So you want to research traditional ryuha?


“I am doing some research on Iroha ryu and I am wondering if anyone can recommend any good books or websites….” Anyone who has spent some time on the various forums and mailing lists involved in traditional Japanese martial arts has seen comments such as these. Such requests are not surprising given the fact that traditional Japanese martial arts come from an outside culture where we have often little to no point of reference on which to base our initial assumptions (let’s not get into the whole Hollywood movie argument now). The desire to learn more about the activity we are putting so much time and effort into is natural and of course I would encourage all practitioners to find out as much as they can, especially concerning the ryu in which they are actively involved. One thing we can never have too much of is knowledge after all.

With that said, I do find myself questioning the use of the word “research” in many of these situations. The word is used rather casually these days, but I often wonder if many of these people really understands what goes into actually doing “research”. More often than not many of these people are simply looking for books and websites written in English on the tradition in question. This is for sure a good thing, but is it really research? A much more serious level of practitioner might spend some time getting some Japanese under their belt and ordering books on the subject in Japanese available through various websites. Many of them take trips to, or have even moved to Japan to further immerse themselves and deepen their knowledge. Sometimes these people might even write papers or articles for websites, magazines, etc. This is much closer to real “research”, but more often than not I feel what many of these people are doing still misses the mark (and I am one of these people so I am speaking from experience here).

Don’t get me wrong. This work is vital to people’s personal study, the furthering of availability of correct information about our arts and useful for deepening our understanding of what the “real deal” is in traditional arts. However more often than not what these people are doing is simply reporting on their personal experiences and summarizing other people’s research into English (or whatever their native language is). Both of these are welcome additions to the collected pool of knowledge available to everyone, but more often than not there is not anything really new brought to the table on top of the source material. More over, since often much of the source material used by these people is in the form of publications available in the popular media, much of which is written by generalists on the topic, or practitioners of varying degrees of ability and much of which feeds off of each other as reference material, problems in one piece can become compounded as it is repeated elsewhere. As a general source of information these works are fine, but for fine details and proper “research” much of it leaves much to be desired and often the same mistakes can get passed on from work to work. Let me give an example from my own person experience.

Soon after I first moved to Japan I began practicing Hoki-ryu iai. As there was very little information on this ryu in English at the time, I was encouraged by my teacher to write something about it to be put on the web as well as a website I was running at the time talking about my experiences fresh off the plane in Japan. Very little information was easily available, but I managed to get a copy of the famous Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, as well as a number of books on general iai history with some short entries on the ryu in them and a couple of in-house publications by older sensei. I then sat down and spent hours fighting through the Japanese, comparing the pieces and wrote my paper, which for better or worse can still be found on the net to this day. It was hard work and I learned a lot writing that little article (it sure felt like research at the time) and I’m happy to say that much of what was written still stands as “correct”. With that said there were a few mistakes that rather quickly became clear only after I really started doing real research on the ryu in the following years. Again to provide an example, the biggest issue that came up in the piece I wrote revolves around the often made claim that the founder of Hoki-ryu, Katayama Hisayasu, was a student of the famous Hayashizaki Jinsuke. This claim has been repeated in almost every popular book and article on the history of iai and its various ryuha in Japanese for the last 50 years if not longer. Even many of modern in-house books published by modern teachers of the ryu make this claim (most iai practitioners and teachers are not historians and generally go to the same general sources we do for information). The fact that Katayama Hisayasu was a student of Hayashizaki Jinsuke is simply a given fact in the iai world today, everyone repeated this fact, so I accepted it and used this to frame the presentation I made of the ryu in the article I wrote. Needless to say I was surprised when I later found out that Hayashizaki Jinsuke’s name appears not once in any of the Katayama related source material from with in the tradition and all of the people I have discussed the issue with who have actually done any real research on the history of the ryu completely disregard the notion that Hoki-ryu has anything to do with Hayashizaki Jinsuke at all (in the interest of fairness though, some teachers of the art still insist there must be a connection, if only because everyone says there is). In order to learn this, I had to step away from the “usual sources”.

While useful as general source material and a jumping off point, the majority of what you find available in the popular media really not all that useful for real research and one has to eventually make the (usually painful) jump to source materials. As much as some people hate to hear it, to do this more often than not you will have to be in Japan and you will most definitely need some solid language skills and cultural awareness. Let’s take a look at some of the more basic things you’ll need to do to begin doing actual “research”.

The most obvious starting point is old densho and makimono from within the tradition itself. Easy to say, but it is not exactly the easiest thing to do to get your hands on them. You will have to go to those who have them and while sometimes they might be in public hands, quite often the good stuff is in private possession. How will you find out what museums these documents are located in? How will you find out who owns them? Since most of our language skills are not up to the point where we can just sit down and read them and take notes on classical Japanese materials, how to you intend on getting regular access to the documents? Just how effective your access to such documents is will often depend greatly on your personal relationships with those who either have access to the source materials or can introduce you to those who do. The degree of trust and respect they have for you and what you are doing can greatly improve (or hinder) your search and more often than not, a great deal of time and money must be spent going to far off places, getting to know people and gaining their trust. The owners of these documents often have great insight into them and spending quality time with them to gain these insights often also requires developing a good relationship. Japan is very much a networking culture and the good news is that once the ball is rolling, having good connections can lead to situations you could never have thought possible (my favorite personal example in this regard involved a museum saying that I could actually take some densho that were a few hundred years old home with me for a few days if I wanted, or if I just wanted to use their photocopier that was OK too, but I would have to pay for the paper!). Once you actually get the documents, then you have to start dealing with the whole issue of classical Japanese, not the funnest way to spend a weekend (or much much longer).

After you get your hands on your inner ryu documents, you’ll probably want to take a look for documents about the ryu you are researching from outside sources. Even in the Edo period there were a number of catalogs and guides to martial ryuha (much like there are today) and these can be very useful sources of information. Luckily some of the more famous ones have been reprinted in modern type over the years, but there are many more out there. Outside of these you might want to look at domain records (if available) for the family or families involved in the ryu you are researching. These could range from family registries to records of employment, promotion, etc. In many cases you may come up dry in this area, but you have to look.

In addition to using your network to gain access to these materials, you will probably want to start regularly scanning used bookstores, websites, auctions, etc on the off chance that new materials might suddenly come up for sale. Often these can be expensive so you will want to start saving up a document purchase fund if something suddenly appears (I have had to let a number of very desirable one of a kind items go over the years simply because I did not have the money).

Traditional ryuha, being living entities in and of themselves, have an added advantage for your research that more traditional “historical research” often lacks. That is a continuing transmission of knowledge. One has to be aware that there will always be some drift leading up to today, not to mention some serious potential for bias, but the ryu itself should obviously be a fantastic resource on itself and can help provide the correct “viewing angle” for working out your inner-ryu documents, among any number of other useful insights. Interviewing senior members is not only useful, but probably required. Researching traditional ryuha is in some ways quite similar to becoming a member of a ryuha itself and more often than not the later may actually be required to do the former effectively (and let’s be honest here the bulk of the people really doing serious research are usually researching ryu they are members of anyway) and as was mentioned before, your success on this endeavor depends almost entirely on the relationships you make and the effort you put into it.

In addition most ryuha have developed out of and branched off into other semi or fully independent ryuha themselves and research into those can be fruitful work. Looking at how the source ryu views the tradition you are researching, and what ryu that have formed out of that tradition have to say about its source can give new insights, provide different points of view and give you access to more information and pieces to the puzzle than you other might have had otherwise (repeats all steps for gaining access to inner and outer ryu sources and developing relationships here).

As should be obvious by now, there is a tremendous amount of work involved in doing proper research. There is also a tremendous amount of rewards not only in knowledge, but other areas ranging from skill (if you are actively practicing) to new and rewarding friendships and relations made, not to mention all that can be learned simply by going through the process. Interestingly many people who had done serious research often comment that while the beginnings are quite difficult, often there are times when things just “come together”. Serious researchers or practitioners are often overjoyed to meet others intensely interested in the same area they are involved in and you can often end up with a huge amount of information just being suddenly dumped in your lap. There also seems to be eerie cases of “dumb luck” of which I hear reports of far more frequently than random chance should account for. One of my own recent personal examples happened when buying an unrelated item in an auction in Japan, I asked entirely at random if the seller happened to have any materials relating to Hoki-ryu or the Katayama family. Given the odds against a positive answer, I was shocked when the individual not only ended up having a fairly decent collection of previously unseen materials that he was willing to send me copies of (he eventually even sold me some of the originals) but he was also a practitioners of an offshoot of the ryu previously assumed to be dead and gave me some new information on that branch which shed some new light on both the information available (some of it incorrect) in the “usual sources” and on the founder himself. Such “jackpots” probably are not going to happen if you are not involved in Japan and are just reading a few readily available books and some websites.

Ideally research should involve far more work than just reading a few books and writing an article or paper on them. While such pieces can be and often are valuable pieces of information, real research involves considerably more effort and often years of time in traveling, collecting, interviewing, building relationships, and the like. Much like studying a ryu, many years of serious effort, confusion and frustration are required, but the results are worth it and often the real value of the endeavor has as much to do with going through the process as the end results.

Editors note: please check out Rennis’s blog for more in-depth musings (especially iai related):

Published by

Rennis Buchner

Rennis has been practicing iai since 1992. Originally from Minnesota, he moved to Akita Japan for university for three years as an exchange student and began practicing Hoki-ryu iai in 1998. After finishing a degree in Japanese Area Studies in 2003, he moved back to Japan and is currently based in Yamagata prefecture where he continues training in, researching and teaching Katayama and Hoki-ryu.

6 thoughts on “So you want to research traditional ryuha?”

  1. Very in-depth and informative piece Rennis (as are the posts on your blog) — thanks for contributing.

    For many years I felt a sense of frustration when it comes to lack of accurate information, be it in koryu, iaido, or kendo fields. Since coming to Japan i’m slowly getting informed, but its STILL frustrating due mainly to actually being able to get the language down to the point where you can use anything you source. As such, this site probably still “misses the mark” (as you put it) but hopefully its just the start of some serious personal research (having an audience is a stimulus!) and it will get better and better as time goes on.

    Again, top article!!

  2. In the grand scheme of things I`m fairly new to studying traditional koryu arts and even newer to living in Japan so please pardon me if my question seems ignorant.

    I see a lot of discussion these days about researching any given traditional ryu but I don`t understand the ultimate goal. Maybe everyone has a different purpose for researching a particular ryu but I don`t see many people actually articulating their aim.

    Additionally, I often ponder how much information there is left to research. Don`t let me be misunderstood. I fully well understand and share the desire to understand the art I study and ask my teachers questions about my art`s origins. However the issue I have is with this notion of doing research.

    If someone studies a large well known style like Eishin ryu or Muso shinden ryu, it would seem that there`s nothing new under the sun. If these styles are so big and well known surely all the information about them is already out there somewhere. Perhaps not in English…but then does that mean that the extent of research is just translation? If not, what is it that we seek to find?

    Conversely, if someone studies a small art, surely they are not the only one studying it. They are probably going to ask their top living sensei and get all the information out of him/her they can. Beyond that, if the style is truly so small that information about its history isn`t already well known, what other sources could there be? What would they find that their sensei doesn`t already know?

  3. That is a fair, if difficult to answer question. The reasons behind one’s research will vary from person to person, but in my person case, my journey began seriously when I started to realize that the way the ryu was being transmitted by most groups today was not the original method and that this change was fairly recent. Other people will have different reasons and aims, often starting with the general “I want to know more” and leading into more specific areas.

    While obviously talking with senior teachers and the like is a must, anyone who has been in Japan for awhile quickly realizes that a very large percentage of Japanese practitioners really have no real interest in the history, philosophy, etc behind their chosen art (this is especially true of the iai related ryuha). Most are perfectly happy to just repeat whatever bits of information their sensei happens to give out, rational, correct or not, and pass them on as given. Those who have become familiar with the “standard” reference books and what not that most people here use for information quickly realize that even many of the very highly ranked teachers are getting their information from the same books (this is especially true when you manage to locate errors in such sources and then see them passed around endlessly by people whom you would have thought would have known better).

    It is true some arts are more well researched than others, but that is just not the case in a large percent of arts out there. I would dare go out on a limb and say this is especially true in the case of the two “big” iai-arts of Shinden and Eishin-ryu. I have had discussions with a few people I would consider actually doing serious work looking into these arts and it is very obvious to me that there are is still mountains of information on these arts that most people simply don’t know or don’t care about. To use an example from this very site, I have had numerous practitioners of MJER, some of several decades experience, comment on how great Richard Stonell’s Tanka of Eishin series is and how it has “totally changed” how they view the art. Now considering most of there people have been living overseas, perhaps this is forgivable, but it has been my experience that even most Japanese practitioners, including many very highly ranked ones, have no clue about them, and they have been readily available for years if people would just look. Simply put, most don’t, so more often than not you have to find them yourself. There are of course a very small handful of senior teachers who have done serious research themselves, but they generally tend to be the exception rather than the rule. I’ve meet a couple of menkyo kaiden holders in different ryu I respect very much and both impressed on me the need to never stop looking for more information. Both have made discoveries that changed how they viewed certain aspects of their own arts fairly late in life, but the main point is that they kept looking. Most don’t. Most serious teachers won’t claim to know everything or that there is no need to look further either. I remember visiting the head of one ryu years ago and asked a question during training about the meaning behind something I saw and found it refreshing when the teacher answered with a totally honest “I don’t really know.”

    This lack of a desire to look among many teachers is perhaps understandable in that for many practitioners, despite all the comments we read in English of the ryu being almighty and the most important, they are really more loyal to their teacher than to the ryu itself. Thus they feel no real need to dig deeper than what their sensei taught them personally. There is nothing wrong with this by any means. It does, however, lend to a state where people aren’t really looking for more information than perhaps what they can find in a book or the latest issue of XYZ. Another fairly large crowd completely dismisses the idea of doing any research at all. As one sensei put it “I’m a budoka, not an academic. Everything I need is in the techniques sensei taught me.”

    Yet another reason in why research is still important (for those that consider it important), especially now, is the increased ease of information sharing these days. Japanese museums and the like have been rather slow to get their catalogs recorded in digital formats, but it is finally starting to happen on a wide scale. Because of this people are only now starting to locate new (to them) documents on their own ryu spread out over various places, collections, museums, etc across Japan and many people, including very senior teachers are only now seeing much of this information for the first time. Many of the older generation also are not skilled at using computers and the like to hunt down such info, so in many ways it is up to the next generation to do that leg work. To give a personal example, almost every single copy of historical documents one of my teachers has on our ryu he got from me and only saw for the first time a couple of years ago. Another very senior teacher I am friends with pretty much gave up trying to find information himself and now whenever we meet just asks what new stuff I have found.

    Anyways, this probably doesn’t answer the questions very directly, but I hope it does show that “looking” is still a meaningful way to spend one’s time and that not everything that can be known is known.

  4. Great comment Rennis.

    Personally, a lot of what you describe happens even in the kendo community as well (where information – at least in Japanese – is readily available). Although I know some very knowledgeable kendo teachers, I would say that the majority just stick with the accepted “facts.” Its even worse in the English kendo community.

    It is my desire that this site can go some way to addressing some of these issues.

  5. Mr. Buchner,

    Thank you so much for your reply. I was worried that since this topic was so old my question would just get buried. You did a fantastic job of satisfying my curiosity about this topic. You`ve made me feel like my own personal seeking of information is not in vain. Even though my style is very tiny (I would venture to say one of the smallest in Japan…and then certainly the world) I enjoy reading the information that all of you together find and discuss on this site (and your blog that I frequently read…and others in this network of martial arts blogs.) You have not only rejuvenated my fervor in finding out information about my own art, but also reminded me to make sure that if I should study another art in the future to make sure I dig as deep as i can.

    I really think what you are doing with your site is fantastic and incredibly helpful. Not only presenting information that you find (for those of us who live in Japan but with low levels of Japanese language skill) but also leading by example and being a fantastic mentor. Thank you.

Leave a Reply