Two emails came to me regarding training in my club’s dojo, to which I replied in markedly different ways. The differences might help illuminate what I think are some of the misunderstandings among the general martial arts community about koryu budo/bujutsu.
One was from a fellow student of one of the systems I belong to, the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu. He was going to be in town with his parents on vacation. I’ve trained with him on numerous occasions, so getting back with him again was a treat for me. I made time in my schedule and we met once, informally, in a park in Waikiki. Dressed in t-shirt and shorts, we went over some advanced kata under the shade of some overhanging trees, only a few yards from the white sand beaches of Waikiki, with my dog watching lazily. We are also going to train formally at my dojo during its regular Friday night sessions. If he had more time in his family’s schedule, I would have been more than happy to accommodate him and work in more training times. No problem. And contrary to some stereotyped notions that koryu folk are all “stuffy” and snobby, training in shorts and t-shirts was fun. And I’ve done that several times in the past with other koryu folk with no problem when that was all we had to work with. No big deal. When you’re in a park and don’t want to draw too much attention to yourselves (as if swinging around big sticks at each other didn’t look weird enough), then we would doff the keikogi and hakama and go through the movements informally to figure things out.
Another emailed request was very problematic on a number of counts. That email came from a person unknown to me, asking if she could come train at my dojo on a Sunday, the best time for her when she was coming on vacation. She introduced herself as being a student in some system I had never heard of, and she wanted to not just observe, but practice with us. As politely as possible, I informed her that we did not train on Sundays, although she was welcome to come and observe the class on a Friday night, if she had time, but jumping in and training with us would be a pretty hairy proposition. So far, I haven’t heard back from her.
Subsequently, I did an Internet search of her style, and in my opinion, decided it was what I call a “bullshit ryu.” The founder supposedly studied some offshoot of Takeuchi-ryu that I never heard of, but the photos on the school’s web site displayed nothing related to Takeuchi-ryu. So I realized that she was probably curious to see what our system looked like, since there appeared to be a tenuous relationship to her ryu. Supposedly. The images on the website, however, looked like every other mix-and-match MMA-Brazilian “ju-jits”-kurottee-judo-ahkeedo-kempo mashup that you see plastered all over the Internet, with multi-colored keikogi, arnis fighting sticks, and dubious-looking techniques.
It’s probably not her fault that she landed up in that system. From what I can see, it’s very easy to fall into such schools and, unless you have a decent grasp of what’s going on vis a vis orthodox Shinbudo systems and koryu, you may very well think what you’re doing is some kind of traditional, legitimate martial art. Or, you may not think about it at all. Hey, any studio down by the closest mall that has “self-defense” martial arts is fine. They’re all the same, right? In any case, there was no real linkage to our system that I could ferret out.
That’s the hard part. I didn’t go into details with that person because I didn’t feel like I wanted to get involved in a lengthy diatribe of why I thought her system was suspect. And unless she had a certain character and I worded the reply correctly, she may just conclude that I was just one of those “koryu snobs” that a lot of people seem to talk about on the Internet.
On the other hand, her request illuminated a lot of basic misunderstandings rife in the general public, one of which being that koryu is just another shiny new version of martial arts, just like what they see down at the strip mall karate/kung fu/Tae Kwon Do/aikido/MMA school, a professionally run, for-profit operation open all hours of many days a week. And if we do something called koryu jujutsu, why, it’s just another variation of that there “jew-jits,” as some MMA players like to call it. Maybe just a bit stiffer and more formalized, not as “free flowing” and “rockin’” as modern “jits.” I don’t really blame her. It’s just a matter of education.
Koryu are generally not for profit. That’s not to say you are supposed to starve if you teach it, or avoid any remuneration. Even in Japan, many koryu, mine included, have a monthly dues structure, fees for promotion and advancement, and sundry requests to help with supplies and upkeep of the dojo. Some padding of the costs is included to help with my teacher’s time and teaching.
On the other hand, as one of my koryu teachers said, “I loved doing koryu as a young man but I realized I was never going to make a decent living off of it, enough to feed a family, so I went to college to learn a trade, so that I would never have to depend on teaching budo. If I were to force budo to pay for my living expenses, I would perhaps be tempted into doing some things that compromised the ryu’s integrity.”
Mind you, this is the current headmaster of a 480-year-old tradition talking. Even the family head of one of the main branches of the Takeuchi-ryu, the sodenke Takeuchi Toichiro sensei, was by profession a schoolteacher. The former head of a koryu fencing school that once taught shoguns and warlords was an elementary school teacher. And if anyone in this school should have been capable of going “pro,” it would have been people of their caliber. So some koryu will indeed charge some kind of fee. Others won’t charge anything at all. But most of the teachers don’t depend on the fees as their sole source of income.
What such teachers realized was that the allure of koryu is relatively small, the appeal limited, and the ability to extend its franchise severely curtailed by the weight of its cultural baggage and methodology. Altering some of those factors would destroy the very nature of the ryu. Even now, although my own line of the school has branch dojo in different locations in Japan and the West, the school remains miniscule compared to an international modern budo organization like aikido, Kodokan judo or modern kendo.
If it sounds like I’m denigrating such modern budo systems, I’m not. Professionalizing the teaching of karate and aikido, in particular, has allowed for a higher level of students and competitors, a greater proliferation of excellent karate and aikido schools, and a greater public profile for both. Dojo run by those professional teachers can be open more hours for students to train, encouraging a higher level of excellence and physical abilities among the students. If anything, I envy that part of modern budo schools.
But it just won’t work in a koryu, for various reasons. Chiefly, koryu has certain inherent limitations regarding their ability for expansion. And I’ll leave it at that. Now, I could be wrong. There could be a way to make a decent profit off koryu, but I haven’t yet seen it yet.
Therefore, that was one basic difference in characteristics between most koryu and modern (shinbudo) schools that the person did not recognize. We don’t train every day. I’m not a professional martial arts teacher. I have a day job. All my students work and have their own family obligations.
On the other hand, I did make the time to train with my friend, right? But we are both in the same ryu. We know the same kata, we have even worked out with each other before so we know each other’s timing and characteristics when doing kata together. We know each other’s capabilities and how far we can move up in the kata training. As a member of the same ryu, there are literally very few secrets I would withhold from him. That’s also koryu. As my teacher remarked, “We’re not really a business; we’re more like a brotherhood (and sisterhood); once you are a member of the ryu, it’s like a budo family. We have to take care of each other.”
But because each ryu have vastly different methodologies from another ryu, to suggest just “dropping by” to train for one session is just crazy. Leaving aside the question of the legitimacy of her system, whatever she’s doing looks nothing like what we’re doing. You can call it “ju-jits” or whatever you want, but it’s not koryu jujutsu. More, it’s not Takeuchi-ryu jujutsu. Even someone doing Yagyu Shingan-ryu, or Sosuishitsu-ryu, or Tenshin Shinyo-ryu (all koryu jujutsu systems) would be out of place doing Takeuchi-ryu. You can’t just plop in there and try your hand at it. Just learning a simple an action as grabbing someone’s lapel may be different. Then how do you approach someone, how do you take a breakfall (each ryu may have a slightly different way they throw someone, leading to slightly different ways to do a breakfall), how do you kiai, what is the zanshin, what is the conceptual framework behind the attack and defense? They are all different from ryu to ryu, and markedly different from koryu to modern Shinbudo and even disastrously different from modern mix-and-match schools.
Mind you, again this is not a qualitative judgment. It may well be that the founder of that person’s bullshit-ryu stumbled across techniques that combined judo with MMA with ballroom dancing and created something totally devastating, something that would make our own efforts look antiquated and outdated. But even if that was the case, the differences in training would be so great that it just wouldn’t work. I would be spending a whole night just working with her on how to sit, walk, move, grab, and do one or two basic throws, that I would ignore the rest of my beginning students. I can’t do that without neglecting my students, and she has offered no real reason for me to do so.
Yet, had she better creds and foreknowledge, I would not begrudge anything. That’s also koryu. Once I attended a scholarly presentation of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu by Otake Risuke sensei, given at a prestigious private university just outside of Kyoto. Most of the audience was composed of university faculty, historians and professionals. Otake sensei discussed koryu and the ryu’s history, and then had his sons and students demonstrate some techniques. When it came time for questions and answers, Otake sensei got so excited and talkative that he doffed his suit and demonstrated some techniques, while still in formal dress and a tie. He would often say, “Well, to answer your question, this is the concept in our ryu…” and he would demonstrate a movement, then say, “Well, this part means this, and it’s really okuden (‘secret’ teachings) but the meaning is this…” I could just see his sons rolling their eyes. Oh man, Dad’s giving away the farm. But Otake sensei saw no qualms in discussing things openly with a respectful, knowledgeable audience of college professors.
By the same token, once a friend of a friend came to one of my school’s private embu (ritual demonstrations) as a guest. He was a foreigner who taught English at a prestigious Japanese private college, and also did Daito-ryu, a different jujutsu system. My teacher sat next to the guest during the demonstrations and happily explained some of the more arcane techniques to that person because he was respectful, curious and genuinely interested in understanding why Takeuchi-ryu was different from Daito-ryu. It wasn’t like he was going to take some of the techniques he saw and them make up his own style. He was from a legitimate ryuha with an honest curiosity.
I’ve also exchanged basic techniques with a friend from another koryu who I greatly respected. We each showed and taught each other basic forms from our ryu and explained the methodologies and meaning. Because I held him in the highest respect, and I had known him for decades as an honest, upright person, I knew he was never going to misuse what we showed him, and vice versa. We were simply very, very curious about the other’s ryu and concepts in an academic and respectful manner. And, by that time, I had been given permission to teach, so I could make my own decisions about how and when to teach someone.
Another problem is that the person emailing didn’t seem to understand the nature of a request to observe a koryu school. We are more than happy to ask people to come in and quietly observe our classes when they show up at our dojo’s doorstep. Inquiries to observe a class, out of the blue, are always answered. Requests to train, however, are studied more scrupulously. I usually talk to a prospective trainee first to make sure the person seems to be of somewhat sane mind and body, so as not to imperil other students. I ask what other martial arts they might have done, and why they want to train with us. I want them to consider, before training, whether or not they are serious about training for a while, because making a commitment is important. I will be investing time and effort with them where I could be spending time with other students. If you just want one or two sessions to get “a feel” of the system, it’s really not worth my effort. Sorry, but I don’t have the time or inclination for that. I’m not getting younger and I need to parcel out my time judiciously. So maybe after one or two months, you figure that it’s not working out, and it’s not for you. At least you made the effort. You didn’t just bop in and bop out after two or three sessions, like how some people I’ve tried to train do, wasting my time. It just didn’t work out. Too bad, end of story.
It was good of the person to note her previous training. If she had said she had done some recognized shinbudo with a reputable organization, or trained in another koryu, I would have been honored to let her watch my class. Still, maybe not train. But observing is fine, if she could make it to our Friday night session. But a scan of her ryu’s web site led me to believe that its legitimacy was suspect. The problem with people from such systems is that they fall into two general categories: One is the “loyal follower”: the student truly believes what he/she is doing is legitimate, historically speaking, and is a decent, honest practitioner simply seeking more knowledge, but is duped by the ryu’s leader(s). The other is the person who foisted such falsehoods, and the further I am away from such people, the better. Their only goal would be to get their pictures taken with me to establish a kind of photographic record to legitimize themselves, or to purloin training methodologies so they can add it to their mashups. I’ve encountered a couple of both types online and in person. The former are often genuinely nice people who had the disadvantage of being swindled. There’s no shame in that, swindlers are good at swindling. I’ve seen and encountered my own share of swindlers. They just strike me as slime-balls, people with something missing in their moral compass.
So can you come play in my sandbox? Well, sure. But do you have cooties?
Seriously, you can, sort of. But before you can, do you really know how to play in MY sandbox, because my sandbox is not like your sandbox. And are you going to steal my toy soldiers and sand to fill up your own sandbox, or are you going to share your toys with me, i.e., your time and effort, respect and appreciation, or is it all a one-way, selfish street where you just take things away? Then why would I want you to play with me in my sandbox?