Whither Waza – July 8, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Today we look at the development of waza, or rather, the intent of the waza in relationship with the sword schools through time.




This essay presents a methodology which tries to look at the Budo history from a perspective of making of the wazas (techniques). This author devides the development of Budo techniques into the following five phases based on the history of the spors techniques.

Phase 1 a stage when Bujutsu was used in actual fighting–from antiquity to 1543
Phase 2 a stage when schools of Bugei were formed–1543 to 1840s
Phase 3 Bugei in competition, i. e. Bugei was transformed into Budo–1840s to 1900s
Phase 4 reverse secularization of Budo–1900s to 1945
Phase 5 present-day Budo–after 1945

In phase 1 it was what is called the “practical technique” stage in the history of sports techniques. Phase 2 saw the departure from Bujutsu for practical purposes to Bugei for “fun and games”. Phase 3 was the transition period from “fun and games” stage to the “competition” stage. From phase 4 onward, Budo was played systematically as “competitive sports”. “Reverse secularization”, conspicuous from the phase 4 onward, went against the modernization processes of sports, and produced ritual styles of Budo which are different from the traditional styles of Budo since the Edo period. Many of the Budo styles, considered today as the tradition of Japan, were consciously ritualized during this period.


For those interested in the history of budo, this time frame is a handy reference, although a three hundred year chunk for phase 2 is a pretty big chunk. That period might be the one most interesting to those who study koryu, and it is not without sources of information in English. When we read works from authors of this era what strikes me is not so much how different it is today than at that time, but how similar the teaching. Perhaps this is because instructors have looked to those sources from that time to the present, there’s nothing like a book to keep things standardized some will say. Others of course might say nothing like a book to strangle progress. (That in a nutshell may be the difference between the koryu types and the kendo types.)

Progress where? Let’s look at the timeline above with an eye on kendo, then an eye on koryu and assume they are different things. The outline makes most sense to me, when examining mainstream kendo, the largest group of Japanese swordsmen. First we have the age of sword as tool of warfare, up to 1543. Sounds reasonable, cut like this, thrust like this. Not much else needs saying so we don’t see any large “schools” of instruction. Think of how specialized one needs to be to teach riflery in basic training. We see many instructors in many camps. They may have their small quirks but it’s all accepted as adequate. There are no specialized methods taught to a select few, not for the basic skills most will need. Someone is going to come up with “sniper school” I suspect, but that’s not basic training is it? You tell me, are there specialist name instructors in the armed forces who teach their own distinctive style of gunnery? For the specialist schools I suspect one needs to go to the civilian populations, especially in areas where a large group of gun-carriers exist. There we see named schools of gunnery based around famous teachers with special methods like the point-shoot types and the quick draw types and the concealed carry types. It is the transition from phase 1 (military use) to phase 2 (civilian use) where we see the distinctive schools arise.

The author writes that this transition is one to “fun and games”. I love this. Think about it, he’s got the right tone, it’s a transition from “here’s how to do it, hope you got enough information in this past month to kill some folks before you get killed” to “hey we can spend bags of time preparing for imaginary situations without the stress of knowing we’re soon getting thrown into a meat grinder”. If that’s not a transition to fun and games I can’t imagine what is.

“Then stuff happens for 300 years.” In 1840 we presumably start to see the rise of gekken, or shinai kendo competition where it becomes possible to send students out to try their skills against other schools. This is the age of “bugei in competition”, and it meant something as the sword instructors competed for students. Students meant income and there was now a real method of testing between the methods of one instructor and another. Those who can, please read the paper if this has caught your interest. I suggest (assume) that at this stage we are looking at gekken as a way for individual styles to compete one with another, much the way that “mixed martial arts” was supposed to have told us which martial art was the best. The so called “no rules” competitions. Of course anyone who thinks for a moment will realize that there are always rules, if no more than “we’ll meet at a place and time and fight for a while and try not to kill each other”. Those rules already define the competition. In the modern era of “no-rules martial arts” I never saw a swordsman with a shinken go up against a boxer. Never saw anyone show up with an assault rifle either. Some things are outside even “no-rules”.

Regardless, I suspect the aim of competition in phase 3 was to test school vs school. The intent would define the rules and so we would see the variety of equipment and techniques we know existed from the records.

In phase 4 we see the rise of a nation which was at first imitating the west and then in competition with it. During this time the old way of testing school against school became standardized to a way of uniting the entire country in a martial-like activity that could be used to instill “samurai spirit” in the youth. Rules began to dominate the competition, more rules mean more playing to those rules and the techniques would begin to change to accomodate. With more defined rules we can innovate in training methods and technique to more closely accomodate the rules. Innovation and improvement can then be checked by victory or defeat.

During this time of unification of rules and technique, there was also a conscious effort to get rid of the idea of western sport and replace it with the new-samurai ideals of national patriotism as Japan acquired and expanded it’s empire. This kendo in the service of nationalism would be quite a different beast than the Edo era kendo in the service of a specific sword school.

The author doesn’t say much here about phase 5 except to include it with phase 4 as the era of reverse secularization where they continue to work against the modernization processes of sport and create the ritualized budo that are now seen as the tradition of Japan. Fair enough, but authors such as Alex Bennett have pointed to a short period between the early ’50s and 1975 where kendo exploded as a strictly sport-related activity. It was in the mid ’70s that the federation again retrenched kendo in the “reverse secularization” mode of showcasing and then exporting Japanese values to the rest of the world.

This is the phases as I see them from a kendo viewpoint and I think this fits best. From the viewpoint of a koryu they are perhaps a bit lacking as the main development of koryu is contained in that 300 year period of phase 2. We can trace the schools up to the 1700s through such sources as the Honcho Bugei Shoden and from there through many others if we wish to examine the issue. After we enter phase 3 I can imagine that pressures from the modernization of Japan would have combined with the rise of shinai kendo to push the koryu in specific directions. If you did not adopt shinai kendo you were losing students and perhaps at risk of disappearing altogether.

During phase 4 and especially closer to the war I suspect the role of individual koryu was virtually zero in the sword community, all would have been focused on “state kendo” if I can coin that phrase to mimic the idea of “state shinto”. Ironically it may have been the ban on kendo imposed after the war and the subsequent sporting kendo that allowed the koryu to sneak back into the consciousness. Those who were not interested in this sports boom may have moved back to the old schools. I have no data to back this up other than looking at my own koryu histories to see when they expanded into the modern ear, but I put it out there for consideration should someone be looking for a term paper topic. The kendo federation adopted iaido and jodo at about the time it began it’s turn from sport kendo to… cultural kendo? and this certainly gave a boost to the koryu associated with iai and jo.

At any rate, whether studying the history of kendo or koryu this five phase structure is handy to have in your mind.

Kim Taylor
July 8, 2015

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