Whose Lineage is it Anyway?

I received a set of related questions on licensure and succession within koryū:

  • What are your thoughts on koryū that predominantly only give out one menkyō kaiden, essentially declaring that person to be sōke?
  • Would that mean the rest of the senior practitioners are not allowed to teach or open their own school, since they didn’t achieve the highest possible teaching license?
  • What’s your thoughts on those who stay for decades, even though they would never receive a full teaching license, or how about other schools that might take a person 30, 40 or 50 years to get a license. Does a practitioner in one of these schools ever question why it needs to take so long, even though they have already learned and mastered everything there is to know, but they are unable to break away because they would lose legitimacy or recognition to be a certified instructor?
  • Then there are those that face discrimination whether it is openly shown or not. Only Japanese people or people the sōke likes ever get promoted. What’s your thoughts on that?

This is an ostensibly simple set of question that quickly becomes complex. In what follows, I address certain questions as if talking to someone specific: “you,” in other words. I do not mean the person who asked the initial questions. It’s a rhetorical device only.

First of all, the sōke (宗家 ‘head of the house/family’) may not be a menkyō kaiden. The sōke is the lineal successor of a family enterprise. Strictly speaking, he or she should be a member of that family, either by blood or adoption; truth be told, in some ryū, particularly in modern times, this is quasi-familial (there is no real familial relationship whatsoever). In that sense, the term has eroded from its original meaning in many ryū to a generic term meaning ‘headmaster of the school.’

Menkyō kaiden (免許皆伝) is a ‘license of total mastery’ of the curriculum, one of many ryū-specific terms for such an attainment. This is, of course, an abstract concept, but it should mean that the individual has not only mastered the physical techniques, but also that which makes the school unique: it’s essential character, so to speak. In some schools, this can be a teaching license, with permission to set up one’s own dojo, or in some cases, one’s own line. In other schools, one also must receive a specific teaching license, such as a shihan menjyō (師範免状) to be permitted to teach.

Some schools have both sōke and shihan; the latter may be shihan-ke (師範家), a ‘house shihan,’ responsible for maintaining the line in the sōke’s ‘home,’ or he or she may have full permission to teach and pass down their own lineage. In either case, the sōke functions as a center of gravity, rather than the ‘head.’ Tōda-ha Bukō-ryū (戸田派武甲流) is an example of this: we currently are centered around our sōke-dairi (宗家代理) Kent Sorensen (also a holder of a shihan menjyō), and we have, in addition, five other shihan, who each lead independent dōjōs, with the responsibility to rank their own students. In other schools, as you’ve mentioned, there is only one teacher, be they referred to as sōke or not.

Each koryū has survived by maintained itself as an ‘enclosed’ entity. By this, I mean that it is circumscribed not only by the martial techniques that it practices, but also by its traditions, including leadership structure, which enables it to be passed down, generation after generation. People make a mistake in assuming that this means that it is utterly unchanged for hundreds of years, even though this is an assertion that many koryū themselves make. In fact, each generation changes, yet claims that it hasn’t changed at all (and this can include leadership structure!). A perusal of films of Tenshinshō-den Katori Shintō-ryū (天真正伝香取神道流) ranging from 1930 through the present reveals a remarkable range of interpretations of the same kata by different master instructors. Beyond this, many ryū have radically altered kata, or even added kata and new weapons sets into their curriculum throughout their history. To cite a single example, Edo Yagyū Shingan-ryū (江戸柳生心眼流) added sets of naginata kata to their curriculum within the 20th century, using their extant bōjutsu kata as a template. Nonetheless, conservatism is an ideology necessary for these entities to survive. Therefore, if an autocratic, lineal succession–clinging to one family’s (or a ‘virtual’ family descendant’s) leadership, and squelching others from teaching, either independently or within the dōjō, whether that sōke is competent or not–is the mode of transmission, then so be it. This is clear to a prospective student upon entering the ryū—why should it change just because s/he wants it to? Does one enter saying, “I want to study ‘x –ryū’ as I believe it should be, not as it is, and I expect it to change according to my lights.

Personally, I think such autocratic structures are often a good thing. Through this, some people learn humility—just because they want something doesn’t mean they will get it; thereby they learn to function productively within a group. (Consider, for example, a colonel who doesn’t like that a certain general leads the army. He can be angered, disgruntled or depressed, but what is important: his feelings or the overall mission? If the latter, then he better find a way to contribute most effectively to the system, even though it may not be to his or her liking. If it’s really bad, the options are to suffer in silence, suffer while objecting, quit or revolt—and in all cases, be stand-up enough to deal with the consequences of whatever one chooses, given that one has chosen to engage in an endeavor with flawed human beings).

Concerning those who train, knowing they’ll never be licensed, or who ‘wait’ forty-fifty years, despite mastering the curriculum, who judges their competence? The first way of judging is the ryū’s, as embodied by the head instructor(s), who determines what he or she believes best suits the ryū’s survival. You may think you are competent, but perhaps you are not. You may be missing something essential, an essential understanding of either physical or psychological principles, that establishes that you do not, in fact, embody the ryū (Read the saga of Komagawa Tarōzaemon of Komagawa Kaishin-ryu for an example of this). On the other hand, you may not be as good as you think; you may be a mere journey man, someone missing an essential aspect of required skill or abysmally incompetent—a physical idiot. (I’ve seen this far too often, by the way, a misperception of one’s skill that approaches delusion, all too common in schools that have no ‘live training’). Or, you may be physically brilliant, but have character flaws or other deficits that would make you a detriment to the school, at least as far as your teacher is concerned.

On the other hand, what happens if there is a hot-blooded, independent, powerful young (or not so young) trainee? Please read my chapter on Honma Nen-ryū (本間念流) in Old School or Ukei Kato of Kitō-ryū (Hidden in Plain Sight, 2nd edition, publication pending for winter of 2016) for examples of how a martial tradition can do justice to such powerful individuals who cannot, for one reason or another, succeed to the leadership of the school, or who cannot be defined, by the head teacher’s view, as embodying the ryū that s/he teaches.

Traditionally speaking, such a ‘young lion’ separated, perhaps forming his own branch of the ryū, called a ryūha (流派) or even an entirely new school. This is unlikely in modern times (particularly the latter), but if one believes oneself powerful enough to make such a claim, then stand up to the results— be it ridicule, challenges or the like—and earn your place. I am acquainted with a number of situations just like this in modern times (split offs into ryūha that the headmaster didn’t approve, or even new schools), where it was not a smooth process. I fully comprehend both points of view, and honestly can find myself in sympathy with both parties. (NOTE: It must be recognized that in modern times, those who decide to create a ‘neo-koryū,’ complete with new kata, almost always come up with something absurd. The reason for this is few people train with the absolute obsessive all-encompassing dedication to both traditional bugei and the cultural nexus which must permeate it, to develop the skill and knowledge to legitimately create something new and powerful. It is one thing to learn, even master a tradition, and split off with your own interpretation—it is quite another to create something profound and different that is the equal of something that has stood the test of time).

All I’ve written, however, is somewhat peripheral to another issue that I notice in the initial queries. Anyone who joins a koryū with the ambition of becoming a koryū teacher is not someone I’m interested in teaching, nor I believe, would most who have responsibility for the survival of their martial tradition. I never wanted to be a teacher–what I wanted to do was learn the martial tradition. I had one ambition: to equal or surpass the level of my teacher, and beyond that, to equal or surpass all of my predecessors all the way back to Araki Muninsai and Tōda Seigen. I still do. There exists a body of knowledge so profound and so deep, and I was and still am simply grateful and endlessly enlivened to have an opportunity to acquire a treasure almost lost in our current world. The arrogance of desiring to be a teacher before one has proven one has the capability of comprehending, much less mastering, the system is misplaced. Even though koryū are, on the face of things, archaic systems of combat (or pseudo-combat), the purpose of learning a combative system is to use it. Do you live it, or is it just something you do (in other words, a hobby)? These systems can be much deeper than the knowledge of how to cut with a sword, and still are of value today. For example, I am currently working on a book with a cognitive scientist using principles I learned within my ryū to describe how to manage high risk social encounters for the military or law enforcement.

Were a young pianist to apply to Julliard, is it likely that s/he wishes to become a music teacher or a musician? I have read an interview with John Danaher, considered one of the greatest Brazilian jiujitsu coaches alive. Being a coach was not his ambition, however; it is a default because his physical injuries have made him unable to compete. I may enjoy teaching—sometimes—but that’s not why I teach. I teach because someone taught me—the tradition only lives because it must be passed on to another generation. Teaching is a burden, a debt I must pay—but the moment I’ve ensured that the tradition is fully passed on, then I can stop, and continue my own training fully.

Finally, the last question regarding to discrimination. I have certainly seen it from others: I was the first non-Japanese to be the lead representative of any ryū at the Nippon Budokan. Some prominent individuals from other ryū went to Nitta sensei and stated that they believed that my presence shamed Japanese budō, because onlookers would think that a foreigner was the best the ryū could come up with. Nitta sensei told them bluntly that they had no business commenting on the affairs of another ryū. She called me up the night before, and said that she didn’t care if I came down with a deathly disease or a broken leg, she absolutely wanted me to present the next day. I am certainly aware that there are racists and ‘culturalists’ among koryū instructors; some may be honestly concerned about what they perceive as the vitiation of their tradition, which they believe is intrinsically impenetrable to those outside the native culture (though they still have no business interfering in another ryū); others are simply inadequate moral cowards. But I would not enter into study with, nor would I continue to study with someone if I became aware that they intended to withhold information from me, no matter what the reason.

More to the point—because honestly, I really don’t care about people from other ryū very much, and certainly not their politics, unless they interfere with my school(s)—I never experienced ‘discrimination’ from my own teachers. Not where it counts. They taught me everything, because they ‘couldn’t not teach’ me. I confronted them with absolute commitment, an attentiveness to what they’d already taught so they didn’t have to labor at teaching me, repeat the same thing, or ‘argue’ with stubborn entrenched reflexes that I wasn’t willing to let go. Any teacher who doesn’t feel compelled to teach when the student is truly receptive to learning is not worth studying with. In other words, it is and should be no different when I’ve trained judō, BJJ or boxing; your coach or your sensei, the title doesn’t matter, must desire to teach you everything, so you can survive—and flourish. However, the question of whether I can succeed to heading the dōjō, open one of my own, get a teaching license, etc., is somewhat different. If either of my teachers had told me that they never would allow me to teach their ryū, I’d be absolutely fine with it: I’d have either never taught what they taught me, or would have formally split away—whatever was the correct thing for me to do. Let’s say then that someone questioned my right to do so—either I can stand on my own feet or I cannot. I certainly cannot protect myself or my ryū with a paper certificate, as necessary as lineage and proper licensure are,  but I would never lie and construct a false legitimacy in order to be accepted, nor would I violate the traditional strictures of the ryū, just because I felt I ‘deserved’ to. There are fail-safe mechanisms built into the ryū system of transmission; they just might not be to one or another individual’s liking.

The teacher is (or must be considered) as the living embodiment of the ryū. The student may believe himself or herself to have surpassed the teacher (and they may or may not), but the teacher must judge the student on what they contribute to the tradition itself. When I consider my own students, I expect–I have hopes–that some may become shihan (I’ve certified one such individual already). But I can look at others, who are incredibly dedicated, whom, unless they radically change, will never receive from me the right to teach. Maybe another teacher in the tradition might disagree—they can go to them and see what happens. But it is my Araki-ryū, my Toda-ha Bukō-ryū that I am passing on—and that ‘my’ is, in each case, eighteen generations long, passing through me. Just because someone thinks they deserve a rank or a teaching license because they’ve put in many years of training, or because they (and maybe others) view them as highly skilled, means little or nothing to me.

Why do I train? To become the ryū. That’s what I expect from my students as well. And that entails accepting the consequences that the ryū is not perfect, nor are its leaders. That tension is actually a necessary component to mastery. The teacher’s flaws and those of the ryū itself are part of the ukemi you take.






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