Physical Training Aug 2002

Why Koryu? Does rare really mean better

by Kim Taylor
Copyright © Kim Taylor 2002. All rights reserved.

By chance, and by the great virtue of hanging around the dojo for a couple of decades I have managed to pick up a couple of koryu sword arts. Koryu, for those who aren't concerned with the esoterica of the Japanese weapon arts, means "old school" and is usually defined as those arts formed before the Meiji resoration, pre 1868. One of the schools I've managed to practice is the Niten Ichi-ryu which is pretty rarely practiced in Japan and similarly so in the West. The school is, however, quite well known since it was founded by Miyamoto Musashi. As a result, I must get an average of 3 emails, calls or letters a month from all over the world asking "Is there a Niten Ichi-ryu school in my city?" or even "Can I be your uchi-deshi?". The answer is always, of course no, but I am left mystified as to why anyone would want to study an art that is so rare.

Kim Taylor and Mike Castellani doing niten ichi-ryu
Kim Taylor and Mike Castellani doing niten ichi-ryu

Now I've been around for a couple of years and have seen "secret arts" come and go, like Judo, Karate, Kung fu, Ninja, and Brazillian JuJutsu, all in their turn, and I know that folks do seem to flock to the "new kid on the block". I think it's the search for the secret weapon, that technique that nobody has ever seen which will therefore work every time in the back alleyway. I can also appreciate the desire to "get in on the ground floor", after all the first guys in tend to end up at the top of the pile, and get there a lot easier than those who come afterward. Rank tests always seem to get tougher as the years pass and the heirarchy gets filled up. I can even understand to a certain extent the romantic notion that we're going to "preserve the cultural heritage" of a rare martial art by keeping it alive for another generation. What I can't understand is why anyone would actually want to bother with any of that.

Let's take my situation, I know the kata of the Niten Ichi-ryu, or at least I know the kata as they were practiced several years ago. I have it on good authority that they have been changed in the last couple of years by the headmaster which means that I may now be "out of date" er pardon me... "inheritor of a sub-style of the art" (take your pick). Let's say, for argument's sake, that makes me the only source of the (sub)style in the world. Now you're a student who wants to learn the art of Musashi because you figure it would be cool to wave two swords around (a reason as good as any other) and you come from South America or Europe to study at my feet. You're here for a couple years, or here for a week a year for 10 years or whatever, and then you go home.

What have you got? First, you were lucky you didn't piss me off so that I just kicked you out the door and told you go go home, you actually got the whole thing. You now have a knowledge of the techniques of Niten Ichi-ryu but no rank, no permission to teach them, and no teacher. What do you do now? Well you could keep coming back to practice with me I suppose but hey, you've pretty much got all I can give you so all you'll learn from me is how I've changed my mind in the last year, or more likely, how I mis-remember the techniques.

So here we have the crux of the matter. What was the point of all that? Did you learn any secret technique that could allow you to defeat any other swordsman? I don't think so, trust me in this, there's nothing earth-shatteringly unique about Niten Ichi-ryu or any other koryu I've ever seen. A katana or tachi can only be used in so many ways. Pointy end forward, don't get hit, hit him a good one where it hurts most. Did you learn secret and esoteric mind control techniques? How to be a better person due to exposure to my aura? Not bloody likely. I teach as I was taught, do the kata. Not much meditation and philosophizing, you can do that on your own time or with someone else who likes doing that kind of stuff. I bin there, done that and got the slap marks on the shoulders. Now I do kata.

Learning a koryu means learning from a very small set of potential instructors, a tiny bit at a time (unless you actually live near one of the instructors in which case it makes sense to study it). It means that most of the time you aren't learning a damned thing, and what you aren't learning much about, isn't all that different from other, much more readily available arts.

hasso hidari 1
hasso hidari 2
hasso hidari 3
Jeff Broderick and Kim Taylor
hasso hidari, second kata of niten ichi-ryu

You see, you can learn pretty much everything technically available in most koryu in kendo, iaido, or kendo no kata. Honest, take a look at the second kata in the niten ichi-ryu, it's called "hasso hidari". Walk up and cut him in the neck as he tries to cut your head, there's no missing pieces there, that's the kata.

The esoteric stuff is maybe taught by some, but not by other sensei, so it's hit or miss there, and you're as likely to be taught that stuff by one of the "mainstream" sensei as by the koryu fellow hiding in the hills. But the best part is that you can learn some of the mainstream stuff from me (say ZNKR iai or jodo) and then go back home and learn some from the fellow in the next province over, and then go to Japan and learn some from a sensei there and then...

Get my drift? In the rarely seen and practiced koryu you may be able to say "I practice that and you don't" but in the more "common" arts you get to say "I'm learning, and will likely keep learning for the rest of my life".

Personally, I'd recommend learning. Of course if you happen to live next door to me, by all means ask if I know of anyone who knows a strange and little practiced koryu style.

Kim Taylor is the chief instructor at the University of Guelph Sei Do Kai. He has been teaching Iaido since 1987 and holds the rank of 6dan in iaido and 3dan in jodo from the Canadian Kendo Federation. The Sei Do Kai hosts seminars throughout the year and details can be obtained at the Sei Do Kai website.
Physical Training Aug 2002