I practiced Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu in Maryland for about eight years before deciding to focus on Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu for my Japanese sword practice. My sponsor into the group continued to practice the art and is now one of its teachers, and is exploring the benefits of Taijiquan on the practice of Shinto-ryu. I now in live in a Katori nexus of sorts, with the U.S. hombu dojo of the main line of the art not far away from where I live, but I have decided to stick with Jikishinkage-ryu kenjutsu, even though training logistically is difficult. I have had to adapt to my new environment, with a priority on solo practice and sparring, instead of being in a teaching or learning role. I find myself in this position because as I learned more about different kinds of Shinkage-ryu, I wound up questioning both the training methodology and strategy of Katori as I understood it. I stopped training at Capital Katori primarily because I found the two approaches divergent, and felt Jikishinkage ryu to ultimately be better suited for me, and partially because I got to the point where I couldn't easily "turn off" the Jiki influence on my movement and attitude when I was doing Katori. So, with limited time, I wanted to focus on the art better suited to both my body and my personality. My former colleague's exploration of using the lens of Taijiquan to understand Shinto-ryu could very well be a necessary step towards his own mastery, and I want to examine some alignment and divergence of our paths.
Shinto-ryu spear has been held in high regard in Japan, and used to be quite restricted in not generally being demonstrated publicly. Despite this, once I learned those kata, it seemed to me that Shinto-ryu spear as practiced today is a basic practice that is a very much a foil for the sword. It is probably placed so advanced in the curriculum of the school not because the spear is profound in of itself but because the swordsman must be extremely adept to fight against the spear. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the gokui or essential spear kata area a later set, focused on spear against spear. It is almost impossible for a swordsman to defeat someone armed with a spear -- the spear is the king of all weapons -- so it makes sense that such kata would be a capstone demonstration of a swordsman's skill. This aligns with statements by Otake Risuke that Katori Shinto-ryu is focused on the use of the sword.
I now focus my practice on Taiji spear as taught in Yin Cheng Gong Fa. In Taiji spear, there is a lot of mileage that can be had out of the basic practices, but they are very different from Japanese spear. I personally think that Chinese spear as practiced in Taijiquan is more sophisticated than Shinto-ryu spear and leads to a more profound body development. The body mechanics in Shinto-ryu involves having the spear tucked tightly under the arm winds up being reliable for keeping one's grip and throwing one's body weight into a thrust, but is quite simple compared to Taiji, relying on springing and leverage instead of winding and grounding and coordination for power. I am leaving out a discussion of the kneeling and jumping of Shinto-ryu, which is impressive to watch but ultimately external. To be fair, Shinto-ryu spear is probably a good model of military spear practiced by the bushi class in Japan, quick to learn and effective for survival. It would be very interesting to see the higher level spear kata associated to the art, if any of the current schools preserve them.
Katori can be very exciting to watch. The speed. The agility. Sights to behold. Jiki, in contrast, is strange to look at and listen to and probably does not appeal to many people. It is also quite austere -- there are fewer waza than in other arts, so you really need to break the kata and explore them to figure out what to do with the art. But, at the same time, it changes you. For tactics, it helps at times to look at Yagyu and understand what they are trying to do and then look back at Jiki through that lens a bit from time to time, as in the latter sometimes things are more explicit (there are explanatory kata in the art, unlike Jiki) but Jiki stands on its own.
Because it is more constrained in what it is doing, and focused on stability and sudden power, I found the Xingyi and Taiji I was learning in Yin Cheng Gong Fa very helpful in my practice of Jiki. But that help was about how I held my posture and walked, as opposed to changing anything in the angles or tactics or timing of the art. Our line of Jiki Shinkage-ryu had already made some small changes to the walking and postures based on several people's practice of Taijiquan. The late Kato-sensei also practiced Taijiquan and thought it was important to practice Taijiquan if you did Jiki in order to balance out the art. Some of the postures we practice are done with with hips facing forward and forward weighted as in Taijiquan instead of open to the side. So, the art has changed slightly, even in the last forty years. Aside from those small changes, I believe that Jikishinkage-ryu contains a form of hard internal neigong, possibly not as explicit as in Bagua/Xingyi/Taiji but ultimately compatible with six harmonies (liu he) and other concepts from internal martial arts. So, for example, when I cut men in Jiki, it is very similar for me to the piquan I practice. I also think the Jiki can be a stand in for the kind of basic stance and posture training people assume already exists in students when they walk in the door to learn internal martial arts. For certain, doing Xingyi and Taiji has improved my Jiki. Possibly doing Jiki has helped my power generation in Xingyi in turn.
Gogyo: Five What Exactly?
I would posit (and maybe some would agree) that the art Katori Shinto-ryu for most people is largely contained by the kata as practiced today. Is something missing? Take as an example, the gogyo no tachi, and consider the meaning of the names of the kata and the postures. The name as written means "five teachings" and there are indeed, five kata, but when heard, is it a homophone for "five elements" from Taoism? If so, there is a puzzle, as uchidachi (senior) and shidachi (junior) have the same stance in each of the kata to begin, so it seems to violate on the surface (omote) level the basic idea of yin and yang. Is that a mistake, a misinterpretation, or a riddle to be solved? I believe the latter.
On the surface, because the gogyo no tachi start out of balance like that, overly symmetric, it provokes a sudden attack. Maybe uchidachi is supposed to capture that moment of kuzushi, where nothing is possible and all things are possible, and interrupt the opponent. That might be sen sen no sen. Shidachi has to recover, suddenly, and engage. That might be sen no sen. Maybe you then need to go back and play with different timing, as idealized by the shichijo no tachi (i.e., go no sen, sen no sen, sen sen no sen) -- seven teachings, taught in three kata. Cryptic indeed.
Jiki is very different from Shinto-ryu but is not lacking in hidden meaning. That being said, in Jiki's foundational kata, directly modeled after five element theory in Taoism, the kata start with kamae that are balanced in terms of yin and yang. There is a very direct relationship between each of the five major kamae (postures) and an element, and how to chose a kamae based on what an opponent presents. However, maybe that is too literal for Shinto-ryu. Gogyo no tachi are not foundational kata, but an advanced set focusing on unarmored dueling that is also supposed to inform the first set of kata, adding a layer of meaning to them.
Maybe it is the case that the gogyo no tachi each symbolize a different element (metal, water, wood, fire, earth), but in a more subtle way. Their names do not help decode this (mitsu, yotsu, in, sha, hotsu) very easily. Instead of five element (wuxing) theory, consider for a moment that the gogyo no tachi might be driven by the idea of Fudo Myo-o and the Four Heavenly Kings or Shitteno (四天王), who are sometimes arranged in mandala at the cardinal directions with Fudo Myo-o at the center. Katori is heavily influenced by Shingon, a tantric form of Buddhism that includes some Taoist ideas. Dave Hall has written an excellent book on their specific veneration of The Buddhist Goddess Marishiten. The last kata of the gogyo no tachi begins in a posture (kamae) with the sword held in front of the body, vertically, much as Fudo does in common depictions. Realization or distraction?
Maybe without the Shingon ideas, Shinto-ryu does not make sense. Maybe that is why people who become advanced often abandon, struggle with, or change the art. As I mentioned, one of my former mentors infuses his Katori with elements of Taijiquan, as best he is able, and finds the experience rewarding. Maybe he is on the right track, but maybe his answer is not unique. What would my Katori look like, were I still to practice it in earnest? Would I be able to do any better? I think if Katori is missing a key to decode it, then it is quite natural to either push one's natural skill as much as one can (maybe it all is ultimately just about speed, as disappointing as that conclusion might be), or fill in the container or vessel of the art with other teachings, because there is something wrong with the art without the inner layer of meaning. Why could that be the case? Maybe there is a protection mechanism built into the structure of the art. Maybe there are kuden (oral teachings) beyond the gokui (secrets) of the art, revealed only to a few. Or maybe there are kata called gokui X or gokui Y, but the true gokui are actually radically different from what one expects. Consider the number of people (hundreds? thousands?) practicing the art today, most at a distance, with infrequent access to teachers and a language barrier besides. How does one wrestle with the kabbalah of the art under those circumstances?
For those whose focus is Shinto-ryu, I think independent research is very important to delve deeper into the art, beyond the surface level of the kata. Ellis Amdur's research on Shinto-ryu is illuminating -- highlighting several extent groups that diverged from the others only one or two generations back, which may have preserved more (or different aspects of) the art. I think advanced practitioners are not wrong to fill in Shinto-ryu with their own perspective, now that they are teachers. Maybe I also was right to largely abandon it, because I was not sure I could fix it, based on what I felt in the experience of practicing the art. To answer the question I raised above about my own training, I still practice the kata of Shinto-ryu sometimes, but do them with much more of a Shinkage-ryu feel to them. After all, even if I know kata from several arts, in a single moment, I can only cut a single way, and need to do so without hesitation. Mixing and matching arts and frames of mind won't work under duress. For me. I know some shape shifters for whom this is possible, but they are unique individuals who have much more experience than I.
Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu is one of the most respected Japanese koryu. It might be shocking to read a critical analysis like this one, which may conclude there are problems with the art. In this essay, I have stayed away from some of the common criticisms of Shinto-ryu. Some include: the long kata provide endurance but can limit zanshin and kime in many practitioners; because ma-ai is increased for safety or to hide techniques practitioners can have difficulty adapting to actually apply technique; the kata are practiced at a speed that is impractical for use with a real sword and cause the roles of uchidachi and shidachi to blend, making it difficult for students to understand what are the tactics of the art and what are the teaching actions that allow the person to practice. Leaving those problems aside, which I found my practice of Jikishinkage-ryu addressed (even if it led me to be unsatisfied by actually going back to the far, fast, light practice of Katori Shinto-ryu), I still wonder what Shinto-ryu actually was, once upon a time. I do not think it is as unchanged as the holders and maintainers of the art would like us to imagine. We seem to be able to answer the question, in different ways, of what Shinto-ryu could be. Maybe that will have to be enough. It helped for me to learn Empi no Tachi from Shinkage-ryu, as that is a capstone kata Kamiizumi Ise no Kami developed to summarize the essence of Shinto-ryu for his students. Practicing that set of kata gave me another lens to evaluate the art, albeit a lens likely clouded by the passage of time, both lines of practice having diverged over hundreds of years. I for one am grateful for having learned a portion of the art, even at a surface level, and glad that people have not given up the struggle of understanding and mastering the art.
Maybe it is good to have some mysteries in life. Maybe they should only be revealed to the dedicated few. Maybe we shouldn't pretend if we have thousands of other people in our cohort, that we are part of a small coterie and will have those mysteries made clear with only a small amount of dedication. Autumn musings as the air turns blessedly cool. I don't pretend to have answers to these questions, and I doubt many practitioners of the art would be interested in discussing such topics with an outsider. But it is interesting for me to ask these questions, having walked at least part of their path.