Aiki Principle of the Old System: Kito Ryu

Dr. William Durbin

One of the greatest martial arts systems of the past generation is also one of the most influential styles that has had far reaching effect into modern times. Kito Ryu was founded, according to most sources, in the last years of the Sengoku Jidai, just prior to the Tokugawa Era. There are many different founders given to the art, among them being Ibaragi Sensai, Shichiroemon Fukuno, and Sadayashi Hirosaemon Terada. It is believed that Ibaragi Sensai actually founded the Ryu and passed it on to Fukuno. Then Fukuno is believed to have founded his own Ryu named after him, and also known as the Ryoi Shinto Ryu. Fukuno based his teachings on the Ji-bugei, temple martial arts. Eventually he passed the systems onto the Terada family, who kept them alive and passed them on so that they are still taught today.

Fukuno taught both systems, Kito Ryu and Fukuno Ryu (aka) Ryoi Shinto Ryu, with a combination of all active fighting principles of the time. This meant that he taught Aiki, Kempo, and Ju. Aiki was the principle of harmonizing ones movement and energy with that of an attacker. Kempo was the study of the weak points of the human anatomy along with the most appropriate body weapons for striking them. This principle was also known as Atemi. The final principle was that of Ju, which taught one how to use the attacker’s body and mass against them. Each of these three principles overlap with the others, but each one also has something to teach the martial artist.

It is important for us to realize that just as the Kito Ryu combined all three principles, most modern martial arts tend to limit themselves to only one. A look at three of the top modern systems shows how comprehensive the Kito Ryu truly was, and how influential it proved to be for modern times. It also lets us know the weakness of modern systems which are designed for sports as opposed to combat oriented martial arts, such as the Kito Ryu.

First of all, the founder of Nihon Goshindo Kempo, Taizen Takemori, attributes the development of Kempo to the many Jujutsu systems; Tenshin Shinyo Ryu, Sekiguchi Ryu, Jikishin Ryu, Shibukawa Ryu, and of course the great, Kito Ryu. The emphasis on striking comes from the vital point studies and formation of bodily weapons found in these grand old Jujutsu systems. Too many people think of Jujutsu as only a throwing art, which is extremely inaccurate. Most of the ancient Jujutstu Ryu were very effective in striking techniques, but majored on throwing or jointlocking techniques since they were designed to be used against foes in armor. The temple arts were generally called Kempo and many of the Samurai who founded Ryu used the terms Kempo and Atemi to designate their striking division. In the Nihon Goshindo form of Japanese Kempo the emphasis is on the striking skills, though the other techniques are present as well.

Next is the very famous and illustrious Kodokan Judo, founded by Jigoro Kano, who studied the Kito Ryu from the great instructor Tsunetoshi Iikubo. His famous method of training, called in Kodokan Judo, Randori is actually based on the Kito Ryu training method of Ranotoru. Originally Kano intended the study of Kodokan Judo to be an introduction to Kito Ryu, and other systems, so much so that the form Koshiki no Kata is actually only a Kata directly from the throwing art of the older system. Kano’s original system, sometimes in those early years of it’s formation referred to as Kano Ryu Jujutsu, contained a full emphasis on striking and jointlocking, but as the art developed more along sport lines and the emphasis began to be on sport oriented Randori, these other forms of training diminished until today there are those who are black belts in Judo who have never studied the art of striking or jointlocking, other than those locks allowed in competition.

The third art to have it’s beginning and basis in Kito Ryu is none other than Aikikai Aikido, the art founded by Morihei Ueshiba. Too many people emphasize Ueshiba’s connection to the Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu style so much that they forget that he was an accomplished martial artist before he ever met Sokaku Takeda. Morihei Ueshiba began serious martial arts training in 1868, at the age of fifteen, in Kito Ryu under Tokusaburo Tozawa. Before he finally trained with Takeda in Daito Ryu he also had experienced training in; Yagyu Ryu, Aioi Ryu, Hozoin Ryu, Shinkage Ryu, and Kodokan Judo. Some people think that Morihei Ueshiba owes everything of Aikido to Daito Ryu, and while it is assuredly true that he learned much from Sokaku Takeda, he owes just as much to the solid foundation given to him in the Kito Ryu by Tokusaburo Tozawa. Without that firm foundation, Ueshiba might never have stayed with the martial arts and reached the level of greatness he achieved.

Some people think that Morihei Ueshiba owes everything of Aikido to Daito Ryu, and while it is assuredly true that he learned much from Sokaku Takeda, he owes just as much to the solid foundation given to him in the Kito Ryu by Tokusaburo Tozawa.
Kito Ryu taught basically the same techniques and concepts found in Daito Ryu, but with slightly different emphasis and terminology. Kito Ryu taught many techniques which were designed for use in armor, thus without the protection offered by such covering, it was necessary that the movements be modified for fighting without armor. Kito Ryu did teach an emphasis on Ki which, even at the young age of fifteen, Morihei appreciated and understood. Kito means rising and falling, with the rising being synonymous with Yo (Yang) and the falling being the In (Yin). This is the blend between strength and suppleness or gentleness. Kito Ryu taught that when the enemy shows strength you defeat them with suppleness, when the enemy shows suppleness you defeat them with strength. But never rely on strength, rather discard strength to harmonize with the universal spirit, Ki. Thus Ki allows you to overcome an enemy by rebounding his own strength against him. The essence of this is simply gentleness overcomes strength. These are the teachings of Kito Ryu.

It is obvious that this is what lies at the foundation of Aikido and is one of the main principles of the old system, Kito Ryu. Kito is in many ways the same as Aiki, it is a perfect blend of harmony between the active and passive principles of the universe. Ueshiba had always emphasized harmony in the universal sense, and Ki underlined everything that he did and performed. Most people assume his emphasis on Ki came from his study of Daito Ryu, but the truth seems that it was his early study of Kito Ryu that lead to his emphasis and mastery of Ki. While many styles understand and utilize the principle of Ju, most learning of it from Judo, and most strive to use the concept of strength as taught in Karate, comparable to the idea of Kempo, few people really understand and can use Aiki, even though it is such an important principle to combat. By looking at the application of the three main principles of movement in Aiki it is possible to see how important the principles really are and how they might be applied to effective combat.

One way of expressing the three main movements of Aiki are by calling them; Irimi, Tenkan, and Irimi Tenkan. Irimi means ‘to enter’, and refers to moving towards an attacker, but at an oblique angle, so that the attack misses it’s mark. The defender is thus close enough to be able to execute a throw, jointlock, or even strike the attacker. Tenkan means ‘to turn’ or ‘to pivot’. This allows a defender to spin out of the way of the attack, and as the assailant passes by the defender can throw, jointlock, or strike, once again. Finally, Irimi Tenkan is a combination of doing an entering movement and then turning in the execution of the defensive technique.

Each of the examples given in the accompanying pictures shows typical throwing techniques as performed when using these principles of motion. But what is not understood is that at all times a practitioner should be prepared to immediately strike, if the control needed to throw the attacker is lost. There are people today trying to combine Karate and Aikido, thinking that in combining the hard and the soft they will develop a superior style, but the truth is that all combat systems, that are worthy of the name, originated from the harmony of these principles. It is because that most people engage in sport martial arts that they do not realize that all movements of combat are related. Too many people in Aikido think that the art is designed only to capture and throw people, or pin them helplessly to the ground. What they forget is that Morihei Ueshiba was a soldier who had actual war experience. He trained in systems of martial arts that were combat developed and deadly earnest. Kito Ryu, Yagyu Ryu, Shinkage Ryu, Hozoin Ryu and Daito Ryu, were all combat systems developed to be used on the battlefield to kill the enemy.

Ueshiba himself said that, ‘Aikido decides life and death in a single strike’, and ‘Aikido is the way that teaches how to deal with several enemies.’ All combat styles have the combined aspect of Aiki, Kempo, and Ju. It might be thought of in this way, if someone attacks you with a push, you can begin to overcome his attack by pulling (the principle of Ju), however if he is too strong, to offset his strength you can turn as you maintain your pull (this is the principle of Aiki), and at any time that a vital point is presented you can deliver a strike to it (the principle of Kempo).

The three quarter turn found in many Okinawan Kata, as well as, the three quarter turn taught as part of the Kata Ido in Goju Ryu Karate, shows the inherent need of all principles contained in one art. For the three quarter turn of Okinawan Karate is the same as the Tenkan in Aikido. These are universal principles that need to be understood by all people who are practicing martial arts for self defense. The principle of Aiki is one of the most important of all combat principles, and formed the base of many of the Jujutsu systems in Japan. While different terminology was used to express it, the concept was a constant in the ancient combat systems. Whether the desire was to throw an armored foe or strike an unarmored assailant, Aiki taught the martial artist how not to get hit. It is hoped that Karateka and Judoka will see the importance of this universal principle, and in the desire to enrich their self defense capabilities will research with self defense Kempo practitioners and combat oriented Aikidoka, the wonderful principle of Aiki, and the combat movements of; Irimi, Tenkan, and Irimi Tenkan.

Dr. William Durbin is the founder of Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei. He teaches at the Hombu dojo in Frankfurt, Kentucky.