I have been thinking about this one for a while. Koryu practitioners can be known for their elitism and secrecy, so I can see why some people might view involvement with a koryu as cult behaviour.
|Amaterasu - Japanese Sun Goddess|
So, let's explore the idea of a cult. A simple definition is a social group that is devoted to or worships a person or object.
In a martial art where people believe there to be cult behaviour the sensei is often the object of the devotion or worship. This is easy to understand as many people come to the martial arts to learn from a teacher. Some people have watched films or read books about wise, old Japanese men who pass on their martial prowess to those who are worthy. They can sometimes come along to a dojo with the idea that they must prove their worth to the sensei. There is an instant power imbalance in this relationship.
A clip from Napoleon Dynamite illustrates this nicely.
Now that was fairly blatant and as one of the characters says at the end, "Well, that was a rip off."
So if many people already believe they have to prove themselves to the teacher, this could lead to all sorts of problems. New students may tolerate behaviour from their teacher that may deem unacceptable in another setting. They may not be as ready to question their teacher's actions because they are being 'tested'. So this opens up an opportunity for a less-than-decent person to exploit the situation. Of course this happens in religion, public education and just about anywhere else where there is a teacher-student relationship. In martial arts however, we deal with violence. This is to be expected. So how this situation can be abused is concerning. Not wanting to veer off topic too much, the martial arts has its fair share of egomaniacs that use this medium to manipulate and exploit others, sometimes to a point of creating cult-like behaviour. In fact my aikido sensei was subjected to this very thing early in his life and had to come to terms with breaking away from that toxic environment. So does it happen in koryu? My answer? I am not sure. I have not experienced it nor do I know anyone who has. But people being people, most probably, somewhere, sometime.
I think what leads some people to generalise about koryu and claim they are all cult-like is some of the differences to the shinbudo (modern Japanese martial arts). Phrases such as "Your life belongs to the school" and "The school is more important than you" are thrown around when people argue about koryu being cult-like.
The reality is you have an obligation to do what you can. We all have to keep our jobs and commit to our families, what time and money is left we dedicate to our training. Most koryu practitioners I know (not that many to be fair) are intelligent people who question things. They are not sheep. So I do not think they would still be students of a koryu if they thought they were in a cult.
In my very limited experience, people teaching in a koryu are often no-nonsense types that are happy to accept people but not concerned if the student walks away either. They are there to train and pass on the knowledge of their own teachers to their students. It is not so much that what they have to teach you is secret or special its just that it took them a long time to learn what they know and they know what is required to get you there. So if a student is appearing flaky or trying to move quickly through the curriculum when they are not ready for it, the teacher must address this. This might make them seem cagey or grumpy or even 'secretive' if you like, but at the heart of the matter it is the simple fact that the student is not grasping what is being taught.
A sensei that is ambiguous about their training history is someone to be careful of. A koryu sensei will be up-front about the lineage of his or her school and who taught them, why wouldn't they? They really have nothing to hide. Although asking these questions on the mat might not be the best time as they want you to train. However, off the mat, while out at dinner or over a few drinks they will happily discuss history and lineage and they will want to get to know you. Your character is important to them as you may be carrying on what they know in the future.
Another aspect of koryu that lends itself to criticism is some of the archaic practises and rituals that the school may contain. Koryu have their roots in a different time period, when Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism were very important to the people of the time. Students will participate in these practices to maintain a particular mindset or attitude but that doesn't mean we have to believe in all the hocus-pocus. For instance the utterance of a prayer to ask the martial spirits and ancestors to watch over our practice does not mean I believe that invisible spirits are watching me but it reminds me of the people that have trained before me and the respect I should have for the art while practising.
At the end of the day I can say, faithfully, that I am not in a cult-like martial arts school. I am sure some exist but hopefully what I have written above clears up some of the ambiguity.
Take care and keep training.