I wrote this for my own students, and I hope this will clarify some differences. Again, I am aiming not to slight one system over another, but to point out the differences:
As you, my dear students, are rising up in rank, there are some things that you should be aware of that are outside of the actual techniques of the martial arts that we study.
One of the things you should (by now) realize is that koryu is not the same as modern budo, or what Donn Draeger and other writers call “shinbudo” (“new” budo). Certainly this shows up in technical matters. But it also affects how things are organized.
Organizationally, the characteristics of a shinbudo can be listed as (and I will admit to overgeneralizing):
–It is run by an umbrella organization, a –kai, or renmei. For example, modern iaido in Japan is separated into several renmei, the largest of which is tied to the All Japan Kendo Federation. The Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei has a section for iaido where the seitei iai forms are used for ranking purposes. In aikido, the Aikikai (honbu) is the largest organization, headed by the lineal descendant of aikido’s founder. There can be other aikido organizations run by other heads, such as Yoshinkan aikido, Ki Society, etc.
–Such large organizations rank members based on tests, or shinsa. It’s inevitable that if an organization gets so large that there are hundreds or even thousands of members worldwide, the head of the organization will probably not know the abilities of each and every one of his followers. So a board of teachers will test students for ranking promotions regularly, based on accepted criteria.
–There are no real emphasis on cultural/literary/philosophical content. Ranking criteria are by and large focused primarily on technical and physical ability.
–Mavericks happen in instances, such as when a high level practitioner decides for some organizational, political or personal reason that the group he belongs to no longer is appropriate. Hence, someone can go off and start his/her own judo, aikido, or karate club, with or without the consent of his teacher, and it will still be called judo, aikido or karate. He can become his own teacher, with his own ranking system and method of remuneration for ranking. He can even claim a higher rank for himself based on his own self-assessment.
Compared to this shortened list (and I’m not even talking about methodology or technique), koryu are like jumping down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole and finding that things are quite askew.
There are notable exceptions, and not all koryu reject all of the above organizational characteristics. Some koryu have moved into the modern era, they have actually taken on some of the characteristics out of sheer necessity. For example, within our own koryu, we apply the dan-kyu colored belt ranking alongside the traditional mokuroku ranking.
Modern iai groups that do koryu, such as the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Hoki-ryu groups we are aligning ourselves with, belong to a modern budo organization. Hence, they have a series of modern iai kata to be performed at promotion tests run by a board of senior teachers. So you do have koryu fitting into modern organization-type testing. Nevertheless, the content of their koryu iai remain distinctly koryu.
But within our main koryu, Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu, very traditional organizational aspects remain.
First, we don’t have an organization like modern budo, with a board of examiners. We have a pyramidal structure in which the headmaster, the inheritor of the tradition, is the sole arbiter of ranking and promotion. The soke (head, or protector of the house) is the head of everything. As a senior teacher, he has given me permission to grade my own students up to a certain rank, but it is based on his discretion and permission, not from a board of directors or examining body. Other teachers are also given various levels of permission, but they are all based on his decisions alone.
Comparatively speaking, koryu are really small in numbers, so there used to be no need for cattle-call shinsa tests. Ono sensei once told me, “I see you training all the time. If I didn’t know your abilities and had to test you, then I’m a lousy teacher because that means I couldn’t assess your skills simply from seeing you all the time.”
Embu, such as at the Ryusosai or at year’s end, are the closest we get to a “test,” but it’s more of a display of your skills which we are already cognizant of. You do embu to rise up to the level we expect of you.
As any koryu grows in numbers, I wonder how it will address this issue. Once you go beyond a certain number of students, testing may be necessary because such intimate awareness of each and every student by the ranking senior teachers may be lost, so testing may be inevitable with the growth in enrollment.
I was once in a different koryu that also didn’t do shinsa. After training for several months with a teacher from Japan who frequented Hawaii quite a bit, we lined up one day and then the teacher announced that each of us had obtained a certain kyu ranking. No testing happened. He just said, “Okay, you got ikkyu. You got sankyu. You and you got nikyu. Now go back to training.”
It was no big deal. Perhaps if we had been ready for a “real” jump, to sho-mokuroku (the first level of “mastery”; like a black belt), then there might have been more pomp and circumstances. But for that sensei, the training was more important. Ranking was not an end in itself. It was simply a marker of your training level.
In a koryu, physical and technical capabilities are of course important. But as one continues on in training, it is imperative that the student learns the lore, concepts, and mental framework of what is also contained in a koryu. A koryu is a compilation not just of techniques, but of a particular tradition, of a history of a system. What does that have to do with “martial arts self-defense”? Perhaps not much. Perhaps everything. (The argument pro and con can take up a whole other article.)
Where did your art come from? How was it developed? What are its principles, its theoretical underpinnings, its literature and its sayings?
Perhaps a modern practitioner may say that much of that stuff is irrelevant. For example, what relevance does learning kogusoku (short sword) as if done in full yoroi (samurai armor) have for “street fighting”? Perhaps none. But when I put armor on for the first time, I realized how the constrictions and weight of it matched that of contemporary body armor and gear carried by modern US military personnel. Learning to fight in full gear with close quarter grappling and bladed weapons are extremely similar to kogusoku methods, and are vastly different from what is taught in most modern budo, MMA or other relatively modern martial arts. So detractors shouldn’t cast out the “baby with the bathwater,” so to speak. The koryu were developed to retain lessons learned from actual combat, passed on generation after generation. The technology of warfare may have changed drastically. But when it comes to close quarter combat, not much really changes over time.
There are no “mavericks” in koryu. Certainly, there is a caveat for this statement. Some koryu have foregone a soke system. The Muso Shinden-ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu have been allied with modern iaido organizations for so long, and have become so popular, that there are many iterations of them, many different teachers teaching different variations, and several different modern organizations that contain their styles. You can even see the techniques, all the way to the okuden level, in books and on Internet videos. Technically, all the kata are publicized and relatively easy to access. So those koryu have long ago escaped containment, so to speak, and “gone wild.”
However, with very old koryu that are still not allied to a modern organization, you cannot go off and “do your own thing.” If I were to break with my teacher in Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu and teach my own version of it, I wouldn’t be teaching Takeuchi-ryu, period. There is no variation. I need permission to teach it, and if I stray from the fold, I cannot teach even a similar method and call it such.
To overgeneralize, a modern budo tends to be an “ organization,” with a structure much like a corporate or business entity. A koryu tends to be organized more like a family structure, with a “head” of the household tending his children, who will always be part of the family even if they go off and start their own dojo. They will still carry on the family name.
This may seem like I’m dissing modern budo systems. Well, I tend to prefer small and personal interactions over large and impersonal. But modern budo were organized differently because they had to address a different situation. Modern budo has organizations with members in the hundreds and thousands. A headmaster can’t possibly know each and every person’s abilities and grade them based on such intimate knowledge. Ranking based on a board of examiners will also be perceived as less arbitrary and biased. So much of the way modern budo groups are organized is based on necessity of running a large organization.
A successful koryu can be said to have perhaps thirty or forty people worldwide. The head teacher and a few of his designated senior members can thus rank members they know quite intimately in such a small group, but it is true that in a worst case scenario, favoritism and bias may enter in and color the ranking. And if you are dissatisfied with your teacher, you can’t very well pack up and join another organization. There are many different karate leagues, organizations and styles you can affiliate yourself. Or you can go independent and form your own organization. In a koryu like Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu, there is only one group. If you don’t like how things are done, there are not a lot of other alternatives to choose from other than to leave and not do it anymore.
So therefore, you have very different organizational scenarios between modern budo, very old koryu, and a kind of gray area in between when some koryu have become part of a larger modern-ish organization.
Is a particular characteristic of a koryu or modern budo good? Is it bad? Organizationally, I’m just saying these are the characteristics, and you need to be cognizant of them and deal with them as they are.