The Whole Legitimacy Thing

by Karl Friday

[The Internet has provided all of us with limitless new opportunities to share information and experiences. In the martial arts field one of the most venerable of these is the iaido-l e-mail list (information on how to join up is here). Although the primary focus of this gathering of e-mail pals is Japanese sword-drawing arts, discussions cover all aspects of Japanese swordsmanship, ancient and modern. Recently, a discussion on the various "lines" of Katori Shinto-ryu instruction prompted the following post from Dr. Karl Friday. It is one of the best explanations of the importance of legitimate authorization for koryu instructors that I've run across, so I am delighted to present it to you here.--DS]

I've been following the discussion of the issue of authorized vs. unsanctioned instruction in koryu arts, specifically with respect to the Katori Shintô-ryû, with some interest. This is a topic that reaches well beyond the particulars of the TSKSR and the individuals involved, and in many respects speaks to the heart of what koryû bugei is and isn't.

There is clearly one fairly widely-shared school of thought that argues that concerns about lineage and legitimacy are mostly about hair-splitting, and that they're not in any case particularly relevant to day-to-day training or the learning of a ryûha's arts. This is a very pragmatic and democratic perspective, but it ignores a few essential points.

First, the arts, and especially the rights to use of the names, of koryû bugei are the private possessions of specific individuals and families. These possessions are protected, controlled, preserved and shared through various systems of licensing of specific rights and privileges over them. This means that in virtually all koryû bugei there is ONE person in each generation with the exclusive right to determine who will be taught and how (the only exceptions are a tiny handful of ryûha in which there are ambiguities concerning succession that have given rise to rival heirs). Both in the past and today this consideration has ramifications in quite a number of areas, ranging from commercial interests to matters of group and family honor to issues of respect for the rights and possessions of others.

This issue of possession, which is fundamentally different from what holds in modern budô organizations (like Aikidô or Kendô) or in most types of instruction in the West, renders irrelevant any debates about the talents or the backgrounds of individuals, beyond the matter of whether or not they have *current* authorization from the *current* headmaster of the ryûha in question (the sôke or his delegated representative) to teach and invoke the name of the ryûha under the circumstances in question. It makes no difference how skillful the individual doing the teaching is; even the most qualified teachers are beyond the pale unless they are teaching through a specifically authorized arrangement. And even those certified or licensed to teach the school's arts are only doing so legitimately when the manner and circumstances under which they're teaching is sanctioned by the current ryûha headmaster. Even permission to teach granted by a past headmaster or even by the current headmaster in the past doesn't necessarily legitimize current instruction; the right to teach the ryûha AS THE ryûha is only as good as the current headmaster agrees that it is (kind of the way that having once had a driver's license doesn't necessarily make you an authorized driver, unless it's kept properly renewed).

Viewed in this light, taking instruction in or proclaiming knowledge of a koryû art in any manner or under any circumstances--no matter how well-intentioned--that do[es] not meet with the approval of the ryûha's headmaster could probably be labeled a kind of theft. It's comparable, I suppose, to buying pirated books or videotapes. The knowledge you derive from reading a book or watching a tape is yours forever to apply as you wish, but the right to recirculate that knowledge is restricted by law and custom. And while you may get most of the same benefits from watching a pirate tape as watching an authorized copy, there's a difference between the two, in terms of right and wrong.

Second, and closely related to the first point, it has long been common practice in bugei ryûha for headmasters to withhold some of the most important bits of doctrine and such from all but the individual chosen as their successor. The sôke may award menkyo kaiden and even shihan (or other teaching) status to multiple individuals, but most of the time only one per generation really gets EVERYTHING. This was/is done specifically to keep the ryûha centralized and exclusive. There is no way for anyone other than the successor to know for sure if this is or isn't the case with respect to any particular ryûha. So the ONLY way to be sure that you're getting "the real thing" is to be training through channels authorized by the ryûha head.

Of course there are plenty of people who might object that they don't WANT to become masters of the art, they just want to learn whatever they can. But learning a few, or even a LOT of, XXX-ryû whatever-jutsu techniques and kata to supplement one's Aikidô or Tae Kwon Do or whatever training is NOT the same as actually training in the ryûha, much less as "joining" the ryûha (any more than avid study of Catholic or Jewish doctrine makes one Catholic or Jewish). There's nothing wrong with the former activity, and there are plenty of benefits to be derived from it. But the two kinds of activities are fundamentally different things that need to be conceptually distinguished. To do otherwise is misleading to students and disrespectful to the cultural phenomenon of koryû bugei as a whole.

The bottom line is that all of us interested in the culture of Japanese martial art have a logical imperative and an ethical obligation not to further fuzzy up the integrity of the arts themselves or lines of succession within them. I would argue (ok, I *am* arguing . . .) that this includes the obligation to be strict about respecting the rights and wishes of ryûha sôke with respect to how and where these arts are to be taught and studied. At a minimum, it's inaccurate and just plain wrong to identify oneself as studying or having studied a koryû art, unless the ryûha headmaster would agree that this is in fact what you've been doing. Any other study of a ryûha's arts needs to be called something else.

Copyright ©2000 Karl Friday. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
Last modified on December 27, 2017
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts