Shitsuden and Shinden

The term shitsuden 失伝 means disruption; interruption; non-continuation; to fall into desuetude; the loss of a tradition, a practice, a custom, etc. It can mean the loss of a full tradition, such as a complete school or style (ryūha), or only a part of it (such as a kata), or only a fragment of it (such as a technique of a kata, or its application). That is, shitsuden can take place in several dimensions, from the micro level to the macro level.

Let’s look at some leads in regards to lost tradition of Okinawan martial arts.

First of all, during the Ryūkyū Kingdom era, all sorts of martial arts existed, but most of them where not handed down to early-modern Okinawa. Instead, the practices of “karate” and “kobudō” appeared.

In karate and kobudō, different groups sometimes use different terms for the same techniques. It is important to remember that almost all systematic terminologies of Okinawa kobudō were created only in the postwar era, mostly between the 1970s and 1980s, and based on and emulating terms used in the Japanese budō and mainland karate. The important point is that these terms differ according to schools, that is, according to a personal tradition of the persons involved.

Taking one technique of Shirotaru no Kon as an example, one school might call it “hane-age” for jumping up the to the opponent’s family jewels (kinteki). Another school might call this “sunakake,” or flipping sand etc.

So, for one, from terminology we can see that the understanding of the same movement developed differently in different schools, simply because someone understood the kata techniques differently, and they assigned corresponding names to the techniques.

Taira Shinken taught a handful of basic applications here and there, but he didn’t teach comprehensive applications for the kata, nor combat principles. Therefore, it is obvious that he didn’t know the applications for all kata and weapons, because he gave shihan licenses to his students, which means that he authorized them to teach, so he would have taught them the applications, or not? This refers to the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. This in turn means that Taira didn’t learn kata applications from Yabiku Moden in the 1920s and early 1930s. Since Yabiku gave Taira a teaching license, meaning that he taught everything to Taira, Yabiku also did not know and teach the applications of the kata and the weapons. Therefore, when Yabiku learned around 1900 or so, kobudō was probably already a kata-based practice, and not a combat practice. As a further example, there was no kumibō in Yamane-ryū in the 1920s or afterwards.

Therefore, obviously bōjutsu was a kata-based practice at least between 1900 and the 1960s.

Therefore, while the outer form (kata) survived, the applications or intent got lost long ago. Usually, it is said that first there was the applied techniques and combat experiences, which were then made into kata. However, when was that? Assuming that actual combat arts were trained during the Ryūkyū Kingdom era, it probably ended in the 1870s, and by around 1900, it was probably largely a lost tradition. At that point, karate and kobudō by and large might have already been empty outer forms (kata) without much of a content.

The above shows a loss of tradition (shitsuden). Specifically, here it refers to the loss of the original intent of the movements of the kata.

I have provided the two examples of Taira Shinken and Yamani-ryū. I want to emphasize here that in accordance with most data, Okinawa kobudō persons successively created new applications in the postwar era. This process continues to this day. These creations or “invention of martial arts” come from their own understanding, as well as from outside pressure.

For instance, Taira did not teach or know much of kobudō application, but his students Inoue Motokatsu developed a comprehensive system of applications for all weapons structured from the basic techniques to partner techniques of all kata and all weapons up to consecutive kumibō. This was during the 50s and 60s and presented in his 3-volume book 1972-1974. At that time, application was almost unheard of in Okinawa. I am afraid that interest in application in Taira lineage came only after Inoue had created several levels of all sorts of applications for all weapons. At that time, Okinawan practitioners only had a handful of applications I am afraid, but nothing even close to an methodical approach. As regards other traditions, surely there were those who provided competition format, such as in Isshin-ryū, or Okinawa kenpō, but these should be considered separately for various reasons.

In short, in Okinawa, by and large kobudō was a kata-based practice since at least from 1900 to 1960s. Actually, in a dōjō directory by Okinawa prefecture from the 2000s, most of the 400+ dōjō stated the main content of their practice as “kata training.”

In other words: the applications of Okinawa kobudō techniques were already lost traditions, while the form (kata) remained. Then, following and emulating top-level Japanese budōka such as Inoue and others, Okinawans began to create applications for the moves in the kata. They began to develop terminologies, which in turn defined that “applications” according to their own understanding. Following half a century of shitsuden, this reinvention might be termed shinden, or “new tradition.” Things get lost, other things are newly invented. When following along the progress over the eras, this is the reason why karate kobudō seems to transform and cumulate its content all the time.

It is not always the case that a tradition is fully lost, but sometimes only parts are lost, such as some or all applications. Sometimes movements are lost or change over time. And when new applications are created, it might be called shinden 新伝, or new tradition, which I just use here as a working hypothesis. Since the 1950s, countless new traditions (shinden) were created and grafted onto the existing stem of kobudō over the past 70 or so years. The problem with these countless new traditions (shinden) is that most of the time they are neither marked as such, nor are the dates of changes recorded anywhere. Quite on the contrary, most new creations are tacitly placed under the roof of “ancient martial arts.” Oftentimes ancient tales are added to purport an ancient, regional origin.  

Again, these terminologies and applications and assumed intents are largely developments of the 2nd half of the 20th century. They are not ancient techniques, but modern interpretations of what was already kata-based practice after the 1870s.

From the above derives the possibility that Okinawans didn’t knew any original intent (application) worth mentioning, and that much of it was simply created in the postwar era. The creation of applications from air-moves (kata techniques) has become a major pastime among traditional practitioners. The application corpus of karate created in this way is enormous and is growing daily. It should be noted that this is an international movement, and it cannot be called Japanese, or Okinawan at all.

Except for the kata.

© 2022, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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