The evolution of martial arts schools in Japan

While today we find it easy to divide the Japanese martial arts to “koryu” (pre- 1868 meiji restoration martial art schools) and “gendai budo” (martial art practices that were formed after the 1868 meiji restoration), there is a great value in looking further into the past and try and understand how the Japanese approach to teaching and practicing martial arts had changed over the ages.

While today we look at Japanese classic schools as sources for martial art practices, this was not always the case in the distant past.

We can make a safe assumption that the base of transmission of any combat arts in ancient Japan happened when there was sufficient skill and knowledge that were worthy of passing from one generation to another, and also that the first transmissions happened within families – Father to sons, older brothers to younger brothers etc. While even today we can see that on some occasions koryu leaders have a preference for family members when assigning important positions within the school, in the past, before schools were formed – teaching the closest family members were the surest, and sometimes the only way to transmit such knowledge and combat experience. Such practices were predominant over a very long period, and as a matter of fact the first martial arts related school which is known to us today is Ogasawara-ryu, which is dated to the early 14th century.

Mounted archery of the Ogasawara-ryu. Note the assistant who must turn the wooden horse at an appropriate and steady pace. – picture from website

What did happen in the 14th century? Why wasn’t the first school formed 200-300 years before? While we probably would never know a certain answer, as not all events were written down and transferred through the ages, we can assume that the martial arts that were passed within families became more complex, as various specializations demanded a lot of time and practice, and as the wars became more frequent, and armies became larger, there came a moment when there was a need to standardize and perfect certain abilities so that they could be taught and used on a larger scale.

So which techniques were relevant in the 14th century? The Ogasawara ryu included teachings of horsmenship, foot archery and mounted archery. In addition, rules of ceremonial etiquette which were the foundation of the reiho we know today were presented. These teachings give us a glimpse of the formation of armies at that time, which were based on elite armed horsemen who specialized on archery. Of course, we know that a variety of other weapons was used, as well as foot soldiers, but the samurai elite seem to be those horsemen.

Over the next 300 years the armies became more and more complex, and there was a military need to create a structure of recon, firearms, engineering, siege, complicated logistic systems, coordination between different types of units on the battlefield, all that on a much larger scale, as the quantity of the soldiers became much bigger than in the past.

In these conditions many farmers were enlisted, by choice or by force, into the armies of different warlords. This created a situation where while a person may have had some knowledge in fighting, but he didn’t have the knowledge and abilities similar to those ancient samurai families from the 10th-13th century, who had a family tradition of passing martial knowledge. Therefore, he had to be taught martial ways by the instructors employed by his master.

About this time there was a new change at the concept of teaching martial arts:

The founder of Katori Shinto Ryu, Iizasa Inao (1387-1488 century) was a servant of the Chiba clan. During the Onin wars, the house of Chiba has fallen and Iizasa Inao was left without a master. He founded the Katori Shinto Ryu school, whose ideology supported the idea that it will not serve any Daimyo, and will teach its techniques to any student. This was a major reform, because unlike previous schools, which were supported by clans and warlords, the Katori Shinto Ryu made a serious attempt to avoid any political difficulties by becoming completely independent.

Izasa Choisai Ieano Founder of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

In the Tokugawa period, a relative peace existed over a long period of time, and that too had a major impact on the Japanese martial arts. The medieval class system, which made a clear separation between the samurai class and other Japanese, was only one of the major reforms that impacted the warrior culture and the methods of teaching martial arts. The values of the 16th century samurai were in many ways incompatible with peaceful times. So, while the shogunate used the samurai as a ruling class, it also had to make sure that the samurai will not become too aggressive or rebellious.

The martial art schools had to adapt to the new times. For example, while in older schools and descriptions of martial events we see that archery, horse riding, and spear/naginata fighting, in the 17th century we see more and more focus on swordsmanship. The two main reasons are: 1. The sword is always present on the samurai. 2. The older techniques are more fit for large scale operations, such as attacking armies, siege strongholds or perform large maneuvers, all those relevant to the 16th century but have little use in the peaceful Tokugawa period of 17th century onwards.

Another major impact on the methods of passing information of martial arts were the official forbidding of any type of “kenka” 喧嘩 (brawl or quarrel). A person who was caught in an open physical conflict could be executed, and his family thrown to the street and losing it’s samurai status.

So, there were practically no duels. And those who dueled had to do it in secret. This element, of two feuding samurai meeting secretly outdoors to solve their quarrel is mentioned in many classic Japanese samurai cinema.

But this issue made a great problem for the martial schools. The school masters had a difficulty of proving the effectivity of their techniques in real time. This led to several interesting results:

  1. Creating a philosophical base that is being taught in addition to the practical techniques.
  2. Supporting the myth of the divine origin of the school. The legend of the original creator who practiced many days in a shrine and then receiving a divine technique given to him by the gods is a common story which is shared by many old schools.
  3. Developing more and more refined techniques, which take many years to master.
  4. Creating many small details in reiho and practice, which will differ the school from other potential competitors.

In the 18th century we see more use of protective gear, the prototype of modern bogu that we use in naginata. This was the solution some schools had for the inability to test their prowess and abilities against other practitioners. This created tension between some old-style schools which insisted on teaching only trough the use of kata, and newer schools which insisted to use bogu and test their abilities on each other.

A 17th century picture from the 大坂夏の陣図屏風
picture from website

The 19th century saw a temporary re-discovery of the sword as a primary weapon in real-life situations. The turmoil of the 1860s saw the creation of the Shinsengumi by the Tokugawa shogunate – a counter rebellion unit that used terror methods to eliminate the political enemies of the Shogunate government.

The Shinsengumi recruited combatants from both samurai and non-samurai class, and also tested the recruits in entrance exams. They did not rely solely on certificates of accomplished martial art schools, but insisted the recruits to demonstrate their prowess.

Such entrance exam was showed in Takeshi Kitano’s movie “Taboo” from 1999. While we should always remember that the scene itself is a fiction, such examinations took place.

The Meiji reformation made the martial art schools make another step in its evolution. As it became clear that the classic samurai techniques have no more place in the modern battlefield, the martial arts schools became associated with peace, physical and mental development.

A few years ago, a documentary was published about the path of Nishimura Hidehisa, a kendoka who was twice an All Japan Kendo champion. The documentary follows Nishimura’s attempt to perfect his kendo, while abandoning previous habits that while brought him numerous victories, was seen by him as “not true kendo”. This documentary is very inspiring, and also shows how far the Japanese martial arts evolved, from being taught in small circles as practical methods to kill, to large schools which struggled through an ever changing political and social environment, and finally to the sportive self-empowerment tool which it is today.

Thank you for reading this short essay. Please remember that I am not a historian, and that English is not my first language.

Gur Nedzvetsky  

For this essay I used as sources the following:

An online lecture by the Russian historian A. Gorbylov who specializes on Japanese medieval history.

Karl Friday’s “Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan (Warfare and History)”

A. Bennett’s Naginata: History and Practice.