I was talking with a student and teacher of classical Japanese martial arts, and the all too-common myth - that the teachers and students of these centuries-old ryuha practice exactly as their creators taught them in the first generation - came up. We both laughed. It’s a compelling story, but it’s a myth - one that is dangerous for the students, and for the arts themselves. Whether you do something called a way ( “do” 道). An art (“jutsu” 術), or a style or school (“ryu” 流)、the story is the same.
These are all arts that have survived centuries of use and application. The thought that hundreds of years ago someone discovered a principle and created techniques for applying it that were perfectly formed and are still perfectly suited to the world they are in credits the founders with a level of genius that I cannot imagine. I can imagine them realizing principles that can be applied to an ever-changing environment, but I can’t stretch that to the founders also creating techniques that perfectly apply that principle no matter how the world has changed.
Principles don’t change. That’s the nature of principles. They are fundamental ways of understanding the world and how it operates. In budo, sometimes principles are expressed and learned through physical practice, such as that discovered by following the Shinto Muso Ryu directive “maruki wo motte suigetsu wo shire “丸木を持って水月を知れ””holding a round stick, know the solar plexus”. Others are clearly expressed philosophical concepts, such as Kano Jigoro Shihan’s “seiryoku zen’yo” 精力善用 (often translated as “maximum efficiency, minimum effort”), which is the short form for “seiryoku saizen katsuyo” 精力最善活用 “best use of energy”.Jigoro Kano, Mind Over Muscle, Kodansha, 2005). Usually shortened to “maximum efficiency minimum effort,” Kano’s maxim refers to a broader principle than just the physical technique. It’s about the best use and application of energy, mental and physical. These core principles of different arts haven’t changed since they were first expressed.
Principles, by their nature, are universal. If they can’t be applied universally, they aren’t principles. I can apply the principle implied by the jodo maxim maruki wo motte suigetsu wo shire in a variety of ways and situations. I can even apply this principle without a stick in judo randori, to pick an example outside of Shinto Muso Ryu. Kano Jigoro was an evangelist for the idea of seiryoku saizen katsuyo and its usefulness outside the constrained world of the dojo. He wrote extensively about the principle and why everyone should apply it, whether they practice judo or not. These principles haven’t changed since they were first understood.
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How they are applied and expressed changes all the time however. Not because the principles change at all, but because the environment in which they are being applied changes. Judo is nearly 140 years old. Shinto Muso Ryu has been around for more than 400 years. For all of these arts, the world has changed dramatically since they were founded. The world of combat in Japan slowly changed as weapons and tactics evolved, and then was transformed by the introduction of firearms in the 1500’s, followed by the enforcement of peace by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. Shinto Muso Ryu, essentially military police tactics, was born into the first years of unsteady peace during the Tokugawa Era. The samurai class was still on a war footing, with the Tokugawa victory only a few years earlier. Weapons of war and people skilled with them were everywhere.
A little over 250 years later the wearing of swords in public was banned. Clothing styles in Japan changed from traditional kimono and hakama to European dress. The tools of combat increased in number and power. People still study Kodokan Judo and Shinto Muso Ryu and other koryu arts. The arts are still seen as relevant to this age that would have been unimaginable when they were created.
The people who study Kodokan Judo still practice many things that Kano Jigoro laid down as part of his art. They do a lot of things that he didn’t include in his pedagogy for the art. I find Kodokan Judo principles being applied not just in competitive matches with people wearing traditional dogi, but in no-gi matches and even professional MMA fights. More interesting to me is the way Kodokan Judo’s principles continue to be applied in and out of the dojo. It’s still seen as an effective form of physical education, and the principle of seiryoku zen’yo, along with the principle of yawara 柔 (softness, pliancy, flexibility, suppleness), is taught as having far more than just martial applications. The whole of Kodokan Judo manages to offer a very complete set of principles for interacting with the world physically and intellectually nearly 140 years after its founding. It hasn’t stopped growing and adapting. In addition to the official kata of Kodokan Judo, many practitioners develop their own, unofficial, kata to practice and explore the principles in situations that are not focused on in the official curriculum.
The proportion of waza practice versus randori practice versu kata practice is something judoka never stop arguing about, and every judo dojo has a different answer to what the proportions should be. I see people working out new techniques based on the classical principles, and practicing in new ways. It’s not uncommon now to see judoka train without dogi so they can prepare for no-gi tournaments. Do they stop doing judo because they take off their dogi and fight in competitions that aren’t using IJF rules? If you're applying judo principles it’s still judo, regardless of what you're wearing or what you’re doing. Judo is, after all, yawara. It’s soft and pliant. It can change its shape to fit the situation.
Shinto Muso Ryu reaches further back for its origin, another 270 odd years past Judo. The relevance of a stick that was intended to be used to subdue people with swords in a world of guns and IEDs is difficult to imagine, especially when you see the people studying it wearing clothes that have been out of date for centuries and practicing against people armed with swords. Relevant in the 21st century? It looks more like Live Action Role-Playing to most people. However, the principles haven’t changed, even if the practical applications have had to evolve.
Throughout its history Shinto Muso Ryu’s students haven’t been afraid to add new lessons to the art. Kata were added steadily over the centuries, and tools were added to the practitioner’s kit. An art that started out with just a stick and a sword now teaches students to apply the principles to sticks of nearly any length, as well as chains (and in some lines even bayonet length blades!). The real principles about movement, timing, spacing and rhythm are still useful not just in combat situations, but everywhere in life. I’ve only been doing Shinto Muso Ryu for 28 years, but in that time I’ve watched teachers tweak kata and change what they emphasize. Looking back before my time, to the films that survive from the last 90 years or so, it’s clear that people have been tweaking and playing with the kata since long before I showed up. Considering all the recorded changes that have been made to Shinto Muso Ryu over the centuries, no one can seriously claim that they do Shinto Muso Ryu just like Muso Gonosuke Katsuyoshi did it. It’s been changing and adapting from the day he started figuring it out for himself.
Budo practices are paths to follow, not fossils. You have to adapt to the terrain. If you never change anything, and never learn anything beyond where the founder began, you would be preserving an artifact that has no relationship to the age you live in. I fully expect the arts I practice and teach to grow and change. The principles will still be there, but I sincerely hope my students learn new ways to train, new ways to teach the principles, and new ways to express the principles. Anything less than that is a discredit to everyone who has gone before us.