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Japan’s Classical Martial Schools: Can They Survive?

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #120

One of man’s greatest satisfactions is the sense of having achieved a measure of immortality. Parents leave this world feeling comfort in the fact they have transmitted their wisdom and the essence of their lives’ experiences to their children. A writer does the same through his works knowing—or at least hoping— that somewhere, somehow, some unknown person will be touched by his words and enriched by the encounter. A painter aims to cast aside the veil of time revealing his artistic message through images on canvas.

What is the headmaster of a classical martial school to do to fulfill with honor his role as the keeper of a tradition and ensure the survival intact of his art? This is the dilemma faced by the heads of the few remaining classical martial art schools in Japan today. It is not a new problem as these historical ryuha have been in decline since well before the Meiji Restoration (1868) when the death knell was sounded with finality for the samurai caste.

For the most part, these historical curiosities have not fared well as most of them have disappeared all together or survived in a state of ossification. Those schools still in existence have survived in many cases by piggy-backing on the success of modern budo such as judo, kendo, aikido, iaido, naginata and a few others, most of which now have a sporting component. Even this tenuous situation is no guarantee of long-term survival as is illustrated by the examples of Tenshin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu and Kito-ryu jujutsu—the arts that form the historical basis of judo—which today totter on the brink of extinction despite the international success of judo.

The status of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu—the technical precursor to aikido—represents a somewhat special case. The claim that Daito-ryu is a classical martial art actually is quite open to debate. My personal research has led me to believe that it is really a hybrid art based on the extensive personal training of Sokaku Takeda in the late 19th century. Setting aside that issue, what will the future hold for this art which was the source for most of the techniques of modern aikido? Certainly there is no immediate danger of the disappearance of Daito-ryu as is the case with the majority of the still surviving classical schools. The continued growth of aikido as a worldwide phenomenon has guaranteed a constant stream of interest in this precursor art.

Sokaku Takeda of course taught on a wide-scale for about half a century. On the other hand, his son Tokimune, although highly skilled, did not pursue Daito-ryu on a professional basis and the main locus of his activities was Hokkaido. This being the case, Tokimune’s ability to transmit his technical knowledge was severely limited. Even before Tokimune’s death in 1993, the mainstream school of the Daito-ryu he headed began to fragment. Today there are two pretenders to the title of headmaster, each self-appointed.

Daito-ryu’s most widely-recognized figure who has now assumed the position of Hombu Dojo-cho is Tokyo-based Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei, one of Tokimune’s most talented senior students. Kondo Sensei was the only person to have received the menkyo kaiden from Tokimune. I personally have seen his scrolls and certification that bear the headmaster’s seal. In addition to Kondo’s organization, there are several splinter groups that have broken off from the mainstream tradition and built up modest followings.

Three other large groups representing different Daito-ryu traditions are the Osaka-based Takumakai headed by Hakaru Mori Sensei and Takeshi Kawabe Sensei, the Kodokai headquartered in Kitami, Hokkaido led by Yusuke Inoue Sensei, and the Roppokai, an offshoot of the Kodokai, started by Seigo Okamoto Sensei.

As I see it, the real challenge for Daito-ryu is the preservation and dissemination of the art without a further dilution of its technical heritage. Since none of these groups is large in size compared to the bigger aikido organizations, a great deal of effort will be necessary to insure their continuance well into the next century.

How can this best be achieved? There are various schools of thought on this subject, but before I broach this I would like to point out several important points. We must keep in mind that the samurai caste were in effect members of private armies of regional lords. They enjoyed high social status and their livelihood was taken care of by their masters to whom they were subservient. The warrior class had a primordial role in maintaining the socio-political order in a feudal society.

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