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Koryu Bujutsu: Classic Martial Arts Schools of Japan – Part I

Photography by Leiv Harstad

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The martial arts of Japan are well known and earnestly practiced around the world. Few, however, are aware that a number of training schools exist in Japan that date back to the feudal period. I have asked martial arts expert and practitioner of a traditional martial art to introduce us to this little known phenomenon.

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From the rise of the military at the end of the 1100’s to the overthrow of the Kamakura government in 1333, the chief weapon of Japan’s warriors was the bow and arrow. It was only in the century following the Kamakura period, when war became incessant, that the quintessential Japanese military man makes his debut and that we begin to see the earliest traces of a developing corpus of Japanese military systems. This was a propitious era for the creation of new methods of combat, for warfare itself had evolved.

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With the proliferation of the military class, armies grew to enormous sizes and, no longer relying solely on the prowess of Japan’s mounted archers, we begin to see foot soldiers, armed with spears, swords, glaives, and truncheons dominating on the battlefield. As Japan was increasingly drawn into the maelstrom of civil strife during the Sengoku period (Warring States, from mid 15th century through 16th century,) first attempts at systemization and codification were gradually forged into distinct schools of martial systems called bujutsu. Now termed koryu bujutsu (old tradition/style/school military systems), these fighting systems are among the last extant hand –to-hand battlefield fighting arts in the world.

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On the battlefield, the warrior was likely to encounter a number of different weapons including various types of yari (spears), naginata and nagamaki (glaives), yumi (bow), odachi (large field sword), not to mention the Japanese sword in its numerous configurations. If the warrior was to survive against these weapons, and more importantly, dominate, it was imperative that he be skilled in their use. Due to the demands of battlefield reality, most if not all of the early koryu bujutsu systems were sogo-bujutsu (broad based, integrated, composite military systems). Unlike modern styles of martial arts, such as kendo, judo, aikido and kyudo, the koryu bujutsu traditions did not specialize in one weapon or type of combat. The use of various weapons and martial systems were interrelated and integrated through a core set of principles specific to a particular school. These schools placed their technical emphasis on the use of weaponry and the foundation for all of these military systems is the practice of partnered, prearranged patterns known as kata. It is within the context of two person kata that the teacher can teach all aspects of combat, from fundamental movements, to the deepest principles and complexities of human movement and behavior.

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The purpose of kata designed for combat was to train the individual to effectively utilize a few, select, proven techniques in response to a wide variety of attacks and combative situations. The original kata of the koryu bujutsu were developed from very real battlefield experiences and evolved through hundreds of years of combative activity.

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Personal combat, with its successes, failures, and draws, were analyzed, and elements were extracted that could be simulated and practiced as kata. The aim of the classical training was and is not simply the learning of techniques, but the inculcation of combative behaviors that prepare one for implementing techniques in the face of the overwhelming stress and trauma of combat.

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