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Ono-ha Ittoryu
Japanese Martial Arts — Koryu


By Jeff Broderick.

Koryu are the old martial arts of Japan. The term is composed of two kanji characters, 古 ko meaning “old” and 流 ryu which literally means “stream” or “flow” but here indicates a tradition or lineage – a body of knowledge which is passed from teacher to students. In ancient Japan, young bushi (warriors) were taught skill at arms by older, more experienced samurai. Warriors with a reputation for martial prowess would be tasked with leading the instruction of the region’s soldiers. Over time, this instruction came to be codified, leading to the development of various “streams” or schools of fighting. Each school or ryu had its own techniques, specializations, and approaches to combat. They also had their own top authority, the soke or headmaster, who taught and oversaw membership in the ryu by granting licenses of transmission and, if necessary, expelling students who broke the rules.

Ancient Koryu

Early samurai were predominantly mounted archers. One of the earliest recorded koryu is the Ogasawara-ryu school of archery, founded in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Archery was one of the first arts to be codified, not just because of its age, but because of its close connection to religious ritual. 

As combat evolved, koryu sought to teach samurai most if not all of the combat skills they would need to survive on the battlefield, and therefore taught a plethora of armed and unarmed fighting techniques. For example, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, founded around 1450, has within its curriculum kenjutsu, iai, spear, naginata, shuriken, jujutsu, and more. Other schools that taught a variety of weapons in the past came over time to specialize in a single weapon, which was usually the sword as this was the most popular and “in demand” skill for the increasingly urbanized warriors. The nationwide peace of the Edo period (1602 - 1868) did not slow the development of koryu bujutsu, but paradoxically increased it. Skill at arms was viewed as a crucial aspect of a samurai’s personal development, and new ryuha sprung up throughout Japan.

Takenouchi ryu

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a craze of modernization swept Japan. The koryu were viewed by many as anachronistic ties to an outdated past. Membership dropped sharply and many ryuha died out as there was no one to inherit the tradition. Others felt that the practice of martial arts had an inherent value for human development beyond merely their combative applications. They searched for ways to modernize the practice of martial arts.

One such individual was Kano Jigoro (1860 – 1938). Kano studied a number of koryu schools of jujutsu, and taking the best parts of each, synthesized a new form which he called judo. The naming change from -jutsu (art) to -do (way) was important: this new art was not just a combative skill, but suggested a way of life, an approach to being. Around the same time, Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957) brought the empty-handed fighting forms of Okinawan karate to mainland Japan, where it became massively popular. And later, after training extensively in Daito-ryu Aikijutsu (essentially a form of jujutsu) Ueshiba Morihei (1883-1969) created his art of aikido. These modern martial ways were all outgrowths of earlier koryu arts, adapted to conform to the demands of changing society.

Toyama Ryu
Sword Arts

While all these changes were taking place, the art of Japanese fencing was becoming unified as kendo, with a single set of rules and standardized equipment. In order not to lose the connection to the koryu kenjutsu from which kendo developed, a set of Kendo Kata were established, drawing on the old techniques of traditions such as of Ono-ha Itto-ryu, Jikishin Kage-ryu, and Shindo Munen-ryu Kenjutsu. By learning the Kendo Kata, practitioners could preserve some of the original techniques which formed the basis for modern kendo. In this way, the modernized art (kendo) was practiced alongside the traditional art (koryu kenjutsu).

Iaido developed in similar fashion. In 1954 the leaders of a number of koryu iaido schools came together to form the All-Japan Iaido Federation. They created a set of five standardized techniques drawn from the member koryu that would be practiced by all students, alongside the original techniques of their own schools. The iaido section of the All-Japan Kendo Federation created 7 Seitei Iai Kata in 1969, drawing mainly upon the koryu techniques of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu. There are now 12 techniques known as Zen Ken Ren Iai Kata. Today, these modern techniques are practiced around the world. They are overseen by a committee of top sensei and change slightly from year to year. The relative importance placed on koryu and Zen Ken Ren Iai differs from dojo to dojo, but students usually practice both and they are viewed as separate but equal aspects of training.

Types of Koryu

As mentioned, some ryu-ha specialize in a particular weapon, such as schools of kenjutsu that focus on paired katana techniques. Other schools focus on a different weapon, such as spearmanship or naginata. Most, however, teach a variety of weapons, reflecting their pragmatic roots. Schools may also vary in their approach to membership. In some cases, membership is fairly informal and there are few restrictions. Other ryu have strict rules, requiring oaths signed and sealed with the student’s blood, promising that they will not reveal the teachings to anyone outside of the tradition! Some schools may additionally require that students cease the practice of any other styles of martial arts.

Kashima Jikishin Kage-ryu
Why Practice a Koryu?

Practicing a modern martial art like kendo can provide a feeling of connection to a centuries-old combative tradition, but it is important to be aware that these arts have been altered, adjusted, and modified to better suit the modern world. Practicing an original koryu art gives the student a much closer connection to that tradition, particularly if the koryu is one that strictly controls membership. In that case, you are not just practicing a tradition, you become a functioning part of it. And because koryu are often many centuries old, some of them are wonderfully anachronistic and even esoteric. Part of the excitement of learning a koryu is found in trying to understand what you are actually doing, and divining the deeper lesson of why. 

Finding a School of Koryu

So you have decided that you want to practice a koryu. What is the next step? Unfortunately, legitimate and authorized koryu instruction is fairly rare outside of Japan, but thanks to the vast amount of information on the Internet, finding and researching available instruction is more possible than ever before. If you live in a large city, you may actually have a number of koryu options to choose from, but it is more likely that you will have to be satisfied with what you can access. So, what about training on your own? With the abundance of books and YouTube videos available, it is possible to gain a familiarity with some techniques, but this should be seen as a poor (and therefore temporary) substitute until you can train with an experienced and licensed teacher. Save up and attend a seminar, and see if the art is right for you. You may be able to meet other students who, while not yet licensed to teach, have regular practices closer to your area.

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