Physical Training Sept 2009
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Changes in Koryu:
A Case Study from Hyoho Niten Ichiryu

Alex Cook 2009 : Niten Ichiryu
Colin Watkin and Kim Taylor: Calgary Niten Seminar
Photo by Alexander Cook

copyright 2009 Kim Taylor
, all rights reserved

To a large extent, a koryu represents the thought of the headmaster. The training and the art follows his intent, his understanding and his needs. The art can change quite dramatically within a short period if the headmaster deems it necessary to make the change.

In this article I am going to give my interpretation of a change in the Hyoho Niten Ichiryu training method. These, I must warn, are my own thoughts, reflecting almost 18 years of practice in the art, but in such a way that I was left for long periods between seminars to come to my own understanding. My speculations were prompted by a physical change in how the techniques are performed and I will give a history of my own practice to explain the changes.

My introduction to Hyoho Niten Ichiryu was under Matsuo Haruna sensei around 1992. Haruna sensei taught at the Musashi dojo in Ohara, Okuyama which is one of the towns that claim to be the birthplace of Miyamoto Musashi, the founder of Niten Ichiryu. Haruna sensei practiced under three headmasters of the school, the 8th (Kikuo Aoki sensei), 9th (Tadanao Kiyonaga sensei) and tenth (Masayuki Imai sensei). I studied with Haruna sensei until his death several years ago and, after a short time, had the pleasure of meeting and practicing with the tenth headmaster, Imai sensei and his successor the 11th headmaster Toshio Iwami sensei.

It was during the first meeting with Imai soke that I realized the techniques had changed quite dramatically from what I had learned. From videos of past performances, I knew that the changes were something that Imai sensei himself had instituted, so it was necessary for me to understand why he had done so, rather than to simply assume that I had learned something different from a different instructor. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to practice more than one time with Imai sensei so I was left to my own thoughts and those of his students.

When a student of any art encounters changes made by very senior instructors it is necessary to try and understand why the changes were made, rather than to turn away from them and stick with "the traditional way" or to otherwise ignore sensei's direction.

The changes included a drastic reduction in the number of kata commonly practiced and changes to the techniques themselves. I will use the very first kata, Sasen, to illustrate the technical changes. As in many other sword schools, all of the art can be summed up in this very first kata that a student learns. I will call the first way I learned the kata the "old" way and the way Imai sensei taught it the "new" way. This reflects nothing except the order in which I learned them.

Sasen or Sashisen is a move to the right front to avoid a downward cut, with a simultaneous thrust to the throat of the opponent. It is performed from a one-handed gedan position and the thrust is one handed as well.

"Old" style: 

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Fig 1Fig 2Fig 3Fig 3b

The attacker approaches with the blade held in a hasso kamae, the elbows wide and the forearms parallel to the floor (Fig 1-2). At a one-step distance the attacker pauses to build tension and attacks explosively extending the arms up and over in a full strike that comes down through the defender's head above his left eye (Fig 3). The cut is directly from the hasso position and does not center above the head.

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Fig 4Fig 5Fig 5b

The defender is in a one handed gedan, the sword down at the right side, the left hand down at the left side. There is a slight tightening of the right hand to put tension in the tip of the sword and this lifts it slightly. The tip is aimed at the attacker's left knee as they approach. As the attacker pauses the defender gathers power in the left foot and the tip of the sword. At the cut the defender moves explosively to the right front, the right hand moves in a slightly circular motion, caused by turning the blade 90 degrees so that the edge faces the right, from the right hip to the left side of the opponent's throat. The left hand moves up to the left hip at the same time and the thumb comes behind the hip while the fingers stay in front. The hips are down and the legs are long so that the shin of the left leg is vertical, the left foot facing slightly forward. The right knee is over the right toes and the right foot faces the target. The power of the thrust comes in a spiral down the right arm, through the center of balance and into the ground through the left foot.

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On a general level, the old sasen is taught (as are many other koryu kenjutsu), as a relaxed move to the side to avoid a strike, and a simultaneous counterstrike.

The angle of the thrust of the old technique is rather unusual, with the blade held sideways and the angle of the thrust coming in a rather spiral motion from tip to left foot. The stance is very long and the hips very low.

On the opposing side, uchidachi (the attacking partner) moves forward in a hasso kamae with the elbows wide, and the attacking cut is done with a large movement and a long low stance at the finish of the cut.

New style:

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Fig 6Fig 7Fig 8Fig 8b

For the new sasen the attacker moves into hasso with the elbows somewhat more relaxed than the old version (Fig 6). The wrists are then tightened on the hilt and the bokuto is driven upward in line with the hasso position so that the elbows move together and the arms and shoulders are stretched upward (Fig 7). As the bokuto moves upward the body and chest is also lifted, the stomach and hips tightened. From this position of tension the attacker moves into a one-step distance, pauses and then cuts explosively down onto the defender, directly from the chambered position of the bokuto (Fig 8).

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Fig 9Fig 10

The defender begins in a gedan position, and then raises both hands up to the hips while raising the chest and tightening the stomach and hips (Fig 9). From this position the defender responds to the attacker and moves into a one-step distance, loading the left foot and the right hip. As the attacker cuts down the defender drives his hip to the right front which moves his body off the line of the cut. At the same time the defender drives the tip of the blade directly forward into the defender's left throat while keeping the edge downward an the bokuto in line with the right hip (Fig 10). The power of the thrust moves straight down the bokuto, into the right hip and to the rear foot. The rear foot is kept angled much more forward, the hips more square and the stance shorter than the old method, which allows a further thrust to be made if necessary, and that thrust is made as the attacker begins his retreat to a mutual distance at the end of the kata.

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In contrast, the new sasen is done from a one handed sasen which is raised up much higher on the hip, and is done with the chest up, stomach tight. The thrust is also now more similar to other koryu, coming directly from the right hip with the edge down on a straight line to the throat.

The uchidachi moves from a more or less relaxed hasso position into an elbows in, high position which is more or less at the top of the swing (furi kaburi), his chest is up, stomach, hips and legs tight. The cut comes directly from this position combined with a very strong hip movement forward and finishing with a shorter stance.

These are the technical changes in sasen, and they are reflected in the other kata. As I mentioned, when I first met Imai sensei he had reduced the number of techniques dramatically as well, although they were later increased to include the entire curriculum once more.

Why? This is the question that I now needed to answer, why would any headmaster change the school in such a dramatic manner? The first thing to understand is that the answer is unlikely to have anything to do with a technically better way of defeating someone in a sword fight. We don't fight with swords any more, and a technical improvement (perhaps resulting from a sudden insight) in using the sword would most likely not involve changing the way the attacking partner used his sword too. The arts teach many things, including how to properly use a sword, but effective sword fighting is not necessarily high on the list of most important benefits. Again, while I caution that what follows is my own understanding of the change, the change is actual, so we can take it as read that koryu can change and change dramatically in a short period of time.

I believe that in the years prior to Imai sensei's death, the Niten Ichiryu, like many of the koryu, had been losing students. When this happens, or when the current students of an art have less time to practice, the number of techniques that are regularly studied is reduced. At the same time, those students who are left need to be brought along more quickly or need to reach a high performance level quickly for when embu are presented.

This may explain the reduced study set but why the changes to the techniques? Without actually practicing the new techniques it would be difficult to understand their effects. In a nutshell, what I noticed almost immediately is that the new practice method uses changes in body position in such a way as to create an adrenalin dump. This physiological effect brings students to a very high pitch very quickly, so quickly that at that first seminar I hit a long-time training partner square on the head and the only thing in my mind was "YES! Got him!".

How does this happen? As I mentioned, the new method is quite different from the old, and from many other sword arts. The weight is carried high, the chest up and forward, the stomach and hips are tightened This makes the breathing shallow and high in the chest which creates a feeling of anxiety. Most martial arts strive to make the student calm by deep breathing and relaxed shoulders. The move from hasso into a higher ready position for the attacker means that a feeling of tension is created which is released very suddenly at the defender. The defender must also move to the same high pitch of readiness in order to avoid being hit. The entire process means that adrenalin pours into the system and practice becomes very tiring even if it's only a short one. It is not uncommon to leave a short practice with the arms and legs shaking.

The stances in the new method are also shorter and more square, more, if I may say it, Kendo-like compared to the older koshimi position which was deep and long, a final movement. The shorter stance implies that the fight may continue, or that other attackers may appear. The longer stance assumes that the fight has reached a place of some space, if not the finish.

Finally, the thrust change has come about, I believe, because the older style is more difficult to perform quickly and more or less requires the long finishing stance. The more direct new thrust means the technique can be done within the time of the shorter attacking cut.

Have these changes brought about their intended result? Are there now more students in the art? I would think that the answer is yes, there are now many students in the west who are actively studying under Iwami soke and other instructors of the school. Will the old style of training eventually be practiced again? That I do not know, it is entirely the decision of the current headmaster who will make his decisions according to his own assesment of the needs of the art, the students and his own understanding of Hyoho Niten Ichiryu.

In this small article I have attempted to demonstrate that the koryu do indeed change, and I have given my understanding of why a major change in one koryu has come about through the decision of a headmaster who was responding to the needs of his art.

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