99. The Paper Trail in Koryu Budo

Trying to pass on not just the technical aspects of a koryu budo (classical martial way) is hard enough, but making sure the students grasp the cultural and philosophical characteristics of that particular ryu makes the task even harder. On the other hand, it is often a blessing in disguise, as the students’ questions or unawareness forces me to question the foundations of my own understanding to come up with answers and reasons WHY things are done a certain way.

One of those things about Japanese budo is that it comes from a very literate society, even going back to the medieval times. Records keeping was a mania, especially among traditional institutions like samurai administrations, temples, and so on. Hence, most researchers of Japanese martial arts history will scoff at claims of a hitherto unknown martial system suddenly popping up in a Western country being off the radar of anyone in Japan, because “it was a super-secret martial art taught to a clan of ninja way in the mountains only to one family, and then passed on to one Westerner in secret, so there’s no mention of it in any historical documents.” Is it possible? Yes. It’s possible, once in a blue moon. Is it probable? Not really. Big difference.

The main reason for that disbelief among koryu “snobs” is that there really should be some kind of paper trail. Within han (domains), nearly everything that occurred was recorded, from rice harvest yields to family births and deaths (recorded in the temples) to historical documentation. If any group of individuals not tied directly to the ruling samurai administration let out even a hint that they were practicing a martial art not sanctioned or allowed by it, they would be immediately checked out by the samurai magistrate. The last thing that the rulers of a han wanted was a bunch of people learning fighting methods unknown to them, with the possibility that they could start a rebellion. That is not to say that there weren’t independent dojo. There were dojo and systems sponsored by the clan, and dojo that were independent, especially in towns where teachers could set up shop on their own. There were also wandering ronin, like Miyamoto Musashi, who taught wherever he found students. But there are a whole bunch of caveats that came with that. In order to travel through check points that separated one han from another, you needed…guess what?…paperwork. Like passport screeners nowadays, each han was an autonomous domain, ruled by a daimyo, and in order to get through a check point, you needed paperwork from some government authority attesting to your business, such as being on your way to a religious pilgrimage (which was one of the few ways commoners could travel past their domain, hence the modern Japanese mania for traveling to shrines and temples, but having raucous drinking parties at night), study at a  school, business and trade, or for martial arts training.

Anyway, the paperwork extended to what I really wanted to discuss in this blog: the documentation that comes with being in a ryu and continuing training. They are many and varied, and often are different from ryu to ryu. But this paper trail also contributes to the documentary, compounded accretions that make up a historical ryuha, or martial system.

The first certification, not always found in all ryu, is a nyumonsho, or certificate signifying one’s formal acceptance into the school. This is like receiving an acceptance letter to college, in a way. It’s concrete, written evidence that you are a member of the ryu. Moreover, you are registered in a student registry. Nowadays, that registry could just as easily be a computer database (the Japanese are not averse to technology when it actually makes things easier); in the past (and still in the present in some schools) it can include having your name written on a wooden fuda (small tab) and hung up on a dojo wall, along with the fuda of all the other students that entered through the dojo doors.

As you advance in ranking, you receive other certifications. In koryu influenced by modern dan/kyu ranking, you receive new belt colors, from brown to black, for example. Those are basically external symbols of what is really significant: your rank certification, which are those big, diploma-looking type certificates that are handed out. They look like diplomas because they are based on academic diplomas, with the ornate bordering and considerably thick and handsome paper and watermarks. The teacher will write your name and his own name, to certify your rank. Also note the numerous “chops,” or hanko, stamps in red ink, plastered all over the certificate. In Japanese, personal stamps are like personal signatures, good even for money transfers at banks. They attest to the authenticity of the document. If you are observant, you will see that at least one of the “chops” is stamped partially off the edge of the certificate. The teacher does that because he has a book that records each promotion, and alongside his documentation is the other part of the stamp, showing that your particular stamp matches up with the rest of the stamp recorded in his book.

Most modern budo schools that are somewhat organized in some manner will have some aspect of this paper certification and documentation, as will most koryu, although some very, very small groups may not be so formal. This was, however, not a very ancient tradition, since my suspicion is that this flat kind of certificate was derived from Western style academic diplomas. In the premodern era, certifications of rank were written on scrolls. The scrolls, or makimono, were hand-written, and included the student’s name, the instructor’s signature, the date of the writing and the rank being bestowed. It also included a mokuroku, or a catalog of the techniques the student knew at that rank, and the listing of masters from the founder to the current master. The writing would be in black sumi, a very durable kind of ink, annotated and highlighted by red ink and chops.

–Hence, the plot for many cheesy Chinese and Japanese martial art movies about a stolen “secret” scroll whose bearer would learn the super-secret deadly technique that would make him master of all martial arts. Oh, yes. Even a “Kung Fu Panda” movie had that plotline.

Not a lot of schools will still go the route of handing out makimono, because the materials to make them simply cost too much and there may be too many students, and it just takes too much time. One of my own teachers gave me one of the last makimono he ever produced and then proclaimed, “That’s it. It took me so long because I kept making mistakes and had to go over it over and over again, that I’m going to use a word processor from now on and make certificates.” Sigh. So much for tradition. Welcome to laser printers and automation in koryu.

Besides makimono and more current diplomas, however, there used to be another kind of certification. These are midway between the makimono and diploma-style certificates, and I think they appeared close enough to a modern diploma-style certificate that teachers got into their heads to utilize the latter. These are flat pieces of white Japanese paper, folded up and placed in a protective covering of white paper. Made of pure Japanese mulberry, the hanshi (“half size paper”) is a thin but strong and very beautifully fibered paper. Unlike the makimono, this certification, called various things, including “origami” (yes, “folded paper”; like the term used for the folded paper creations of paper cranes, crabs, Millenium Falcon models, and so on), does not have an extensive listing of techniques. Instead, it may just have a few techniques, special to the certification. Or it may simply certify the student’s special status, perhaps, as having attained teaching rank, or permission to open up his own independent dojo, or the bestowing of his martial “name.”

Such papers are still used extensively in the tea ceremony school I belong to, along with  plastic student ID cards with magnetic strips that verify my status and rank, if fed into the proper computer database! Origami certificates are also is part of the documentation of one of the koryu schools I study.

There are, of course, some schools that forego several, or all of these kinds of paper documentation. But larger organizations need documentation the bigger they get, hence modern budo schools, with worldwide memberships in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, will have some kind of rank certification process, and diploma-style menjo (certificates).

There are also koryu exceptions to the rule, but they stand out because they ARE exceptions. Because Oei Masamichi, in the early 1900s, opened up the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu school of iai, for example, to what was formally a martial art only for Tosa han samurai, he also decided to drop a lot of other traditions, in an attempt to modernize and popularize the system outside of his native province. That kind of openness continued with several of his students, and their own students. Iwata Norikazu, who my own iai sensei considered one of the most brilliant Eishin-ryu teachers of his generation, in later years stopped taking promotions for ranking administered by the All Japan Kendo Federation. He also let it be known that he didn’t care about ranking or what organization you belonged to, as long as you had a sincere wish to learn from him, he would teach you. That was in keeping with Iwata sensei’s own attitude about learning, since he sought out all strains of Eishin-ryu teachers to study under, and even worked with Muso Shinden-ryu instructors, so that he could get a wide understanding of all the variations and methodologies surrounding Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and the sister school of Muso Shinden-ryu.

Should a modern budo school acquire the trappings of origami and makimono to be “more traditional”? I don’t think it would be appropriate. Western-style diploma type certificates are more than adequate, and such certificates are also used in koryu nowadays in the  majority of cases. There is no precedent or tradition that says you need to revert to such older forms of certification in arts such as karate or aikido, judo or kendo.

And really, the documentation is important, but what’s really central to one’s training is the training, not so much the papers. When I was a newbie in a koryu, I remember studying with the late Donn F. Draeger, a pioneer Western researcher and koryu exponent. One day he lined up three of us relatively inexperienced students and declared that we would now, henceforth, be considered sankyu, or “brown belts” in the koryu. No test. No belt change ceremony, no certificates. He had trained with us in our small group long enough to have gauged our skills intimately. He’d register our rank in the organization and that was it. It was really anticlimactic, in a way, but also in another way, kind of in keeping with a koryu kind of shibui (“astringency” of feeling and art). No big deal. You guys deserved a rank up, here you go. Now don’t let it get to your heads, let’s move on and keep training. That’s kind of the implied feeling I got.

On the other, other hand, and it’s a minor point, but I do enjoy traditional trappings of Japanese culture, and I treasure my own makimono and origami as personal, one-of-a-kind mementoes, not so much for the honors granted me, but for the spirit of my teacher embodied in them. He wished me well, and I can only hope I live up to his expectations. I look at them occasionally, to marvel at my teacher’s calligraphy, and then I put them away for safekeeping, not looking at them for months or years on end, and continue the real work of training and living.


13 thoughts on “99. The Paper Trail in Koryu Budo

  1. Hi Wayne,

    I just got one such origami certificate at the dojo this last Saturday.
    While I was admiring Kancho’s calligraphy, I was also thinking…I can’t read it! I took a photo ofit to show some shodo people I knew, but they also found it difficult. Maybe anyone outside our system would be impressed enough, but as an insider, I really feel embarrassed that I can’t fully read or understand the words. I’m trying to use this feeling to push myself towards greater understanding.

    I understand the gist, and the feelings behind them, and perhaps that is good enough. As you say the most important part is the training; that is where the true spirit of the ryu lives on.

    My Japanese could use a lot of improving, but I wonder: what about those who have no language abilities? What if I were to have students of my own one day, and be responsible for grading? What could I tell them about their own certificates? How much understanding do your students have of the words on their certificates?

    Kind regards,


    1. Hi Philip,
      I understand what you mean. It took me a while to figure out some of the certificates myself, but Kancho was helpful in giving me generalized summaries of what they meant, then I had to pull out the Kanji Dictionary for the details…It does get easier the longer you get brainwashed in the ryu, though! …As for language abilities…Kancho, when he gave me permission to be an official branch dojo, told me I could, if I wanted to, grade up to a certain degree, and since I could read Japanese, he said I could translate all the stuff (yikes!) into English, certificates, nyumon, mokoruku, etc., because of course, most of my students would probably not be able to read the Japanese or make sense of it. I’d have to create my own “traditional” ceretificates based on the original Japanese versions, thereby (sneaky guy, that one!) saving him the trouble. I have, however, differed the certificates to him, because it just feels more “right,” while I am slowly going through translating the various mokuroku for students to have when they are ready. The reverse situation popped up, however. I just got a new student who is going to do nyumon, and since her original language is Japanese, she asked for the Nyumon Tebiki in Japanese when she does the formal application. So the curious juxtapositions will never stop, I suppose.

      1. Hi Wayne,

        I was thinking of making a photo copy and bringing it to the dojo to ask others to help me out with it. Some of the kanji are really hard to make out.

        Haha! Seems like Kancho was using the ancient ninja art of delegation on you! I can understand about the feeling “right” thing I think. For me, not only does having a Japanese certificate feel more “authentic” per say, it is also makes me feel like I’m part of the larger family that uses Japanese. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable if my part of the paper trail looked different and couldn’t be read by the larger part of my family, even if carried with it the same message and authority.

        I’d love to get a gander at your English mokuroku someday! I’ve been working on my own over the years, with much help from Kazuki. SLOWLY is the keyword though! With over 600+ waza, it is hard to get everything down on paper. Hmm…Maybe you could also use Kancho’s sneaky delegation technique on your new bilingual student? Hint hint, nudge nudge.


  2. Wayne, great topic and article. This is the background stuff so many people don’t know about Koryu. It is my opinion very vital to understanding and discussing a Koryu.

    FWIW – If you have the chance, I think it would be a great blog if you could further expanded upon the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. The blog also maintaining the tone and writing style of those 2 paragraphs. Having a detailed, as you did, historical background and current cultural references neutralizes all that fabricated and romanticized history created by questionable people. Facts tend to discredit frauds and such.

    1. Jon,

      I cut short that train of thought because, yes, it would take another blog (or two) to delve into, and the main point of this blog was about the papers that accompany training in a koryu. But perhaps I’ll focus more on those points later?…


  3. What about a nice photographic copy of a makimono + printing on reasonable nice and durable paper? That would a one off work (the making of the photos and files) and a reasonable cost, and would look a lot better that a piece of word processed diploma! Just saying…

    1. The only thing I can think of is that it would kind of defeat the handmade quality of the makimono, and would kind of look cheesy compared to a nicely printed and designed diploma, perhaps…

      1. But but but it should look better than a A4 written in Word (which seems the alternative people might be getting because handmaking makimonos is such a pain)!

  4. Philip…(I am not sure why but I can’t post this reply right next to your last note, but anyways…)…One of the things that will drive you crazy is that some of the kanji are specific only to the ryu. Another one of those paranoid Jedi Mind Tricks that keep the secrets in-house so that evildoers can’t steal your scrolls and figure out the techniques from reading the kanji. Or, the kanji are read in a totally different way from how you would expect.

    The other night I showed my own students some menjo, mokuroku and makimono in order to explain to them what kinds of papers come with being in a koryu. And the Japanese student could read my makimono (she’s a pretty sharp lady, completely bilingual, with a Ph.D. in a field of medicine), even the really esoteric parts. So my gears started rolling and yep, I’m already figuring that she can do more translating work in the future. I’m at an age where you start to think like that…how can the students do this, or that, taking some of the burden off me, so I can sit in a corner and growl, like Dog Sensei.

  5. In my koryu the makimonos having technical instruction are a ceremonial symbolic gift, absent of any technical or other importance. Makimono is not to be confused with Japanese food. The wazas (so much easier to type than technique) on the makimonos are wazas taught openly in the ryu. No secret wazas inked on these scrolls. In fact, the way they are written in Japanese is difficult to read due to the scrolls being nothing more than sketchy outline notes of a handful of nondescript wazas.

    Allot of other ryus and senseis’ put allot of weight on scrolls influencing the Japanese martial arts community especially back in the 1980s during the samurai craze. As a result, the influence has been so great and strong it has impacted pop culture; popular cartoons, video games, and movies. I remember back in the late 80’s during the samurai crazy in martial arts, there where many dubious colorful “soke” promoting the importance of scrolls containing secret vital information. Such hokey scrolls where corruptly handed out right and left by them. In those days, most people receiving such a special xerox copy scroll didn’t know better. I say most as there where some who know better, yet further promoted the idea of scrolls having allot of weight.

    I can make an educated guess, legitimate ryu in Japan did place a great importance on scrolls and possible placed in them valuable information. It is isn’t a far fetched idea that such scrolls where only given to only a few advanced or special students in the ryu. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ryus who maintain the tradition. Unlike, the old days, our modern time is a time of mass distribution and replication of information readily accessible to anyone and everyone. I would not be surprised that any ryu still having scrolls with secret information on them isn’t by now accessible to anyone who puts the effort into finding it.

    I think my ryu has understood the current times. It is a laborious task to ink out scrolls by hand in detail in modern life. The demands of modern life make it difficult to sit for hours ink out a scroll without error. And unlike the past, information is easily accessible, reproducible and distributable. Scrolls have lost their purpose and utility in modern times. For our ryu they are a ceremonious symbolic object given on occasion for reason not originally intended. The method they do now to keep secrets is in the teaching.

  6. You miss out the most important aspect of gradings and the resulting certification. That is, they are a way for many teachers to generate a lot of income in a very short period of time! I only know of one teacher who consistently refuses to charge for gradings or the certificates he may give.

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