AND BUDO, A LOOK AT KORYU "SNOBBERY"
By Dave Lowry
My Peugeot ten-speed is, to my way of thinking, if not the classiest mode
of transportation in the neighbourhood, certainly a very stylish way for
any twelve-year-old to perambulate to the outer reaches of my world. Gears
ratcheting into place with an efficient metallic click, hills and straight-aways
alike open before me, conquered with near-effortless pedaling. My companions
are all still at the helm of those clunky old Schwinns, the ones with
tyres the size of Polish sausages. Earthbound knaves, deprived of the
nobility of my just incredibly nifty bike. I can but briefly pity them
as I flash by, leaving them panting in my dusty wake. My world spins neatly
as a derallieur, my sense of self is as sleek and sophisticated as the
downward curving bend of my handlebars.
And then comes the new kid.
And he is out on the street-my street-and he is pedaling something the
likes of which I have never seen. Nobody in the neighbourhood has ever
seen anything like this contraption. It's a bicycle, clearly. Of some
sort. But instead of sitting atop it, he's down between the wheels. No
handlebars; he steers with a couple of levers on both sides. It is a remarkable
sight and becomes no less so after he explains, when the other kids in
the neighbourhood ask him about it, it is a recumbent bike.
The recumbent is a whole different approach to bicycle technology. It
doesn't appear any faster than my ten-speed. Doesn't seem any easier to
pedal. There isn't anything he can do with it that I can't do with my
bike. It is just different-looking. And I am massively bugged about it.
I was the coolest kid around when my ten-speed was the ne plus ultra of
pre-adolescent transportation. Watching him cycle up and down the street
on the cursed recumbent, I don't feel so special any more. My bicycle
is no more the standard by which cool is measured in my world, at least
not in terms of getting around in it. I am no longer unique. The new kid
isn't rubbing it in, mind you. He isn't bragging about what a superior
bike his is, isn't claiming it can do anything remarkable beyond what
mine or any other bicycle can do. It is, he has explained, a different
technology for bicycling; that's all. And maybe in some ways that makes
it all the worse. If he was blowing about how much better his bicycle
was than mine, if he was insisting it was a "real" bicycle and
mine was just a toddler's plaything, then there'd be something concrete
against for me to rail. Lacking the substance of such frictional resistance,
I am bereft any legitimate or logical or meaningful complaints against
the new kid. So I have to make some up. I do it by assigning to him motives
that are less than salutary and which are, in fact, positively venal.
I attack him by suggesting his bike represents a deliberate attempt to
"be different," to "show me up." I do it the way children
have always responded under such circumstances. I stand on the kerb and
watch him ride back and forth, up and down the street and consumed with
jealousy and a sense of not measuring up somehow, I mutter with what I
hope fervently will be interpreted as a sneer of derision, "He thinks
he's so cool!"
Okay, actually I never owned a Peugeot. Even so, I am all too familiar
with the general frame of the vituperative "he thinks he's so cool"
elicitation. I see it about once a month. I'm exaggerating. Though not
by much. With predictable frequency, the sentiment manifests itself in
attitudes expressed on Internet sites, in some of the more serious literature
devoted to the martial arts, and in correspondence I receive from readers.
I encounter the reaction "he thinks he's so cool" so often I
have come to associate the word "koryu," in fact, with the "snob"
that now seems to follows it as reliably as news of a breakup follows
headlines about Jennifer Lopez's matrimonial activities du jour. Detailed
Internet conversations are devoted exclusively to "koryu snobbery."
Koryu snobs are held in general disdain and serve as straw dogs for bashing
or kicking or whatever it is you do to straw dogs. The concept of the
koryu snob has become solidified in the imagination of some. So much so
that not long ago more than half the body of a review of a book about
koryu in English was given over not to the subject of the book or its
treatment, but to the personalities and alleged motives of those writers
who compiled it. Not koryu or its treatment in the book, but koryu snobbery
was the preoccupation of the reviewer. Indeed, it is a mentality and attitude
reflected in much of the opinion expressed by a fair percentage of the
population of martial artists who concern themselves with such matters.
I am old enough to remember when koryu were first presented to Americans
in books and some scattered articles and publications like the late Donn
Draeger's Martial Arts International back in the Sixties. It was a time
when I probably owned literally everything published in English about
the koryu-and it all fit easily on a single shelf. So I am still astonished
to see these arts have become widely (if not entirely accurately) known
in martial arts circles and even, to some extent, to the general public.
Even more so to discover they have come to be associated with some kind
of elitism and cliqueishness. Like the new kid in the neighbourhood, pedaling
his new-fangled contraption innocently down the street, those who have
devoted an enormous percentage of their lives to the koryu have come under
rebarbative scrutiny from those loitering kerbside. They have been excoriated
by individuals whose motivations appear less genuine as authentic criticism
and more as tantrums of jealousy. More to the point, their commentaries,
insights, and experience have, when they are offered for consumption in
books, articles, or Internet correspondence, been dismissed out of hand.
They are, after all, a coterie of snobs. Logrolling one another and congratulating
themselves on their special status. And so little or nothing they say
can be relevant or objective or worth any more than the contributions
of those whose perceptions and exposure to koryu have scarcely more depth
than the TV ruminations of Dr. Phil. Am I being unfair? Overly sensitive?
Let's define terms. Koryu are literally, "old traditions." Most
readers will be aware of at least the structure and general nature of
the ryu itself. It is an organised system devoted to some area of learning
or art or activity that is transmitted through a direct lineage between
generations of teachers and students. The ryu is uniquely Japanese. It
is inextricably a product of the feudal age in that country. Western apprenticeship
programmes for various trades and arts flourished since before the Renaissance
and some of the great "houses" of Italian and Flemish painting
designed a learning structure somewhat similar to the ryu. The comparison,
however, is not entirely accurate, for many reasons. The ryu stands as
a method of transmission as a singular product of the pre-modern Japanese
mind and spirit. That stature is not to suggest the ryu is the pre-eminent
method of learning or acquiring mastery. It is by no means incidental
to point this out. The ryu system has many weaknesses. The ryu, whether
it is devoted to martial arts or the tea ceremony or anything else is,
in some significant ways, little different from a pyramid scheme. The
founders licence their followers who in turn licence their students, so
on and so on, and as they do, money continues to flow back up to the top
of the pyramid. In flower arranging schools, the ryu system has become
something of a minor scandal in Japan, largely for this perception of
it as a business more concerned with profit than art. Some ikebana ryu
are spectacularly wealthy at their peaks. The same can and is said of
tea ceremony ryu. And rather than the ishin-denshin or direct, intimate
transmission of deep and profound secrets, the ryu sometimes seem more
like tawdry scams of the sort run by real estate marketers or television
evangelists. Favouritism, backstabbing, toadying; shenanigans of a sexual,
financial, and moral nature; it isn't hard to find any of these in the
mechanisms of the ryu, now or in the historical past.
The ryu system is also determinedly hierarchical. That's fine so long
as the individuals at the top of the heap are there as much because of
their technical mastery as for their inheritance. When the headmaster
of a ryu takes over because of sanguinary connexions, however, and lacks
other critical qualities such as technical skill or teaching ability,
the ryu suffers, sometimes fatally. This is particularly evident in marital
ryu. In the best of these cases, the ryu is weakened or subverted, a process
nearly always irreversible. More than one classical martial ryu has been
rendered nothing more than a collection of dances and epicene "performance"
devoid of any fighting spirit or combative reality for this reason alone.
Worst-case scenarios have occurred; the ryu has disappeared altogether.
In spite of these sometimes-valid criticisms, however, the ryu as an institution
remains a remarkable structure for transmitting complex processes and
values. Some martial ryu in particular have an astonishing vitality. Standing
in the path of a wooden practise weapon coming in at full speed and power,
moving only at the last possible second, absorbing accidental strikes
that split lips, contuse, or knock one windless, all the while maintaining
composure and the instant ability to strike back; these are exercises
ripe with vast mental and spiritual as well as physical rewards. The classical
combative arts of pre-modern Japan offer an astonishing range and depth
of human interaction. They generate powerful personalities. They have
an important influence in creating individuals of unique talent and worth.
The koryu, whatever their limitations and potential for mis-use, have
value. They are interesting glimpses into the past, an important foundation
of Japanese culture, and a means of perfecting the self in many ways.
And the term "snob?" It is, essentially, an ad hominem attack.
A criticism made against a person rather than against his ideas or positions.
It is invariably an attack made by someone unwilling or unable to assemble
factual arguments of relevancy. You lay out a plan for government managed
health care. I respond by calling you a Communist. What can you say in
return? "Am not!" Ad hominem attacks are poor ones for several
reasons, not the least of which is that they never address the original
issue. Perhaps you are a Commie. Or not. Either way, I am not replying
to your argument by responding with arguments against your position. I'm
simply slinging a personal insult. To call someone a snob, whether in
relation to his approach to koryu or to anything else is a diversion away
from substantive argument. Because I make a living by casting a critical
eye on restaurants and food and writing about it, I am accustomed to being
called a snob. I have been called worse. "Turkey-necked geek,"
for instance. I lose comparatively little sleep over the epithet of snob.
(I lost more over the turkey-necked geek thing. I prefer to think of my
neck as having a patrician arch.) Even so, I note that when the word is
used against me, it is very rarely accompanied by any facts to dispute
any position I may have taken. If I write as I recently did for example,
that a phyllo pastry at a Greek restaurant advertised as "Cretan"
was inauthentic in that there was obviously no olive oil or raki liquor
in it, I heard from the owner. I was a snob, he said. Was I incorrect?
No, he admitted, the phyllo was actually more the Athenian version. But
I was snobbish about it, he insisted. "Have you been reading some
martial arts sites on the Internet, by any chance?" I wanted to ask
Those who use the word "snob" seem to believe that its power
alone invoked is sufficient to shut down any opposition or to effectively
nullify the points that have been made by the accused. Sometimes they're
right. The accused is forced to exert time and energy in defending himself
instead of his position or argument. It is wearing and not easy and in
some instances, those who would be accused or who have been have simply
retired from the field. It isn't hard to understand why. You have spent
decades in Japan training in koryu, read Japanese fluently, have access
to dozens of koryu authorities there and based upon that experience, you
advance a point. My response? You're just a snob. How many idiotic exchanges
like that would it take you to call it a day in terms of offering your
insights or opinions in a public arena?
I suspect one reason those who use the word snob believe in its power
is because to be snobbish, to demonstrate any form of snobbery real or
imagined, is to at least peripherally if not directly engage in discrimination.
And given the choice between discriminating about anything and oh, say,
devouring one's own young for many today would not be a choice at all.
Fire up the grill. As I said, I discriminate professionally. Discrimination
is my metier. Unfortunately, for varied reasons, an entire generation
has been raised to believe that discrimination is not only bad, it is
beyond any doubt the meanest behaviour or attitude a human can possibly
demonstrate. "Who are you to judge?" is more than a rebuttal.
It is a mantra, invoked against even the mildest form of discrimination.
And so it is not complicated to see why "koryu snob" comes so
quickly to the lips or keyboards of so many today when they are confronted
with facts or opinions they do not like or which they find unflattering.
Koryu snobbery, if we are to believe those who frequently employ the term,
takes a protean form. It is everywhere for them. Sometimes the most innocent
of commentary or articles meant merely to inform are targeted by the anti-koryu
snob cadre. In what had to be the most ludicrously unsupportable claim
of recent vintage, a "secret" lineage of ninjutsu was revealed,
thriving under the direction of a "grandmaster" living in the
South Pacific. A Western koryu authority visited the training and asked
about the origins of the school. Based on the historically improbable
assertions of the grandmaster, the complete lack of documentation in any
Japanese source and the fact that the authority recognised the "ninja
training" as a poorly executed series of modern karate-do kata, he
concluded there was little reason to take the school seriously. He said
so, in answer to an inquiry made about it on an Internet forum. One response
castigated him for his narrow-mindedness and another-you can't make this
stuff up-suggested the authority might harbour some anti-Polynesian racism.
Both, predictably, accused him of being a snob.
If those who apply the snob label to koryu practitioners are quick on
the draw, their aim is not necessarily pinpoint. More often their swift
deployments are difficult to follow to any sort of logical conclusion.
Consider: on an Internet website a member writes to detail his experiences
with a "koryu teacher" who is conducting an open clinic in the
art of unsheathing and immediately using a Japanese sword. The "teacher"
disparages the seitei gata, the modern and standardized forms of drawing
and cutting with that weapon. Within a few responses comes one I expected:
typical koryu snobbishness, the respondent wrote scornfully. Wait a minute.
The "koryu teacher" is unnamed. The number of koryu "experts"
out there is legion. How do we know this fellow is a legitimate teacher
from a legitimate koryu? Given the fact that he was instructing at a seminar
open to every interested party who wandered in, a suspicion about his
credentials for that reason alone is warranted. Nonetheless, an unnamed
teacher representing an unnamed ryu allegedly makes comments that may
or may not have been accurately reported by the Internet site member.
And the paralogism of this sequence is cited as another example of "koryu
Observing the phenomenon of the koryu snob critics for the past few years
results in a fairly consistent pattern of their criticism. Distilled,
their complaints fit mostly into the following, which, for whatever it
is worth, suggest a response.
"Koryu people are all convinced their ryu is the best. Their self-esteem
is linked to practising some ryu they think makes them better than all
the others and everyone else." A charge as mystifying as it is irrelevant.
The majority of koryu exponents outside Japan practise more than one koryu.
So which of their ryu is it they think the "best?" Further,
the majority of them are also practitioners of modern budo forms. If their
self-image were dependent on affiliation with a koryu or with classical
combative ryu in general, why would they devote time and energy to modern
aikido, karate-do, judo, etc.? I have never read or heard a koryu exponent
claiming the superiority of his or her ryu and the bulwark of this argument
would be considerably strengthened if the critics would ever cite a specific
instance of this attitude being expressed. Being proud of one's affiliation
with a tradition that goes back for centuries is not an automatic condemnation
of those so unaffiliated. Taking satisfaction in having succeeded in entering
an organisation of the sort that has been notoriously unreceptive even
to the average Japanese is not evidence of disdain for those who have
"Koryu snobs believe their arts are the 'real thing' and modern budo
forms are inferior in technique, spirit, and quality." Again, this
common charge doesn't make much sense in light of the fact that, as was
just noted, nearly all koryu exponents in the West are also practitioners
of modern budo forms as well. Remember the kid on the recumbent bicycle?
He was not bragging. He was doing something different and merely explained,
when asked, why and how it was different. To note that koryu have lineages
that may go back several generations is simple fact. It is not in and
of itself a repudiation of modern combative forms that may be less than
a century old. Age does not confer worth. It does, though, demonstrate
a continuity of transmission in the case of koryu. If you are a member
of the Katori Shinto ryu, for example, you are involved in an activity
to which many, many other members going back several hundred years have
also devoted themselves. Either they have all been deluded as you are
now or, or they are practising a different incarnation of the school,
or there is something worthwhile in the ryu. That is one putative advantage
the koryu adherent has over the practitioner of more modern forms. The
koryu have a provenance. Few would suggest though, that such a history
alone is proof of merit. "Open Since 1910" was a very minor
determinative factor in propelling me through the door of a BBQ joint
in Memphis. It figured not at all in keeping me there. In the case of
koryu as well as BBQ, it is the meat and sauce that makes one keep coming
back. Rather than acknowledging the comparatively light weight afforded
historical provenance by koryu practitioners, that evidence is frequently
placed under attack by the snob cadre, who see any mention of lineage
or history as a sign of fraud or, at best, a misguided preoccupation.
This leads to their next charge.
"Koryu snobs are focused inordinately on lineage and a lot of paper
instead of on the important stuff." Oh dear. To note that Caravaggio's
Madonna del Rosario is from the early 17th century is, to reiterate the
point above, a statement of fact. To conclude it is a poor painting or
a masterpiece is a matter of aesthetic debate. Great works of art have
been created in the past decade. Okay, well, perhaps that is stretching
things to some degree. Suffice to say, pretty good works of art have been
created that recently. Worthwhile art is not entirely dependent on age.
There is something to be said for longevity as a measure of value, though.
Titian aside, there aren't a lot of mediocre paintings from the 16th century
around today. Those pieces that were the work of dabblers or second-raters
ended up on the trash heap or otherwise forgotten long ago. If they have
lasted this long and are still cared for and presented in museums, they
almost certainly have some value or benefit. It is not irrelevant to make
this point. Similarly, it is illogical to conclude, again to reiterate,
that longevity alone is a standard of worth. The presence of a lineage
is a conclusion a ryu has been around a while. Any other inferences about
a lineage are, I suspect, most often in the minds of the critic rather
than in the arguments or demonstrated attitudes of koryu practitioners
Koryu adherents are not generally focused on the documentation of their
ryu because those documents are taken as a matter of fact. Sometimes a
scroll will surface that sheds new light on the history of a ryu. A document
might be discovered that reveals that some ryu's headmaster had influences
on his art previously unknown. Aside from infrequent revelations of these
sorts, koryu training is not particularly concerned with lineage, with
the exception of scholars doing research in the area.
"Koryu lineages are full of holes, cannot be adequately authenticated,
and are just a matter of history being written by the 'winners."
There is the inclination to file this criticism along with those made
by proponents of the notion the Holocaust was the fictional creation of
a confederacy stimulated by a desire to get back at the Germans for inventing
sauerkraut. Those critical of koryu as a teeming repository of snobbery
are intelligent enough to acknowledge this. So instead of denying that
lineages exist, they insist such lineages are fabricated or so shot full
of gaps and omissions as to be useless as a source of validation.
It is true that gaps exist in many keizu (ancestral lineage charts) or
densho (scrolls related to the transmission of a ryu). What is not true
is the contention these gaps constitute a serious lacunae in the authenticity
of koryu. An acquaintance in Japan is researching the history of the Gan
ryu. Not the semi-fictional one of the same name mastered by Sasaki Kojiro,
but one created by Matsubayashi Samanosuke in the first half of the 17th
century. She was interested in Matsubayashi's son, Chuzaemon, who inherited
the ryu. With little effort, she found more than two dozen historical
references to Chuzaemon and his practise of Gan ryu that were independent
of any documents directly related to the ryu. These included government
records from the prefecture where Chuzaemon lived, provincial census records
that noted his relation to the ryu, and documents of other ryu that mentioned
Chuzaemon. Now, it may be that all these sources were faked or part of
a covert effort to prop up the reputation of Chuzaemon. Most of us would
conclude, though, that he existed, as did the ryu of which he was head.
In general, the wealth of information that exists about most extant koryu
today is so extensive researchers have to weed out superfluous or tautological
sources rather than find new ones. Yes, there may be a gap; we may not
know, for instance, which grandson of Shoda Kizaemon was the third headmaster
of Shoda ryu. But we know, from heaps of reference materials, that Kizaemon
existed. And we know that the fifth headmaster of the ryu existed because
he is mentioned in the records of Sakakibara Tadatsugu, for whom he worked,
in Harima. And so indicting Shoda ryu as a fraud based on the hole in
its lineage is more than a bit of a stretch. Similar accusations that
this ryu or that was wholly concocted at some late date and decorated
with an ersatz past cannot be reconciled with all the independent mentions
of these ryu in the documents of other martial ryu or in the records of
provincial governments where they were located. Neither do the mythical
tales of the origins of many koryu automatically discredit their heritage,
another charge leveled against them and their practitioners. I would find
it difficult to substantiate the story of the tengu goblin Jigembo who
came to the shrine at Itogaki and imparted the secrets of swordsmanship
to Setoguchi Bizen-no-kami. I would not find it difficult at all to prove
that Setoguchi existed-there is extensive documentation about him in the
Shimazu family records-or that he created the seminal Jigen ryu.
What does tend to bring up the subject of documentation in nearly every
case where such information is relevant to koryu is a lack of it in those
schools claiming an historical connexion. Or, to be more exact, those
schools making such claims and then refusing to corroborate them via any
kind of documentation. Curiously, the most vociferous of those who disparage
lineages are so often devotees of suspiciously generated ryu that have
a troubling lack of scholarship about them.
Without presuming to know or assign motivations to them, based on what
I read and the correspondence I receive, I think some readers or others
interested in this subject have an image of koryu practitioners outside
Japan. They picture these exponents as a self-styled elite who gather
in cozy cabals, principally to congratulate themselves on how wonderful
and unique they are and to make fun of the unwashed masses of modern budoka
not so blessed as to be "real" martial artists. If that's really
what they think, then the image of such a fraternity says a lot more about
the people who believe in it than it does about those who are being imagined.
Again, without presumption or pretension, I know a lot of Western koryu
exponents. And while there is little reason for you to take my word for
it, I can reliably tell you that among the many adjectives that might
fairly be used to describe them, "snobbish" would not be among
them. I tend to agree with Ortega y Gasset, that "a society without
an aristocracy, without an elite minority, is not a society." But
these guys ain't it. They are people capable of the most extraordinary
discrimination. They can look at a movement, a kata, a manner of holding
a weapon and they can tell you definitively and authoritatively that it
will or will not work. And they can stand before you and let you take
your best shot with it and they can prove it. They are unusual, in the
sense they have acquired a knowledge of an arcane subject. (They are unusual,
most of them, for various other reasons well beyond the boundaries of
this discussion. I could tell you some stories.)
Like the kid with the recumbent bike, the non-Japanese authorities on
koryu have something most others don't have. If this alone qualifies them
as snobs, then they are no different from other experts in other fields.
The woman informed by the ceramics expert on The Antiques Road Show does
not respond with the accusation the expert is a snob when he informs that
her family heirloom Limoges basin is actually a cheap, mass-produced chamberpot.
She respects his informed opinion. She asks him how he's reached this
conclusion. She may seek out other authorities to either confirm or confront
his opinion and knowledge. This approach is both civil and constructive
in advancing her knowledge and understanding. Calling him a name might
make her feel better or less disappointed. It accomplishes little else.
Those who profess to recognise snobbery among the koryu practitioners
outside Japan would do well to follow a similar course when confronted
with opinions or facts contrary to their own regarding the classical martial
arts of Japan. Rather than falling back on an ad hominem barrage, they
might take time to learn why and how those opinions were formed, those
facts ascertained. Not only might they be edified, they will, even in
the worst case, polish a more rigourous discipline in intellectual discourse.
Finally, one critic averred that many or at least some koryu exponents
are perhaps not really snobs at all, but instead are essentially self-loathing.
Japanophiles who aped Japanese ways and advocated Japanese methods of
doing things in spite of the fact they are Westerners. Turning their backs
on their own culture, they are attempting to satisfy inner needs by embracing
a foreign one. It is a charge nearly perfect for a critic motivated by
resentment or jealousy to make. It relies on innuendo. It is dismissive
of facts, weighted instead entirely on an appeal to the emotional. There
is no exchange of ideas in an argument of this base nature. No honest
confrontation or reasoning that follows from a critical examination of
facts. It is, in a sense, the voice of one who, for whatever reason, feels
threatened or angry at the presence of something different and who reacts
against that, attacking those who have brought what's different by impugning
them personally. It is, sadly, the voice of the child standing off to
the side of things and sneering, "He thinks he's so cool."