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2008 Jan-Mar

Kim Taylor
Out of the way old man

A question was raised about practicing jodo, specifically practicing jodo against a teacher who scares the stuffing out of you. How do you get to that mental point where you can wait for his attack and then counter with your jo when you're petrified?

The answer of course is that you can't. You will hit a wall until you get past your sensei, until you can forget that he's your teacher, better than you, and all that other stuff.

It's his job to get you past that point, sometimes it takes a bit of a challenge, sometimes you just have to wait until sensei is so old and feeble that it's obvious to a beginner... sometimes the old guy has to die to get you past it but in any case, you have to get to the point where you challenge him ... at that point in time, for that kata, you have to believe you're capable of taking him.

I hear "I'll never be as good as sensei" all the time, and I honestly think that it's well intentioned, we all respect our sensei, and sensei will always be sensei of course, but it promotes laziness.

You would never say "I'll never be as good as coach" when you're practicing a sport, if you did you'd be coasting, playing beneath your ability... then you'd be off the team. You are expected to be better than your coach, just as you're expected to be better than  your sensei in the martial arts.

Many years ago I was told that the greatest pride a sensei can have is to have students ranked higher than he is. I believe it. I want my students to be better than I am, to get past me, if they don't, I've wasted a lot of years learning what I know, and I'm a poor teacher.

I've got enough ego left to want to have students who can kick my butt.

Mar 30, 2008
Kim Taylor
You get what you pay for?

Not a chance.

In the martial arts it seems that the more you pay the less you expect. What I mean is that for students who are paying high monthly fees to a commercial dojo, the expectation of pampering and service is at a rather healthy low. Students who pay a lot tend to make sure they show up for class, on time and without asking for much else than to be taught full-bore for those hours they're there.

On the other hand, in those arts where the tradition is that teaching is free, students seem to expect a lot more than a sensei who just shows up and teaches them some sort of skill. Sensei has to be there on time... while the students tend to show up any time at all. Sensei has to foot the bills and clean the dojo. Sensei has to solve the life problems of the students... you know the drill.

Why do you suppose that is? You'd think that if students were paying nothing at all for a class that they'd appreciate it more, and ask for less from the instructor. That they'd help with the cleaning, be at class on time, chip in for expenses, that sort of thing. Nope.

Here's the reasoning as I see it.

I paid for this class so I'm going to be on time and work hard to get my money's worth. This is the instructor's job so I'm not going to ask him to do extra stuff since I don't like people asking me to do extra stuff for nothing in my job.

I'm not paying for this class so I don't really care if I'm on time or not, and I'm doing this guy a favour by being around so he should be trying to keep me here by working his ass off. Beside which he wants to do this so he should be happy to give me all this extra help.

You don't "get what you pay for", you "appreciate something according to what you paid for it". How else do you explain a four thousand dollar designer bag that's mass produced in China? Or students who can't be bothered to show up for free classes and then complain when sensei isn't there?

Mar 20, 2008
Kim Taylor
Sensei is Laughing at me Again

The martial arts are strange things. Educationally they often don't seem to make any sense at all. For instance, if you screw up a technique or get smacked on the head with a stick it's a pretty good bet that sensei will laugh at you.

I was reminded of this last weekend when demonstrating a point at a seminar with one of my oldest students. I hadn't practiced with him regularly for quite a while and forgot what a good student he is. To make a point about how a particular movement is actually a block to a sword strike I waved at him to cut at my head before turning my attention fully to him. My little finger is still pretty black today but I don't think it's any more crooked than it was before the "block". I've even got most of the feeling back in it.

After that class had ended, I showed my student the nice bruise that was still changing colour minute by minute and he just laughed and told me not to be such a whiner. Like I said, a good student who is now a good teacher, someone who laughs at his students if they screw up I'm sure.

While not so good by the old self esteem theory of pedagogy, laughing at your students is pretty effective for what it is intended to do. I may have mentioned before that the martial arts are about self-reliance and personal responsibility. If you missed that earlier, consider it said now. They are also about how to behave during an emergency.

Now when confronted by something like an accident, or an injury (like maybe the loss of a little finger during a swordfight) there are a several things you can do. Flinch, yell, freeze, cry, or simply carry on with what you're doing. Only one of those is actually appropriate in a life and death situation.

The laughter you hear from sensei when you get smacked may seem a bit harsh. In fact it may seem downright cruel if you're the delicate type (physically or psychologically) and it is if you're that type. That laughter is also a lesson in just what failure, pain and loss should feel like. It's the opposite of taking your misfortune seriously, and a chance for you to react somewhat less like a whining, flinching, potentially dying person each class.

So remember the next time sensei laughs and says "We're not laughing with you, we're laughing at you", someday, in front of lots of people, you may get the chance to smack him really hard on the hand and laugh right back at him.

And someday, when the car in front of  you gets hit from the side in an intersection and you can either dive for the floor or steer through the mess, you may find yourself laughing as you pull safely to the side of the road.

Mar 17, 2008
Kim Taylor
The Power of the Body

I spoke about thoughts and their effect on the body below, but I also said "Act happy and you will become happy". That brings up the idea of the body's influence on the mind.

We all do physical activities, we work out at a martial art or go lift weights or run or something. How do you feel afterward? I feel good. If you believe in chemicals you call it endorphins... when you run your body releases endorphins which are natural opiates and these make you feel good. Believe in meditation? Your exercise time breaks the depressive cycles of thought because you're concentrating on the exercise and not on what you should have said when he said.

Here's an exercise to try right now, stand up straight, lock your knees, clench your fists, hunch your shoulders and breath fast and shallow while looking right and left. Check out how you're feeling after a few moments.

Now unclench, drop the shoulders and shake out the arms a bit, unlock the knees and breath deep into your stomach rather than high in your chest. Any change in feelings?

Does the second body position remind you of anything your sensei said to you?

No matter how you think about it, what mechanism you assume is happening, using the body affects the mind.

Mar 16, 2008
Kim Taylor
The Power of Thought

Recently a meta-analysis (analysing multiple data sets from multiple studies) of anti-depressant drugs was done using studies obtained through the freedom of information act and the authors found that anti-depressant drugs were not, in most cases, any more effective than placebos. What is important for us here is the finding that the mere taking of a pill, whether drug or placebo (fake) did in fact produce real benefits.

The placebo effect has been well known for many years, it works. It also explains all sorts of alternative medicine which doesn't seem to have any other explanation for it's effectiveness.

Negative and positive self-talk is also something that we need to pay attention to as martial artists if we want to get the best performance out of ourselves. Positive self-talk has as many names as there are authors who want to make a buck or two on a book and program. Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) was one of the first books I read on the subject, and "The Secret" is the latest incarnation I've heard about. All you really need to know is that a mood / happiness increase will come with happy thoughts and positive actions. Act happy and you will become happy.

In a more focused way, to improve your skills in the martial arts you should visualize yourself successfully doing the particular skill you're working on.

Negative self-talk comes in as many flavours as the self-help stuff does, but it's a bit more "underground" since nobody is touting their failure program on Oprah. "I can't" is one of the most common ways a beginner starts a sentence and as teachers we spend a very large portion of each class trying to prove otherwise. I can't do a front roll, I can't kick over my head, I can't grip the sword like that... So we spend hours and days trying to convince the students otherwise before we can even begin the physical steps toward the skill. It is almost impossible to perform a complex skill by accident, and if you believe you can't do it, the only way to actually do it would be by accident. When you change your tune and believe you actually can perform it you will be able to work toward it.

Another, more subtle form of negative self talk is the opposite of personal responsibility, it's the "reasons why" something won't work. In this wonder-filled age of litigation and laziness we have trained entire generations to believe that it's not their fault. Lean out over a railing on a hiking trail and it breaks... sue the parks service. Drive with hot coffee in your lap and spill it... sue the restaurant for not warning you it's hot. Don't learn the times tables in school... blame the teachers. Unhappy relationship... blame your partner. Car accident... couldn't see out the window. Anything but "yeah, I screwed up, I should have known better..... it's my fault".

The problem with that attitude is several-fold. First of all it removes personal responsibility, which may seem like a good thing... it's not my fault. But along with a loss of personal responsibility comes a big loss of perceived self-efficacy, a loss of the feeling that you can control your life. If it's never your fault, it's also never your accomplishment. You have no control over what happens to you, it's all external. Your safety depends not on your own good judgement, but on some government approved safety test.

It makes you incapable of helping yourself, it prevents you from achieving, it makes you unhappy. In order to improve your life, to acquire a new skill, to fix something, you often have to start with "it's my fault".

Once there you can move on to "I can fix it" and with that statement you really can.

Mar 10, 2008
Kim Taylor
Who Owns the School

You own the ryu you practice. You own it in two different ways, first by sinking so deep into the teachings you go beyond habit, beyond rational analysis into a knowledge of the teachings that resembles your knowledge of your native language.

At that point you no longer recite nursery rhymes and graduate to writing poetry. To be plain, you can make new kata which are in fact, wholly of the school.

The other way you own the school is in a very physical and literal way. As a student you start a payment plan, for each hour you pay in, you receive a certain amount of knowledge from your teachers. Stick around 30 or 40 years and you have quite an investment in the real estate that is the school.

When your teachers eventually pass on they leave you with what they owned, the school. You have as much as they will ever be able to give you now, what you have learned they can no longer correct, add to or take away from, it's wholly yours from that moment on.

Everyone who has been in the school owns as much of it as they've paid for, with those who have paid longest owning the most of course.

What about the soke you say, the menkyo kaiden? Aren't they the owners? Well they are usually those who have been around the longest and so are naturally those who "speak the language" best. Those folks own and are owned most by the school. On the other hand, there may be times when a soke is named by the previous headmaster who may not be the longest studying student. This can happen for various good or bad reasons but always the success of the new leader will depend entirely on the acceptance of those who "own" the school.

Without the students, without the many owners, there is no school. Without you the students there is no language to speak, no real estate to build houses on, no school to learn in.

Mar 8, 2008
Kim Taylor
New articles up today

Finally got around to EJMAS.com today and put five new articles online. Now it's back to running hard to stay in one spot again for a few days.

Here's something for everyone out there, if you want an article, video, or even just a blog entry on some subject or other, let me know. Anything to get me moving in a certain direction rather than sitting here with my "finger in the dyke" will be most appreciated.

Oh, also if anyone knows of some special new product that everyone in the martial arts world will want to buy, let me know will you? With the rising Canadian dollar I could use a couple more income streams.

Mar 7, 2008
Kim Taylor
Do what you say you're going to do

I believe that the martial arts have many lessons that are radically different than what is found in society. I also think this may be as true in their countries of origin as in their adopted lands.

Today I found myself talking about "doing what you say you're going to do" in relation to some comment or other. This seems such a blindingly obvious thing to me, but it may not be so obvious in the general attitude of the day so perhaps I will expand a bit here.

To "do what you say you're going to do" is something that I learned back in my earliest days... in the late '50s and early '60s. It was part of growing up to be a man and was included with such other ideas as personal responsibility and service to others. You did what you said you would, you took responsibility for what you did, and you thought about others before you thought about yourself.

I don't think much of that is taught now. In fact, after the "me generation" years of the '80s, and the morphing of "the personal is political" into "whatever I feel is what should be enshrined in law" I think the idea of personal responsibility is as weak as it has ever been. It's now the age of suing a company because their coffee is hot, the idea that we may be responsible for our own happiness is just starting to reappear as a radical new idea in the self help business after years of blaming anyone, everyone else for our unhappiness.

Where did the "manly virtues" come from in the first place? Well "do what you say you're going to do" is pretty easy to explain in a martial context. If you're planning a battle and one officer says "I'll be here with my men and we'll attack this position so that you can attack that one", you'd better be able to believe the fellow will be there or you and your men are going to die.

It's a matter of trust, and it still is. If you want your friends, employers or kids to trust you, you'd better deliver on your promises.

It doesn't cut it to say to yourself "it's easier to say I'll do this and avoid an argument" and then not do it. There are whole societies out there that smile and say yes no matter what, but this is not being polite, this is not consensus building, this is shear personal laziness. Go along with the crowd and agree but don't do it later. Tell someone you'll do a job and then don't do it because your boss, girlfriend, father tells you to do something else? Lazy. Say you'll do some unpleasant chore to avoid getting yelled at and then not do it? Lazy.

Lazy, lazy and worse. In our age of non-confrontation and zero tolerance for arguments and conformity to the politically correct we have become plain and simple liars.

Once upon a time we believed that "all a man has is his word". What does a man have now? Not even his word... perhaps money, a job for a few more months until the company goes under anyway. A kid that's happy for a few days until he finds out you really didn't mean you were going to the beach with him. Eventually what you have is a whole community of people who don't trust you any more than they trust themselves.

Do what you say you're going to do, and don't promise things you can't deliver. If you don't want to do something, say so and have the argument. You may be surprised at how different you feel about yourself.

Sometimes the hard way is the right way.

Mar 3, 2008
Kim Taylor
Alice in Budoland

I do a fair bit of wandering around in the Wonderland that is organization. I have to deal with school administration, several levels of budo organization, photo studio co-ops and at one time, the pit of despair that was a job with a large empolyer.

For 30 years I've felt like Alice, running as hard as I can to stay in the same spot.

While thinking about things like teaching, and who's going to carry on with the budo stuff in our organization it occured to me that I haven't seen much forward progress in the last few years... running hard for the same spot as I said. This is unfortunate because I can see where we could be further along, and on a personal level, I could be a lot further... I have projects that have been on hold for 15 years hanging around the place.

Then I flashed on my problem, and it relates to how I treat my kids 'er students 'er kids too. While I truly believe in making it easier for the next generation, I think I've been a bit slack in the responsibility department. Maybe it's time to ask some of those coming up to hold the ladder, so I can get a bit further along myself.

If Isaac Newton "stood on the shoulders of giants" to produce his great works, meaning he built on the work of the great thinkers who came before him, it is just as important to "stand on the shoulders of the next giants". In other words, for leaders, or mom and dad, to get ahead, it's important for those who are coming along behind to provide a solid base, to hold the ladder, so that the entire organization can move on up.

As a kid I should have been taking care of the housework, or at least my share of it so that Mom could make a bit more money for the family. As a grad student I did the lab work so that my supervisor could make the connections, get the grant money and dream up the lab's direction. As a budo student I should be taking care of the organizational details, fending off the bureaucracy, organizing the seminar details and all that other stuff so that sensei can work on his own practice, deepen his insights, produce those instructional videos and manuals and generally get along with pulling my butt up the ladder after him.

Now up to today I had always had the idea that the organization / family / human race goes ahead by flinging the younger members out ahead of the older ones. "Here kid, hold this string and I'll throw you across the gap, then you pull a larger rope over and we make a bridge", but that's only one way to do it. If the "top guys" are going to be up there for several years it's a bit of a waste of time for everyone to wait until the kids get skillful enough to move over them. Better to push from below in the meantime so that when it is time to do the leapfrog we're all further along the path. "Here old man, we've built this ladder and you climb up, then we push it over and you drop onto the other side and we've got our bridge already. We'll shove your fat arse up the rungs, just hang on when you get to the top".

If the guy on top of the ladder has to constantly come back down to repair the broken rungs nobody is going to get very far.

Mar 2, 2008
Kim Taylor
How to get a style

One of my students mentioned that my sensei had corrected something I said to her. Fair enough, I'm often corrected, but when I looked into it I found that what was really happening was that she had taken a comment from me and exaggerated it past where I would have wanted it myself.

Or as I said, "made it a fetish". I have noticed this many times actually, there are entire lines of MJER that seem to have taken a single written comment from an old book and made it a fetish, in this case pushing the hips so far into the chiburi that they are almost unbalanced.

I wonder how many differences in "style" can be tracked back to something that sensei once said. While we look and copy it's not easy to go too far from what sensei does, but when, on occasion, sensei says something to us, or even more potent, when he writes it down, the rational mind can take over and suddenly that offhand correction or simple instruction becomes the most important point in the lineage.

Without the correction of our eyes, and without sensei making darned sure he's doing what he says and saying only what he does, students can move far beyond what was intended. If sensei is old, or injured and needs to tell students to "do what I say and not what I do" he needs to be especially clear and watch for any exaggeration from the students.

Similarly, if sensei has said "do this" as an over-correction to a problem, he needs to make sure that the students pull it back again at some time in the future or they're likely to carry that exaggeration on for the rest of their career.

Don't make comments into a fetish, remember that the keyword is "natural". If it feels too far from natural there's a good chance you've overshot the mark.

Mar 1, 2008
Kim Taylor

Over the years in several martial arts I've had a thought or two about teaching, who wants to, who should, even who should not.

Here's a typical scenerio that illustrates the different attitudes to teaching and, by extension, to the character of the participating students. Big teacher comes to town for a seminar. Students line up, who's at the front and who's at the back? Now the class starts, who's "helping" and who's practicing?

There's two ways to line up in a class, at the front and at the back. Seniors get to pick where they go because they can tell their juniors to bump over. So here you have the, perhaps only once a year, chance to learn a bit. Where are the seniors? I know where I am, and it's not because I'm told to be there, I figure you've got a better chance to learn, a better chance to be called forward and ripped apart, if you're down front. Not only that but if you're down front you don't have to watch any of the juniors behind you, for a while they're SOP, someone else's problem and you can concentrate on your own problems. When you're near the beginners they are very likely to turn to you and say "what's he mean by that?" every 12 seconds instead of being silent and watching the front.

On the other hand, you get some seniors who want to hide, who don't want to be embarassed, humiliated and belittled by the visiting teacher. Call me a masochist but I love that stuff. Then again I don't much care what my students think of me either.

Once the class starts you get even more insight on who's what in their own minds. It can start as early as two or three weeks practice, and you see the teacheritis bug hit. Nothing better than a beginner who wants to tell you what sensei really means since his own sensei has told him how to do this technique.

But there's the seniors too, still hiding out but now they're doing it by "helping" the juniors instead of working on their own practice. It's easier to avoid the hard work of learning by assuming you know it already and can assist sensei by teaching instead. Wrong wrong wrong. Unless sensei tells you to help, take the chance to learn. The time to disappear is when sensei is looking for someone to take the absolute beginners off to one side so the rest of the class can move along. Me, I'm shrinking back into the shadows and letting someone else step forward. There's always someone who wants to be picked by sensei to teach the beginners isn't there? Someone who can then say "sensei picked me to teach the beginners".

Pah, I don't want to teach them, I want to learn from sensei.

Now I may be a bit misleading here, there are some folks who have physical problems, who can't practice as hard as they used to when they were young but you know, sensei can see that. Get down front and do as much as you can for as long as you can and rest when you have to but keep your butt on the floor and listen hard. If you have to drag a chair up to the side of the room you can still sit and listen and learn. Teaching is a lousy way to rest... or rather, someone who is resting is a lousy teacher.

Teaching can be one of the fastest ways to stop a student in his tracks. You have to be very careful who you assign a teaching role because for many people that's it for their learning. "I'm a teacher so I've got nothing left to learn, now I teach". Ouch. Not only do those guys make lousy teachers, they can also pass on that attitude to the students. The best students to assign as assistants are the ones who hate it, who beg to be let off, who don't want to teach, but want only to learn. Those are the ones who will keep learning while they're teaching.

As I've said before, rank is a punishment, and so's teaching. Anything that takes you away from learning is to be avoided by all good students.

Feb 24, 2008
Kim Taylor
Just what does a "Black Belt" mean?

In Aikido I spent 11 years getting to black belt (shodan), and that isn't all that unusual in Canada, the bare minimum was about 5 years. While this seems standard in the West, I suspect this isn't the case in Japan, where teaching ranks would come in around 5-6dan, but at Shodan you can teach in an independant dojo under the Canadian Aikido Federation. In the Canadian Kendo Federation the system is coordinated with Japan, and you can teach at 5dan, which in Canada would take a minimum of 12 years after getting a shodan rank (6 months to a year to shodan for most adults), which equates pretty closely to my experience getting a shodan in Aikido.

Although 5dan is ZenKenRen teaching rank, I would be willing to bet there aren't all that many godan in Japan with their own dojo, I suspect the actual rank to begin teaching there would be somewhere between 6 and 7dan on average). In other words, in ZenKenRen the ranks from ikkyu to sandan or so would be equivalent to about 5kyu to 3kyu in Aikido in seriousness and difficulty.

Put in your time and get the rank until you start getting near the place where you can officially start teaching, then the judges start looking closely at you. If you ignore differences in the actual rank this happens, I suspect most organizations act pretty much the same way.

Contrary then, to the common thinking in the west, a "black belt" is not equivalent between different arts, or between different countries, but time to teaching rank may actually be more consistent than one suspects.

Should rank be standard around the world? In the International Kendo Federation, sure, since FIK rank from Indonesia is good in Holland. But koryu rank is going to vary from menkyo to menkyo, and there's no reason for it not to do so. Each of those grading systems is independant of the other. In the FIK you have multiple 8dans and multiple menkyo holders so it CAN be standardized since they all look at each other.

It's impossible that grades would ever be coordinated across several organizations of course, who would enforce that, and how?

"Black belt" vs "classical grades", which are better?

Talking about the virtues of grading in a modern organization such as the ZenKenRen which gives dan grades or in a koryu system with its own certification system may be rather a moot point given that people training for the same period of time are likley to have the same skill level. If you put in your time seriously and you've got an instructor that has a minimum level of skill in teaching then you will get to a certain level after a certain time. So what's the problem? If you like koryu licenses better than ZenKen licenses, do those. The licenses don't magically provide the skill level, nor do they even indicate it except in a very rough way, that level is only demonstrated when you get on the floor and start swinging lumber.

In ZenKenRen you have to please a panel of several instructors, the majority (if not all) of whom are not your instructor (after, of course, you please your instructor who puts you up for the grade). In koryu you just have to please your instructor and maybe his boss. Either way you get or don't get your rank depending on both your skill and who you've pissed off lately. If you piss off your instructor you don't get a grade. If your instructor pissed off the guys above him (in either system) you don't get the grade (provided the guys above are petty and vindictive, and that too I suggest is organization independent).

I'll leave it up to others to debate which system (committee or direct instructor) is most objective or maintains the most objective standards or whatever. I suspect the important point to take home is that you put in the time and you gain the skill (unless you're hopeless).

What do Grades Mean Anyway?

There are some smaller arts out there that don't have any grading system at all. If it's one dojo with 10 or 20 people than what's the point of any kind of grading or certification? Everyone knows who came into the dojo first, who's spent the most time training, and what skill level each has. It's only when you get into larger organizations that you need some way to compare skill levels, or time in, or permission to teach etc. If you don't know the fellow who just walked in the door, it's handy to have some way to peg where to put him in the class before you start.

If you are in a grading system, such as the ZenKenRen, the demands of the grading increase as you go up in grade. By the time you start to challenge 8dan, very very few people pass, and even fewer pass on their first try. I have heard a story from a member of the grading panel on the iaido side that a soke of one of the iaido schools has tried the exam many times but been failed each time. He puts too much of his school into the ZenKenRen iaido kata and refuses to do them the "kendo" way since that would mess up his koryu. Everyone understands the situation, and he doesn't seem to mind attempting the exams and failing. Why? Perhaps the process may be more important than the result. I can think of several other reasons for doing it, including exposing the top grading people in the ZenKen to his style of iai, which is one of the smaller styles.

At the lower rank levels grades may seem to be more or less automatic as I mentioned above. In the CKF we do fail people starting at ikkyu, but we aren't grading hundreds of people per grade level (more like scores at the kyu and shodan levels). In Aikido I used to go to summer camp and was quite offended that on a three year cycle everyone, the whole group from kyu to yondan/godan or so, passed two years, then on the third everyone failed and we got a lecture about slipping standards. I argue instead for looking at the individual and what he does on the day of the exam. I've passed students of mine who do a good job on the day but don't seem quite up to it in class, and I've failed students of mine who blew their exam but do quite well in class. I dunno if that's fair or not but it's the way I figure it should be done. The other four or five people on the panel have their own ways of looking at things I'm sure but it's surprising just how consistent the passes and fails are.

What do I get with my Dan rank?

In some dojo the students line up according to rank, in others it's according to seniority. My dojo seems to have people who sometimes compete to sit in the low spot in the dojo, all the most senior people jockey to see who can be the most humble. Occasionally I need to rearrange them so that there are people spread across the floor. Mostly though they come in and sit down wherever they happen to be.

I can't think of much else that one gets with one's rank. Perhaps in a more commercialized organization one's pay scale might be related to rank, but for us it seems that the more rank, the more crappy organizational jobs you get to take on.

As I have often said, rank is a punishment, not a reward.

Feb 22, 2008
How many ranks are there?

I get asked what rank I am quite a bit, and it seems to be a big concern to many folks. I'd like to say a little bit about meaningful ranks and how many there are.

As far as I can remember in the Aikikai there were two ranks, 1. When you could teach (shodan), and 2. when you could award rank (shihan). Everything else is just placeholder and an encouragement to the kids to keep moving along in their practice.

In other arts those two ranks happen at different times, for instance in the kendo federation you can't teach independantly until 5dan and you can't ever award rank by yourself but you can start sitting on panels at the same rank.

I can't actually think of any other "real" grades in the arts.

So what are the uses of all the other dan ranks, shogo (renshi, kyoshi, hanshi), instructor levels (fukushidoin, shidoin), and koryu papers like oku iri and mokuroku and menkyo and meister and provost and all that other stuff? Well as Joe Svinth once said, Ego boosting, student bragging (my sensei's belt is scruffier than yours), and advertising value (who wouldn't want to study with a soke rather than a sensei?).

It's also a good way to do a fast check on where people's priorities lie, just like in academia. If someone is a full professor and insists on being called "Professor Jones", while another full professor says, "call me Jimmy"... or if one guy in the department is constantly angling for that "assistant professor" title (which carries absolutely no extra administrative weight or money at all) while another is simply working away in the office at his grant applications so that his techs and grad students can do good work for him...

In other words confusing the title with the man, or on the personal level, confusing the title for the accomplishment.

As my Aikido sensei used to say, "rank is a measure of how long you've been hanging around".

Feb 1, 2008
Life and Fame

Ooooo Kaaaaay

I just got the urge to do a little bit on living your life day by day as if you were going to die tomorrow and sort of flipped onto some celebrity gossip page by accident.

My gods, that's all that need be said on that subject isn't it.

Jan 29, 2008

Here's something that I'm starting to notice, the constant explanations by folks who have traveled to Japan and post on the internet all about how the Japanese pronounce adopted words. "The Japanese, who play basuboru (that's Japanese for baseball)..."

It's starting to irritate me, maybe because I live in multicutural Canada, or because we've got lots of Japanese around here, or because I occasionally edit academic papers by Japanese scientists for their English content. Whatever the reason, it's making a language out of an accent which isn't very useful to anyone.

"Hey I picked up my yard today and my Pakistani neighbour said he thought it was "beddy goood" (that's Pakistani for very good)..."

"When he saw his friend the fellow from Brooklyn said "yo mo fo" (that's ghetto for..."

You get the idea, a bit too condescending for my taste.

Of course I realize it's a way of saying "Hey I've been to Japan and know how they talk over there" but honestly, can't we find a less obvious way to brag?

Jan 28, 2008
Cleaning the Tsuka Ito

I've been getting a few questions on how to maintain this and that. Here's my take on your sword hilt, more specifically the wrap and how to clean all that oil, grime and dead skin that gets packed in there over the years.

There's nothing all that difficult about cleaning the tsukaito. Warm soapy water and a toothbrush is what's usually recommended. Just don't drop the tsuka in the sink and let it soak. The water might swell the paper padding in the wrap but it won't do much more than that. Clean, wrap dry with a towel and let air dry for a day or so.

Or you could use what I use, 70% isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) which is just as good at getting out the dead skin and oil and dries much faster than soapy water. You can clean the ito in place using a toothbrush. If some of it gets a bit loose, glue it down, if the knot starts to come undone, glue it down. If the wrap is loosening you can try watering down some white carpenter's glue and injecting it under the ito to stiffen it up a bit. There are all sorts of these kinds of tricks

When you clean the tsuka it's a good time to check out the rest of the fittings and to remove and re-shim it if necessary, so that when you put it all back together it's tight again. Just don't unwrap the ito, there's never any reason to do that unless the wrap comes undone by itself (well, usually by you twisting your hands around while you use the blade). I've never ever had to re-wrap a tsuka because I don't move my hands much since my beginner days when I ended up with blood running down my wrist from one hand. Too much rubbing back and forth over a rough wrap job led to a blister then to no skin, all in the course of a half hour's suburi exercise.

If you unwrap the ito you'll never get it wrapped up again because when the wrap is done, the knot is tied and the ends are cut off short. There's nothing left to re-tie that knot... unless you stitched a couple of inches on to each end... hmm.

Jan 26, 2008
Lecture by Katherine Govier,
Writer, Iaido practitioner, Kobudo black belt

My Musashi Pilgrimage
February 6, 2008 (Wednesday), 6:30-8:30 P.M. Booksigning to follow.
The Japan Foundation, Toronto, 131 Bloor Street West, Suite 213

Statue of Musashi in Miyamoto, Mimasaka, Okayama, Japan

Canadian writer Katherine Govier was drawn to Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645), the "sword saint" and author of Gorin sho (The Book of Five Rings). The legendary Musashi was never beaten in combat. Before he died he retreated into meditation to write the classic text on warriors' philosophy. On Govier's journey to Japan, tracking the sword saint to his final resting place, she tried to understand his transformation from killer to man of spirit.

Reservation Required: 416.966.1600 x.229, rsvp@jftor.org
February 6, 2008 (Wednesday), 6:30-8:30 P.M. Booksigning to follow.
The Japan Foundation, Toronto, 131 Bloor Street West, Suite 213
Free admission

November 27, 2007 ~ February 26, 2008 at The Japan Foundation, Toronto www.jftor.org
Special Saturday openings: February 2 & 16, noon to 5:00 P.M.

This event is part of the celebration of the 80th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between Japan and Canada.

Jan 26, 2008
SIRC articles

Wind Chill Cards

The cooling sensation caused by the
combined effect of temperature and wind is called wind chill. Exposed skin at very cold wind chills can freeze in only minutes. The risk of frostbite increases rapidly when wind chill values go below -27.

To help protect yourself from wind chill, Environment Canada and SIRC are providing wallet-sized business cards with a wind chill chart along with some winter weather safety tips. Print out and distribute these wallet sized cards.

... Print Cards »

Dos and Don'ts

Participating athletically in cold, inclement weather can be a challenge. Athletes as well as caregivers can be subjected to significant thermal risk. It is important to recognize how quickly cold can interfere with bodily function.

Information is presented on the following topics that are related to sports and exercise in cold temperatures: the types of outdoor cold temperature, the loss of body heat, cold weather First Aid, hypothermia, clothing tips and altitude.

... Read more »

Minimizing Risk

The seasonal changes that bring colder weather do not stop athletes from training and competing. Our eclectic panel of experts rely on their clinical and research expertise to discuss concerns that are novel to this environment, and provide suggestions for preparing and protecting athletes for exercise in cold weather.

... Read more »

Outdoor Education

The rustle of wind blown leaves across the school grounds on a cool, crisp late Autumn day; the swirl of the first wet snowflakes accumulating on the playground; the certain slant of light on winter afternoons.  Does this mean the end of outside physical education classes until spring?  Not necessarily.

... Read more »

News from SIRC

Wallet-Sized Wind Chill Safety Cards

SIRC is pleased to announce, in conjunction with Environment Canada, the availability of wallet-sized wind chill safety cards for the sporting community.

... Read more »

SIRC Seminar Series

Dispute Prevention and Resolution

Speaker: Allan Stitt, Chair

Location: SIRC, 180 Elgin St., Suite 1400, Ottawa

Date: February 12, 2008

Time: 9:00- 11:00 am

Click HERE to Register!

... Read more »

Jan 26, 2008
Kim Taylor
Koryu changes

I received the following questions and figured I'd give my thoughts about them here, for what they're worth.

I'd like to hear what you've got to say about "modifying koryu".  What are your thoughts on it?  At what point does somebody have the right to change what they've learned?  Koryu purists would say "never" and go on believing that any changes that occurred in their lineage prior to them were the result of divine inspiration, done with the blessing of the koryu gods ... What do you think?

I think it's a pretty common assumption that the koryu never change, and a corollary I've often heard is that the ZNKR iai kata (Seitei Gata) change every time the committee gets together for beer.

As far as I'm concerned, that's exactly opposite to the reality. The ZKR iai is "written down", it's well described and practised according to that written (on paper if not in stone) description. When it does occasionally change or get additions, those need to be debated and passed by, yes, the committee. Anybody who has ever done committee work will know instantly just how easy it is to get things changed through that method.

The koryu are much easier to change. Small schools of a single headmaster and dojo change hour by hour as sensei picks and chooses what to practise. By emphasizing some things and not others the students obtain different arts. By getting older sensei changes in the way he can perform the techniques, and again, the students obtain different arts.

In schools that are very large, with many different lineages, again you'll see drift as some lines emphasize some things and others, others.

None of these changes are intentional, they are natural and inevitable.

Headmasters can of course change the art intentionally, they can add and drop kata, change the way the kata are practised, and re-write the history if they choose. Even headmasters learn, longer and deeper practise, more experience with other arts, or just longer experience in life itself will change what sensei wants to pass along, this can result in subtle or major changes in the art which accordingly get passed along to the current crop of students.

Each time a headmaster changes the school, you'll get branches as the old guys leave to preserve the old ways... which will then drift in their own way.

You'll get students who leave to make their own changes, perhaps because they practise two or three arts and want to add one to another, or don't have time, or lose a sensei or get booted out. They will use what they know and carry on in their own way, changing the art as they do.

When can you change what you've learned? Good question and of course there's no answer, or rather there's no one answer. When can you change the colour of your bedroom walls? When you want to, when you have to, never if you don't have to, why would you want to? On and on.

You WILL change the art, right from the beginning, simply by practising it and being a different person than your sensei. It is impossible to perform the art as your sensei did, and your students will perform it differently than you. There may come a time when you have to change the art, for instance when you damage a knee, or your shoulder stiffens up, your technique must be adapted. You can tell your students not to do it like you now do it, but of course they will. The eye-body link is stronger than the brain-body link when you're doing these arts.

By the way, the only way you can actually change an art is to pass it along to your students in an altered form. If you do the art differently and don't pass it along, it is as if you made no changes at all.

It is entirely conceivable that you will add exercises to your class, extract bits from kata, add bits to kata, combine kata, to help your students get some point or other. These additions to the art may, in their turn be passed along by your students and the line will eventually contain these extra kata.

You may have little time to practise various sections of your art, and pass along only a core of techniques, this will also change the lineage that passes through you.

Any school that lives is changing. Life is change. My personal advice is to accept that you can't do it like sensei, that you aren't the same person. Practise what sensei teaches you, try to perform it that way as well as you can, try to understand what he says, and then try to understand what you can on your own. Eventually the art will become yours, when sensei dies it IS yours. Shu ha ri.

Another related thought: you've learned any number of "styles" of Jikiden, so how do you decide which one(s) you're personally going to do?  How do you feel about mixing and matching?  ("This is the noto from X-sensei; this is the cut from Y-sensei; this is the nukitsuke of Z-sensei...")

It's not that uncommon now to be able to practise with several sensei. This can be a problem for many students and should likely not be undertaken by beginners since it will only confuse things. A single clear voice is best when you're starting out, and beginners absolutely want to be told the "right way" to do a kata. There is only one way to do it correctly when you're learning... if you're lucky.

For those who have moved along and may have many years experience it's a good thing to be able to practise with different lines and sensei, it gives a more nuanced idea of what's out there. You may also be doing a bit of forensic geneaolgy/archaeology. By learning from three or four sensei you may take what's common to all of them and assume that the common bits come from when those sensei branched off from each other. So the common practices of four students of a single sensei should be what that sensei taught. If the four students learned at different periods of sensei's life their common practices ought to be what sensei never changed over the years. Is this an infallable way to get at the past? Who knows, but it's all we may have in the age before video.

Now, to your question, should you mix and match? Yes and no. The first thing you have to do is understand for yourself what the underlying assumptions are for your line. What is core to the meaning of your practise. When you can do that you can make changes, pick this or that way of doing things, that don't change the underlying core meaning.

For example, one sensei may do a final cut with a very long low stance, the back foot flat on the ground and the hips well sunk down, the tip almost to the ground. Another sensei may finish the kata with a cut that is much more upright, stance shorter, back foot pressing forward, tip up, body square to the front. If the first line assumes that there are no more possible opponents in the room when you finish the kata, and the second line assumes that there are, these two ways of finishing a kata are not interchangeable. One says "finish it!!!" and the other says "finish it but watch out, his buddy may have ideas".

So some choices are not possible without changing the underlying meaning of your lineage. Others you may make for various reasons; you want to remember a sensei, you feel this way is stronger or smoother than the one you originally learned, you can't physically do something your original way but you find a new way from another sensei.

A poor way to make those choices is "to be different". It's seldom a good idea to do something because you're the only one who does it in your line. "Ha, I did a seminar with Y-sensei and you didn't so I'm doing my sageo control this way to show you guys that I know a secret and you don't" or some such rationalization. Not very useful in the end.

The bottom line is that change is inevitable, but it is not inevitable that we push that change along just for the sake of changing things. "Dance with the one that brung ya." Your sensei's instruction got you to where you are now, why would you think that the same instruction would not bring your students to the same place? Why change?

Jan 23, 2008
Kim Taylor
Newly published articles

Three articles by yours truly for EJMAS this month:

  1. Changeless Sword Schools? Are the arts really the same as they were 10 years ago?
  2. Sword Training in the West An old article from 1999 reprinted.
  3. Judging Considerations, 2008 Just what it sounds like, my thoughts on judging.

Jan 22, 2008
Kim Taylor
More one of a kind stuff at SDKsupplies

one of a kind stuff

Should try to keep folks updated on the new things happening at SDKsupplies, so here's notice of a new page for such one of a kind items as a vintage fireman's coat, very fancy sword bags, a couple of hand stitched kendo gi and much other interesting stuff that we've accumulated around the place.

Check it out here

Jan 19, 2008
Kim Taylor
Kendo World Magazine

Kendo World

Just got my copy of the December 2007 issue, 4.1. Coverage of the All Japan Kendo Champs and the Women's All Japan Champs by Sei Do Kai alumnus Tyler Rothmar. An article by USA team captain Chris Yang on their upset of Japan at the last Worlds. Lots of Naginata pages, a story on making bokuto and several other items worth checking out. 132 pages.

You can subscribe at http://www.kendo-world.com/ if you haven't done so already.

Jan 18, 2008
Kim Taylor
Combat Effectiveness: Training "with the intent to kill"

Getting interested in the idea of training with the intent to kill, without actually killing, sort of reminds me of when I was 17 and I used to say to the girls "let's go all the way but we won't get you pregnant OK?"

Here's one possible way to train like that, it's a comment on a session of sharps swordplay in England in 1710 as quoted from Terry Brown's "English Martial Arts" page 52 (Anglo Saxon Books, 1997)

"They began the fight with broadswords. The Moor got the first wound, above the breast, which bled not a little. Then the onlookers began to cheer and call for Wood; they threw down vast quantities of shilling and crowns, which were picked up by his second... In the second round the Englishman, Wood, took a blow above the loins of such force that, not only did his shirt hang in tatters, but his sword was knocked out of his hand, and all the buttons on one side of his open breeches he wore were cut away.

"Then they went for each other with sword and dagger, and the Moor got a nasty wound in the hand, which bled freely. It was probably due to this that, when they attacked each other twice with "sword and buckler", that is to say with broadsword and shield, the good Moor recieved such a dreadful blow that he could not fight any longer. He was slashed from the left eye right down his cheek to his chin and jaw with such force that one could hear the sword grating against his teeth. Straightaway not only the whole of his shirt front but the platform too was covered with blood. the wound gaped open as wide as a thumb, and I cannot tell you how ghastly it looked on the black face. A barber-surgeon immediately sprang towards him and sewed up the wound, while the moor stood there without flinching. When this had been done and a cloth bound round his head, the Moor would have liked to continue the fight, but since he had bled so profusely, neither the surgeon nor the seconds, who act as umpires, would allow this. So the combatants shook hands (as they did after each round) and prepared to get down. "

Brown includes a similar passage on female combatants with like results. Another bout, on the previous page ended when one master had his "sinues split" and could not hold his blade any longer. Granted these were theatre displays and not normal everyday training (which was done with dull blades so you got bruises and broken bones but usually not maimed or dead) but they do show the logical result of training for "reality" and effectiveness. How else could one possibly know if what one is learning is effective without such full-bore tests of skill. All else is just play-fighting.

Here's another reason why I don't defend iaido's "combative effectiveness" when asked about it. I would very much prefer that any potential student who wants to learn how to kill people go to a "kenjutsu" school or a "ninja" school to learn such things. Far from contradicting the idea that iaido is combatively ineffective, I would encourage this belief wherever it occurs and I thank those who repeat it. It's not a new thought by the way, I just tripped over something I wrote around 1990 which is on the exact same topic.

Please, if you want to learn how to kill and maim people, avoid my sissy sword school and go to a place where they are willing to teach you such things, let them worry about the liability and insurance problems. If, after you've learned how to kill people effectively, on the battlefield and off, you then want to study iaido, by all means give me a call. I'll be here next week, year, decade, and so will the other sissy sensei.

By the way, I'd be interested to hear from those who have participated in armed combat with sharps such as described by Mr. Brown to test their battlefield-effective sword skills. If you'd like to do an article on the bouts I'd be happy to publish it. Photos would also be good.

Jan 14, 2008
Kim Taylor
A bit more yelling

You'll find that different schools kiai in different ways and with different specific kiai. Niten Ichiryu has three kiai sounds but they are only done on the Shidachi side in the nito seiho (two sword side). They are Zu Tan Feh

MJER tachi uchi no kurai has ya ei to

Kendo no kata has ya to, and so on. You'll even find that iaido "has kiai" it's usually silent but it's there in many lines. I often find my jaw dropping although my mouth isn't open when I'm doing iai.

Years ago I read an account of Morihei Ueshiba's involvement with kotodama, the study of sounds. Don't ask me which was which, it really was several years ago, but there were three examples, a sound that pierced, one that cleaved in two and one that suppressed or smothered.

Jan 12, 2008
Kim Taylor
What's this kiai stuff?

I occasionally have to explain the need to yell during various classes, especially to beginners who are a bit shy. The fastest answer of course is "because we tell you to". If that doesn't work I can explain a bit about breathing out on exertion and how a sensei can tell how you're breathing by the sounds.

As far as partner practice is concerned, I have noticed that you can control, to a large extent, how the kata proceeds by the volume, intensity and direction of your kiai. Aim a good blast right at your partner and his concentration levels pick right up. I don't usually try to use kiai to disrupt my partner but I have no doubt it can be done.

I also teach kiai in my women's self defence classes and there it works very well to disrupt an opponent. Let someone get a good grip on you, make sure they can anticipate your movements and maintain control, then suddenly let fly right at their face with your voice (or your hand) and their grip is suddenly gone.

In kendo, or any other art where you kiai a lot you can get used to the volume and the shock, so that you can start wondering if kiai is being "overdone" or useful at all. Then you start thinking about all sorts of things like varying the pitch, "projecting ki" and other suchlike. But the point in class would seem to be to get to just that stage, where your voice is powerful, you can project it well, and you yourself are not affected.

Now go use it against someone who's not used to it.

Jan 11, 2008
Offsite articles

SIRC Top 10 Most Requested Articles of 2007

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Articles are available online or through SIRC’s document delivery service. In this issue of the SIRC newsletter we would like to share ten of the top requested articles of 2007.

Feature Articles

The moderating effects of social support and playing status on the life stress-injury relationship

Rehab exercises for shin splints

The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and physical performance in female collegiate athletes

Core stability in the footballer: time to bin the old sit-up regime?

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Jan 10, 2008
Kim Taylor
Valazquez Boxing Fatality Collection

Joe Svinth sent this link to a story by Rich Hofmann in the Philidelphia Daily News on the Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection.

Jan 9, 2008
Kim Taylor
Why do we do what we do?

A good question, one that used to concern me a lot when I was younger. You get a fellow who asks "why do you practice that old weapons stuff, it isn't any use in modern life or for self defence"?

Here's all the reasons I used to go through,

  • It does actually have a great self defence component, after all if I can deal with a sword I can probably deal with a punch.
  • I don't want to practice self defence, I want to practice something that can't be confused with self defence so I can concentrate on other things beside "effectiveness" and all the silly arguments associated with that discussion.
  • These arts are actually a form of meditation, you've got to concentrate and put aside excess rational thought when someone's swinging lumber at your head or you get hurt.
  • It's great for keeping the body limber, my shoulders have never been so mobile.
  • Forearms like Popeye.
  • It's a way of interacting with the world, a creative act in an aimless and pointless universe.
  • I'm preserving a dying cultural heritage. (OK I never used that one but I've heard it a lot).
I can probably think of dozens of others that have crossed my mind over the years but now I'm starting to understand what many of my instructors have told me over the years.

I do it because I've always done it. It's what I do.

Some time a lot of years ago this stuff became a part of what I am. I've been doing one form of Japanese martial art or another for well over half my life and I can't picture myself not doing it, any more than I can picture myself not walking around and breathing. In other words, the question has stopped having any meaning, it's just confusing. Q. Why do I do it? A. Of course I do it. See, doesn't make sense any more.

Jan 9, 2008
Kim Taylor
Welcome to the blog

This isn't your usual blog, it's not on a blog system so it won't act like you expect it to, but check up at the top left there, you'll find a link to an email where you can comment on anything and we'll post it here.

Otherwise, this thing isn't prone to being hacked, and I don't have to pay any more attention to it than to any other page on the website.

No promises but I'll likely update fairly regularly.

The blog is sponsored by EJMAS.com and by SDKsupplies.com Go visit them both.

Jan 9, 2008