Koryū and Seitei
By Kim Taylor
Is there anything in the kendo, iai or jō world more discussed than the difference between koryū and seitei? Even people who are not in the federation discuss the differences, so why not have one more go at it?
We should get the definition out of the way first. “Koryū” means old school, but just how old is old? A popular dividing date is the Meiji Restoration (1868), and that is the one that I tend to use. 1868 is 145 years ago, a good long time, but more importantly, it stretches back to the age of the samurai, so we can add “samurai era” to the age and come up with “old school”. (For fun, take a few moments and look up the start date of kendo).
Standard vs. New
Kendo federation iai and jō have been around for about 45 years so unless we define koryū as “any art that started before 50% of its practitioners were born”…. no it would probably still not work. Kendo Federation iai and jō (seitei) are, as sets of practice, pretty new. But were they invented whole to be introduced in 1968? While some may think so, the seitei kata come from older forms. They were not so much “invented” as “standardized” by a committee whose members were pretty experienced koryū people themselves. They would have no need to invent new kata as they had plenty of pre-existing material to work with. Let’s understand this clearly, we call the AJKF iai and jō kata sets “seitei” and not “atarashii” (new), they are “standard” not “new”. What the originating sensei needed most was not a set of new kata, but wide agreement to teach and use agreed upon methods of performing existing kata.
This standardization is easily understood in jō, with the seitei kata being very close to Shindo Muso-ryū kata. On the iai side, with multiple koryū arts being involved, there are one or two “new” kata for any student of koryū starting the seitei set.
It is time to look back at your research into kendo. It is hard to say when “kendo” started isn’t it? While everyone will agree that kendo is a modern art, it did not spring up fully created in one instant – there was a movement from the old schools to the modern art that happened over generations. Equipment developed and rules changed, but the initial idea of a full-contact practice easily stretches back to the age of koryū. We should think the same way about seitei iai and jō, not so much a couple of brand new schools, but rather a specialised practice in the same tradition from the same sensei.
To this day members of the iai and jō committees in Japan are working on a standardized way of practice and getting that standard out to the rest of the membership. Why standardise? Gradings and tournaments are difficult otherwise. For those of us in the West there are additional benefits. In areas where high ranked instructors are scarce, it is nice to have a set of kata that allow any sensei to teach any group. This does not happen in koryū, where the lineage is at least as important as the technique. A koryū sensei would only teach another sensei’s students under very rare circumstances.
Where is the underlying principle of this standardisation of older kata you might ask? Good question, and it is easily answered if you remember that the seitei were developed within and for the kendo federation. To find the roots, look to kendo and especially to the Nippon Kendo Kata. Why would it be any other way?
And the koryū? What are they in comparison? They are older, usually have a larger syllabus, and are much more reliant on the lineage of a teacher to a student than agreed-upon technical standards. Some koryū perform kata which are much more different than seitei, some are very close, but all koryū are filtered through the individual sensei’s understanding of the art. It is this variation and of course, courtesy, that prevents one koryū sensei from teaching the students of another.
In any dojo, most especially in the West, a beginner might get started on seitei kata because that is where they will grade, and that is where most of the instruction from visiting senior sensei is available to the local instructor. Once the student has been around for a while, they may get introduced to the koryū. In a way, this is unfortunate since that is not how seitei was developed historically, and that’s why it is not a very good introduction to the arts, especially in iai. Seitei is representative, not introductory, and it covers an entire art form in 12 kata where a koryū might introduce the same material over 50 or 60 kata in multiple sets.
Because students start with seitei, the technical points become the baseline for the student. When they start learning a koryū their practice may be called “contaminated” with seitei. This criticism seems a bit unjustified as the student will probably be taught both arts by the same sensei who would teach his koryū as he sees fit. A beginner to koryū who has never seen seitei will also be moving in ways “contaminated” by whatever sport or skill they have learned previously. The charges of koryū “contamination” by seitei should always be directed to the top sensei in the kendo federation who are the ones that set the style for their line of koryū. Beginners are blameless for taking their prior understanding to new material.
Of course the very idea of a continuing standardization of seitei by the committees means that the more important contamination always moves from koryū to seitei, from individual interpretation of a standardized practice. Far from being a problem, it is this very distinction that defines for us the difference between seitei and koryū.