November 1995:
History of Koto Ryu Koppojutsu

by Peter Carlsson

In this article, another of the famous ninjutsu ryu will be introduced. This is the Koto ryu famous for its koppojutsu. While it has become popular to translate the Japanese koppojutsu as "bone breaking", the word in fact could be applied to a wide variety of pressure point and weak point attacks.

It should be noted that these attacks are not necessarily the same thing. Weak points can occur within balance, stance, the natural structure of the body, the operation of the individual nervous system and even the mental outlook. This confusion about what is an actual weak point as opposed to a simple sensitive spot on someone's body is one very important reason most martial artists spend their entire life training and still reach only a rather insipid level of skill.

According to kuden (oral tradition), koppojutsu originated in ancient China. It was brought to Japan by the monk Chan Busho, who was born in what is now present day Korea. (Author's note: For those readers interested in the little known subject of ancient Korea's influence on Japanese culture, the book Korean Impact On Japanese Culture by Dr. Jon Carter Covell and Alan Covell is a good place to start.)

What type of monk was Chan Busho? The traditions are not clear. However, his name does have some interesting linguistic relationships. In Chinese, Chan means "Name of Wind". That is, the name and mind being substance. The more popular claim that Chan translates into Japanese as "Zen" is actually a misinterpretation. However, like many such mistranslations, once it gains a certain amount of popular acceptance, there is little one can do except point out the original error and accept the fact that most people will not want to be confused by the facts. The name Busho is very close to the Japanese word "Busho", which means Buddhist scripture. Thus there is a fair case that Chan Busho (or who ever took koppojutsu to Japan) was a Buddhist.

Given the nature of Koto ryu techniques and taking into account some of the current Chinese martial arts, a fair case for some connection between the two could be made. An example of the Buddhist teachings can be seen from the following quote taken from the writings of Takamatsu Toshisugu:

"No one possesses the knowledge concerning the events of tomorrow. This means that we do not know when our life will cease. However, you should never be surprised by any kind of happening. Whether a change in the cosmic process occurs, a cutting action is attempted by an opponent or natural catastrophes take place, you should never feel such a thing as surprise. This is the spirit of Banpen Fugyo."

While these teachings may at first sound somewhat simple, they can take years to realize in actual living. The history of Koto ryu has it that the techniques were passed down from Busho through several generations until the teachings reached Sakagami Taro Kunishige in the mid-l500's. From here, the ryu was passed down to the famed ninja leader Momochi Sandayu. The ryu stayed in the Momochi family for a number of generations until it passed to the Toda family. Toda Seiryu Nobutsuna was the first Toda family grandmaster of Koto ryu and he headed the system from 1624 A.D. to 1644 A.D. From the Toda family, the system passed down to Takamatsu Toshisugu and into the modern world. The teachings of Koto ryu are organized on the usual ancient Japanese system of Shoden, Chuden, Okuden and Hiden. Although there is some relationship between each level of the techniques, each group has its own important points.

An interesting aspect of Koto ryu is that the techniques would work against a man dressed in modern clothing or armor of the type worn in ancient Japan. This reflects the fact that although the ancient ninja are often associated with the practice of espionage, a number of them saw action on battlefields of old Japan. Another interesting aspect of Koto ryu is that the concepts and techniques greatly compliment the ideas and techniques contained within Gyokko ryu.

The Kihon Waza of Koto ryu contain such basic techniques as rolling, hitting, jumping, and proper body conditioning. This last, that each ryu has its own conditioning associated with it, is often overlooked.

The Shoden Gata is contained in 18 methods. These methods deal with a variety of attacks and show the proper use of such striking techniques as kicks, head butts and different strikes with the hands. While on first examination, these techniques look fairly simple and straight forward, they are not, because of the number of situations under which they can be used. It should be noted that the Koto ryu has its own system of attacking the various weak points of the body and the study of how to match the proper body weapon to the point of what is being attacked is a rather wide area of study.

According to the book Dai Nippon Bugei Ryu Ha, the following provides an outline of the history of the Koto ryu. The names listed are those of the grandmasters of the system. There were, of course, a number of famous ninja and samurai trained in the techniques of the Koto ryu. For example, the famous ninja Ishikawa Goemon learned ninpo from his master, Momochi Sandayu. Goemon is best remembered for his role as Japan's "Robin Hood". Goemon also attempted to kill the famed leader Hideyoshi, but without success. According to popular legend, Goemon was eventually executed for his activities (a common fate for many at that time) but other Kuden states that he escaped this fate.

As mentioned earlier, the exact origin of koppojutsu is lost somewhere in the mist of ancient history. The techniques of the ryu were reorganized by Sakagami Taro in 1542 A.D. The man who was to become second headmaster of the ryu, Bando Kotaro Minamoto Masahide was killed in battle later in that same year. This event resulted in the ryu being passed to Sougyoku Kan Ritsushi.

While it is true that the techniques that were to become Koto ryu were brought to Japan from China, there is ample evidence that the teachings and techniques that were named "Koto ryu" at a much later date actually originated in ancient India where it was called "karanai". At that time, these techniques (actually what today is called koshijutsu and koshijutsu) were considered to be practically "miracle" techniques because these techniques enabled one to easily control or defeat an enemy with almost no effort.

When these techniques were imported into China (probably during the fall of the Han dynasty) it was part of the information flow that brought Buddhism into China from India. Although it would be nice if it were possible to narrow this transmission down to one man (much like is done by modern kung fu salesmen), there is really little reason to believe that these techniques were the property of just one individual. Granted they were not (and still are not) common knowledge, but they probably were changed, improved and adapted in China before they ever actually got to Japan.

Once this knowledge arrived in Japan, it was further developed and even today there is a continued process of change and development taking place. Once in Japan, the teachings of koshijutsu and koshijutsu quickly became the property of an elite group of families. Often, only one person in each generation was taught these techniques.

In the stream of martial arts that is today known as ninjutsu, the historic development of the fighting arts shows that the oldest of the taijutsu arts is koshijutsu (e.g. Gyokko ryu). This was followed by the development of an independent form of koppojutsu (e.g. Koto ryu) and this was followed even later by a system of koppojutsu based on the earlier systems. That is that the later Gikan ryu koppojutsu was a direct outgrowth of the teachings of Gyokko ryu and Koto ryu.

There is of course good reason to question the reason why anyone should be interested in the history of such esoteric fighting arts and why what technique goes to what ryu is of any importance whatsoever. As is often the case, asking such questions reveals more about the questioner than it does of the one questioned.

In an earlier article on Gyokko ryu, I commented on the fact that each ryu has to train according to the Ten, Chi, Jin structure that has been passed down from ancient times. The alert reader will have noticed that I used the Chinese expression of Ten, Chi, Jin rather than one of the structures normally associated with the gradings or groupings associated with Japanese martial arts. There is of course a very good reason for this.

On the most mundane level, Ten, Chi, Jin can be taken to mean "Heaven, Earth, and Man" and as such it is often taken to just mean the basic (lower) middle and upper (advanced) techniques of a ryu. The expression can also be said to point out the fact that whenever one is training in a particular ryu, they should do the kata (or techniques) of that ryu while standing in a high, medium or lower stance.

While both of these ideas have some basis and they can even be of some use, they have little to do with the real meaning of Ten, Chi, Jin as this idea applies to something as complex as Koto ryu. The reason that the deeper meaning of this idea has been completely missed by the majority of ninjutsu writers and instructors (although I am not sure exactly what the difference between these two are) is that very few understand the connection of ancient and recent China to ninjutsu.

Of course, there are no (and to be technical there never were) ninja in China. Attempts to tie ninja with cave or forest cults are fun but they have no basis in historic fact. However, the impact of such Chinese systems of thought and action as Taoism, Buddhism, and a wide variety of cultural arts such as tea, painting, martial arts, etc. is common knowledge although the implications of such is generally overlooked. Granted, anything brought to Japan was mixed (and almost always improved) with the knowledge already present, but that rarely meant dropping much of the original Chinese methods of training or the order in which this training was carried out. Thus, the expression Ten, Chi, Jin is actually a form and order of training that originates in ancient Taoism.

To look at this another way, how does one train once they have a good idea of the basic techniques of their selected ryu? Popular wisdom says that this is the time to take up the practice of sparring. However, one look at what actually takes place during sparring and one cannot really question the statement that if one wants to become skilled at something as trivial as sparring, they should take up boxing or free-style Wrestling and forget about the idea of martial arts.

Just how the idea that there is some relationship between the sport of sparring (and any form of fighting that takes place at an agreed upon time at a prearranged location is sport regardless of claims that there are "no rules" ... the very fact that both parties chose to play implies rules) and real fighting is beyond me. The fact that someone can overpower someone does not mean they are necessarily a better martial artist. It simply means the loser did not make a very good selection in terms of sporting partners.

The elements of time, place, condition of the people involved (if I was going to select just what condition an opponent was to be in I think I would want him in a coma or asleep ... not very sporting but very practical) and even the "junk" In the area play an important part within any given situation. This is why military units attack when the enemy is asleep or has just finished eating or even changing shifts. This same type of idea has to be incorporated into real training.

To return to the idea of how to combine basic techniques, one has to of course spend some time considering just how this is to be done and more importantly, where and when it is to be done. The point is to train so that the techniques and the style of movement central to the ryu becomes second nature and one is moving according to the teachings of the RYU without having to stop and think about what they are doing.

Thus kata that involve strikes can be easily combined with other striking type kata or even flow directly into a grab- takedown series of movements. Also, kata from one level of technique can be combined with kata of another level in an effort to better understand how the movement of a style works within the context of flow.

This article was contributed by Shidoshi Mats Hjelm, Sweden and appeared previously in Ninzine. Mats has been practicing ninpo taijutsu for the past ten years, has founded several Martial Arts BBSes, and has his own ninpo newsletter. He may be contacted via E-mail: or visit his web page:

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