Even though the Shintō Musō-ryū was founded by a samurai (Muso Gonnosuke) in the Keichō era (1594–1614) it continues to have a significant influence on policing in the very modern society of Japan. Even today all police officers are trained in Jodo and in every Koban or Police Box you will see a group of Jo’s (4 foot staffs) ready for immediate use.Why has this ancient weapon remained so much in use the modern day? What applications does it have and how does its training enhance modern combat methods? Indeed how does a 400 year old school that specialises in old style Japanese weaponry including sword, staff, jutte, kusarigama, tanjo and arresting cord manage to draw many thousands of experienced martial arts adherents to its ranks worldwide?
These are difficult questions for people unfamiliar with the world of Kobudo (Old martial ways) to answer. The Ryu (school) developed at a time when personal and battlefield combat still found many opportunities to occur. Proficiency in an art or techniques that allowed a person to be victorious in this type of man to man combat was paramount. When a combatant entered into this type of battle he knew very well that he had only a 33% chance of attaining that illusive victory. He could win, his opponent could win… or they both could perish. Combat with swords, staff, spear and similar weapons allows for neither error nor hesitation.
Perhaps this is part of its attraction today and accounts for why many of the students have experience in unarmed martial arts also. My own teacher, Nishioka Tsuneo Sensei described the idea of combining unarmed and armed martial study as being ‘two wheels on the one cart’… with only one wheel we may travel in circles.
There are two distinct differences between the practice of modern combat sports and Kobudo. The first is that in Kobudo the primary training method is Kata… a pre-arranged sequence of increasingly complex movements practiced in pairs. Now a days most teachers and styles try to find a balance between Kata practice and freestyle practice OR kata practice is conducted as a solo affair OR Kata is rejected as a valid method altogether in favour of freestyle practice only. Such a direction is usually justified by the interesting assertion that only freestyle practice develops real world skills. (This is such a spurious argument that it barely warrants comment. We do not learn any language, skill or sport in a real world setting. Contrived environments are established and we slowly graduate to be able to test & apply the skills learned in a true real world setting as opposed to a ring or dojo.) Nishioka Sensei’s explanation was that kata and free practices are not opposing options… rather they are two points on the same road and only the former can lead to the latter.
The second difference is that during training the teacher takes the role of the attacker (uchidachi / uke / nage) and hence the person who is defeated in the kata. At a time when the emphasis has shifted firmly in modern arts including Aikido to the role of the defender as the winner (shidachi /shitei / tori), this constitutes a very considerable difference. The attacker establishes all the conditions to which and within which the defender must respond and only the attacker can provide correct feedback from a position of immense experience. The fact is that in armed training such as SMR, if the attacker is not fully competent the defender cannot possibly learn the art correctly. The big things can go awry very quickly let alone the subtle nuances. I recall my teacher observing a training session and saying “I don’t know where to start. They know everything… but it is all wrong!”