Saturday, 12 September 2015

Koryu – Legacies of Learning (by Colin Jowett)

Following Jules Robson and Filip Maric would be a hard ask on a good day.  Let alone being asked to write a follow up piece on Koryu – something that both of the aforementioned gentlemen have a deep passion for, and understanding of. Nevertheless, I foolishly said yes – so here we go.

I’ve been studying Aikido for a little over 15 years now – at least that was the first time I put on a Keikogi.  I’ve had a bit of a hit and miss relationship with my chosen art over the years but I’ve probably been studying in earnest for the last 8 years – give or take.I am also fortunate enough to have somehow stumbled across a Koryu Kenjutsu art along the way.  I first picked up a sword in earnest under the auspices of Kashima Shin-ryu (KSR)  at a small dojo in a renovated church in North London called ‘Moving East’ in the early 00’s (naughties).  I freely admit to not having stayed long at that particular dojo (though not for want of trying), but sometimes life does that to you and things half touched upon somehow find you later. So it is that I have now been fortunate enough to continue my studies in KSR at the Jikishin Dojo Auckland that coincidentally follows the same instruction as Moving East in London, that is, the Kashima-no-Tachi taught by Inaba Minoru Sensei, the former director of the Shiseikan Budojo in Meiji Jingu Tokyo, and his students and successors. 

Studying a Koryu is an interesting and humbling affair.  KSR is one of the oldest recognised Sogo Bujutsu schools of Japan and, by dint of the unusual nature of Japanese culture, the World.  Without getting too much into the history of KSR, it is probably 500 years old (exact records get sketchy after several hundred years as you can imagine), and is attached to one of two very important symbolic shrines in Japan – the Kashima Shrine. 
It is sobering then to think, when I lift my sword and face off with my opponent, that generations of able bodied students have stood, like me, facing off in exactly the same manner, with exactly the same problems, and exactly the same conundrums to solve under the auspices of a series of well-defined kata, and series of kata.  None of us had a clue what we were doing when we first picked up a sword.  What became of those men?  What victories and tragedies befell them during those troublesome times?  What horrors?  What steel of the soul did they have to find on a battlefield, that I hopefully never will have to find, that enables me to stand in their well-worn shoes and try to do their honour and memories justice?

This is one of the biggest lessons in Koryu, and the study of Koryu, in my mind.  It is a living testimony and testament to the victories won, and the lives lost, over the course of 21 generations of earnest dedication and practice.  Which is not to say that we cannot still enjoy ourselves despite such sober reflections. 

I was recently at the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-kai seminar given by Toby Threadgill, the current menkyo kaiden holding headmaster, hosted by Alan Roberts at the Auckland Aikido Seishinkan Dojo.  I had a chance to get hold of Threadgill Sensei’s ear and had a brief but enlightening chat about Koryu.  As he says, there is an honest requirement for all of us who study any Koryu art to ensure that it remains alive, that it does not lose any of its skills, and that we are, in essence, a historical preservation society, dedicated to keeping all the techniques, principles, fundamentals, and ideas that are embodied in the Koryu alive in an unbroken chain.  Evolution and change is not permitted – otherwise the history and legacy of the kata are lost, to be replaced with something different, something personal to the existing Soke or headmaster, but which may not be Koryu – certainly not by the same name.

And it is certainly true that a lot have already disappeared into the annals of legend, and sadly, more are likely to follow.  Moreover, any martial art form once gone can never be returned.  Scrolls, drawings and, if you are lucky, photographs, can only tell you so much and most of it is limited. 

I am keenly interested in the modern resurgence of European battlefield martial arts – but without a line of direct transmission I fear that the attempts to recover it are well intentioned ‘historical re-enactments’ at best, and  at worst, potentially disastrous attempts to apply modern logic to an historic setting.  Not that I am saying that the effort is not worth the try – it most certainly is – but that I hope it finds its feet under the direction of people with the understanding and respect that can do it justice.

As Filip mentioned in his previous post, you can visit and browse through the list of old Japanese Koryu and read about many old and esoteric weapons and techniques – or get on YouTube and watch strange, even bizarre, demonstrations of some of these Koryu by their current students and masters.

But, I hear you ask – what is the point?  And it is a fair question.  I was also recently fortunate enough to attend a small, private insight-class of another Koryu art, Toda ha Buko  ryu at Jikishin Dojo Auckland, with Diane Lovrin, one of Liam Keeley Shihan's most senior students in the art from Melbourne.  As she aptly put it, these are battlefield arts derived from the application of practical physical confrontation on the battlefield.  It will not help you as a self-defence class.  Knowing how to use a 2.5m long naginata isn’t going to help you much outside of mediaeval Japan.  

Diane Lovrin, Toda ha Buko ryu, kusari-gama vs naginata practice
at Koryu Kenkyukai Melbourne, AUS

Even in Aikido, we still reference the age-old Japanese weapons of the sword and the staff.  Albeit you might be attacked by someone wielding a stick (somewhat akin to a staff), it is unlikely that I will be attacked in Auckland by someone using a sword, or indeed use one myself.  In addition, once you get into the Koryu, you start finding more and more diverse battlefield weaponry – naginata, nodachi, kusarigama, yari and so on.  None of which are likely to end up being put to use in a street brawl on a Saturday night.

But history, as they say, is written by the victor.  These classical arts, carried on faithfully for several generations, are lessons in how victory was achieved, or more importantly, how defeat was avoided, in the raw and horrific battle to survive using sharp steel and muscle.  In the argument over what is effective and what isn’t – you need not look any further.  As Threadgill Sensei remarked during his seminar – the samurai (read warrior class) did not waste time.  If they could draw a sword and cut their opponent at the same time – they would.  Speed and efficiency are the key to victory on the battlefield – not complicated flowery techniques – especially if you are trying to trudge through a muddy battlefield wearing armour weighing up to 30kg.

Likewise, in KSR, one of the main foundational principles is ‘offence and defence as one’ – embodied by the idea that you can defend an attack and strike your opponent a fatal blow at the same time.  Furthermore, after 21 generations of trying, these schools of learning have developed techniques for teaching that are also efficient and waste-less.  In classical Japan, students simply did not have the time to spend 5+ years learning a martial art before getting on the battlefield.  Yes, of course they also started training when they were kids, but they also found themselves on the battlefield at an age that we would not even let our kids vote today!  I note the very recent discovery of an ancient battlefield burial site with bones belonging to kids as young as 13 or 14 – presumably conscripted pages of sorts, but killed in battle nonetheless.  So, these schools had to devise ways to keep their students alive long enough to understand what the key principles of a martial art were –and so through their kata was the key to this dissemination of knowledge.

When Morihei Ueshiba developed Aikido, it was a distillation of many Koryu ideas and themes that he wedged together under a single art form, predicated on his Shinto (Omoto kyo) based cosmological and philosophical beliefs on lessening harm.  You are less likely to find this noble idea in Koryu – Koryu are bloody by nature – red in tooth and claw as they say.  Killing was preferred, maiming was just as good – wounding, or sparing was largely considered too dangerous on the battlefield. 

However, watching Sensei Threadgill (or better yet training with him), is enlightening in as much for the similarities of his 400 year old art form to modern Aikido, as for the possible minor technical differences.  In studying and understanding the Koryu schools, the common lessons, principles, and applications speak volumes for the roots of all martial arts.

It heartens me then that I get the dual benefit of studying a Koryu art – I get the benefit of this condensed, very efficient, very skill orientated teaching method devised over hundreds of years, plus the added benefit of seeing how my modern martial art, Aikido, came to be, and the history behind its techniques and movements.

Finally, in Aikido, we are lucky because we are not constrained by a rigid set of rules and formalised kata and lineage.  As a modern art form, it is evolving, is capable of evolving, and is allowed to evolve such that we can continue to seek modern application and relevance, albeit it framed by, or supported by, the history of the Koryu that Morihei Ueshiba studied and condensed to create his art.  Indeed Morihei Ueshiba himself stated that it was his wish that Aikido would continue to evolve, and should continue to evolve based on these ideas.  Evolution, of course, must be guided with care lest we find ourselves losing that which is important and emphasising that which is less important – but that is a story for another time and place.

Hope to train with you sometime soon!