Studying More than One Koryu

This essay is prompted by the following note from Mark Tankosich: A while back, I saw a Facebook post/response where you wrote something like, “I’m either Araki-ryu 24/7, or I’m not Araki-ryu at all.” First, perhaps I am mis-remembering or misunderstanding, so I’d ask you to elaborate. Secondly, and more my question, what does this mean for someone like yourself who does more than one koryu art?

Why study a koryu? Many, if not most, view it as a mukei-bunkazai (‘intangible cultural treasure’). It is envisioned like a mammoth, frozen under tundra ice, that somehow is revived and exists like it did millennia in the past. As soon as this concept is voiced, the endeavor fails. Mammoths, like ryu in the past, continued to evolve. The ryu, throughout their history, continued to innovate, and strong members, for better or worse, questioned the kata in various ways. We even have proof of this when we view films of various ryu one or two generations ago. We can see changes, for better or worse, in the way that modern exponents do the same techniques as their predecessors. In my view, the idea of the ryu being primarily an intangible cultural treasure is a kiss of death. In fact, this is an award that comes from outside the ryu: it is validated by politicians or other bureaucrats who have no way of truly evaluating the ryu except that it a) has a long professed history b) appears to be really impressive.

Others view the ryu as a vehicle towards study of a ‘way,’ that idea that practice of the ryu leads one closer to some ineffable state, be it enlightenment or self-perfection. I would not argue with that possibility entirely. However, this is usually regarded as a solo pursuit, and the essence of any ryu is that one trains for the ryu, a still-feudal entity that strives to survive together. This is admittedly somewhat abstract, so here is an example. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century is Peter Matthiessen, and one of his greatest books is The Snow Leopard. The blurb on Amazon states: In 1973, Peter Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller traveled high into the remote mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and possibly glimpse the rare and beautiful snow leopard. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, was also on a spiritual quest to find the Lama of Shey at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. As the climb proceeds, Matthiessen charts his inner path as well as his outer one, with a deepening Buddhist understanding of reality, suffering, impermanence, and beauty. It is a stunningly beautiful book. Matthiessen went on this journey shortly after the tragic death of his wife, and devastated, it was an attempt, in part, to recover himself. I passed the book to my mother, who read it, admired much about it, but handed it back to me with contempt, saying, “He left his child behind.” He had a young son who had lost his mother, something even more devastating than losing a mate, and he left him in the boarding school he was enrolled in to go on his spiritual quest, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, this sums up the flaw in the idea of self-perfection as an ideal. The samurai trained to be worthy of serving something greater than himself, and the ryu is this, just as one’s family is. The degree to which one commits to this (and the unavoidable tensions that are thus engendered), tempers a man or woman far more than the solitary pursuit of enlightenment, no matter how beautiful the scenery.

Another viewpoint is that one is studying a combative art, and the ryu has either impeccably preserved a methodology for the use of certain weapon(s) for close combat, or continues to hone and polish those techniques so that they are even better each generation. If, however, one truly wants to train for combat, should one not be involved in modern military training? Or, if one is concerned on a personal level about home invasion, should one not spend more training on use of a firearm than a sword? There is no doubt that information is preserved within some ryu that is eminently useful today, were it adapted to modern times and modern equipment. But to the degree that this is so, why not do just that rather than practicing with archaic weaponry in scenarios that will likely never occur?

No simple answer then is satisfactory. Here’s mine. I train for the ryu. In doing so, the ryu becomes me. I am required to maintain a body of traditional knowledge, and struggle that nothing handed down is lost. At the same time, as I become more knowledgeable, I must ruthlessly attack contaminants that have infected the ryu by superficial creativity or mistakes of understanding on the part of my predecessors. (If they damaged this entity which we all love, I am responsible, at my level, to fix it). To the degree that enrollment within the ryu affects me in ways I don’t like (and it certainly has), this creates a fundamental internal tension that I must deal with: in doing so, this tempers me, and I, the product of this struggle, contribute ‘me’ further to the ryu. Since the ryu are combative arts (at least the one’s I have studied), then I am required to become stronger and stronger, but because they are historical entities, confined by culture and by the weaponry they used, there is a ‘frame’ within which I – and the ryu – must function. There is no hard rule here, but the deeper one is within the ryu, the clearer this becomes. Or as Nitta sensei of Toda-ha Buko-ryu said to me on several occasions, “それはちょっと武甲流らしゅくありません。As best as I can translate this, she was not criticizing the efficacy of what I was doing; rather, she was saying, “That doesn’t have the ‘air’ of Toda-ha Buko-ryu.”

With all of that, should one study more than one ryu? I can think of a myriad of answers to that:

  1. There are often two or more ryu that became associated long in the past. An example that comes to mind is Shosho-ryu yawara and Muhen-ryu naginatajutsu. I’ve not looked at their densho in any detail, but I’m sure they have different lineage and many different features particularly at the gokui level. However, they have been together in the same locale, exchanged students and shared teachers for so long that they are one meta-ryu, ‘martial arts of Morioka.’ They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. In a case like this, I cannot imagine there is any deficit to enrollment in both, as long as one has the time to do them justice. (The five ryu that Kuroda Tetsuzan maintains is another example; they are, in essence, all Kuroda-ryu).
  2. A similar example of the item above are the ‘fusoku-ryu‘ (subsidiary schools) that have become branches of a main school, even though they don’t share the same founder. A good example of this would be the fusoku-ryu of Shinto Muso-ryu jo: Isshin-ryu kusarigamajutsu; Ikkaku-ryu juttejutsu; “Kasumi” Shinto-ryu kenjutsu; Uchida-ryu tanjojutsu; Ittatsu-ryu hojojutsu. If three generations back, a headmaster had erased all the names of these schools, destroyed any older documentation, and made them part of Shinto Muso-ryu, no one in subsequent generations would have ever noticed; they are that closely melded together.
  3. Far too many people who enroll in multiple schools (most in my view), are ryu collectors. They have either no idea of the depth of each ryu or don’t care. I cannot conceive of joining a ryu just to acquire ‘some’ knowledge of it. Teachers who accept students without the intention of teaching everything (if they prove to be suitable), and students who do not aim to master the ryu are failures, in my view. The teachers are selling portions of the ryu for money, fame or ego gratification.
  4. Some enroll in two schools because one teacher is licensed to teach both. I must question, however, why most would do this? You have the same teacher, yet what he or she teaches is radically different. On Monday, s/he says, “Sink your hips, don’t stretch your legs,” and on Tuesday, s/he says, “stretch your legs, don’t sink your hips.” You equally commit to the teacher when you join one school, but you put him or her in a position that s/he’s erasing on one day what s/he taught on the other, and vice versa. In my view, the instructor’s time is wasted, and I will never allow any of my students to enroll in both of the ryu I teach (I will come back to this point, below).
  5. And then there are those whose ‘eyes are bigger than their stomachs’ – they join three, four, five schools, all with the best of intentions, but few, if any individual, can do justice to so many unique entities.
  • The result, at best, is someone who, physically talented, moves through the kata with grace and skill, but one ryu soon contaminates the next, and in a short time, they are moving generically. What makes each school unique is lost.
  • In addition, they cannot have loyalty to all the ryu. I had personal experience in situations where teachers of two or more schools were at odds, and the students of both squirms inelegantly to avoid offending each of their instructors. From individuals striving to become warriors, they become politicians.
  • Finally, the deepest teachings of the ryu cannot be handed out like candy. A genuine teacher who holds truly knowledge of the depths of his or her tradition will only teach someone who is willing to be pervasively influenced by the school, both in terms of loyalty to the tradition, but also because without that training-in-depth, the gokui mean nothing to them. I can pronounce a gokui of one of my ryu (it has been publicly published in several books in Japan for generations, for what its worth) right now: “Pine tree on a cliff.” You may have an idea of what that means, maybe even a good idea. But if you have not gone through the specific physical training to the bone that these words indicate, it’s just an idea.


And then there are the only individuals who are, in my view, worth discussing. The ones who enroll in two ryu with full commitment and respect. There are two ways this can occur: either sequentially or simultaneously. Sequentially would mean that after fully mastering a school, one joins another. Why? One reason would be that one crossed hands or weapons with a teacher from the other school and lost the bout. In this case, one could abandon one’s own school, and fully becomes a disciple of the new teacher. Sometime in the far future, one emerges as a full practitioner of the second school, or once graduated, one consciously or unconsciously amalgamates both schools into something new. The same thing could also occur without such drama, when one meets a teacher who is so admirable that one finds it a necessity in one’s life to become a student yet again. Withal, this is actually very unlikely in modern times, particularly among my English-speaking readers. How many genuine menkyo-kaiden in any koryu do you, the reader, know? And how many of them, a true shihan of their own ryu, then go to study as a student of someone else, letting go status and all they know, willing to start over again, perhaps closing the doors of their dojo, and cutting lose their own students, because they have, once again, ‘thrown their life away’ to commit to something they must know, and to a ryu and teacher to whom they must pledge loyalty?

So, let us consider the more likely option: joining two ryu concurrently (I do not want to discuss a higher number. To the degree that this is possible, everything I write from here applies to that possibility as well; to the more likely situation where this is not fully possible, I’ve covered the flaws in that approach in items #3 &# 4 above). The best way to discuss this is to offer my own case, and at last, strive to directly answer Mark’s question.

I joined the Araki-ryu in April of 1976. From that day, one could almost say that it ‘infected’ me. My instructor was only a few years older than I, and he was ferociously powerful, both mentally and physically. He is also among the most moral men I have known, but  my values are different from his in many ways. Where does the ryu stop and the teacher begin? This tension has never ceased for me, despite a relationship of forty years. He truly was a man from another era. What I mean by this is that most koryu teachers are modern individuals who teach a tradition. As far as they are concerned, their authority over their students is mostly confined to the dojo environs and mostly concerns the specifics of the ryu. My instructor is a feudal man, and as his student, he had a right to have a say in any aspect of my existence he chose (I was not a prisoner: I could quit at any moment if I didn’t like it, and could be thrown out at any moment if certain lines between us were violated). He also expected me to push back, as long as I was willing to experience any consequences that occurred. In other words, I was fully committed to him and the ryu and in full rebellion at the same time. Tempered like a blade, folded hard and soft, while being hammered at red-hot heat. I did not join the school as a ‘blank slate,’ upon which to be written, nor was that expected of me. Rather, I joined as a man, and the only way I could truly contribute to the school was a paradoxical willingness to be utterly influenced, while maintaining my essential self. I could only bring something worthwhile to the ryu when I offered myself–but ‘myself’ is, to this day, an often rebellious, iconoclastic man who lives by his own sense of values and morality. Rather than joining a cult, entering a ryu in this way is an interactive process; if you go too far in one direction, you will be cast out, leave on your own or will never really be taught anything of substance; if you go too far in the other direction, you will strive merely to become a clone, an imitator who will never surpass your teacher. The latter, too often seen, is one of the main causes of the generation by generation deterioration of all too many martial systems.

The result of all this is that I became an Araki-ryu man. The way I interact with people is always influenced by Araki-ryu. As it says in one of our documents: “You make your practice a friend in the morning, and your discipline to be your pillow at night.”

From this, can the reader see how incredibly deep such a commitment can be were one to join a living ryu, not a cultural treasure merely preserving techniques from the past?

So what did I do!!? In 1978, I joined a second ryu, the Toda-ha Buko-ryu. I had several motivations. At that time, I was too influenced by Donn Draeger, who was then, in my eyes, the exemplar of the perfect foreign student of koryu. Donn joined several ryu, and in his endeavor to make the study of combatives a scholarly discipline, encompassing both pen and sword, he wanted those he mentored to join different ryu as well. If Donn joined several, then so should I. In addition, and more to the point, I wanted to train budo with my first wife, and Araki-ryu did not seem to be the best thing for us to train together.  At my Araki-ryu teacher’s introduction, we joined the Toda-ha Buko-ryu.

These two ryu could not be more different, even when they use the same weaponry. They have no historical connection, and there is no overlap within their gokui (the recorded teachings in each school that impart the essential qualities of each ryu). My wife and I trained very hard, and after a few years,  with the departure of several senpai, we were the two senior members of the dojo. Within five years, I was Nitta sensei’s shihandai (assistant instructor).

Yet, I must be honest here. Although my practice was good enough that I found such favor in Nitta sensei’s eyes, I did not do Toda-ha Buko-ryu–not even one moment. I moved my body in the correct manner, my kiai sounded impeccable, and I cut and moved with power. I was, for most of my tenure there, without peer among the students in the dojo (other members, now shihan as well, joined at the end of my stay in Japan). But it was never Toda-ha Buko-ryu. Even during training, my mind was on Araki-ryu and my body craved to drop the pretense and do that. Yet because of my own moral sense, I felt an unvoiced, but deep sense of guilt. Every moment I was in the dojo, I was betraying Nitta sensei, who had, among other things, helped me right my course as a human being. Without her presence in my life, I may have lost my way. In betraying her, I was betraying the ryu as well, at least if I believed it was more than a compendium of pattern drills. I was in such a state of conflict that I thought of quitting.

Perhaps Nitta sensei knew this all along, and trusted me to find a way through this dilemma, seeing something in me that I could not find within myself.

In any event, perhaps eight or nine years into my training, something happened. While in the midst of a kata, it was literally as if I dropped into another world. Physically so. All of a sudden, I ‘rearranged’ into a ‘Toda-ha Buko-ryu body.’ Experientially, it was quite different from the Araki-ryu body. It was as if I transmuted from wolverine to doberman. This was something I never lost (and has actually become a skill that I have utilized in very different areas of my professional life). The only way I can describe it is by the shamanistic term ‘shapeshifting.’

As for my life in budo, it is very clear: when I am in the dojo teaching my Araki-ryu students, that’s all I experience; when I am teaching my Toda-ha Buko-ryu students, that’s all I experience as well. When I am training by myself, I can shift from one to the other whenever I choose. How about my daily life? Imagine a chord, with a root note (Araki-ryu) and a secondary note (Toda-ha Buko-ryu). I flicker from one to the other, without conscious thought. The same is true when I train freestyle. There is overlap, at a deep level, but the two ryu are still distinct. The overlap is in the area that some call internal training; this is the bridge for me between the ryu.

I cannot see any reason whatsoever to enroll in a third or fourth ryu, unless such a ryu offered something absolutely necessary to my embodied existence, something that is absolutely impossible to find in either of the ryu I practice. And that would have to be something far more subtle and important than a new weapon to practice, or a new style of movement.

So why won’t I teach any of my students both ryu? Because I know how hard I worked to simultaneously and separately offer two ryu 100% (not 50-50), all the while striving to live without any divided loyalties. How many people are truly, wholeheartedly committed to something? Anything less is a betrayal of the ryu, whether you are enrolled in one or many. How many people can truly “…make your practice a friend in the morning, and your discipline to be your pillow at night?” How many can do this twice–at the same time?

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