Classical Martial Arts and Koryu: What did it look like?

Martial Arts of the Classical Forefathers

It’s supposedly clear how the ancient warriors of Japan practiced their trade, including that of grappling, sword, and so on. However, just the very fact that the sword wasn’t the primary weapon of the warrior class until much later, instead the spear and practice of the bow and arrow were the bread and butter, this should lead us to question our beliefs on how these ancient warriors honed and polished their martial prowess.

When speaking to the current sōke or head representatives about the techniques practiced today in the classical martial arts, there is a general consensus, at least publicly, that the kata, waza, and otherwise training methods practiced today are the same that were practiced by previous representatives of the ryūha. However, this does not make much sense when considering that the historical context, social structure, weapons used, nature of the battlefield, and cultural laws changed over time. Simply put, that is not the stale environment that is needed for a martial art to remain unchanged. Even if we ignore the environment changes, we have to recognize that the individuals involved are different and unique people all together. Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi was not the same man as his father, Yagyū Munenori, and this can be seen in their writings (Tsuki no Sho and Heihō Kadensho, respectively). Miyamoto Musashi was not the same practitioner as his adoptive father, and his disciples were not him in turn.

From this we can assume, through a sort of common sense, that the way of practicing must have changed, and thus how can anyone claim to be practicing the martial arts as they were investigated by the founders of the classical currents?

Documentation in the Koden

gyokko koto kosshijutsu koppojutsu makimono_Snapseed
Hidensho of Gyokko-ryū and Kotō-ryū

Many of the oldest documents written by the masters of the past are highly conceptual, for the most part only alluding to technical details, and certainly very little in the way of kata as we know them today (and indeed that went through it’s own progression). In them we can see statements such as, “practice correctly”, “move all at once”, “thrust invisibly”, “strike the three points”, and many other vague descriptions. There are at least two apparent reason for this “haziness”.

  1. Secrecy – The most common explanation is that these things are kept vague and elusive for the sake of protecting the teachings from being stolen, disseminated, and countered.;
  2. Process – The techniques are at the idea stage, still practical and applicable, yet not yet formulated into fixed kata (quite a late development).

The secrecy element has been covered elsewhere, and quite a bit at that, however the development process is a bit more unknown. To keep this short, the early ideas, concepts, and ways of moving would be transmitted to someone who has already fought and killed, such as soldiers, killers, traveling warriors, etc. These ideas weren’t taught wholesale to institutions or just anyone that had money (though there was martial arts for those too). And thus those chosen to receive this transmission would already know how to hold a spear, take advantage of terrain, and all the knowledge expected of someone of his profession. It is for this reason that we don’t see documentation in regards to the “basics” of using various weapons. Even the use of kamae and other things that are considered fundamentals are largely omitted from classical manuscripts.

It would simply be a waste of the master’s time and effort to have to instruct the disciple in how to hold and manipulate a sword. For one to be initiated into the classical currents of heihō, bujutsu, budō, and so on, they must be able to show the master that they deserve to be mentored, and won’t be a waste of time. This is the koden (古伝), the old way of transmission…


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