The Ryu: A Definition in Context

By Lowry, Dave
This article first appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 13, Issue 1

One samurai fought another, won, and emerged from the encounter having learned something about it that gave him a combative advantage. Next fight, using that, he again prevailed, and learned a little more. His skill increasing, he continued to be successful, expanding his combative repertoire until others noticed and sought him out as a teacher. And that’s how a martial ryu is “founded.”


The scenario makes sense, true. That it does, however, underscores a serious misconception about the very basic nature of the ryu (“system” or “handed-down tradition”). It presupposes, as do many people, that a ryu is comprised chiefly of a collection of techniques meant for a particular purpose. The ryu is perceived as something of a tool kit, one filled with the essentials needed for a job. That ain’t it. That ain’t even close.

First, even in an age of constant warfare like the Sengoku Jidai, very, very few men saw up close and personal combat in multiple battles. They may have participated in numerous campaigns and battles. But this would include more than a few where they stood around waiting to go into action but never did, or where they were not fighting but rather running for their lives. The number of men who had seen personal combat with a sword in their hand enough times to have drawn meaningful lessons from the experience would have been few and far between. And who knows? Maybe it was pure luck that got that man through. Would you want to bet your life that it wasn’t and apprentice under him? Second, there is no guarantee that such a man would be able to coherently relate what happened to him, even if he did have the experience of repeated successes. Third, there would be no reliable structure available for transmission of these techniques that would allow them to have any benefit to successive generations.

Think of it this way: one in ten women in this country will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Suppose—I am addressing male readers here—one was your wife or girlfriend or relative. It follows that there are one in ten men who were or are in your position. Yet how easy would it be for you to find them to ask how they handled it? And even if you did, their experiences and personalities and backgrounds are so varied that how useful would their comments be to you personally? It is an intensely personal experience. So is, I think we can agree, close combat. Some wouldn’t want to talk about it. Others would be willing but inarticulate. Still others would have had such personalities or abilities distinct from yours as to render their advice not terribly expedient or personally practical.

The common thought is that the ryu evolved as an answer to these particular problems. That is a mistake, again, one made predicated upon a misunderstanding of the nature of the ryu. Techniques, “tricks,” or specific methods are not really the meat of the ryu. The founders of martial ryu were not stupid. They knew that a particularistic approach to combat would soon lose its effectiveness. Weapons and tactics and circumstances change. They knew that, just as we do. Therefore, they directed their martial energies in a different direction, one that led directly to the formulation of the iemoto-seido, or the method by which a ryu is promulgated.

In this respect, many of those interested in understanding a ryu have the formulation and more importantly the basis for the vivification of the ryu exactly bass ackwards. They posit it, as I said, as a toolkit stuffed with useful implements. Saburo found that a particular cut worked in a battle and so he told Masao about it and Masao added a few of his own ideas and presto: a ryu is born. Huh-uh. What happened in the creation of a ryu—and we are speaking of ryu not just in a martial context but in terms of ryu in general as a pedagogical tradition—is that Saburo realized, comprehensively grasped, a specific principle.

This realization may have come from experience or an insight gained from experience or from deduction or a variety of inspirations. It didn’t just happen in the case of martial ryu. The Okura Ryu of kyogen dance was founded when its iemoto (“founder”) was supposedly initiated into a way of movement by a talking tanuki, a kind of badger, some 600 years ago. Given the nature of the religious climate of early feudal Japan along with indigenous folk beliefs, credit for this inspiration was often given to divine or fantastic sources like this. To focus on the alleged nature of the revelation is to miss the critical point of its impetus. What occurred, no matter the tale woven around it, is that a unique principle emerged within the consciousness of the iemoto. He was able to formulate that principle sufficiently and to transmit it, through the aegis of the ryu. This is true of virtually all ryu. From that primordial principle eventually emanate a number of specific methods or techniques. It is crucial to note that these successive “additions” to the ryu do not present new or contradictory principles. They are—this is vital—extrapolations of the original principle. They are intended solely to fortify, to further elucidate, to allow a more complete and accurate approach to the principle.

There are three dimensions to a ryu from an ethnological point of view: first, they are social institutions. Second, increasingly so during the latter part of the feudal era, the ryu is an economic institution. And third, they have as well a profound spiritual nature that is essential to their transmission. Yet at the centre of the ryu is never merely a collection of methods, but is instead always its founding principle. Neglect to acknowledge this and its place of importance and you’re not going to get the notion of a ryu. It’s that simple.

There is a cogent commentary as it applies to modern art particularly that, “the more minimal the art, the more maximal the explanation.” In a completely different interpretation of this epigram, however, is the notion that the originating principles of a ryu are, typically, so simple, so refined and utterly to the point that the average practitioner just can’t see them. Kata (“forms”) serve as a way of drawing the member of the ryu to that goal of acquiring the insight necessary to discern the simple principle at the heart of the ryu.

The Shino Ryu, for instance, one ryu devoted to incense appreciation, was founded ca. 1460 by Sanjonishi Sanetaka after he was inspired by the insight, as he later explained it, to “listen to the incense.” The ryu today has several “kata” for preparing and appreciating incense.   Its curriculum is quite complex and certainly some additions have been made to it since Sanetaka’s day. However, the Shino Ryu is still organized around his original insight and there is nothing in the ryu that distracts ultimately from that. Do you know what “listening to the incense” means? Me neither. We aren’t members of the ryu, haven’t been initiated into its secrets. Further, we have not been given the forms and teachings that will allow us to see into its core. However, if the ryu is a healthy one, the transmission of Sanjonishi’s founding principle remains unchanged.

On various internet sites continues to sparkle a lively debate about the historical veracity of a currently popular combative art with alleged roots in Japan’s ancient past. Supposedly, this system is comprised of numerous ryu that have been synthesized into a corporate structure. Much has been made of the lineages of these various ryu and who inherited them and when, as proof of some kind of authenticity on the olio that purportedly resulted in their combination. To some extent, this attempt to prove legitimacy misses the point we’re addressing here. If ryu were merely toolkits filled with techniques, talent and perseverance might be sufficient to amalgamate two or more of them into a single, coherent whole. A skilled practitioner could conceivably combine the tools from two or three or more kits and still be able to access them and use them to their fullest. If these ryu all had unique and characteristic founding principles, however, (as they do) it would be well, um, remarkable to say the least to assume any one person could have adequately grasped and integrated within himself all these different concepts. If he did, he'd have more disparate personalities bouncing around inside himself than the cast of a soap opera.

Much has been made on these internet sites and elsewhere about the “changes” effected in various ryu, usually as an argument that koryu (“ancient ryu”) are little different than those schools concocted in modern times. This argument suggests that practitioners insisting they are following without interruption or deviation the precise methods of earlier generations are at best engaged in a silly conceit. Again, this misses a crucial point. The kata do not exist for themselves or as a conclusive means. They are not really meant to be static. Nor exhaustive in scope. They are instead a facilitation of the originating principles that distinguish and preserve the ryu. Viewed in that light, some change, while inevitable and even encouraged under the correct circumstances, does little to vitiate the underlying concept of the particular ryu.

Deviation here and there in the course of training is not harmful or counterproductive so long as I have an understanding of that concept, that original principle. Or—and this is not directly relevant to our discussion but it is absolutely important for understanding the process of the ryu—it is not harmful or counterproductive providing I am training under direct tutelage of one who has successfully assimilated that principle and is capable of transmitting it authoritatively. (I don’t wish to be pedantic—oh what the hell, yes I do—but readers would do well to read that last sentence again.) The teacher knows when to allow deviation or change and when to forbid it. His perspective, as an inheritor of the founding principles, is omniscient or at least must be so regarded by the student. If you do not accept this, don’t train with him. And above all, do not believe you are “doing the ryu” when you are not under the direct instruction of one authorized to transmit it.

Some of you may be familiar with the Kano Ryu of painting, founded in the mid-16th century by Kano Motonobu, which exerted tremendous influence on Japanese painting. The Kano school relied heavily upon the concept of funponshugi, the “principles of copying.” Using tracing paper and white paint, the students of the ryu copied a series of paintings from earlier masters of the school. As more and more masters assumed positions of authority within the Kano school, there were more paintings for the student to copy. The “kata,” so to speak, changed. Or at least became more numerous. The fundamental principles of the Kano Ryu, however, remained constant. Whatever got “added on” was useful only in further interpreting and presenting those principles to the initiated.

Now, did experienced warriors ever share tricks or techniques with others who sought them out? Reasonably we can conjecture that they did. But that has little to do with the founding of a successful, discrete ryu. A ryu is, as I’ve tried to illustrate, entirely different than absorbing or copying some techniques and hoping they will see one through combat.

It is informative to know that the ryu is often perceived in modern Japan as a somewhat peculiar and very feudal institution. The iemoto seido or pyramid-like transmission system, from the teacher at the top to the layers of licensed students under him, is frequently subject to vicious and often warranted criticism.

Interestingly, however, the resonances of that system are still felt in modern Japan. One sees it clearly in the educational process, especially at the junior high level in Japan, where attention to outer form becomes strongly emphasized. The “individual” of childhood must become part of the “group” of adulthood. The relatively free approach to grammar school, therefore, changes dramatically at junior high, with its attention to form and the correct method. This is a reverberation of the ryu system, at least in my opinion. American schools at this level seek to encourage this emphasis on conformity to some extent. Japanese junior high schools seek definitively to form it. And unconsciously or not to do so, to some degree they fall back on the methodology of the ryu.

I’m going a bit far afield here, but please consider this: All ryu are energized by the conclusive formation of volition. We can define volition as the implementation of control over oneself or others. The student of ikebana (“flower arrangement”) seeks to control his artistic impulses in ways consistent with the principles of the ryu to which he belongs. The martial artist is looking for the same, to control himself in combat and to control others. In both cases, their individual wills are subsumed by the dictates of the ryu. Later, much later down the road, their individuality may again emerge—some would suggest this is the final goal of the ryu, in fact—but even so, that volition will have been extensively conditioned and tempered by the ryu. The ryu, its usefulness and unique place in Japanese culture, is to me found primarily in mokuhyo: the specific and systematic inculcation of particular goals. I have never seen or heard of a more productive way of doing this than through the ryu. That is not to say there are not other ways or even perhaps ways that are ultimately more effective. But I defy anyone to present a model for this that is more consistent or reliable.

Again, while not directly relevant to our discussion here, permit me to venture another analogy that might help illustrate a point: You show me your mountain climber’s rack. It’s festooned with all manner of gadgets and devices. And you explain to me how this one is for jamming into a crack, that one is for securing a rope. I understand to some extent what you are explaining. But I don’t know anything about mountain climbing itself. I don’t know that the purpose for all this equipment is to enable your starting at the bottom of a mountain and making your way to the top. Well, you say, in the case of a martial ryu, the goal is pretty much self-evident. It is to win in combat. That’s not exactly so, but even if it were, the way we in a ryu are seeking to win is veiled to you. The principles we go about to accommodate that task are not going to be revealed. They would probably be largely opaque even if we tried to explain them. They are, in essence, learned only through the experience provided by the ryu. Watching or even learning by rote a kata without some introduction into the fundamental principles of the ryu is like looking at a climber’s rack and having some superficial explanation of what’s on there and then assuming you know what it’s all about or even that you have some basic grasp on it. You don’t. You can’t.

Kata are the climber’s cams, chocks, stoppers, and carabiners. The latter have evolved, remarkably, as you know if you are a climber. But that equipment is not a means unto itself. It is designed for a purpose and to the extent it might change, if it enables the climber to reach his goal, nobody’s complaining. If it is designed, however, by people with no direct experience at climbing, you’re going to have some problems.

Well, you say, nobody alive today who is teaching a koryu has killed someone in combat with a sword. Therefore any changes implemented in kata are likely to be as useless as climbing equipment devised by non-climbers. That analogy would be accurate if—big if—the goal of the ryu was to kill people. That is not, as I mentioned above, the goal of a martial ryu. Their goals are, of necessity, much broader. The ryu is attempting to organize perception and physical responses in distinctive ways that are consistent with the founder’s principles. The ryu does not “teach me to win” so much as it shapes my volition so I can successfully employ those principles to win or accomplish whatever I need to. I mentioned the Okura School of kyogen above. Nomura Manzo, one master of that school described the training process within a ryu very well. It isn’t to “teach” you, he said. It is “satoraseru.” The best translation might be “to draw you toward a realization.” To be brought along, through the workings of a ryu’s curriculum, to a realization is an extraordinary process. To understand that this is the impetus of a ryu is to put in perspective the ryu as an institution, one with a remarkable past and a unique present.


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