The Meaning of the Martial Arts: Some Reflections Along the Way

by Diane Skoss

Did I have even the slightest idea of what I was getting into when I started my martial arts training? Absolutely not! Do I have a clue as to what's going on now? Perhaps just a hint, thanks to several extraordinary teachers and their equally extraordinary arts. Is it necessary for someone just starting out on the path of the Japanese martial ways to have an idea of what might be in store? Not really, in my opinion, since the Japanese budo are a process, not a goal. There's no way we can understand or evaluate the complete meaning of budo until we reach the end of the road; and for most of us on the path, that's the end of our days on this earth.

If the shape of the trail can't be seen while we're still on it, why then even attempt to map it? What's the point in my personal "mission" of providing more accurate information and explanations of the rare and often misunderstood Japanese classical warrior traditions (koryu bujutsu) to non-Japanese? Before I answer that, let's define a few terms.

One important thing I've discovered since my return to the U.S. after more than a decade in Japan is that the English term "martial arts" is not at all equivalent to either standard Japanese term, "budo" or "bujutsu." We have here in the States a "martial arts industry," much of which appears to me to be a grotesque, almost farcical, distortion of what I believe to be most valuable about these arts. Catering to "clients" is a topic of serious discussion among some instructors, and "Kardio Kick-boxing" is all the rage. Some even advocate dropping requirements for traditional training wear, arguing that a woman's self-esteem can be affected badly by the stiff unflattering garments we ask her to wear.

I beg your pardon? What ever happened to discipline? To learning how to do something that is perhaps a little uncomfortable or downright scary in order to stretch yourself? Learning things, without complaint, that make no sense now, but that surely and inevitably provide the building blocks for future progress and understanding? There are historical and aesthetic reasons for the Japanese keikogi we wear. Changing the uniform breaks our links to the time and culture in which our arts originated. Austerity and simplicity are the norm in dojos in Japan; photographs, flags, trophies, certificates, posters, and colorful training wear are merely an annoying distraction. The classical warrior traditions that I have learned do not exist for a participant's amusement but are serious endeavors not to be undertaken casually. The "martial arts industry" resembles more a fast-food restaurant, promising sure and quick results.

Now there's nothing inherently wrong with a wide variety of approaches to martial arts. Each of us begins our training for our own reasons, and we look for an art or teacher that can satisfy those needs as we understand them at that time--or at least that's what we ought to do. Some are looking for an activity to share with a friend, others for exercise; some are into competition, while some folks are looking to learn to fight, and others are looking a spiritual path. I'd argue that one of the major limitations of the McDojo mass-market approach is that it can fill only a limited range of needs and that, as a student's level and commitment grows, there comes a point where the franchise gym/school simply has no more to offer. The reasons we train most definitely do evolve, and it is a very rare teacher of a strong and comprehensive system that has the depth and breadth to encompass a student's entire training career. For example, when I started aikido, it was to learn a little self-defense and to share an activity with a boyfriend. Later, as I was not particularly talented or psychologically prepared, it was because it was the most difficult thing I had ever tried to do. After five years I realized that there weren't teachers in my immediate area who could guide me further, so I headed off to Japan. There, my reasons for doing budo continued to evolve and change, and I sought and found the arts and teachers that I needed.

Now I am training to uncover the complete nature of my art and my self. It certainly is a bonus that along the way I've acquired life skills that can keep me safe--but knowing how to fight is no longer a particular goal (though it amazes me at times how deeply some lessons have sunk into my brain. I find myself hollering at the TV screen when some helpless female, backing fearfully away from an attacker fails to make use of objects at hand to protect herself. Or I yell at the FBI agent who has positioned himself stupidly--presumably verisimilitude is less important than camera angle. And just the other night, I remarked that what a character who was sneaking aboard a ship really needed was a blowgun and poison darts! Now, for you guys these may not seem extraordinary observations, but I assure you that most women are not raised to them. I believe that this bizarre tactical sensor is a direct result of my training in Japanese classical arts).

The martial arts that I have practiced are not easy--nor are they necessarily fun (though if you find yourself in a situation that is unremittingly unpleasant, you may need to reassess your choice of art or instructor). And while learning budo is hard work, it doesn't need to resemble military boot camp training. Dedication and a willingness to cope with and overcome frustrations, adaptability, and above all perseverance to continue pursuing a goal that will never be reached--these are qualities of a strong human being. I have learned these from budo.

Thus, I've come to dread the reactions I get when I say that I practice "martial arts." The young woman at the video store says, "Oh, like Jackie Chan?" A suburban housewife wonders if I'd be willing to teach her young son karate. "Oh, do you practice at that place next to the supermarket?" another neighbor asks, referring to the local taekwondo chain school. It is unfortunate that the public consciousness can so quickly forget the moral tale of the "Karate Kid" (which although Hollywood's version, did depict something of what the Japanese arts are all about in the Mister Miyagi character) and replace it with the gun-slinging antics of a Steven Seagal. So, instead, I'm trying to remember to reply, "Oh, I study Japanese budo." This is more likely to lead to reasonable questions by the uninitiated, and gives me a chance to explain that Japanese martial arts are not necessarily similar to media portrayals in the West.

But, if I tell a fellow Japanese martial artist that I practice budo, a whole new set of misunderstandings arise. Donn Draeger, who paved the way for all of us who pursue the classical arts, oversimplified some of his definitions. He was one of the first to write systematically about Japanese martial arts, in his Martial Arts and Ways of Japan series, and many take his dichotomy of budo and bujutsu (further divided into classical and modern) as gospel. We learn, when we read Draeger, that budo is translated "martial way." Arts whose names end in the suffix -do are modern developments with a fair degree of emphasis on character building and "spiritual forging." (The notion of "michi" or "do" is an important part of Japanese culture and like most other ideas in Japan, everyone there shares a similar understanding of what it means to be a "follower of the way." This is less immediately understood in the West.) Bujutsu, on the other hand, is "martial technique or skill"; arts whose names end in -jutsu are the "real" fighting arts that gave rise to the more civilized (others say weaker) budo. Values have come to be attached to the terms--some view bujutsu as barbaric and crude, while others see budo as emasculated shadows of noble predecessors.

Naturally, neither view is true, and the dichotomy (with or without the values) is not so simple. While the do/jutsu contrast certainly describes aspects of different approaches to any given Japanese art, it simply is not used to neatly categorize and characterize the arts in Japan. Yagyu Nobuharu, headmaster of the venerable Yagyu Shinkage-ryu tradition of heiho, sometimes refers to his art as kendo, even though it is quite clearly classical kenjutsu and not at all related to modern kendo. The two most respected organizations in Japan devoted to the promotion of the remaining classical Japanese traditions (koryu bujutsu) are the Nihon Kobudo Kyokai, and the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai. No "jutsu" in either name, yet the membership is comprised virtually exclusively of classical warrior traditions, with names ending in -jutsu. And if one were to use the distinction that jutsu arts are practiced "for real" while the do arts are practiced for self-perfection, you'd find that, in Japan at least, only the police and the military are practicing jutsu. The rest of us, no matter what we might like to think, are actually practicing a "way," since we have no opportunity to face an armor-clad sword-wielding opponent in real life. And some "ways" (whether do or jutsu) include practical methods of "real" fighting.

In my opinion, almost all Japanese martial arts contain within them aspects of jutsu and aspects of do. Different teachers may well emphasize one or the other. One of my teachers has taught me that you enter the do through the vehicle of the jutsu. In other (my) words, one uses the perfecting of killing techniques to progress along the way of perfecting one's life. There's danger, in my opinion, in striving too directly for spiritual enlightenment, without the tempering of striking to kill and being struck at to be killed (even when the blows are stopped just short of the target). It is often far too easy in these situations for the movements to lose their inherent "truth" as valid fighting techniques and to degenerate into little more than a choreographed dance sequence. Learning to give and receive the combative intention is vital. Yet, there's equal danger in concentrating merely on learning to disable and kill without transforming the techniques into a confrontation with the soul.

I simply no longer bother making the distinction when I describe my training as budo, even though most of the arts I practice have names that end in -jutsu. Instead of the do/jutsu distinction, I've found it more useful to characterize arts based on when they were founded, by whom, and for what purposes. I make one large general distinction between classical (koryu = old traditions) and modern (gendai = present-day generation) arts. The gendai budo in Japan are officially listed by the Ministry of Education, and include judo, kendo/iaido/jodo, kyudo, sumo, karatedo, aikido, Shorinji kempo, atarashii naginata, and jukendo/tankendo (you may wonder why a few arts are lumped together; this is because they are officially administered by a single organization). Beginning in the Meiji period, these arts (except sumo, which has a very ancient history indeed) were distilled from earlier fighting arts (the koryu bujutsu) and were designed largely to promote physical and moral education. Most include instructional methods and curricula that can be used with larger groups. Formalized competition was also developed in most of these modern arts as a training method to test the mettle of the trainee and the efficacy of technique. Unfortunately, several arts--for example, judo, jukendo, and competitive aikido--are in danger of becoming indistinguishable from sports, where rules, points and winning are important considerations during training.

At the opposite end of the continuum from the gendai budo and martial-based sports are the koryu bujutsu, or classical martial traditions of the Japanese warrior. Strictly speaking these are the arts that were developed by Japanese warriors for use on the battlefield, and they trace their origins to before the beginning of the Tokugawa era. Maniwa Nen-ryu, Katori Shinto-ryu, and Takenouchi-ryu are among the few traditions from this period that still survive. During the peaceful Edo period, arts continued to evolve or be created by the warrior bureaucracy, these "warrior arts" are apt to contain a more obvious spiritual component and often focus on one portion of the overall martial curriculum, specializing in one weapon, for example. Most classical schools of sword-drawing arose in this period, and a number of arts were refined from earlier battlefield traditions to answer the needs of training the peacetime warrior in the use of his weapons. But the Japanese warrior remained a man-at-arms, his status announced by the two swords (daisho) he carried.

Although there are differences between the battlefield arts and the Edo period warrior arts, their similarities distinguish them decisively from the budo developed after the Meiji Restoration. The warrior class was officially disbanded by the Haitorei of 1876, which prohibited the carrying of the warrior's symbol of status, the daisho. Arts developed (outside the military) after this time, were civilian arts, thus not, to my way of thinking, koryu bujutsu.

To get back to the question of whether there's any point in trying to educate people about the koryu. My experiences have led me to believe that there is a very special value in training in a classical Japanese tradition. This is not to say that one can't have similar experiences in a modern budo--in fact, my own jukendo/tankendo training was extremely classical in flavor--but I've found the classical traditions to be a more likely context for certain lessons.

Modern budo are typically governed by large national and even international organizations that are responsible for developing and perpetuating a curriculum and standards. The koryu bujutsu, in contrast, exist usually in a small old-fashioned Japanese social unit, the ryuha, led by a single headmaster, who is responsible for the maintenance and continuation of the tradition. "Ryu" (in both ryuha and koryu) means "flow" or "stream" and this stream is a terrific metaphor for the way a koryu is passed down to us. The techniques, principles, customs, strategy, and philosophies of a ryuha are transmitted directly from master teacher (usually, but not always the headmaster) to student. In the koryu, only the headmaster or a fully licensed instructor has received the complete transmission of the ryuha, which often includes secret oral teachings as well as hidden interpretations of the physical movements. Only these people can continue the stream of the transmission, because they are the only ones who have the entire picture. This is one reason why the koryu ryuha tend to stay small. Even when there are several fully qualified and authorized instructors, the raising of a single student, like raising a child, is a consuming task, and most teachers can't support more than a dozen direct "disciples" over a lifetime.

By rights, this system of transmission should be sufficient to ensure an art's survival. Alas, at the turn of the twenty-first century--as arts are striving to exist in a world that is ever more alien to their original context--it is not. One Japanese headmaster I know fears the demise of "true" koryu in Japan (unfortunately, there are some ryuha that have become modern and commercialized, even in Japan). Another is convinced that the future of "true" Japanese budo lies outside Japan--with foreigners and our more analytical minds, and precise languages.

There's a very serious problem, however, in losing even more context when these arts are taken out of Japan. In a sense, the point of my activities as a writer and publisher is the same as my work in the garden in early spring. I'm trying to prepare the ground so the plants have a possibility of flourishing. The Japanese koryu are inextricably bound to the Japanese culture. Since not every possible student can manage to devote a decade or more to living in Japan to learn these arts, there must be other new ways to fill that culture gap. I am hoping that my publications can help provide some background so that non-Japanese students can get the most from their koryu training.

Finally, to get back to the goal of training in the martial arts. It is, to me at this particular point in my training, a simple one. The late Ueshiba Kisshomaru summed it up in a comment to my husband. "If you train every day, by the time you reach the end of your life, you'll be able to look back and say, 'I trained.' That's really all there is to it." In Japan I learned from my teachers and dojo mates that the meaning of martial arts was simply training, week after week, year after year. Insights quietly blossom, are nurtured, to sprout further understandings. Training is the way.

Copyright ©1999 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.


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Classical Japanese Martial Arts