Japanese martial arts (nowadays generally known as budô) are usually divided into two categories: Koryû and gendai. Gendai budô means moderns martial arts, or those that were founded during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) or later. Koryû budô or kobudô (not to mistaken for the term for Okinawan arts) means old styles; old meaning founding during the Edo Period (1600-1868), when ryûha system is generally thought to be born. Other view on the beginning of ryûha system is 14 century. Before the ryûha system arts apparently were trasferred to next generation without a specific “system”, this has been called kaden (family tradition). Koryû is generally thought to include only samurai martial arts, which leaves out Okinawan arts, possible arts of the general population and depending on one’s view, ninjutsu (if one thinks that samurai and ninja are mutually exclusive terms).

Therefore koryû – gendai classification is only based on the time of founding, and doesn’t necessarily take into account the aim or purpose of the martial art, whether being advancement of martial skills, spiritual development, fitness training, competition or any combination of those. Of course the purpose still varies within a specific art according to preferences and understandings of the teacher…

Generally the oldest koryû styles are considered to be Tenshin Shôden Katori Shintô-ryû, founded in 1447, and Kashima Shintô-ryû, founded around 1518. Oldest styles on the other hand tend to be kyûjutsu (naturally according to the history of warfare), for example Ogasawara-ryû from 13th century. Within the styles of Bujinkan almost all are older than Edo Period. Here are the styles according to the founding years mentioned in different sources based on the sôke lists:

(Heian Period)

Shinden Fudô-ryû 1113-1118 / late 12th century

Gyokko-ryû 1156

Togakure-ryû 1161 / 1180s

(Heian or Kamakura Period)

Kukishinden-ryû 12th or 14th century?

(Ashikaga/Muromachi Period)

Kotô-ryû 1532 / 1542

Gyokushin-ryû 1532

Kumogakure-ryû 1532

Gikan-ryû 1558

(Tokugawa/Edo Period)

Takagi Yôshin-ryû 1645-1695

(As is evident above, some years have some variation – even centuries…)

According to those years, the styles of Bujinkan are due to their history koryû budô or kaden. On the other hand, according to the period of founding,  Bujinkan Budô Taijutsu, that was created from them during 1970s is gendai budô.

The listed years are what they are, and I’m not going to argue about the title of the oldest style – especially since I don’t have primary evidence on the matter. Of course it would sound great to practice authenticated oldest martial traditions of Japan, but then there might be felt unnecessary responsibility for “maintaining the tradition”, which would demand quite a bit of a Westerner. Also – when assuming cynicalle realistic attitude – only thing any of those years mean that a certain style might have been founded at that time. Remembering that this is true with all historical markings. It is impossible to say – with these or any other styles – if that is true, and how much the style has changed after that. One change of generation is enough for big changes. Other thing is how much the different arts differ from each other, and how much they have diversified from each other.

As of the traditions that are transmitted through the densho, a kata has a quite vague description in one, for example (created for this article): “Uke attacks with right side strike. Tori receives with left flow, rises with a kick ja knocks down with outside twist.” First of all, it is impossible ti know when a kata has been created or written down, how the description has changed throughout the years or how much there is errors written or corrected. To my understanding the sôke of different generations copied the scrolls to themselves andor their closest students – they won’t withstand use for ever. There may also have been archive copies and ones for use, there must have been variety in practices. Other thing is the specific way in which a kata is performed, and how the related principles are taught. This should be transmittede (and should have been transmitted) through an unbroken sôke/sôdenke line.

Also when talking about history one must remember the “filtering effect”: The representatives of the leading point of view control the documentation of history and official documents. For example in Europe the Christian culture has acted in this way. On the other hand, when one thinks especially the ninjutsu styles, their representatives didn’t necessarily publish writings for others to use, and large part of the knowledge transmitted in a more open way in other skills has been transmitted only orally.

With history one should also remember the saying “20-20 hindsight is an exact science” – everything is so clear when looking back.

So what historiality means in budô? For a style to get a full acceptance for it’s historiality, it must possess old original writings and a provable line of headmasters to this day.With this the “paperwork” is in order. But this wouldn’t tell anything about the practical skills; not what the ancient masters could do, or the quality of the present-day masters. On the other hand at any point of history someone may have invented the earlier history, densho from 17th century can be just as fake as a newer one, it would just be a more “historic fake”.

It must also be remembered that during times styles have born and disappeared, older one have branched into new ones, styles have assimilated ideas from others, and styles have been united. Even a “new” style may contain very old principles – ja I suppose all Japanese martial arts have their basis imported from China based on the Indian combat methods.

In one point of view history should be forgotten; or at least one shouldn’t attach to it too much. If researching the past gives something to the learning of Taijutsu, or the age of the art practiced gives motivation to practicing, or if one generally is interested in history – it’s okay. The essential thing on your own Taijutsu is the skill of your teacher – and in connection to the transmitting of practical history and tradition how well that person can pass on his/her teacher’s skill.

– Jukka Nummenranta, shidôshi, dôjô-chô


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