The Real Importance of Reishiki in Koryu

Some time ago, I was at participating in training on the combative use of firearms. This is a new area of study for me, and I was among a number of others, all professionals, working with a borrowed weapon. During the practice, something rather disturbing occurred, was resolved and the training continued. After that training block was finished, I was unloading my weapon to return it to the man I borrowed it from, still somewhat preoccupied by the previous event, rather than 100% focused on the firearm in my hand. I’d unloaded the magazine, and was jacking back the slide to check if there was a bullet in the chamber. The action was very stiff and I gripped the weapon firmly with my right hand to properly brace the action and to my horror, realized I had unconsciously let my index finger wrap around the trigger. I froze, stopping my action. There was, in fact, a bullet in the chamber, and I would have fired off a round in God-knows-what-direct, if I hadn’t caught myself at the last moment.

Which leads to a discussion on koryu training. We are enacting quite a paradox, training to become proficient in killing other human beings using wooden replicas of archaic weapons. With the exception of a few individuals who own a shinken, few among us own – or have even handled – a real naginata, kusarigama, or yari. To the best of my knowledge, Nitta sensei, my Toda-ha Buko-ryu teacher, never held a real naginata in her hands. Because we will never fight another human being with one of these weapons that we so assiduously train, there is a danger that we will lapse into mukei bunkazai (intangible cultural treasure) practice. By this, I mean the equivalent of collecting a fine Chippendale chair that would collapse if anyone ever sat upon it. Even worse than that is ‘martial dancing,’ the repetition of empty kata for, at ‘best,’ embu.

Paradoxically, this concern for valid combative integrity leads leads directly to that cliche phrase, ”budo beings with rei, and ends with rei.” This phrase raised my hackles for many years, bringing to mind the precious, ostentatious displays of so many of the poseurs I saw throughout the Japanese budo world – to recall Chushingura, a nest of Kira(s), not Asano(s). But now recall my incident with the pistol. Rei is not just a bow to be polite, to display one’s sanctimony – rei is a codified set of behaviors to a) not give offense to armed individuals who, if offended, may not only be a danger to you, but to the cause that you are allied b) to properly handle weaponry so that it is safely managed, both in your own hands, and in passing it on to another person.

As to the former – offering proper respect to others – a koryu dojo should be maintained with ‘wolf-pack’ etiquette. Wolves, being predators, conserve energy. They are never stiff, unless ill or frightened. The pack centers around the alpha(s), and there is a clear hierarchy, based on age, strength and a number of other qualities, intangible, but real. Wolf-pack etiquette in the dojo should mean:

  • The dojo can be a place of laughter, at times, and certainly enjoyment, but one’s attention should never be away from the instructor and one’s seniors.
  • One’s behavior is determined by that of one’s instructor – if he or she is relaxed, so, too, you should be. But in the fraction of a moment that the instructor is focused, serious or otherwise in kamae,  you should flow into the same state without hesitation – indeed, without conscious intent. You have failed – absolutely – if your instructor is focused and you are still joking or otherwise casual. This should be regarded as the same level of failure as standing with your head above a barricade with incoming fire coming your way, because you are too wrapped up in whatever you are doing to realize that you are under attack. This is not because your instructor is ‘godlike,’ or otherwise your superior. Rather, your instructor’s behavior is a form of uketachi – you use this training to learn to be able to be similarly aware when it really matters.
  • If the instructor indicates something, it is always important. You shouldn’t need explanations for everything, or even direct orders. If the instructor, for example, states, “It’s a good idea to be further apart when the kata start” – this should become an obsession! You should never be corrected on this again. Every action puts your life on the line – if only in the abstract (and if you need an explanation of why this is important, when you’ll never fight with a yari, naginata, or sword, then you don’t belong in the ryu). When one of my teachers said something like, “sore wa chyotto. . . .” which means, “That’s a little . . ..” it was often up to us to finish the sentence. We knew, beyond a doubt, something was wrong. If we ignored her, why would she have any interest in further teaching us? Why would we merit being taught?
  • If seniors observe a teacher correcting a junior on an aspect of behavior, the teacher should never have to make that correction again, because unlike teacher, the behavioral aspects of training within a dojo are immutable – it is now the responsibility of seniors to ensure that the teacher does not have to waste a memento’s time or energy concerned about this ever again.

Weapons handling. I have seen people hand a bokken over to another person grasping it by the blade; I’ve seen people untangle the chain of the kusarigama (admittedly an unwieldy instrument) clasping the blade in the crook of the arm or hanging the blade on their shoulder or neck; I’ve seen people casually stand with their hand on the blade of the naginata. The blade edge should not touch your flesh. Ever! I’ve seen people propping themselves up with the tip of the sword on the ground like a cane.  I have seen people casually stepping over weapons on the floor.  My question: Are you doing stick-fighting with oddly shaped pieces of wood, or are you doing kenjutsu? Naginatajutsu? Kusarigamajutsu?

There may be some variations among various dojo on how to hand a weapon from one person to another. But here are some essentials.

  • When you hand a weapon to another person, the blade edge should be in your own direction
  • Simultaneously make eye contact AND be conscious that both people have a grasp on the weapon before you let go of your grasp. There is a kokyu associated with the handing over of a weapon, very similar to the reishiki at the end of a kata where, after we lower our weapons, there is a moment of dynamic stillness – zanshin – and then the weapons and self are slightly relaxed and we move apart. The same thing should occur when handing the weapon from one person to another.
  • Weapons management is particularly difficult with chained weapons such as a kusarigama, but when you hand the weapon over, the chain should be arranged so that it is a) not twisted, tangled or knotted b) does not dangle. If you cannot manage the chain and fundo  in passing the weapon along, you obviously cannot manage it during practice.

Any time I have made a mistake in training – where the blade slid on my skin, where through one failure or another, I was struck, cut or stabbed by a training partner’s weapon – I would spend the night considering that I was dead. The only reason I could continue to breathe air is that I was using a training weapon rather than a real one.

Despite the fact that we will never use these weapons to cut down another human being, if we are not training for the purpose of learning how best to do so, practice in koryu is a lie. And a pointless lie at that. As far as your legacy is concerned, it should be of paramount importance to you that no one ever has legitimate grounds to question your ability – if such questions exist, one must train until they are eliminated. Beyond this, however, it is even more important that no one has legitimate grounds to question your behavior. Such behavior is not mere politesse – it is the essence of proper action among armed human beings.





  1. Many years ago, I visited a public trap and skeet range.  It was a beautiful and well-organized facility.  The range held classes, offered shotguns for rent, and encouraged people to bring their friends for an enjoyable afternoon shooting clay targets that flew through the air or rolled and bounced over the ground.

    Shooters went out in groups of four to six.  A range-master accompanied each group.  The range-master would explain the challenges of each shooting station, and direct the release of the clays.  The range-master also explained and enforced the safety rules of the range.  The most important of these rules was that all guns were to point down-range at all times, whether loaded or not.  

    There was a group just ahead of mine, and its range-master was a stocky, reserved fellow.  His group included a boisterous individual who appeared, from his clothes and haircut, to be in his late 30’s.  But his bluster and sloppily casual bearing were more appropriate to a college “bro” at the beginning of a Saturday night frat party.  The range-master looked straight at him while delivering the safety rules.  

    The bro took his turn shooting.  He missed with both barrels, and turned away from the range, swinging his shotgun toward his group.  “Point that gun downrange!”, yelled the master.  The bro complied, but groused and grumbled, “What’s the problem, I fired it two times, there’s no shells left..”  The range-master replied, calmly and firmly, “Don’t do it again,” and led the next shooter forward.

    At the next station, the bro missed his first shot, but clipped a clay with his second.  He turned, exultant, toward his group.  “I got one!” he cried, again oblivious to the fact that he was pointing his weapon at his friends.  The range-master strode up to the bro, and without a word, hit him with a powerful right cross.  He was out before he hit the ground.

    The master picked up the bro’s shotgun, broke it open, and ejected both shells.  He turned to the group and said, “One at a time, please unload your guns.  Please return them and any unused ammunition to the office.  We will refund today’s fees in full.  Please tell your friend that he is not welcome at this facility again.  Thank you.”
    -posted on behalf of JIM SORRENTINO


    1. I am somewhat surprised by this story — it has a lot of feel good factor, but the range master shows remarkable lack of strategic foresight.

      The US being the country it is, that is, a country run by the rule of law, the best case scenario I see is a criminal prosecution for assault together with a civil suit for damages — prison plus bankrupcy. The bro was an idiot, that is for a fact, but swinging a firearm that has no live ammo anymore is a breach of the rules, not an invitation for a knock out punch in the head (being kicked off the range? sure. Instant physical punishment? I doubt the legal system might agree).

      Worse obviously is the possibility that the bro might have taken matter in his own hands in the form of a different firearm to be used at a different time, with a different target. I know some people might mention the need for a warrior to be alert at all times and whatnot, but personally I’d rather not have to worry that there might be someone out there with a gun planning to kill me or a member of my family.

      So I am conflicted. The story is poignant about why proper etiquette matters, and what might happen if we are not mindful to it. Yet I suspect the story might be even more poignant for for other, much worse, reasons.


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