Kata and Theory in Niten Ichiryu – Nov 3, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I received a question about Niten Ichiryu recently which touched on kata and theory and real-life fighting (as any discussion of Musashi almost inevitably does.

The question: Can we find the principles and techniques Musashi talks about in the Go Rin no Sho in the modern kata of HNIR? Musashi describes a wild, realistic fight scenario and wrote about fundamental, universal fighting principles with a sword that give you the chance to live. There is nothing static or no “ritualized” guidelines that tell you “stop here…hold your sword here…go forward and then stop and cut now – do this and this and this….” which we can see in the kata today from HNIR.

Good question. The Go Rin no Sho contains 5 kata, the nito seiho and depending on how you translate those instructions they are actually quite specific and are read as guidelines like any other descriptions of kata. Those who study the Niten Ichiryu read (or should read) the book quite often and to us it does read like a manual.

The other chapters which contain more theory are read quite widely by students of the Japanese sword from many arts and some of what Musashi wrote is more or less the common language of the sword. Hold the sword in the last two fingers, see the opponent but also see his intention, these are now “old chestnuts” (theory) of the arts. So yes indeed, my study of Niten Ichiryu includes and is informed by what is written in the Go Rin no Sho, always has been. Most of what I know can be found in that book. I just finished a koryu iaido seminar with my sensei, Goyo Ohmi, and he is currently reading a copy of the Go Rin no Sho which he picked up at a rummage sale. He advised everyone in the school to read it as well, but to watch out for bad translations as he found one that was completely off base and he “threw it away”. I hope he wasn’t talking about my version, which he may not have found yet on his tablet.

Question 2: Can you give some information on which year or in which period of time and by whom these kata were founded?

The five Nito Seiho kata are contained in the Go Rin no Sho so they are “original”. Can each line of Niten get their Nito kata from what is written? Perhaps with some effort. I know that the first time I read the book (after I started practicing the ryu) I only got the kamae from the descriptions, I couldn’t get the technique. After many more readings and thought I can get closer but won’t ever be really confident that what I was taught is exactly what Musashi taught.

Is that a problem?

There is no film, photograph or detailed manual of Musashi’s techniques. This is the same with all Japanese schools of sword, there is much to be filled in from any of the writings. Things change over time. Look at all the lines of Niten, calculate generations back to the split-off of each, consider that we all start with the kamae and perhaps we could come back to a root movement. All lines and all teachers emphasize some aspects of the technique, their students take this as gospel and reinforce or damp it down as they teach their own students. This is how things change but if the core remains I figure we’re good.

As for the rest of the kata, the kotachi seiho and the tachi seiho, I don’t know when they came into the school. I do know that most of the lines of Niten use the same names and look roughly the same so they have existed through many splits and must be old. I know that in my line there were three Santo generations (hence my line being “santo ha”) before Aoki sensei who was the seventh head. I assume Grandfather Santo knew what Grandchild Santo was being taught so I assume a conservative time there, not much change through three generations. Aoki sensei once commented that the two extra nito sets (sessa and aikuchi) were “recently created) so those must be younger than the shoto set or the single sword set. Those five sets came to Aoki sensei from the Santo generations so I have always assumed that the kodachi and tachi sets were there at least by the time of the first Santo sensei, who would have been the fourth head. My guess is that those kata came in at minimum by the third head, so Musashi’s student or grand-student which would, in all probability mean that Musashi was teaching them but didn’t include them in the Go Rin no Sho since they were not all that unusual at the time. The nito seiho were worth noting down and Musashi suggested they were his entire school. Not being able to read his actual words, I might suggest he meant that they were what he considered most important, or perhaps that they contained all of his wisdom in one place. Or maybe he did indeed only teach those five kata to his students. This last I doubt very much.

The two extra sets? There are photos of Aoki sensei in bogu in the nito seiho kamae with shinai, he was a kendo teacher, and the extra nito sets seem quite suited to nito kendo so perhaps they were developed by Aoki sensei himself? I’m not that much of a scholar of the school to know.

Techniques drift, theory tends to stick. Theory can be expressed in many physical forms so kata change with the generations.

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