The Classical Japanese Martial Arts in the West:

by Dave Lowry

It is, almost undeniably, a fundamental aspect of the American character to be more or less constantly in search of something better. We seem to have almost a genetically predisposed desire for something different, something out of the ordinary. We are, to put it less charitably, perhaps, easily bored.

In a more idealistic light, we must acknowledge that such a cultural restlessness sparked our Manifest Destiny, beginning with the arrival of the Puritans to Massachusetts Bay and, most recently, with men walking on the moon. Ours is an approach to life that has influenced the behavior of Americans in matters as great as the way in which we started and continue to build a nation, as comparatively minor as the kind of martial disciplines of Japan that have interested us over the years. The grass, putting it simply, has always been greener on the other side of the hill.

In the case of those martial arts in this country, if we trace their presence here back far enough, we can see that the problem has been that there just weren’t all that many hills, green or otherwise, around. In the Fifties, judo was utterly exotic. Outside of some Japanese-American enclaves, it was little known and less practiced and taught. And even in such ethnic communities, karate was so rare that when it was publicly demonstrated in Hawaii in 1927, the event occasioned an article in a Honolulu newspaper.

Within a decade, that changed. In the Sixties, karate became commonplace. By the latter half of that decade most cities had several dojo or “studios” or YMCAs that were offering instruction in the art. In the Seventies, the green meadows available for grazing in the martial arts became even more numerous and varied. Kung-fu was added as were several other combative arts from various parts of Asia. Most of them were more attractive (because they were “newer” and more exotic, primarily) alternatives to karate and judo that had become, by then, pedestrian.

To meet the grazing appetites of the interested public, there was also no shortage of arts that were more or less concocted, e.g., “ninjutsu,” created out of folklore or ambitious fictions. In the Eighties, this continued, and martial arts enthusiasts found themselves with a smorgasbord of sorts, of silat, muay thai, savate, and a host of other disciplines.

The Bujutsu Fad?

In light of all this searching for something new, not to mention the entrepreneurial instincts to feed the search, it should hardly be surprising that the decade of the Nineties would find attention being directed at still another fertile field of combative arts. It has been. The decade of the Nineties has seen a new pasture open up in the bujutsu, the classical martial skills of the feudal period in Japan, circa 1400-1867.

The bujutsu, also referred to as the koryu (literally it means the “old” or “ancient traditions”) offer a lot of attractions to the enthusiast in search of pastures more lush. Among the obvious reasons why Westerners in the 20th century might be drawn to arts that were meant for Japanese of the warrior class centuries ago would be:

  • Venerability. Despite our 20th century appetite for all that is new or faddish, a sizable number of us have a respect for the merits of age. Anything as ancient as the koryu, the reasoning follows, must have some value.
  • Romanticism. Popular novels and movies have glamorized “samurai swordsmanship” to levels best described as “swashbuckling.” The samurai himself, a warrior who dressed in fine silks and pursued poetry and the tea ceremony, who made a life of blood and beauty; these are images that are tremendously appealing to many people. Look at the popularity of groups that “recreate” medieval culture and stage mock battles and jousts and such. Add the supposed mysticism of “The East,” and you can see where arts like the bujutsu would fascinate so. A lack of reliable information placing these arts in a realistic historical context has left a gap that romantics have been free to fill in with their own notions of chivalry, derring-do, and so on.
  • Elitism. The rarity of the koryu provides an attraction for many of those individuals who enjoy standing out from the crowd or at least who appreciate not following along with it. There may be three or four “karate black belts” on the average block in most cities in the US. But how many “master swordsmen” or “modern samurai” are there?
  • Efficacy. Since these arts have a battlefield provenance, there is the assumption that the koryu contain many “secrets” and particularly lethal techniques that make them more effective in modern civilian self-defense situations.
  • Integrity. Anyone even tangentially involved with the average budo organization devoted to aikido, judo, karate, or some other martial Way has been exposed to mendacity, avarice, and managerial incompetence on a truly grandiose level. The koryu are (incorrectly) perceived as being above the organizational squabbles, the preoccupation with ranks, and the endless quest for more power and money that appear to compromise and infect the philosophy and goals of the modern and popular budo forms.

These, generally, are the views Westerner enthusiasts who are well-read (and books are almost the only remotely reliable source from which they might gather information, since non-Japanese with advanced experience in the koryu are so rare) have of the classical bujutsu. Very briefly, the koryu bujutsu might be more objectively defined as those combative forms directly or indirectly of a battlefield nature, that were the exclusive domain of the professional man-at-arms in premodern Japan. They date, as noted above, from approximately the 15th to 17th centuries. They are distinguished from the 20th century budo forms (and bear in mind that the appellations of “bujutsu” and “budo” are extremely arbitrary, more for general distinctions than as an exact definition) in several ways.

The bujutsu are:

–intended for implementation by a professional (feudal era) military class rather than for a general population.

–far less influenced by Zen Buddhism than later forms of budo. The spiritual underpinnings of the koryu tend to be those of mikkyo, a form of esoteric Buddhism.

–invariably and without exception organized under the aegis of the ryu, a feudal institution of old Japan with pedagogical, political, and cultural aspects that are completely different from modern commercial enterprises.

–obviously completely bereft of a sporting element, contests, or the kyu/dan ranking systems that are central to budo forms.

Undeniably, the koryu are appealing to a Western audience. At the risk of drawing my analogy about greener pastures out too far, however, those audiences would do well to remember that the color of a meadow may not be a positive indication that the grass there is palatable, that it is nutritious, or that it is even healthy for those who want to consume it. Several Westerners have gone to Japan to investigate the koryu. Some have gained admission to these classical ryu. A few have pursued them at such an intense and protracted level they have attained a thorough understanding of these arts. A very few have been granted permission to teach either part or all of the curriculum of the ryu to which they belong. (As we shall see, this permission is absolutely crucial if the ryu is to remain viable; one never undertakes to teach a koryu without the explicit permission, often in writing, of a qualified teacher.)

Nearly all of these individuals followed the trail blazed in the mid-Sixties in Japan by the late Donn Draeger. Draeger, a former Marine officer, took a scholarly and a participatory interest in the martial Ways that were being practiced in postwar Japan. His activity eventually led him into the koryu. Not only did Draeger’s expertise impress several Japanese koryu experts enough for them to allow other foreigners to enter their ryu, he enthusiastically supported the education of many young foreign adepts living and training in Japan during the Sixties and Seventies.

We must bear in mind here, not incidentally, that the numbers of Western koryu participants about which we’re speaking here were at that time and still are minuscule compared to the thousands of foreigners studying the modern budo in Japan. A generous estimate of the non-Japanese who have had serious instruction in the koryu would be no more than a few dozen. Their interests and experiences tend to create a certain cliquishness. They know or know of one another in a way completely unfamiliar to the large and largely anonymous groups involved in the budo. This is important to consider since those koryu exponents claiming to be legitimate but who are unknown to this fraternity of practitioners are apt to be regarded by the latter with considerable suspicion.

Denial Ain’t just a River in Egypt

In contrast to this group of foreign practitioners of koryu are those persons interested in these arts who have attempted to involve themselves in the bujutsu in different ways. There are many such people. There are, in fact, enough of them to create quite a market for the classical martial arts and as with any appetite, there have been those who are eager to satisfy, to present a product. As a result, there are many, many individuals in the West who have been led to believe they are learning the skills of this koryu or that. They are, more accurately, being misled into believing. Fraud and deception involving the classical bujutsu have become a sad and reprehensible aspect of the martial arts scene in this country. Not so despicable but equally regrettable has been the amount of confusion and misinformation that has characterized Western perceptions of these martial traditions.

The problems encountered by the would-be bugeisha, the practitioner of the bujutsu, are varied. At one end of the scale are those students learning a legitimate system of feudal-era combat but who are doing so under a “teacher” who does not have the permission of a teacher before him that grants him license to transmit the system. (Also found at this range of the spectrum is at least one case where a teacher has actually been given official permission to teach more for political or sentimental reasons than for technical proficiency and who is simply incompetent as an instructor.) At the other extreme are charlatans who have actually created their own systems, passing them off with faked lineages and other false provenances. All these problems share a common source. All may be traced back to some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of the bujutsu and the koryu that have sustained and nurtured them.

The Koryu

The ryu itself is something of a mystery to the modern world. It is a wholly feudalistic institution. Its history is fascinating. As with any organized combat, the kind of hardship in battle faced by the samurai in old Japan required a virtually inviolable cohesion between individual warriors in order to create an effective, functioning unit. In no small part, the martial ryu served to establish this connection. Loyalty, identification with the group, a willingness to place the goals of that group above one’s own goals (specifically the goal of self-preservation); these qualities were as crucial to the maintenance and survival of a combative ryu as was the transmission of technical skill. Consequently, the ryu can be understood in terms of being a “family” as much as it was as a school or a distinctive tradition.

It was and is quite different from a modern commercial budo dojo, in at least three important ways:

One: in the koryu there are no “champions.” The karate school may feature one or two stars who shine at the competitions (and who often use others in their school as little more than sparring partners). But the koryu is, on the proving grounds of the battlefield, only as strong as the weakest link in its membership. There is a sense of responsibility among members, then, for everyone’s development.

In this sense, the koryu are not nearly so egocentric as are the modern budo. If today’s budo dojo really wanted to do things “the samurai way” as they often imagine or advertise, they could begin in this fashion: at the next tournament, every competitor representing the school should give up his trophies unless the majority of his dojo-mates have won their matches as well. After all, on the battlefield, where the real samurai way was in effect, individual accomplishment is relatively meaningless unless the whole group succeeds.

Secondly, the ryu depends upon a pedagogical method very different from the way judo, aikido, and karate are taught today. The modern budo exponent follows a standardized form in his training. He is forced to make numerous concessions to learning in a large class. With forty or fifty students, it may be months before the student of karate or aikido, for instance, can expect any individual attention from the teacher. (One wellknown aikido instructor in this country has clearly explained in interviews that not all the people practicing at his dojo are his students. Only after they have persevered in their training sufficiently to have advanced to a particular degree of skill does he consider them actually his.)

The koryu exponent follows a set form as well in his training, learning kata or techniques in a loosely prescribed order. But his teacher, by the very nature of the ryu, confines his teaching to within a small group. From the beginning of his learning, the koryu student receives very individualized tuition. An epigram of the koryu explains it this way: “Ten different students; ten different arts.” The teacher adapts to the student.

Sometimes, in those koryu that have curriculum involving more than a single weapon, one student may begin learning one weapon while another beginning at the same time will be taught to use another one. This virtually private instruction means that the koryu sensei can take into account differences in the physique, temperament, and background of his students and can teach them accordingly. All will, if they continue their practice, end up learning the same things. They won’t learn them, however, at the same time or in the same way. This individualized teaching is nearly impossible in a budo dojo with dozens and dozens of members who must, logistically, be taught all the same.

Most importantly, however, the individual koryu exists as a distinct social group. It is, as noted above, much like a family. This implies a limited availability to outsiders, much as your own family has a limited flexibility, if it is to remain a distinct family unit, for accepting outsiders.

Consider this: aside from being born or adopted into it, one enters your family only through marriage. Think about how protracted this latter process is. How long does it take before your spouse or brother- or sister-in-law is fully integrated into your family? How long before they learn all the family nicknames, family stories; learn which cabinets hold the dishes at your house, or how to best handle Uncle Harry when he gets drunk and starts telling off-color tales about his wartime visits to brothels in Manila? It is a long process, one that cannot be hurried. There are no shortcuts to being absorbed by a family, becoming a part of a small group like that. And most of us have had the experiences, in our own families, of those who try to enter but just can’t. Because of their personality or because of the nature of the family itself, some outsiders never do entirely “fit in.” You can’t have a “seminar” to teach these people what they need to know, how they need to behave to be accepted. You cannot force someone to fit into your family if they do not.

This analogy is entirely apt in describing the typical koryu. Their structure makes them unsuitable for access to large numbers of outsiders. There was a movie some years ago, perhaps you have seen it on cable or video, titled “The Challenge.” It starred Toshiro Mifune and the actor Scott Glen, and it contained scenes of group training at what was supposed to be a koryu school. Pairs of practice partners in the movie neatly lined up and simultaneously went through choreographed movements. This may be the way those who have never visited one might believe a koryu group is run.

But to those who have visited or trained in a real koryu, these scenes rang particularly false. Mass instruction has never been a feature of these arts and cannot be. It takes years to instruct and impart all the technique and lore and history of a koryu to a single student. It is a considerable investment in time, rather like a master-apprentice relationship more than it resembles the teacher at the head of the class model that we have for education in modern times. It is as well an extremely close relationship and the personality of the sensei will, without a doubt, profoundly affect the character of his students. This is a relationship that can only develop properly by a near-daily interaction between teacher and student, in training and in other activities.

Once a person has this basic knowledge of the “family” nature of a legitimate koryu and can see how its individualized instruction further limits participation, can see how long and how close the process is to inculcate a person into the ryu, the methods typifying the fake koryu will seem quite inappropriate, to say the least. Can you understand the derision that meets announcements of “seminars” open to all who pay their fees, that propose to teach a classical martial art?

Commercialism of the Koryu?

The whole subject of commercialism in the koryu is another one that is difficult to grasp for us in the 20th Century, with our mercantile-based societies. When it comes up, those who claim to be teaching a classical system in return for the remuneration found in a commercial-type school invariably point to a single episode in the history of the martial arts to justify their actions. They cite the case of Ueshiba Morihei, aikido’s founder, who paid a specific sum for specific techniques taught him by his sometimes-mentor, Takeda Sokaku, a teacher of the Daito-ryu. This is a non sequitur because: a) Ueshiba was not even born until after the end of Japan’s feudal period; he was a modern martial artist, not a classical one; b) the Daito-ryu does not meet the standards of a koryu in the strictest parlance, and c) Takeda Sokaku can hardly be considered a typical teacher in the koryu tradition.

Historically, payment for instruction in a koryu was largely moot. The ryu would have been financially maintained by a clan or a daimyo (warlord/clan leader) to which its headmaster belonged. The headmaster may have had other, administrative duties to perform in addition to his responsibilities for teaching the martial arts. Other bujutsu masters were retained under the auspices of a Buddhist temple that served as the spiritual home of that particular ryu. Today, almost no one in Japan makes a living teaching a legitimate koryu. It is an avocation. Training fees or dojo dues are minimal. They are usually used for the upkeep of the training facilities. Anyone claiming to be teaching a classical bujutsu who is charging exorbitant fees ought to be subject to the most careful scrutiny. Of the roughly one-half dozen authorities I know of who are instructing some sort of koryu system in the US, none is charging for their teaching or making a profit on the arrangement.

Koryu and Its Place in Japanese Society

Another aspect of the historical koryu that causes misunderstanding concerns their place in Japanese society. More than one ersatz “classical martial arts ryu” being sold in this country attempts to explain its lineage as a sub rosa system that escaped the attention, deliberately or inadvertently, of researchers who have extensively catalogued Japanese martial ryu, both extant and extinct. Not long ago, I was sent a hugely entertaining collection of letters between a bujutsu researcher in Japan and a senior student of a supposed koryu practiced exclusively here in the United States. The researcher was inquiring about the history of the ryu. The senior student had all kinds of the most outrageous explanations for this ryu’s having had failed to catch the attention of every serious martial arts researcher in the world. The ryu’s lineage had been left out of this or that book by accident, he first said. The headmasters of the ryu were forced into living anonymously after the Second World War as the result of anti-martial arts policies during the Occupation, was a later claim. It went on and on and the researcher calmly and logically refuted each of these tales.

True, he said, the books did leave out some ryu accidentally. But it is unlikely that every dictionary of Japanese koryu would leave out the same ryu by making the same error. And why weren’t other koryu masters forced to live underground and conceal their ryu? The exchange finally ended when the senior student was driven to suggest that all history is subjective and that none of the histories of the various koryu are at all dependable for scholarship. Such a position is quite close, intellectually, to those who insist the Holocaust never happened and one hardly knows whether to continue to try to reason with them or merely pity them in their sad delusions.

The “secret ryu” is a convenient story in explaining away any lack of outside historical documentation or a provenance that can be independently verified. But the truth is, it’s a story that, in terms of the koryu, doesn’t have much credibility. Remember this one fact: the martial ryu in feudal Japan was a political unit. The ryu existed to further the interests of a clan or a daimyo. An “underground ryu” would have been as viable and as effective as an underground political party in a democracy. Can you imagine trying to persuade voters to support your platform but concealing from them at the same time the fact that your party exists? No. Sooner or later, for the party to be effective, its presence must be made known. A ryu was not much different during the feudal era (although of course, today it may be: very, very few Japanese are even aware of the koryu). Certainly all bujutsu ryu had their secrets. But secret ryu? Not in Japan.

If not exactly secret, other impostors claim, their ryu are simply so obscure they have been overlooked by numerous and expert martial arts researchers and historians. This is an interesting claim–not because it’s true; almost invariably it is not–but because it reveals how one culture (ours, in this case) can unknowingly transpose its own history and social customs on another (in this instance, that of Japan).

Misunderstood Contexts

America is a large country. A very large one. It has always been a country that allowed, in comparison with the rest of the world, an equally enormous freedom in the personal lives of its citizens. Daniel Boone didn’t have to consult with any authority or government agency when he left Pennsylvania to go to the far frontier of Kentucky. He took off the same way you might take off to go on a holiday this weekend. Neither you nor he had to get permission for travel or tell authorities where you are going and when you are expected to return.

Boone didn’t have to fill out any documents or carry any official papers with him. Record keeping of such movements are, to the frustration of many a genealogist, scarce. If I told you my ancestors began a pottery tradition 230 years ago in northern Georgia and I am doing the same kind of pottery today in my home in Oregon, you would have little evidence to dispute my story should you choose to do so. How would you do it? You might ask if there was any mention of my ancestor’s occupation as potters back in colonial Georgia in old census records. But I could say, nope; they lived way back in the woods of Appalachia where census-takers never made it.

They never were required to “register” their trade, nor did they have to have any documentation of their eventual migration to Oregon.

In short, my story is perfectly believable in the context of American history and culture. A Japanese claiming a similar kind of artistic past, however, could not falsely do so any longer than it would take an interested party to check voluminous and extensive records that are easily and publicly available in Japan.

Japan is a small country. It has almost always been sedentary in terms of population. And because of the control of the daimyo over virtually the entire country, there were records kept on nearly every person in the domains of those leaders. It would likely be possible, if I were a Japanese with ancestral roots in the art of pottery, to establish the nature of my predecessors’ ceramics inventory in any given year, to discover exactly where their kilns were located, and certainly to learn if they had relocated to another part of the country; these would in most cases be easy facts to uncover. There would be notations of these in provincial and local records.

This is much the same situation as can be found among martial arts practitioners in Japan. The information available to martial arts researchers and scholars is staggering. If there is any problem in reconstructing the histories of the various koryu it is often that there is too much information. It requires some patience to sift through it all. With a little digging, it is possible to discover not just the basic facts about the thousands of koryu that have existed, but their lineages, complete or nearly so, as well as all sorts of quotidian details about the lives and activities of past masters. It is possible that a koryu could have slipped through such a tight and far-flung net of information. But if a potential student of such a tradition is considering joining it as it is taught in this country, he must be willing to bet on two remarkably unlikely occurrences. He must believe that such a ryu has passed through undetected that tight web of historical scrutiny and research. He must also believe that an American was able to enter and to master such an obscure system and now professes legitimately to teach a ryu that the Japanese have never heard of.

I don’t want to overstate the situation here. It is possible for an art to have thrived in obscurity, growing in such deep shadows that all the other practitioners of related arts remain unaware of its existence. And records in Japan have been subject to a world war that destroyed all kinds of documents. But let us summarize the whole subject of secret or rare koryu allegedly being taught in this country. The tales surrounding these systems are undeniably appealing. They evoke romantic and exciting scenes of a mountain fastness populated by wizened masters of mayhem passing deep and deadly secrets along to loyal acolytes. Look, though, at the historical facts. A daimyo ruled his lands through taxation of his subjects. He worried constantly about insurrections or clandestine political foment. Does it seem plausible he would be unaware of a clan of those hidden masters living on his property, his land, without paying taxes? Would he allow them to be secretly practicing and promoting a fighting art that could, in all likelihood be used against his own samurai if he permitted it to continue?

Daimyo usually ascended to power and they almost always remained there, by controlling things. The roads, the waterways, the people under their rule. And it’s not as though there was a vast frontier there to where their authority did not extend. Punishments were strict and harsh for even the mildest threats to their rule. I don’t know about you, but I’d have some serious questions about any stories of a “secret” martial ryu that could have survived under those conditions.

Transmission of the Koryu

The way in which a koryu is maintained and passed on is still another source of misunderstanding for the Western enthusiast of the classical Japanese martial disciplines. The bujutsu of Japan share an internal structure almost identical to those of ryu devoted to the art of flower arranging (ikebana), the tea ceremony (chado), and other arts of the feudal period. The structure is called the iemoto system.

Have you ever thought about who actually “owns” a martial art? There are copyright laws that enjoin you from using the tide Japan Karate Association, true. But you cannot be punished through our legal system by teaching all the kata and other methods of the JKA, even if you learned them by watching some videos and never had the blessing of the JKA at all. The same is true for various schools of aikido or any of the Japanese budo.

A classical martial ryu, though, was actually owned, in a sense. It was the property, literally, of its originator or of his descendants. The founder, or iemoto, designated his successor, who became the next headmaster or “owner” of the system. The line of succession was usually a familial one, father to eldest son. On occasion adoption might have been necessary to carry on the lineage. Other ryu were passed down to a trusted disciple outside the family. The salient point for our purposes of understanding this iemoto system is that the responsibility, the privilege of teaching or transmitting a koryu was and still is rather tightly controlled. It is entirely different from a modern budo like karate-do, where anyone at any time is free to begin teaching.

Different koryu that still exist today take different approaches to the whole matter of who is allowed to teach them. In most, a certification of mastery is not necessarily a license in itself to teach. To actually oversee instruction, one must usually seek the specific permission (or be granted it) from the incumbent headmaster. In others, the designation of mastery is an official declaration that the holder is de facto allowed to provide instruction in the ryu. In some cases, those who have mastered the ryu will be granted a limited permission to teach certain aspects of the curriculum, with the understanding that the students of the teacher will eventually take more advanced instruction under the headmaster or some other designated senior. (This is precisely the case with an exponent of one koryu that is currently being taught in the US. The “teacher” was leaving Japan to pursue a business opportunity. He lacked advanced instruction in the ryu, although he wanted to continue his training. The headmaster of the ryu gave him an informal permission to teach some rudiments of the art to a limited number of students. But it is important to recognize that such instruction cannot be considered the equivalent of membership in that ryu nor should those receiving this teaching hold any misconceptions about their status within the system.)

The aspiring koryu practitioner should make every effort to learn how the teaching hierarchy in a particular koryu is maintained before he begins an association with it. This is vital if the teaching being is presented is being done so outside of Japan. If he is satisfied that he comprehends the criteria for teaching and he believes his prospective teacher meets it, he should feel confident in pursuing the art under such tutelage.

A good example here is found in the Katori Shinto-ryu. The oldest of the martial koryu still practiced in Japan, the Shinto-ryu’s present iemoto is Iizasa Yasusada, a 20th generation descendant of the ryu’s founder, Iisaza Choisai lenao. Poor health prevents the current headmaster from conducting teaching in the ryu. That responsibility has fallen to the ryu’s designated chief instructor, Otake Risuke, who teaches at his dojo in Narita. Most readers will know this. There are, however, at least three other people currently teaching the curriculum of the Shinto-ryu. These three teachers have varying degrees of expertise in the art. Certainly all of them can prove that they studied the Shinto-ryu. None of these three, though, can or do claim that they have the sanction of the headmaster to do what they are doing.

For some aspiring practitioners, the experience of these three may be sufficient. They all have students here in the US. Other would-be practitioners, however, may decline to practice any form of the Shinto-ryu unless they can be accepted by that ryu’s primary lineage. But all of them should be cognizant of the facts and make their decisions accordingly.

It is a cognizance of facts that is most crucial for the prospective student of any koryu. He needs the facts to take the opportunity (and it is an extremely rare one) to begin a study of a koryu that may be available in the West. More likely, he needs facts to steer him clear from fraudulent ryu or from those teachers who may sincerely believe they are imparting an authentic classical system of combat strategy when they are not. Most importantly, knowing the facts surrounding the bujutsu is the best way to see these wonderful old arts not as others would romantically like them to be but as they actually are.

One reason that fraudulent koryu and ersatz “masters” have proliferated in the West is a rather (at the risk of sounding sexist) gentlemanly refusal to speak or write critically of others in public on the part of legitimate koryu members and authorities. There has also been an attitude of “anyone foolish enough to become involved in a phony koryu deserves what he gets.” Doubtless some reluctance to speak out stems from a stubborn, almost religious fervor with which adherents to these pretend koryu support and defend them.

My own experience in dealing with these individuals has been illustrative. As it was with the correspondence I mentioned above, between a researcher in Japan and a senior student of a fake “master” in the United States, in the face of overwhelmingly objective evidence that is presented to them to show that the system they are studying has no historical reality, their response, pathetically, is often “My teacher says it’s so.” At this point, the researcher must conclude he is dealing with a person caught up with a belief system. Facts are not so important to these people as are images, both of themselves and their teachers, that affirm a particular view of things.

Fortunately, not all individuals training in a fake koryu are so dogmatic. Some, through their own efforts or by approaching authorities with their questions, come to discover they are being misled and cheated. One courageous and refreshingly honest confession appeared not long ago in a martial arts publication. The writer admitted that he had fallen in with a dishonest instructor of a bogus koryu and that he had contributed to this problem by creating kata and others aspects of training on his own.

Unlike others who cling to their phony ryu, this fellow, according to his writing, came to see that he would never attain the goals that brought him to a search for the bujutsu in the first place if he continued. In my opinion, this person has taken an enormous step forward in his approach to the classical martial arts and toward his own self-mastery.

The intent of this article is not to ridicule or to unfairly cast aspersions. If the reader has an opportunity to pursue a true and authentic koryu in this country and he is so motivated, then he should be all means do so. (As you must now realize, this is an extremely unlikely proposition for most. I noted earlier that I can think of only a half dozen real koryu experts in the US. They all keep a low profile. Some have no students at all currently; others have no more than three or four. None–and this is a crucial point–none of them are in the least bit evasive about their training history or qualifications if they are asked. Each can give you the addresses of their teachers and the dojo where they trained in Japan and can provide documentation and genealogies that can easily be verified in that country.)

The classical martial disciplines of Japan are a rich source of physical, spiritual, and social value. They are a treasure every bit as precious as any work of art. If the prospective practitioner should not be hasty to jump into a ryu of questionable legitimacy, neither should he adopt an attitude of cynicism that leads him to overlook a chance to join a koryu. (I am reminded of perhaps the senior-most koryu authority outside Japan, a scholar, author, and true master who oversees a small group of trainees in his art in Hawaii. It has occurred more than once that a spectator at outdoor training sessions will inquire about joining, only to lose interest when it is explained that the master is of Caucasian rather than Japanese ancestry.)

To return, if I may, in summation, to the analogy of the greener pastures.” The bujutsu are a lush meadow for all those willing and able to enter them. Those who cannot make this entrance can show a real appreciation and respect for these arts by refusing to compromise them, by refusing to accept a cheap imitation. If they are a landscape that can only be viewed from a distance, those who truly admire the bujutsu in the West will show the nature of their character by doing just that.

Dave Lowry is a regular contributor to Furyu and other martial arts publications. His latest book is Clouds in the West, published by Lyons Press; this essay appears there in a revised form.


2 Responses to The Classical Japanese Martial Arts in the West:

  1. Anonymous says:

    Just a quick note to point that the source of this text is

  2. Great article, hence it’s inclusion: recommend a visit to whenever you can!DF

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