By Paul Martin

There appears to be much discussion over the use of the terms ryu (流), ha (派), and ryuha (流派). It is generally accepted that ‘ryu‘ refers to what we would call in the western sense, ‘style’. As in “what style of karate do you practice?” These terms are not only applicable to styles of martial arts, but to many different disciplines in Japan such as the way of tea (sado, 茶道), the way of flower arranging (kado 華道), the way of . . .

After introducing the use of ‘the way’, and before proceeding any further trying to define ryu and ha, let’s first take a look at and define the Japanese word and idiom of do, or michi (道). Do is the overarching sense of following a higher path. Do means road, path, lane, or journey. Interestingly, it can also mean duty, and morality. When do is attached as a postfix to a certain style of activity, it infers that there is a spiritual pursuit involved and encompasses all of the above meanings. It is the character for ‘the way’, and is usually seen attached to martial arts: judo (柔道), karatedo (空手道), kendo (剣道), kyudo (弓道), aikido (合気道), naginatado (長刀道), budo (武道). It is a general idea that the path you are following will lead to a connection with the flow of the universe and ultimately you are heading towards some level of enlightenment. Furthermore, the feeling of ‘the way’ does not only apply to arts with the suffix do, but also to the various jutsu (術), and the usage of these words applies not only to martial arts, but also in a broader context in Japan.

When looking at Nelson’s Kanji dictionary definitions of the two characters ryu and ha and the compound of both characters together, they are defined as:

Ryu: current, or, as a postfix style, fashion, school, system. Nagare (alternate reading): flow, trickle

Ha: Group, party, clique: faction, set, school (of art, etc). It can also be used as ha-suru: to dispatch, send (transmit).

Ryuha: a school of thought: a system.

To explain the fundamental difference between the words, there are many ryu following the way, but within each ryu there are subsets known as ha, or ryuha. For example, practitioners of Itto-ryu (一刀流) are all in pursuit of the way. However, Itto-ryu is divided into further sub-divisions of Ono-ha (小野派), Mizoguchi-ha (溝口派), Nakanishi-ha (中西派), etc. The author of this article would like to suggest that at the time, Ono Jiroemon Tadaaki (小野次郎右衛門忠明), and Mizoguchi Shingoemon Masakatsu (溝口新五左衛門正勝) were teaching what they believed to be the correct transmission of Itto-ryu, and that they were not referred to as Ono-ha, and Mizuguchi-ha during their lifetimes. As their students needed to explain and differentiate the changes that had occurred between their teachings in the natural flow of the transmission of the techniques, the ‘ha’ was probably applied sometime after their deaths. This writer also believes that in some years from now, what is currently practiced and referred to as simply Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu (天真正伝香取神道流), will later be referred to as Otake-ha (大竹派), and Sugino-ha (杉野派).

The reality of any traditional activity, or style, referring to themselves as a ryu, is that they are inevitably subject to the paradox of tradition changing over time. This is caused by successive generations of masters all continuing the ryu under their own interpretation of what the tradition is. This is illustrated with the use of the term ‘nagare’ (do, michi) from the opening lines of the Hojoki (方丈記) by Kamo no Chomei (鴨長明) in the 13th century.


Yuku kawa no nagare wa taezu shite, shikamo, moto no mizu ni arazu.

The river flows constantly, and the water continually changes.

There is also a great deal of pride involved with being given the responsibility of looking after and transmitting 500-year-old intangible knowledge to be passed onto the next generation. It is also natural in Japan to be associated with a particular group. One can feel a sense of security under the protection of their group. However, if you do not conform or hold the same ideals as the rest of your group (ryu, ha, ryuha), this can also lead to expulsion, or ostracism. To be cut from the collective in Japan is one of the greatest fears by many Japanese. Expulsion from a group is referred to as ha-mon (破門). It can lead to a great sense of shame, and possible rejection by other groups as you could become someone who does not fit. However, this is not to say that individuality, or individual pride does not exist in Japan. On the contrary, if this was the case, none of these ryu, or ha, would ever have begun. In fact, there is a term in Japanese jiko-ryu (自己流) that means to be self-taught, or going it alone.

This brings up the question, “What is a legitimate ryu?” There are no defining characteristics for what legitimizes a ryu, and as more and more information, especially from the martial arts world, becomes available, smaller ryu, or family styles begin to emerge with the head of the family, or iemoto (家元), serving as the head of the school (also referred to as soke, 宗家).

It is said in Japan that there are many paths to enlightenment. What tends to be of overarching importance is the participation in spiritual pursuits. As with many things in Japan, the usage of ryu, ha, and ryuha is somewhat subjective and flexible, as is the understanding of a particular ryuha, people’s interpretation of the way and their general philosophy on life. In Japan, as in the West, people tend to join groups that hold beliefs that identify with our own. However, they all attach great importance to community, and spirituality. It would appear that ryu, ha and ryuha are a binding factor between these two ideals, maintaining the equilibrium of a culture that we in the West desire to understand.

Paul Martin, from England, is a Masters Graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and a Japanese sword specialist for the British Museum in London. Paul has presented swords on BBC TV and Radio 4, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Los Angeles JATV, Japanese Television and has been featured in interviews by Acumen (The British Chamber of Commerce Tokyo), The Daily Yomiuri, and The Asahi Weekly. He has also been a regular contributor to Tokyo Journal magazine. He has studied the sword collections of many museums, shrines and at the workshops of many eminent swordsmiths and polishers. Paul provides translations for the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo (Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai), the All Japan Swordsmiths Association, the Hayashibara Art Museum, Okayama, The Oku-Izumo Tatara and Sword Museum and the All Japan Sword Traders Association. He has also produced several leading books and DVDs on Japanese swords.