The other day we held a seniors kobudo training session. We’ve started doing these every now and then to practice subjects that we may not spend enough time on. At this session we focused on the kata Jigen no sai and Sakugawa no kon (sho) bunkai as taught to me by my teacher Minowa Katsuhiko. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that this two-person application set was created by Taira Shinken and Akamine Eisuke. At least that’s what I remember Minowa sensei telling me, but again I could be wrong – I’ll have to check with Yoshimura sensei. It was a great way to start off the day by practicing Kobudo and everyone worked very hard.
At any rate, it had been quite a while since some of us had done the Sakugawa set and others were entirely new to it so it was a good review and introduction a the same time. Our dojo is not in Okinawa or Japan, so there isn’t a culture of not asking questions. Indeed, once a student understands the basic mechanics, I encourage her to ask questions about what she’s studying and how she’s practicing. Not surprisingly, as we worked through the two-person set, some of us had issues with it. Parts of it were simplistic, other sections were unrealistic, and other parts seemed to misunderstand how a technique was supposed to be used.
After the session these questions naturally got me thinking about it. Was it a case of incorrect transmission; had Minowa sensei not learn it correctly? Had I gotten it wrong? But Minowa sensei had given me written notes for the set which I had followed as closely as I could. Was the set actually Minowa sensei’s and not from Taira and Akamine? If so, did that mean Minowa sensei misunderstood the techniques? If it was from Taira and Akamine, did they misunderstand the techniques in the kata? I think you get the picture. Essentially, there were a lot of unanswered questions ruminating in my head.
Despite the lack of answers, what I realized was that regardless of the origin of this two-person set, there is a disconnect between how the techniques in the Sakugawa no kon (sho) set are presented and how they should actually be used. This shows to me that as much as we’d like to think that what we are practicing an old martial art from Okinawa (i.e. Ryukyu Kobudo literally ‘old martial ways’), we’re not.
Kobudo, at least in the Taira lineage, is a modern practice. Although some of the kata and the names attached to them stretch back a few hundred years, they are a collection of kata strung together in the mid- 20th century by Taira Shinken (1898 to 1970). Although Taira was a repository of information, I am starting to think that he may have had only a limited understanding of the subject matter he taught (and subsequently so did his students). This really shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider the era in which Taira learned his Kobudo. It was an era that reinterpreted the older practices by emphasizing the practice of kata above all else. Moreover, compared to the Japanese mainland, the Okinawan fighting arts did not have a tradition of documentation such as training manuals or commentaries, and they also lacked the tradition of two-person sets found in most classical bujutsu schools. All this is heresy I know, but it is something that has to be considered.
So what is a student of Taira lineage Kobudo to do? I suppose there are a number of solutions, but what I would personally like to see is the creation of a study group in a similar way that Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is structured. Instead of the focus being on medieval manuscripts, the focus would be on the techniques embodied in kata. Now you might say that most students and instructors study the techniques contained in kata, but I would argue that they don’t. Many of them are prone to teach and repeat the same techniques that were taught to them by their respective instructors. This does not, IMHO, give an accurate understanding of the meaning and application of techniques. What is needed instead is an objective (as much as possible) and systematic analysis of technique that is then tested; much like the HEMA model shown in the video.
Some of what I suggest may seem to fly in the face of tradition, but I don’t think it does. Ryukyu Kobudo was and is an eclectic art that was molded by individuals throughout the years who experimented with kata and technique. Perhaps this is one way of getting back to its roots.