Chapter 6 bu ryoku and bō ryoku

(controlled power and uncontrolled power)

Bu ryoku is power that possesses proper rules whereas bō ryoku is power that possesses no rules. Within the rules of bu ryoku, through the so-called combat sports, there are also other regulatory rules and bu ryoku rules are not necessarily limited to these.

We can also control our own actions. Historically we can see that controlling our own actions in relation to the direction we may take is a primary goal of bu ryoku. Bō ryoku, that is, power unlimited by rules, can be a dangerous power capable of injury or death. If we go back in time to the beginnings of bu ryoku, taking as a prerequisite the existence of violence, methods were created to subjugate it. When bu ryoku comprised a group of skills systems it was called bu jutsu (martial skills) or bu gei (martial arts). Japanese bu jutsu flourished among the military ranks of the Samurai. For approximately seven hundred years, from the rise to prominence of the Samurai before the Heian period (794-1185) through to their demise after the Meiji Restoration, bu jutsu has made astonishing progress. The first four hundred years and the latter three hundred years differ greatly. In the former years, “battlefield skills” were developed for use by soldiers in armour. In the latter years “goshin bu jutsu” to settle scuffles in civilian clothes was progressively advanced.

We can explain the difference of “bu jutsu for the battlefield” and “self-defence bu jutsu” from two different viewpoints. The first viewpoint is one of a guiding doctrine taught through bu jutsu. “Battlefield bu jutsu” is a bu jutsu with an ideology particularly limited to those in service and uses bu ryoku to accomplish political aims and aspirations. However, “goshin bu jutsu” is used primarily to protect the life of an individual and possesses no political agenda. Of course, we cannot consider bu jutsu whilst ignoring its defensive qualities, regardless of the situation, and from the changes and vicissitudes of social circumstance we can divide its guiding doctrine into the aforementioned two distinct parts. The second viewpoint concerns the differences of the bu jutsu skills themselves. “Battlefield bu jutsu” protected the body against an opponent’s attacks by hardening the body with armour and helmets. Because, contrary to this, “goshin bu jutsu” was devised for light clothing and equipment, the methods of attack and the techniques used were very different.

For example, in ken jutsu it became imperative to learn, due to its rapid progression, iai dō (battō jutsu)17 and in jū jutsu it became imperative to learn suwari waza (i toraeri), and again, in order to defend the body, regardless of the attack and where and when it occurred, “atemi waza” and “kansetsu waza”, as “waza” possessing unusually ideal attributes, continued to develop.

Next we can broadly divide the characteristics of bu jutsu “waza” into 3 categories:

“Killing” to suppress bō ryoku “Causing injury” to suppress bō ryoku Suppressing only the violence without recourse to death or injury

Ken jutsu, with bu jutsu at its core, had, as its main purpose, to “kill” with one strike of the sword. Meanwhile, jū jutsu skills, with bu jutsu at their core, had as their main purpose to “take down” and /or to “control”. In conclusion, bu jutsu has many types of techniques within the range of both jū and ken, such as with the spear, long sword, short sword (tantō), bo and jūte, and without weapons, such as with punches, strikes and kicks.

In order to suppress bō ryoku, we cannot completely rule out “killing”. In the modern era, however, respect for life is paramount and we have laws that recognise justifiable self-defence. However, if we consider the history of Japanese bu jutsu, at the time when the most prominent and prudent masters were thoroughly investigating the inner mysteries of “waza” from the basis of spirituality, they moved towards the negation of “killing” through self-control based on self-awareness.

If we read historical documents, we can see that in the secrets (極意)18 of yō shin ryū jū jutsu, “not to kill” is emphasised. Also, in the oral tradition of dai tō ryū aiki jū jutsu is the expression “Do not hit, do not be hit. Do not kick, do not be kicked. Do nut cut, do not be cut.” Because bu jutsu is the function of “sen no kokoro” (先の心), or the oneness of both attack and defence, it states that “there is no instigation with an open hand”. Furthermore, even though they brashly killed and injured to suppress violent struggles during an olden period, the famous swordsmen Katsu Ittōsai and Miyamoto Musashi adopted this mindset in the latter stages of their lives at the beginning of the Edo period. At the same time, there were also sword masters such as Katsu Kaishu (1823-1899) and Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888) who never once “killed”, even though they were very active during the maelstrom of upheavals taking place during the latter part of the Tokugawa government.

To negate “killing” when exhaustively researching the purpose of the sword “to kill” appears at first glance to be a contradiction, but that is the essential difference between bu ryoku and bō ryoku. In order for bu ryoku to suppress bō ryoku it must be endowed with robust practical skills that can avoid defeat. Because bō ryoku is an unlimited and dangerous force, bu ryoku must possess superiority in these practical skills. However, since ancient times it was said that “a hundred wars and a hundred victories maybe good, but to yield to the soldier who wants to start a fight is superlative” (善の善) (zen no zen) (“descendants” military strategy no.3)

In conclusion, the meaning of bu ryoku (武力) etymologically is “the cessation of conflict” – 戈 (conflict) + 止 (stop) + 力 (power) = 武力 – with matching one’s skills against an opponent’s and defeating him without harm being the ultimate aim. That is to say, the aim of bu ryoku is to suppress bō ryoku through martial prestige. The ultimate core of bu ryoku is “martial virtue” possessing the moral high ground which states “deplore violence but do not deplore the antagonist”. This backdrop to Japanese bu jutsu is steeped in the precepts of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. Since ancient times, superior martial artists have sought to inquire into the tenet of “waza” becoming the “way”, and Japanese budō characterises this. Recognition of the “way” is the “heart” of bushin, and it is a robust heart where bō ryoku does not reside.


  1. Battō jutsu (抜刀術), ‘the art of drawing out the sword’, is an old term for iai jutsu. Generally, battō jutsu is practised as part of a classical ryū and is closely integrated with the tradition of ken jutsu and is practised with the live blade, katana. The training is for combative effectiveness, using principles such as distance (ma ai), timing (ai uchi) and targeting.

  2. “Goku i” means quintessential property or nature, and at the time of its usage, techniques were kept as closely guarded secrets, so how a technique really worked was a secret (極意).