From the Teacher’s Corner 30: Secrets – August 2013, Douglas Tong, MA Ed., CI Tokumeikan, GTA

I was looking around the Internet and found some YouTube videos on Katori Shinto Ryu. Now, there are hundreds of videos on KSR of all varieties from professional ones to homemade ones and almost everything in between. One in particular stood out from the rest because it dealt with gogyo no bo. In other words, the secret bojutsu katas! Wow. What luck!

What should have been a turn-on suddenly became a major turn-off. Why? Well, after the title rolled off, the next thing that came up on the screen was this:


(video privée)

1et 6ème gogyo no bo…

Le plus important n’est pas visible pour le non-initié.


Basically, it says “This is a private video. The 6 high-level (secret) bo katas. The most important one is not available for the non-initiated.”

I don’t know. Maybe it is a language thing that I am misinterpreting. But the distinct feeling I got when seeing this was one of disgust. It felt almost like a teasing. First off, they say it’s a private video, like from their private files. Fine. So why show it to the entire world? Just keep it to yourself and no one is the wiser.

“What is recorded in these three volumes may not go out of this house. But that is not to make this school of swordsmanship a secret. This record is made for transmission to those who are worthy of it. Without transmission, these volumes might as well not exist.”

Yagyu Munenori

Heiho Kaden Sho

No. They wanted to show this to the world and they wanted to show it for a reason. Not because they wanted to keep it private and to themselves. A secret is no good unless people know you have it. A secret carries no political clout unless people know you have it and they want it.

And as it is the secret bo katas (which coincidentally are no longer secrets), this carries weight. They wanted to say to the world, hey, we know the secret bo katas, so that’s how good we are, because you have to be good to do these katas or you have to be at a certain skill level to even be taught these.

But here’s the catch. They show you katas one to five but purposefully leave out number six. Why? It’s a big tease. We know something you don’t. We have something you want. Only the cool kids get to see Number 6. And you’re not in our cool group. It’s like grade school teasing.

Well, I watched all five bo katas and they are all very similar to each other and work on the same principles and themes as the six basic bojutsu katas (the omote no bo). Interesting but nothing revolutionary or earth-shattering, which makes sense because if a system is consistent in its tactical and technical approach to fighting (with a bo in this case), then it is not going to be anything too radical or too far removed from what it did in earlier katas. So I imagine kata number six of the secret bo katas is not going to be much different than numbers one to five.

But this group seems to make a big deal about keeping it under wraps. Then why show katas one to five but keep number six to themselves? It’s not like they ran out of tape or anything like that.

This phrase bugs me: Le plus important n’est pas visible pour le non-initié.

In essence, if you’re not part of the initiated, you don’t get to see it. Put another way, if you’re not a part of our gang, you don’t get to see it. If you’re not in the in-crowd, you’re out. Budo snobbery.

That’s exclusion. It’s elitism. It’s schoolyard bullying tactics. It’s “Ha, ha. We’ve got the secret and you don’t get to see it!”

It’s also a “see how special we are?!” kind of statement too. It’s a claim to fame. I did a little research on this group. They used to be a part of the Old Sugino (Yoshio Sugino) group in Europe. But once the old master passed away, it was either join the new guy or you’re out in the cold. If you’re out in the cold, anything you had before is gone now. All rankings become meaningless in the new world order, which is now according to the new guy. When you’re out in the cold, alone, you need something to stake your claim to fame (and name) on.

Hence, the need to show the world what you know or how deeply you know the system. This group has put a lot of videos out on YouTube; videos of their sensei (a European fellow) studying with the old master, videos of practice at Sugino Dojo, videos of their current work in KSR, etc…

They want to show how special they are, how elite they are in the Sugino- style Katori world. Problem is, that world doesn’t exist anymore. That’s what I meant in a previous article when I said that in any change of leadership (i.e., when the old headmaster passes away), there will be a period of upheaval and confusion as people try to make sense of the new reality. And some groups will flourish under the new leadership and others will fall by the wayside. The old world is swept away to make way for the new reality.

Groups like this one are left derelict, drifting aimlessly on their own. No rank, no status, no connections, which inevitably means no credibility. So they have to establish credibility somehow. And with so many groups now putting up videos on KSR, they’re a dime a dozen. KSR is not really anything special now. Everyone knows what it is and what it looks like. All the katas are on YouTube; yes, even the secret sword katas. But the secret bo katas had not been put up yet and this was the first group to post them. It was their claim to fame, to announce to the world “we are one of the elite groups”.

It is also interesting that people seem to equate the knowing of high-level kata to be some kind of status symbol. It’s the old “We know this and that secret so we are better than you”. Quantity over quality.

But I have heard from 3 famous headmasters (two of whom have passed away regrettably), that the secrets (the gokui) of their styles are found in the first kata. Ha! Imagine that!

Here’s a story for you.

Sozen (whom I have interviewed before for TIN) once asked Yoshio Sugino Sensei, “Sensei, can you teach me the secret of the style?”

Of course, O-Sensei just smiled. He pleaded with Sensei off and on for a while. Then one day, when he asked again, Sugino Sensei finally said, “I already did.”

Sozen was surprised and taken aback. He asked, “Really? When?”

“When you first started,” Sugino Sensei replied.

Sozen was perplexed. Sugino Sensei, seeing his confusion, simply said, “You were learning the secrets when you first started.”

Sugino Sensei paused to let it sink in. Then after a short while, he said to Sozen, “The secrets are all in kata 1.” Sozen related to me that at that precise moment, he was stunned beyond belief. He felt like he had been hit by a ton of bricks, so shocked and amazed he was.

When I heard that story, which is true by the way, it made complete sense to me. A style is simply that, a style of doing things, a philosophy about how to do things. Whether it is ikebana (flower arranging), shodo (calligraphy), chado (tea ceremony), kenjutsu, iaido, karate, etc… it is a guiding set of philosophies and ideas on how to do that “thing”.

In the case of kenjutsu, you have different schools of thought, different ways of sword-fighting. One type of school likes to smash your sword and run you through, straight and true, with little fanfare. Another style of sword-fighting, another school of thought about sword-fighting, prefers to bait their opponents. Doesn’t matter. Whatever the school, it has a set of guiding principles and ideas on sword-fighting. And those basic premises are found in the first kata or the first few katas, the very first things you learn about the school.

Like how to walk. How to cut. How to block or parry. How to evade. How to move.

At the time when you are first learning, you are just trying to keep up and keep it all straight in your head. You’re not really thinking about it all that deeply. All that’s going through your mind is: What’s the next move? What’s the next kata? Did I forget a step?

A decade later, you start reflecting on what it is you are really doing. What am I doing at this precise point in the kata? And why am I doing it?

Hmmmm. Good questions indeed.

You start thinking. Yeah, why am I walking like this? What’s the meaning? And why am I parrying in this fashion? What’s the reasoning behind that?

Where are the answers? Now you go back to the fundamentals, the first kata, to see what was really happening there.

Over the years, you had gotten so sick of kata 1 since you have done it so many times, you never wanted to see it again. You wanted to get to the higher-level kata, where all the good stuff is. The really cool stuff is in the higher kata.

A decade later, you have done all the high-level stuff, seen all the cool moves. But really, when you get right down to it, the cool moves and the intricate techniques are all based on what?

Precisely. It’s all based on the fundamentals. It is not totally alien to what you had learned before. If it was, then it doesn’t and wouldn’t fit that style. A style or school of thought is nothing if not consistent in its approach.

Everything in the style should be based on those certain fundamental premises of that school of thought, that style of thinking.

High-level Katori Shinto Ryu kata, for example, are still based on the central premises that guide the entry-level kata (the omote-tachi). It has not changed. The techniques used in the Gogyo kata (the “secret” sword kata) are the same as the ones used in the Omote-tachi kata (the entry-level kata). Looks different, faster, more nimble, more finesse, but still they follow the guiding principles on how to move, how to cut, how to block, etc… that characterize this school of sword-fighting. In some cases, you see the same technique but it is used in a different way (e.g., instead of blocking by opposition, we “receive” the sword). Or it is slightly modified in its application (angle is changed, for instance). But it never breaks the mold. Still the same mold.

Ono-ha Itto Ryu kata, for another example, are amazingly consistent. The other 41 kata (numbers 2-42) in the O-Tachi section (the main body of work on sword kata), they are all variations on the central themes found in kata #1, “Hitotsu Kachi”. Even the kodachi katas follow these central premises so much that they look just like the long sword katas. Almost a carbon copy; some see them basically as long sword katas done with a short sword. All the katas invariably follow the same rule. They do not deviate.

The high-level katas will show different variations, applications, circumstances. But they never break the mold.

Le plus important n’est pas visible pour le non-initié.

The most important? Really? Do they really believe that?

Why is it most important? Because it is the last? The first five of these secret bo kata, in all honesty, contained pretty much the standard bo movements (strikes, blocks). The novelty is that it is bo vs. bo, not bo vs. sword. Once you get past the novelty, and really look at it, it’s not that different. What makes you think that the sixth and last one will be so much more earth-shattering? If it is true to form, then it will be like the other five. It might have a new and interesting twist to it but it will invariably follow the central premises of the style for the most part.

I would argue however that the most important is the first kata; not of the gogyo bo kata but, if we want to limit it only to the handling of the bo, then omote-no-bo kata 1 (basic bo kata #1). If you want to think even more generalized, we can go way back to the very beginnings: the first sword kata.

It’s so Zen; the circle is complete.

How ironic. Students chase the amorphous and elusive secret of the style when all along it has been sitting there in the open, staring them in the face, waiting for its meaning to be unlocked. Problem was, they weren’t ready to “see” it yet…

“Sensei, can you teach me the secret of the style?”

“I already did …”


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Douglas Tong, MA Ed., CI Tokumeikan, GTA

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