It has become a fashion of sorts in the martial arts to name what one does with a Japanese name, even if one does not have a Japanese martial art background or have any ability to speak Japanese. This use of such terms such as “ryuha” and “Soke” has caused a lot of confusion, even among those that study in a style originating in Japan. The simplest way to think about a ryuha is that it is a franchise and the soke is the copyright holder.
It has become a fashion of sorts in the martial arts to name what one does with a Japanese name, even if one does not have a Japanese martial art background or have any ability to speak Japanese. This use of such terms such as “ryuha” and “Soke” has caused a lot of confusion, even among those that study in a style originating in Japan.
The simplest way to think about a ryuha is that it is a franchise and the soke is the copyright holder.
Many Japanese arts have the term “-ryu” at the end of their name. Some even have “-ha” as part of their name as well. A simple translation of the terms result in “style” and “faction” respectively. This translation works to a certain extent, but can cause confusion. When speaking about Japanese martial arts, the terms are used together in the form of “ryuha” to signify the formal transmission of knowledge from teacher to students in the traditional method.
The idea of calling this system a franchise might offend several of those that use the term for its commercial connotations, even though many of those that have adopted its use have done so for commercial gain. But the reason why it is a good translation is that the idea behind setting up a ryuha system is to preserve the name of the system and its reputation. The ryuha system is concerned with letting others know who is qualified to teach and represent an art. No one else can ethically use the name of the system without the approval of the soke- which can be described as the copyright holder.
In a ryuha, only the soke can decide who is and is not allowed to use the name of the system for their practice. Anyone else that does not wish to follow the guidelines and regulations set out by the soke is free to leave but may not use the name to represent what they do.
The ryuha system actually was not very popular among Japanese martial arts during the times of war. It was adapted from other arts such as the tea ceremony, where it is much more popularly known even today.
In an age when people were engaging in frequent battles, the teachers who had survived the most battles or duels were those that were sought out. Those that had knowledge ran second to those that had experience. So the ryuha system was not as popular at that time. It was only when peace came that people started seeking out those with a link to violence for what they taught. The situation is similar to that of today- people can come up with something new but until it is tested in a real battle that might result in death it is untested. One may try to test what one does under simulations such as competitions, but such competitions are nowhere near as accurate as actual battle. Worse, several simulations that rely on some sort of competition actually have caused bad habits by those that consciously or unconsciously exploited the rules to gain advantage.
So the best thing in situations where there is no one with personal experience with life or death encounters is to try to gain a connection with the lessons passed down from those that did have such experience. And the ryuha system was a means to insure that only those fully qualified to pass along those lessons could use the reputation of the ancients that had gained the experience.
The soke’s role in the ryuha was to keep the essential lessons alive to pass along to the next generation. But “ryu” is also pronounced “nagareru” which means “to flow.” If changes were to be added due to later experiences or changing circumstances then it was the soke’s job, and only the soke’s, to determine what changes would be made. It was his job to make sure the standards were kept and the lessons remained valid. But he also had to insure the reputation of the burden he had been entrusted with remained intact.
It was rare for someone who started a ryuha to rely too much on the soke name. The originator was in control of who could use his name, but his own reputation was such that he did not need any title to distinguish himself from other teachers. It was only with the second generation that it became necessary to distinguish who out of many possible candidates would continue the tradition.
One can contrast this with the situation certain modern martial arts are facing. In some cases, the originator gave out certificates allowing people to teach while using the name. Several of these people added things to what they did and gave out certificates of their own. Even though less than half a century has passed in even some of the longest cases, there is still a great amount of difference between what you can find being taught as doctrine in one school using the name and another.
Many times, the soke was not up to the task. While it may seem obvious that someone would seek out the best person to inherit their title as head of an art, it was rare for a soke to overlook his own son to inherit him. In many cases, this did have the benefit of allowing the current soke to train his replacement from birth. But even today there are sokes that have accepted the title but let their underlings actually do all the hard work and they themselves have less ability than the senior students that trained under the old soke. Aside from the very strong feeling ofloyalty that you find so often in Japanese culture, the soke also keeps his students in line with his control of th e use of the name of the ryuha. Others may have far more knowledge than he, but only by following his orders can their efforts be recognized. It is also very common for their to be certain pieces of knowledge that is only passed onto the soke and no one else
But since there was a need for preserving the name of the tradition, the ryuha system was little used in situations where knowledge was passed down within a family. If something was taught only from father to son, there would be no need for a ryuha system and there would not even be a name for what they did. This was by far the most common way things were taught prior to the age of peace. Miyamoto Musashi — famed writer of the Book of Five Rings — learned martial arts from his father. But there was no name for what he learned. He just learned the knowledge. Later he added to the knowledge with various experiences. With the next generation of knowledge came a need to determine a name of what was being taught as well as the ryuha system.
Knowledge could be passed down for generations by simple father to son transmission. And when the art became such that outsiders were learning it, the previous generations were posthumously known as soke instead of as father.
An example of this would be the Kashima Shinto ryu. The Kashima Shinto ryu claims to be in its 69th generation of soke. And indeed the traditions of the art seem to go back to about the ninth century. But until the 16th century the art was largely passed down from father to son. Then along came Tsukuhara Bokuden — the greatest samurai killer in Japanese history. Taking what he had learned from both his birth father and his adopted father Bokuden went on to kill over 200 people according to some sources and when he died of old age the only scars he had were two arrow wounds. The art he used and taught became something that people sought out and a ryuha system was adopted.
But there seems no evidence that it existed prior to Bokuden. And yet the Kashima Shinto ryu claims that the current soke is the 69th. It certainly looks like the knowledge is that old because there is a detailed family list of people who taught their sons, but not that there were people known as soke teaching it to outsiders prior to Bokuden.
The ninja of Japan also are a good example of this. Today it is common to talk about the Iga ryu or Koga ryu or ninjutsu. But records from the era do not use the term ‘ryu’ when referring to the ninja. Instead we see terms such as “Iga group” or Koga Brigade.” When the age of peace came, so did the use of the term “Iga ryu.” The training records we have show that training in the Iga region was more cooperative with a lot of interaction between families. There was not the sort of secrecy or concern with keeping the knowledge under control when there were no schools for the art set up. When the ninja were soldiers, they merely trained to their best. When their reputation grew, so did the use of the name Iga ryu and such. But in the ninjutsu ryuha, it seems that they were ryuha in name only for the most part. The tradition of father passing along what he knew only to his son and maybe a few students continued. There were no schools of ninjutsu set up that just anyone could go to, so there was little need for the control that the ryuha/soke system gave.
It may surprise many non-Japanese to hear that the majority of Japanese sokes are head of traditions with no relation to martial arts. In any activity where personal experience can’t really be proven and that there is a need to preserve the standards of what is being taught, the ryuha system has been adopted. There are sokes of tea ceremony, traditional dance, singing and even forms of etiquette that have no relation to modern life in any way. But with the sudden modernization of Japan in the later half of the 19th century, the role of the soke greatly changed from one of keeping things current to one who was entrusted to keep things as close to the way they were done in the past as closely as possible. The reasons are not difficult to understand, there really is no need for the most modern techniques of doing the tea ceremony. The very idea of a modern tea ceremony almost boggles the mind. In the same way, new input on how to use a sword is not something we can expect in these times.
The ryuha system and sokes are seen in today’s Japan as the preserver of past traditions and people tend to study them for a link to the past much like some people study Scottish Dance in America.
There are martial arts in Japan that have made the effort to keep current with the way things are done, but they have largely dropped the old titles. A current leader of a self defense art might call his school an institute, issue qualifications for teaching under a membership program and pass along the title of director to a chosen successor. In many ways, the needs that the ryuha system were made to address have been met. But it is strange to see so many non-Japanese with no link or knowledge of Japan use the term “soke” and call what they do with a “-ryu” attached to the end while the Japanese themselves have largely abandoned the terms. Few outside of those with a link to the past seem to use it now, and that disqualifies 99 percent of the non-Japanese using the term today.
(Author retains all copyrights.)