I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible. My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan. To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.
However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing. Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.
Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings. Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.
The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other, more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school. The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.
When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.
I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself. Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.
|Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016|
|Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016|
The castle tower is big. It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower. These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.
|Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016|
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now. It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice. I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei. The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo.
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore. I needed a break. So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing. Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony. The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.
|Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.|
Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.
|Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.|
After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way. When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that are younger than the arts we study.
Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.
Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.
The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple. We had a lovely sushi lunch in one. Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.
Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed. You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.
If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed. They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.
The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems. How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.
Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.