76. Embu: “Going Into Battle”

When I finally had enough students in my koryu dojo to make it work, I announced that we would have an enbu (or embu) before we took our usual August summer vacation. Everyone would have to demonstrate for a few minutes. I didn’t explain much about it at first. I wanted to let it sink in.

I was surprised that the first student to approach me and ask questions about what exactly is an embu was someone who had decades of modern budo experience behind him. In fact, he was so highly ranked in his own martial arts, that he would be invited frequently to fly out to give seminars at various locations for his shinbudo organization.

“It’s just an in-house embu, just ourselves, so that the lower ranked students will get an idea of what it’s like,” I said, thinking that would be explanation enough for him. “You know, like how you guys would do it in your own group.”

He drew a blank face. “Uhm…We have tournaments. Do you mean like a kata tournament? With points and judges?”

No, I replied. Not a tournament. You know, an embu.

“No, I don’t know,” he said. “We never had…an ‘embu’ before.”

A “demonstration”? Maybe. But not an embu.

What? Decades of training and no embu? That struck me as odd, but in retrospect, I now realize that not all martial arts groups, especially shinbudo organizations, understand what an embu is, even though it’s one of the few public venues in Japan in which one can observe a different koryu other than your own.

Very roughly put, an embu is a demonstration. But that’s like saying BMW makes pretty good sports cars. Yes, they do, but my BMW-loving car enthusiasts would rankle at my lowbrow description of automobiles that make them salivate in Pavlovian desire.

Embu can be translated as a “presentation of martial skills.” What it has evolved to become is a public presentation of the characteristic kata of a koryu school. Sometimes it is only one school. Sometimes different koryu gather together at big annual shindigs, such as at the Budokan, Butokuden, Meiji Shrine or Itsukushima Jinja, and put on a big festival of many different koryu.

What you will NOT see at these embu is audience participation. There are also no calls for volunteers from the audience, or jazzy dance numbers mated to kata, or salesmen-like announcers asking for hoots and hollers and applause from the audience. Embu, however fun it is to be in them (as I have), however wonderful the camaraderie that is created among dojo mates and even with other koryu folk, are serious matters. You are demonstrating to outsiders to the best of your abilities, as a representative of your ryu. In the koryu of this era, this is as close as you can get to a stressful, competitive based public situation, since sportive aspects of the koryu have been moved out to fit into judo, kendo and other modern shinbudo.

Embu probably goes back to a time when martial arts schools were still relatively relevant for training warriors in applicable combative skills. Since you never knew which province you might end up fighting in the next civil war, or which group of samurai, dojo usually guarded their techniques from the general public most of the time. You didn’t want to show potential enemies your signature methods and tactics or they may use it against you later.

The only general exception to this might be when you would be asked to be part of a “command performance,” in front of a daimyo lord or nobility, or as an offering to the village deities, or other such special audience or occasion. Because of that historical characteristic, embu are considered respectful, serious matters.

The history of my own koryu, Takeuchi-ryu, has documents pertaining to its first embu. It wasn’t before a raucous audience. Centuries ago, the second and third masters did embu before the Japanese emperor and his court members. Being granted the embu was considered an unprecedented honor for any bugeisha of that era, and the style was thus given the title “Hinoshita Torite Kaizan (The pinnacle of grappling methods, greatest of all)” Take(no)uchi-ryu by the Emperor himself. In a similar manner, some years later, the other budo that I study, Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, had its exponents perform before the Taiko (regent) Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who bestowed the title “Muso,” or “Tenka Muso”; meaning “No Equal Under Heaven.”

In some ways, I can liken it to the difference between modern auwana hula and the way ancient kahiko hula were practiced and performed. Before the relatively recent popularization of hula, very few people knew or studied kahiko, old style hula. That style was considered sacred, a dance form that went beyond simple entertainment. A kahiko hula dancer was channeling the spirit of one’s ancestors and protector deities, and the kahiko, while an audience may observe it, was primarily an offering to the gods. Kahiko can be joyous, it can be somber. It can recount epic, tragic human battles or the conflicts of the gods. It can even now speak of ancient lust and romances, and have Christian motifs. But the dress, dance, and entire singing style and carriage of the participants speak of dignity and spirituality. Kahiko hula masters, called kumu hula, harbored so much mana, or spiritual power, that they were given equal footing with kahuna, or the spiritual and medicinal priestly caste of old Hawaii.

There were legends about one of the last truly old-style hula masters, ‘Iolani Luahine, who is credited for saving the art of hula when it had fallen into disfavor during the early modern era. The legends would say that when she danced, even the gods would watch her. One college professor acquaintance told me of a chance incident in which he was sitting at a bus stop in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kaimuki with her, who by then was an elderly old lady. It was pouring rain. My friend said that he made an offhand remark complaining about the rain. The elderly Hawaiian woman smiled and then began to chant in Hawaiian, in an eerie but beautiful, powerful voice. And then he said, “I swear, Wayne, one moment it was gray thunder clouds pouring rain as far as you could see. The next moment, the rain stopped and the sun burst out, then she smiled at me and got on the bus and I realized that was ‘Iolani Luahine!”*

That sense of spirituality may have once been attached to koryu masters as well. I read several articles that describes Otake Risuke, of the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu sword style, as a swordmaster who will sometimes perform folk rituals to ease the aches and pains of his rural neighbors. The oldest koryu have very strong attachments to particular shrines, temples and guardian deities. That connection may have led to a belief in the trascendant being available in a study of the old koryu.

Perhaps the best video to demonstrate the feel and tenor of an embu is here on Youtube, by Empty Mind Films:


In this video, there are quite a number of people in the audience. For the participants, however, a lot of pressure is put on them not just because so many people are watching them, but because the deities themselves are watching; they are performing embu as an offering to the spirits. And of course, there is the practical pressure of not making a fool of yourself in front of other koryu practitioners who really would know a thing or two about whether or not you screwed up your kata.

It is instructive that in the first embu I participated in with my top student, representing the Takeuchi-ryu, we overheard another participant say, before she stepped onto the embujo (demonstration area): “Well, I’m off to battle.”

At first, my student thought it was humorous hyperbole. But she wasn’t joking. Her embu kata really did look like it was a battle between her and her partner. They went at each other, within the boundaries of the prearranged kata, as if each cut mattered, each block if missed would lead to death. Probably unseen by the general public, there were moments when a block was missed and when a cut went the wrong way, leading to a whacked limb. But neither of them flinched throughout the whole of their embu.

It brought to mind a story I once heard from the late Dr. Sachio Ashida, a judo teacher (and professor of animal behavior, hence the appellation of Doctor). I asked him what prewar Judo was like. He said it was more like a budo, less like a sport. To draw an example, he said he once saw a demonstration of Nage No Kata at an All Japan Judo Tournament before World War II, and the emperor happened to be in the audience. Ashida sensei had a ringside seat. He saw the two judo masters go through the kata. In the middle of it, there was a sutemi-waza, a throw in which tori (the “thrower”) falls to the ground in order to pull and throw the partner over his falling body. Uke (the “thrown”), however, messed up his breakfall and as he went over in a forward roll, Ashida clearly saw that he inadvertently kicked tori with his foot in his face. But the two continued the kata as if nothing was wrong. They finished, bowed out, bowed to the emperor, and walked off the stage. Ashida said that only after they had left the stage did the person performing tori spit out all his front teeth in front of him. The kick had knocked them out in the middle of the embu but he had continued the kata.

“That was REAL judo spirit,” Ashida said. “In those days, doing embu was like life and death, especially if you did it in front of the emperor.”

Lest it sound like I’m espousing a return to that kind of physical harshness, the point I want to make is that even nowadays, embu should be considered spiritual, serious matters that should be a challenge to the participants. When you do kata geiko in regular training, it should be with proper feeling and attitude, to gain skill so that your sword work, your weapons work, or your unarmed grappling really does reach a combative level, even if the combative skills are archaic in this day and age. The mental attitude you engender happens only if you take kata training beyond just fun and games. Performing embu takes that atmosphere and multiplies it many times over because of the pressure involved doing kata in front of strangers, your teacher(s) and other koryu folk.

Inevitably, because of that added pressure, you will screw up. How you react also is a challenge that good practice and embu experience addresses. As in a “real” combative situation, not everything goes according to kata. What happens when the kata is “broken,” if by situation (such as slipping on wet grass) or by human error (such as your partner going thisaway instead of thataway)? The poorly trained person will stop dead in his tracks. But doing so in embu or in reality will get you killed, even if only symbolically.

I was watching a pair of swordsmen go through an unusually long kata during their embu. When it was done, I told the junior student (who was the “tori” or “winner”), “Boy, that was an interesting kata. I’d never seen one like that which was so long in your style.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was long because my sensei was totally out to lunch. I think he had so much on his mind, he came at me the wrong way, from a different kata, so I just had to block the cut and react. And I looked in his eyes, and he was, like, totally lost. I think he was thinking too much about something else. So he saw my cut, and he just reacted and tried to block and cut, so I blocked and tried another cut, and he reacted, so I reacted, and we just kept going until I finally hit him…hard…on his wrist. That kind of snapped him out of his brain fart!”

(In an earlier blog reply, Josh Reyer noted another incident in which Yagyu Nobuhara, the late master of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, revealed his own stumble during an embu, and that led his father to “break” the kata and come down on his head with his bamboo practice sword. Yagyu sensei recovered quickly enough to block the impromptu cut and continue the rest of the kata. Reyes’ comment, in fact, led to this new blog about embu.)

So you know you have really trained well in kata geiko when you can recover from such a “break” and recover, and finish the kata in embu. I daresay, only a few of my students so far have reached that level, but I’m sure if they keep on training, they can get there, as long as they have the right attitude.

When I first was asked to participate in a Takeuchi-ryu embu, I remember my teacher reminding me of a saying. He encouraged me to do the embu, and that mistakes will be part of it, and I would learn from the mistakes. “One embu is worth 1,000 training sessions,” he said.

Indeed, it is, if done with that mind of “going into battle.” Of taking it with all its intended seriousness and sense of purpose.

And my student who asked me what an embu was? He liked it so much, he told me that he was going to incorporate an embu at the end of all his seminars from henceforth. They used to have mini-tournaments for kata and kumite, he said, but an embu would offer similar challenges, but not as much over-the-top competitiveness. It would be a chance for everyone, young and old, skilled and experienced or beginning level, to challenge themselves equally without just one winner and the rest relegated to being “losers.”


*See the Wikipedia entry for ‘Iolani Luahine: “…Some who knew her told stories of Luahine’s “mystic abilities.”[3] The Honolulu Advertiser wrote that those who saw her perform “typically speak about the almost mystical experience she seemed to channel.”[4] Some say she had “a deep, spiritual connection to the hula goddess Laka and the volcano goddess Pele.”[4] Others claimed that she “could call up the wind and the rain and could make animals do her bidding.”[3] In 1969, organizers of the Merrie Monarch Festival were about to cancel their parade because of heavy rain, but Luahine said the rain would stop for two hours starting at 1 p.m.[4] Even organizer Dorothy Thompson recalled: “She told me the parade had to start on time, at 1 o’clock, because the rain would stop for only two hours. It poured cats and dogs. At 1 o’clock on the nose the rain stopped, and at 3 o’clock the rain came down.”[3]

Hula master George Na’ope told a story that the Queen of Tonga and an FBI escort were visiting Hawaii, and the queen would not get out of the car because it was too windy. According to Na’ope’s story, “Iolani turned around, chanted, and the wind stopped. After that, the queen and the FBI were supposed to go to a hotel in Kona, and instead they went to Iolani’s house in Napoopoo, where she summoned all the animals to greet the queen. Her dog barked, her cat meowed, her rooster crowed, her pig oinked, and they bowed to the queen. When someone said that they are not supposed to be at Iolani’s house, an FBI agent replied, ‘If she can stop the wind, we are going to be here.'”[9]


7 thoughts on “76. Embu: “Going Into Battle”

  1. Wayne, as Nakayama Kazuo sensei would say the most superior practice, is doing embu. I realize the wisdom of his words, every time I do embu.

  2. How many people who do hear the word Embu and not really understand what it means? How many who do take part in an Embu understand it? To bad this isn’t an universal primer for everyone in Japanese martial arts.

  3. Hi! I simply wish to give you a big thumbs up for your great info you’ve got here on this post. I’ll
    be coming back to your blog for more soon.

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