Shitsuden: Present-day look at past martial systems ~ Part 1

There are many styles of Japanese martial systems that one can study today. From hand-to-hand systems, competition-driven systems like kendō and Atarashii Naginata (sports-centric “New-Style” Naginata), to classical systems, many study both in and outside Japan. Yet, with the variety that’s available, there is an even greater number of martial systems that are no longer available. While they are not physically present, traces of them exist in the form of handwritten scrolls, manuals, and licensing documents. A term for this in Japanese is “shitsuden” (失伝).

Today’s post will be the 1st of a 2-part discussion on shitsuden. This post will give an overview of what shitsuden means, as well as go over the prime causes of shitsuden in martial arts.

WHAT SHITSUDEN MEANS

The term shitsuden refers to traditions or systems that possess specific types of skills, talents, or knowledge of applicable use that have been discontinued and no longer in practice (whether partially or completely). While commonly used in regards to martial arts, it is not a term solely for this field. Japan has a history of people specializing is certain areas of occupations which feature technical skills that are deemed significant to pass down to the next generation. Examples of this, but not limited to, are chadō (茶道, tea ceremony), nō, (能, theatrical performance), gakki (楽器, music instruments), and chiryōhō (治療法, medical treatment).

Passing traditions down supports the value in them, as well as ensures their survival into the next generation. Certain families would keep these traditions within their family line to elevate their worth, while some traditions are shared and supported by large numbers of people or groups. Martial systems is an area that is especially vast with an unfathomable number of individuals and families taking part in it one way or the other. Due to this, there is a great number of martial systems that have ceased and are considered lost, some more longer than others. Present day Japanese martial arts schools tend to talk about lost styles or skills that are related them, which peaks many practitioners’ interest to the point they do research on shitsuden styles…including myself.

CAUSES OF SHITSUDEN

What classifies certain martial systems, whether specific parts of it or its entirety, to be classified as shitsuden? Below are the following cases, which will be analyzed in numerical order.

① Local style

② Loss in value of use

③ Lack of inheritance

④ Sudden death of head teachers

Note that these are not the only causes of shitsuden, but possibly the most common cases.

POINT #1

Local styles were quite common in ancient Japan. Before this country was unified, most of Japan was made up of territories, countries, and the like. These areas were usually governed by a land owner of some sorts. Considering the openness of bearing arms by warriors, having a form of martial training locally was a necessity. Unlike how martial arts is treated today, some areas may have had their own special system that fitted the needs for the locales to be able to defend themselves; even if the knowledge came from a large, reputable style like Chūjō ryū¹ or Yagyū Shinkage ryū², the knowledge may have been reorganized for personal purposes and renamed. In other cases, these local systems may have been restricted from being shown or taught to those from different territories. Systems like these are known as “otomeryū” (御留流).

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A portion of a printed scroll of “Shinshin ryu Iai” (真々流居合之巻き), a sword-drawing style once used by the warriors of Owari-han, Koka Prefecture. From “Watanabe Toshi-ke Monjo – Owari-han Kokamon Kankei Shiryō (渡辺俊経家文書-尾張藩甲賀者関係史料)

Due to being small, and possibly of no more use once the constant civil wars were ceased by the governance of the Tokugawa shogunate, local styles like these tend to come to an end. This is especially true for styles that were restricted from being taught to outsiders.

POINT #2

Maintaining value in combative arts differ depending of the time period. When Japan was divided, there was a need to be prepared to fight against invaders, or if needed to go to war. This urgency began to fade once Japan was unified and the people’s way of living changed. With the urgency to go into battle with neighboring territories turned to a thing of the past, training people for combat outside of the military became a minor occupation.

Several turning points played significant parts in affecting the waning need for martial systems. One of these was the unification of Japan in the early 1600s. Accomplishing this feat, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the 1st of the Tokugawa shogunate, wanted to ensure no more large-scale battles ever took place by prohibiting the use of battlefield weapons, as well as restricted the length of bladed. These restrictions affected those martial systems that possessed a curriculum for such purposes, causing them to abandon such weapons like naginata (薙刀, glaive)³ and yari (槍, spear), as well as putting away documented strategies for war like shirodori (城取 establishing a fort), jindori  (陣取, troop formations and positioning), and the likes.

Sections of kamajutsu (sickle techniques) from an old Takagi ryū Chūgokui Mokuroku. Only the names of the techniques are listed, but not how the actual techniques are performed. Thus, this skillset is lost. From “Takagi-ryu Chugokui Mokuroku” by Dr. Stephen Greenfield.

 

Another turning point took place after the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu in 1868. The lead up to this involved bloody conflicts in public spaces, and assassinations on political figures as different groups struggled either maintain the currently established rule of the Tokugawa family, or reign in a new governing system in the name of the Emperor. With the Tokugawa forces losing in the final conflict called Boshin war, the military-centric government ended along with the abolishment of the Samurai class. This opened the doors for a new way of life for everyone.

After the political turmoil, Japan continues to surge forward in becoming more modernized. Along with focusing on different trades & businesses, citizens took part in more productive hobbies, activities, and recreations. What they steered away from was martial arts, especially the traditional ones. During the final years of the Tokugawa Bakufu, many martial styles still trained with a focus of killing or maiming. The violence that erupted during the power struggle that eventually lead to the end of the Tokugawa rule left a bad taste for many, which caused them to steer away from martial arts even more. Traditional schools either had to adapt their systems to the change of times and make it less “violent”, or to take down their sign boards and move on to another profession. While some schools were able to keep value in their systems through the use of competition such as Hokushin Ittō ryū, for the many that couldn’t adapt let their martial system discontinue.

POINT #3

Inheritance and how it was conducted is an interesting topic. Throughout history, inheritance is important in order to keep one’s family line going. The same goes for martial arts styles. In the past, inheritance is usually given to the older child, usually a boy. If no child by blood was present, then possibly a relative. Adopting someone into one’s family for the sake of inheritance was also a practiced option, as well as allowing certain individuals who are not blood relatives to “inherit⁴” the family name.

While he spoke about ninjutsu as a topic in many books, Fujita Seiko claims that he did not pass down the specifics of his own style of ninjutsu to anyone. Left pic is a page from chapter “Ninjutsu no Hōhō” (忍術の方法, The Methods of Ninjutsu) from his book “Ninjutsu Hiroku” (忍術秘録).

 

Regarding martial systems, there are cases where there was no heir present, which caused those headmasters to take the secrets of their respected styles to their grave. Then there are those unique cases where a worthy heir could not be found; some headmasters could not find the required traits in those around them to inherit their martial system, even in their own children. A popular case is in Fujita Seiko, who was a person who made a name for himself for his wealth of knowledge in different areas of martial arts in the early-mid 1900s. Although he passed down to his students systems such as jōjutsu, shurikenjutsu, and kenpō, he publicly claimed that the secrets of family-style ninjutsu would not be taught nor passed down to anyone.

POINT #4

The sudden death of those with knowledge of a martial system is always a big concern. When headmasters, or even senior teachers for that matter, die at a premature time before teaching every aspect of a martial system, this leads to lost information. This is especially true when certain areas of skills are held back because they are “reserved” for those students that have reached a certain level or considered worthy. While there is merit in reservation, this can backfire if those areas are kept to one individual for too long.

An example that comes to mind is Kanemaki ryū⁵ and its current curriculum. During WWII, many teachers are said to have been recruited to fight, and is also stated that many lost their lives in the war. Kanemaki ryū, a school that teaches battōjutsu, is said to have specialized in more areas regarding kenjutsu, such as kumitachi (組太刀, sword techniques done in paired forms). However, this is no longer the case because the successor during the time of WWII went to war and perished before passing down this knowledge. While this is stated in numerous Japanese sites, there is no official word from the current school of Kanemaki ryū. If this case is true, then it is a standing example of how invaluable information can be lost.

CONCLUSION

This ends our look at the term shitsuden means and how certain martial systems can be classified under this. In part 2, we will look at how lost or discontinued martial systems are are collected, analyzed, and in certain cases, recreated.


1) Chūjō ryū Heihō (中将流兵法), which is well known for its kenjutsu, is an example of a shitsuden (lost) style. For more on this, please visit an older post here.

2) Yagyū Shinkage ryū (柳生新陰流) is a martial system that specializes in kenjutsu. A branch of Shinkage ryū, this particular line is maintained by the Yagyū family today.

3) This is in reference to battlefield-style naginata, which were longer and much heavier than the ones used for protecting one’s home or castle.

4) In some instances, a family name was given for political reasons, or to boost certain families’ power and influences. Sometimes granting the use of a family name had a price on it, whether it be with money or a different form of payment.

5) Kanemaki ryū (鐘捲流) is once said to have kenjutsu based on the teachings of Chūjō ryū. This included proficient use of a short sword like a kodachi (小太刀). To understand how it may have been, please refer to an older post on Chūjō ryū here.