Keiko Shokon Revisited: Introduction

by Diane Skoss

The first volume of "Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan," Koryu Bujutsu, aimed to answer the question, "Just what are the koryu bujutsu?" Sword & Spirit, volume two, explored the nature of these arts, their hearts and souls and the techniques that comprise them. In the third volume, Keiko Shokon, we turn our attention to the future of these arts. What role, if any, can sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japanese martial arts play in the twenty-first century?

Margaret Stawowy wrote in her Japan Times review of Sword & Spirit:

I can't help but wonder what relevance the classical martial arts have in the so-called civilized world, a world where warfare is waged impersonally with computer algorithms, or in the case of guerrilla combat, with increasingly sophisticated ballistics. (March 30, 1999)

This is a legitimate question answered in different ways by the essays in this volume. The koryu offer participants the opportunity to finely hone skills and assimilate standards that are no longer so commonly taught in modern society. Traditional values of perseverance, patience, constant awareness, self-effacement, working towards the good of a group rather than an individual, and appropriate, polite behavior contrast sharply with the get-it-instantly in-your-face brashness of the brave new world of the Internet culture. Nitta Suzuyo, nineteenth headmaster of the Toda-ha Buko-ryu, reveals in her interview with Liam Keeley her belief that training in the koryu promotes physical well-being as well as the development of precise and refined "people skills." Each execution of kata is a complex transaction in which both partners must instantly assess the opponent--discerning their current mental state, physical skill level, and intent--then adjust and react accordingly. With training this process becomes a deep and reliable intuition that can appear almost magical to the outside observer. What once was a skill on which a warrior's life might depend is now an invaluable tool for getting along with other people in all the various relationships and situations that we encounter daily.

The koryu have also provided the technical basis for modern sport forms of Japanese martial arts. Meik Skoss outlines the influence of the Itto-ryu on modern kendo in his overview of the tradition. Ron Beaubien demonstrates how properly developed observational skills can help inexperienced martial artists better appreciate those connections with the past and gain insight into their own training. If what you see isn't always what you get in the classical traditions, might this not also be true in modern arts as well?

Most Westerners involved in the transmission of the koryu (and undoubtedly most Japanese, too) are quite convinced that these arts are, at the very least, worth preserving as forms of self-discipline. The koryu, like the California condor, are too magnificent to allow to lapse into extinction. Yet as Dave Lowry points out in his essay:

Like the conservationist who lovingly hand-rears a threatened species, thus rendering the offspring unable to feed and reproduce naturally as they should, he risks contributing to the weakening of the very institutions he loves so much and wishes so devoutly to preserve and propagate. (p. 59)

Is the condor chick raised in captivity really the same fowl as its immediate ancestors? As twenty-first-century curators of sixteenth-century arts, we cannot afford to ignore such questions if the arts are to survive and thrive.

The critical issue is context and the native one for the koryu is that of feudal-era Japan. While many argue that modern Japan resembles old Japan no more than our Western culture does, that isn't strictly true. Many elements of the feudal era and the warrior culture do still permeate modern Japanese culture, and the Asian mind-set, with its Confucian and Buddhist influences, is vastly different from our Western way of seeing things. Modern Japanese culture is still the closest we can get to the native cultural habitat of the koryu, and it is a vital element in these arts' transmissions. The jury is still out on how successfully the koryu can be transmitted outside of Japan, as we are still in the first generation of that progression. Most of us who are directly involved are erring on the side of caution; to the extent that we possibly can, we are trying to instruct our students the way we were taught, forcing them to "step into Japan" when they enter the dojo. Americans, in particular, have a general aversion to relinquishing "inalienable rights," but in our role as conservators we must stalwartly resist any attempts to modify or adapt "the way things are" in the koryu to suit American notions of convenience. This "cast in stone" approach obscures the fact that the koryu have always adapted and evolved. Ellis Amdur investigates renovations and innovations and the question of whether it is ever appropriate to add something "new" to these "old" traditions, and if so, who might be legitimately qualified to make these changes.

Inappropriate change is not the only problem faced when the Japanese cultural background of the koryu is missing. Dramatic distortions and misrepresentations become easy in the West. Grandiose titles are part-and-parcel of the American martial arts industry; if one teacher advertises as a "Master" the next must perforce proclaim himself a "Grandmaster." On the next street over, the martial arts school operator suddenly becomes a "Great Grandmaster." Foreign terms have even more caché and selling power. Unwitting (at best--at worst, unscrupulous) Westerners have appropriated, misunderstood, and misused many Japanese terms properly applied only in very specific contexts. Soke (headmaster) has been perhaps the most blatantly (and laughably) misapplied. Dr. William Bodiford offers some definitions, explanations, and observations that can lead the non-Japanese martial artist towards a greater sensitivity to the nuances of Japanese language, history, and culture.

Like the museum curator or wildlife conservationist we must surround our charges with an environment as true to life as we can make it and educate visitors about the entire scene. But the koryu are not primarily cultural artifacts. They are ancient but effective systems for training for combat; their efficiency, however, is inextricably bound up with their methods of presentation and transmission--hence the need for cultural guardianship. Lt. Col. George Bristol discusses how the koryu curricula can actually apply in modern warfare--not the remote impersonality of Ms. Stawowy's query, but in the direct man-to-man combat of the Marine. Lt. Col. Bristol's observations illuminate yet one more side of the koryu's modern relevance, exhibiting innovation in its best sense by incorporating both pedagogy and philosophy into the newly developed Marine Corps Martial Art. His "ethical warrior" harks back to the "divine warrior" Issai Chozan describes in his eighteenth- century parable, "Neko no myojutsu," presented here by Dr. Karl Friday.

This kinship between warriors across the centuries brings us full circle. In the introduction to Koryu Bujutsu I first wrote of Nishioka Tsuneo's motto, Keiko shokon, most simply translated as "Reflecting deeply on the past, illuminate the present." Through study of the koryu, we find that the combative principles encoded in their kata are as valid today as they were four hundred years ago. The rigorous psychological and physical discipline required of the koryu practitioner continues to be an excellent forge for tempering mind, spirit, and body. And, although people and cultures have changed dramatically since the koryu's origins, the "ancient" social structure of the koryu still serves as a model of interpersonal relationships that can inform and enhance our modern social interactions. In short, the koryu, by offering a distillation of what was good and useful in the past, continue to provide remarkable lessons that we can use today to enlighten our understanding of who and what we are, and who and what we aim to become.

Copyright ©2002 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts