Thursday 30 May 2024

Unlocking the Secrets of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū

The late Otake Risuke, master of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto R

 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū is one of the oldest extant schools of martial arts in Japan, with an unbroken lineage from late medieval times, blessed (until recently) with an open and charismatic sōke who oversaw the teaching and passing on of his skills and knowledge to the next generation while managing to maintain quality control at the same time as expanding its popularity.

It was also notable as the principal koryū studied by Donn Draeger, and through his influence became the point of entry for many non-Japanese interested in older martial traditions. Because of this connection, it was also featured in the BBC documentary ’Way of the Warrior’, becoming familiar to another generation of practitioners outside Japan and it was because of both of these that I learnt about it first myself.

It has a broad technical repertoire utilizing a number of weapons and, unusually in traditional Japanese martial arts, involves quite long kata which are done at speed (and also, at least at one time and depending on the circumstances, also practiced out of doors). Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening in these kata, especially as targets are substituted for the real target to allow a longer sequence and to hide the true nature of the attacks from outsiders. There are several videos online of Otake Risuke demonstrating and explaining parts of these kata, and one can only assume this is the tip of the iceberg. Although such explanations give us an insight into the meanings of the kata, it must be viewed as a partial explanation of the system as a whole - there is, no doubt, very much more that is kept within the teachings. However, it gives enough to have good idea of how deceptive surface appearances can be. 

At first glance, the kata appear more combative than those of other schools - there is much clashing of bokken and the pace is fast. In fact, they look like the kind of choreography you might see in a movie. When Otake explains the techniques it opens a window to understanding, but there is more left unexplained. Two of the points he stressed were that targets are predominantly those areas that would be left minimally protected by armour, and that the targets which are shown in the kata are not the real targets. Strikes made in the kata are typically blocked (for want of a better word) by the opponent’s bokken, or avoided, and although it is sometimes easy to see where the cut is aimed, often the intended target is purposely obscured.

Looking at the kata more closely, there are several other points common to much of Japanese swordsmanship. Many schools of sword stress the ability to make a straight downward cut; their kata feature this as an attack (albeit often an unrealistic one) and often begin with a number of cuts that are obviously not directed at the opponent. (You can see this in the introductory kata of the TSKSR.) Putting aside considerations of reigi (proper behaviour and respect, custom, even religion) that may have influenced these kata (and these aspects should not necessarily be downplayed) what purpose does this have? I believe it is intimately bound up with the style of fighting, one which relies on assessment of line and distance, and one which sees attack as the best defence. These initial cuts are a means of establishing one’s own awareness of the line of the sword, the line which you use to attack and, vitally, must defend against. Understanding and being able to see this line is a vital component of effective swordsmanship: creating and manipulating this line within oneself is an important step towards this.

Otake explaining the finer points of technique to a student

The kata of TSKSR feature a wide variety of attacks to different targets, but still, many of them derive from this basic downward stroke; some other schools keep this focus through whole series of kata. In branches of the Ittō Ryū, for example, understanding this is basically the main point of the whole school. It is not something that a student can develop quickly, but continually returning to this motion will, it is hoped, bring an unconscious understanding. The vital corollary to this is being able to read the line of the opponent’s sword, and this is the basis of all the defensive (for which also read 'attacking') moves.

If line does not seem to be as immediate a focus in TSKSR as in some schools, the same cannot be said of distance, and this, indeed, is key to a proper understanding of the kata. An awareness of this can be seen in the avoidance of cuts by stepping back or taking one hand off the hilt to avoid a cut to the wrist. The importance of this is greater than it first appears, for it is axiomatic in this school that “if you can block, you should cut”, which is to say, in principle, all the ‘blocks’ or ‘parries’ in the kata were actually meant to be cuts, either to the attacking arm or to some other part of the body. (I have seen many a discussion online in which people marshal a variety of evidence - often including reference to TSKSR kata - in argument against this, usually along the lines of “it’s in this kata” or “if it’s a matter of life or death…”, largely unconvincingly). 

I don’t train in TSKSR, nor do I make any claim to understand all the minutiae of the style, so feel free to disregard my opinion on this, but I think the above gives an accurate insight into what makes the sword techniques work. It is an interesting training method, and not having experienced it from the inside, I can’t give any direct comparison with other modes of training. From an outsider's perspective, it seems that some of the kata moves involve strikes of bokken against bokken that are far from the intended usage, even though the speed and rhythm of the kata is much closer to how the techniques might have been used 'for real'.  Like all kata, the effectiveness will depend on how good the attacks are and how much pressure is put on the student, and of course there are trade-offs. 

The vexed question of just how to conduct effective training was something that remained on people’s minds well into the twentieth century. I suspect that, in many cases, kata devolved into a choreographed performance in which the participants relied on foreknowledge of the attack to defend against it, not to mention attacks that were not committed enough to cause much damage even if they had hit. Overcoming these problems is where the advanced levels of training come in, and at least one commentator, Joseishi, an adept of the Shingyōtō ryū, noted that the inner teachings of a style are a development of what was taught as the basic principles, and the importance of sensitivity in developing skill.

For an insider’s view of TSKSR, I recommend listening to this online talk given by Aiden O’Reilly, who does a good job of introducing the style, as well as making some interesting comparisons with another style he practises. (See if you can spot my question towards the end).

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