and can’t be equated, he did point out that the training for the proper mindset of modern combative situations are to be found in budo that is done properly. Here is what he wrote in reply:

    In combat, this is called the “thousand yard stare” mentality. A lot of folks back home may see a war veteran and think, “wow, that guy is permanently out-to-lunch.” Yes, some of my brothers and sisters-in-arms may have some issues to deal with, but those issues usually stem from an
    inability to let-go of that thousand yard stare. It is what keeps you alive on an infantry patrol in a crap-hole Afghan city where you never know what you will find down the next alleyway. It is what makes you pay attention to the sudden absence of certain wildlife noises in the Tora Boras (they actually have mynah birds up there). Call it what you will, “situational awareness” “head-on-a-swivel” “staying frosty” etc. etc.The point is that the combat mentality has changed very little in
    the 500 years that many koryu have weathered. The weapons may be a bit different and have different qualities of lethality, but the human mind and senses are subject to the same stresses and keenly aware of one’s own mortality. That brings about some strange qualities or changes in
    people, and I think the founders of various koryu generations ago most likely realized the same thing. Stay alert, stay alive.

    I may be going a bit overboard here, but I feel the years of training with Wayne and Clark gave me a bit of a different perspective when I served on my first combat tour. Some people “get it” and some people don’t.


    1. Posted before but it got lost….There is a kata for every “tactical” thing we do in LE: not just for things like the arm-bar-to-cuffing, or a failure drill course of fire, but response to an active shooter, arrest teams, clearing, search warrant service, you name it. Of course we don’t call it kata, but that is what it is. And zanshin is important.

      Too often is seen a tendency to “short cut” what can be the most important part: what happens after the suspect goes down. Officer may go after an active shooter, engage him in a certain way, and then when the role player hits the ground, an end to the scenario is called, everyone talks excitedly about what happend in their stress based training, and then the next group is on deck. Too often you see a sort of dynamic inactivity when, for once, an instructor will NOT call an end to the scenario and leave everyone still in play. There can be an obvious lull until officers go into action with their follow on procedures. This is obviously dangerous, because more often than not when a suspect goes down from gunfire, he is still a threat.

      I saw this played out “live” in an Officer Involved Shooting I was at the scene of last year. Close enough to hear the shots fired and rounding the corner to see the suspect lying in his blood, a gun a few feet from him, I saw a line of officers with various weapons all yelling commands at him and approaching him. Zanshin was lost. Calling for everyone to “hold!” I slapped people on the back as I called out their individual assignments: lethal cover, less lethal, etc. assigning the shooter as cuffer, bringing back into the immediate present and having him focus on a task rather than simply on the fact that he had just had a shooting.

      The whole tenor of the incident changed. Zanshin was restored, the suspect controlled, and shortly tactical casualty care begun prior to medics arrival.

      The lessons from the bujutsu are very real and very relevant today. Not surprised that J is finding them so overseas and glad they are protecting him. Lost a Marine friend this year (also with modern and classical MA experience) and don’t want to hear of another fallen hero.

  5. I may be mistaken but is koryu in Japan not usually registered under cultural activities rather than sports activities?
    The teacher I started judo with in the mid-seventies was quite old school him being a student of (amongst others) Kawaishi sensei . We learned that judo was much more than ‘ just ‘ a sport. This dealt with attitude and techniques and although I don’t train judo often anymore that attitude is still a part of me I have noticed.

    1. Johan,
      One of my judo teachers was also a student of Kawaishi sensei, as well as Mifune Kyuzo sensei. His judo was superb.

  6. Thank you Muramoto Sensei again for a great article. In our Aikido group there are people who don’t understand this mentality also. I agree that training is not “Playtime” and there needs to be a serious engagement and commitment between nage and uke. I think a lot of modern budo students don’t understand the mentality and awareness to maintain during training is part of training itself. Actually perhaps it is more important than anything else.

      1. That is an interesting article. My sensei’s been training for 35 years or so now and he often talks about how he used to train with his sensei who is now sadly passed.

        They used to train hard and strong and fast, which he liked, but we don’t do that at his dojo today. They were strong then, he says, but their technique was awful. And aikido technique has very little to do with strength, especially if you want to be good at aikido when you’re 75 (which is something Robert Mustard Sensei and Jo Thambu Sensei like to talk about when they visit).

        The article reminded me of that, especially talking about Koa Sensei and his punching of the floor.

  7. The very first koryu embu I saw here in Japan, I was frankly disappointed by a lot of it. I won’t name names, but I saw a lot of lifeless iai as well as paired kata. I also came from an aikido background, and while I won’t tar all of aikido with this brush, I have to say that it was all too common to see an aikido embu where uke (the student) rushes tori (the teacher), tori does the technique, and indifferently stands and holds his hand out for the next technique, at which point the uke jumps to his feet and rushes tori again.

    Then I saw Goto-ha Yagyu Shingan-ryu’s taijutsu. Uke (the teacher) and tori (the student) stand just outside of maai. Uke takes one step in and strongly grabs tori. Tori does the technique, and uke takes ukemi. Once the technique was over, tori stood and with one big step back, got the f— out of range, his eyes never leaving uke. Uke, for his part, quickly got up to one knee, fixing tori with a stare, ready for any kind of follow-up. It was literally like a breath of fresh air, making me sit up in my seat to pay close attention.

    A famous story in our dojo is when 20th soke Yagyu Toshinaga and his son Yagyu Nobuharu, a teenager at the time, did an embu for Nihon Budo Kyokai. They were doing kata where shidachi strikes uchidachi, and then quickly retreats backward. Uchidachi follows and strikes, which shidachi deflects, cuts again, and retreats back again. Nobuharu-sensei did the cut and quickly moved back. But then his tabi’d foot stepped off the carpet and onto smooth floor, slipping out from under him. He fell to one knee. Toshinaga-sensei just came up and cut down on him. Nobuharu-sensei pulled a technique from a completely different kata, somehow got back up to his feet, and continued the embu.

    By itself, giving someone a helping hand is a fine thing. But it has no place in a koryu kata (or similar gendai budo/combatives drill). Maintaining zanshin when one falls down is part of training, as is maintaining zanshin when one’s partner goes down. You can help someone up when you see they are actually hurt. If they aren’t, then it’s better for both if they get up on their own.

  8. I have been a muslim from the day i was born. And continue to do so based on my own consent. I have been studying aikido, and had my exposure to jiu jutsu, kendo, and 3 styles of kenjutsu. I also adherently study my religion, believe firmly in the idealism of jihad to fight injustice and opression. I find the philosophies behind aikido and kenjutsu actually augment my understanding of my religion. Never have i found in the teaching of “jihad” in my religion that it consists of anything such as wantonly stabbing innocent people on the street with knife. So if you’re really that adapt with martial arts mr Wayne, i strongly suggest you to study islam first before you launch false accusations against us muslims.

  9. Ken, my apologies if my offhand use of the term “jihadi” offended you. I meant it as it is popularly used, to label an extremist who misappropriates a religious concept to cause violence against innocent others. In truth, friends and I have encountered prejudices and misconceptions more from people who misinterpreted Christianity and Orthodox Judaism than any other religious groups, or atheism. But that’s a different story.

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