Black Belt columnist Dave Lowry examines the role that scrolls and tablets played in the transmission of the budo in ancient Japan!

In 1588 the famous samurai swordsman Kagehisa Ittosai started thinking about which of his two students would officially inherit his itto-ryu. Always enigmatic, he told them they were too equal in skill for him to decide. They’d have to come up with a test of their talents. The men, Zenki and Migogami Tenzen, decided to duel with real swords. They met in a clearing with their teacher sitting off to the side, watching. He’d brought a scroll that symbolized the authority of the school’s head mastery, and the winner would receive it. Zenki and Tenzen squared off, and after a long, tense encounter in which neither could find an opening, Zenki turned and ran — straight for the scroll. He grabbed it and took off, with Tenzen in pursuit. Tenzen cornered Zenki, who died under Tenzen’s sword, the stolen scroll still clutched in his teeth. From our perspective, the story seems bizarre. What did Zenki expect to gain from stealing the scroll? Ittosai was standing right there. He could simply write another scroll with a note that the one Zenki had wasn’t legitimate and give it to Tenzen. If I steal the deed to your house, it doesn’t make me the owner, right? To understand the importance these scrolls had for the feudal Japanese is to gain insight into the culture of the traditional martial arts.


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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.
To learn more about the samurai swordsman's techniques, philosophy and etiquette, check out Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eidhin-Ryu, written by expert practitioner Masayuki Shimabukuro and senior student Carl E. Long. Discover hidden martial depths through the meaningful practice of the Japanese sword.
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