11. !!! VIVA EL MENKYO !!!

Paul Schwartz from UCSD asked the following question:

“Could you discuss the origins of the menkyo system, it’s original intentions, design and meaning, and how it has been adapted by us for “modern day society?”

I am happy to answer this question and the anger expressed at the end of this discussion is not aimed at Paul at all. It is a feeling I have of frustration of the misunderstanding of the value of martial arts in America. For those of you who do not understand my frustration, I apologize in advance, but the frustration is a real frustration to me.

First of all, what is the menkyo system? Menkyo means license in Japanese. A license is the privilege to practice a profession or avocation while upholding the responsibilities of that profession or avocation. I have a license to practice medicine in the State of California. This is a privilege afforded me by the State and carries with it the responsibilities to uphold the standards of the profession while I exercise my privilege. I also have a license to operate an amateur radio in the United States. This is a privilege which I gained by a series of examinations and which I may use an amateur radio on the bands which are allotted me. I have the responsibility to remain on those correct bands and to follow the laws regarding proper radio operation. In Japanese these licenses would be considered menkyo.

Now, what is the history of the martial arts menkyo? Back in the early years of the martial arts in Japan, say back in 750AD, certain individuals who had proven themselves in battle gained the right to teach martial arts to bands of men who wished to be soldiers in the war against the Ainu, an indigenous race of people who inhabited Japan before the Japanese arrived. The teachers became known as sensei.

In 782AD the emperor Kammu built the Butokuden in Kyoto as a permanent structure for the training of the military. The emperor wanted a better trained military to win the war against the Ainu. The Ainu wars had gone on for hundreds of years and no decisive victory had been won. It was time for a concerted effort by well trained and properly equipped units of men. It began in the new capital of Kyoto and it was called the Butokuden. For more than 900 years the Butokuden remained the main military training dojo of the Japanese. Many generations of martial arts sensei passed thru the Butokuden, all being given a wooden license to teach their arts and techniques at the institution.

In 792AD the samurai class was established in the Butokuden. These were the warriors (bushi) who were to dominate the history of Japan for more than a thousand years. What each received was a license (which eventually became by birthright) to carry spears, swords and hold office in the military. Often these bushi, especially the sons of high ranking officers in the military, were given the right to teach the art and techniques of military training; hence they became the next generation of menkyo sensei.

Japan history involves long periods of nearly constant internecine wars. By the late 1500s power began to consolidate in different ways than for hundreds of years before. By 1603 Japan was being consolidated into a real nation, with an “emperor” who was powerless and a real government which was headed by a shogun from the Tokugawa family. Thus ended the internecine wars. A forced peace prevailed. But with this forced peace came a degeneration in the quality of martial arts teaching and practice. Obvious abuse of the military on the private sector became commonplace. The country was at “peace” but the peasants and working classes had little freedom from the ever-present military police. Theirs was a life of fear.

Miyamoto Musashi was one unlucky samurai. When the Tokugawa regime took power Musashi was about 20 years old. He fought against the Tokugawa in the battle of Sekigahara. He was not on the right side of the war for the Tokugawa won and killed nearly 70,000 warriors. Musashi escaped and became a wandering samurai (ronin) as many of the other samurai across the new found nation.

The ronin had no means of income. If they were not retained by the shogun then they had no food (retainers were paid in koku of rice rather than in money in those days). Many samurai gave up the military profession and entered trade occupations. This practice was allowed for the first few generations of the Tokugawa and then the classes became much more rigid and a person could not be anything different than what his father had been. Those samurai who did not give up the military profession and who were not retained struggled to survive. Many of them did personal battle with each other in order to gain reputation as masters of martial arts and establish schools of martial arts where they could earn a living. Musashi had 78 battles to the death, and he won each of them but he did not attempt to establish a popular school.

Musashi remained a true advocate of the military virtue. He never worked but survived from hand-to-mouth. He studied strategy in swordsmanship and would occasionally teach swordsmanship to a person as he lived with them. He was unkempt and would not enter a bath for fear of being apart from his weapons.

The last two years of his life he lived in a mountain cave rather than live in the luxury of the home of lord Hosokawa where he could have been comfortable. Just a few weeks before he died in 1645 he wrote a book called the “Go Rin no Sho” (book of five rings).

This book is a book of strategy, both personal strategy for battle and communal strategy for living. It is not a simple text. As one studies the text one becomes aware of some lessons. As those lessons are learned new lessons appear, hidden in the same words. It is a crowning achievement of a master strategist. Unfortunately, it is written in old Japanese. We who do not read old Japanese are confined to translations, and translations are confined to the understanding of the translators. No translated words are perfect reflections of the Miyamoto’s total meaning. So we must read various translations and learn the lessons by careful attention, deliberate questioning, and deep sincerity.

Among the levels of this book are hidden the roots of the strategy of teaching a martial art to those who would desire to progress beyond the simple “how to” of handling a weapon. The first book is called the “Book of the Ground.” It deals with the fundamental strategy of wielding a weapon where in the strategy is solid and well-found. There is little of the strategy other than the imitation, practice, rituals of fighting. This is the book for gyo (training).

The second book is the “Book of the Water.” This book entails far greater spiritual endeavor in fighting strategy. It is named after water for in water there is less security than on the ground. The fundamental strategy is forsaken for the more advanced strategies of internal confidence. This is the book for shugyo (severe training).

The third book is the “Book of the Fire.” It is a book wherein the student enmeshes himself in the heat of the battle. The strategy is in the depth of involvement with the adversary, so much so that the fire may consume both. This is the book for sensei (teachers).

The fourth book is the “Book of the Wind.” In this book Musashi warns that it is necessary to strip away the useless and focus on the useful. There is not difference between the outward cut and the inward feeling. A strategist cannot cut with an inward feeling nor a sword cut without a directed inward feeling. Strip from the useful all that is useless. The wind carries away the chaff leaving only the grain. This is the book for sozosha (artists).

The fifth book is the “Book of the Void.” It is the shortest book in words and the longest book in depth. It is where the martial artist sees what is difficult to see. Musashi encourages us by saying if a martial artist can learn what exists, he can know what does not exist; this avoids a lot of confusion. The strategy then is to be clear about the real and void. This is the book for shihan (completed artists; masters).

Armed with the book of strategy centuries of martial artists have studied, experienced, taught, trimmed unuseful movements and become great martial artists. They have followed the advice of Miyamoto Musashi as written in his book.

In addition, the book has reinforced the concepts of the menkyo. The beginning trainee is the gyo, founded on “how to” principles of martial training. Later, when the gyo seeks more of his/her training than just “how to” but wants to understand the principles of deeper strategy he/she applies to his/her sensei for more. This is the process which leads to shugyo (severe training), bushi, samurai. It was founded in 782AD in the Butokuden and has lived a long and useful life. Musashi did not create it, he described in in 1645.

When a person has trained as a bushi for years he may be selected to teach the art he has learned much the same as it was done in the early years of the Butokuden. He then begins the journey of being consumed in the fire, a lesson taught by Musashi. The fire is teaching. The new teacher launches himself/herself into the midst of teaching with a desire to change the world of martial arts. Soon he/she discovers that little changes. He/she has little power to change anything. As a matter of fact the more he/she tries to change or control things the farther they get out of hand. The way of the fire is strategy not force. This is the strategy of the sensei.

After learning the lessons of strategy in regular training, severe training and teaching the martial artist may be given the license to trim and construct new methodologies. This is the wind. It is nebulous, elusive, dangerous (the Japanese believe that danger always comes from the direction of the wind). The creative phase depends on years of experience in in-depth study of strategy. It is not a flippant construction of wild-movements, but a refined trimming of excess and creation of meaning. This license is the menkyo-sozosha (licensed artist).

Finally, after more years than we may care to reflect upon, the master may certify the student as a bonefide completed student (shihan). In many ways the student is not a master, for the one master cannot verify a master at all. The master may only certify completion of the system. It is up to the student to make the final step undesiring and perhaps unconsciously into the state of mastership of the art. The master has awarded the menkyo of completion (shihan); the student must know the rhyme, rhythm and counterpoint of the “Book of the Void” to become a master according to Musashi.

Now, not all schools follow the menkyo system. As a matter of fact, very few schools follow this system. In 33 years of martial arts training I have run across two instructors who were willing to discuss the menkyo with me (Sensei Al Kahalekulu and Hanshi Richard Kim). On a couple of occasions an instructor has admitted that he has heard of the system (Hanshi Nakabara). Other than these few menkyo trained individuals few serious students appear to know or be willing to discuss the menkyo. Scatterings of incidental references appear in English books written on Japanese martial arts, and the word occasionally appears in translations of Japanese texts.

So what has happened to the menkyo of the old Japanese feudal system? We still see it in the awarding of a wooden plaque to the person who reaches the menkyo sensei, but what has happened to the rest of it?

The emphasis in recent times and outside of Okinawa-Japan has been for the development of mega-trend organizations and tournament winning. The trend is towards the Olympics where the art will become standardized and competition will determine the value of schools. This emphasis is far from the teachings and lifestyle of Miyamoto Musashi. This emphasis is far from artistic expression. This emphasis is a gyo-oriented ritualistic performance of oneness of style. The art will not and cannot develop as an art because it is locked-into the standard of the Olympics where kata are defined by name and style and performance is directed towards what the judges are trained to “see.” Unless the judges are all so absolutely proficient as to live the life of the “Book of the Void” they will only and can only see what is external. The life-blood of the menkyo system and of the art in martial art will disappear forever under the guise of Olympic champions. The winners will be the best at handing over a performance which is gyo-oriented and meets the expectations of the judges.

Consider taking an art like oil painting and putting it in the Olympics only demanding that every artist in the Olympics paint only the “Mona Lisa,” or “The Last Supper.” At the end of the competition we may have decided which artist has the best external technical skill of copying a previous artwork but we by no means will have determined the best artist. There is more to art than technique, and there is more to martial arts than technique also.

So, Paul, when you ask, “how it [menkyo system] has been adapted by us for “modern day society?” I am dumbfounded. If you mean “us” collectively in martial arts across the United States I must say we have not adapted it at all. If you mean “us” specifically at Aoinagi Karate, well, that is a different matter, one very dear to my heart.

I will live and die a menkyo-trained martial artist. I will offer to those the license to learn, teach, create as they seek. If no one else recognizes it I will do it anyway. If the Olympics determine the standard of karate, I will train Olympic champions and still keep the menkyo alive and well. There will be at least two karates then, the Olympic style and the Aoinagi “style” taught at Aoinagi Karate. I will not allow a death to the art I have devoted more than half my life to just to conform to a standard which others deem “the only way.”