Over the past few decades, martial arts movies like The Karate Kid and Rurouni Kenshin have inspired Filipinos to engage in combat sports like taekwondo, karate, and—if you’re particularly hardcore—kendo.
But a lot of people don’t realize that these traditions are very modern, and far removed from the techniques real samurai used to practice. In martial arts, your aim isn’t to kill—it’s to hit the opponent’s target areas, to win matches, and to earn new belts or move up the ranks. In other words, it’s a competitive sport.
Eduard Lapuos, head of Sugawara Sogo Budo Philippines
Martin Nanawa, the first of Lapuos' students to earn a teaching license
But since 1998, a small band of Filipinos has been quietly practicing an ancient samurai martial tradition called Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. Unlike modern martial arts, its techniques are designed for the battlefield—one is trained to aim for weaknesses in the armor, with moves that are meant to kill. Apart from kenjutsu or swordsmanship, one learns to fight with a staff, naginata (a Japanese blade mounted on a pole), spear, and kodachi (a Japanese short sword).
This 600 year-old combat system was brought to our shores by Tetsutaka Sugawara, who founded Sugawara Sogo Budo Philippines. Today, the dojo is run by Eduard Lapuos—the first Filipino to earn the menkyo-kyoshi or teaching license. He is assisted by Martin Nanawa, the first of his students to obtain the menkyo-kyoshi.
Without this teaching license, one is forbidden from sharing the techniques one learns. While the existence of Katori Shinto Ryu isn’t a secret, its kata or drills are jealously guarded. In fact, one has to swear an oath or keppan upon joining the dojo.
According to this NHK World documentary, part of the oath is to “pledge absolute secrecy about matters of this art.” Even students aren’t allowed to discuss the techniques with each other. “That’s a great way to embed or transfer a mistake. That’s why it takes a lot of effort to get a menkyo,” Nanawa explains.
Unlike in martial arts, where senior members and teachers instruct their juniors in groups, Lapuos and Nanawa teach the students one-on-one. There are no belts, and one doesn’t need to master a certain set of kata in time for a big promotion test. Instead, the teacher monitors your personal progress and decides when you’re ready to move on to the next lesson.
The first thing that strikes one upon entering the training area is the silence. Modern martial arts teach their students to display their fighting spirit with blood-curdling yells as they punch, kick, or strike. If a student fails to learn quickly, they’re in for a sharp scolding.
Tetsutaka Sugawara, head of Sugawara Budo
In contrast, the atmosphere at the Sugawara dojo is relaxed—almost tranquil, even. All one hears is the clacking of wooden swords. Lapuos and Nanawa are surprisingly easygoing and patient, and often smile as they take their students through drills.
“I think it’s because the other [martial arts] are competitive,” Lapuos says. “They want to win, that’s their goal. To level up. But here, we just want to learn. I guess that’s why the ambience is different.”
For Nanawa, the lack of shouting and posturing highlights Katori Shinto Ryu’s deadly nature. During matches, martial artists try to intimidate each other into submission by shouting and acting tough. “But [with] the feudal Japanese ryu, the aggression is more predatory, so energy exertion is reserved,” he observes. “It’s like a big cat when you see them stalking game on National Geographic. The posturing is different, and it’s only in that final moment of explosive violence that it’s over, and it’s over decisively. They’re not after submission, they want to eat the other party.”
“The less flashy, the better. The more effective,” Lapuos adds.
When asked what they love about Katori Shinto Ryu, Lapuos says, "It's the techniques and training, and the friends we've made. And I made a promise to Sugawara-sensei to keep it going. It's our responsibility to Sensei to keep it going."
"There's an emotional, philosophical dimension to it, and it seeps into everything you do," Nanawa says. "Like in my work, we all have advocacies and things each one of us believes in, and what I've learned from Sensei is that when the attack is coming, you don't step back from it, you step into it. And you don't step into it like a fool, you step into it with technique like how you've trained. And that extends into so many things."
"For example, in interpersonal relationships, in politics, or in government, you can't lecture a force of hate in morals. You can only confront that and face it. And the only way to face that with confidence is to train," he continues. "You train not to flinch. So you train on the mats, you train in every aspect of your life to better and perfect your life."
Sugawara Sogo Budo Philippines trains every Thursday, 6:00 p.m. at Treston College, Taguig City and Saturday, 6:00 p.m. at Meralco Fitness Center, Pasig City. For more information and inquiries, send a message to their Facebook Page.