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In ancient times, leadership in a Japanese family was signified by possession of a small tablet inscribed with the names of the oldest known ancestors of the family. Called ihai, they’re still commonly found on altars in Japan. An ihai symbolized authority within the family. It kept things straight — like land ownership and family wealth. It was natural that when the first martial ryu evolved in the 14th century, they would follow this model. The ryu was like a family. Members were organized under the authority of a leader who directed all teaching. It was important that his position be unequivocal and immediately recognizable. Instead of using an ihai, the leader kept a scroll or license, and he, in turn, issued others to people to whom he gave the right to teach or represent the ryu. These scrolls, called densho (“written transmission”), were more than just certificates. They represented the authority and continuation of the family or the ryu itself. For Zenki, the scroll was more than a certificate; it symbolized the very essence of the ryu.
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Original densho are still in the hands of most of the headmasters of the classical martial ryu in Japan. Copies of them are still given to members of the ryu to convey authority for teaching. These scrolls have been preserved, often at great cost, during war and natural disasters. Even modern copies given to the current generation of practitioners are treated with care. They’re never publicly displayed. You won’t find them hanging on the wall of a dojo as you might find an instructor’s certificate in a karate or aikido dojo. You might assume that these scrolls include some super-secret information or description of powerful techniques. In most cases, they don’t. Instead, the language is usually vague, poetic and almost impossible to read, even if you’re fluent in historical Japanese. That makes comprehension even more challenging: “Red maples in the autumn wind.” “Know how the stream strikes the rock.” “Like waves on a winter shore.” These are the kind of “instructions” contained in densho. They’re meaningless unless you’re training in the ryu. They’re like shorthand, indicating essential points or strategies. The authors were constantly concerned with keeping the secrets of their ryu. To have them stolen would compromise the whole system. Therefore, nothing in writing was trusted. Instructions were almost never explicit or step by step. Some densho actually have nonsense sentences or made-up characters designed to frustrate readers who weren’t supposed to read them. In contrast to the decidedly esoteric nature of densho, the modern budo have adopted the dan-i system, replacing scrolls with belt ranks and printed certificates. Authorization to teach or represent an art comes from organizations that test skill and issue rank. That’s appropriate. The goals, structure and mentality of today’s budo are very different from those of the martial arts of the feudal era. And while you may wish to have a scroll certifying your skill, one that’s written in mysterious script, you should be thankful you didn’t have to fight a battle to the death to get your shodan certificate.
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