by Meik Skoss
Editor’s Note: this article was written before the name of the ryu was changed in 2022.
My last few columns have strayed somewhat from a discussion of specific kobujutsu (classical martial arts) and their ryugi (traditions), so in this issue I’d like to return to my main focus. My topic this issue, then, is a martial system which I have studied ever since I began training in the kobudo, nearly twenty years ago. Although I hadn’t originally intended to study the Toda-ha Buko-ryu, several fortuitous circumstances put me in the right place at the right time and events have proceeded on their own course since then (I’ve been lucky!).
Toda-ha Buko-ryu is derived from another tradition, the Toda-ryu, which was founded by a man named Toda Seigen, during the Sengoku Jidai (Age of Warring States, a period of intense military and political conflict which lasted from about 1490 to 1600). Toda Seigen was a famous disciple of the Chujo-ryu and was noted for his short sword technique. Toda-ryu was originally a sogo bujutsu ryu, or comprehensive martial arts system, and its training curriculum thus included a variety of classical weapons and methods of warfare, a common practice of martial traditions of this period. Over the years, however, a number of schools split off from the parent tradition. They “took” various components of the Toda-ryu with them (such as Kiraku-ryu) and, today, Toda-ha Buko-ryu is essentially a school that concentrates on the use of the naginata, although it also contains a number of other weapons in its repertory.
Seigen relinquished his position as headmaster of the family art when he lost his sight due to an eye disease, and turned everything over to his younger brother, Kagemasa, a retainer of the Maeda family of Kaga (present-day Ishikawa Prefecture). During the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Toda-ryu came to be taught in the Kanto region and the second head of what is now the Buko-ryu lineage is listed as Hojo Ujikuni, the head of Hachigata Castle (located in present-day Saitama Prefecture). His wife, Daifuku Gozen, succeeded him and was the first woman to head the ryu. She was exceptionally able with the naginata and is said to have fought at the head of a group of women retainers against the Toyotomi Forces at the battle of Odawara Castle, dying by her own hand upon being defeated.
The ryu then passed to the Suneya family and continued in this line for some eleven generations. One of the most famous of them, the thirteenth head of the Toda-ryu, was a man named Suneya Ryosuke Takeyuki, who lived from 1795-1875. He was noted for his skill in Kogen Itto-ryu kenjutsu(swordsmanship) and served as instructor in martial arts to the Mizuno family in Shingu in present-day Wakayama Prefecture. Upon retiring to the foot of Mt. Buko in Saitama Prefecture, he took the name of Bukosai and renamed the tradition Toda-ha Buko-ryu. There is no firm documentary evidence of the reason for this change or when it occurred, but it is generally thought that this was due to the fact that he felt the ryu had changed so much (in both character and content) that a new name was more appropriate. His wife, Satoko, was the next head of the school. Since that time all the headmasters of the school have been women. It has been customary in the ryu since the time of Suneya Satoko to write female headmasters’ names with one of two characters for “o”, which are normally reserved for use in men’s names, along with the word onna (woman) in order to indicate that this has been done. Thus, Satoko is written as Satoo, and my teacher, Suzuyo Nitta, is listed as Suzuo, in official records and certificates.
There are three licenses granted for technical proficiency in Buko-ryu: shoden (basic teachings), chuden(intermediate teachings), and okuden (advanced, “inner” teachings). These are typically kirigami menkyo (a license written on folded Japanese paper) and bear the authenticating seal and name of the ryu, the name of the person to whom the license has been given, one of various set phrases conferring the license, the date of issuance (it is not always the actual date on which it is presented), and the name and seal of the teacher (usually the headmaster of the ryu) granting the license. After okuden, there are also the mokuroku, awarded in the form of a makimono (scroll) and a further license called betsu mokuroku (lit., separate list/catalogue); this is also given as a short scroll. Finally, there are several instructor’s licenses that are given to people who have been formally recognized and possess full authority to teach Toda-ha Buko-ryu: shihan-dai (designated or assistant instructor) and shihan (authorized or senior instructor). These last are in the form of kirigami.
In its literal meaning, “mokuroku” means a list or catalogue of items. In the case of a classical martial arts license, it is a list of the techniques and technical and esoteric matters that are specific to the ryu. Equally important is the keizu, the lineage. This starts with the founder of the ryu, or its tutelary deity, and is followed by a list of all the iemoto (headmasters), culminating with the current head. In certain cases, a teacher’s name may be included in the lineage, even though he or she was never the headmaster. There seems to be some variation in Buko-ryu as to when a license in the form of a scroll is awarded. Presently, the custom is for mokuroku to be given after the kirigami okuden and the scroll is regarded as sort of an extra fillip, rather like putting a cap on the license.
Training in Buko-ryu is conducted solely through the formal training exercises and pre-arranged drills called kata. They are designed to prepare men dressed in gusoku (heavy armor of the sort worn by warriors who fought on foot during the latter part of the Sengoku Jidai) for battlefield combat and using or facing a variety of weapons. All of the kata are comprised of a series of movements performed at high speed. This develops the trainee’s strength, endurance and agility, as well as the ability to exploit physical or psychological weaknesses in the enemy’s defense. In addition, some techniques teach trainees how to fight under special conditions, e.g., against a mounted opponent when one is afoot, or while aboard a ship, indoors or in close, confined quarters. Buko-ryu kata thus help trainees study and practice the roles and techniques of both attack and defense in a vigorous and controlled learning situation with little fear of injury.
Although each koryu has its own particular way of arranging its curriculum, the commonly followed principle of training is the same as in any comprehensive system of physical education, from simple to complex. The principles, particulars and variables of distancing, timing and balance, the correct use of strength, leverage and breath control, and the different characteristics of each weapon are taught in a systematic manner. Advanced techniques may not look as flashy as those that are more basic, but there are many other elements of technique more important than mere complexity or speed of physical movements. Indeed, since classical martial arts were never meant to serve as a means of entertainment, the most sophisticated, difficult kata may often appear very simple to unknowledgeable viewers.
The training weapons used in Buko-ryu are made of white oak (J., shirogashi) or loquat (J., biwa). These are both much more durable and much less expensive than ones made of metal, and, of course, training with them prevents injuries from the live blade. Since it was meant for use on the battlefield, the weapons used in Buko-ryu training are rather larger and heavier than those of some other naginata schools that developed somewhat later in history and Toda-ha Buko-ryu techniques have a somewhat heavier feeling than, say, those of the Tendo-ryu or Jishinkage-ryu.
There are fifty-one techniques in the ryu: thirty-six in the hon mokuroku (original curriculum) and fifteen in the betsu mokuroku (separate curriculum). The hon mokuroku waza concentrate on the su naginata(glaive or halberd), pitting it against a variety of weapons: naginata; tachi (sword); yari (spear); and kusarigama (chain-and-sickle). There is also an uncommon weapon, the kagitsuki naginata (glaive mounted with a crossbar at the juncture of haft and blade). This is studied at the most advanced levels and is used against the tachi and yari.
Betsu mokuroku techniques, however, do not focus solely on the naginata. They teach the trainee how to fight a swordsman while using the rokushaku bo (six-foot staff; actually, it is meant to represent a naginata which has a broken blade, close to its juncture with the haft); kusarigama, and nagamaki (a heavy glaive resembling a naginata but with slightly different proportions of blade and haft). This concentration on the swordsman as the opponent reflects the fact that the enemies one would have faced when Buko-ryu was founded would usually have been armed with a sword, the most powerful and versatile weapon the warrior possessed.
The most characteristic kamae in Buko-ryu naginata technique is the takagasumi (high mist/haze) stance. The weapon is held over the head, the blade’s cutting edge facing upward and the point directly threatening the opponent’s eyes. Many kinds of actions are possible from this position, including downward or diagonal cutting, reaping, sweeping, and parrying. One of the most common tactics is a distraction measure, kasumi (mist or haze, hence the name of the stance). The blade is rapidly moved up and down through a half circle range of motion. This can be used to test the resolve and technical ability of one’s opponent, upset his concentration, sweep aside his weapon, or directly attack his head and neck.
Other kamae for the naginata are: hasso (the weapon is held so the blade faces upward and backward at a roughly 45-degree angle, cutting edge forward); ura hasso (similar to hasso, but the blade tip points downward and the cutting edge is outward; it resembles the wakigamae or sha no kamae of kenjutsu); irimi (the weapon is held in front of the body with the point facing the ground and extended slightly forward toward the opponent, cutting edge facing upward); kowaki (the weapon is held at the right hip, with both point and cutting edge facing forward and slightly downward); and hira (the weapon is held in front of the body, point to the left and approximately parallel to the ground, with the cutting edge facing forward). There are left and right versions of all these stances except kowaki where the long or short sword a warrior in armor would be wearing on the left hip would have gotten in the way.
The kagitsuki naginata, in contrast, makes great use of chudan or seigan no kamae, where the blade is pointed directly at the opponent’s throat or face, cutting edge downward and the haft held at one’s side rather than above the head. This allows a person armed with this weapon greater opportunity to deflect, trap, and fling away the opponent’s weapon in what is known as makisute, a type of binding and deflecting movement that is a common tactic in this system.
The sword in Buko-ryu uses either a hidari jodan no kamae (upper-level stance, left foot forward) or migi chudan/seigan no kamae (middle-level stance, right foot forward). This is a rather low stance, with the point facing more at the throat or the middle of the opponent’s chest than is common in modern kendo. This low position is typical of kaisha kempo (armored swordsmanship). It is a lot more difficult for the naginata to sweep aside the sword, and allows the swordsman to threaten a direct attack. Spear techniques in Buko-ryu use only chudan no kamae, though the spearman will try to attack the head or lower legs of the opponent, as well as the torso. Kusarigama kamae are varied, but most are variations of jodan, since that enables one to use the weighted chain more efficiently as a flail. The jodan stance also provides an excellent means of using the blade to parry, cut, or hack at the opponent.
Training begins with learning the role of shidachi (loosely translated, this means “doer,” the person who performs/”wins”; it is analogous to the role of tori/shite in judo or aikido) in ai naginata (naginata vs. naginata). Later, when trainees are grounded in the basic movements and have developed some skill in handling the weapon accurately, they will be taught the part of ukedachi (this can be translated as “receiver” and is like the role of uke in the unarmed arts). Only after all eleven of the ai naginata waza have been well learned are the five naginata tachi awase kata (naginata vs. sword techniques) introduced. The tachi awase is the first set listed in the densho, but the ai naginata techniques are the first ones to be taught to beginners. This inversion of the traditional order in which the techniques are presented is a fairly recent development that would likely not have been necessary in the past. Then, new trainees would have been members of the bushi class and already possess some knowledge of martial culture and at least a minimal familiarity with weapons.
Each set of techniques is built on the ones preceding, so it is very important that the proper sequence of instruction is maintained. In particular, the naginata yari awase techniques require very precise timing, a high degree of skill in body movement, and a deft manipulation of the naginata if one is to avoid being struck by the spear. It requires a great deal of hard training to develop the discrimination in timing that is necessary to perform these techniques properly, and this is a process that just cannot be hurried.
Another example of how the order of instruction in Buko-ryu builds on previously acquired skills are the kata for naginata against kusarigama. These are unusual in pitting the heavier, longer glaive against the lighter, shorter sickle. Actually, since Buko-ryu techniques display a strong concern for combat on the battlefield, they are quite a departure, because the kusarigama was used more in single combat and as a weapon of opportunity, and would not have been very effective against an opponent in armor. The clue, or reason, for these waza is in the use of the term aiki no koto, which is written alongside the name of the set, naginata kusarigama awase (naginata vs. kusarigama). It alludes to the dual purposes of developing the ukedachi’s timing and kokyu (breath) or seishin ryoku (spiritual power; fighting spirit) and the shidachi’s skill in cutting in a straight trajectory. Both persons also develop the ability to wait and to observe, to really see the movement of their opponent’s weapon, instead of merely walking through an empty, pre-arranged sequence of movements.
Attacks are generally made against what would be the weak points of an enemy’s armor, thus the most common targets are the neck, waist, joints and inner sides of the arms and legs, where the armor is thinnest or weakest. The ishizuki (butt-end finial) is often used to stun or contuse the opponent, or to open up enough space between the armor’s plates to allow the blade to cut. Buko-ryu blocking, receiving, covering and parrying techniques are performed in such a way that defensive movement leads immediately into an offensive maneuver, done so the opponent is unbalanced, unable to defend himself, and is forced to expose his most vulnerable areas to a direct attack.
The interplay or exchange of initiative is a very typical feature of Toda-ha Buko-ryu. Kata are not “real” combat, but the constant changing of sen (combative initiative) is felt to be an accurate reflection of reality on the battlefield. The timing and distancing can also be varied slightly, and there are any number of alternate targets. All of these variations are learned in the kuzushi (analysis/breakdown of the kata, similar to bunkai kumite in karatedo). After kata have been thoroughly learned it is possible to try a number of different variations, to “play” with the form and experiment with different solutions to a particular situation. To avoid accidents or improper practice, though, this should be done by experienced trainees, under close supervision by the teacher.
The ryu thus attempts to prepare its students by developing strong fighting spirit, accurate technique, close attention and acute powers of observation, and the ability to maintain one’s poise or equanimity even in a disadvantageous situation and still be able to capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes. Although there is little practical use for naginata technique, in a strict sense, in these times, surely these qualities remain important for all people and deserve to be cultivated as thoroughly as possible.
Toda-ha Buko-ryu training is conducted in several locations in the U.S., at a private dojo in France, and in Tokyo. Those interested in learning more about where this art is taught can find more information on the Koryu.com Ryu Guide, Tenshin Buko-ryu page.
(Portions of this article are based on a piece that I wrote for the JMAS Newsletter, December 1988.)