Shitsuden: Present-day look at past martial systems ~ Part 2

We continue our discussion on the term shitsuden and how it affects Japanese martial systems. In part 1, we learned that shitsuden indicates knowledge of technical skills or actual martial systems that have been discontinued based on one of multiple reasons, which labels them as “lost”. For part 2, we’ll explore the significance of shitsuden and how people not only study from shitsuden systems, but may try to revive them.

OBTAINING SHITSUDEN SYSTEMS

Individuals who study classical martial systems, or even modern ones with connects to older styles, may hear about specific martial schools or techniques that no longer exist. The word “exist” is a pretty vague one, but in simple terms it means they are no longer taught officially and/or being represented by a source that has licensing in them. For many this doesn’t affect their training at all, but for some, getting info regarding these, especially in the form of authentic documentation, is very enticing.

In Japan, documented martial systems that are shitsuden are treated in different ways depending on the value of the contexts. Some that are considered treasured works of cultural literature may be printed and sold in bookstores. Military-centric ones fall into this, such as Kōyō Gunkan (甲陽軍艦) and Kinetshu (訓閲集). Those that fit the above description, but possible from private collections and are in older condition may be donated to libraries and museums, where they can be kept and viewed by the public. Depending on instructions by donators, some of these documents are copied and, if permission granted, digitized and made available on particular libraries’ websites. If one is lucky, documents like this can actually be found at novelty 2nd hand bookstores that specialize in old & rare books.

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A snapshot of auction listings from <yahoo.co.jp>. Interestingly, a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryu Sojutsu (無辺無極流槍術), which is a branch of Muhen ryu (無辺流), was sold for 7,751 yen (around 74 USD).

Not all documented discontinued martial systems are made easily accessible. There are those that are put up for sale at auctions. Thanks to the internet, there are many Japanese online auction sites that almost anyone can take part in¹. Of course, as one would expect, this can be very pricey as those interested in the same documents may bid highly for them. Other than high prices, authenticity and state of condition of these documents are always a risk.

STATE OF REVIVING DISCONTINUED KNOWLEDGE

Once knowledge of particular schools or techniques are deemed lost, does that mean they are inaccessible for good? This is a topic that can cause heated debates, as recovering lost knowledge stirs up concerns regarding proper understanding for an individual to do such a thing, as well as credibility for doing such a thing. In Japan, there are different classifications regarding martial systems and how much change (or no change) has affected them from when they originally started. This can also affect support from into specific culture-preservation organizations, such as “Nihon Kobudo Kyokai” (日本古武道協会).

Here’s a perspective to consider. Martial skills of antiquity tend to have the appearance of value, legitimacy, and a level of unique character. Those that have no break in terms of successorship and years of operation tend to be praised greatly. Katori Shintō ryū (香取神道流) and Kashima Shintō ryū (鹿島真當流) are 2 martial schools that fit such description. However, if there so happens to be a break in successorship, a certain period of inactivity, or lost contents that had to be reconstructed, this gives an indication that said martial system was revived, which tends to “lower” its image of value. Sometimes the break can be as short as one generation, other times it could be longer. Common words used for such a case in Japanese are “fukkō” (復興) and “fukugen” (復元).

Let’s use Hongaku Kokki ryū (本覚克己流派)², a martial system of known for its yawara (柔, techniques for grapples and throws), as an example. This system is going through the process of being restored, as it was discontinued after the last active successor, Ōzu Ikusuke, passed in the late 1900s without designating the next heir. Years later, through the efforts of a researcher by the name of Ota Takemitsu and those members of the bujutsu research group “Bujutsu Kenkyū Keikokai” (武術研究稽古会), the techniques of Hongaku Kokki ryu are being brought to the public once again. From cases like this, we see that words like “fukkō” and “fukugen” isn’t a bad thing or a negative label. Headmasters who are honest with their martial system’s history and their intentions for trying to revitalize a discontinued martial system will state the fact.

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A screen capture of one of the few vids of Hongaku Kokki ryu. For this particular one, you can access it through the link here.

Another example, I wrote an article a few years ago about a martial system called “Koden Koppo Taijutsu Genryu Tenshin ryu” (古伝骨法体術源流)³. Once considered a family style under a slightly different title, it was discontinued a few generations sometime during Edo period. It was later revived by a direct descendant, restructured to fit following headmasters’ needs, and is in full operation today. With such openness, it can be viewed that continual functionality is the main focus for martial schools as this. While continual transmission of a martial system is respectable, this doesn’t guarantee effectiveness or overall usefulness. It is really based on the student’s interest as a consumer.

Reviving an entire martial school from ground up is a tough feat, and one without scrutiny. Nakashima Atsumi and Kōno Yoshinori, 2 well-known scholars as well as specialists concerning Japanese martial arts, are headmasters of their own martial systems and techniques that were revived⁴. While the legitimacy of their systems is up for debate to some (i.e. how much of the original principles have be maintain, proper execution of techniques, etc.), this point has not hurt their careers, as they are quite famous even through their knowledge as researchers, and even sought after. On the other hand, in the case of Kurama ryu (鞍馬流)⁵, while it is recognized as a traditional martial system, it is viewed as a revived school that may not resemble its former glory. This is due in part of the main dojo along with official documents of legitimacy, training tools, and weapons of antiquity being lost to a severe fire in the mid 1900s. How much of the “lost” contents of the Kurama ryu was properly retained after being reconstructed cannot be verified due to no official documents to compare.

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A screenshot of Kōno Yoshinori demonstrating a jōjutsu waza (cane technique) called “Kagebumi” (影踏み). Due to his popularity, there are many vids of him online conducting interviews, performing technical demonstrations, and so on.

 

HANDLING LOST TECHNIQUES

There are instances where just certain parts of a martial system is considered shitsuden. Techniques for knowledge that are seen inapplicable for the times such as sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), eihō (泳法, situational swimming techniques), and kajutsu (火術, using fire-based weapons and strategies) tend to fall into this category for many older martial systems. Sometimes, it is not so cut & dry in terms of immediate usage, but could be based on internal politics between teachers and students, or said knowledge not being properly transmitted for several generations.

It is not uncommon for a headmaster to seek out a way to incorporate lost techniques. For starters, if said scrolls have adequate information, those individuals can spend time training & testing the contents, and at a later time begin teaching their students. If such method cannot be done in house, then there is another method which involves the knowledge being relearned from another branch of similar lineage. If relations are good between the different branches, that is, then this is possible; if there are any internal disagreements of any sorts, or no unity whatsoever, then they most likely won’t work with each other. An example of this is found amongst the different Shinkage ryū branches (新陰流の様々な分派), where certain older techniques and skillsets can be found in one branch, but not in another.

In other cases, certain skillsets that used to exist in a martial system may be relearned from the ground up. As an example, Hontai Yoshin ryū, once a sōgō bujutsu teaching various areas of weapons, primarily specializes in jūjutsu today, as well as bōjutsu and kodachijutsu. In the late 1900s, Inoue Munetoshi, the 18th headmaster at that time, established an iaijutsu curriculum using Toyama ryū Battōdō. This was for the sake of students having a better understanding of how to use the Japanese sword properly. While not considered part of the original transmission, usage of the sword through iaijutsu (and to a greater extent, kenjutsu) was something that most warriors a few centuries ago learned, even on a basic level, from other schools. Thus, there was no need to have a specialized sword system unique to Hontai Yōshin ryū. Since training in the sword is not common knowledge anymore due to how The Japanese society has modernized, newer generations need more in dept instructions without necessarily cross-training at a different school. This is one of the reasons why iaijutsu based on Toyama ryū is available in Hontai Yōshin ryū, even if it is not considered part of the formal curriculum.

ENDING

We come to a close on this discussion regarding martial systems that are considered as shitsuden. Curiosity naturally attracts us to things that appear unique & exclusive. For others, studying from the past may have value worth sharing to others. While there’s many martial systems of Japan that have ceased, they may not stay buried in the past as long as people can uncover them and decipher their instructions.


1) For many, if not all, you would need to have an account that vouches you have a physical address in Japan. Along with this, a Japanese bank account or similar financial funding method that is established in Japan.

2) This is a martial system of former Hirosaki District (present day Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture), known to have been widely trained in by various warriors in the past. Creator was Soeda Gizaemon Sadatoshi (添田儀左衛門貞俊).

3) More on Koden Koppo Taijutsu Genryu Tenshin ryu can be read in an older post here

4) To be more specific, Nakashima Atsumi and Kōno Yoshinori are both martial artists and researchers on Japanese historical texts. Mr. Nakashima is the owner of several systems, including Katayama Hōki ryū Jūjutsu (片山伯耆流柔術). This particularly is regarded as a shitsuden system that was revived, at least in more lighter conversations.

On the other hand, Mr. Kōno runs his own group where he teaches his unique martial system which has a great focus on using efficient body mechanics according to older methods from Japan’s past. While his experience began with aikidō (合気道) and Kashima Shin ryū (鹿島神流), a great deal of his system consists of techniques and teachings revived from older texts he spends a great deal of his time researching.

5) More on Kurama ryū can be read in an older post here