Archives for posts with tag: kobudo

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.


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

The following is an abstract for a short presentation I will be making on February 22nd about my research. I’ve chosen to focus on this topic as it’s something I will need to write about anyway and the audience will include people whose main focus is China as well as students of Japanese studies.

What is a koryu and what makes koryu interesting phenomena for research?

The term koryu (古流) literally translates as ‘old style’ or ‘old school’ and is used to refer to the classical martial traditions of Japan.  Over 700 koryu have been identified (Friday, 1997) of which the Japan Kobudo Association lists 78 extant member koryu (Nippon Budokan, n. d.). However, despite the prevalence of martial arts in popular culture, film and television, most (if not all) of these are unfamiliar to people outside the koryu world, even in Japan. This presentation will offer an initial introduction to what a koryu is and through comparison with modern martial arts attempt to establish what makes the koryu distinctive.

The koryu are an example of aspects of Japanese culture, such as tea ceremony, calligraphy and arts and crafts, which have been successfully transmitted from teacher to student over centuries.  However, at first glance, they may appear to have little relevance to the modern world. They are not studied as part of formal education; it could be argued that their techniques are archaic; and they are  potentially only of historical interest. Why then, do members of a koryu spend years practicing these intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative arts?

Studying a koryu can have a profound effect on its practitioners. A pilot study taking a grounded theory approach to interviews of two members of different koryu yielded initial results which suggest that researching the koryu may provide insights into why generations of Japanese have found them be a positive influence on their lives.

Friday, K. F. (1997). Legacies of the sword: The Kashima-Shinryū and Samurai martial culture, with Seki Humitake (p. 248). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Nippon Budokan. (n.d.). Nippon Kobudo Kyokai: Kamei Ryuha (Japan Kobudo Association: Member Schools). Retrieved March 11, 2011, from