I was asked recently how much I think koryu budo has changed over the generations. After staring at my drink for a while, I answered “I think it has changed a lot, and not much at all.” This goes for most koryu that were founded during the Tokugawa Era (1604-1868). They had a relatively stable world in which to grow and develop, so radical change wasn’t required.
Why would I think that a 400 year old martial art has changed a lot and not much at all? I think they would change a lot in that successive generations would add to the arts. In Shinto Muso Ryu, for example, various fuzoku ryu (affiliated arts) were attached to the system, and new kata were created. From an art that started with just staff and sword, it grew to encompass jutte and torinawa jutsu (apprehending and binding), kusarigama, and most recently walking stick. That’s a lot of additions.
So the original arts didn’t change much, they just had more and more stuff grafted onto the original trunk. And if people are really learning a particular art, it won’t change much. Why is that? Koryu bugei students are taught using the pedagogy of kata. In sports there is always room for change. A new way to do the high jump didn’t make it stop being high jump. A new ski jumping form didn’t mean it wasn’t ski jumping anymore. These can easily be changed because they are defined by the activity and not how the activity is done.
However, classical martial arts systems, koryu bugei, are defined by their principles as much as their techniques. If you change the principles, you’re doing something different. Not that this didn’t happen - there were so many ryuha (schools) during the Tokugawa Era because senior practitioners had new ideas and wanted to develop them. Generally they didn’t change the school they were in; they created a new school instead. The ryuha that lasted centuries were the ones whose principles survived the pressure testing of time and application. Not competition, but application in combative situations. Shinto Muso Ryu was practiced by samurai whose function was public security and safety. Other arts were susceptible to being used in fights and duels as well as to put down peasant revolts and otherwise maintain order.
Ryuha survived the centuries because their teaching methodology was remarkably well suited to teaching physical principles and skills, consistently, generation after generation. The fundamental teaching pedagogy was, and is, the two person kata. (Solo iai kata are the exception that demonstrates the rule. Working with live blades is too dangerous for partner practice, but systems with iai nearly always also include paired kenjutsu kata as well). In the classical arts, one partner wins the encounter, shitachi, and the other loses the encounter laid out in the kata, the uchitachi. Unlike a sporting encounter where the more experienced player is expected to win, in classical kata training, the more experienced person is expected to take the losing side. The uchitachi’s job is to guide the junior, the shitachi, so they learn how to do the techniques embedded in the kata without leaving any openings.
Those who think that kata training is just repeating rote movements have never done proper kata training. For example, in weapons kata, If shitachi does the kata incorrectly and leaves an opening, uchitachi is quite likely to seize the opening and put their weapon in it. This can be a harsh way of correction, but it’s an effective one. These lessons are rarely forgotten. Kata are only meant to be done to their completion when they are done correctly. I know if I leave an opening for my teacher, he will show me that opening in the simplest, most direct way available. He will counter my attack. You might think my teacher is breaking the kata. He isn’t. I’m the one who broke the kata by leaving the opening. He simply went with the new situation that I created by leaving the opening.
The kata that last are robust. They have to be done certain ways or openings are left and the student gets whacked. Quickly the student learns to spot their own openings and close them. The kata don’t change much because they can’t be changed much. They are structured in very particular ways for good reasons. If you deviate from the form you create openings that allow counter attacks to succeed. Just doing the kata is its own test. If you do it correctly it will work. If you deviate from the principles that are embedded in the kata you will find your situation changes from victor to vanquished in an instant.
As an incorrigibly American student, I can’t seem to stop myself from experimenting with the kata I’m taught. I always seem to think that I’ll somehow learn something new from experimenting. I do learn things. I learn how not to do the kata. I play around with the timing or the spacing or something on my own, and then my experimenting surfaces in the dojo and Sensei nails me, then yells “Who taught you that!!!” Happens every time.
Since the kata serve as their own form of checking and correction, they are exceedingly durable. I don’t doubt that the kata of Shinto Muso Ryu or Shinkage Ryu or Ono-ha Itto-ryu swordsmanship are close enough to the way they were done 400 years ago that a modern student who found themselves 400 years in the past could walk into one those dojo and participate without difficulty. Kata are that stable.
This stability can also be seen at the various enbu held around Japan. Lineages that split as far back as the 17th century and had no contact with each other for hundreds of years until recent times can now be seen and compared in modern enbukai. Besides the main line of Shinkage Ryu taught by the Yagyu Family, there are numerous other lines that were founded by their students over the centuries. When you watch and compare them, it becomes clear that they haven’t drifted far from each other. The same goes for the various lines of Yagyu Shingan Ryu, and other arts that have lasted through centuries.
The kata that comprise the core of any koryu bugei are stable and solid. Upstart students like me are always trying “what if” experiments and getting clobbered because our “what if” just isn’t effective. Even when we no longer have a culture of duels and taryu shiai (inter ryuha matches) we still have students who want to prove they are smarter than 400 years of experience. These students cheerfully challenge how kata are done and the sensei is always ready to show them that their new idea doesn’t work as well as the one that’s been passed down to them.
This helps keep the kata alive even when we don’t have duels and challenge matches. However, just because the kata are stable doesn’t mean that they are fossilized and frozen in time. Different teachers will place more or less emphasis on particular aspects of the kata. Even the same teacher, over decades of practice, will place different emphasis on different aspects of the kata. This leads to students saying things like “But last time you said do it this way.” The teacher isn’t changing the kata. They are exploring different aspects of the kata. The teachers know where the limits of each kata are, and they don’t exceed those limits.
This stability means that bugei ryuha can travel through time and across cultures with their principles and their form essentially unchanged. Kata practice allows students to make mistakes and see why their ideas are mistaken. The students learn the techniques and principles through a small set of kata. The kata don’t need to be changed. In fact, they can’t be changed without losing the ability to teach the principles of the art. The stability of the teaching method means that the ryuha change very little over time. Ryuha may acquire new kata and new weapons, but their essence remains the same.
Grateful appreciation to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. for editing what was a scary mess.