Once work colleagues or people outside my close circle of friends hear that I practice martial arts the next logical question from them is, "What martial arts do you practise?"
I have found this hard to answer. I used to say 'jujutsu' but this would lead to people thinking I did Brazilian Jujutsu and was rolling around on mats and choking or tapping people out. Irritatingly, this is what most people think jujutsu is. So I changed my answer to 'an old Japanese martial art with swords'. This tends to get people thinking in the right direction but they started to think I was a ninja or samurai (eye-rolling at this point).
Lately (in the last two years or so), I have revised my answer once again. This time to, "I practice a classical Japanese sword art." I like this answer for a few reasons. First of all, the term 'classical' indicates something old. It's very definition is that of being traditional or long-established. This is very true of koryu bujutsu. Secondly, it is of Japanese origin. Martial arts have many cultural backgrounds, I want the people asking to know that my tradition is strictly Japanese. Finally, I mention the word 'sword' so that they don't automatically think about the many empty hand fighting arts that come to mind when thinking martial arts. Even though my school does train without weapons, that is not our focus, so this is my answer. It tends to satisfy the curious while keeping true to what I do. If they have further questions or want an actual name then I will tell them that I practice Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. This is usually more than enough! Just uttering that phrase tends to blow their minds.
This line of thought triggered this blog post. I would like to go a little deeper into what is koryu bujutsu? Now, I do not read or speak fluent Japanese and my understanding is simply my own based on conversations with and reading by those that know better than I do. So, I do not claim to be an expert on this subject. I am simply, as always, writing down my thoughts on the matter.
Let's start with looking at the word 'koryu'. The characters that make up ko-ryu can be read as "old" and "flow". Essentially, this refers to styles or traditions of Japan of a particular past time such as flower arranging, tea making, dance and of course the fighting arts. Therefore, I can't simply say I practice a koryu. It is too broad. Therefore, I can add the word "bujutsu", meaning "martial arts". So you could translate koryu bujutsu as old school martial arts. Now, the words bujutsu and budo can be used interchangeably and have a fascinating history in English interpretation. There are some lines of thought that classify bujutsu as martial arts that focus on combat effectiveness while budo are martial "ways" that focus on self perfection and morals. I believe Donn Draeger was the first person to place a difference on these two words. However, others have said that most Japanese do not see a difference between the words at all. Some old school Japanese practitioners will say they study budo.
Ellis Amdur mentions in his writing that one of his own Japanese sensei didn't like the word kobudo (old martial way) as to him it meant something fixed and dead, like an antique. This sensei preferred, instead, to say koryu budo (old flow martial way) - an art that flows from the past to the present, still developing and relevant to the world.
I tend to use the term budo for my general practise of TSYR and aikido but if I am specifically talking about TSYR I will refer to it as a koryu bujutsu. I never say koryu budo. It just doesn't sound right in my head. Each to their own.
Amdur writes that the koryu bujutsu were established as entities that used combative practice as a binding force. Their purpose to teach the practitioners how to function perfectly as a member of the samurai (warrior class) under the leadership of the daimyo (feudal lord) whom the bushi served. To the modern observer it may appear that training in these old schools simply comprises of mimicking a preset series of movements called kata. It is far more than this. If we look between the lines at what Amdur has written we can see that at its heart, studying koryu bujustu demands loyalty from its practitioners. The ryu flows through its members (remember the translation "old flow") and when you sign up to be participant in one of these archaic arts, your individual wants or needs in your practice become second to the maintenance of the ryu itself. You are loyal to the headmaster and loyal to keeping the practice going into the next generation. Threadgill sensei discusses loyalty in "Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique." He mentions that loyalty should not be trivialised in a society where individuality takes priority. In other words, western culture. One must not let ego get in the way of real loyalty. The type of loyalty he writes about is not that of a mindless drone. More that of a thinking person who has made a conscious choice to be loyal to the ryu. Amdur describes this type of group loyalty as similar to a wolf pack. At first glance, wolves might play and frolic about but as soon as the leader prepares to hunt or perceives a threat, the whole pack is on the alert. They are finely attuned to the alpha's moods. Such is the case with koryu members who may appear to joke around with each other or tell stories before training begins. However, as soon as the sensei kneels to bow in, without a word, the casual joviality stops and everyone lines up ready for class. Immediate focus and calm ensues.
I have battled with the balance of loyalty between my training, family and work for years. I have written about it from time to time on this blog. However, I have settled on this working paradigm for now - my family is first, my work is second and then koryu bujustu fills in the remainder of my time. I study a martial art so I can learn to use physical power to protect my family and others (family first). I work to obtain money to support my family (family first) and my koryu practice, therefore work needs to be second. However, once I have satisfied my needs for family and work, koryu training must be my priority. Let me clarify this. Having a drink down at the local bar is not as important as training. Binge watching a television series is not as important as training. Thinking "I can't be bothered going out to the dojo today" is not good enough. If I have time, I should be training. Now, training not only includes going through the physical movements of kata. It could writing my blog, reading one of many books on the subject I have yet to get to or cleaning and maintaining my sword. I can be practical about this.
Right now, my country is in lock-down as it comes to grips with COVID-19. I am fortunate in that I can work from home. My children are home with me and my wife can also work from home. My daily routine supports my priorities. First of all I keep my family safe, we follow the health suggestions by our government and stay in our 'bubble'. We wash our hands well and only my wife is going out for essentials - family first. Secondly, I am a high school teacher so I am working from a digital platform for now. I make sure I am up-to-date with my work commitments online. Once they are satisfied I go out to my dojo and train for 30 mins to an hour depending on what I am working on, every day except Mondays. I give myself Mondays off from physical training - today is Monday.I also read books about martial arts and write these posts. My mind is never far from TSYR or budo in general.
My relationship with other deshi in the kai is quite unique as well. I cover these in more detail in this post. It is a very unique situation where I am part of an international community.
So, that is my thoughts on this crazy obsession of mine.
Train safe and wash your hands.