96. Kata Classification in Koryu

One of the things I had to wrap my head around when I started to do koryu after over a decade of training in shinbudo (the more “modern” martial Ways) was that there were different levels of kata.

Judo, for example, may have harder kata forms that are meant for more advanced study, but they are not clearly demarcated. Nage No Kata can be considered by some teachers to be more applicable to beginners than Ju No Kata, but there really is no formal restriction that keeps beginners from learning the latter, more complex, subtle form. Nor are any of the individual techniques taught in a stratified, restrictive manner; rather they are simply taught from the easiest and most applicable to the more individualistic and complex, according to the individual instructor or the necessities of testing and ranking. In large part, this must have been influenced by Kano Jigoro’s approach to education and pedagogy. He was, besides the creator of modern Kodokan judo (and hence a distant ancestor who laid down the basic DNA for all modern grappling arts influenced by judo), one of Japan’s most important public school educators at the turn of the 20th Century. Kano embraced the open, facts-based, inquiring nature of Western educational theory. Besides training sessions, he would hold lectures on the philosophy, theory and mechanics of judo. By his actions, we see that Kano believed in disseminating knowledge; not just within the new Kodokan style but also distilling important information from the various different jujutsu ryu before they faded away, taking their knowledge with them. He wanted to open up education.

Also, too, karatedo had kata but no real hierarchical structure as I’m about to describe. Some kata were harder, more technically complex, but once you reached a certain level of ability, you would conceivably be able to learn all of them per the judgment of your teacher. I suspect this may have arisen from the very different nature of traditional Okinawan arts compared to traditional Japanese arts. As an Okinawan karate friend related to me, from his interviews with very old karate sensei in Okinawa, before the consolidation of the kata into specific “ryu,” karate was taught more like how the art of sanshin (Okinawan “shamisen,” or three-stringed musical instrument that strikes me as a kind of Asian banjo) was taught. You apprenticed yourself to a master and learned that master’s specialty, perhaps two or three songs that he’s famous for singing. In the same way, you’d study under a karate teacher and learn perhaps two or three kata and the basics. When you reach a certain level, the teacher may tell you, “Okay, you have learned as much as you can from me. Now go study under my friend in the next village. He’ll teach you his own special kata (or song, if it was sanshin),” and off you’d go to work on a couple more kata. Pretty soon, after making the rounds of different teachers, you end up with your own specialty or flavor and start your own little school (a karate or sanshin club), or you would decide you’d rather not be a teacher and go back to studying under a teacher that you really like and whose style and emphasis you want to emulate.

With modern kendo, the standardized Kendo Kata were established by a committee for grading purposes. Everyone learns them for ranking. There’s no “secret” kata only for higher ranks. There is, therefore, only one level and you are judged by your performance per that open and widely understood parameters.

With the koryu, however, there are different ryu whose methods are so different that you can’t compare and contrast one person’s technical abilities directly with another person. Some of the gross body movements may be similar, but the execution and direction, the timing and intent of similar-looking cuts and strikes may be totally at odds from school to school. So I can understand why, in casting about for a standardized set of kata that would unify kendo players or iaido practitioners, you need a system that would hold everyone to the same form and application.

But beyond that, within each koryu ryuha, there are classifications of kata based on your ability to absorb the teachings, on a technical physiological level, and on a mental/theoretical level. Grossly speaking, I am referring to what are called the Shoden, Chuden and Okuden levels of kata.

You will find these general stratifications in all traditional Japanese arts, from music to Noh drama, to flower arrangement to tea ceremony. They may be named differently but the basic concept of levels of stratification remains the same.

In the Urasenke School of Tea, for example, you have Nyumon, a primary certification that allows you to learn the most basic temae, or tea forms (which we could equate to martial kata), then you quickly move from these basics to Konarai (literally, “little teachings”). These lay the foundation skills in the temae. Then, generally speaking, you have Shikaden; an intermediary set of temae, and Okuden, the forms not published or openly taught. What you can be taught depends on your “ranking,” which is  somewhat aligned to the level of temae, but not quite exactly, especially at the upper end of the temae.

In most koryu forms, the foundation level kata are classified as shoden, meaning “beginning teachings.” Quite obviously, shoden kata are taught to beginners, and are the simplest to learn, easiest to grasp, rudimentary kata. These kata can also be called Shin (“formal, concise”) or “Omote” (“outward”).

Chuuden, or chuden (just matter of translating the pronunciation into English) are “middle teachings.” They are intermediary in complexity. They can also be called “Gyo” ( “Running”) as opposed to the stiffer, more stylized “Shin.” Sometimes they are called “Ura,” as in “the other side of Omote”).

Okuden, or “hidden” teachings are often referred to as “secret teachings.” While they are limited only to the initiated, the meaning of okuden is not so much “secret” as it is “far in the back or remote part, of a training hall.” In other words, these forms are taught in the far end of a dojo, away from prying eyes at the entrance, in the oku, or deepest recesses of the room. There are also references to this level as being “Soh” of the Shin/Gyo/Soh classification. This is derived from the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, which correspond roughly to structured, angular writing (Shin), more free-flowing script (Gyo) and the hardest: very spontaneous, expressive, free flowing writing (Soh).

In a sense, if you look at the geomantic symbolism, shoden techniques taught when you just have a foot in the door of the dojo. Chuuden are when you are fully engaged and committed to the school, and you are training right in the “middle” of the dojo. Okuden is  taught way back in the remotest part of the dojo, taught when you are ready to plumb the depths of the ryu.

There are good reasons why this stratification of kata exist in koryu, and also good reasons why they perhaps shouldn’t in modern shinbudo. The reasons range from the practical (if you have over 450 kata, you’ve got to categorize them in some way or you will have information overload and it all will be a jumble of too many kata!; and cataloging them according to technical/mental complexity is a really logical, intuitive way) to the financial (by charging a fee to be licensed to learn each level, the teacher and the school has a progressive stream of income).

Philosophically speaking, I think modern budo does not like to deal with this Shoden/Chuden/Okuden demarcation because of Kano Jigoro’s influence as a progressive educator. He wanted to modernize traditional jujutsu and he therefore eschewed the secrecy involved in the classification. You learned the techniques and kata when you are able to learn it, and you don’t need a certificate or pay an additional fee to do so. When you have no secrets, then everything is an “open book,” and everyone can contribute to studying the techniques, refining them, and possibly retooling them to work better in contests and training bouts. Hence, you will not see any such classification in judo kata, kendo kata, or karate kata, that I am aware of.

There are also secondary classifications. Betsuden (meaning “separate from the tradition) is a class of kata that are derived from outside the primary, original teachings. You can also call these kata Bangai (“stuff outside”), or Bette (“Separate Hands, i.e., separate techniques). They may have been devised by a headmaster or master instructor based upon existing techniques and then made part of the curriculum, or they may have been grafted onto the system by exposure to another ryu, perhaps in a case where a headmaster studied under a different ryu for a while and received a teaching license and then returned to his former system but wanted to retain what he learned.

Within the Okuden, there are also discreet levels. Their names vary depending on the ryu. Of the ones I am aware of, you have Shinden (kata whose origins are directly inspired by a spiritual vision by the founder, or his lineal successors), Soden (the original kata devised by the founder), Oku-iri (kata that introduces you to the okuden), and so on. Different ryu will have different ways to subcategorize their kata.

The danger I see, however, is mixing the two systems of teaching up. Trying to introduce the Shoden/Chuden/Okuden into modern shinbudo doesn’t make sense. The ship already left the harbor. You can’t change the teaching methodology without messing up the entire integrity of the system. So a koryu wannabe karate studio really shouldn’t just make up classifications for the sake of charging more money for teaching an “advanced” kata like Wanshu or Bassai Dai because the teacher read about it in my blog and thought, “Hey! More money!”

Likewise, breaking apart the classifications to “modernize” koryu just makes no sense. The classifications are there for very good reasons, not the least of which is that it establishes a progressive learning system that makes sense of a full, rich curriculum.

Within the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu of my teacher, Ono Yotaro, the attainment of a certain level allows you to first learn certain okuden kata that are called Soden, kata passed down from the founder for over four centuries. When receiving permission to learn these forms, your certificate only lists the names in cryptic, often confusing Chinese characters that give very little clue to their meaning. There are no written explanations to how these methods are done. You are taught these methods only one night a year, on the anniversary of Takeuchi Hisamori, the founder’s death. After other students receive their rank promotions, all the assembled students above a certain rank gather in the dim moonlight and firelight, on the side of a mountain that overlooks Kyoto, and we cooperatively teach the techniques to the newly inducted. Each of us reviews the methods, then we let the newly promoted a chance to try the techniques out, and we go over them, one after another, under the quiet and watchful eyes of our headmaster. In that way, the tradition is passed on from us to each other, as we learn to teach, and the new ones learn the absorb the teachings, in a truly traditional, exclusive manner.

I thought that everything I had been taught at the Shoden and Chuuden level, and even at the first Okuden levels, were now evident as techniques to prepare me for this moment. And yet, the techniques were at first baffling to me. They were simpler, faster, more…dare I say it?…upfront and powerful than anything I had been previously taught. Some of the techniques were so fast and brutal, they negated anything I learned in the previous categories. Yet, perhaps had I NOT been trained towards that moment, what seemed simpler may have been impossible for me to perform even half-way decently because the seeming simplicity hid, quite possibly, precise techniques that would not be possible for me to do without prior training. I know, this paragraph seems confusing. Perhaps it’s because I’m still digesting the implications of learning the Soden and Shinden methods. They were so different, yet so similar, that it felt like a whole new world opened up to my understanding of the ryu.

In a way, too, as you progress from one level to another, from Shoden to Chuuden, your understanding of the methods also change, and at that stage, no doubt they also appear as radical a change of view as what I experienced that night. As I tell my students, think of Shoden as going to elementary school and learning how to write the alphabets. You really need to go through this stage to become literate, and you have to keep practicing. But you also have to graduate from elementary school one day and move on to middle school, and high school, and eventually to Okuden, which is like college. Shinden or Soden? That’s like graduate school and you’re going to get a Ph.D. But if you can’t write, you can’t get very far at all, let alone even the intermediate level.


15 thoughts on “96. Kata Classification in Koryu

  1. Hi Muromoto Sensei,
    As always great blog. I would add a small addition to your thoughts on Okinawan Karate kata. There are kata that are kept family. Most famous example is Hohan Soken Sensei. He always said he had a crane kata he called Hakatsura (which of course is just white crane in Japanese) that he only taught a very small (2-3 maybe) number of people. He also stated that his Chikin no kun kata was so secret to him that he even demonstrated it wrong to his close friend Taira Sensei. Respectfully, Len McCoy

  2. Hi there,
    Never posted before but a very avid follower of your blog.
    Thanks for the blogs, it really is great and thought provoking reading.
    Ever consider publishing a “Best Of” in book format? I for one will definitely get a copy.
    Keep the blogs rolling in 🙂

    1. Thanks, Louis. I’ve considered a book, but will wait a bit to get a good number of blogs from which to choose…Thanks for the thought!

  3. As always a great blog, Wayne.

    My first thought is when I first started my koryu, I thought of basics something you got and moved to the next level without looking back. Basics where basically as I will put it, learning to tie your shoes or learning to button your coat. An elementary rote activity of limited significance with connection to future skills. But, as a result of my old school training I started to see the importance of basics and the connections basics had to advance levels.

    As Wayne pointed out, I had a radical change in how I seen the basics several years later. My view changed on being at a shoden level in my art. No longer was it just shoe tying and coat buttoning 101. I started to see the important relationship these basic set of waza had to the more advanced levels. I started to see the interlocking relationship of shoden to Chuden (that is the spelling that I was taught) and the high levels. My shift in perspective was a revolutionary to me. Having good basics and the attention to those basics directly correlates to upper levels and the level of success when at each level. Absence of good basics means, in my experience is a handicap.

  4. I also like to comment and share thoughts on something else Wayne has said, concerning modern budo. I too agree with his comments about Jigro Kano’s influence. I see it strongly in Judo in things like Kyu and Dan ranking vs. the absence of licenses seen in many well known Koryu, like mine. The other flag is “Mutual welfare and benefit” something I think helped removed secrecy and allowing for freely and openly sharing in information. I call it Jigro’s educational approach.

    I don’t credit Jigro Kano completely with the shift out of Koryu to the formation of a modern budo. There was also Morihei Ueshiba who was not as radical in braking from Koryu tradition in sharing information, as Jirgo Kano, but contributed greatly to what modern budo is today. We can’t over look the contributions of Gichin Funakoshi’s openness that also helped define modern budo as well.

    All three of these men among others shaped modern Budo, and in some respects despite their good intentions threw the baby out with the bath water in terms of not understanding their ancestral past or culture (Shoden, Chuden Okuden levels) from which modern Budo was derived.

  5. I think it is vital to say that modern Budo doesn’t understand it’s ancestral past or culture as well as they should. A point supporting Wayne’s comment in the blog “…modern budo does not like to deal with this Shoden/Chuden/Okuden demarcation…”

  6. I really liked the point in the blog about wannabe modern schools fusing together traditional systems and with modern systems as a marketing tool for more cash. Wayne points out that such a wannabe resources his blog to enhance that all mighty cash flow. Here is a real good point why secrecy/caution in revealing information is important for our current times.

    Wannabes can be very successful in attracting students, they are usually very good at business and sharp marketers. They know the formula and their target market. Not only is the danger is exploitation for profit. But also, there is the danger of ruining the facts about Koryu. Here is this guy who tells his students what traditional budo and practiced according to his configuration. His students having no other gauge by default believe the lies and tweaks.

    These students with a head full of BS and perpetuate it at sometime run up against the genuine article. There are many ways students react in this situation. I am going to focus on these. First, they realized what they believed was false becoming very defensive and discount the facts. Second, they are deeply intrenched in the BS they where told, and also become defensive. Each of these types of students, this is where it gets bad, keep the lies alive. They are the keepers of this monster where traditional koryu is tweaked accordingly to the needs of a wannabe or hack martial artist. The BS goes viral and prospective students walk in a real dojo wondering where Master Splinters. Or other silly things.

    A koryu by having secrets, reserving who they give information, is a form of self-protection. Koryus are greatly criticized inside and out for this practice. A well practiced koryu will have secrets as they know there are people who will damage and be irresponsible when it comes to the truth about Koryus. Some may think it applies to only outsiders, but it doesn’t. It also applies to established koryu students. It is not until the advanced levels, as Wayne outlined, until some secrets are reviled for good reason. I am speaking of a responsible and well practiced koryu school. Refraining from being idealistic, abuse is not preferential.

    When I hear people complain about a koryu keeping secrets, I immediately know they lack the understanding of the situation. When I am around a wannabe making a Koryu goulash, I clam up. I am very careful and mindful of what I reveal. When I run into students that come from a Koryu goulash (or chicken soup), I keep my knowledge to myself. Why? Because knowledge is a terrible thing to waste.

    1. Jon,
      I don’t understand why you don’t like people who manage to make money with budo.
      If you don’t want to make your living by it – fine, but let everyone make their own choices.

      Concerning secrecy: What better way to hide the truth by obscuring it with a lot of lies.
      You should be delighted about these goulash people you complain about. They help
      keep your secrets.

      Wasn’t the original reason for secrets: If someone sees our techniques, they will know
      how to defeat us. Well, who are you fighting against? How relevant is this reason nowadays?

      Again: How is your personal training, your progress. your learning influenced by goulash, by
      lies, by wannabes or by the not-keeping of secrets?

      I suspect that a lot of this importance of secrets is due to the need to feel special.
      (I know something, you don’t know = I’m better than you!)


      1. Good questions. Well, those of us formally trained in a Koryu understand and respect what Koryu is and means. Then there are those who aren’t formally trained or trained at all in a Koryu and understand and respect Koryu tradition.

        My favorite historical hallmark is the famous Miyamoto Musashi who in the Edo period disapproved strongly of people selling Bugei. He wasn’t the first, the last or the only one whose stomach turned knowing there where some louche is demeaning and bastardizing their character, culture. way of life. Reducing everything the do and are to some cheap trinket that can be bought and sold. A product that others can profit from it. Reduced to a common object that can me abuse and misused. A product that can be stripped of all it’s value and meaning reduce to common snake oil. The selling of a Koryu is a cancer that leaves a Koryu weak, mangled, and an empty shell. And who benefits from that?

        Take for a second, when talking about marketing something that shouldn’t, like the recent move Rolling Stone made to put the youngest Boston bomber on their over. Regardless of their recent attempts to CYA due to the backlash against the magazine, they did so to increase sales and gain a greater market presence. They never put mass murders on their covers. I don’t think I need to say more how disrespectful and disgusting that is.

        Look at the Olympics and what selling of that has created, corruption, money motivated changes. The Olympics are no longer what they where intended to be. Once you sell sports they become a racket. No longer do people get involved for the love of the game, rather they do it for the profit. It isn’t a matter anymore of keeping on the lights.

        Selling of a Koryu strips it, mangles it, reinvents it to fit the needs of the profiteer and wannabe. No one likes a poser or a cheap knock-off saying it’s the genuine article. No one likes a greedy person or a fraud. No one likes it when something sacred is abused and destroyed. It is vital to preserve and respect history and tradition of a Koryu. Protecting the integrity of a Koryu against abuse isn’t wrong, what is wrong is destroying simply because there is an opportunity for profit.

        Secrets, aw…those nasty little things that are hidden from us that we have a right to know. Does everyone have the right to know everything. NO. Well, let’s look what happens when you a personal issue secret is relieved, like where your personal valuables are to a seedy character. Such a breach of trust makes them personally vulnerable. You violated their privacy exposing them to a danger. Now let’s give the work place a try and see what happens when you leak a company secret, depending on the secret jail or fired. A company could be ruined depending on the secret relieved. Oh I don’t know, something like Coke’s secret recipe made public could ruin Coke. Let’s move on up to the government, what happen if you leak a secret. I don’t think I need to explain that one. Here we see the importance of secrets on a thumb nail level that apply to martial arts.

        More precisely keeping secrets is vital in martial arts, because of the harm certain knowledge can do in the hands of the wrong person. Or certain knowledge in the hands of an undeserving person, who ends up disrespecting the art and the dojo. Or someone of poor character that uses the knowledge for political and selfish purposes, i.e. trying to ruin the dojo to promote their own hack dojo. Does everyone one have the right to something held secret by another. NO. Do people who with hold secrets abuse it, YES. But, they are usually the hacks, posers, of poor character, profiteers, etc.

        Anyone who has joined a good authentic Koryu and invested their time in it understands why there are secrets, and why Koryu isn’t a business. Those on the opposite side, it is my experience that those who usually complain and protest the practice of with holding secrets, and why people shouldn’t profit from the arts. It is clear they certainly don’t understand the beauty, or appreciate the special value of an art. Taking up a Koryu art is a selfish pursuit and there is no right to know all the secrets, or get all the knowledge, or to pimp it out.

      2. Here are some other replies to Aina, who raises some interesting POVs and questions: as far as injuries in koryu, I don’t have a big enough set of numbers to run a survey, but my suspicion from just an offhand and personal review is that I’ve encountered people with more injuries from shinbudo than from koryu training, for various reasons, some of which aren’t relevant to this discussion. In any case, I actually haven’t seen a lot of koryu injuries. I HAVE seen A LOT of hip, shoulder and knee injuries hampering old judoka like me, arthritis in joints, bone spurs, etc. with karateka, hip problems with old aikido folk. Not so much in koryu. My suspicion is that a lot of koryu is weapons-based kata, so there’s not as much resistive training in which things can go pop and out of whack (although I’ve heard of and seen some hairy incidents in jujutsu practice). Also, if you train so hard that people are constantly beat up and on the injured list, you don’t have a standing army that can hump it right away into combat at a moment’s notice. So training was a balance between working hard enough to make it relevant, but not so hard that your soldiers are always ending up in the hospital. I’ve seen Kyokushinkai karate guys with busted knees so beaten up that they look like old men at 40. And one reason why I shifted more to koryu was that my shoulders and knees were messed up first from American football and then aggravated by judo.

        As for the need for secrecy: Perhaps it does feed into one’s ego and feeling of self-importance. But the real reason used to be that some of the methods were really meant to cause an opponent great physical harm or death to an opponent in a combative situation, and passing out such information without some kind of safeguards was considered akin to giving a loaded gun to a two-year-old and then saying, “Go play with your brothers and sisters.” It’s irresponsible on the part of the parent or teacher. Now, one could argue that it’s archaic when discussing okuden regarding weapons work, but the mindset is still there, and the more I train, the more I realize that what is being handed down that has the most relevancy in terms of modern “applications” of koryu is the discoveries the founders made with regard to developing the mind, the specific weapons being secondary. Throwing out such safeguards, unless done so with a great deal of thought, would be like throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Were there other reasons, methodologically speaking, for this kind of progressive introduction to techniques? One has to wonder, and tread carefully with any changes to the teaching methods.

        On the other hand, one can freely see okuden forms in very popular arts on YouTube nowadays, although they’re not explained in great detail. There are also publications on ryu such as the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu in Japanese that elaborate on the okuden. So again, it’s a kind of gray area. Some koryu people will talk about it, some won’t. I tend to follow my teacher’s advice. So call me a snob or whatever you want, but personally and based on what my teacher has advised me, I do not think it is appropriate for me in my position to teach anybody who walks through the dojo doors the shinden, soden or okuden forms of my school’s jujutsu. If they learn some of the specifics from other people, fine. But not from me. Is it all that mysterious and mystical mumbo jumbo that I would hold above other people? No. But they are vicious, straightforward, direct and cruel, and unless it is prefaced by self-discipline and a conscience, they can damage someone pretty rotten. I don’t want to teach someone who I don’t know well how to hurt other people. But that’s me, of course.


  7. Am talking technical knowledge, and not what Wayne is doing here on his blog. He is doing a great job with this blog, and it is needed. Here we have a great benchmark for Koryu.

  8. Taking up a Koryu is a self-less pursuit where a person may never know all the secrets, for what ever reason. A Koryu is an art form, steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. It’s not like joining a frat, or something like the Shriners, or Freemasons where once you are initiated you are privy to all the cryptic codes, secrets and inner circle whatnot – to a certain extent that is. A proper Koryu is it’s own thing. There is nothing else like it in terms of its tradition and culture which is unfamiliar to many. Of those many some will be disgruntled with it as it doesn’t fit their views, where others will understand it and respect the traditions and culture.

    Can’t you force people to understand how an authentic Koryu operates, no. It is either they do or they don’t and that is why a Koryu isn’t for everyone. I don’t think criticizing anything that is not fully understood, or because it is uncomfortable to them is productive. Koryu isn’t being forced upon anyone and you voluntarily sign up. If it doesn’t fit you or you understand it, you don’t try to change it to fit your cultural, political, or comfortability level, McDojo’s do that. If a proper Koryu doesn’t fit you than there is no value to you and you can leave. No one forces you to stay.

  9. Koryu than is a state of mind, a state of presences, it is a soul, it is an abstract practice, it is a living art form. It is not an object that can be bought or sold.

  10. Once last thought, to wrap up my response to Aina Opiskelijat. Koryu has gotten a bad rap in my country because of “Koryu Snobs” as they are coined. People who usually practice a proper koryu or thought they do and let their ego run amok. Touting themselves as Koryu experts when little was available about proper Koryu to the public. These “Koryu Snobs” created an false sense of superiority as they lacked a true understanding of Koryu. This sense of superiority may have come from the Japanese which these “Koryu Snobs” where emulating. Regardless, the result created a prejudice among many martial artists against Koryu. This was wrong, and is one of a few justifiable criticism against Koryu art practitioners. Here again, the lack of understanding of a proper Koryu has negatively effected how Koryu is seen and practiced. Point being, there is a reason for every thing done in a properly handled Koryu. A proper Koryu is handled and practiced with great care and respect.

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