Feature Article - 2nd Quarter, 1998


By: C. Bruce Heilman (IKKF President)


In Japan, the martial arts (bugei) are considered to fall within the category of geido, or "artistic ways". Geido, of which there are literally hundreds of forms can be classified into essentially three types:

Within the martial arts we have the concept of ryuha, or "schools". Bugei ryuha exhibit characteristics similar to other forms of cultural expression. They :

Ryuha are the "corporate groups" controlling the mastery of specialized cultural forms (a specific style of an art). They are typically comprised of a teacher and his students. Relationships between the ryuha head and his students tend to follow authority-intensive, patron-client relationships. Heads of ryuha often assumed parent-like authority in the lives of their students.

Some martial arts ryuha developed fully the iemoto pattern of organization, in which successive generations of family members controlled the ryu. This pattern is not typical of most bugei schools however. More commonly they split into subgroups as their arts matures.

Bugei ryuha tend to practice "total transmission" so that the individual who had mastered all of the secrets of the ryu was fully certified to instruct his own students.

The dojo the "formal training hall" typically became the focus for ryuha activity during the Tokugawa period. By the bakumatsu era (1830-1867) there were sometimes dormitory facilities associated with the dojo.

The commonly employed term by bugei instructors themselves was shihan. While meaning "teacher" in the broad sense, it bears the sense of exemplar, or model, and is thus often rendered in English as "master".

Establishing authority was critical to the reputation of a ryuha. Consequently, they attempted to assert some form of traditional authority from the past. They might assert that they had:

The typical structure of bugei ryuha in Edo times consisted of:


As stated earlier, the entire purpose of the existence of a particular ryuha was the transmission of its secret techniques. There are a number of ways that the secrets of any ryuha could be transmitted from master to disciple.

Initiation into the secret techniques of the ryuha usually meant the award of a certificate of mastery, a "license" which carried with it the express right of the initiate to reproduce its forms. Transmission of the ryuha teachings involved several levels or grades. In martial arts it was common to have eight grades, but there were many schools with five and some were even reduced to three. The ryuha head, or shihan was the ultimate authority who awarded gradings to the disciples, awarding certification for mastery of a certain level at an appropriate ceremony.

The highest certificate level was referred to as Kaiden (complete transmission) or Menkyo Kaiden (certified complete transmission), the receipt of which in most bugei ryuha qualified one to become an independent teacher in their own right.

Concern for the secrecy of the ryuha's teachings was paramount to all organizations, but of particular worry to the bugei ryuha, since the techniques in which the students were being instructed were potentially lethal. As a result students were not normally accepted into a ryuha without a background check on their character. Further it was expected that the student would continue to live up to the expectations of the ryuha throughout their training. In those cases where in individual would not meet the expectations of the ryuha, they were dismissed. In many cases, the disciple was expected to sign a pledge, called kishomon, which were normally sealed with blood of the one making the pledge and written on special paper which indicated its importance.


The martial arts share with other geido the characteristics of being a way of personally experiencing an art form. While the physical actions do result in some form of cultural product, the products are normally formless. That is the resultant product is less important than the process. The value for the individual lies in the doing. In this creation, the actions of the body, techniques (waza) is of primary importance. One must strive to develop the ability to perform requisite techniques to perfection. This concern for mastery of technique lies at the heart of every form of geido, from swordsmanship to the tea ceremony.

The type of practice expoused by the martial and other arts was in all geido of medieval and early modern times commonly called keiko (to learn). the tern is an ancient Chinese expression first used in Japan to mean "to reflect upon past ways to shed light on the present". There was also a more spiritual sense about the term. Thus the focus upon the body (physical), mind (spiritual), and spirit (way of life). In keiko, the emphasis is heavily upon the character and the totality of personal development through the art.

Keiko learning is focused upon the mastery of kata (forms) which taught the disciple waza (techniques). Since all geido had a kata focus, many scholars have defined the Japanese cultural tradition as the "culture of kata".

Among the bugei, archery developed a kata tradition quite early, but with most martial arts it was in the late medieval period that people began to teach individual battlefield skills as specific techniques. Then a number of military geniuses created kata, based on their long years of military experience, as fixed ways of practicing necessary combat skills.

It was the teaching of these highly individualistic techniques that specific ryuha emerged. Kata became the rules, the basic methods, by which techniques were transmitted from master to student within the ryu. In was believed that kata most quickly and completely imparted the techniques to the students.

The method of instruction was to simply repeat, over and over again, the kata under the guidance of the teacher, with no resistance, no attempt to embellish, and commonly with little if any explanation of the individual moves. Learning involved a rote imitation of the teacher's kata.

Kata mastery was regarded as progressing through three stages. This concept found within all types of geido arts is: shu, ha, and ri:

It must be recognized that the number of individuals able to achieve mastery through a progression from shu through ha to ri is quite limited, both historically and currently as well. Nonetheless, the theory behind the mastery of secrets via kata memorization involved a progression from total subservience to tradition to a level of individualistic creativity.

Japanese traditionally regard keiko instruction as being very rigorous. Although many of the traditional geido arts were recreational, there was and still is an expectation that the student will give total devotion to the "way" of that art. Martial arts texts, for example are full of terms such as shisshin (devotion), doshin (devotion to the way), and the like. The idea was that the student devote himself totally and exclusively to the mastery of the kata and the particular endeavor. This single-minded devotion to the particular way one chose was and is widely advocated among all the geido and is especially common in the martial arts. The idea is that if one devoted himself exclusively to the total understanding of a single way, then paradoxically, that understanding is consistent across all ways. Miyamoto Musashi, for example, claimed that after years of devoting himself single-mindedly to heiho (martial arts), he ultimately came to be conversant with a variety of geido, all without the aid of a teacher.


As stated above, the essence of a ryuha can be found in the transmission of its techniques and concepts. The essence of that transmission is found within the kata.

The standard English translation for "kata" is "form" or "forms". while this is correct, perhaps a more clearer translation would be the phrase "pattern practice".

Basically, kata represents a training method wherein students rehearse combinations of techniques and counter-techniques arranged by their teachers. Kata practice are done singularly as well as in pairs, depending upon the ryu. The pattern practice provides continuity with the ryuha from generation to generation, even in the absence of written instruments for transmission.

The kata practiced by a particular ryuha can and do change from generation to generation - or even within the lifetime of an individual instructor - but they are normally considered to have been handed down "intact" by the founder or some important figure in the school's heritage. Changes, when they occur, are viewed as being superficial, adjustments to the outward form of the kata as the key elements do not change. By definition when more fundamental changes are intentionally made this connotes the branching off of a new ryuha.

One key important point to be understood about pattern practice is that in traditional bugei it serves as the core of training and knowledge transmission. Although many modern ryuha employ other learning mechanisms such as basic drills, waza, sparring, etc., these learning devices only augment kata training, never supplant it in traditional programs. Kata practice is felt to be the most efficient way to pass information down from the master to the students. Kata practice tends to systematize and regularize training - but its real function goes far beyond this.

Katas are the compendiums of the waza of the ryuha. It is important however not to loose sight of the fact that kata while a means to mastery of the ryuha's essence are not the essence itself. They are still a physical drill and a teaching tool. The ultimate purpose of our martial arts training is to "apply without thinking", and to do so one must be able to move beyond the structured, codified technical applications of the kata to express the essential principles of the art in their own unique fashion.

The key to being able to dissect the kata and extract its essence is through the study of bunkai (application). Typically, each ryuha provides its students with a BASE LEVEL OF KATA BUNKAI for each kata found with in ryu. This base level bunkai provides a visual reference to the how's and why's of correct technical execution. It goes without saying however, that kata bunkai does not stop at this level. To truly unlock the secrets of the kata one must look for and study the multiple levels of bunkai present in the katas. It is only through intense and comprehensive study of kata bunkai that the student will be able to transcend the kata and apply the principles of the ryuha in any and all situations.

Without the adequate emphasis being placed on kata bunkai, some traditional bugei arts have found themselves passing down only the outward forms without fully comprehending the principles behind them. This danger have been particularly acute for those ryuha in which the headship was restricted to a single family, as it was difficult to guarantee that each generation would produce a son equal to his ancestors in talent and diligence. As a result, most of the bugei ryuha tended to be non-hereditary in headship succession.

Another important aspect to understand is that it is not the kata that make the martial artist, but rather the students use and understanding of the kata that makes the martial artists. As long as the ryuha kata are compatible with the basic principles of body movement, they can provide the student with a path to the top of the mountain. The importance of kata is emphasized as all of the traditional ryuha that survive today utilize kata as their central form of training. None have abandoned is or subordinated it to other teaching mechanisms. Even after the period of the eclectic movement in martial arts in the 1970's we see those eclectic groups that survived turning to the use of structured drills (i.e.: kata) to aid in the teaching of their programs.

Kata then are a key component of traditional martial arts. They are the encyclopedias of motion, the compendiums of the essential principles of the various schools. Pattern practice is the core of transmission in the traditional ryuha, the fundamental means of teaching and learning that body of knowledge that constitutes the school. Mastery of a ryuha's secrets is a supra-rational process wherein one is first molded by, then freed from, and finally freed by the framework of the ryuha's katas.

* * * *
NOTE: Mrs. H. invites your comments on our feature article or other IKKF related topics. You can send them via Email. The idea is to establish a "IKKF Discussion Group" via Email. In future updates to the Web Page we intent to set up a Discussion Group Bulletin Board.

Back To Previous Articles Archives

Back To News, Events & Links Page

Back To Main Home Page