A frequent topic of discussion--and quite often-impassioned argument--is whether
the sword arts, as we practice them today, are truly representative of what were
practiced hundreds of years ago.
Certainly, everyone agrees that we have made some adaptations, such as in the
uniforms and equipment we use, the cultural characteristics of the practitioners and
some of the techniques themselves. But the battle cry, "This Ryu is a
Traditional martial art!" is insistently voiced by many martial artists.
What I wish to show here is that the sword arts, as well as every aspect of every
world culture, are undergoing a process of change that is natural and appropriate
for our times. To illustrate this, I will draw upon my own experiences in the
martial arts and in my scientific studies, as well as those of the many artists with whom I have interacted
over the years.
In our lifetimes, we have seen the rise of satellite communications, the World Wide
Web, drastic improvements in transportation, and other changes that have turned
the world into a global community.
I think nothing of chatting with a friend in Tokyo, hopping on a plane to Scotland, or receiving a package in the mail from
Bangkok. There is no way this kind of interaction can occur without the
permanent exchange of ideas, attitudes, material goods and all other aspects that
make up a culture. It is a fact that this improved efficiency of cultural exchange is
directly responsible for the increase in the number of practitioners of the Japanese
martial arts worldwide.
Previously, one would have had to make the long journey to Japan, or seek out a
GI who had studied martial arts over there in order to receive instruction.
Now, all one has to do is check on the Internet, look in the Yellow Pages or run down to the
local martial arts store to be inundated with hundreds of references to schools and
instructors. Martial arts have become a huge source of income for many
enterprising individuals. We are now witness to a wide spectrum in terms of what
is practiced: from those studying the Koryu arts much as they have always been
transmitted from teacher to student, to the individuals who have founded their own
styles--often with little or no instruction from others. And, generally, people at
different points along the spectrum have serious issues with the legitimacy of one
The traditionalists feel that what the innovators are doing should no longer be
called a Japanese martial art. The innovators say that the traditionalists are
practicing techniques that have become useless and outdated. And then there are
the rest of us, practicing traditionally derived arts with some definite innovations.
For a moment, let's step away from the martial arts and look at ourselves in terms
of biology. We are biological organisms, subject to the same needs and drive as
any other organism on Earth. As with all successful organisms, we must be in a
constant state of adaptation in order to survive. Due to our intelligence, we are constantly seeking
ways to survive more efficiently. Yes, there are exceptions--individuals and
societies which prefer not to embrace all of the technology available to them, and
groups which are not yet able to do so due to financial or geographic constraints.
But these groups and individuals are able to do so because the rest of us, moral and
enlightened beings that we are, allow them this option. (Or not--take Tibet, for
Of course, we have no way of predicting what will be the ultimately successful
survival mechanism--witness all the Apocalyptic novels in which the technocrats
die of starvation or descend into savagery, while the "primitives" manage just fine,
The same scenario occurs regularly in nature--a small population of mutations may survive a
catastrophic change that decimates the majority. The fact that we have such a
range of lifestyles gives me some hope that the human race would not be totally
wiped out should there be a worldwide catastrophe. Of course, only time will tell.
This could be said of the martial arts as well. However, there is one area of awkwardness that needs to be addressed--that is the
"why?" of practicing a sword art today.
The sword arts were developed in Japan as a matter of survival. The sword itself
evolved over the years--again, as smiths and warriors sought a more efficient
weapon for the ultimate goal of survival.
The introduction of firearms was a rude awakening, but the warrior class adapted
to their use.
In our generation, we no longer rely upon the sword for our physical survival.
Like the horse, the sword has been supplanted by other far more efficient means of
accomplishing the original task. Yet many people still choose to devote years of
study to the sword--and the horse. Because survival is no longer a factor, I think it
is safe to say that our reasons for studying the sword have changed appreciably.
Some people seek to preserve a unique aspect of Japanese culture. Some do sword
work for self-improvement--authenticity and efficacy of technique are not ignored,
but they take a back seat to stress relief and exercise. Some wish to practice a
system of self-defense incorporating the sword and all of its abilities. Some are
captivated by the beauty of the sword and want to learn how to handle one
properly. Most of us do sword work for all these reasons--just in differing
For a moment, picture a Japanese warrior in, say, the 1700's. Would not a
successful warrior constantly seek to hone and refine his skills, trying new
techniques, discarding less efficient ones, all in the interest of survival--his own,
his clan's his leader's? If hewere the first to be given instruction in the use of firearms, would he not eagerly
embrace yet another method of insuring survival?
Innovation, like mutation or change, is a necessary part of survival.
Of course, there is the flip side: many innovations fail. Many mutations die. But in
Nature, changes continue within every population of organisms.
So, when the innovators in sword work experiment with nontraditional materials
and methods, they are actually behaving in a very natural way. Ironically, it is the
preservationists who are doing something unusual--they are trying to freeze the
techniques at one particular time period for that style. Their job is quite a bit more
difficult, because to do so they must also recreate a mindset and a culture that no longer exists today.
Until recently, most of the sword arts have been passed down from teacher to
student by direct physical instruction. Similar to the oral tradition of folktales,
variations would inevitably creep in despite attempts to preserve the original
teachings. Or, an accepted leader might institute a "legal" change, to the grief and consternation of the rest.
How many times has that led to a splintering of the lineages?
The Koryu as practiced today have one major advantage for those seeking to
preserve the techniques--the availability of documentation. Videos, photos, books
and other media can be utilized to create an impressive record to supplement the continued direct transmission of technique. To many of us, it appears that
Morihiro Saito Sensei of Aikido does techniques exactly the way the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, performed
them decades ago. How do we know?
Because we have a photographic record. Ueshiba himself did not remain static in
his teachings--he perfectly illustrates my point of an artist evolving to suit the
times. Many of his students did not change with him. Instead, like
Saito Sensei, they worked hard to preserve the teachings he bestowed at the particular time of their instruction.
Some, however, continued to evolve, and these innovators are also regarded
askance by many of Aikido's traditionalists.
The traditionalists' job is also made more difficult because they have to decide
what aspects of change they can accept, and what they cannot. Certainly, there
can be no change in technique now, since the atmosphere of "adaptation for
survival" has been removed.
When I pointed out to some people that such things as Textron hakama, composite tsuka, fluorescent lighting and gaigin practitioners were
not the standard several hundred years ago, I was told that it is the techniques themselves
which are being preserved--all the rest are just trappings. But are they? Where can
you draw the line? Can you really just suspend the techniques in limbo while
everything around them changes? And, if not, do the practitioners of the
Koryu accept the fact that even they are no longer doing a completely
traditional martial art?
A final point on Koryu: we cannot know how much today's practice differs from
what was done several hundred years ago.
This is similar to classical music--we have no recordings of Beethoven or Mozart to play for musicians who study the
works of these composers today. Even if you equip the orchestra with period
instruments and original manuscripts, they can only attempt to recreate what it may
have sounded like when those composers were alive. Yet classical music is played
and enjoyed today because musicians through the years sought to preserve what
they could of the work of the masters. The same could be said of the
Kendo is one of the few sword arts that have evolved with the times yet preserves
its philosophy of technique. It started out as a way for warriors to practice their
skills on one another without the dangers inherent in using a live blade. When
such skills were no longer necessary for survival, Kendo evolved into an exercise
for self-improvement drawing heavily on the original sword techniques.
The governing body of Kendo in Japan continues to institute changes, as it deems
necessary--witness the recent inclusion of two new kata (adaptations of
Koryu) in the Kendo Federation's set of Iai kata.
Yes, Kendo as practiced today is a far cry for the days of "one cut, one life" and
the use of indigo dye in clothing for its antiseptic qualities.
But I dare say the mindset of the kendoka facing an armored opponent is closer to
that of a 17 th century warrior than that of a student of Iai who has never
experienced partner practice.
Where does this leave us? Look at the history and future of mankind in terms of
millennia, not decades. Sword work will continue to die out, in the same way that
horsemanship has declined substantially since the advent of the automobile.
There was a time in history when there were no swords, and there may be such a
time in the future as well. But right now, we have the ability to make a conscious
choice to preserve those aspects of swordsmanship, which are important to us.
I sincerely hope there will always be people who have the time (and the means) to
learn the forms from earlier eras, and that they will continue to do so by utilizing
the traditional method of teacher-student instruction.
But I am also curious to see how the innovators continue to adapt in these times where the mouse is mightier than the sword, and
survival is no longer the motivating factor for improving technique. I am sure we would all love to know what
swordsmanship will be like 500 years from now. Perhaps our descendants will
benefit from our record keeping so that fewer techniques will be lost through the
As for me, I plan to continue on my path of self-improvement as a
nontraditional student practicing traditionally derived techniques--because it is
what I enjoy.