The Curious Case of Yanagi Ryuken (2006)

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Yanagi Ryuken – Shaman

Author’s Note: Religion (and religious forms) still inform much of society and culture around the world (this is particularly true of the Western world, with its supposedly ‘secular’ institutions and conventions being obviously of a Judeo-Christian origin). Many define their lives by subscribing to a religious view, or by opposing and rejecting the prevailing religious view as held in their society. This is the ‘double-bind’ of the ‘atheism Vs theism’ debate. Although it is possible to occupy a middle ‘third’ alternative position, many are enmeshed in the rebounding dichotomy of inherent ‘rejection’ and ‘acceptance’. This is a self-sustaining duality that feeds upon negative energy, with both sides justifying their position by claiming to occupy the ‘moral high-ground’. Religionists reject atheism, and atheists pour scorn and contempt upon religionists – and around the never-ending cycle of condemnation turns. My view is that everyone develops according to his or her capacities and requirements, and that this is a fundamental Human Right protected in a number of legal codes. Furthermore, whilst condemning and rejecting all modes of racist discourse, I acknowledge the right of every culture to be ‘different’ and ‘self-determining’. I also favour ‘honesty’ over ‘dishonesty’, but also recognise that I have no right to inflict my personal views on others, and that the relative nature of differing cultures means that although I may not like something, others do and that I must respect their choice. In the United States, for example, many participate in religious worship that includes the congregation communing with poisonous snakes, talking in tongues, or being spontaneously ‘moved’ by the ‘holy spirit’. Some Churches (exercising ‘freedom of speech’) such as the Westboro Baptist Church – employ racist, homophobic, misogynistic and disrespectful rhetoric when interacting with the general public. What is interesting is that this bizarre (Eurocentric) behaviour does not attract the same type of vitriol that is routinely aimed at non-White exhibiters of similar patterns of expressions, particularly the subject of this article. As someone of part Chinese origin whose family suffered under the barbarism of the occupying Japanese Imperial Army in China both before and during WWII, you may rest assured that I do not a priori support Japanese martial arts, or the spirituality that underlies its practice. Around 90% of the comments I receive about this article are racist and written by Americans. By wat of contrast, as a British academic, what I am supporting is enlightened discourse, the rejection of ignorance and racism, and the nullification of US anti-intellectualism. ACW (5.3.2020) 

‘Highly distinctive was the shaman. On first encountering such folk healers, westerners denounced them as imposters. In 1763 the Scottish surgeon John Bell (1691-1780) described the ‘chanting sessions’ he witnessed in southern Siberia:

“[the shaman] turned and distorted his body into many different postures, till, at last, he wrought himself up to such a degree of fury that he foamed at the mouth, and his eys looked red and staring. He now started up on his legs, and fell a dancing, like one distracted, till he trod out the fire with his bare feet.

These unnatural motions were, by the vulgar, attributed to the operations of a divinity… He now performed several legerdemain tricks, such as stabbing himself with a knife, and bringing it up at his mouth, running himself through with a sword and many others others too trifling to mention.”

This Calvinist Scot was not going to be taken in by Asiatic savages: “nothing is more evident than that these shamans are a parcel of jugglers, who impose on the ignorant and credulous vulgar.” Such a reaction is arrogantly ethnocentric: although shamans perform magical acts, including deliberate deception, they are neither fakes nor mad. Common in native American culture as well as Asia, the shaman combined the roles of healer, sorcerer, seer, educator and priest, and was believed to possess god-given powers to heal the sick and to ensure fertility, a good harvest or a successful hunt. His main healing techniques have been categorised as contagious magic (destruction of enemies, through such means as the use of effigies) and direct magic, involving rituals to prevent disease, fetishes, amulets (to protect against black magic), and talismans (for good Luck).’

Roy Porter: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind – a Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, Harper, (1997), Pages 31-32

Probably around 2007, a Singaporean friend of mine introduced me to a video that appeared to show an elderly Japanese man being punched repeatedly in the face by a young Japanese man – and when dropping to the floor bleeding profusely from his mouth – a sizable crowd that was in attendance cheering the spectacle. I was a little confused at the time, as the entire affair, whilst purported to have happened in Japan, had a distinctly ‘un-Japanese’ feel to it. Looking at the Youtube ‘Comments’ section did not provide much help at the time, as many were written by White Americans who were using the video to make continuous anti-Japanese racist comments. Another friend of mine enquired how these people would have reacted if an elderly White American was repeatedly punched in the face by a young White male (or even a young Black male for that matter). The consensus was that they would have probably called the police. As matters transpired, I later found-out the elderly man in question was Yanagi Ryuken (柳龍拳) – described as a ‘master’ of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jitsu, although today I have discovered (in Japanese language sources) that he refers to his style as ‘Daito Ryu Aikido’, although a version unrelated to that developed by the great Morihei Ueshiba. The Chinese characters used to describe his style are ‘大東流合気道’. What concerned me as I occasionally re-visited this subject, was that despite all the articles deriding Yanagi Ryuken in the West, not one bothers to research his name in the Japanese language (which in this instance uses traditional Chinese ideograms). His name is written ‘柳龍拳’ which in Chinese is pronounced ‘Liu Long Quan’, and ‘Yanagi (柳) Ryuken (龍拳)’ in the Japanese pronunciation. In English this might be translated as ‘Willow Dragon Fist’. The Japanese surname ‘Yanagi’ (柳) translates as ‘Willow Tree’, and the first-names ‘Ryuken’ (龍拳) translate as ‘Dragon Fist’.

Yanagi Ryuken has a dedicated ‘wiki-page’ in Japan, where he is treated with what might be described as an ‘indifferent’ respect. On that page (shared below), he is described as an Aikido master, a qigong expert, and a ‘psychic’. He was born on the previously disputed island of Sakhalin (that lies north of Japan) around 1941, which in now claimed by Russia (since 1945). Other Japanese language sources state that he has also studied Judo, Karate and Jujitsu. In the past he has also served as a Japanese Buddhist monk in the Nichiren Sect. Yanagi’s assumed ability to manipulate physical objects in Japan (without the use of touch) stems not from his martial arts background (as alleged in the West), but rather from what he believes to be his ‘psychic’ ability (never mentioned in the West). This is an important fact as disparaging Western narratives a priori assume that he has been misleading the Japanese public by teaching a distorted form of Aikido, when in fact in Japan it is a well-known fact that his demonstrations in ‘no touch’ manipulation derive from what he assumes to be the psychic manipulation of his environment. Those who attend these kinds of lessons are aware in advance of exactly the nature of the lesson. The issue is often complicated when Yanagi combines his assumed psychic ability with conventional Aikido techniques. It is believed that this psychic ability was develop during his time as a Buddhist monk engaged in hours of ritual chanting and meditation.

According to Japanese language sources, Yanagi Ryuken is highly respected in Japan, and has from time to time, offered large sums of money to fight any opponent to prove the efficacy of his style (and psychic ability). Anyone who can beat him, Yanagi stated, could keep the money (often as much as 500,000 yen). In 2006, a challenge match between 65-year-old Yanagi Ryuken and the 35-year-old Iwakura Tsuyoshi (岩倉豪 – Yan Cang Hao), a Japanese journalist and political activist trained in Judo, Karate and Brazilian Jujitsu, was confirmed for November the 26th, with an agreement that both parties could film the proceedings. The subsequent video of Iwakura repeatedly punching Yanagi in the mouth, and him kneeling on the floor pouring with blood in-front of a crowd of around 500 spectators, attracted a record number of views on Youtube on the 27th and 28th of November, 2006, including the record for the highest number of replays. Yanagi subsequently stated that he was ill at the time of the encounter. Other Japanese language sources state that part of the rules for competing with Yanagi for the money was that there was to be no full-contact, closed-hand blows to the head and face. However, in the years following this bout, Yanagi Ryuken has simply stated that his ki energy (and psychic abilities) were impaired by his illness. On the back of the publicity Iwakura Tsuyoshi achieved with this beating of an old man, he was eventually propelled into an unsuccessful and short-lived mixed martial arts career (that lasted between 2009 and 2015), where he had four bouts – winning two and losing two (including a match with Jonathan Gray). After the loss, Yanagi Ryuken recovered and carried-on his teaching career as usual attracting more students (including Westerners).

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2017.

Japanese Language References:

https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/柳龍拳

https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/岩倉豪

13 comments

    1. Thank you for your comment. As you know, the Japanese language texts say (translated into English in the above article) that ‘According to Japanese language sources, Yanagi Ryuken is highly respected in Japan, and has from time to time, offered large sums of money to fight any opponent to prove the efficacy of his style (and psychic ability). Anyone who can beat him, Yanagi stated, could keep the money (often as much as 500,000 yen).’ This suggests a common knowledge that Yanagi Ryuken had a number of fights that were successful – but this is speculation and needs further research. Of course, exactly what constitutes a ‘successful fight’ is open to interpretation, and should not be used to imply that Yanagi Ryuken ‘won’ MMA fights. According to my Japanese colleagues, Yanagi Ryuken prevailed in culturally applicable encounters representative of indigenous Japanese beliefs (involving the ‘superstitions’ associated with religion and spirituality), with the MMA fighter in the now famous video using deceptive means to secure a match.

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  1. So a charlatan gets exposed, and you believe in his falsity more strongly.

    I suppose you know nothing of the Duning Kruger Effect, or of Confirmation Bias.

    If I ever fought this Nip idiot, he’d be toes up, getting carried out of wherever, with his face covered by a sheet.

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    1. A very good example of the Eurocentric bias that defines ‘lack of knowledge of source material’, as being the basis for ‘authoritative’ comment. The idiocy, racism and lack of any genuine understanding in this comment serves as an important lesson for any genuine martial arts endeavour. Establishing and understanding the facts does not imply acceptance or rejection, although, of course, I reject all racist narratives associated with this interesting case.

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