Archives for category: academic

Sensei, students and the spoken word: Learning and teaching in a Japanese koryū dōjō


Nostalgia for ‘samurai’ pervades Japanese society in advertising, television and film, not least in portrayals of teaching and learning which parody the teacher-student training relationship. Such comedy sketches work because they are based on well-known stereotypes of martial arts master, student and the mysteries of the martial arts; all of which are familiar to a Japanese audience. The extent to which these characterisations reflect current learning and teaching practices remains unclear, particularly in the koryū bujutsu, which continue to play a role in contemporary society, despite being based on pre-modern foundations. Developing an awareness of the social aspects of interaction in the dōjō is key to understanding the impact of martial arts practices. This paper takes conventional representations from mainstream media as a starting point to examine current practices of learning and teaching in a koryū bujutsu, with a particular focus on the role of kuden (lit. ‘oral transmission’). The primary sources of data are participant observation and interviews carried out during fieldwork at a Japanese koryū dōjō. The research provides insights into how actual learning and teaching compares with the esoteric and archaic forms of knowledge transmission frequently portrayed in the Japanese media.


Still from Ken no shugyo comedy sketch. Click on the image for video.


The following abstract and slides were from a paper I gave at the International Symposium on Japanese Studies in Bucharest 1-3 March 2014.

 ‘The importance of doing and being myself’: The impact of traditional martial arts practice on the lives of contemporary practitioners.

My research takes an ethnographic approach to examining the classical martial system of Takenouchi-ryū Bitchūden (TRB), exploring it as a form of education and character development.  Students devote years to this intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative art.  What practitioners learn; the impact it has on their lives, identities and conceptions of self; and how koryū bujutsu1relate to life, leisure and education in Japan are the main focus. Fundamentally, the aim is to discover how and why the practice of TRB affects the lives of its members.

Research on martial arts includes translations of samurai literature; studies of the samurai; histories of the martial arts; modern writings on techniques and philosophy; catalogues of extant koryū and their characteristics; and popular manuals. However, studies taking an ethnographic approach are concentrated almost exclusively on modernmartial arts and there are very few in-depth explorations of the koryū. Although they no longer play a central role in the training of the élite, the koryū ethos and values continue to influence both current sports and wider aspects of contemporary culture.

This paper will focus on individuals’ experiences of and attitudes towards this traditional practice and the role it plays in their modern lives. The primary source of data is from fieldwork carried out at the head dōjō. The koryū are impenetrable, even for Japanese, however, a longstanding association provided unprecedented access to carry out in-depth interviews with both new and senior members of the group.

The research shows that far from being ‘just a hobby’, for exercise or a form of historical reenactment; what people learn influences their daily existence, including work and relationships with others. Long-term participants see it as an integral aspect of their lives, an important source of well-being and intrinsic to how they deal with the challenges of life in contemporary Japan.

1 Koryū bujutsu = ‘old’ style pre-Meiji martial traditions

This is a poster I put together for the ‘What does it mean to do a PhD today?‘ interdisciplinary conference at the University of Manchester, held on Monday 2 December, 2013.

The spiral represents how all members of the system experience the same elements of the curriculum repeatedly at different points in their journey. I have also included some of the ideas and opinions on learning taken from recent interviews carried out during fieldwork in Japan. I think there are elements of learning a koryū which have parallels in the PhD process and I want to explore this further. A deeper understanding of what it means to engage in an intense learning process within a small group and how this can be facilitated are possibly going to be the most transferable outcomes of my research.

Poster presentation: What does it mean to do a 'koryū' today?

I’ve decided to take the plunge and join AcWriMo this year. This post will be brief, as I’m already behind, but plan to catch up today. My goal it to write an average of 1,000 words a day for everyday in November. They can be on anything directly related to writing for the PhD. I have a couple of abstracts and a poster to write, but the main thing I need to do at the moment is write up the interviews which I have just completed here in Kyoto. A few ground rules I’m setting myself:

  • To be included in the word count, they must be written in Scrivener. Thus drafts on paper, Evernote or Word don’t apply. This is to help me make sure that everything ends up in a place where I can find it later, i.e. I’ve decided where it’s going, it has a purpose.
  • First drafts and edits or re-writes are fine, but it’s the total words added which counts, so anything deleted is out.
  • Notes on readings don’t count, but that shouldn’t stop me doing them!
  • Blogs, twitter, facebook don’t count… so I’d better get on with my writing for today.

Oh, and I have to travel back to the UK in this time, hence why I am aiming for an average. I did a couple of days last week to get myself going and may add the words I did then for my travel days… hope that’s not cheating.

I’ll post here occasionally (if I’ve done my word count for the day), but you can also follow me on twitter @lucubrat.

The following abstract and slides relate to a presentation I gave for the Communities of Practice strand on EDUC70500, Social Theories of Learning in Research and Practice. More information on the course (which I can thoroughly recommend) available here.

Shoshinsha to Shihan: The Community of Practice in a Japanese martial art

There is a lack of studies of kobudo, the classical martial traditions of Japan which originated before the Meiji Restoration (1868), and in particular, of those taking ethnographic approach. Furthermore, whilst Communities of Practice theory has been used to discuss aspects of modern martial arts, it has not been used as a theoretical framework to examine the workings of a martial arts’ dojo (training hall) in detail. This paper will explore CoP theory in relation to learning and teaching in the classical martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden Kobudo which has been in existence since 1532.

My thesis is that TRB is a highly evolved community of practice, exhibiting many of the characteristics outlined in Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (1998). As such I aim to explore how participant trajectories through the CoP have an impact on their lives, focussing on the idea of ‘learning as becoming’. I am particularly interested in how and why long term practitioners have succeeded in making the transition from shoshinsha (‘beginner’) to shihan (‘teacher’). A framework from CoP theory will be used as a lens through which to analyse data gained through participant observation carried out at the main dojo in Kyoto.

Concepts from CoP theory provide useful terms for examining what happens within the dojo. Legitimate peripheral participation is built in to the process of becoming a member of the group, (for example, newcomers have the task of recording names and the day’s training in the register); mutual engagement in the shared enterprise of passing on the techniques and traditions of the system is at the heart of daily practice and events in the dojo calendar; the idea of transition from periphery to core is reflected in the naming system to distinguish techniques for beginners from those for advanced practitioners (mae = front, outer; naka= middle; oku = inner); and different members display varying levels of knowledgeability and competence, but all have a role to play in how the community sustains itself.

Furthermore, I believe that opportunities which occur in the dojo’s practice for the implicit form of communication characterised as ishin denshin (literally: ‘what the mind thinks, the heart transmits) or ‘tacit understanding’ suggest this may be a useful concept for exploring those aspects of communities of practice which are often difficult to ascertain.

Here’s the abstract and poster I presented at the Japan in our Futures one day conference in Sheffield on 5 April, 2013.

Lessons in survival: The community of practice in a Japanese martial art

The classical Japanese martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden Kobudo has an unbroken line of transmission dating from 1532 and as such could be seen to be a master of survival. Rooted in the past, yet located firmly in the present where it thrives through its role in the lives of its members, like any traditional pursuit it faces challenges if it is to continue into the future.

Using the theoretical framework of Communities of Practice, this poster examines how the group’s approach to teaching and learning enables the communication of an established body of knowledge, yet is flexible enough to deal with challenges such as lifestyle changes, economic fluctuations and the increasing involvement of non-Japanese practitioners. The research takes an ethnographic approach, analysing data gained through participant observation at the main dôjô in Kyoto. What practitioners learn from their experiences; the impact it has on their lives, identities and conceptions of self; and how traditional martial arts relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the subject of my work.

This poster focuses on providing insights into how and why the group endures, which may have lessons for ways in which other groups could ensure their own sustainability into the future.


These are the abstract and slides from a presentation I gave at this one day workshop in London. It was a fantastic opportunity to gain feedback and to meet other postgraduate researchers in Japanese Studies from all over the country. Highly recommended.

Teaching and Learning in a Koryu Bujutsu

My research takes an ethnographic approach to researching Japan’s classical martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden (TRB), exploring it as a form of education and character development.  Students spend years practicing this intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative art, which has been passed down from teacher to student since 1532.  What they learn from their experiences; the impact it has on their lives, their conceptions of self, issues of gender and group and individual identity; and how the koryu bujutsu[1] relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the focus of my work.

This presentation will focus on approaches to teaching and learning in TRB at the head dojo of the tradition, based on data gained through participant observation and consisting of field notes, photographs, audio recordings, copies of internal documents and records of online discussions where members exchange ideas about training and their experiences.

TRB offers an example of a rich learning environment outside mainstream education. Teaching methods include demonstration, oral instruction and some use of written materials. However, although the head instructor plays a central role, this is not the only way that learning takes place. The learning is highly experiential with most work taking the form of paired practice where a senior student works with a junior.  Formal practice begins with kihon, basic moves which are practiced many times, even by more advanced students. This is followed by kata, or ‘forms’ where practitioners alternate between taking a ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ role. Kata are central to the process of passing on the techniques as they codify the knowledge in a form which can be both practiced and remembered. They have names which may range from a simple description of movement to the esoteric. The combination of the sequence of a kata, its name and when and how it is taught all have a significance which may not be apparent to the novice, but which is revealed as the student progresses.

Koryu rarely include sparring or free form practice in their training methods, so performing kata in formal situations (embu) is one way in which participants ability to perform under pressure can be tested and this is therefore a core element of the training.

There are also aspects of the philosophy of the tradition which are learnt outside of the formal training, in the informal discussions after practice, through shared participation in events and the sharing of stories. For example, the preparation of tea is the job of the most recent recruits, as they learn how to do this they become legitimate peripheral participants in the dojo community through interacting with more senior students.

The presentation will explore how these formal and informal methods create a community where individuals through shared practice can develop their character and identity.


[1] Koryu bujutsu = ‘old’ style pre-Meiji martial traditions

I’ve been accepted on the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Summer Program as a guest researcher under Professor Kimio Ito in the Sociology Department of Kyoto University. Here’s an abstract for the poster presentation which I gave on 15 June, outlining my plans.

Forging the spirit: How training in a koryû bujutsu affects
practitioners’ lives

The term koryû bujutsu literally translates as ‘old stream martial arts’ and refers to classical traditions founded before 1868. Literature on martial arts includes popular manuals; studies of samurai writings; historical studies; modern writings on techniques and philosophy; catalogues of extant koryû; and ethnographies of modern arts; but not of koryû. My research explores how the koryû contribute to discourses on selfhood, identity and masculinity through investigating participants’ motivations for entering a koryû; how they view their practice; and how membership relates to their identity outside training. The study takes an ethnographic approach, gathering data through participant observation, interviews and examining practitioners’ writings.

This poster introduces a framework of distinctive koryû characteristics, providing the starting point for research in Kyoto where I will observe regular training in a koryû and two events in the tradition’s calendar. On July 16th, members of the dojo perform kata (forms) as part of the Enmamôde ceremonies at Byakugô Temple, Nara. In August, the festival commemorating the tradition’s founding includes members from other parts of Japan. I aim to record a rich description of both events which will provide a starting point for developing more detailed interview questions in the future.

Here’s the poster, click on it to see a larger version:

I have been using Mendeley to manage all my bibliographic information for over a year now.  It does have limitations but ease of use and accessibility are proving a boon. I’ve become something of an evangelist and will be running a workshop at the ALDinHE conference in April. Here’s the abstract.

Manage your information social life using Mendeley

Mendeley is free academic software (Win, Mac & Linux) which enables you to manage, share, read, annotate and cite your research papers. It provides a research network to manage your papers online, discover research trends and statistics, and connect to like‐minded researchers. This workshop will introduce the key features of Mendeley for new users and explore examples how it can be used to set up collaborative projects, work and discuss in groups, and share data. It will be useful for anyone who needs to manage their own research or who supports students to do the same.

A Mendeley group for this workshop can be found at

There’s also a webinar coming up introducing Mendeley for Librarians which is actually a general introduction. Sign up here.

Slides from the session:


My work uses ethnographic methods to research the traditional Japanese martial art of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden, exploring it as a form of education and character development. What practitioners learn from their experiences in the dojo; the impact it has on their lives, their conceptions of self, issues of gender and group and individual identity; and how the classical martial traditions relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the proposed research areas.  The study aims to contribute to research on the martial arts; the anthropology of Japanese cultural and leisure pursuits; and pedagogical approaches to self-development. Situating this study of a particular dojo within existing research, my initial aims are to explore:

  • What a koryu offers participants in comparison to modern martial arts and other leisure activities; how this is reflected in martial arts’ role in contemporary Japanese culture;
  • How ethnographic approaches to researching koryu can contribute to discourses on selfhood, identity and masculinity;
  • How the pedagogy in TRB relates to that of other educational contexts, both formal and outside academic institutions.