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Budo Reigi in Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu (1)

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by Yukiyoshi Takamura

Published Online

Having undergone special training in Shindo Yoshin-ryu jujutsu as a boy, Yukiyoshi Takamura left Japan while a teenager and eventually settled in San Jose, California, USA. He operated a dojo in California in the 1960s and 70s choosing to provide rigorous training to a small group of dedicated students. His art, now called Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu, embodies the philosophy and spirit of an earlier era of Japan adapted to a Western setting. Takamura’s deep insights into the essence of martial arts will surprise and stimulate modern budo practitioners. Takamura Sensei passed away in 2000.

Yukiyoshi Takamura

What is Reigi?

Reigi is most easily translated as “etiquette” or “protocol”. To the uninitiated observer, reigi seems to be a series of ritual actions often including vocalizations that may have little obvious relationship to the primary task one is pursuing. The simple and observable physical elements of reigi are the omote or surface manifestations. Proper reigi has only partial connection to the omote, however. Reigi is instead an intertwining of the omote and the ura, or that which lies beyond what is visible to the eye. Reigi is not performed as much as it is experienced. In its highest forms it represents the merging of mind, body and spirit. Its essence exists in that recess of our soul that often eludes temporal description.

Reigi in budo (martial arts) may in the eyes of a westerner at first seem a curious phenomenon, but deeper inspection is needed to fully grasp its significance. Some people ask “What has all this ritual to do with learning to fight?” My answer is, everything. The first purpose of budo reigi is to place the mind in a proper state so it can be more efficiently taught how to learn. But remember, this is only a beginning. Placed into a familiar western concept, reigi is both the alpha and the omega of learning. Proper Japanese martial arts cannot be divorced from reigi and remain true to its Japanese roots. Budo must always begin and end with reigi, for without reigi, budo can never be proper budo.

The Purpose of Reigi

During a student’s training, reigi takes on important and progressively deeper purposes. It is an inseparable part of shugyo or austere mental training. It is used to test a student’s willingness to submit his ego to destruction. As such, it becomes the foundation on which one tempers the soul of the warrior. But of course we don’t actually destroy a student’s ego. We instead aim to polish and mold the students ego through hardship, challenge and reflection. The student after a indeterminate period of evaluation can become a formal deshi or disciple by demonstrating his willingness to accept this challenge with a pure heart. In Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu he affirms this decision through the reigi of taking a formal keppan-sho or “blood oath”.

Acceptance or rejection of proper reigi can be utilized to expose a student’s dedication or shortcomings to a sensei. The student who constantly questions or refuses to embrace reigi is not suitable for continued training because he ultimately views his own opinions and desires as superior to the aims of the ryu. Blinded by his own self-absorption, a student disrespectful of reigi is incapable of accepting the fact that his responsibility as a formal deshi is foremost to the ryu and the benefit of others before himself.

To the formal deshi (student), reigi is free to imbed its most important lessons. The experiences gained thru budo reigi and the technical execution of the ryu merge into one singular expression. This combination of experiences transform the soul. The increased sensitivity resulting from continued shugyo allows the deshi to peer into his own heart in a way never before experienced. It is an epiphany of sorts for many. Responsibility to the ryu, to his seniors, and to humanity at large become primary to his own selfish desires. In this way a benevolent spirit is forged and wisdom is free to flourish. Abstract concepts of life and death place the deshi’s existence in the proper natural context. The transcendence of the spirit world often presents itself for the first time. Over the many years of forging the deshi becomes whole with this world and with the other world where the spirits of our ancestors reside. Without this sensitivity and the increased awareness of his proper place in the world, a martial artist can lose his way and develop a distorted moral code, a code that justifies ego driven self-gratification and rationalized violence. The wisdom gained through proper reigi is protection from the kami or “deities” against the evil that humanity has wrestled with for generations. That evil is malevolent violence, a curse that is the bane of our human existence.

What is False Reigi?

Some people have asked me the question “Does reigi ever change?” The answer is that of course it does but in very subtle and deliberate ways. A universal truth is that all things must adapt to stay relevant. Reigi does not exist of or for itself. It is a manifestation of the purpose it was created for. If reigi does not evolve or no longer speaks clearly to the purpose for which it was created it will become staid and useless. Change for change sake however is rife with risk. Reigi must remain true to its purpose of manifesting a divine gift for mankind’s benefit.

I’ll present an example of a change in our reigi that I think was appropriate. This change was instituted in our western organizations in response to a language and usage conflict. In Japan, a sensei is always referred to as “sensei”. On the mat or off the mat, a sensei is “sensei”. But, in the West to constantly refer to one’s teacher in public as “sensei ” would to many appear as affectation and give an improper impression to those not familiar with the Japanese usage of the term. Exacerbating this problem is the tendency of many westerners towards overemphasizing the omote of reigi. To constantly refer to someone publicly as sensei would only encourage this overemphasis leading to more misinterpretation of the proper usage. Often in response to this misunderstanding, false or improper reigi appears. To combat the propagation of this phenomenon I require that students only use Japanese formalities in the dojo or in a private setting. In public I prefer to be addressed simply as “sir”. This is a much more appropriate reigi in the West as it is easily understood and appreciated by the public at large. So, this is a change from the strict reigi as practiced in most budo in Japan but this change is not haphazard. There is an important and valuable reason guiding this change.

As another example of improper or false reigi, consider the word shihan (master instructor). In some western budo circles shihan are multiplying like rabbits. The meaning of the term is now completely misinterpreted and bastardized. So-called budo “masters” are popping up everywhere! I even saw an individual promoting himself as a “Dai-Shihan”. What a chuckle I had over that absurdity! I guess in his ignorance he thinks Dai-Shihan means “Grand Master”, whatever that is supposed to be. I expect we’ll next see “Great Grand Masters”, or “Dai Dai Shihan”.

At its worst, false reigi is not just a misunderstanding but is blatantly fraudulent. False reigi such as this is usually invented by an inferior instructor to promote an impression of legitimacy or expertise that doesn’t actually exist. To those initiated into proper budo this sort of bizarre self-aggrandizement is all too easily obvious. But to the average person unfamiliar with proper budo reigi this sort of phony etiquette can damage the impression that the greater public has of all genuine budo.

Specific budo terms such as shihan are simply not appropriate in western common usage because all translations are ultimately inaccurate. In the case of using the term “shihan”, the omote has essentially been translated without the accompanying ura. In western common usage there is no similar concept of ura attached to the word “master”. The ura is lost in the translation and without the ura improper or false reigi inevitably fills the void.

The Improper Emphasis of Reigi

Another common pitfall associated with reigi demonstrates the importance of keeping it in its proper perspective. It was once stated by an American budoka of rather infamous reputation for acting “very Japanese” that my reigi was much too informal and relaxed to be correct. This has been the source of endless amusement to me and a few of my friends. I constantly remind those I teach that reigi although having an important physical manifestation or kata, is predominantly an internal exercise. Reigi executed properly should appear so relaxed as to be an expression of second nature. Proper reigi must always be a moving meditation. In the dojo of the above mentioned instructor I have observed reigi that had become so stilted and overly “omote” that there simply was no “ura”. Where there is no ura, there is no proper budo. This instructor has overemphasized reigi to the point that his dojo is a dojo of “reigi omote” instead of budo. I have also seen this quite recently in Japan. It seems this phenomenon is not limited to countries outside my homeland.

The opposite can also be seen but usually only in Japan. Reigi there can become a rote exercise, totally devoid of its spiritual dimension or purpose. In this manifestation it has become a sort of nonchalant reigi without either proper omote or ura. It has essentially become nothing, not even the shell of reigi omote.

Despite all the importance given reigi it must be re-emphasized that reigi is not an end unto itself. It has an important and concrete function and that function in the dojo is to aid in the training of the body and soul in the pursuit of budo. Reigi reminds us of our divine origins and of our responsibility to those who passed budo to us. But reigi is not kami itself. To over or under emphasize reigi cripples a dojo’s soul and accordingly, its deshi. A universal truth is that proper balance is necessary in all things. The balance between mind and body. The balance between movement and stasis. The balance between the physical and mental.

Balance is the greater truth that all real budoka strive towards everyday. Reigi can function as a valuable tool for teaching balance and harmony of the spirit but budo reigi can also be misused or neglected. Without the influences of proper reigi, budo is like a rudderless ship adrift in a storm, its destination uncertain.

Yukio Takamura, 1982

For further reading we recommend this interview with Yukiyoshi Takamura: Interview with Yukiyoshi Takamura

We would like to thank Takamura Ha Shindo Yoshin ryu Menkyo Kaiden Toby Threadgill for reediting this essay into a form suitable for publication. The Takamura Ha Shindo Yoshin ryu website is located here: http://www.shinyokai.com/index.htm