Many people seem to think that the various koryu budo are practiced in exactly the same way today that they were practiced 200, 300, even 500 years ago. After all, they reason, the tradition has been faithfully preserved since the founder was inspired, whether by some divinity, a whack on the head, or a sudden realization of how not to get whacked on the head. Through careful practice of the kata that make up the ryuha’s teachings and traditions, people believe that numerous generations of students and teachers have maintained the tradition exactly as it was in the Edo or even Sengoku period.
While this is a wonderful idea, it is far from the truth. Arms races predate the existence of mankind. As any predator develops effective strategies for capturing prey, those prey animals will develop new defenses. One has only to look at the simultaneous development of carnivorous dinosaurs and the improvements that occurred in their prey species to see this.
The “koryu budo” or “ancient schools” of Japanese budo are much the same. Those schools that existed during the civil war of the Sengoku era focused on battlefield techniques for use against opponents in armor. Ryuha which were founded during the peace of the Edo era most frequently don’t even bother to include any techniques for armored combat. What’s interesting is that most Sengoku era schools that do maintain armored teachings have minimized their practice, and rarely get out the armor to train in. This makes a lot sense when it’s considered.
During the Sengoku era armored combat was common, and wearing armor as a part of general preparedness even more so. Once the Tokugawa government began enforcing national peace, there remained no reason for bushi to continue wearing armor on a regular basis. With no one wearing armor, it no longer made sense to spend time on armored training. It did make a great deal of sense to train for the conditions where combat was likely to take place, i.e. in cities, in crowds, on the road, and in buildings. Any ryuha which didn’t focus on training for these conditions would have quickly found itself extinct.
In the 17th century then, there was a dramatic change in budo training, away from preparing for battlefield combat and towards street fighting and dueling. Armor became family heirloom, and the standard weapon shifted from the spear to the sword. The sword had always been the side-arm symbol of the bushi, but from this time it became their principle weapon as well. In addition, there is evidence that stances and tactics changed dramatically as well. This is an obvious change that would be expected when the conditions of combat are altered dramatically. Training against armored opponents would naturally emphasize attacking the few weak points in the armor. Training for street battles would focus on fighting opponents in street clothes, which leave far more available targets. Anyone who didn’t adapt their training to take advantage of the large number of new targets available, and to defend their own new vulnerability, would die in their first fight.
Other changes can be tracked down through the ages as well. Uke Nagashi is a famous technique of Itto Ryu kenjutsu, which is said to have invented it. Variations of that technique are now found in numerous ryuha throughout Japan. The jo is widely regarded as having been first used by the Shinto Muso Ryu of Kyushu in the 17th century. By the end of the Tokugawa era, it was found in numerous ryuha from all over Japan. It’s easy to imagine that as various teachers were exposed to new techniques and weapons, they would incorporate those they viewed as useful, or at least dangerous if their students were not aware of their use.
Shinto Muso Ryu is wonderful example of the change and growth of ryuha. It started out with only the jo, tachi, and kodachi within its curriculum. Over the centuries, jutte, kusarigama, and hojojutsu were added until, finally, in the twentieth century, tanjojutsu was added to take advantage of the potential to use the walking sticks which were then the rage in Japan, as weapons.
The various koyru budo of Japan are not fossils, frozen in time
and unchangeable. Rather they are living entities, growing, and sometimes
dying, through the efforts of their members. A number of ryuha have
died in the last 100 years because no one was interested in them.
On the other hand, a few ryuha, including Kashima Shin Ryu, Muso Jikiden
Eishin Ryu, and Shinto Muso Ryu, have grown to the point that they are
found around the world. Because koryu budo are living entities, they
will continue to grow, or fade, with the efforts of the members to adapt
their traditions to the ever changing conditions around them. There’s
nothing new about this, every ryuha has been changing and adapting since