View Full Version : Definition of Koryu

Earl Hartman
22nd June 2000, 19:01
Something just occurred to me, which has been dealt with before, but which bears a little more discussion, so I thought that I would start a new thread, just to see what happens. I know that there are a lot of differing opinions on this, but it still seems to me that many of the discussions regarding "koryu vs. gendai" revolve around what is still a somewhat muddy definition (in the minds of some, anyway) of what a koryu is.

To start off this topic, I offer the following:

One of the elements of a genuine koryu, in the opinion of some, is that there is no sporting element, that is, there are no contests held according to any set of arbitrary rules. Rules, by their very nature, limit what can and cannot be done in terms of technique, usually with the effect that at least in theory the art is not as potentiall deadly as it would be otherwise.

The question then becomes: what about various arts, created long before the usual Meiji Restoration cutoff date, which have such rules? For instance, in kyujutsu, there was a popular competition which took place during the Edo period called the toshiya. In this competition, archers would sit at one end of the verandah of the Sanjusangendo hall at the Rengeioin temple in Kyoto and attempt to shoot as many arrows as possible past the opposite end of the verandah, 120 meters away. This was complicated by the eaves of the roof, which were only 5 meters off the floor; the archers were thus shooting down a tunnel 120 meters long and 5 meters high. Various schools of kyujutsu, such as the Heki Ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha, Kishu Chikurin-ha, Oukura-ha, and Sekka-ha competed. In the course of this competition, which covered many decades, archery equipment and techniques underwent far reaching and profound changes, to the point that many of the schools which competed came to concentrate exclusively on success in this competition, which was, in addition to being a contest of strength and skill, quite a spectacle, complete with crowds of spectators, judges, arrow counters, attendants, etc., etc. Insofar as the object was to shoot as far as possible, arrows were light and techniques were developed that would allow the archer to shoot according to the requirements of the particular situation, which differed from a battlefield and battlfield archery, where the object was to shoot a heavy war arrow with enough force to penetrate armor.

Likewise, the Ogasawara and Takeda Ryu established strict protocols and guidelines for the conduct of horseback archery well prior to the Edo period. While these practices were viewed as training for battle, they were independent activities in and of themselves, bound by a complicated set of rules.

Anyway, what think you? Koryu or not? Definitely and obviously koryu in my opinion, but, for the purposes of discussion I pose the question.

I would specifically like to invite the comments of the Skosses, to whose opinions I usually defer on matters such as this. I know that their opinions are well documented elsewhere, but if they would address this issue in this forum, I would appreciate it.


Neil Hawkins
23rd June 2000, 04:35

So far I have managed to stay out of the Koryu debate, but at risk of becoming involved I will give my opinions! :)

I agree that yes, Kyudo/jutsu is definitely a Koryu.

My definition of Koryu is an art that can trace it's origins back the required distance. As we know, all the schools changed and evolved throughout their histories and it is unreasonable to expect that they didn't or shouldn't change during the last 150 years as well.

If the lineage can be traced to pre-Meiji, it's Koryu. What happens today is of lesser importance.

Now the caveat. I do believe that the new or modified techniques should still show their traditional origins. It is fine to have a technique that defends against modern firearms, provided the basis came from a similar traditional technique. It is wrong to incorporate a technique from another art not traditionally related to the school (though it could be argued that this occurred frequently in the past!). To me if a past member came back to life he should recognise what's being taught. Differences are inevitable, but the essence remains the same.

In your example the techniques of drawing, nocking the arrow and release are similar if not the same as those used previously, primarily it is the equipment that changed to accomodate the competition. At least from my VERY limited exposure to Kyudo that is the impression I get, please correct me if I'm wrong.


Diane Skoss
23rd June 2000, 16:36
Hi Earl,

Our Internet connection has been down all week, so I can only sneak quick peaks at E-budo at the office.

I've always felt that koryu, in general, do not include competition. But that's one of those big "in generals." If the art originated prior to the Haitorei (1876?), and was created by bushi for the purpose of training in skills related to their roles as warriors, then I'd say it was koryu. Lack of competition (or a modern sport form) is a common characteristic of the koryu, in my opinion, but it is not a defining one (again, in my opinion).

Hope this helps...


24th June 2000, 07:55
I would agree with Diane on the generalization that koryu is with out sport application...today. But without contest application? I think she answered her own question, and I understand the lack of time for a complete answer, but even going back to the beginning, surely there was contest-type arts which may or may not have been used in the battlefield. Contests probably go back to prehistoric time and I fail to see why koryu arts are without some form of contest. Is there no winner with weapons? Is that not a kind of contest? Even those in which the trophy was to keep your head, or the other to take it, was contest, IE, sport. If gambling can be traced back that far, than surely can contest in the Japanese arts which today we call koryu. I am sure Diane would have had a more detailed answer, but it boggles the mind to think there is no sport, and that sporting ventures are new only since 1876. I will agree completely that koryu today has no sporting element, except to say that even in practice there is a winner and loser. Koryu not a sport? Sure. No history of sport? That is all I question.


John Lindsey
25th June 2000, 04:24
Any idea when the term “koryu” was first used? To me and my rather limited understanding of Japanese, it isn’t a special, or new word per se. I can see it being used possibly even in the Edo period in describing an art that stretches far back before it. Not sure if it was, but it makes sense in a way. Maybe there is no perfect definition….

Ok, I will play the devil’s advocate and ask: “what about sumo?”

Neil Hawkins
25th June 2000, 05:05
You beat me to it, I was going to let things brew for a little while before I asked that question! :)

I believe that Sumo has to be a Koryu, even though it has lost much of it's real Martial application. It has remained unchanged for longer than most MA's have existed.

What about Kenbu (Sword Dancing)? It is taught as a MA even though the primary application is theatrical. Some iai schools include it in the curriculum and it to dates back many hundreds of years. At least that's what I'm led to believe. There are gradings and ryu so surely that's a Koryu as well.

As for the word Koryu, I had not heard of it prior to about 5 years ago and when I look back through my books etc, it is not mentioned. I thought Dianne Skoss coined the phrase. (Only kidding Dianne! :D)


Jason Backlund
3rd July 2000, 06:38
[QUOTE]Originally posted by John Lindsey
[B]"Any idea when the term koryu?Ewas first used?"

Good question, and it may be a little off the point, but perhaps the dividing line between old and new arts is itself problematic. Perhaps it should be done more like the time periods for swords (koto, shinto, and shinshinto). How about koryu, shinden, and shinshinden? After all, there certainly was a departure in battlefield emphasis after 1600. The Edo period saw the blossoming of a whole group of systems dedicated to self defense in daily life and the bushi's new occupation as police men. It seems to me just as important as the transition of the Meiji era.

No need to reply, just trying to stir it up a little!

Jason Backlund
Kobushin Kai
Yamagata Ryu Bujutsu, Matsubara Ryu Bujutsu

3rd July 2000, 08:42
first posted by Neil

I believe that Sumo has to be a Koryu, even though it has lost much of it's real Martial application. It has remained unchanged for longer than most MA's have existed.

I most certainly may be wrong, but isn't/wasn't sumo more of a spiritual, or ritualistic art practiced for more esoteric reasons? I love sumo, but I think it should have a category of its own. Even today, some of that is brought with the sumotori into the ring, although payment is always money. Sport? Yes, but koryu in the stricktest of meanings? I am not sure, but I have seen some mean ko soto gari by the rikishi;)

Undmark, Ulf
3rd July 2000, 09:38
Regarding sumo, it's definitly very old...
But have this ancient art been transmitted as a ryuha?
I'm not sure about this, but it's worth concidering since the term indicates an "old ryu"...and therefor also has to fit the definition of what a ryu/ryuha is.

When it comes to competition (wich is common in sumo), isn't this the only way outside the battlefield to compare skill? I thought that archery-competitions had been popular since the dawn of this art (kisha...yabusame...kyujutsu)?
What is the difference between shinken shobu, taryu jiai and the english word competition?

I think that an art that has been created as, or changed to fit as, a *sporting activity* is not in the true spirit of koryu...but that doesn't mean that any form of competition must be refused. Archery competitions definitly (at least according to my personal view) doesn't make the art gendai... if it fits the definition of koryu at large.

Ulf Undmark

Chuck Clark
3rd July 2000, 14:13
I don't know nearly as much about sumo as I'd like, but I think that sumo is a Shinto ritual grown into a national spectacle and obsession for many.

I watch every chance I get and miss Chiyonofuji. None of the rikishi nowadays show his technical mastery and kokoro.

Gil Gillespie
4th July 2000, 04:15
Hi Chuck

Your posts have a way of cutting to the quick very succinctly. Please correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Chiyonofuji the sumo wrestler nicknamed "The Wolf," more a linebacker soma type than the conventional behemoth? If it is the same he's a family favorite here.

Last summer (99) we returned to my wife's hometown Shizuoka (where I reconnected with Mochizuki Sensei's honbu dojo) and my 20 year old niece (who turned 2 in Japan in 1981) fell in love with sumo. Our favorite was Takanohana (who Amber nicknamed "Babyface"). Strangely (and wonderfully) ESPN2 showed the spring basho highlights here this week and on the last day Akebono (6-8 500# from Hawaii) had only to beat Takanohana to win the basho, but Takanohana beat him!

I've never seen Japanese sumo on American tv before and for that alone I'm thrilled.

4th July 2000, 11:23
Isn't yabusame more of a docrative and challenging art rather than an MA? It is done from horseback, but I always was under the impression that this was more like a"joust" if you will. I am thinking of a painting of a man on a horse, streamers of colors dangling from the horse and man, but was separate and distinct than kyujutsu, although I suppose it was probably practiced on horseback, but for much more a pragmatic reason. I am sure I will be corrected.

As for sumo, Gil, there used to be a lot of coverage (relative to today, of course) on the networks, and particular on Wide World of Sports in the sixites and seventies. I see much less than I would like.

Chuck Clark
4th July 2000, 15:28
Hi Gil,

Yes, Chiyonofuji was called "The Wolf" and he was marvelous! He never weighed more than about 315 pounds or so and at 6 ft tall looked as though he was cut from granite.

I'll tell you a good story...

Chiyonofuji fought and won a huge victory over Takahohana (the yokozuna who was nearing the end of his career) and after the bout Takanohana announced his retirement. As it turns out, Takanohana is the father of two sons (Wakanohana and Takanohana II) who both became famous yokozuna. As Chiyonofuji came close to retirement, the person who defeated him and in essence closed his career was Takanohana II (at just eighteen years of age!). When asked about the irony that Takanohana's son (and using the same name) had defeated him ... Chiyonofuji said, "Perhaps history will repeat itself ... because I have a son!" Chiyo's son was five years old at the time.

Gil Gillespie
4th July 2000, 16:42
Thank you, Chuck

That is a great story. I had no idea of Takanohana'a father.The day by day unfolding of a major sumo basho is something most Americans will never experience.

Too bad. . .

Earl Hartman
5th July 2000, 17:14
Ah, yes, Chiyonofuji....I was lucky enough to be living in Japan when Chiyo was an up-and-comer and Wajima and Kitanoumi ruled the dohyo. While Chiyo had more style and panache than the both of them put together, he never started beating Kitanoumi on a regular basis until Kitanoumi started getting old. Watching Chiyonnofuji (speed and technique) and Kitanoumi (power and a low center of gravity; he had SHORT legs) go head-to-head on the last day for the Emperor's cup was hard to beat. Nobody could beat Chiyo for sheer spped and technique off the belt. A quick low charge, get the left hand on the front of the belt, pull him up and towards you as you charge, when he resists at the edge of the dohyo, a quick turn of the hips and own he goes. You should have heard my wife scream! If you think I make noise when I'm watching the 49ers in the Super Bowl..... Those were the days.

Anyway, regarding koryu: Mark F's remark regarding yabusame is precisely my point: yabusame, while it developed into an elaborate ritual, was primarily for the purpose of teaching bushi how to shoot a bow on horseback; it thus had a very important role to play in training bushi for battle. The histories of the Ogasawara Ryu and the Takeda Ryu, which are the two ryuha that continue the tradition of yabusame, are well docuented and stretch back almost 800 years. It is, as far as I am concerned, a real koryu, in spite of the development of ceremony surrounding the practice, which, in the eyes of some, compromises its "martial effectiveness". There is no other way to train unless you decide to shot at each other, which could get expensive, so to speak.

The comparison with the joust is also an excellent example of what I am talking about: early European tournaments were, essentially, pitched melees contested by teams using real weapons. Casualties were, shall we say, high. Many of the mprovements in armor were a result of trying to find ways to prevent people from getting killed and maimed in tournaments. Other things, such as the introduction of jousting at the barrier, were to introduce some general rules to order the proceedings and introduce some kind of safety measures. People still got killed, though. Eventually, armor and rules developed to the point where the joust, as well as combat on foot, was quite restricted. However, the tournament remained pretty dangerous. Does this development sound familiar?

In any kind of martial training, you have to balance realism against the possibility of injury. In the koryu, training is all through kata, so realistic techniques can be practiced without (or with greatly reduced) possibility of injury. In the gendai arts, free sparring is favored, with the result that techniques must be limited and rules instituted to reduce the possibility of injury. You pays your money and you takes your choice, I guess.


27th July 2000, 05:58
Hi Earl.

Today is my first look at e-Budo in several weeks.

I would like to suggest that before attempting to define "koryu" it is useful, first, to distinguish modern from premodern. Otherwise, one risks comparing and contrasting apples and oranges.

ONE: modern vs. premodern

Historians of Western sports and games have debated this distinction at length. Allen Guttman (1978, From Ritual to Record; 1994, Games and Empires) has his critics, but most discussions use his "family-of-characteristics" definition as a starting point. According to Guttman "modern" athletic endevors are characterized by:

1. secularism: not related to an explict transcendental realm

2. equality of opportunity: no one is excluded from participation on the basis of race or ethnicity; rules are the same for all participants

3. bureaucratization: not governed by priests nor by ritual adepts, but by national and transnational bureaucracies with defined institutional structures, committees, bylaws, newsletters, etc.

4. specialization: tasks are very specific and evolved from earlier less differentiated endevors; many participants have a gamut of specialized roles or positions

5. rationalization: rules undergo frequent revision to improve the practice; athletes train scientifically (based on emperical methods) and use technologically advanced equipment; safety and hygiene are stressed; there exist published textbooks and public training facilities

6. quantification: statistics are recorded

7. quest for records: best performances are recorded and there is a constant challenge for all others to strive to surpass them

To the above, I would add: (8) when competition is involved, there are standarized proceedures for matches and trained judges who follow established methods for enforcing rules and determining success and failure.

While Tokugawa-period kyujutsu certainly involved competition, statistics, and attempts to beat records, it did not possessed a majority of the above characteristics. Therefore, I would conclude that Tokugawa-period kyujutsu was NOT a modern martial art.

But is non-modern (premodern) the same as Koryu? Not neccessarily. In the 1830s many Domain Academies eliminated koryu from their martial art training halls and began teaching generic martial arts.

TWO: Koryu (old lineages)

This is a modern word invented to distinquish traditional martial arts from modern ones. Therefore, we naturally assume that the first characteristic of koryu would be a lack of a majority of the "modern" characteristics listed above. The word itself, however, does not explicitly imply the concept of "non-modern."

There is no deep significance to the word "koryu" (old lineages)---although, of course, practitioners of koryu can attach their own special meanings to it. "Old" basically means that the lineage existed before 1868. "Lineage" basically means that an identifiable connection united each subsequent generation with its preceeding one. Usually this connection would consist of: ryugi, mokuroku, and kata. The general assumption in Japanese martial art scholarship is that every koryu possess its own unique techniques and teachings (ryugi) which are conveyed through its own unique curriculum (mokuroku) and taught in as its own unique set of pattern practices (kata). As long as those teachings, curriculum, and patterns are taught faithfully from one generation to the next, then the lineage is maintained. In practice various documents (densho) usually are used to authenticate the transmission of the ryugi, mokuroku, and kata. Study of these documents from many different lineages (ryuha) reveals that teachings and practices always evolved over time as new elements were added and old ones eliminated. Moreover, there seems to have been a great deal of borrowing and cross-fertilization among ryuha. For this reason "lineage" is always a social construction imposed on the past. (In other words, it is something that can be debated in public forums such as this one.)

Best wishes,

Nathan Scott
27th July 2000, 18:33

I'd like to address a couple of points that caught my eye, if I may:

Moreover, there seems to have been a great deal of borrowing and cross-fertilization among ryuha.

In an offline discussion, you clarified for me that there were/are different types of ryu-ha structure and methods of transmission.

Most of us are accustomed to hearing how ryu-ha were very secretive with their kyoka and associated tactics and strategy, since these were times of relatively constant conflict and concerns of enemy fiefs learning a rival fief/ryu-ha's proprietary methods and tactics would mean certain destruction on the battlefield. So would you say that this secretive attitude is more indicative of a smaller, "family" transmitted art? Was this concern for rival infiltration historically accurate, or are you perhaps referring to a situation in which ryu-ha that were on friendly relations with each other (more common than not?) borrowed methods?

For this reason "lineage" is always a social construction imposed on the past.

Sorry, but I'm not sure I followed this one. Does this statement mean that lineage issues tend to be a bit more abstract, complex and tradition-unique than most of us tend to understand? I know the western mind likes to organize and structure everything into nice, neat black and white packages, and perhaps you are saying that this is a modern habit that was not practiced by exponents of older ryu-ha and modern day researchers?


[Edited by Nathan Scott on 07-27-2000 at 01:36 PM]

Ken Allgeier
28th July 2000, 02:22
I do not know if this fits in with this discussion,but:

Aikido is considered to be a gendai Budo,but has no sportive connotation.In Okinawa there are Goju Ryu schools that practice only,kihon,kata,and yakusoku kumite and have no aspect of any form of a sport competition,only combat based on the kata's.

My 2 cent worth.

ken allgeier

28th July 2000, 03:04
I live in Japan, and I see much less sumo than I would like! All the basho are televised during the day, and there is only limited coverage on the TV channels that I get here on Camp Zama during the evening.

Takanohana II has been my favorite for the past 2 years. I saw him beat Akebono by simply sidestepping what was sure to have been a Herculean charge that would have knocked Taka off the dohyo. But his sidestep, coupled with a short tug on Akebono's mawashi sent the gargantuan champion full into the 2nd or 3rd row of spectators! AWESOME!

It is my understanding that sumo began as legitimate martial art (perhaps either along the same lines as, or possibly influenced by Chinese Swai Chiao wrestling), and that the rikishi were not the mammoth specimens that they are today. I have read that the change in size came about as does all competition for power - the big guy beat a little guy, so a bigger guy beat the big guy, etc...

Just my 2 yen...

29th July 2000, 10:11
Originally posted by Nathan Scott regarding "borrowing and cross-fertilization"

Most of us are accustomed to hearing how ryu-ha were very secretive with their kyoka and associated tactics and strategy, since these were times of relatively constant conflict and concerns of enemy fiefs learning a rival fief/ryu-ha's proprietary methods and tactics would mean certain destruction on the battlefield. So would you say that this secretive attitude is more indicative of a smaller, "family" transmitted art? Was this concern for rival infiltration historically accurate, or are you perhaps referring to a situation in which ryu-ha that were on friendly relations with each other (more common than not?) borrowed methods?

I do not know if the social structure of the ryuha made any difference. All ryuha were very secretive. At the same time, however, they were quick to adopt whatever techniques they saw as being superior if they could figure how to imitate those techniques. And they also compilled information on the techniques of other ryuha so that that they could teach their students how to defeat members of those other ryuha. They practiced the principle of "know your enemy."

Surprisingly, though, one can also find segments of text (or sets of mokuroku) that appear almost identical in densho of different ryuha from distinct historical periods and from diverse geographical areas. How that came to be is a question that remains to be investigated.

Originally posted by Nathan Scott "regarding social construction of lineage"

Sorry, but I'm not sure I followed this one. Does this statement mean that lineage issues tend to be a bit more abstract, complex and tradition-unique than most of us tend to understand?

Sorry for using academic jargon. Yes. Basically I mean that lineage issues are complex because they serve social functions. People living at a later time use data from earlier times to construct lineages that they can then use as evidence to justify certain social practices or privileges to an audience of their contemporaries. For this reason, statements about lineages usually constitute assertions or arguments about the present. This sociological aspect of lineage statements is fairly consistent across cultures and historical periods.

Nathan Scott
31st July 2000, 16:57
Professor Bodiford,

Thank you for clarifying these points!