Reflections on Budo/Bujutsu and the development of systems.
Inspired by a 2003 paper by scholar and martial artist Karl Friday on the evolution of martial arts traditions in Japan. Some personal thoughts and observations.
Karl Friday’s insightful paper switched on a load of lightbulbs in my head, and what I am intending to do is synthesise some of the key takeaways and explain why this got me so excited.
Advance apologies; this could get a little nerdy on the history if I let it get out of control, but I am going to crunch the information down into bite-size pieces so that (hopefully) the thread remains coherent.
What we generally got wrong (according to Professor Friday).
Now for some myth-busting.
· We tend to believe that ‘Do’ (the Way) and the ideas behind it didn’t exist until the modern age, and ‘Jutsu’ was the sole backbone of martial training from the early medieval period onwards, suggesting that these remote martial ancestors were technicians of war, and that was all there was to them. Friday says that this is wrong and that the higher ideals of ‘Do’ were always there.
· ‘It is common knowledge that the dominant weapon of the samurai was the sword’. Again, completely wrong. The main weapon was actually the bow, and way down the bottom of the list were ancillary weapons which included the sword.
· Finally, we like to buy into the idea that the majority of the established martial Ryu originated in the medieval period, hammered into shape on the battlefield. That never happened. With the estimated number of combatants in the field, that would have meant that there were thousands of Ryu and there simply weren’t. Warfare wasn’t like we would assume it to be; it was about moving huge numbers around, with much skirmishing that may have meant some individual chaotic mad forays. Archaeological evidence, looking at battlefield injuries, suggested very little that would look like glamourised samurai duelling with swords etc.
The Ryu and the Perfection of technique and character.
Friday says that the proliferation of the ‘Ryu-ha’ that sprang up during (and slightly before) the relatively peaceful Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868) had at their heart the idea of self-perfection through dedication to technique. At that time, the overall idea was nothing new; if compared to other ‘artforms’ (e.g. the Tea Ceremony) the new Budo/Bujutsu schools followed an identical vision to these long-established disciplines, which was an underpinning ideology and quest towards perfection. I think it says something about human vision and higher aspiration that people seek refinement and continual growth through such diverse activities. It is amazing to think that in old Japanese culture the developmental envelope was being pushed through such activities as rituals based around the drinking of tea; arranging flowers, theatrical forms, the writing of poetry, calligraphy and of course martial arts!
The founders of these new martial Ryu-ha were not sampling cobbled-together bunches of techniques; they were creating ‘systems’. This was a whole bigger deal, way beyond battlefield skills.
For me, personally, it has always been the explorations of the concept of ‘systems’ that has yielded the most benefits in regard to my own understanding of how the martial arts worked. The Tokugawa period innovators, the founders of the systems, displayed their true genius in their root ideas and core principles. The truth of their Ryu is not to be found in their catalogue of techniques, but instead in the coherence of their systems and the underpinning structure and methodology – this is the really clever stuff.
Professor Friday also points out that times of peace created the luxury of a more extended apprenticeship for Ryu initiates, as well as allowing the trainee to work for a more prolonged period with their Sensei, uninterrupted by warfare and mobilisation. All of this gave the leaders of the Ryu-ha and their generational inheritors the freedom to develop their tradition.
The missing elements – where, perhaps weaknesses become strengths.
Back in the Tokugawa period, as peace dragged on and the population thrived on the relative stability, it has to be said that the martial artists of each generation had less and less actual combat experience. While it is true that they had the occasional domestic scuffles, or maybe duels, perhaps even endorsed ‘Dojo-on-Dojo’ clashes, actual battlefield experience was not happening. But, what did that actually mean?
Note: we need to be careful what ‘battlefield experience’ actually was (as mentioned earlier).
So, if we take it that battlefield reality was very different from what we would assume, this means that for the trainee of the Tokugawa period those references became more and more vague, or even romanticised. But it could be said that they lost something, and gained something else.
The big ‘gain’ was that out of this came all of the opportunities to really polish the craft and add on valuable and meaningful layers of refinement of character through the crucible of training in technique, as well as moral development which elevated things on to a higher intellectual plane. This is the upwards evolutionary development of ‘Michi’ or ‘Do’, the ‘Way’ which was actually first defined in the medieval period; but here we see it really blossoming.
Friday cites the examples of martial arts innovators like Iizasa Choisai, founder of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shito Ryu swordsmanship and Tsukahara Bokuden, whose quest for mastering the sword (and spear) was idiosyncratic and certainly out of step with what earlier battlefield training was understood to be. With these two (and others), the suggestion being that their personalised search for perfection through their art might have been seen at the time as being self-indulgent and idealistic, almost in the same mode as Don Quixote and his tilting at windmills. These individuals may have been dreamers or cranks, but the systems they produced became the benchmark for human achievement in the disciplines and the arts.
Obviously, these systems developed over time and new layers of sophistication appeared that made medieval battlefield warfare look like beating each other over the heads with clubs – or, at least brought the emphasis on to those aspects of combat that were previously considered ‘ancillary’ and away from the bow and massed halberd strategies. This saw the rise of these very individual aspects of combat (including kenjutsu and jujutsu).
What is really interesting to me is that as decades and then centuries passed by the opportunities or demands to ‘prove oneself’ diminished, eventually getting to the stage where duelling with the naked blade was wiped out completely in Japan. But, somehow, still the urge to refine the arts of swordsmanship and other skills continued.
The perpetual question from the pragmatists and the utilitarians of today has to be, ‘why bother’? ‘We don’t carry swords around anymore’. This has always annoyed these types of critic – incidentally, the same type of people who today fume on the side-lines when they see Wado Tanto Dori, decrying it as ‘pointless’ and ‘not realistic’, missing the whole objective by a country mile. For them, unless there is a war to be fought, why bother? So, as if to fill the gap, they invent a ‘war’, one that features modern day, random instances of urban violence (see my blog posts ‘You’d better hope you never have to use it’, Part 1, and Part 2 and, ‘Personal Security and Society, a Different Perspective’. )
Liberation to study and train.
But the good news for people today who still wave swords (or tanto) around, is, if you are prepared to call it what it is you are unfettered and can really dig deep into the art. You can ignore the urban warriors, (who deep down are yearning for the Zombie Apocalypse so they can strut their stuff), you can rise above it all. After all, the practitioners of traditional martial arts like Kyudo (archery) or Kendo never have to face aggressive interrogations from some bloke who has done two years of kickboxing or Muay Thai telling them that their martial art is ‘crap’ and they wouldn’t be able to use it in a bar fight! No, the rarefied air of the higher mountain is yours; you are unimpeded and free to develop and fully explore your chosen discipline.
Ironically, ‘development’ has never been a dirty word in the world of ‘traditional’ martial arts. This is something that continues today, it’s woven into the fabric. Yes, there are those who accept, even embrace atrophy in the name of tradition, we see the same thing in Wado karate, but they go the same way as the Dodo or the Woolley Mammoth. But when it’s done properly, development is treated respectfully and thoughtfully and not something to be indulged in on random whims, or just to follow some personalised hobbyhorse.
There have always been the innovators within these traditions. Intrepid individuals have sought out ways to ‘pressure test’ their systems. I have seen examples of this that have gone much further than just setting up a competitive format, which, at its worst can just slip down to the lowest common denominator. Instead, if it’s done with the right end in mind, it really reinforces and validates all the hard work that precedes it. The best examples do it not need to indulge in some juvenile fantasy or to burn off an excess of testosterone, or even to win trophies, but instead to test the hardwiring and tease out the weaknesses; this is much more productive and meaningful.
When taken as a whole, the general evolution of the Japanese martial arts has been a process of development and refinement.
Oh it is easy to get lost in the weeds, or buying into a fantasy. We also know that in Japan some of the really substantial and meaningful old Ryu have withered on the vine and just become extinct. But these tragedies are, in some cases, inevitable and their demise is not down to the systems themselves, but down to individuals who, for one reason or another, dropped the ball; they slipped into decline either through just ‘events’, or through lack of vision and foresight. And, let’s not forget that in some cases, in the urgency to prevent them from total decline, the decisions were taken for certain martial arts to become homogenised and in the process were mercilessly neutered. Sadly, this process is still going on today.
I will end on a positive note though. As Karl Friday points out, there is absolutely nothing to gain from trying to resurrect medieval techniques, other than academic curiosity; it would be a bit like trying to go all ‘Jurassic Park’ on strands of Neanderthal DNA; an abomination with consequences that is helpful to nobody.
Look instead at the high points of martial art development; look towards the Bukoden’s of history, or the Yagyu clan, or the achievements of martial arts masters like Yamaoka Tesshu and many others not mentioned in mainstream history.
And what about us, and the part we have to play?
There is no point in aspiring towards lofty goals as an objective in itself; instead maintain a solid work ethic, give full rein to your curiosity and train really hard, but in a way that is intelligent and focussed, and bring people with you. That last point is really important. The presence of others, their comradeship, support and inspiration is like fuel to your fire; nurture it and it will serve you well.
Image: Battle scene, 1860, artist, Yoshitsuya Utogawa (1822 -1866). Author’s collection.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to author and martial artist Robert Vernooy for drawing my attention to the original article (Link below).
Battlefield injuries revealed blunt force, even from thrown rocks. A bit like recent investigations of Crimea War cemeteries that revealed that British soldiers killed most of their enemy by either battering them with a musket used as a club, or kicking them to death with good old British army boots.
A more modern example of that would be the sad loss of talented Japanese martial artists who fell victim to the war machine of 1941 to 1945.