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Brutal Self Analysis

These notes aren't so much the crabby natterings of Unka Grumpy, as a dialog with myself and those six readers who bother with them. As I write on this or that I find what I think about the topic. This may sound strange, after all, how can you not know how you think? Trust me, if you accept the first reaction to a question you are, by definition, not thinking, you're "going on instinct" which means you are using prejudice and dogma. Granted, it's easier to simply "stick to your principles" and repeat the beliefs by rote, but any opinion that can't be examined and defended, modified and amended is just that, a belief system. The world is not flat and DNA exists, I know that because I've seen the world from high up and I've made new things from DNA for a living.

You have to examing your "beliefs" as rigorously as you practice your martial arts. Your thoughts must be organized like you organize your kata or you will ever be a beginner, an uneducated child in the universe of knowledge. The first step is to accept that what you know may not be what is true. When you practice the sword, your first step to improving, to living through the next battle (let's assume you fall through the Alternate Universe Interface and need to fight the zombies) is to hand yourself to a teacher. What this means is that you simply listen with an open mind so that when your teacher says "your tip is low" you do not accept your first body impression and deny it, but you question your propioreception and accept the possibilty that you may be mistaken about where you figure the tip is. Raise the tip and look at the mirror (not the other way around), or raise the tip until teacher says OK, then tell yourself the tip way up high like that isn't really way up high. Eventually, if you're a good student willing to question your own body sense, you will come to believe that feeling is the correct position. You will come, through questioning and an open mind, to a true feeling for the tip of the sword.

Who is the teacher in your mental journey to truth? Well it isn't a book, it isn't a teacher who makes you memorize the times tables or repeat historical dates. It isn't dogma we're looking for, it's truth, and while dogma may sometimes be true, it can't by definition (dogma doesn't change), become true. Facts and figures are not truth, the search is truth, the question is truth the start and finish is theory. This is "science". The scientific method starts with an idea, just like religion, but science means you try to disprove that idea. You question, you experiment, you measure and you stress test. When your discussions and investigations show cracks in your idea, you change the idea and start the process once more. This continues for your whole life, the process being the important part, just like swinging the sword is the important part, not getting the grade or having the fancy title. You can self-award a rank and you can come up with amazing ideas but both are delusion. Even coming up with a "true" idea is delusion until you test it, accidental truth isn't any more useful to your growth than thinking up fairies to explain mood swings. Being open to changing your mind, or changing your propioreception is not "betraying your principles", it's having a student's mind (shoshin). Without shoshin learning is impossible.

Without putting your beliefs and opinions out there so that someone can get in your face and call bullshit, you have no shoshin. It's a bit distressing that in the "age of the internet" where we can reach people all over the world, we seem not to be seeking conflict, but rather we create bubbles of confirmation. We split up into groups and subgroups who agree with us and stick to them. It's rather like when the library got rid of the card catalogue and went digital, suddenly I wasn't seeing all these delightful titles that were close in spelling to what I wanted, but far away in topic. Computers meant a restriction of experience, a loss of the wild idea coming in from left field.

Next time you do something that doesn't make sense, do a little brutal self-analysis and figure out why you did it. Keep questioning, keep growing.

Let yourself be taught and you may survive the next zombie invasion.

June 30, 2013

What's the New Footwork on Ushiro

Got that question from someone recently, seems he's heard about an "advanced" way of turning in Ushiro and wants to know all about it.

Thing is, there isn't a new way of turning, but in the ZKR iai committee meeting of 2010 it was accepted that two ways of turning were acceptable. One is to rise and tuck the toes under then turn. The other way is to roll the left foot over somewhat as is done in MJER koryu. This rolling over of the foot was always introduced as an advanced way of turning, being a problem for Zen Ken Ren iai beginners. Now... I teach it to MJER beginners in Seidokai because it really isn't hard when you are turning to face an opponent at ma ushiro, directly behind. One takes the right knee to the left, then moves forward with the right knee so that it moves in front of the left and receives the body weight, which means the left foot is very light and can roll over easily.

ZKR Seitei Gata Iai is different, the important point in this school is not to face an opponent directly behind, but to face an opponent to the right rear, and explicitly to move the left foot to the left on the nuki tsuke cut. The right knee stays in one spot and it's hard to shift the body weight onto that knee without looking like a pine tree in the wind (matsu kaze as it were). To make this left foot movement clear, we teach beginners to tuck the toes under which makes the turn and the shift easier (clearer) than using the koryu way of turning. When students get to about 6dan we tell them they can do the turn MJER style and they can roll the foot if they wish. I should say here that I don't do ZKR iai this way unless I'm demonstrating it, I tuck the toes under because this makes the most sense to me, especially with my damaged knees.

Unfortunately, the word has got out and now the nidans want to do it the "advanced" way. Anyone with a little bit of experience, as in maybe a month, wants to do the "advanced" stuff, it's only natural. And now I'm going to have to start dinging grading challengers for not moving their feet since the rollover usually pushes the left foot out before it should go.

Folks, at 30 years worth of practice, I can tell you that you should be looking for the "basic" way to do things, not the "advanced". Resist the "advanced" way for as long as you can because that way you can show the best iaido. Let me explain this another way. At first kyu and shodan we allow students to pick any 5 kata they wish. There are some students who pick the 5 they are most confident with (and they are always the most basic kata, the "simplest") and some students who pick the most "advanced" kata, the ones with lots of moves.

The "basic" group get it. As a judge I want to see your basics, I want to see that you understand "free choice" means we want you to show us your best. The "advanced kata" group inevitably figures that we give bonus points for knowing the footwork to the complicated kata. Unfortunately, there are only 12 kata in total and I've seen all of them thousands of times, with some of those demonstrations coming from people who are really good. At shodan you are not going to impress me by knowing the dance steps to shihogiri, but if you do a really good nuki tsuke in ushiro, I'll give you your bonus points.

In the martial arts there is live or die. There is no percentage in learning a hundred kata if you aren't good enough at any of them to beat an opponent. Learn one thing well and do it with commitment, you might survive to learn another thing. Do the "advanced" ushiro in front of me with less than 5dan under your belt and I will look at your left foot. Really look at it. If your turn and shift isn't rock solid I'm going to be upset because you didn't have to use that turn. Impress me with solid basics, not esoteric theory.

I have a youtube channel somewhere and I think I uploaded a video on this "advanced" turn last night. If you're interested see if you can find it. There's a link at the top of the page actually.

June 28, 2013

Shu Ha Ri

The basic teaching method for kata based martial arts is "keep, break, leave" which is usually interpreted as memorize the movements, break them down (understand them) and leave them behind (to go beyond the kata). This is the typical Confucian "practice first, theory later" method of learning and it works well for us, although many western instructors tend to hand out the theory at the same time as the practical. It really is OK to let beginners simply follow your example and copy the dance steps until they have the movements memorized. At that point you can introduce kasso teki and explain what is happening with targets and swords. Don't think that shu ha ri is a one-time process, it is more of a spiral as we use the "leave" phase to understand something more, something deeper in the kata which then requires more shu and ha. We dip into and out of the kata repeatedly as we practice over the decades, it would be a shame to assume that we know it all when we know the first layer.

June 26, 2013

First is not always beginning.

I notice on one of the forums that a student has once again commented on the zen ken ren iaido as being the beginning set. The set you begin with could I suppose, be called the beginning set, but it isn't a set that was designed for beginners.

I recently spent some time in Calgary (before the floods hit, hope folks are going to get a chance to dry out soon) and managed to write a bit on the "riai of seitei iai" which has a nice ring to it. Here's an excerpt from what is supposed to be a seidokai resource, but of course I'll end up putting it out there for everyone else. The ego knows no bounds.

"The origin of the All Japan Kendo Federation Iai was as an introduction for kendoka to iaido. This was so kendo players could learn how to handle a live blade in a situation beyond the bokuto work of the kendo no kata, itself a set of techniques which intended to improve the use of the shinai by showing how a blade is properly used. Being for the benefit of kendo players, much of the fundamental movement of Seitei Iai agrees with that art. Such things as the importance of a correct furi kaburi (attacking position), square hips, and the ability to follow through after a strike are built into the bones of Seitei Gata iai and they remain there today, stronger perhaps than ever before.

While the intent in 1968 may have been to provide a training aide to kendoka, iaido under the kendo federation has become more than an adjunct to shinai practice and there are now many kendo federation members who practice only iaido. It should be remembered always that an introduction is not always introductory. By that I mean the Zen Ken Ren iai (usually called Seitei Gata Iai or representative forms of iai) was not a set intended for beginners to the sword or to be used as an introduction to iaido. Those who developed the Seitei were senior practitioners of various koryu iaido schools, and anyone who practiced iai at that time, was similarly a member of a koryu. Seitei then, was a representative set of kata which demonstrated the variety of movements and the use of the live blade to kendoka who were likely quite senior in that art and wished to go deeper into the meaning of the sword. Seitei was not intended as a set of kata to teach beginners. Those who wished to learn iaido would have been expected to join a koryu.

The reality today is that Seitei Gata has become, for many, their introduction to iaido. Iai clubs under the various kendo federations worldwide use the Seitei set as their grading curriculum and so instruction in that set begins early if not immediately. There are, in fact, many clubs worldwide that practice only Seitei. The International Kendo Federation claims no authority over any koryu iai schools, and so when senior instructors are sent officially to teach they are required to focus on Seitei Gata exclusively. While many of the senior iaido sensei in the kendo federation may also teach koryu, this is done on a private basis. All of this has created a situation where the Zen Ken Ren iai is in reality a school of iaido in itself, and should be considered as such by its students and instructors. Over the past several decades the iaido committee has interpreted, clarified and in some few cases, modified the original instructions so that the school has become more internally consistent. What was once almost an accumulation of kata from various old schools has become an entity in itself."

So there you have it, seitei is something you start early, but that's your introduction to seitei. Don't think of it as an introduction to koryu, that's something else altogether.

June 25, 2013

John Prough: 1940 - June 20, 2013

John Prough, perhaps the most underappreciated man in North American Japanese Sword circles died today. I met John by letter in 1987 when I started the U. Guelph iaido club and was trying to find any and all iaido students in Canada and the USA. Through his help and encouragement I started the Iaido Newsletter which was a photocopied 'Zine that eventually grew into worldwide distribution, then the Journal of Japanese Sword Arts and finally the online Iaido Journal at EJMAS.com. The contacts from that magazine quickly grew into the Guelph Spring Seminar and the CKF iaido section, the structure under which most iaido students in Canada now practice. It was through John's introductions a few years later that the CKF jodo section also came into being, so students of both sections should pause and recognize one of our most vigorous supporters.

The following is an interview with John conducted in 2004. Take a few moments to read it.


How Will You Be Remembered?

When I think of loss, specifically loss in the budo, the folks I remember right away are the ones who built. Matsuo Haruna, Peter Yodzis, Bill Mears, John Prough and many others in this generation, along with those I know from previous generations, were all promoters, builders of the arts. Those who have passed from my lifetime who were mean-spirited, selfish or jealous of their knowledge are much harder for me to remember, and those from previous generations who were the same aren't much remembered at all.

Let's be honest, you don't usually get remembered for being the guy who kept the arts small and exclusive, for not teaching students, not sharing the arts. For being selfish, not growing your knowledge, not being open to new blood and new ideas. Or if you are remembered, it's for those things.

The builders get the memorials, the bean-counters who figure knowledge is money to be hoarded and denied or used to buy some sort of sham respect, get to put their signature on an audit report which may, perhaps, be looked at by some future historian who is doing research on the other guy.

Think about those you admire in the arts, what is it that you admire? This will tell you something about yourself.

Be a teacher. Haruna sensei was one of the best teachers of iaido I've ever met, and I've met a few. He was open, loved beginners, and would fix in a word or two what you had been struggling with for years. More than this, he welcomed non-Japanese students and more than once put his own career on the line for our young organization.

Be a facilitator. Peter Yodzis started an Aikido club at the University of Guelph in 1980 and brought Bruce Stiles from Toronto to teach every weekend. The club is still going strong 30 years later with one of the original students now instructing.

Be a populizer. Bill Mears was fond of saying he didn't advertise and made it very hard to find his club. He said this a lot on various forums and email lists on the newly minted WWW. It wasn't that hard to find him and iaido is still growing in the Niagara Peninsula under his students.

Be a student. John Prough had the chance to set himself up as a big sensei in the New York area, he had the early training, and was in on the "ground floor" of the koryu craze (if there ever was one). Instead he repeatedly brought in teachers and rebooted the arts.

Are you in it for yourself or are you willing to set your ego aside so the arts themselves can grow?

Small-minded or big-hearted? The answer will determine how you are remembered.

June 24, 2013

Gradings Wrapup 2013

Well the summer grading season is over for me this year, with CKF gradings in iaido and jodo in the east (Guelph Spring Seminar) and jodo in the west (Vancouver).

There was the usual fuss and bother that you get with such things, but on the whole the gradings I attended went as well as they ever have. Here are some things currently on my mind which I've come to believe over the years, either through judges seminars or just paying attention so I'll share them with you should you wish to keep reading.

It's a hobby folks:

Judges and challengers both have to understand this. There is no money involved for the students, you won't make more salary if you pass, you lose nothing (except some hefty grading and travel expences, granted) if you fail, don't sweat this stuff so much. Judges may get an honorarium but mine go into the CIJF fund unless I'm out of pocket for my own travel expenses. Judges don't get any benefit for failing or passing people. They just get to watch and opine. Not the ego boost you might think by the way.

Students want clear rules:

Not an unreasonable thing, but what does that mean? I know that it does NOT mean last minute changes. Any variation over what was announced, or what was past practice should be applied only after everyone has a chance to hear about the new deal. On any panel I've been regularly associated with, any changes have been applied carefully, and at least a year later. For instance, this year the start and finish line was clarified further and we could have failed 100% of the challengers in the Eastern iaido grading. Not one of them did it the way they will be doing it next year, but they did it the way they were taught. So they passed that bit.

Fair enough, but what about putting a time limit on the gradings just before you start? Time limits are a pet peeve for me, they are great in tournament where you have to move along, and maybe in gradings of several hundred challengers, but for 40? They aren't needed. They make for lazy judging (it's an auto-fail like doing the wrong kata or the kata out of order, so you don't have to look at anything else) and for the lower grades it should never be done because the easiest way to prevent an automatic fail is to rush like hell through the kata. Any teachers out there think it's a good idea for beginners to rush their techniques? So why force them to do it with a grading time limit?

The biggest problem though, is the "regional variation". There are things that are mandatory (read the books) and things that are allowed (theoretically, anything not in the book, practically, anything that doesn't make the judges' teeth hurt). If local panels are not experienced or trained enough to understand the difference, there are problems with challengers from outside that local area. This year the west coast jodo head came to Guelph on his own dime to make sure he knew what the east coast jodo folks were being taught. I also made sure that I attended a full day seminar with the west coast folks to understand what they were being taught. The book was respected on both sides but other things have a very distinct flavour. I like that, the world is full of fast food restaurants, who needs another generic burger?

Judging seminars are the answer, but when your country covers a quarter of the way around the earth, someone has to be willing to spend a lot to get the local panels on the same page. Not always easy without an independent source of funds.

You gotta trust:

It's all voluntary folks, I don't know if it's the requirement for drug testing rules on the kendo side of things, but there seems to be a lot of concern with injuries and disabilities starting to show up. "In Japan" they require a doctor's note if they can't do seiza. Should we do that here? I vote no to that. A note from a doctor is an extra expense for the challengers, and who reading this figures they can't talk their doctor into a note that says you are not allowed to bend your knee to the absolute maximum it will go and then drop your entire body weight onto it? (Personally, if we ever permit doctor's notes I'll have one in a heartbeat and never try to do seiza again.) Seiza would be banned by labour law if employers ever tried to make their workers use it. I say trust the people you are willing to stand with in a small room while swinging sharp metal around. Trust them not to cheat, if they say they can't do seiza, they can't.

Judge and be Judged:

The judges on the panel are being judged just as much as they are judging. How the students are treated will reflect what the students feel about the organization since the gradings are pretty much their only contact with that organization. I can't tell you the contempt... not quite the right word... lack of respect?... I feel looking at a grading panel covered with water bottles, judges lounging around in various arms folded or heads on hands poses with their eyes half shut. Not at my table, not if I'm in charge. The challengers work hard to get to the grading so that they can show you their best. You have to show them the best judging you can. No water bottles, no elbows on tables, and put a curtain on the table so you can cross your legs once in a while to prevent cramps. Contempt breeds contempt, you want respect as a judge, respect your challengers, respect the position of judge.

What is the point of grading?

Challengers and judges need to ask this of themselves. There are several ways to approach grading, for challengers it can be an attempt to get a rank, a donation to the organization in the form of the grading fees, or maybe a thank you to your sensei through showing him that you have learned something. Most healthy though is to treat a grading as a chance to review the basics and clean up your act.

Judges can approach gradings in two broad ways, juniors tend to go in looking for mistakes, checking for the details (just as beginners to the art itself have to focus on the physical techniques). Senior judges tend to be more "easy" than junior panels because they look for reasons to pass the students. The function of a grading is not to see if students fall apart and make mistakes under pressure, it's to assess whether or not they are at the level they are challenging, so a look at the overall performance is best. Now the level of a shodan is nowhere near the level of an 8dan, and if an upper level challenger shows up on the day of the grading looking nervous they may as well go home again. 6dan training is not 3dan training, and the grading requirements reflect this.

Fundamentally, a grading ought to be an assessment of your level of training. Are you at 5dan level or not? Everyone should be at the grading with this in mind, students should not be upset if the judges say they are not, after all your sensei said you were when he signed your form and who's more important? Just get on with it and come back next time. Judges had better not have anything other in mind than the requirements of that level. If we look for things beyond what the rest of the world requires, we are not being clever or strict, we are simply being unfair. The whole point of standards (requirements for rank) is that they are standard. The only reason to require more from your 3dans is to try and win the next 3dan tournament and that's a lousy reason to skew the system.

So why grade at all?

Good question and all I can say is that having your appropriate rank solves some problems. If you are ranked too lowly or too highly the powers that be don't know what to do with you. There are teachings that are aimed at certain knowledge bases, so you split up into ranks. If you are ranked too low or too high you're wasting your time.

One of our seniors in iai never graded for many years. One day he was in Japan at a big seminar and he ended up in the non-kyu group. The sensei of the group came over and said "the 6dans are over there" but he said "I have no rank". This created a problem, he could not join the 6dans and he was an embarassment to the beginners and their teacher. Better to have assigned him a fake rank or to have simply told him to test and be done with it.

How come you aren't sorted into knowledge level instead of rank? How come you can't simply join the group that is doing stuff at your level? ... Seriously? You're now the judge of your own rank? ... You want every seminar to start with an assessment by the teachers of your ability? That's a grading for every damned seminar!

You grade so that we can have fewer gradings, that's why you grade.

June 18, 2013

The Teaching Bomb

I'm writing a book for my students at the moment and it includes quite a lot of advice on how to teach. Thinking about my own budo education, I wonder just how much I really need to say. In my case some of my biggest advances have come through a single "teaching bomb" dropped into a class by sensei.

About twenty years ago Haruna sensei took a few moments during a break and showed me two ways to swing the sword, one was the way I was swinging it, the other was the way he swung it. Up to that point I wasn't aware that there was a difference at all, but that single episode (and he made me swing until I managed one his way) set off a decades long journey that I'm still travelling.

Jump forward maybe ten years and Ohmi sensei (my shisho, main instructor) commented to a class that they were practicing a partner kata much too closely, "maai" he shouted, "you are inside the maai and already dead before you even start the kata". Although not aimed directly at me, I listen to all his instruction and this statement exploded in my head like a bomb and I have been happily searching for the meaning of maai ever since. Looking at the sword, at the distance from me to my partner (or my kasso teki if I'm doing iai) at posture, at my natural stride length, and at the energy I can summon from day to day has changed the way I practice.

This bomb has combined with all the previous bombs, including one from Ide sensei regarding what I call the "instant of furi kaburi" the moment you can begin attacking the opponent, the "decisive moment" to use a photography term from Henri Cartier-Bresson. All these more or less throwaway comments which have hit me at just the right time to trigger cascades of understanding make me wonder just how much special lesson planning anyone needs to teach. After all, they were simply corrections that are given as a matter of routine to all students. They weren't anything special, they weren't secret knowledge passed along in a whisper in the corner of the dojo, they were just everyday corrections that seemed to explode.

This is what's meant by "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear". It's not so much meeting a teacher as priming an explosion and having someone toss a match at you. Could be anyone, but yes, it's often a special sort of instructor who can see that pile of gunpowder just waiting for the spark.

June 9, 2013

Budo Self-Examination

A couple of posts ago someone commented "Many arts will feed the misguided student's ego through the art's inherent superiority complex".

Nothing is easier than believing your art is the best around, or your teacher is the best. To a very large degree this is a good thing, you can't fight well without believing that your skills are superior, there is no basic training program in any military anywhere that teaches its soldiers that their skills are at best equal to the enemy and their equipment average.

But the budo were never about creating cannon fodder, the martial arts are not basic training, and having enough blind faith in the system to plunge into the breach with a lot of other soldiers is not the goal of this training.

What is needed is enough faith to keep showing up for training, and a great big dose of self-examination. Those in duels, those who lead and those who wish to improve as human beings need to watch themselves constantly to guard against false pride and the stupid acts that follow. Here are a couple of hints.

The Monitor: This is a small part of your mind that you detach and place just above, behind and to one side of your head. I'm right handed so it's over my right shoulder. My family was superstitious so the spilled salt goes over the left shoulder. The monitor watches, that's it. Sober or drunk, calm or angry the monitor watches what you are doing and what you are thinking and nothing else. What you do with the information is up to you but the benefit is simply the audience effect. Think of how you act with and without an audience.

Next is the Analyst: You can use the information from the monitor, or use thought experiments to examine what you would do in this or that situation. The analyist's job is to figure out why. Why did you say that? What were you trying to get done? You must be ruthless, it does more good to identify bad intent than good, beware of sainthood.

The Planner: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and no good intent either, but planning how to live your life well is the essential first step to improving. Planning how to get the most out of your next class (have I got my belt and my bokuto in the bag?) is the first step toward a fruitful class. Yes mushin is a good thing, yes you have no time to think about your next block and counterattack during the fight, but you're not fighting now are you?

I am constantly stunned by how little foresight people have. Look around you as you drive down the street, I watched a car in front of me yesterday, left him room to change lanes after he passed me because there was a big truck, unmissable, stopped in his lane. I watched this guy see the truck when the car in front of him moved over, watched him panic and swerve at the last minute, no blinker, into my lane as he prayed to his gods that I wouldn't rear end him. A tiny bit of foresight would have saved him an anxiety attack. Luckily I drive for everyone else on the road as well as for myself.

Monitor, analyse and plan your next six days and see how that goes.

May 15, 2013

Seminar Advice

The 2013 Guelph Spring Iaido and Jodo Seminar is about to start. Every Victoria Day weekend and for the last 22 or so years. I look forward to the same old problems and complaints from those who attend and those who teach.

The seminar starts on Friday evening and I look forward with somewhat negative eagerness to kicking out all the juniors who will be expecting to watch the senior class. It is somewhat mysterious what folks think they will see, it's just the dojo leaders getting their asses kicked by the Japanese sensei and a passing along of any new interpretations of the performance of seitei gata jodo and iaido. In other words the same thing that happens for the next three days.

I get that folks are eager to be in the class, after all it is "dojo leaders" so I suppose you could convince yourself that being there means you "made it" but I hate to disappoint, it's not by rank or invitation yet, it's a self-selecting group. Now this year I've tightened things up due to high numbers last year so I will be booting non-pre-registered folks out of the room but all that means is that those who are "in" managed to pre-register.

Every year I get told to get a bigger room but that's not going to happen, we want this small and quiet so the seniors can pay attention.

On Saturday morning I look forward to people turning up at 9am (the seminar start time) to register. Registration happens before the start of the seminar, not when everyone is to be on the floor for the opening talks, but hey, if you pay you get to come whenever right?

Speaking of paying, I don't mind dickering, I don't mind haggling or folks trying to combine one rebate with another until I'm paying for you to attend but do not, repeat, do not dicker and argue with Dave at the front door. He will just boot you to me and I will be too busy to indulge in the game. All dickering and haggling should be done before the end of the week OK. By the way, the fees cover the expenses, so be happy about paying a couple of hundred for 3 days solid training instead of a couple thousand to fly to Japan aand train a couple of hours a day if you're lucky. We use the sensei quite cruelly as I've been informed in the past, they go home exhausted.

Lining up: The most difficult part of any seminar is lining up in a zigzag pattern at the start of the day so please folks, practice this at home, get the dojo to make three lines of students, the first line stands far enough apart not to hurt each other, then the second line stands in the spaces between (far enough back to avoid hitting the first line) and the third line goes in the spaces of the second, lined up with the first line, and far enough back not to hit the second line. And So On.

If we have to go up and down the lines fixing you, do not, DO NOT resist me sending you where you need to go. I don't care that you want to stand right in front of the sensei and that you figure everyone else in the room should arrange themselves around you. I'm big and I'll be angry by then, I'll send you to the back line. I will, I swear I will. Fifteen minutes of lining up is excessive, we should not need that long.

Oh, and the seniors will be on your right hand side, find the last person on your row to the right and line up with them, not wherever you feel like it. If the seniors get it screwed up we'll have a chat with them I promise you. (Actually it's the seniors who have the hardest time with this stuff, the juniors pay attention and do what they're asked to do).

There will be a class timetable at the front desk, it rarely survives contact with the sensei so don't come complaining to me that you have arranged your day around a class that just shifted by two hours. I'll say I'm sorry, but I don't set the schedule (and I'm not telling who does because they'll just boot you back to me anyway).

Pay attention, go where you're told and relax Saturday evening at the auction where we'll feed you roast chicken (a tradition is a tradition) and by the end of the evening we'll all be settled down to the routine so we can start again the next day by spending fifteen minutes lining up in a zigzag yes?

I joke, 22 years along we've got this down right?

May 13, 2013

Murphy's Law of Martial Arts Injury

It never fails, I work for months in the gym to put knees and shoulders together in preparation for the Spring Seminar (I pick the sensei up from the airport on Thursday) and while working in the shop I wrench my shoulder.

I was sanding some paddles for the SDKsupplies.com table when I dropped my palm onto the 24 grit sandpaper. Needless to say I twitched the arm upward and in the process managed to re-injure my shoulder. Of course there's not a mark on my hand. This morning I can barely turn the steering wheel on the van. I suspect I've got about two attachments of five left on my rotator cuff. At least the original injury was a more interesting story, being a teaching mistake in an Aikido class, when I couldn't drop low enough due to a knee injury and so went straight into my uke's power with the rotator cuff.

All I can say is that those paddles better sell.

May 13, 2013

More on What To Study

I have no inspiration this morning as Lauren is having her breakfast and I'm being the usual guilt-driven workaholic, writing while drinking my coffee. It gets worse in the runup to the May seminar http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html as I obsess about all the setup that still needs to be done. A bit over 40 people signed up so far, almost got the air tickets paid off, double the numbers and I may be able to pay for the hotel rooms!

Here's a bit from a past forum post on what you should study. I sense a definite trend in what students want to know and what their seniors tell them to do, often not the same thing. T'was always the way with the young and old yes?

What to study? I want to study a koryu, a nice rare one, what do you suggest? And I don't want to learn it at a seminar because that's just seminar learning.

Do what's in your back yard! Go do Kendo or Judo. People eventually "get a life" and so stop doing the long distance commute to learn a martial art. Especially when they find out what "koryu" is.

Now please, if someone wants to move to learn Niten Ichiryu, and are dead keen to learn it than don't you think it would be a really really really good idea to meet the headmaster of the style in a place where you could show him just how serious you are? Like when he's in North America for a week? No letters of introduction needed, no need to fly to Japan, just drive to Guelph (a couple hours north of Buffalo NY) and step on the mat. No need to even have your own bokuto, we loan them out!

(Incidentally, we DO get people from all over Europe and North America at the seminars. Just damned few of them in total and I think it's because koryu is not in demand any more than it's ever been, it's just in style as the next "cool secret martial art").

It has been suggested that people don't attend seminars because they don't know if they'll get the instruction when they go back home. This makes no sense at all to me, you train when and where you can. If I didn't invite sensei to Guelph, I'd be flying to Japan and Europe to train. If "future training" were a factor then potential students would email me and ask if they can learn this stuff elsewhere than the seminars. They don't. They want to learn a secret Japanese martial art that's really really exclusive... and that's just around the corner from their house. Surely you know the story, a little old Japanese fellow sees you walking by one day and calls you into his back yard to pass on the wisdom of the ages through some obscure branch of a martial art nobody's ever heard of. That's what folks want, not to hear "make an effort, come to me and I'll teach you".

'No', you say, 'there's a demand for koryu, I feel it in my bones'.

I figure there's a demand for koryu that's just around the corner where the local karate club is. There's no real demand for koryu per se. If there were we'd have folks coming to the seminars to meet the people who could teach them.

It's as simple as that.

Major seminars have been happening in Guelph since 1991. They aren't a secret or hard to find out about. They're even pretty well known in Japan since they're written up in the martial arts magazines each year. Google Iaido, google Niten Ichiryu, there we are.

I started The Iaido Newsletter in 1987 before there was a WWW, back when we hunted mastadon and mailed stuff with stamps, just to connect all the North American folks who had an interest in iaido so we could get enough people together to invite a sensei from Japan for a seminar. Now you type 5 letters into google and hit return.

Not hard to find, just not around the corner.

But, someone said: "You're correct in asserting that the demands of koryu training can dissuade some from joining, or the teacher sees deficiencies or potential problems and doesn't accept the candidate."

I absolutely do not assert that the demands of koryu training prevent students from joining, or that teachers will not accept students. In no way do I say that. I said that most teachers simply demand that you show up on the floor. I know of damned few martial arts teachers of koryu or any other art that demand students do anything special beyond showing up to join.

Some do, and more power to them since they attract the folks that want that sort of thing... and some folks do want that sort of thing.

I maintain, as always, that my way is the absolute most rigid "test" of a student of all. I get people asking to train with me (who assure me that they want to do my martial art for the rest of their lives), who wonder what sort of introduction letter or special training or money they have to give to me to be allowed the rare and amazing honour of training with me. The task I set them is to "show up on the floor".

They never ever do. Not once have I had someone who's expecting a "test" pass my test. Zero percent pass rate.

Pretty tough test.

Incidentally, we're talking about people who say they will "move anywhere to study koryu" not about the vast majority of people who want to find Mr. Miyagi the next block over, and I reiterate, get your life in order and then see if there's some koryu around. Do NOT move somewhere simply because you figure you want to learn some martial art you've never actually tried.

DO go to a seminar that offers koryu and see if it's what you want to chase for the rest of your life. They exist, you don't need to jump through hoops, you just need to show up.

There are more seminars on the Olde Japanese martial arts than ever in North America, take a week off and see if you want to spend thousands of dollars and dozens of years chasing the rabbit.

April 29, 2013

Martial Arts and Career

Driving the wife to work I happened to hear on the radio that having a dog is a good career move. The daily walks give your brain a chance to rest, and the daily timing of feeding and walking gives structure to the day. So if you are self employed, get a dog and your business will improve.

I figured that out while attending University, where I used my martial arts classes to structure my week. All my classes and all my daytime free time (devoted to runnng, lifting weights or practicing budo on my own) were arranged around those evening practices. I never had less than 5 sessions of budo a week, and often twice that.

It worked out well, the practices themselves meant I couldn't be thinking about the current girlfriend, exams, or essays and getting out of the apartment to go to class was enough to get other things going. Most of the effort is expended getting off the couch, the rest is just momentum. Strangely enough, filling my week with things to do gave me more time to get my schoolwork done. With only a couple hours to work, I made the best of it and worked, rather than procrastinated.

Ever wonder why office buildings still exist in this era of home computing? The act of getting from one place to another has value to the working process.

Over the years I've had folks say "when I'm working I don't have time for martial arts and when I'm unemployed I can't afford martial arts". Fair enough, but my classes don't cost a penny, just show up in class, and perhaps a break of a couple hours three times a week might do some good to the old brain cells. Consultants make more money the faster they work, it's only pieceworkers who make more the longer they work.

Got a kid heading to College? Consider telling them to take up some activity that wastes their time on a regular basis.

April 19, 2013

Just how Senior Does Your Teacher Need to Be II

Thomas Groendal wrote: "Another purely practical concern: if the hachidan hanshi is a one in a thousand or one in ten thousand genius, but only has time to really teach a few hundred students at best from beginner to the end of their potential, the math is not good. The art will die. If his intermediate level students are out there cycling through another thousand or ten thousand students though, someone brilliant will answer the call. That hachidan hanshi will know her when he sees her."

An excellent point. I have seen more than a few clubs in this area with top-rank-loaded students and very few beginners during times of decreasing enrollment. Lots of rank that could be out teaching but they stay "at home" because, so they say, they haven't learned enough to go teach. Over the years some of the more honest have confided to me that it's more usually laziness than insecurity, it's just easier to stay and practice than go out and teach.

Indeed it is. It's also a lot more fun for a bunch of high ranks to play with each other at their high level rather than teach beginners. Let's face it, beginners are a drag. One of the super-rank clubs I was involved with practiced Aikido and I can tell you that as a young, fit student with enough years of practice to protect myself, it was a blast to practice there. As soon as the students found out you weren't going to break when you fell it was spin city for the entire class. You could almost hear the thoughts of "fresh meat!"

It was of course small wonder that there were few beginners and those that wandered in didn't last long. This was not a unique situation, most of the clubs filled with high ranks taught only by the headmaster tend to chase out beginners. Now, there are some super-rank clubs who make provision for beginners and these often give the beginner classes to these same middle ranks that Thomas suggests could be out teaching their own clubs. In fact there are clubs within clubs in these dojo, with beginners picking their instructors if they can, and avoiding others.

Needless to say this usually happens in a big city with a very highly respected and ranked instructor in a private club.  It doesn't happen so much in small towns where the teenaged prodigy leaves for a career, or University settings where you have an inherently transient pool of students. I know that the lament of every sensei here in Guelph is just the same as the parental lament heard just before we get the students walking in the door... "they just start to get interesting and they leave!" Thank goodness for grad school and those students who stay around more than four years.

Back to the super-rank clubs and what happens to them eventually. Firstly, no matter how many people start in that magical cohort that turns into the upper-rank stay at homes, the numbers in the club eventually start to shrink. No matter how good sensei is in these clubs, eventually the students catch up, at least physically if not altogether. Sometimes sensei takes this well, sometimes not. Sometimes sensei adapts and becomes softer and/or sneakier and sometimes he just becomes grumpy and hard to get along with. Regardless, the seniors eventually start to leave, and this time the opening up of new dojo may be used as an excuse not to practice "back home" much.

Once I noted that a head sensei chose to leave the club at the height of its power and skill. The students were starting to challenge sensei and rather than booting them all out, he left. This interesting experiment didn't result in anything different really, a new top dog emerged and eventually the rest of the upper ranks drifted off to start their own clubs.

The problem with this model is that by the time the super-rank club fissions off its instructors, they are past their evangelical fever. They are usually looking for some place to practice in peace rather than looking to spread the good word. The original club isn't much better off, it's not easy to remember how to recruit new beginners after 20 years of ignoring them. There is a window of youth and experience that makes a great beginning instructor, go through either of those and you lose a lot of potential new students.

So how does a head sensei avoid the super-rank club syndrome? Some have no interest in avoiding it at all, they like the fact that they've got all this talent under them. They may encourage students to stay by hinting that they haven't the skills or experience to go teach. Fortunately this is rarely the case in my experience, most super-rank clubs are a function of their situation as I mentioned above. Big cities mean expensive practice space and lots of students at those spaces which do exist. A large initial pool of students will produce lots of rank in very short order and it's only gradually, and if sensei isn't paying attention, that the rank eventually starts chasing out the beginners. By the time anyone notices, it's a super-rank club.

It takes effort to avoid this. First step may be to set up beginner classes within the club and keep that cohort together under one or two of the lower ranking people. Eventually the ranked survivors get transferred to the senior class and the senior sensei. If a chance does comes up to start a new club in a nice location, the head sensei ought to have a senior student in mind and push him or her out the door with many promises of lots of help with the new club and the chance to come on back for special high level practices so that the new teacher can keep learning.

I'm sure there are lots of other ways to deal with the super-rank dojo, but most of them will come down to sensei paying attention to what's going on around him. Sort of like everything else in the arts, it's all about noticing the tiger in the bushes.

April 19, 2013

Just How Senior Does Your Teacher Need to Be

This is a perpetual question for students and the usual answer is "your teacher should be as senior as you can find".

But over the years I have come to wonder about this. Do you really need to study with a hanshi when you are a beginner in iai? Is it a good idea?

There is no doubt that a hanshi "knows things" but in any physical art there's a large amount of "shows things" at the beginning. As I am well aware, even a 50 something 7dan (a position where you are, supposedly, as strong and technically able as you will ever be) can, as in my case, be losing the edge, or at least the knees, to be able to demonstrate really top-level iaido. I can't imagine the frustration of some of the hanshi who have come to the end of their joints, who know exactly what's needed to demonstrate a point, but can't do it.

Sure they can ask some of those 50 year old nanadans to demonstrate, but watch carefully and you'll see the pain behind the eyes when their point doesn't get made.

A few private words to the nanadan and whole worlds can open up for them, but what does this hanshi offer to a first kyu? Perhaps not as much as you might think.

The first kyu.... never mind that.... the iaido and jodo students all the way to fifth dan are learning how to dance, how to perform technically perfect kata. This involves the correct footwork, the correct movement of the sword, the correct timing, pressure, strength, posture... things that can take decades to learn. For all of that the best teacher will be someone who can demonstrate all those things in the correct sequence for the students to take them on board. It doesn't require a hanshi and for my money, one should not be provided. The best teacher for a strong young man is a stronger young man. Someone who is ahead, but not so far ahead as to be past the things needed to be learned by a beginner.

Three years ago I stood in front of a hanshi and he showed a grip on the sword that moved my hands a centimeter. The 6 and 7dan people in that class were delighted and we are still talking about it. I of course showed all my students and one or two yondan sort of got it. Nobody below that level of experience even came close to getting excited like I did, probably because they didn't feel what that grip did to the little toes or the shape of the sword as it dropped. Their skill level wasn't high enough for the correction to make any difference.

So what use would it have been for a yondan to sit in on that class? None at all, they would have looked and said "big deal, I know how to hold the sword, how to sit, how to breath, what's this old man doing?" (Or even worse, speak up and ask him to teach them some sort of lost or secret kata they read about on the internet).

Be careful what you are trying to learn and from whom, the best sensei is one who can take you to the next step, not one who is so far down the road he never saw the pothole you are about to drop into.

Never saw it because it wasn't there when he went past.

April 18, 2013

How Long to be a Big Shot

Let's say we want to be a big wheel in your organization. No idea why you'd want to be, but here's the times in the Kendo federation. You can put people forward for grading at 5dan in the CKF, you can sit on a panel to any grade up to 7dan at 7dan. There are two grading streams, the dan and the shogo which are renshi, kyoshi and hanshi. For Canada we don't really use shogo for anything so think of them as 6.5, 7.5 and 8.5 dan. They aren't technical grades, so that's really not accurate but like I said, they don't have much of a function in the CKF. In Japan the shogo have much more meaning and a hanshi is in fact a Big Shot.

So for timing, it's about a year to shodan, 1 to nidan, 2 to sandan, 3 to yondan and 4 to godan so 11 years minimum to 5dan. Another 5 to rokudan and 6 to nanadan for 22 years all at max speed and no failures... ridiculous if you think about it, who needs 20 years to get good enough to teach something? 11 to godan seems plenty to me. How long does it take to become a surgeon and muck about in someone's innerds?

Hanshi... hmm, another 10 years to 8dan is 33 years... then a few more before you can challenge hanshi. That's it though, nothing more above that at the moment in the federation.

But are you ever a big shot here in the West? There's 7 and 8dan sword instructors in the west, why are all these young-uns wanting to go to Japan? Nice place I'm sure, but if the goal is training it's a lot more practical to do it where you live... maybe move 300 miles instead of 3000? Just thinking out loud here... I mean of course you have to go to Japan to become a samurai, either that or find some funky old gardener on the back street of your local town who teaches you in 3 months.

20 years... and how many failed relationships due to the obsession? Ridiculous.

For all those who are currently teaching a class somewhere in Canada with a 3 or 4 dan because you're the only teacher available... good on you. With 4 to 7 years of training (around the time it takes to get, say, an MSc in University) I'd say you have a good chance of being able to teach something useful to your students.

As far as I'm concerned, you're already a big shot.

April 16, 2013

Busy Busy

My daughter was born 19 years ago, just around the time of our December Grading weekend. I was there at her birth and it sort of bothered me that I was letting the organization down, but that's OK I have made every grading since. In the process I missed pretty much every birthday party for my daughter along the way, but you know, priorities, the organization is important, budo is important. Part of martial arts is personal responsibility and putting the welfare of the group ahead of your own selfish wants. It's the warrior way.


So now I'm looking at ways to convince her that commuting to university from home is a good idea rather than moving away. I hardly know this kid, and it's only yesterday that she was born it seems. There are big gaps in my experience of both her and her brother and I'm wondering why that is.

I can't begin to tell you how many times over the last 19 years I have had a student say that they can't make this or that budo event due to some family commitment. What about their commitment to budo? I mean I make all the events, and most of these are really important, visiting instructors, special classes that sort of thing. It seems like we just get a promising teenager started on the arts and then they get married and get a job and poof, they disappear.

Me, I always looked for jobs that let me take time off for seminars, I had a wife that didn't mind that I was gone, I had kids that said they understood when I had to go away for the weekends.

Now it seems that they are busy when I get the occasional weekend and want to do something family-oriented. They've got their friends and just can't be bothered to be away from them long enough to go on a drive or to the cottage!

Folks, listen to one of the old men for a change (it is never popular but I always benefitted by listening to them when I did), figure out what's important. Your kids are with you for about twelve minutes so put your budo on slow-cook for the time they are growing up, put your golf, your gambling, your boozing and your banking on hold and enjoy these little people while you can, they grow up in a blink but they remember everything that happens during that blink for the rest of their lives. Do you remember growing up? Remember how long that took? You as a kid were on one time scale, you as a parent are on another, and they aren't a match. At four it takes your entire lifetime to get to eight. At thirty it takes no time at all. Don't judge the time you have with your kids by what you remember of kid-time, you'll miss way too much.

I'm sitting with my daughter right now, writing this of course, rather than talking to her, but we do notice the old men in the coffee bar. They've got time for each other now, too bad they were too busy for their kids, too bad they had a job and maybe a hobby and they always had "next week" to do something with the family. Next week isn't the same to my daughter now as it was twelve years ago. Her time-scale is getting closer to mine and she's learned well, she puts things off like a pro.

Do you ever wonder why Gramps doesn't mind babysitting the kids? Wonder why they get along so well?

If you don't make it to the next grading because your kids are having a party, I promise won't mind.

April 15, 2013

Where Can I Find a College With Koryu to Attend?

With all my heart I'd recommend that you pick your college for what's most suitable for you, for what's going to educate you best for what you want to do with the rest of your life.

Then look around and see if you can find a koryu nearby.

Koryu isn't secret, it doesn't take sitting outside the door in the rain for days, there aren't blood oaths and secret handshakes and you don't need an introduction letter. Some schools may be all those things, and if you're the type that likes to do something "exclusive" by all means go for it but "Koryu" isn't some monolithic cultural-appreciation club with rules laid down by some conclave of Daimyo in the 1540s.

The vast majority of people in the west who are teaching koryu (and there's a lot of them) require that you get your butt onto the floor to practice and not much else.

But "Koryu" is as much a fad as anything else that's come along in the last couple decades, with the possible exception that it's a fad without numbers.

Folks love to talk about it, and dream of moving away to learn it but they rarely actually turn up on the floor when they get the chance to practice.

For instance, we had the Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts going for over 10 years here, and we rarely got more than 30 people during the school. That's with soke/fuku soke, hachidan, and menkyo kaiden instructors from several different koryu coming to hang out and chat with each other. They were never bothered by hoards of students desparate to learn koryu.

Frankly, the school continued as long as it did because the instructors liked to get together and chat with each other, not because there's a demand for koryu instruction in the West. There isn't.

Want to learn Niten Ichiryu? We had Imai soke and Iwami soke as well as Colin Watkin (Hyaku) sensei here annually for 4 years. We got about 40 people total. You'd think with all this desperation to learn koryu, folks would spend a couple hundred Canadian plus the gas to drive to Guelph to learn some.

Nah, life gets in the way, easier to dream about one day going to Japan to learn on a mountain than to take a week off and sweat blood with the top guy.

Koryu isn't a lifestyle and you can't make a living at it, even in Japan. Find a good college and attend, if you've got some extra time during your studies, look around for a koryu school. If you don't find one go practice kendo or judo. You'll get as much or more out of either of those as you would from any of the koryu, despite fantasies of secret teachings to the contrary.

And if you're wanting to be a full time martial artist, I strongly suggest you get hooked up with a good commercial karate organization that has a solid business plan and put your time in. Concentrate on learning how to teach kids!

Don't make life decisions around learning a koryu, especially if you've never had the chance to practice one. Imagine finding an instructor on the net, moving to the town and registering at a college then finding out the guy's a know-nothing jerk and the college is at best fourth rate...

The one thing I've noticed over the years is that before folks know anything about a koryu they're dead keen to learn it and convinced it's exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the more certain they are the faster they quit when they find out what it's really all about.

The ones who stay are the ones who wander in and say "whatcha doing". They live close, they don't have any pre-conceived ideas about what's happening (so aren't disillusioned that there's no "secret learning").

Did I mention that they live close?

April 12, 2013

Iaido and Disability

I'm not sure why this topic keeps coming up but in the run-up to the summer gradings I am once again being asked by students whether or not it's worth them grading or even continuing their study of iaido due to bad knees, nerve damage or other disability.

We went over all this 20 years ago, but here it is again so here is my take on the topic.

I'll teach anyone who is in front of me because I don't think iaido is a matter of copying a book or copying what I was taught. Iaido is the use of the sword in a way that is appropriate to the situation and to the person holding the sword.

So having stated my bias, here are my arguments.

If we were creating fighting men, bad knees would be a problem. Bad knees in the current military are indeed a problem, as are bad backs and other damage caused by humping loads that are too big over broken ground. The infantry is being asked to carry everything it needs and to do it with body armour on. If we were trying to turn out warriors that had to fight from seiza then we, like the military, should indeed discard our people when they can no longer do the job. But we're not. Iaido is not practiced as a method of fighting in defence of the country, never was.

Iaido from seiza was done because people sat in seiza. There's nothing magical about the postion, there's just a bunch of kata that start from there, so we practice from there. What happened the last time the Japanese sword was used in war? Nakayama Hakudo and Kono Hyakuren took the seiza and tate hiza techniques of iai and stood them up to create the iai that was taught at the army and navy officer schools. They taught standing iai because the modern Japanese army officer wasn't going to be sitting around in seiza or tate hiza with their gunto strapped on.

How about tradition? It's traditional for iaido to be done from seiza! Well it has been since Omori Rokurozaemon invented the techniques and they were adopted into the school, but seiza wasn't there before that time. The Omori ryu (seiza) showed up when people started sitting in seiza a lot. Now we sit on chairs, and to my mind, it's about time a chair set was developed (not my job). Seiza is traditional but not necessary, it's useful but not indispensible, you can learn all the lessons of seiza by using tate hiza or standing, it may take a bit longer but again, we're not training a military, we've got time. We can stand up all the seiza techniques, all the tate hiza techniques because most of them are already there in the standing set, and for what few are not there, we have good hints.

Tradition is respected exactly as much as the teachers say it is respected. I'm all for tradition, I figure we should follow it in the absence of understanding because we need to trust our teachers - teachers, but let's use common sense, if someone can't sit in seiza, they can't sit in seiza. It's a choice by the teachers to say they can't do iaido.

But the rules say they have to sit in seiza to pass an exam. Do they? Looking through the book I see that you're supposed to sit seiza for 1-3 of Zen Ken Ren iai, and tate hiza for number 4. Looking through some of the advice to judges I see it says we should refer to the book so OK maybe. But I don't see anywhere that is says we cannot accomodate disability. For a kyu test we forgive a lot of stuff that isn't "in the book", we don't require the precision we require for a 5dan... perhaps we should, if what the book says is iaido, what kyu challengers do isn't iaido so perhaps they should fail. They don't, we accomodate.

As for the grading standards of each country, well there we have it. There is nothing in the CKF grading policy that says we can not accomodate bad knees or other problems. What is not specifically forbidden falls under the jurisdiction of the chief examiner, so the bottom line comes down to what he says. If the chief examiner says it's fine to accomodate in a grading, it's fine. If he says no, you don't pass if you do your seiza techniques while standing. The head judge at any particular grading can give direction on any such grey areas to the panel in his pre-grading talk. On this topic though, it's pretty cut and dried, you pass or fail by doing seiza or not, so unless the organization needs the test fee money, the chief examiner should make a public decision and then those who can't sit seiza will not be allowed to challenge a grade. It's pretty simple. Now, to my mind, if the chief examiner does not forbid, head judges should also not forbid. In the absence of a negative decision, accomodation should be made.

No matter what, however, the head judge does not get to review or change the decisions of the panel, and it comes down to each judge. If the majority of judges want to fail someone for standing rather than sitting, it's a fail. If they decide to pass even if the head judge says they must fail.... well the student should pass but the head judge will have some things to say to the panel.

But people will cheat and not sit in seiza to make it easier to pass or win a tournament. Really? Do we mistrust our students? For what reason? If they "cheat" in a tournament what do they gain? Not money, not lands, not fame and fortune. About the worst we can say is that it's not fair to the opponent. But when I could sit seiza (and I cannot... no, will not... now) I had no more trouble doing the kata than when I stood. To make someone with bad knees sit seiza against a person who has good knees is more fair? Not in my opinion. Stand the bad knees up and judge the iaido not the health of the competitor's knees.

Same goes for gradings, judge the iaido, not the knees, or the nerve damage, or the stroke, or the missing limb (all of which we have taken into account in the past). And as far as someone passing a grading without seiza, what harm is that to the art if their iai is good and their teaching skills are unimpaired? What harm to the organization? None at all, in fact it's more fees into the bank account!

So what does Japan do? Ah, the ultimate argument yes? Well Japan allows for disability with a doctor's note, and the disability is noted on the grading sheets available to the panel. While this seems a good idea, and it obviously works for Japan, there are some things to consider in the West. First, we don't have huge numbers of anonymous students lined up in front of us. It's pretty clear to us who has a problem without consulting doctors. Next, not all people have access to doctors notes for free, and remember these notes must be obtained for every test. Health changes from test to test. Who puts all this medical information on the grading sheets? It has to go in there before the grading? And a doctor's note? "Hey doc give me a note that says I can't fold my legs past the place where you would consider it smart to fold them and then drop my entire body weight onto them" ..... "umm OK". What's the note prove?

Bottom line, it's no big deal not to grade in iaido, so the organization should decide whether accomodation is allowed or not, and then put a mechanism in place to accomodate if it does. My favourite mechanism is "benefit of the doubt" where I assume if someone is not in seiza there's a reason for that beyond "I'm tired and don't feel like it". I can usually tell if they've got knee problems anyway, they look like they have knee problems. So grade or don't grade, simple one.

What about practicing iaido at all? Well that's up to the instructor and all the points above are relevent. Here's one final: Folks should be tough, it's a martial art after all.

When I was young I believed this. I was tough, I used to exercise until I threw up, I did Aikido with dislocated shoulders, I did Tae Kwon Do with broken fingers, I played football with damaged knees. I still do very stupid things in a similar manner but now it takes me years instead of months or weeks to recover and it never comes back all the way. It Never Did, but I didn't know that.

My point is that it is unfair to a student's future life for us to demand they try to do seiza when they can't or shouldn't. Broken knees mean a poor old age. Replaced knees do NOT bend to seiza. We are not allowed to ask people to sacrifice their future independance for what amounts to our amusement. In fact, as one of the damaged, supposedly smarter, certainly older, folks who have "gone before" I figure it's my job to watch my young students and when they start to do something that might damage their old age say "get off your damned knees and do it standing!"

But that's just me.

April 9, 2013

Who Gets to be Sensei

A senior in one of my arts said: "Amazing how 'You guys are welcome to practice on your own with what you have learned' can be translated as 'you are the leader of your group!'"

But that IS a certification, you may as well put it in writing and give it a fancy name... and charge money for it. You say "go practice" or "go teach" and you've certified that person to do something. You can't get away from it.

The only thing to be done with students who want to be teachers is to take up the Groucho Marx theory. "Any club that would have me as a member, I don't want to join". In other words (and to twist the hell out of it) if the students want a rank, give them a great big whopping one and say "OK you've got it all, go away and teach". Then get down to practicing with the ones who don't give a crap for rank.

There's really only one (sometimes two) grades in any martial art anyway. The first is "you can teach" and the (sometimes) second is "you can tell people they can teach". The rank that says "you own the art" isn't really a rank, soke isn't really something to be challenged and earned like the other ranks.

This goes for the "gendai" arts as well as the "koryu" whether they have formal certificates or not, there are two levels that mean anything. Yes these can be split to finer distinctions (like teaching beginners and sitting a grading only up to X rank) but they are degrees of the same thing.

Lessee, I have no formal (but teaching) rank in 3 koryu and teaching rank in 3 gendai (all formal) and grading rank in 2 gendai. That make me anything I wasn't yesterday? That get me any more students than yesterday? Rank has little meaning to me, never have really needed it for anything, no powers that be have ever actually asked me what rank I was, or required a peek at the certficate, except for the organizations that have ranked me. I'll take permission to practice and permission to teach over paper tucked in the drawer.

What about the headmaster?

I've had it argued to me many times that often the best person for the job of headmaster isn't the most skilled or the best teacher, it's the one who can best hold the school together. Case in point was the succession in MJER, I hear time and again that the successor to Oe Masamichi should have been this or that person because of skill. (Inevitably by someone of some line that follows from a non-soke "successor" of course.) The school is still growing, proof enough that the official choices of successors were just fine. But Oe Masamichi himself may not have been the most skilled person in his generation, in fact there's considerable agreement that he wasn't.

There are all sorts of reasons to promote teachers and name successors, some of them may even involve skill.

April 8, 2013

Why The Sword?

When you begin researching what sword art to practice, it's often helpful to come in with a somewhat different viewpoint. I would suggest that you forget the Anglicized Japanese terms that tend to get thrown around on the net, they can be more of a distraction than a help. I'm talking about such terms as koryu/gendai, jutsu/do, iaido/kenjutsu/kendo and others.

Instead I'd ask myself:

How is it possible to train in any sword art? What methods would one reasonably and efficiently use or create to train?

Full contact with sharp swords and no protection? Obviously not, so one starts modifying the equipment or the method of practice.

Possible schema to classify the various arts.

1. Solo with real sword.
2. Partner practice with blunted, buttoned, or ersatz sword and choreographed exercises.
3. Full contact random or freestyle practice with safety equipment.

Next I'd ask:

What is the purpose of this training and how does the end purpose affect the training methodology?

One might train for

1. Warfare (conventional or otherwise)
2. Dueling
3. Civilian combat (police)
4. Sport
5. Cultural reasons (tradition within a culture, ethnological study)
6. Spiritual reasons (self-discipline, perceived religious connections)

1. Warfare. This is a bit impractical these days, as is 2. Dueling and 3. Civilian Combat, although the Japanese police do use the martial arts for fitness training at least. These three seem to more historical than current reasons. I know of nobody anywhere that is doing the Japanese sword arts with the intent to kill or injure another, and I hope I never do or we will all be in trouble.

4. Sport. Kendo, Chambara, Tameshigiri, Iaido, and Jodo all have sport aspects to their training. There may be others that I'm forgetting, I'm on my first coffee of the day. Sport is a pretty common way for folks to get into sword, and for some the thrill of competition continues through their lives. Another thing I include in the sport area is fitness, although I am beginning to think that fitness is becoming less connected with sport and more connected to cosmetic medicine.

5. Cultural reasons. Here I'd include an interest in conserving and investigating your own culture (if you are Japanese) or someone else's (if you're not). I'd also include the less benign aspects of cultural activity, such as promoting ultranationalism as was seen in the past. I suppose I would also include being involved in a cultural pursuit which is supported by the sword arts. I'm talking about anime, star wars and cosplay type activities.

6. Spiritual reasons. This is what we are all supposed to be in the arts for isn't it? To become better people? That's the common line anyway, even for those who point out that it's a cover (with the sport argument) that allowed the resumption of the arts after the Second World War. The argument is without function today, the arts are in no danger of being banned and the old ultranationalist danger is past. This leaves us with a question whether the present arts are good for self-improvement or not. To that end I would point to any physical art anywhere and you'll find someone saying that it "builds character". Go from there.

With that structure you may now be able to decide what you're looking for, and that will give you an idea of which art to examine but here's one more item we have to consider about the Japanese sword arts, and that's the availability of a class. It's no use deciding that you want to study something like Niten Ichiryu without considering who is teaching and where. The internet creates a general feeling that everything is available everywhere, and cheap fuel for transport has helped, but in this case there is a problem of supply.

I've really got to say that given the choice of doing a Niten class once a month and doing kendo three times a week, you go with kendo. If you practice Niten at Guelph you'll do it once a week max. If you're absolutely convinced that this koryu holds some secret or special teaching... well no, you're still not any better off practicing with me because after 30 years of sword I still don't know any secrets or special unbeatable techniques. I just know that time in equals skill out. It's all about breathing (the more you do it the better you get at it).

To avoid a bigger post here, see the following for my arguments:

http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_taylor_0301.htm (compared to smelly old diesel-powered kendo, koryu is "new and improved" to the western eye)

http://ejmas.com/pt/ptart_taylor_0802.htm (written a couple years ago but relevent to the topic at hand).

Good luck with the search.

April 7, 2013

Healthy Disrespect and Understanding the Roots

I for one think it's extremely healthy to open yourself up to ridicule once in a while. (Other people must too, since internet discussion forums are still popular, and blogs even more so.)

For instance there's a photo of me not cutting an empty pop bottle at http://www.uoguelph.ca/~iaido/iai.oldpictures.html

I thought we had a photo or two of some pumpkin cutting we used to do each fall at the Bonsai show but I don't see it there. Oh well, we used to cut pumpkins. I've also cut styrofoam pool noodles with my iaito, and newspaper sheets with shinai.

Should have seen some of the email I used to get about that bottle shot, one fellow actually suggested that I was bringing all of ancient Japan into disrepute by having such a terrible photo up online. Went on to tell me I should quit. Wonder if he's still practicing?

Come to think of it, I was on national TV science show around the time of "The Last Samurai" knocking a mat off a stage, stand and all. OK it was a little plastic camera tripod that was barely enough to hold the mat upright and it was the third cut on that mat but hey, if I was any good I'd have been able to cut it right?

Seriously though, one should expect at least a passing acknowledgement of what cutting represents. All well and good to cut vegetables but I remember the day 25 years or so ago when my sensei and I were at a Jiu Jitsu tournament doing the demonstration with all the musical kata (my favourite was the guys that did the movie self defence thing, then did it backward in slow motion) and the inevitable "cut the apple on the student's stomach" demo showed up. The look on sensei's face as he stood up and looked, hands on hips... one he didn't even try to hide, Japanese as he is... priceless. I honestly think he'd never even imagined that sort of thing happened.

I remember another sensei who had to decline an invite to demonstrate at the Legion... he gently reminded the social director that some of the members may have served in the far east and might not appreciate the memories of Japanese swordsmanship. This same guy had an anthropologist show up on his doorstep one day with a whole pig in her trunk she wanted him to hack up so she could study the bone marks. He declined that one too.

The problem is, and this worries me as much as it worried my father, every generation seems to have to figure out for itself, the seriousness and stupidity behind death. Young men seem to want to argue about the minutia of manners and the seriousness of "battlefield tested" this or that silliness while never considering the total idiocy and terrible mundanity of death in war. It ain't glorious, no matter what the monuments say, and I've had the relatives die and almost die to teach me just what it's all worth.

Being the first kid after an unbroken chain of at least 5 generations in my family that hasn't had to volunteer to go get injured (the ones that got killed didn't leave any offspring and NONE of the silly alcoholic bastards who came back, came back whole) in some war somewhere or other, I'm quite happy to pass on the old man's advice to "run like hell for the North if asked to serve", to my son... and daughter now, thanks so much for equal opportunities to die in the military.

In other words, I'd rather the kids chop up pumpkins as pumpkins than talk to me about relative comparisons of this or that thickness of mat and bamboo compared to an arm or a leg. That sort of romanticism and fantasy gets kids murdered by us old men who send them out to fight our wars.

So I try to explain and demonstrate the absurdity of "martial arts" while teaching budo. I try to teach a healthy disrespect of authority and reliance on one's own intellect while being your typical dictatorial sensei.

And I probably fail miserably.

April 6, 2013

Real Sword

"I am looking for a place that will teach me the workings of the sword, in it's original, unadulterated form, which is to say, for combat, not sport, or inner well being, or whatever else they use to pitch the new seitei forms."

Ah-ha, well that would of course be the UWFC, the ultimate weapons fighting championships that you're looking for. I'm afraid all the older Japanese weapon arts have some sort of self improvement tacked onto them, the theory being that nobody fights with swords any more so the only reason you'd want to mess with them is as a hobby or some sort of self improvement thing.

The UWFC guys though are taking it back to the real deal. No sissy stuff, just what works in full contact.

They can be hard to find, dueling being illegal and all that rubbish, but if you do (and it's a personal introduction sort of thing), be sure that you get a battle-ready sword if you join, there's a lot of inferior blades out there. Broken blades flying across the field can injure spectators and fellow competitors.

"But I really want to learn a genuine old style sword art, one that is proven by history".

Look, here's the thing, folks who go into the arts looking for something specific generally don't find it. The students who have stayed the longest in my classes tend to be the ones that wander in the door without any idea of what they're in for. (And there's a good reason for that).

But my best advice to anyone who wants to get into the martial arts is really quite simple.

Find the best instructor you can, and study whatever he is teaching. Period.

This applies to ANYTHING not just the martial arts, if you run across a great yoga instructor, GO DO THAT because great instructors are not common. Ever, in any era, in any art.

Now "best" means many things, but most important amongst all of them is availability and the ability to teach you. You won't learn from someone who isn't in the same province and you won't learn from someone who can't connect with you, can't figure out how to knock the stuffing out of you and insert what's needed.

Get out and look at what's around, go to a kendo class, go to an iaido class, go to a jodo class, check out the instructors. One of them will appeal to you, go do that.

These things aren't secret, at least not around here, and if they are, move on... unless secret appeals to you. Then you sign the blood oath, pay the dues and sit in the rain outside the gate for a week. Hope it's worth it.

April 5, 2013

The Three Blind Men and the Elephant

I have for years been raging on about various aspects of "difference" between various lines of koryu or between seitei and koryu and whatnot. Here are a few points to consiider.

To the "koryu" guys (or better yet, those who don't practice jo or iai at all) who pronounce on seitei but aren't in the ZNKR and have never practiced seitei... What in the world are you thinking?

Vast differences between koryu and seitei? If you say it often enough it becomes true? We've had several menkyo kaiden here in Guelph from Fukuoka and from Tokyo, all teaching Zen Ken Ren jo. What I've noticed with my own beady little eyes is that the difference between Fukuoka and Tokyo koryu is greater than the difference between seitei and Tokyo koryu.

This May we will have another two hachidan jodo instructors in Guelph at the Spring Seminar http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html Anybody who wants to come and investigate the differences between seitei and koryu for themselves is welcome to come and do so, you don't have to be a kendo federation member to attend the seminar.

As for the general concept that seitei is a newly developed, vastly different animal from koryu that must be taught differently and isn't "serious"... Does anyone truly believe that a menkyo/hachidan is going to radically change their approach to jo or iaido depending on whether or not they're teaching koryu or seitei? Why would they?

The IKF is a large organization with many hachidan and many menkyo members, all with their own lines of koryu. Seitei is intended to provide a common standard worldwide so that we can all speak from the same page during gradings or tournaments. Note that in the ZNKR seitei is NOT a watered down "introductory" set to see if you pass the test for koryu instruction, nor is it for the kendo guys to "dabble" in jo or iai every second Saturday afternoon. The fact that most iai and jo students do not practice kendo is proof enough for this. Seitei is done in a common way so that everyone can get together to train without adjusting your kata every time someone new stands up in front of the room. Anyone in the ZNKR can see this.

I've been reading about how this or that art is "better than" the ZNKR/IKF version for 20 years now. Guys if your art is better, then good for you, but yammering away about it simply sounds like comparison marketing to me. Please, no more "well I heard that seitei was created for..." look for yourself, I invite all the koryu only folks to come to the seminar and try Seitei.

If you want to see differences, if difference is important to you, you'll see differences.

We do mainly seitei jo here in Guelph because I've actively, and somewhat successfully, resisted doing koryu jodo since I started practicing it many years ago. I had two koryu already, MJER iai and Niten Ichiryu, and I've got decades of time in on both but am happy with my skills in neither... eventually I ended up with the third koryu (jodo) but there's plenty to practice in seitei jo and I'm as happy doing that as koryu. I don't assume, create or see a difference between them, not a meaningful one beyond a few simple movements.

To give you an example of "different" vs "no difference", I trained for several years in MJER iai and learned that there were dozens and dozens of little differences in form, as well as major differences in timing and attitude between Omori, Eishin and Oku iai. I can demonstrate them to you. I then met and practiced with the senior western instructor in a different line of MJER in a different organization and asked him what the differences were between the three levels and his reply was "there aren't any". Both ideas are entirely correct and the reason is that I practice things one way and he practiced them another. There's more to this but I'm not going into it now except to say that if you are "advanced" in your handling of the sword because you've practiced for years, are you going to "dumb down" your ability when you do a beginner set?

Differences can depend on experience (have you actually got the experience, in the two things compared, to have an opinion that is worth giving), point of view (if you consider hitting one target or another an inch away a difference than it's different, if you figure you can hit either at will, it's not), age in the art (a beginner "KNOWS" what's what, his sensei will have some sort of vague idea that maybe it goes this way but can think of a dozen reasons why it could go the other way), marketing (to be blunt, the ZNKR is huge, koryu organizations are usually tiny, so how do you get the students...), and which way the wind is blowing (sensei may teach differences one day, similarities the next).

Ultimately, it's not the art, or the style or the subset that's important, it's how you practice. I do Niten Ichiryu and for everyone who seems so interested in it (where are you guys when we do a seminar?) I can assure you that you can learn the entire school in two days (I know, I've taught it in two days and the students actually knew the steps at the end). It's no big hardship to learn the steps... but that's NOT the point. It's not the technique it's the method of practice and that, my friend, is the key. The secret isn't in the way you slide to the side it's in what happens in your brain when you practice Sasen a certain way, with a certain attitude.

Or Mae, or Shohatto, or Tsuki Zue, or Tachi Otoshi.

And that's why you'll see the old farts practicing the kihon over and over and over and over. It's not that they're hiding the "good stuff" from you, it's that they're SHOWING IT TO YOU RIGHT NOW, the secret stuff is something you do once or twice a year just so you don't forget the dance steps. It's not a reward handed out for good conduct and long practice, it's something you hand over to someone so that they can worry about remembering the damned stupid stuff that got handed down somehow and clutters up your head while you're trying to figure out how to do the basic kata you learned your first week in the dojo. The important one.

Less is more. An Elephant is long and skinny, like a snake.

April 4, 2013

The Hardest Learning

I was watching a video of a famous teacher as he taught a class to a bunch of seniors in his art. This teacher has a bit of an atttude and while teaching a movement that he felt was more accurately reflective of the true art than what the rest of the organization was doing, said so repeatedly.

So he was teaching the correct version to his own students. Pretty simple I would have thought.

Parenthetically, with teachers who say "everyone else is wrong" it's not hard to understand how their students end up being obnoxious in their conviction that their way of doing things is the best. This happens a lot more in the non-competitive arts than in kendo or judo I suspect, since in those arts someone can say "show me" and it works or it doesn't.

Regardless, these students ought to be especially sensitive to instruction that is couched in terms of "this is the real way" with examples of the poor other way given as well... You would think.

What happened in this tape is not a surprise, but continually shocking to me. The same small technique was introduced, tape jumps to next bit of instruction (after practice presumably) and sensei repeats himself, next sensei repeats it again with another student, then sensei names someone specifically and corrects, then sensei gets a book out and says "even though it's in here it's wrong, this is the right way" and shows it again, and again. I gave up watching, it was a little thing, put the foot here and not here, a simple thing.

But they could not see it, could not bring themselves to watch or to listen. You see these were seniors, folks who teach their own students, so by definition they knew the technique. I have watched this all my budo life, the guys who vaguely look at sensei and nod after the first demonstration and then drift off into their own heads or worse, start explaining how to do the technique to people around them even while sensei is still speaking. Then they do what they assumed they saw.

I've been there, I've pulled those students up in front of the class and explained with pushing of legs and pulling of arms how to do it the way I want them to do it... and watched them do it their way.

Such a waste of time on both our parts, but there is nothing so conservative as a student who has some understanding and is teaching. There is ONE way to do it, and no need to look at any other. In the world of technique simple is better and what we learn first is simple. To learn more deeply is the hardest learning of all. To give up what we know we know and look with the mind of a beginner (shoshin) is humiliating, a betrayal of the hours and years spent learning what we know.

I'm not much better, I've assumed and been wrong. I've taken years sometimes to hear a correction but in my defence I get really angry at myself for not hearing it sooner, rather than at sensei for wasting my time talking or showing rather than letting me practice. And sometimes I was just not able to hear what he was saying. Shu Ha Ri isn't a one time thing. Sometimes we have to learn one thing before we can learn another, and then we have to start over again with that simple knowledge tucked away but tucked aside while we get the next bit.

It's hard, I know, but try not to be too obnoxious about ignoring what sensei is teaching. Don't correct the students around you and for heaven's sake, don't correct sensei! Seriously, I've seen it happen and the assumption that sensei doesn't know he's "doing it wrong" is breathtaking.

April 3, 2013

Just What Is Good Anyway? II

I thought I'd think a bit on what the other "good iaido" stuff is, but to do it I think I have to open it up a bit to include partner practice so that we can look more simply at what good iaido looks like. Partner practice is of course, kendo or what folks call kenjutsu nowadays, a person to person practice using kata.

A list of some things that might define good iaido:

Accurate cuts that hit the target. Right away you see how much easier this is to discuss with partner practice rather than with solo iaido forms, but iaido "has a partner" so we have to look at the invisible opponent in order to work out the correct shape and distance on the cuts. This is very difficult for beginners, who stretch their arms, lean their bodies or shorten their swings because they don't know what the kata means and they don't know where their opponent is. In fact one of the more interesting effects of iaido seems to be that the opponent gets closer when the student swings faster, and further away when the student slows down.

Hips are also something that beginners don't understand, the use of them in developing power in a cut, and the aiming of them at the opponent. Good iaido means good use of the hips. Of course, "hips" is a shortcut for a whole way of interacting with the weapon and the earth and gravity and...

Good timing. Seems a bit silly to worry about timing in a solo kata, don't we get to decide how fast or slow our invisible opponent is? Well yes, to an extent, but only in a general way. If we have stepped back to avoid being cut and are relying on the opponent's sword being down so that we can step back in to cut him, we don't have all day. The kata can be slow or fast but the rhythms inside that kata must make combative sense. Good iaido shows a rhythm that works. A bit of partner practice with a senior who can gently suggest weak timing will demonstrate this point.

Good distance. In a simple way, this is the same as hitting the target, but in a more sophisticated way it means covering the proper distance in the correct timing. If you cut while stepping in you will miss the opponent. If you step in and then cut with too much time between those actions you will be cut. The correct distance must be taken at the correct time. If you are stepping forward from seiza while drawing the blade to cut the opponent's shoulder you must have both feet on the floor at the point of contact or your cut will be weak. If you put that forward foot down too soon you will lose all the momentum from your body surge and you will be cutting with your shoulder only, again a weak cut.

To go back to the timing of partner practice, a good kata is done when shidachi (the winner) moves and counter-cuts after uchidachi (the attacker) begins his cut and so is committed to a single movement. Good iai shows this sort of movement, a good iaidoist imagines his opponent's blade moving toward his head before he makes his move, and then makes it effectively.

Unflappable attitude. A good iaidoist is calm, dignified, unruffled by anything going on around him. He can appear confident to the point of arrogance. If he does an incorrect movement you won't know it by his actions or facial expressions. If you don't know what he is supposed to be doing you won't know it at all. The good iaidoist can perform without warming up in any situation. He won't blame the weather, an injury, poor information or lousy instruction for his performance, he will simply do his best. Not "do his best" in the sense of getting a participation ribbon in lower school, but actually do the best iai he is capable of doing. There is no room for any other performance when we talk of practicing sword in a realistic way. Every performance represents the risk of death and must be done so as to respect this. There are no "do-overs" and no excuses that will do any good in this world, the attitude must be survive or no, rather than "do I look cool in my Inuyasha duds?".

Iron fist in a velvet glove. A good iaidoist looks soft, the shoulders are soft, the hands are soft, the cut is soft but those with eyes will see the iron fist under that softness. Put a bokuto under the soft swing of an 8dan and the bokuto will shatter. Be partner to the soft swing of a hanshi and you feel the power of a movement that is totally directed into a centimeter of blade. A centimeter through which moves every gram of weight and all the power of a body trained for 50 years.

Kindness and generosity. A good iaidoka will have open arms for everyone, regardless of skill or style. Everyone shares the art, all are to be cherished and embraced. Only a beginner thinks in terms of better or worse, higher or lower. A good iaidoist thinks only of performing the art. In partner practice or a life and death match, one embraces the chance to do one's best, as a teacher or a student, a winner or a loser. In this world there is no room for talk, no gossip or back-biting, no idle comparisons, simply get on the floor and swing the sword.

When talking about grading and tournaments we can talk about "the book" and many technical aspects of the art, but these are only one measure of good. There are many others.

April 1, 2013

Just What Is Good Anyway?

Kim Taylor iaido
Kim Taylor, seitei mistakes, too square, not enough saya biki... oh wait, we were doing koryu!

I just read an interview with some kendo federation teachers in Japan. They said it's important to find a good teacher and stick with them, that it's important to maintain contact with Japan in order to do good iaido.

I just watched a video of a kendo federation 8dan sensei demonstrating the kendo federation iaido set.

I picked out at least five "mistakes" in his etiquette and first kata, things that our Japanese teachers have told us are bad to do over the years. In the rest of the set I'd be surprised if I could not pick out 40 more.

Sounds a bit arrogant? This non-Japanese 7dan saying he's spotting mistakes in an 8dan? OK sure, call me arrogant, you don't spend three decades doing anything without getting a bit of a "know-it" on you, but the mistakes I'm talking about are those that beginners (less than ten years of practice) would spot and fuss about. I'm actually quite satisfied with the performance and would be happy to practice with this instructor. Let me explain.

Some of these mistakes are things that can be explained by bad knees or sore shoulders. They are not correct due to "the book" but they are as close as this guy can make them. If your knees don't bend, they don't bend. Should you stop practicing and teaching because you can't demonstrate a fully bent knee? A healthy iaidoka may say yes, if you can't demonstrate you should not teach. I think it's a pretty stupid reason to waste 40 or 50 years of experience. Point to someone else and say "bend your knee like him, not like me" and you've got it covered.

If the knees will bend, but wear out so that you spend the last 20 years of your life in a wheelchair instead of walking, but you bend them anyway because you figure you should demonstate to the beginners, I call stupid again. If that bent knee will get your 7dan student to 8dan... maybe. If you ruin your knees to show a bunch of 4dans who may not be around to take 5dan... it's just stupid.

You do not do seiza with replacement knees!

Some of the mistakes this hachidan was making were things our set of teachers did or do that are outside "the book". The fellow was doing shinden-influenced movements, his "koryu was leaking" into his seitei. My beginners would call mistake, I call choice. He can do it that way and I know it because I've been around for long enough to know that's a choice point.

Now we come to it. The set of mistakes he was doing that were mistakes according to the book as told to us by our teachers in the past... (see where I'm going yet?) He was doing some things my students would call me on, and do regularly because they are things we have drilled into them like steel into rock. Seeing those things would make my 4dan student's teeth hurt.

They are wrong, but they are not "mistakes" today. They are things the 8dans are not looking for these days, and they are things that, if you read the book closely, you will find are, technically, allowed. This is why we need Japanese sensei to come each year and tell us about the "latest fashions in Paris". In close to 30 years I have seen the waves of instruction come, sometimes a crest and sometimes a trough on many of the movements of the ZNR iai. Sometimes we are paying attention to this or that... and sometimes not. It's that "sometimes not" that beginners haven't seen yet.

"Good" iaido can be defined several ways, but the most important way is "this is how we're doing it in Tokyo now", it's "the current fashions from Paris". I don't care if you figure that's a bad way to define good, if you do ZNKR Iaido you care about this. If you do a koryu iai you care about how the soke is doing it now. If you're in a lineage that isn't straight from the soke, you still do it the way your sensei does it.

If you care deeply about iai, and do it long enough you have other definitions of good and you can appreciate those who do it in a different way, but baseline is "the latest fashions from Paris".

Finally, this hachidan I was watching made a few mistakes that were straight out, no fooling around mistakes. They are specifically forbidden by "the book" and they are against the latest instructions from our teachers from Japan. They are things this sensei would likely forbid his students do. They were mistakes.

Surprise, iaido is done by people and not by robots.

Deal with it.

March 31, 2013

Office Politics

There have been zero, none, nada organizations that I have been part of in over 50 years on the planet that did not suffer from office politics.

Not even a tiny koryu with maybe 150 students worldwide. Certainly not any of the kendo, or aikido groups I was or am a member of, not the photo studios I've been part of (with as few as 4 members), not the places I've worked, not even in my own family.

Office politics are a fact of life. If there are three people doing one thing, one of them is going to want most to be the leader, one is going to want most to just get on with the job and one is going to complain most about the office politics.

You would figure that the budo, with our strict heirarchy, would avoid this stuff. It's not hard to identify the top dog, he's the highest ranked, the one everyone else in the organization says is the top dog, so where's the problem?

In number 2 of course. Everyone agrees on number one because they're still in the organization. Those who didn't like him left when he took over. The thing is, when it's getting time to step down there's another struggle for the new top dog. Always. Even if it doesn't look like there should be. Number 2 is the highest ranked? But he doesn't practice much any more. Number 2 is the longest serving student? But he's old. Number 2 is the best technician? But he's a crappy teacher. Number 2 is the best teacher? But his technique is crap. Number 2 is universally liked? He's just a politician.

Even when there's an agreement from most folks that number 2 is the best for the job, there can be a problem. After all as number 2 starts to take a stronger role, it may be number 1 who starts to feel slighted at this upstart who doesn't respect his teacher any more.

Best way to avoid the politics of a budo organization is from the top down.

Make the chain of leadership clear, however you do it, and don't change the rules every third Sunday. Just because number 2 wasn't there for your birthday last week doesn't mean he's unfit to take over when you die.

Be responsive to the membership and make one decision per issue. If you decide four times on every question depending on the next four people who talk to you, the race is on for whoever gets your ear. This is a big chunk of what causes office politics, the idea that you can manipulate and whine to get your ideas implemented.

Be advisable. Involve the next generation in the decisions, listen carefully to them, take minutes of meetings and pay attention to the decisions, that is, READ THE MINUTES to remind yourself what you decided. This gets even more important as you get older pops. Get someone accurate and reliable to take the minutes and don't rely on your memory, we all remember we heard what we wanted to hear, that's why minutes are read back and approved at the next meeting.

If you set up a committee to decide something, do what they decide. Nothing burns out the next generation faster than wasting their time on stuff that isn't core to the group. Sitting in a meeting is not as much fun as throwing each other around on the mats. I think this is the one that annoys me the most, it's so hard to find people willing to help, to watch them being wasted like this really pushes my buttons.

Support your people. Wow is this one hard, especially if all your students are stupid, but you have to do it. The guy at the top has to back up all the folks he's picked to do a job. They get the praise for well done, and number 1 gets the blame if it goes bad. Seriously! If you're sittting on the top of the pack what in the world would ever suggest that you get to blame someone else for a problem? Who are you trying to protect yourself from? You're at the top so who's to impress? Taking the blame is going to get you more juice from those under you than passing the buck back down the ladder. Blaming other people only works while you're jockeying for that top position.

Find the folks who don't want the job and give them the job. Plato had this figured out a long time ago, the people who want the job most aren't the ones who are best for the job, they're the ones who want it most. The best person for a job is the one who's going to do the job well. Sometimes, especially in volunteer organizations, you may have to settle for the one who will just do the job period.

That goes for the top dog as well. Pick that number2 on the basis of more than the guy who's the best suck-up or the guy who's the best technician; the one who pays you the most or the one who's been hanging around most lately. Pick someone who can carry on and improve things, the guy who will keep most of the seniors around, who will bring in more students, who will keep learning and teaching. This guy is usually a compromise, often not the best anything, just the best for the job.

Just like good old number 1 was.

March 29, 2013

What to Look for in a Sensei.

A good person. Someone who can teach you how to develop yourself as a human being. The school, the art, whatever, is irrelevant. "Permission to teach" is largely irrelevant (you can be a lousy instructor with permission to teach). Rank is largely irrelevant for similar reasons.

"Connections" and rank can be a positive distraction for many students. A low ranking instructor who has a good heart and a solid grasp of the basics can be better for many beginners than a high ranked instructor who may be a distracted and erratic teacher. And students of high ranked or connected instructors may believe they are better than they are simply through their own ego. (My teacher is great so I'm great... my dad is bigger than your dad...)

You need someone who can teach you to see your faults, not blind you to them.

And if you want to learn how to kill folks (ie "find someone who knows genuine battlefield techniques"), join any military on the planet rather than look for the most kickass teacher with the most trophies in the window.

Teaching and making money are not particularly connected. If one wants to talk about the sword arts, you are likely talking about unpaid instructors, simply because there aren't enough students around to support a teacher of iaido, and kendo does not have the habit of professional instructors.

Arts that are popular, those at which one can make a living, do not equate with bad teachers, in fact, the presence of lots of students and lots of teachers should increase the chance of finding a good one since the pool is larger.

A professional karate instructor who makes a living as a martial arts teacher may be a very good sword instructor too. Why not? In fact, since the sword likely has very little to do with his bottom dollar, it may be likely that he's practicing and teaching out of pure love for the art... as much as the guy down the street renting the community centre.

On the other hand, there are those who figure you get what you pay for, so a teacher who doesn't charge must be a poor teacher. After all if your students won't pay to study you can't be very good can you? Again, money has nothing to do with teaching skill. There are very good instructors who can't or won't charge due to tradition, training location or personal convictions. There are also horrible instructors who won't charge for the same reasons.

It's your money (or if not money, your free time being used up) so treat your search for budo training as if it's an interview process for the dad you never had.

March 28, 2013

Why Have I Never Heard of Jodo?

You mean Judo don't you?

More than one visitor to Japan has been politely corrected in their "mispronunciation of Judo" when asking about Jodo. Jodo simply isn't as popular in Japan as Kendo or even Iaido. In the West? Forget finding anyone who's ever heard about it. There is an very long history of Kendo in the USA and Canada beginning with the Japanese who migrated and continuing to this day, (but even then it's only recently that you see non-Japanese coming up in the ranks and hitting the 7dan levels).

Judo has a similar lengthy history and it's also an Olympic sport so no problem with recognition there. Karate got a massive jump in the West due to the occupation of Okinawa and the numbers of servicemen who brought it back to the States in the 1950s.

But Jodo has none of those advantages. It wasn't spread outside Fukuoka with any great success until Shimizu sensei went to Tokyo (although Uchida Ryogoro was there earlier and taught Nakayama Hakudo). Shimizu's instructor Shiriashi Hanjiro was, for all intents and purposes, the only instructor of jodo who made it through the Meiji era. Everything then, spreads from Shiriashi and then from Tokyo and Fukuoka so you're looking at an art that is essentially a post WWII reality. The instructors just weren't there before that time so it's not surprising that they aren't here in the West. Despite a 400 year history, Jodo really is a "new" Western art compared to Kendo, Judo and Karate.

We're talking about ZNKR Jodo and Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo, which are essentially the same thing (OK we can get into the "differences" between koryu and seitei but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck... I don't see too much of Tendo-ryu staff or Muhi Muteki Ryu in seitei) There just aren't that many separate jodo arts to be had in Japan, let alone outside. The other Jodo we find in the west is associated with Aikido and despite it's short history (a couple-three generations) it is better known here due to the much wider distribution of that art.

No conspiracy of silence, no super-selective secret sensei hiding out in the wilds of Chicago waiting for students to stumble into their backyards, just a simple lack of numbers. All the Japanese Jodo sensei I've met so far have been quite willing to teach as many people as they can get gathered together to teach.

Oh, that's not to say there isn't the usual amount of sniping between the big guns as you see in any martial art, with varying degrees of secrecy for their koryu jodo lines, but the ones I've met and practiced with are all ZNKR and will all teach seitei to pretty much anyone regardless of their koryu lineage. So it is possible to find and learn Jodo in the West, you just have to be willing to hunt and maybe travel a bit. Like maybe to the Guelph Spring Jodo Seminar which you will find here: http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html

And avoid gettting steered into the local Judo club of course.

See you May 17-20 in Guelph.

March 27, 2013

The Degree Mill

I watched an episode of Poirot last evening, it happened to be Murder on the Orient Express and as it started I realized that I had no clue as to whodunit. Not after having watched at least six versions of the story. Of course I remembered well before the end of the story but the thing is, I don't watch a murder mystery in order to know who did it. It's not the destination it's the ride.

The same thing applies to the martial arts, it's a process, not a product to be aquired. My aikido sensei used to tell me about "black belt disease", that strange situation where students quit after getting one. Having watched it happen for a couple of decades now I can verify that it does indeed exist.

Why? I think mainly it's because those students figure that they can "get" an art, that they can "learn it" and be done with it, and in their heads the finish point is "black belt". To my mind, that's sort of like watching a detective movie so that you can find out whodunnit. Would be easier and much more efficient to go to Wikipedia and look it up. Would be much faster and cheaper to buy a black belt from a supply store and be done, time to move on and buy some cross-country skis to throw in the back of the closet.

Not that I mind the certificate collectors, I don't do private lessons so they're not wasting my time by attending class. On the other hand, I don't get paid for teaching either, so there's no benefit to me if they're there. It's mostly the waste of their own time that I'm concerned with, I could hand them a black belt after a couple of classes and save us both some time and effort.

Well why not? It's not like they are going to set themselves up as teachers and make a bundle of money off of unsuspecting students. That doesn't happen because there's no money in teaching what I teach. Trust me I know. And beside that, if they wanted to set up as a teacher there's nothing I can do about it, they can buy that black belt online.

Yes.... OK there is a problem isn't there. If I certify them it means I'm responsible for them. It's me that says they are "black belt" level so that's why I don't do it.

But the next time you find yourself calculating how many more hours of class you need before you can challenge for your next belt, consider why you're in class. If it's the destination, and that destination is a black belt, there's a shortcut.

March 25, 2013

Kendo no Kata or Other Partner Blades

Got an order forming for sets of demonstration blades. These are spring steel blades, semi sharp and we've just finished testing the prototypes. Stop using iaito folks, these are safer and cheaper. Get in touch for more information.

This first set have been banged around using the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu set of Tachi Uchi no Kurai. This means direct edge to edge blocking which produced (as expected) some nicks in the blade. These are easy to clean up. I also took them over my knee and bent them, they spring back straight (being spring steel I expected this). I also took a bokuto and beat on the side of the blade a bit and nothing happened. I'm good with these and will be using them for demonstrations myself, where I would never use an aluminum alloy blade.

However... these are not toys, do not consider buying these things so that you can whang them together in the back yard. Get a couple of crowbars to do this with kids, and wear eye protection for when you get a chip out of one of them heading for your head.

Oh, also surprising to me about these blades was that they are pretty well balanced. They have a somewhat longish tsuka which may help here with these 2.45 shaku blades. (Nothing like some you see out there, but more like what you'd see on a 2.6 shaku blade).

March 23, 2013


"No thought" is how it's usually translated, but how does that help? No thought means just running on reaction, on instinct, whatever that means for humans, usually it means freezing with a big intake of breath.

No unnecessary rationalization, no excess deliberation, no conscious decision might be closer to it. Relaxed, immediate response is the goal of course, to be able to respond to any change in the situation with the correct action. No Thought should not mean Thoughtless.

That's the trick of course, to be able to spontaneously react in the correct way as opposed to simply reacting. (That "simply reacting" is of course a trained response, very few reactions are actually reflexes like the knee-jerk, we respond as we were taught, in ways that have been successful in the past, unfortunately, these may not apply to the present situation and so are "bad reactions"... think freezing is a bad reaction? Consider the benefit of freezing in the face of a motion predator, consider the benefit of taking some time to think it through if you come up against a situation you haven't encountered before and have no pre-analysis of a similar story.)

Paradoxically then, to be able to respond with mushin you need to anticipate as many possible situations as you can. You need to think of all the possible actions, reactions and chains of events that you can and decide ahead of time how you will respond. In the martial arts world that means waza, kata and keiko.

Waza is the alphabet, the repertoire of actions (reactions) we learn. A reverse punch, a horizontal cut, a hip throw. Kata are the stories we tell ourselves, if he steps in and does this, we respond with this. Keiko is the repetition we need in order to be able to do the waza smoothly. Note I didn't say kata, I said waza. It's good to do a reverse punch instinctively as we see an opening. It is not good to make a reflex action out of doing a reverse punch every time we see the opponent attempt an overhead block. Reflexes like that are too complex, too "long". An opponent can use that upper block to draw a reverse punch out of us and when we do that he's got a side kick into our ribs.

Kata need to be done with our eyes wide open and our brains responding as if they were seeing the movements for the very first time. Kata are not for memorization, they are for telling. They are stories filled with call and response and as such should be done fresh every time. If you are telling a story to an audience as if you are reading it from a book each time, you will have very few coins in your hat at the end of the day.

Of course you can't make up a scenario for every possible future event, we must generalize from the story. The waza (the kihon) are drilled as reactions, the kata we hope will generalize to a new situation as needed. A few waza are drilled and then used in a wide array of kata so that we see several ways to use them. A reverse punch at an upper block, at a missed front kick, after a block of our own, or as we angle in suddenly. Then we see a front kick, a body slam or a sweep in response to that upper block. The waza become generalized reactions to many stimuli and it's the open, "no-thought" mushin of the brain that triggers the correct (we hope) reaction.

Mushin goes beyond budo of course, you use it every day when you drive. Certain waza cause your car to do certain things, breaks, steering, blinkers... these are the waza that we use with our mushin. Want daily proof of mushin? How about the amazing fact that there aren't vast numbers of accidents every morning as all the commuters head to work putting on their makeup, reading their papers or talking on their phones. Only mushin keeps as many of them alive as survive each day.

A better driver? One who looks several cars ahead and plans their moves by checking for empty space beside, breaking room in front and behind. One who pays attention and anticipates future events from present causes. One who has practiced skid control and violent steering and maximum breaking. Waza, kata and kihon.

My daughter is going to university. We worked for 18 years to accumulate the funds and make it possible for her to go without worry about finances. We even had a few fights and discussions about things like mortguage payments vs rent vs commuting. What happens? Well sometimes folks need to feel a bit of negative reinforcement, a poke in the nose to convince us that we should not step straight down the line into an attack. I'm afraid we're heading for student debt, anxiety about getting a job and empty bank accounts because we need to find out for ourselves that it's not a good idea to drive into the desert without a full tank of gas, no matter how many of our friends are in the car with us.

Well, it's not as if I don't have a crooked nose from a few lessons I had to learn myself, but mostly I did listen to the old farts and, amazingly, they were helpful. Come to think of it, I'm still listening to my teachers as they give me the kata and tell me to practice my waza.

Do you listen to your own teachers, learn their stories and turn your chattering monkey brains off while you turn your attention on.

March 23, 2013

Chain Chain Chain

The chain of instruction is a nice multi-layered concept to examine. First, there is the passing of instruction from teacher to student down the generations. If you want to claim you have "founded a new school" you need to time travel into the future and show that you have students of students who are practicing. It's the chain of instruction that makes a school, not a declaration in a webpage or martial arts mag.

Next is a chain of instruction that says you "hold back secrets from beginners" which really isn't quite right. You need to instruct folks in what they are ready to learn. There's no sense talking about mushin or seme at the same time you're showing a student how to hold the sword. In fact you may even teach things like "do these two movements at the same time" because it's easy to learn, only to later say "don't do those things at the same time". Not a secret, just the chain of instruction.

Students should use the concept as well. Look at the instructor's feet first, the footwork is going to be the fastest, easiest thing to catch, so get that down when learning a new movement. I mean really, now fancy can footwork get? Once you've got the feet straight the hand and weapon movements will sit on the base comfortably and will be much easier to learn. Having the wrong foot forward while trying to work out a hand postion will cause additional confusion because few people think to look at their legs when their arms are "wrong".

Which is of course what a good instructor must do, look back down the movement chain of any student to see where they are actually going wrong. Correcting a striking angle at the end of a kata isn't of much use if the student went off the rails three steps ago. A good teacher may even ignore the final problem and just fix the cause, then watch the rest of the kata rattle into place. Students who notice the final problem will figure sensei is magical, fixing things at such a distance. Sensei is of course, magical. Few people have the special skill it takes to troubleshoot. It takes an understanding of the scientific method, of how to isolate and test specific factors in order to identify what causes which effect. This is "control of magic" as opposed to "magical thinking".

Kihon, the fundamental movements of a technique are the links in the chain that is the technique. Learn the kihon, you put a chain together one link at a time, you can't forge the rods, bend them and weld them to all the other links at the same time, you end up with a mess. The same with a kata, you can't be learning how to cut at the same time you are learning how to move from one attacker to another. Spend the time learning to cut, to turn, to relax and straighten the wrists before you take on four opponents at once. The chain of instruction says you learn the kihon, then put them together and you learn how to move against one opponent before you try to learn how to deal with several.

Finally there's Shu Ha Ri, our famous keep break and leave. It's really just a call to the chain of instruction. Copy, Practice and then Extrapolate, watch and do, then do it a lot, and the final step is to think about it, figure out why it works, why you were told to do it that way and not some other. If you are trying to figure out why sensei is punching instead of kicking when he's showing you a new kata you've got very little chance of remembering which foot goes in front of the other when he punches. Get the rationalizing brain out of the chain until you can actually apply it profitably. What, How and Why. What should I be doing? How do I do it? Why do I do it (including where, when and to whom do I do it).

March 21, 2013

What's On the Test

There's a question that I get forever at seminars. What should I work on to pass the test?

Umm, everything?

No, let me put it another way. It's part of the test to figure out what's on the test. Seriously, there's multiple judges on the panel in our organization so any one of them cannot tell you what the others will be looking for, which is why it's hard to say anything beyond, "everything".

In the kendo federation "The Book" (the technical manuals for iaido and jodo) have a section of "things that judges should look at". That's a nice thing for students to read, but don't make it your study notes. You can hit every one of those points and still fail if the rest of your performance is bad. Those are points we're supposed to check, and we do, but they aren't "what you need to pass". Read the kata descriptions in the book and listen to your sensei.

The correct answer to ""what should I work on to pass" is "Ask your Sensei". It's the same answer as for "why didn't I pass?"

Bottom line is that you pass if you meet a certain minimum level of skill and knowledge. You can meet that level in many ways, blinding accuracy, loads of spirit, great effort, massive calmness, satisfying improvement, or any of a dozen other ways that convince the judges that you're "there". We don't have a document that tells us what specific things at which rank gets you a pass. I promise we don't, and I hope there are no judges out there who use the "judging points" as such a device, if they do they are being lazy.

So practice "everything" and stop trying to practice to the test. Learn as much as you can every class, practice on your own, read if you wish, watch video, talk with your fellow students and stop worrying about the test. You don't get anything for passing, no pay raise, no fewer duties around the dojo... in fact in the "old days" you may not even have received a certificate.

Everything includes finding out when the test is, where it is, what the deadline is, how to apply and what to pay. In the CKF all that administration stuff has been taken away from the instructors and lives with the administration so don't ask us, we're just as confused as you are. (On the other hand, you can now expect to get your certificate).

Well, let's be kinder to the instructors shall we? We don't need to know all that stuff any more, you do. We just need to show up and sit on the panel so we likely know when and where but seriously, we aren't involved in the paperwork so in a very real way, it's your job as a challenger to figure that stuff out, it really is part of the test.

What, you figure sensei should tell you that stuff? Why? We're not your mother, you're all big boys and girls. We also don't benefit in any way from you passing or failing grades so there's not even a crass monetary incentive for us to nursemaid you through the process. Go do it yourself, it's part of the test. Find your website, talk to your administrators.

See you at the test.

March 20, 2013
Seminar / Teaching

Welland Iaido Seminar Report

Welland Iaido Seminar
Someone's gonna get it! Carole Galligan, 6dan CKF in full flight.

This last weekend was the fourth annual Welland Iaido seminar and it has become one of my favourites. First, there's lots of students from S. Ontario and the Northern US states, second, all I have to do is show up, and third, it's organized in a rather fun way. Students are split to three groups, this year it was beginners, 1-2dan and 3dan up. The three nanadan instructors rotate between the groups during the day.

The most important thing about this seminar is that the kata studied are also split into three sections, the first instructor teaches 1-4, the second 5-8 and the third 9-12. The instructors can concentrate and the students don't hear different instructions (note that the instructors may not be saying different things but we all have our own "language".)

I think my favourite seminar was the first year when the three groups were in different buildings and the instructors walked from one dojo to another to teach. It was a sunny day and it was refreshing to see a new room with different students. Of course with that arrangement I couldn't eavesdrop on the other two sensei, something that is always fun to do.

This weekend I had the pleasure of working down the grade ladder, doing the senior group then the 1-2dan and finally the beginners. I started the day by asking the seniors to raise their hands if they were instructors. Only two or three were not. This is a factor of a young art growing, where a 4dan rank more or less means you're teaching somewhere.

It's too bad because that's a bit early too teach, but they caught hell from me anyway and I notice it continued through the day. The seniors were the winners of the "most yelled at group" award because they are the teachers of the next generation. The three instructors had different ways of teaching but we seemed to have the same message, knowing the dance steps wasn't enough but it was the absolute minimum. My focus was on standardization, I wanted them to understand that even if they were now skillful enough to do things like sageo control or kata in a unique way, it was their job to do it the same way that everyone else was doing it. Kendo federation iai is "standardized" and there are multiple judges on the grading panel, we do not want to see a dozen ways to move the sageo, even if a dozen are allowed. For my class then, we went through examples of kata and while I pointed out the odd bit of improvement in posture or power here and there, I tried to pull as many questions from the group as possible so that we could clear up any questions and expose any arguments between ways of practice. I think it was a good session that resulted in some understanding of what is "standard" and what is allowed between the two koryu lines (Shinden and Jikiden) that dominate our region.

Cruise sensei had the group next and my spies report he concentrated on the details of the kata. I needed no spies to hear Ohmi sensei chewing them out in the third session, trying to get them to move their practice up a notch, to get some scary into their dance steps. At one point I heard him saying "don't copy my iaido, steal my IAIDO!!" I could just feel their eyes crossing as they tried to understand.

Three very different ways of teaching, but three voices singing the same song. (We three have been together a very long time, longer than some of the students have been alive now that I think of it).

I moved to the 1-2 dan group after this and had them go through the first four kata before moving on. It became apparent to me me that this group needed only one thing, to repeat and repeat the kata. My way of moving them through the next four kata was to go into Broadway Musical mode. We did 5-6-7-8, now say that as if you're about to start a number in a production of "All That Jazz". Why? Because I had to take a bunch of people who all knew the steps and get them to do those steps in the same time. First, it's dangerous for a crowded class to be turning this way and that swinging swords and walking forward and back. Inevitably the slow ones turn and meet the fast ones coming the other way. Next, iaido is a solo practice, and it's very hard to understand that you're working with (against) another person when that person is invisible. (This was painfully obvious in an impromptu tachi uchi no kurai class at the end of the day). Timing and distance are the last things to appear in an iaido kata, so we tried to put them into our musical number. Everyone tried to catch everyone's timing, and everyone tried to maintain the same distance from each other. When you can catch an opponent's timing, you can break it. When you know when you're outside his range and when you're not, you have a chance to win.

Finally, after a couple of times through the four kata I asked them if they thought they had improved, many heads nodded. I explained that while all of them had many holes in their technique, taken as a group of 20 or so, they were pretty good. The majority of the group were doing every movement correctly at all times so if they were together in their timing, peer pressure was correcting movements better than I could by repeating endlessly what they've already heard. Post learning the dance steps and pre learning the theory and power, you just have to wear it into the bones.

The final thing I had to say to the group was that they had to cut harder. 2-dan is the peak of muscular cutting and you need to have that before you can get to the effortless cutting of higher ranks. I notice that I wasn't the only one to tell them to get some oomph into their cuts that day.

Moving to the junior group I wasn't really aware just how junior they were. Some of them had been practicing for a whole two weeks before coming to the seminar. Good for them! During the seminar they bumped their way through all 12 kata and I suspect most of them will remember most of the dance steps.

Yes I talked about dance steps again, and we made the last 4 kata into a memorization exercise without talking about all the little stuff that so delights me, put your hip here, now move it half a cm this way, see how much more power you have... Not for this group. We did a kata three times, waving our metal sticks around, then the next, went back and did both, then added a third, went back to pick up all three, then added a fourth... you know the drill. It gets you into the order of the kata and by the end of the class you're saying to yourself "yay I know this one" when you go back to pick up that first one... by pushing forward to new kata, the old ones "get easier". Stay with one and it never seems to get easier, especially if sensei keeps introducing new ideas just as you start to "get" the old ones.

The instructional day ended for me with a truly frightening introduction to Tachi Uchi no Kurai. Fortunately nobody lost an eye. Those who noticed got some personal koryu instruction from the other two instructors while I tried to ride herd on the guys running with sharp sticks.

The day ended with a nice iaido demonstration from Ohmi, Cruise and Carol Galligan sensei, and Pam Morgan and I did our usual promo for jodo.

Many thanks to the Hayakawa Kendo and Iaido club and especially Ron Mattie for organizing and also to the 50 plus participants, I hope you all had as much fun as I did.

March 18, 2013

The Kendo Federation and Koryu

A couple times recently I've been asked about koryu and the Kendo Federation, so maybe I should say a bit about it.

For those who don't know the situation I'll start at the beginning. The Kendo Federation was, not surprisingly, set up for kendo, it has loads of members, lots of school kids practice and lots of adults carry on into later life. Something that can happen with a bit more ease than perhaps basketball, but may be similar to, say, running.

Around 1968 the federation decided that it should include iaido, mostly so that kendo people would have a way to learn how to handle a real blade which would help their shinai kendo practice. Now my opinion is that the kendo people had the kendo no kata for that, so there was little need for iaido, but several highly ranked kendo people also practiced iaido and I suspect they figured being part of the kendo federation would help them pick up some students. In other words it was a bit of a scam and it worked.

The same can be said for jodo which arrived in the kendo federation through the Tokyo Police who studied Shindo Muso Ryu jodo and kendo as part of their training. There is no doubt that jodo has benefitted in numbers by being associated with the kendo federation, but I'd be hard put to say the benefit goes equally the other way.

Regardless of why, the federation now contains three arts. Kendo is the whole of itself, but for iaido and jodo a set of "representative forms" (seitei gata) for each was created. It's worth mentioning that "Seitei Iaido" and "Seitei Jodo" are the "property" of the kendo federation, they were created, exist within, and are used by the Federation for its own purposes. Anyone else using the sets is "borrowing".
Now the Seitei were not "invented" out of whole cloth, the iaido set was put together by a committee of instructors of various koryu. There are elements of many arts but mostly of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and especially Muso Shinden Ryu which is the main iai form of the Tokyo area. The Jodo seitei are very clearly taken exclusively from the Shindo Muso Ryu, especially as it is practiced around Tokyo.

So to the questions.

1. What's the grading situation for koryu?

There isn't one.

The kendo federation offers grading through the seitei sets, and does not have anything to say about koryu arts. This is somewhat complicated in that sometimes a koryu kata is requested in a grading. This was started, I was told, because the kendo federation sensei who also teach koryu arts, wanted to point out to their students that the koryu are important and should be practiced along side the seitei set. In other words, if you want to improve in the art you should do a koryu. But the koryu kata that are demonstrated in a grading are not assessed the same as the seitei kata in that same grading. The panelists may be from different koryu, and the nature of the koryu is to be non-standard, so one is unlikely to fail due to a "mistake in the koryu kata". The exception is the iaido 8dan grading which has two parts, 7 seitei and if that is passed, 7 koryu. Failure for the koryu section is common but don't ask me about the technicalities of this, I'm not a hanshi.

To reiterate, while koryu may be taught by kendo federation instructors, it is neither owned nor licensed (as in graded) by the kendo federation. You are free to practice a koryu of any type, or none at all. On the other hand, there may be sensei in the kendo federation who also teach and perhaps even offer licensing in the koryu. This is done outside the kendo federation, it is simply that one person can belong to two organizations.

2. If we practice iaido or jodo but not kendo, why are we in the kendo federation?

Because our teachers are there.

I'm tempted to leave it at that, because it's that simple. I am a member of the CKF because my teachers were and are members. If my sensei were to leave the federation I would have no further reason to stay. Similarly, the sensei we are connected with in Japan are members of the kendo federation and we would lose access to them if we were to leave the federation. To clarify, our Japanese sensei are highly ranked and active in the kendo federation, they would not want or have time to visit a group that was outside the federation. Not all sensei are that closely tied to the federation, and some sensei have separate koryu organizations before and especially after they retire.

Because students like to grade.

They do, they expect to grade and grading helps keep them in the arts because it provides a goal and a reference that allows them to assess their progress. Gradings can be done in the koryu certainly, and would be if we were not in the federation, but we are, so we use the kendo federation grading system. It's handy, well thought out and the seitei are very well described and taught in a consistent manner. A rank in one country is recognized in many. This is a handy thing for most non-Japanese countries who may have a limited number of highly ranked instructors. Any high rank can teach you valuable things in seitei.

Because students like to learn.

This means that you can learn from many instructors and that if your instructor were to retire or pass on leaving no successor, you still have access to another teacher. This happens in the kendo federation but, by definition not in the koryu. Koryu arts are about the line of succession, not about the art itself. If I lose my Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu instructor I don't shift to another, I start anew with a different sensei whose MJER may not be the same. Sure I'll be somewhat ahead but I would need to consider it a different art in order to do justice to my new teacher. With seitei I have the luxury of expecting that a new teacher will be showing me what my old teacher showed me.

3. So do we have a koryu grading system and organization outside the kendo federation?

No, we have our koryu teachers and we teach you koryu, we can tell you who taught us and you can tell your own students who taught you. There's no grading system because we already have one in the seitei. There's no great need for licensing to teach because it's already there in the seitei. For koryu you teach what you were taught if given permission to do so by your sensei. There's no particular need for a koryu organization because there's not much reason for any organization beyond keeping records on grades and collecting fees. The organization doesn't teach, your sensei teaches.

Hopefully that explains some of the relationship between the Kendo Federation and the koryu.

March 15, 2013

Face Time

There is a seminar coming up this weekend in Welland that anyone in the CKF iaido section who is planning to grade 4dan and above ought to attend. All three of the local 7dans will be there and you'll be in front of every one of them at some point in the day.


Consider that one successful 8dan candidate spent every weekend for the last ten years going to seminars around Japan getting some face time with potential panelists and other senior instructors.

Still too busy?

That's fine, maybe you are, or maybe you don't want to play the political game of being in front of the panelists, of "sucking up" to get a rank that you should get by merit alone.

OK let's talk about senior grades in any volunteer organization as a view from the top shall we? Why is it that the folks making the decisions might want a little sucking up, a little face time from the challengers to those top postions? It's not from a desire for ego stroking I can assure you. If you want doe-eyed admiration you teach beginners who can't believe they will ever be able to do what you do. Those who are long-term technicians aren't impressed with an old man's iaido, at least not in that sort of OMG way.

No, the challengers to the higher ranks are a bunch of hard-to-impress skeptics but we want to see them at seminars anyway. We want to see them for a couple of reasons:

First, we are at all these seminars we want you to attend. We have to be there for the art to grow and we want to see the art grow. If you're too busy to attend, who is going to be at the seminars when we're gone? Not you, so what's the percentage to give you the rank?

Because you're technically up to it? Sure, and for everything up to 5dan technique is what it mostly is. Beyond that you get into other, more complex things like knowing what the movements mean. That's the outside of the test. The inside, or should I say the bottom line, is that those at the higher ranks, 6-7 dan, are those who run/"own" the organization around here and even if that's not part of the "requirements" to pass, it's a reality. So we are supposed to hand over the art to someone we don't know? Someone who shows up at the test and does nice iaido?

If we have to... but be nice willya, show up and let us know you're a good guy, that you actually care and we'll feel better about giving you the rank.

But consider just a little bit further, how are we going to know if you understand the inner workings of the art, those deeper meanings that are part of the 6-7-8 dan ranks if we see you for 6 minutes and 5 kata at the grading? You may be an absolute wiz at the outside form but what do you KNOW? Can you teach it? Can you adapt it? Can you defend your iaido to us? We won't know any of that if you don't give us some face time.

Finally, think about whether or not you really want your next rank. I mean sure you want it, that certificate looks good on the wall and knowing you're that rank is a nice warm-fuzzy and you've put your time in, but what's it worth to you? Financially the rank costs quite a bit in Canada, highest grade fees in the kendo federation world in fact. (Amortized on a per-year basis, it's still not all that much by the way, think golf fees.) Thing is, the senior ranks don't get that money so don't talk grading fees at us, you can't "buy" the grade from us. In fact we likely spent money to be wherever you're grading, and we certainly spent money to get to the seminar you're not attending, (perhaps because you can't afford it).

Which is my point. We aren't paid and we very often don't have our expenses covered. Are you sure you want to, are you sure you can afford to, join our ranks? Passing into the 6-7 dan level means spending a lot of money, not spending time with your family, letting the housework and repairs slide, for many weekends a year.

If you can't afford to show up at all the seminars for the year before you grade for your 6dan, maybe you should consider why you are challenging for the grade. We want you to challenge and pass, we want you to come share some of the work and expense. Show us that you are willing to chip in on the work and expense by showing up to the seminars.

If you can't afford the time and money, or don't want to suck up, what's wrong with staying at your current grade? Seriously, your iaido doesn't improve with your rank, it improves with your effort. Your iaido is going to be the same a year after your non-grading as it will be a year after your grading. We don't get anything out of your rank if you pass and disappear again until the next one, we don't get the grading fees and we don't get your help so we aren't going to be upset if you don't challenge. In fact, without some face time we quite likely won't even know you're out there.

See you this weekend.

March 14, 2013

I've Always Wanted to Study Your Koryu

Ever notice that folks on the net talk a good game but don't practice? T'was always so. I can't tell you how many requests to take on an uchi-deshi I've had over the years (no I'm not going to feed you and clothe you while I teach you! I've got a family already.) I've had people become angry that I wouldn't tell them where their neighbourhood Niten Ichi dojo was. I had one fellow (one only mind you) return one of my instructional videos because "The production values aren't up to my standards" Hey my videos are me setting up a camera, starting it, standing in front of it and spitting out everything I know for two hours. You want pretty go to a movie.

You want pitiful? For several years we hosted the soke of Niten Ichiryu here in Guelph. The seminars were 4 days of solid training, cost a couple hundred Canadian dollars with a hostel that was $30 a night. In other words for a grand you could work your butt off with "the man" himself.

I lost a LOT of money on those. We're talking the sword school of Musashi, the Go Rin no Sho, what every kid wants to learn.

No there isn't any real interest in koryu which is why I recommend finding a good sensei down the block and practicing whatever he's teaching. Stop researching the history of old sword schools and start researching the man himself.

March 5, 2013

History, Growth and Splinters

Here's another tidbit of a post from the early 2000s I think, mostly about the history of Seidokai and growth of iaido around here.

"SDK really started in 1983 when I learned some iaido for a week from Mitsuzuka Takeshi sensei at an Aikido seminar in Amhurst New Hampshire I think it was. I spent the next couple of years devouring everything I could in the form of books (there were no videos) on the subject and practicing what I knew (5 Shinden kata) with a fellow student. That student eventually found Ohmi sensei in Toronto and we actually did the "waiting at the gate" thing before he'd let us practice in the same room. He had stopped teaching because nobody hung around long enough to make the distraction from his own practice worth his while. When the two of us started showing up regularly Cruise sensei joined us from Etobicoke and we had the nucleus of a group.

Around that time I started a photocopied "zine" called The Iaido Newsletter which had an anti-copyright notice on it, it said "photocopy and share this newsletter" and that's what happened, folks acted as nodes and it went all over the world to anybody with any interest. This was all in the interest of getting any information at all, and also to gather up all the groups I could find.

During this time we practiced a few more times with Mitsuzuka sensei, and I also invited Kanai sensei to do an Aikido and Iaido seminar in Guelph with the two clubs, that must have been in 1987 when SDK was officially formed.

Eventually Bill Mears found us in Canada after moving here from Britain, and through him we found the BKA and Haruna sensei. We sent Ohmi sensei over to practice one year, I joined him the next, and in 1991 we invited Haruna sensei to come to Canada (with Trevor Jones, Mano sensei, a Japanese sensei from Sweden whose name escapes me... was Onno sensei there that year?) At any rate, the seminar was held yearly after that, and we had many visitors who were readers of The Iaido Newsletter (TIN).

Along the way I picked up Niten Ichiryu and Jodo as arts and TIN morphed into the JJSA and eventually into EJMAS.com and Iaido-L. All ways to get in touch with people, spread information and serve as a place where folks of different factions can discuss the arts.

I have yet to make it to Japan. (Have since made it there once).

Why? Because I always figured it would be a lot more benefit to the arts here if I spent the price of my ticket and stay in Japan on a sensei's ticket to Guelph where instead of one student learning, we could have 100 learn. I'm copying all my old VHS tapes to DVD at the moment and I'm looking at the Kyoto seminar from 1997, I'm seeing a dozen or so of the senior Canadian students of iaido practicing in a gym in Kyoto, all of which practiced at the summer seminar in Guelph, so I'm happy with my decision.

A funny thing has happened over the last 5 or 6 years of the world wide web though. More and more discussion forums have appeared, which contrary to common opinion, have actually shattered and scattered the information flow. Each forum develops with 10-20 people who come to be the experts and to dominate the discussion, and we're back to separate little dojo struggling in isolation.

I'm also seeing more and more splintering over here in the west into the same factions that have happened in Japan. Instead of a neutral area where there were too few students for divisions (where we all studied under various sensei because we had to) we've now got all the ego posturing of a maturing art where it seems we have so many students we can afford to slag other folks and boycott their events.

So be it. I'm glad I came before that era because I got to meet a hell of a lot of great folks from all these squabbling factions. "The grannies all know each other" I suppose would be the idea. "

So what's happened since that post?

Well the splintering of groups has continued, and now the discussion forums have started to be abandoned for the new Compuserves and AOLs of facebook, linkedin and google plus. There are fewer folks discussing less and less. The number of koryu sword arts starting up in North America multiply like karate organizations, and there are so many seminars in our small area that we're finding it hard to choose a time to hold a Canadian National Championships of iaido without stomping on some other event. (Wherever it goes it will rob another event of people, perhaps something will need to be cancelled for a year.)

Yet the more things change... The Guelph Spring Iaido and Jodo seminar http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html continues to welcome everyone, I continue to finance it instead of going to Japan, iaido-l continues to exist, if in a sleepy state, and EJMAS.com is still slowly growing in size. So basically I'm doing the same things I was doing in 1987. Not a huge surprise to me I suppose.

You'd think with all that there would be a healthy growth of students, and I suppose there are more around than were here in 2006, but not that many more. Not only that but the 20 or so who supported iaido then with their pocketbooks have only grown to about 35 who support both iaido and jodo in this country. We do OK, having raised upwards of 5000 dollars in the last year and a half and spending almost 4000 on our various needs, but it would be nice to be able to leave the arts to the next generation with a stronger base. Well I've got a couple more decades to see that I hope, and some of that next generation will certainly kick up the growth once they are "let loose" by the old guard.

One of the problems with this mindset of "splintering" is that it assumes there's only one pie of a certain size. That ain't so, and healthy examples of how the pie as a whole can be made bigger, giving everyone larger slices, do exist. One example is the Thunder Bay martial arts community which got together to create enough of a base to get sports insurance for everyone. Another nice example is Peterborough where I was teaching last weekend. The arts in that area get together for demonstrations and events, and in the group at our practice I think there were at least 5 different dojo of various arts represented, all coming together to practice the Japanese sword arts. A few weeks ago I was in Calgary and Edmonton where folks from four or five small sword groups came together to practice, once again showing that it's possible to support everyone without worrying about "us and them". They send potential students to each other and sharing one teacher for a weekend across two cities (three hours plus drive apart) makes it an affordable community effort.

There isn't any slicing up of a finite pie, out of the pioneering group effort and mutual support of a few folks in the early 90s came this blooming of multiple arts we see today. If we resist the urge to go for exclusivity we will all benefit from a larger and larger pool of folks with similar interests. You don't have to convert from one koryu to another to support a seminar in your town, just go and swing swords together, have beers together, and send students to your crosstown "rivals" if they don't or can't stick at your place.

Seems simple to me, and it seems to have worked around here. Why not give it a try?

March 2, 2013

Learning From Books

It's a popular argument that you can't learn from a book, here's my take: http://ejmas.com/pt/2006pt/ptart_taylor_0406.html

Now, before you go too far with what I wrote please consider that most of my sensei have been with their sensei for decades, and they keep searching for new instructors (if they lose one) for their whole lives. There must be some reason for that.

Indeed I now very rarely look at books or other instructional materials, but I'm always listening to my instructors and anyone else I can find to teach me.

Books will take you to and beyond where most people get in the martial arts, but there are miles to go beyond that point. At a rough guess I'd say that after 5-6 years of training you're going to be beyond any books I've seen out there, but you'll come to the realization by then yourself that it's really the hours you put in that are teaching you, rather than the books and videos.

Here's a couple more articles that try to explain what a teacher does.


And what it feels like to lose a teacher


While there are stories of folks who have had a realization (been enlightened) by reading a book, and book learning has been highly respected in the ethical and philosophical community since forever, there is some really juicy stuff to be learned by being in the arts for 20 years. I'm not pulling one of those "old sensei" schticks when I say that I feel like I'm just now starting to understand this stuff. I really am, even while my physical abilities are starting to show some crumbling around the edges.

The 23rd annual seidokai spring iaido and jodo seminar is coming up this May 17 to 20 and it's a great chance to meet some of the top instructors from Japan as well as to get in touch with loads of fellow students from around North and South America.

See http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html for details and I hope to see a good turnout this year. If you intend to come, feel free to send in your registration, the tickets are booked and my credit card weeps, it seeps, it positively creaks.

March 1, 2013


As far as I can remember when I was in the grading pool of 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 (and put people forward for rank) until 5dan and you can't ever award rank by yourself.

I can't actually think of any other "real" grades in the arts aside from "teaching rank" and "licensing rank", although I can think of lots of combinations of the above, you can teach, you can teach and put someone up for a rank from someone else, you can give out rank up to X levels below yours...

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, 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 27, 2013


(From somewhere in the early 2000's when folks were worried about the combat effectiveness of iaido... unlike now in our more enlightened age.)

Getting rather interested in the idea of training with the intent to kill without actually killing, sort of reminds me of when I was 17 and 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 in such a way, 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 why I don't defend iaido's "combative effectiveness". I would very much prefer that any potential student who wants to learn how to kill people go to a "Real Kenjutsu school" where he will 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 to me by the way, I just tripped over something I wrote in 1990 or so which is on the exact same topic.

In any case, please, if you want to learn how to kill and maim people, avoid my sissy Seitei Iai 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 Seitei senseis.

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 in JJSA or on EJMAS. Photos would also be good.

I'm afraid I don't know anybody who fights with sharps though, sorry, but I can put you in touch with some guys who are using metal blades with dull edges who fight full contact and not infrequently manage concussions, broken and split fingers etc etc. It looks like a lot of fun and if I were 20 years younger I'd be right in there.

Feb 26, 2013


Bottom Up Teaching

Sensei learns a lesson

Everyone wants to know stuff, and everyone wants to share the knowledge that they know stuff. Some, usually the older teachers, even want to share the stuff they know.

This means that we get a lot of unwritten rules in the martial arts about just doing what you're told without asking too many questions. Shu Ha Ri, keep, break, leave... it means copy what you're shown or do what you're told, then break it down (maybe not the very instant you're show it, maybe try copying stuff for a class or two before you start explaining how it works) and leave (not leave and start your own martial art, but leave the copying behind since you have now broken it down into its basics and principles).

All these rules boil down to "shut up and do what sensei says", and we all know them. But why are they there in the first place? Isn't that sort of obvious? You're in class to learn, you may even have paid to be there, and there's the guy up there teaching. Seems to me the bright thing to do is to pay attention.

But it ain't so. Students gotta teach, they gotta say things like "you do it this way" and "in my club we do it this way" or "and then you can do it this way", or even "but if you do that I can do this".

Oh yes, bottom up teaching, where the lower ranks tell the upper ranks how to do it. I love it. It's especially common in arts where the belts aren't coloured so folks don't know what rank they're practicing with... what you thought the coloured belts were to help sensei sort out who knew what? He has eyes, he can see, the belts are to keep bottom up teaching from happening... and it does, it keeps it to "sideways" teaching.

Aikido is famous for bottom up teaching, I've been in classes where the room erupts in chatter the moment sensei bows and says "dozo". The students don't even bother to try it once before they're all telling each other how to do it. In any art the senior fellow should let the junior fellow do it first without too much trouble, that is, to attack at a level that's just a bit beyond what the student can handle easily. (Theoretically this lets him do it while sensei's demonstration is fresh in his mind). Of course this also results in disguising just how far ahead the senior is before the junior starts teaching. My usual response to kids telling me how to do the technique is to smile and nod and then do it like sensei just showed it. Just because I outrank the fellow there's no reason to slap his nose, he may be ADD and have to talk constantly, but I certainly don't have to listen. For those partners who outrank me and want to explain how sensei got it wrong, I smile and nod and do it the way sensei says to do it. If they stop me from practicing to explain some more I smile and nod and try to do it the way sensei said to do it once more, then they get to do it to me the better way and then I get to change partners.

Iaido is a bit tough for teaching upward, you have to talk really quietly because the art itself is quiet, sensei will catch your enlightenment of other students if you're not careful. Partner weapons classes like jodo, niten ichiryu and whatnot are a bit easier to chatter once you've got within earshot of your partner. Kendo is great, there's so much noise you can shout at your partner to tell him how wrong his last move was.

Fortunately, most folks only teach from the bottom while they're on the bottom. Once they start moving up the ladder they understand that quietly practicing is a better learning technique than cross-teaching something else. It's actually very very difficult to learn two techniques at once, remember that "in my club we do it this way" means "we'll try to do this two different ways at once shall we?".

Maybe Shu Ha Ri should be translated more like "copy it", "break it down and explain it to everyone else if you want...", "but leave if you start doing that".

Feb 19, 2013



That's a BIG stick

I began my martial arts career in Aikido and we started with weapons from day one. I've been around sticks and swords since that day over 30 years ago and I've got no problem standing in front of one of my students to take away a sword they've swung at me.

And therein lies the problem.

There's always a discussion bubbling along in the martial arts world about empty hand vs weapons. The kata exist out there, but with grave faces and great authority everyone says "oh it's a last ditch thing, desperation etc. etc." Then I flip the channel to utube and watch aikido demonstrations where some big sensei repeatedly takes weapons from his students and gives them back again, I watch giants of the koryu twitch their swords this way and that and come inside to throw their students. I watch karate guys boot sword-holding karate guys in the knee. It looks damned easy.

It is damned easy. With enough practice and a bit of "go ahead, try to hit me" attitude it's pretty easy to take swords away from your students. I do it all the time.

It's so easy that I'm tempted to say it can be done, and that's where sensei-itis needs to get a good shot of "really??"

So my advice to anyone who starts to think they can take a sword from a hostile opponent is this. Take a foam boffer, give it to someone who is not your student and ask them to stand in chudan in front of you. Now go take the sword away.

Problem? Of course. First, they aren't your student so they aren't trained to do what you want them to do, they aren't going to move in predictable ways. Secondly, they aren't going to move period, they aren't actively attacking so there isn't an opening. It's pathetically hard to move past a sword held in chudan to get to the hands, let along the body in order to take the sword away. Next, the person in front of you isn't afraid of you, you haven't hurt them repeatedly while taking swords away from them and they are holding a foam sword so they aren't afraid they are going to hurt you. They will jab you and hit you with abandon and a great big grin.

If you can take a foam boffer away from someone who is simply aiming the tip at your throat, waiting to cut or stab you as you try to move past that tip, you are a truly talented budoka.

So why do those kata exist? If it's impossible to take a boffer away how would you be able to take a real sword away? Are the old guys fooling themselves?

Budo isn't about more and more fancy techniques to do more and more tricky things to other people.

Give a live blade to someone who more or less knows how to swing it. Tell them that they have to wound or kill you. Now stand in front of them and wait for their attack. Oh, be absolutely uncaring whether you live or die, whether you lose a hand or an eye taking the sword away from them.

Now see if you can do it. If you're not there yet, you need more practice in paying attention to the fellow with the sword. Is he really as ready to kill you as you are to die trying?

A big part of being able to take a stick off your students is your student's reluctance to smack you in the head with a stick. Don't ever forget that.

Feb 18, 2013



They wait
eyes vacant
ears cocked
For the translation
Hungry for words
to place between what they saw
and what they do

Feb 13, 2013



Like a duckling
running back to mother
on a strange lawn

Like a kitten
exploring beyond the yard
constantly touching base

The kid keeps running
back to sensei
to check every point
every correction

No wonder nobody
will practice with him

Feb 13, 2013


Matsu Kaze

Pine tree in the wind
swaying to and fro

Always sticking in the nose
"nobody does it right"

So, will you do it?
Oh no, I'm retired

Feb 13, 2013


Foreign Affairs

Things learned
a long way away
are always better
than things learned at home

Best to share
loudly and often
all the things
they do wrong
at home

I dunno...
women in strange dresses
look much the same, undressed
as those back home

Feb 13, 2013


Team Internet Budo Police

It's late at night but I can't go to bed yet, someone is wrong on the internet!

Koryu Kops

It's human nature to want to be an iconoclast, I remember a physiology prof who told us undergrads all about the stupidity of other researchers in the field. We loved it and bought the fellow beer in the bar every night. Yes every night and he died of it eventually, but that's not the point.

It was a delight to know that we knew something special, that someone else was wrong. That was 1975, before the internet and certainly before discussion forums and facespace. Not much has changed except the vastly increased numbers of people who are privy to "special knowledge".

So it has never surprised me that there are dozens and hundreds of folk out there ready to defend the honour of this or that koryu from the fakes and frauds real and imagined. What does surprise me is that some folks never seem to grow out of it, even those who eventually find koryu of their own to play with. They still seem to want to go on patrol for other schools and other lines of practice.

No idea why really, you'd think they would find lots to bitch and fight about in their own lineage (that being almost the definition of a koryu some days). The thing is, no school needs anyone outside its own ranks to defend it from anyone. Most headmasters who have been around a few years have seen people come and go, the line splinter and perhaps even heal, and the outright fakes flare up and die away.

And they do die away. In the old days we had a few 'zines, letters and books to spread the light of knowledge. Today I think it would sometimes be a good idea to hide some of that light under a few bushel baskets. (Wow, I wonder how many folks, including my own students, have ever seen a bushel basket? It's a thing to be old enough that your "common sayings" are in an obsolete measuring system... well, supposedly obsolete in Canada at any rate.)

With the glare of knowledge that is Wikipedia and Facebook and Google Search I can't imagine that anyone would actually be in need of defenders of the many faiths who will search out fakes and frauds to expose. Ten minutes typing should be enough to expose all but the most recent pretenders, and ten minutes wait will probably serve for them.

OK you say, someone has to find the frauds in the first place so they can be exposed right?

Well, no. You see the prof up above there soon lost his appeal to me, right after I realized that opinion and speculation is not a substitute for research in the sciences. If I had a question about the textbook I could look up the original research in the library. I didn't need a guru to tell me about the folks who were wrong, I could look up the research and see for myself.

Same with the koryu, you don't need to be informed of all the fakes and frauds, you don't need to be warned away by third party folks, you can now look up the school itself on the net, or email an actual member, you can get it "straight from the horse's mouth". (Never could figure out what you got straight from a horse's mouth.)

So, be aware that there are plenty of folks who know all about the many koryu and also about the frauds, popular and sparcely listened to. Those folks have, over the years, learned to keep their own council and speak rarely of those who are pretenders. The pretenders rarely do any harm to the schools they (mis)represent, and if they do become annoying, the school itself has a huge stick it can use to smack them down. The internet is a mighty big stick and if someone needs denouncing, a notice on the website will be found within the next Google indexing cycle.

Go get a decent night's sleep and don't worry that someone on the internet is wrong. Have a good practice tomorrow.

Feb 9, 2013


Representative Does Not Mean Introductory

The Kendo Federation iaido set which we usually call Seitei Gata keeps getting called an "introductory set" and there are groups even outside the Kendo Federation which claim to teach it before they teach their koryu because it's a good way to introduce students to iaido.

It's a lousy way to introduce iaido. It may be the first thing that folks get taught but that's got nothing to do with seitei being easy to learn or suitable as an introduction. From a teaching point of view, you want an introduction to any art which presents a more or less basic idea and that builds on that in a methodical way so the students can more or less anticipate but certainly can accomodate the new information. Adult Learning Principles 101.

You want something like the first set of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (Omori-ryu) or Muso Shinden Ryu (Shoden). Something that presents Mae/Shohattto and then follows up with four more variations on that theme and that returns to it several more times. (Call these schools MJER and MSR so I don't have to type so much.)

Let's look at the setup of those two koryu carefully. First level you get taught the fundamental cuts, noto and footwork of the school in kata that assume a single opponent and mostly arise from a fairly easy way to sit. The second set (Eishin-ryu or Chuden) introduces a more difficult way to sit and some more complex ideas like working inside the sword distance using some basic ju-jutsu. It isn't until the final sets of kata (Okuden) that you see more than one attacker. (For a detailed account of the teaching methodology and meanings behind the kata check out my upcoming (as in I've got to get around to finishing it) new book on the riai of MJER at sdksupplies.com)

Let's go back to seitei gata and see what we can find there. Firstly we get the same introductory kata as in the two koryu mentioned, Mae (Shohatto). Then we get a variation, Ushiro (Atarito) for the second. So far so good. The specific style of practice is sort of Muso Shinden-ish but that's not much of a problem for someone who has done MJER. And number three? It's also from the beginning level of practice, but it's a rather difficult go no sen technique. It is a defence against a standing attacker who is cutting down on your head while you are still on your knees and still have the blade in the scabbard. Not an easy kata at the best of times. Then we come to number four, a multiple attacker kata from tate hiza. In other words, it's Okuden. We have jumped right past the middle level of practice and gone for the top.

After that we stand up and do six more Oku-iai kata which involve multiple atttackers, multiple directions, and finish up with one that requires we stand under an attacking blade that we have more or less invited and step back (without even using the blade to protect ourselves) at the last moment to avoid being cut.

This is not simple stuff, this is not an introductory set of iai, not unless you want to convince your students that koryu is some sort of dumbed down, slower to teach, version of Seitei Gata.

Representative Forms not Introductory Forms

Of course it's not. What we need to explain to our students is that Seitei Gata is a representative set of kata that samples across the entire koryu, all three levels, plus some bits and pieces from schools other than MJER and MSR, and then, that it stuffs some other things in there like four different chiburi in the first five kata (6 chiburi overall) as well as an opening etiquette from MSR vs. a closing from MJER just to mess everyone up.

In fact, we need to explain to our new students that Seitei Gata originally assumed a knowledge of koryu before starting it. Seitei Gata is something that should be done after learning koryu, after getting a good grounding in the techniques of one school or the other (MJER and MSR are big schools, the others which contributed bits to Seitei are much less populous). We need to apologize for forcing our students to first learn a set of kata that are not consistent, not simple and not easily learned because the way that testing happens is that they have to learn them first and fast to advance in rank. The students have 4 years or less between kyu and sandan to learn the techniques of Seitei Gata. From sandan to yondan they have another three years to start showing some more advanced ideas about iaido and I'd bet that most folks start learning koryu at about this same time. Up to then there's just no time to do anything more than learn the "dance steps", the raw movements of Seitei Gata, of some very difficult techniques.

Why consider testing in how we structure the teaching? Because new students like testing. They expect it, it helps them to learn and from the instructor's side, it keeps them in the class. If students didn't want to test, we wouldn't be offering tests. I certainly wouldn't at any rate.

So we've thought of tests as a reason why students learn Seitei first, any others?

Instruction, as in more than one instructor available to the students and the dojo instructors. Seitei Gata is representative, but it's also standardized, and any instructor in the Kendo Federation is supposed to be teachng the same things with the same principles underneath. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against a single sensei for anyone, and I have studied under the same iaido sensei since 1987 with no desire to change, but I have also outlived several other sensei during my career. They were lost to me well before I felt myself capable of carrying on their budo and I was most grateful to have had access to other instructors in the same organization. That sort of transfer is not always easy in a small koryu lineage outside an orgainzation. For the koryu within a larger organization, it's easier to switch, the sensei know each other, know you, and know the importance of not letting students go flying off on their own out of the lineage. Seitei allows everyone to work together before and/or without the complications of koryu lineage.

OK so why is seitei not set up with a more gradual teaching curve, or at least with a more consistent set of chiburi and etiquette? History comes into play here. The Kendo Federation had teachers from several koryu lines of iai when the techniques were formed, and accomodation (inclusion) was considered a good thing I imagine. It was also likely thought that if one was starting Seitei it would not be all that hard to learn, for instance, another way of bowing to the sword. At the beginning the idea that students would be starting iaido with seitei may not have been at the front of anyone's mind.

In 1968 Seitei Gata had 7 techniques, the first 7. So a mix of 3 intro level, one tate hiza (even if high level) and three standing high level kata would be quite reasonable. In 1982 three more kata were added to bring it to 10 total, the same as kendo no kata. (I have no inside information on what the committees were thinking by the way, I'm speculating here). Of course it's best to add to the end rather than try to insert kata in a set, and convention says that one does not go back to lower level practice once one has moved up the scale in a demonstration, so the added kata were from Okuden. When the last two kata were added a few years ago to bring the techniques to 12 they were also easiest added to the end, and also Okuden kata. Thus we now have a Seitei Gata with 3 shoden, one tate hiza and 6 okuden techniques.

Representative, yes, standardized, yes, but not introductory and certainly not simple.

Feb 8, 2013


Seminar Translation


The subject of translation came up the other day, as in we always need translators for the seminar along with the instructors. But what if you don't have one available?

One of the most distressing experiences for me at a seminar is to look around while sensei is explaining a point and seeing that many people are looking at the translator rather than at sensei. Not only that but if the translator doesn't seem to be providing every single syllable back to the students they start to look angry, like they're missing something.

They are.

They're missing 90 percent of the instruction because they're listening to the translation of the verbal explanations. Or as they more often are, the verbal noises that any instructor makes while showing the correct way to do something. The vast majority of verbal instruction goes something like "this, not this, like this, don't do this, do it this way, if you don't do it this way it's wrong. This is wrong, do this, not this"

You want some poor fellow to provide instantaneous translation of that stuff for three days?

Then there are the seniors in the class who look for ten seconds and decide they know what sensei is talking about and go to sleep. Now these guys don't annoy me so much as the ones who turn to some junior and start telling them what sensei really means.

1. Pay Attention

2. Don't Assume

I can't emphasize those two points enough, and as you will realize, they're the same point. Look at sensei, assume he's not just waving his arms around to provide you with a soothing breeze on a hot day. If you don't "hear" what he's saying you won't learn anything new.

So here are a few ideas on how to provide translation for yourself at a seminar, rather than rely on someone else to do it for you.

First, watch sensei unless the translator starts to go on for more than a few seconds. Watch sensei because that's where the real communication is happening. Second, listen to the translation with half of one ear. Only actually pay attention when your brain says "pay attention because this is helping with the explanation you're watching" or "this has gone on more than a sentence or three so maybe it's an actual translation of a point". You can get the hang of this. Third, if you can't hear the translation or see the explanation, get closer. If the room is very large and you are with a bunch of people who can't find their places in a gym after wandering off (so have been told not to wander) then stick your arm in the air and wave it and say "speak up please" to the translator.

But never mind that, don't rely on the translation, that's third hand information you're getting. Once in the translating, second in the speaking and hearing, third in your own translation in your head from words to actions. Look/Do instead, look at what sensei is doing and then do it. Don't translate it, don't interpret it, don't compare it to what you've done before, just look and do.

Some points to help you do your own translation

  1. Japanese body language and facial expressions are the same as yours. Head up and down means yes, back and forth means no. Frowny face means nnnooooo, smiley face means yes! Shrug means "I have no idea what you're doing but it isn't what I just told you to do". Hands waved back and forth means "you're not seeing through this foggy windshield". Forearms crossed or index fingers crossed means you failed, circle of finger and thumb means you pass, thumbs up means thumbs up.
  2. Ko means "this" "here" "look"
  3. Ko da nai means "not this" "not here" "look, this is wrong"
  4. Dame means "you are still stupid, that is still wrong"
  5. Iie means no
  6. Yosh means "finally, you got it"!
  7. What sensei is doing without talking is the correct way to do it. Pay attention. If he's speaking with a lot of short, sharp, downward inflected words and waving his hand back and forth or crossing his arms or shaking his head back and forth, that's the wrong way to do it. If sensei is too old or injured to show you the right way he'll say so and have someone else do it. If that someone else is the second or third most highly ranked person around, he's likely a good example. Especially if the demonstrator is another instructor or came with sensei from Japan. If it's the third dan next to you, it may be a good example or a bad example, watch sensei and he'll tell you which.
  8. If it's a junior level class you're not likely to be getting any secret oral instructions or philosophy, you're likely getting "this, not this".
  9. If it's a senior level class you might get some nice pointers verbally, it's likely that someone who speaks Japanese will translate this for you either at the time or later on so don't panic and get distracted from the next bit of instruction. Chances are that if you aren't the most senior student in the room you've heard it already anyway.
If none of this helps and you still don't get what sensei is talking about, ask a senior.
  • If they tell you to shut up, you're right, it is important, and hard to understand, and you should shut up and let the seniors try to understand it now so they can tell you later.
  • If the senior explains it in a couple of words, then it's done.
  • If the senior thinks it's a good question that deserves a longer answer he may ask sensei for you.
  • If the senior realizes it's something he's been telling you for months and you still won't believe it, he may actually ask sensei the question. Sensei may pause to frown at the senior and then proceed to explain things painfully slowly. This is not your senior being stupid, it's him taking some flack so that you can hear it from the big guy so pay attention. Seniors have been known to ask some pretty stupid questions just so you get a chance to hear the answer from someone you might actually believe.
Of course you can always ask sensei when he says "any questions"? But strangely, in my experience the guys who frown most at translators and pay the least attention to the sensei are also those who fail to ask a question when they are called for.

So there you have it, a crash course in translation without speaking a word of Japanese. If you want the actual translations or Japanese words of the few small sounds I've given you above, go to a dictionary such as this one: http://www.romajidesu.com/ or take a course in basic Japanese. I've always preferred watching rather than translating so they are doubtless "wrong".

Hey, if you get really good at it, we are always in need of translators.

Jan 28, 2013


What's Sensei For Anyway?

What's Sensei for anyway?
2012 Guelph Spring Iaido/Jodo Seminar
Photo by Heather Dunning

I'm not sure why that popped into my head but let's look at it. Now I want to start out with "sensei just means gone before" but when I give definitions like that I get feedback on how wrong I am so translate it as "some guy who is up front teaching" or don't translate it at all.

Before I get into a post on the difference between jargon, language and etymology let's make a list of what a sensei is for.

  • To teach me stuff
  • To organize a place where I learn stuff
  • To entertain me because I'm bored
Don't laugh at that last one. OK let's take them one at a time.

Did you blink at the idea that it's sensei's job to organize a place for me to learn? I did as I was writing it down, but consider:
  • To organize a place where I learn stuff
    • Find and rent a room
    • Build the dojo
    • Argue with the administration
    • Keep the financial books
    • Keep the student records
    • Keep up with current standards
    • Clean the toilets
    • Fix the windows
    • Install weapon racks
    • Unclog the shower drains
    • Kick out the dance class at 7:04pm
    • Remind the kids about the test next Saturday
    • Remind the kids again about the test next Saturday
    • Remind the parents about the test next Saturday
    • Explain to the parents why their kid can't test on Sunday
    • Sell me weapons, uniforms, bags, t-shirts and keychains
      • at wholesale
Martial arts instructors are rarely part of a larger body that pays for the organization of the learning. There aren't any dojo boards like the local school boards, at least that I've heard of. There are some franchizes out there with operating manuals and there are some largish organizations that try to keep standards .... standard .... but at the working edge of things sensei is supposed to organize a place where I can learn stuff.

  • To teach me stuff
    • Go through the curriculum
    • Get me past the test
    • Get me past the next test
    • Tell me not to get mad when I fail
    • Explain what he did wrong when I fail
Sure a sensei is supposed to take you through a curriculum, or several if you're in a dojo that teaches multiple arts, but what about all that test taking stuff? Your local school board has a hard time trying to figure out if their job is to teach to the test or teach to creative thinking. What's the right way to teach? The three Rs certainly, but so that Johnny can Read, Rite and Rithmatic or so that Johnny can pass a test? Simple is passing the test, and most folks like simple. It's measurable, (he passed the test) and so we can tell if "it's working". Tests, in budo or in Rithmatic, are there to show that minimum standards have been achieved. That's nice but I've argued before that tests don't measure where you actually are, or whether you are achieving your own goals. There's a whole other possibility here.

  • To teach me stuff
    • To be a better person
    • To be in control of my body and emotions
    • To handle crisis situations
    • To handle unexpected variations in training
    • To be creative
    • To achieve enlightenment
In other words, what sensei is for depends entirely on why you are standing in front of him. What's your reason for being in class? To gratify the old ego by passing that black belt test? To understand the one-ness of the universe by experiencing the one-ness of the dance between two people engaged in potentially lethal combat? I see a lot of argument from folks about what the budo are and what they're supposed to teach but the arguments say more about the speaker than they do about the arts themselves. Even sensei gets little say in what you are learning. Sensei just puts it out there and you take what you can from it, according to your receptiveness, reasons for being there, assumptions about the art and stage of development. There are kids who become theoretical mathemeticians after being taught Rithmatic in school, and there are kids who never understand that calling heads after a coin has gone tails 20 times in a row is no better than calling tails. We often learn despite rather than because of our educations.

It's easy to fall into thinking that once you pass one test you head toward the next, it's a direction, a goal, and let's face it, training in the martial arts is pretty directionless and pointless without those goals. The goals can also be "the next match" now that I remember that some martial arts are competitive. You can train for the championship. What happens to those who "get there", who pass that last test, who win (or lose) that championship? What then? There it is, we've arrived at the goal, what has been accomplished?

Which brings us to the final reason for a sensei:
  • To entertain me because I'm bored
    • I'm trying it out
    • I need some exercise
    • I need a distraction from my job
    • my wife
    • my kids
    • my dog
    • I like anime but my butt hurts from sitting too much
    • I want to preserve the ancient ways
      • even if the orginating culture doesn't
    • To meet guys
    • To kick ass at school
OK fill in every other lame excuse you've made or heard for being in class, including "my parents put me in here because it's cheaper than a babysitter". The martial arts are, in fact, best described as hobbies, those things we do which are not directly involved in feeding, clothing and sheltering ourselves and our families. All hobbies are done in the time that we have left over after doing the feed, clothe and shelter stuff, so they're done by choice as ways to pass the time. They're called pastimes for a reason yes?

Self defence? I've forgotten the one thing that brings most folks into the dojo? Not likely, but seriously, who needs a martial art for self defence and who thinks they're efficient ways to protect ourselves? From what? No, a couple weeks of training will do for any self defence benefits you get from budo, and self defence comes under "feed clothe shelter" anyway. Martial arts training goes way beyond self defence or basic training in the military, it goes past all that into hobbyland.

So what, at the end of the day, is the purpose of sensei?

One more reason to consider? Look at that photo again, there's Furukawa sensei from Tokyo teaching Brian from British Columbia and Guillermo from Chile at last year's seminar in Guelph.

Jan 25, 2013



Yesterday at practice we worked for a while on the iaido kihon I’m formalizing. Then we went to some kodachi seiho from Niten Ichiryu before we did a little jodo. All through the class I was raging on about posture, distance, timing and it dawned on me that it’s the same as ever. It comes down to basics, always.

I prefer Niten Ichiryu to Katori Shinto Ryu because Niten is simple, a single move.

I prefer slow short and precise kata to long fast ones.

I prefer seitei jodo to koryu jo because it cuts out most of the kata.

I would rather do kihon than kata.

In fact, I’d rather stand in front of a student and have them swing a bokuto at me while I step back and let it whoosh by a centimeter from my nose than just about anything else. It’s just a pure rush of distance and timing.

We finished class with a discussion of … hell I don’t know what started it but it got around to kata, kihon and randori. To explain, think of iaido, kendo and kihon. You can’t use a live sword in anything but solo practice, so you do kihon and solo kata. The first kata in my school is Mae, horizontal cut to the eyes followed by a vertical cut. Partner practice is with wooden weapons, think Jodo. Randori is kendo, full speed and freestyle, no preset moves.

First kata in seitei jo (partner practice) is Tsuki Zue, avoid on a backward diagonal, strike the wrist, cock a strike aimed at the eyes, strike to the head (hit the forearm again). This is where the discussion started. There are spaces, places where you pause so the opponent could get in right? He could do something else if you don’t do the next move fast enough yes?

So what’s a kata? It’s a way to demonstrate kihon. Kihon is a technique, cut down with sword, poke with jo, simple. A kata is a way to demonstrate how these kihon work. So Mae is a kata, it’s not a technique it’s a story with a big mistake in it, or a cruel person. Mae says you cut from the scabbard across the eyes of your opponent and then you cut vertically from head to groin. Think about this, to cut the eyes he has to be in seiza, he’s the same height as you and you’re cutting at your nipple height. The guy still has his sword in the scabbard and you’ve cut his eyes. You need the second cut??? Only if you missed the first one or you’re determined to kill him.

So a kata is an artificial construct to allow you to demonstrate more than one kihon in a row.

But it isn’t freestyle, it isn’t a mimic of real combat. For another attempt at that we go to the 400 year old practice of using armour and boffers so we can work on the timing and distance of working a real fight… we do kendo.

Where does kendo go over 400 years? To a very small set of techniques, to 4 or 5 strikes. To a full point for a single hit on the target… it goes to kihon.

Let’s go back to the jodo kata. It’s a big avoid and stop, strike to the wrist and stop, aim at the eyes and stop, hit the head/forearm and done. Now I could see where one might think all that stuff should be done without the stops, but kata isn’t freestyle. The stops in seitei are there for two people, the student and the teacher. Both of them better be seeing proper kihon at all times or the attacker will indeed be able to “get in”. How fast to get in? Go do some kendo to find that out. A twitch of a couple cm will let your opponent get inside your defence. Don’t talk at me about how shinai are lighter than shinken, if you touch that shinai with your own light shinai it’s not a point, yet points get scored. Now reaction times vs weapon movement times we can argue about but simply put, an opening is a bad thing.

In Tsuki Zue all those stops are potential openings, we need to close them up. If your posture and distance is right, if your timing of movement from one posture to another is in the right timing, if your kihon is correct, the opening isn’t there and your opponent can’t get in before you react.

Want reality in your kata, not this artificially prolonged set of moves (if you break your swordsman’s wrist after tearing the skin from his face from forehead to chin and slamming his solar plexus at the same time with the jo, he’s not going to be moving back to jodan is he?) go to a simple school like Niten Ichiryu. First kata there (Sasen) is to walk up and stab the opponent in the throat as he’s trying to cut you down. What’s the kihon for that kata? The kihon IS the kata. You work on distance and timing and there’s no need to dance around off balance, floating all over the dojo while you speed through crappy postures doing long kata, you do this kata really slow except for the place where he’s swinging full speed for your head and you’re moving out of the way while stabbing him.

It’s all kihon. The dozens of kata, the long kata, the hours and hours of kote men and kiri kaeshi, it’s all kihon. It all comes down to being able to hit a target at the right time in the right place with the right power. Even tameshigiri is just kihon.

So get excited the next time sensei says “OK kihon practice” and be disappointed when he says “today we learn another set of kata”.

Jan 21, 2013


Passing It On

Today I really feel it. All my instructors who have had to retire or who have passed on, and now I'm starting to feel that some of my longest-practicing students are having to back off. I looked in the mirror tonight and an old man looked back at me.

Sure I've got some new students, I always have new students and some of them are keen as mustard, but how much time do I have. I don't know, but I certainly don't have another twenty in me, not at the level I'd like to offer. I've got maybe six or seven I figure, and that doesn't seem like enough to produce the kind of students I am happy to say I produced a decade ago.

OK old men get depressed, it's true, but damn it, I can't lead from the front any more, I can't take more punishment than my students, and thus shame them into following me. I have to stand behind them and push.

It's not the same. Look I'll admit it, it hurts not to be able to show it, to know that I physically, that is, according to the laws of physics as applied to joints, can't show it any more.

To be specific, if I'm showing the class how to do an iaido technique, a new exercise, I have maybe two or three reps in me, then I have to use the seniors in the class to demonstrate. This is fine for the beginners, but the seniors, who are really middle level students who would never have been asked to demonstrate ten years ago, are not being treated well. They can't help but feel that they are exemplars, demonstrators.....  teachers. They can't help but feel they've "got it" since I'm asking them to demonstrate it.

It's not fair to them. Sure they are fine examples, as good as most of the folks out there practicing today, but that's not what I used to aim for.... better than most. I used to aim for the best and I used to get it.

I used to get it without pushing, without verbally thrashing them, I used to get it by showing them what was possible, giving them an example. Now I give them a headache with my whining about how they should do it instead of showing them how it can be done.

I probably need to just stop teaching and go work on my own stuff, hell these kids I'm complaining about are better at 4 years than I was at 14, the only thing they really lack is the instinct to drive through anything. What I can't.... no, be honest, what I don't dare show them any more. I used to go until something gave out, and then it would heal and they would acquire faith.

Now I've got one left, one drive through the limits, and then it's done. Is it the time? Do I do it to show these kids or do I wait until it's life or death for someone? Hmm, not much of a choice when it comes down to that.

My biggest hope now is that I've turned into a grumpy old man wingeing away about the old days when giants roamed the land, that my students will find that spark of insanity, of berserker rage that I found, to carry them through. That they will find it without me, like each generation of crazy people who rise to the top of the budo world find it despite their doddering old teachers... My biggest hope is that my ego is so big I figure they won't find it without me, and that I'm wrong.

Then again, maybe all I need is some dye for my grey hairs.

Jan 16, 2013


How To Be Sensei

There's lots of ways to be a martial arts sensei. One of the easiest is just to call yourself a martial arts sensei. You know, invent a school, invent some moves and set up shop. Along with this is usually some self-awarded grades or even a self-invented lineage that, if you're lucky, you can watch grow back in time. One fellow I know started out as a 15th generation grandmaster and was a 23rd the last time I paid attention. I think that as lineages around became longer and longer the poor fellow had to grow more ancestors just to keep pace.

That's sort of cheating (and by cheating I mean easy to spot), because you aren't "named" a sensei by someone other than yourself. So you can join any one of a dozen organizations that will be happy to take on another club with students in return for naming you as a sensei. Joining various rival organizations has actually become a rather traditional way to advance in rank. When you jump from one group to another, one of the incentives is often not just to recognize your current rank, but to award a jump in rank. By switching organizations every few months I watched a fellow go from shodan to 7dan in just a couple of years.

From self-appointed to appointed by a rival organization, we'll now talk about three ways to be named a sensei by your own organization. First is to know more than your sensei. I know of a couple of guys who learned for quite a while from their local sensei before going overseas to visit another sensei. When they came back they informed their sensei that the art had changed in the 30 years since he started teaching and that he now had to change a bunch of things. That local sensei's response was "no I don't" and the two fellows are now the sensei of their very own dojo with whatever rank the overseas sensei has given them.

The most boring of all ways to be a sensei is to go through all the years of training and organizational hoops, not to mention payment of fees to your organization, and eventually be named a sensei. Takes a long time and seriously, way too much hassle.

My personal favourite, and the one I recommend to everyone who is serious about learning the martial art is to lose the tontine. You end up as sensei when everyone who practiced the art in front of you has died or quit. I say lose rather than win the tontine because to someone who is in this stream of sensei development, making it to the top is not a reward.

How Not To Be Sensei

While this is sort of like death and taxes, very hard to avoid if you hang around long enough, there are some things you can do to prevent being a sensei. The first is to keep the incumbent around as long as possible. This means providing him with reasons not to retire (attentive and enthusiastic students tend to help) and not to pretend he's 18 when he's 68 (encouragement, for instance, by subtle hints not to do flying spinning back kicks off of high walls once he hits 50). It also means keeping an eye on him as he gets up there in years and helping out when necessary. After dealing with the rent, advertising, zoning bylaws and administration at the local community center for 20 years, sensei might be getting a bit sick and tired and a little help might be accepted. Trust me when I say that at least as many sensei quit the business out of frustration as out of bone fractures.

If the inevitable happens and your sensei quits (by getting frustrated, married, dead or bored) you do not necessarily have to step in. You can find another sensei, it's allowed and even encouraged in this case, especially if you're less than 70 years old (if you're older than that you might be told to "grow up" and start teaching whether you like it or not, but it's worth a try).

In your quest not to teach, you should not only consider those older and more highly ranked than you are. If there's some bright young thing who isn't too obnoxious and is more highly ranked than you are, give him a shot. It's usually considered acceptable to avoid the work in this way, after all if he was silly enough to accumulate the rank you can hardly be blamed for taking advantage of him. It's even more acceptable to go with a sensei who may have less rank than you do, but is older and more experienced. These guys are often around and they have earned their chops by figuring out how to avoid rank. Of course in either of these cases you should be looking at their ability to teach, rather than their ability to climb the corporate ladder or their inability to pass gradings. Remember if you're in this situation you're likely choosing for your whole dojo, not just yourself.

If you have a large organization, finding another sensei isn't all that hard. If you have to switch organizations it might be a bit tough to find someone who does exactly like you do, but try your best and continue to pay attention as you change your way of doing jumping spinning back kicks off walls.

If you don't like the guy who is just behind you, and you're getting a bit long in the tooth yourself, you could do the junshi thing and retire when your sensei does. This will force your junior to step in as sensei thus saving you from the job and screwing him at the same time. Double bonus.

If you have tried all the above and you still can't avoid the job, take comfort in the probability that you won't have to do it for very long.

Jan 14, 2013


Keep What You Got

When running a dojo one of the greatest concerns is keeping students, especially kids. The inevitable complaint is that they're not happy with their slow advancement. Now it does you no good to tell them that they are advancing slowly because they aren't paying attention and they still don't understand the basics. They don't want to hear that, they just want to get to the good stuff and they want to get "better" faster.

So advance fast, don't spend so much time on the basics, get them into the stuff they joined for and make them feel that they are moving along. Keep them learning new steps so that you never hear "are we there yet"? Of course you want them to learn the basics, but hide the boring stuff like a cod liver oil pill in their ice cream, make sure you emphasize the parts of the kata that best demonstrate the basics and do exercises that "will help them get the kata" at least once a class. In other words, show them where they will use the basics, and then show them how learning the basics will help them learn the kata.

Next you have to give them red-punch-buggies along the way so they have landmarks that tell them they are going on down the road. I'm talking about tests, lots of tests, the lower the ranks, the more the tests. Kids like passing tests so let them do it. A big part of the tests will be demonstrating good basics of course, but put in some fun stuff too.

While we're on the subject of fun, make sure the lessons aren't too serious, make sure the kids can horse around a couple times a class. It shouldn't ALL be yelling and smacking across the legs with shinai.

Jan 10, 2013


Monk On the Mountain

Monk on the Mountain
Nitobe Gardens, UBC Vancouver

It's easy to be a monk on the mountain. When you are away from women, the city, the internet, cell phones and movie theaters it's not too hard to meditate. It's when you get back down into the city amongst all the distractions provided by thousands of people that things get hard. As an example, just think about how many times you have wished you were somewhere away from it all so you could get some work done, or just think about things for a while. Yet we figure it's too hard to get away, it's too hard to go be an ascetic under the waterfall.

Seriously, we figure the guys on the mountain have it tough, but they are there because they know it's easier to be good while away from the rest of us.

My point? Admit it's hard and do it anyway. Find your time to meditate and improve yourself.

Make it as easy to do as you can.

How? Set a specific time, make an appointment. Sunday morning at the temple, Thursday evening at the yoga class, Monday evenings at the dojo. Do something that breaks you out of the city and puts you on the mountain, gets your mind quieted down away from your cell phone and tablet and all the other calls upon your attention. It's not too late, you can still tell a boss in this day and age that your priest/guru/sensei won't let you leave your cell phone on while you're in class. Give it another ten years of slippage and you'll be able to work on your laptop while you're at the opera but for now there are still a few places where you can be out of touch.

There are none so traditional in the budo as the young and the retired. Those who don't have families and nine to five jobs are our equivalent of the monks on the mountain, they can spend hours a day practicing, reading, soaking up the culture of the Samurai, worrying through the internet looking for heresy. The rest of us are happy to get our two or three hours a week visiting our quiet places and trying to remember what it was like to hear nothing but our own breathing. The monks ought to cut us a break, and we ought to be tolerant of those who have nothing else to do but be virtuous.

Which brings me to the point of it all. Why all this work on the self, all this "improvement". You have an idea of where you're going? What you want to accomplish?

The guys who want to be kick-ass fighter dudes, what do they want? Freedom from their fears?

The sweetness and light angels, the flow-ery folk? What are they after? Drug-less bliss?

Me, I'm with a lot of the other long-timers who actually don't have an answer to this, we're in it because we've always done it. It's "what we do". I'm happy if I leave a class with a little bit of sweat, a little bit of bliss and calm enough that I don't yell at the family the second I walk in the door. Having silenced the screams inside my head years ago, either by meditation, martial arts, or getting old, I've accomplished my original goal. I never strove toward perfection, I like my beer too much for that. Enlightenment sure, but not the kind where I float away on the universal sea of Jungian subconsciousness and one-ness. Just a little understanding.

Balance... a quite senior instructor was talking with me over coffee a while ago and told me the story of the monk who wanted to be perfect. When he finally managed to get rid of everything negative this monk realized he was a bit of a bore and not a little smug, lazy and lopsided. It wasn't worth it, all that negating the negativity.

We shouldn't try to be perfect, it's a lousy goal because we won't make it. Instead we should accept our bad points, examine them for what they are, where they came from, what we do with them. Our actions ought to be understandable to us in retrospect if not in advance. Once we know why we're assholes we can come into some sort of balance with it.

If we're on the mountain we can commune with the bluebirds and beam en-light from our eyes to illumine the woods, but in the world we have to deal with the rest of us and that needs balance. A saint will try to fix everything and just bring it to a halt, a balanced man will realize that we need the jerks in the organization as much as we need the nice folks, we need them because they stand on the other side of the bus so the thing doesn't tip over the edge and go plunging down off the mountain.

If nothing else, we need the jerks so we can point at them and say "don't be (so much) like that". We need the monks on the mountain so we can say "be (a little) more like that".

Jan 7, 2013


Iai-Jinx  So How Long Before I Can Start My Own Budo?

Less than you might think actually. Less than ten years in the case of the "big 4" post-war Aikido folks, at least according to Stan Pranin who wrote an article here concerning the practice and views of Kisshomaru Ueshiba (7-8 years), Koichi Tohei (2-3 years), Gozo Shioda (9 years), and Kenji Tomiki (8-9 years). All four of these instructors headed important and influential lines of aikido practice.

In the koryu, offhand I can think of Takaji Shimizu in the Shindo Muso Ryu jodo lineage who received Menkyo in 7 or 8 years practice. He went on to establish the jodo line in Tokyo after moving from Fukuoka.

I'm sure there are many people who have received "full transmission" or who established well-regarded lines of their art within ten years of practice, and many more who have started their own art after less than ten years of practice, and have had that art passed along to further generations of students.

So what's all this hooey I keep hearing about needing 20 years practice just to be qualified to teach? Laziness I suspect, a way for students to explain why they haven't got it after ten years practice. After all, how many years study does it take for folks to allow a surgeon to root around in their bodies? I spent ten years in University but got two degrees and several years work done. No, ten years is plenty to learn the mechanics of any martial art, and certainly enough to be able to teach it competently.

What takes 20 years is something else, it's the time it takes to soak the techniques in far enough so that once age catches up with you, you can do all the tricky little things that let you keep hitting the youngsters over the head. "Old age and treachery will always beat youth and skill" or so they say. I dunno, I've met plenty of treacherous old men in my time and unless they were once young and skillful they aren't hard to beat. No you need that ten years of practice to be good enough to start your own budo, then you can start working on the old age and treachery, that takes another ten I figure.

Now, if you want to know what it's like for a "ten year guy" to be standing beside a "20 year guy" consider this clip of Keith Richards playing with Chuck Berry. You don't see the "conversation" in a partner kata from the outside but you can get the flavour here. Nothing wrong with Richards' skills but Berry owns that song like a senior sensei owns the art.

Jan 5, 2013


Nobody is Untouchable, Especially Not Sensei

This is a response to comments on a youtube video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CepWtEO3RCE

The question is whether or not a 7dan is untouchable, and cannot be criticised by those of more junior rank.

A 7dan is absolutely not untouchable. In fact, part of being that rank is the responsibility to put it out there any time you're asked, and you have to.... no you WANT and NEED to take any critique you receive to heart. (Unless you're really lucky, at 7dan here in the West you're pretty much on your own and need to get your corrections where you can.) I'm pretty far up the ladder in my country so I am one of the folks who must provide a model for the rest of the people in my federation. If you can't show it, it's very very hard to teach it, so you have to show it and I have been doing that for a lot of years. I'd like to think that I have no more ego involved in my performance after all these years but I would be lying. I do, however, expect to be critiqued whenever I demonstrate and whenever anyone looks at my videos. I'm fine with that... the ego part comes in when I have to overcome some knee-jerk resistance on my part to say "hey, I'm a 7dan whaddya you know?" That lasts for about ten seconds until I remind myself that anyone with even 3 years of training can tell me if I'm doing something wrong. If they can spot it, I need to work on it.

There are loads of people who don't want videos of themselves on the net because they are unsure of their abilities, I'm fully sure of my abilities and certainly sure of my shortcomings. Some specific comments on the circumstances of this video. This demonstration was one of the first times I had been able to get almost into seiza for 6 months, you'll notice I get up and stay up as fast as I can. As I mentioned in the video my knees and also my shoulders were recovering. They continue to be less than they once were, but I gave my best because I was beside my instructor and because I was in front of our students. If you look at the sequence of kata you'll see I mixed ZNKR and MJER incorrectly, and was generally not doing a good job. To put it bluntly, until the adrenalin kicked in near the end, I was in serious pain. No excuses, when I came off the floor I asked my student how bad, and was pleased when she said "I wouldn't have wanted to be under your sword". When I saw the video I was delighted I didn't look as bad on it as I knew I was.

So there is a lot there to criticise and I am delighted to invite anyone who views the video to include their critique in the comments. I did a job I'm happy with that is nonetheless full of things that can be spotted and critiqued so please, ignore my rank, ignore the reason for the poor form, and get to work on what you think is less than ideal. This will help both me and yourselves because a big part of iaido and similar arts is to look at your sensei and decide what's good and what you should be ignoring because he's injured or has bad habits or is hung over or whatever.

My students have no hesitation telling me what they think is wrong. For those who are not my students, you should feel free to critique a senior who has asked you to do so, knowing that you are showing no disrespect.

As to the comments on timing, I take them seriously and will be working on them so thanks.

Jan 5, 2013


The Japanese Sword...


Is the best sword ever made
Is the strongest sword ever made
Has a million folds
Is strong because it has a million layers
Is the only sword with a hamon
Has a blood groove which makes it stronger
Has a full same wrap

Magical thinking

Is quenched in blood or has blood forged in or must taste blood if it's drawn
Is the soul of the samurai


Is sharp enough to cut through cement
Can cut through a machine gun barrel
Will cut a silk hanky dropped on it
Can chop through a body from top to bottom
Can thrust through four bodies
Will never break
Only needs sharpening once every hundred  years
Can only be polished by a licensed polisher

Using it

Was the primary weapon of the Samurai
Is easily defeated by a wooden stick
Can be taken away by a good fighter (Muto dori)

Ugh, I started writing a blog post concerning this stuff but made the mistake of heading off into the net to look for myths and now I'm all depressed.

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OK after spending the afternoon in my shop working with the power tools it finally struck me what bothers me about all the noodling around about Japanese swords. They're tools that became fetish objects and now I use them as tools, but all the fetish thinking remains.

I don't go on about my table saw, where it was made and how old it is, I just use it... But there are those who do natter on about that stuff.

I don't really care what camera I'm using, but there are those who can tell you the exact specs of the one I use off of the top of their heads. For me it's enough that it does what I want it to do... mostly.

I can't tell you what fittings are on my sword... actually I can guess because I just cleaned the tsuka, there's catfish menuki and it likely has a sea cucumber tsuba (they almost all do). I can tell you about the balance and length of the thing.

I can tell you that my tablesaw works a treat but the blade needs sharpening and most of the safety things like a magnetic switch have gone away over the years. I can tell you of a bunch of things I'd like my camera to do (which would not be hard for the company to include but they won't) and a bunch of stuff I think is just useless (but it sells cameras to the punters so it will stay).

Tools should be useful and durable to the job they're designed for. There's no need to start talking about a band saw that can cut through a lamp post or a camera that can take a picture of the back side of the moon. Why even worry about the function of the "blood groove" on your sword if you don't plan on sticking it into a body any time soon.

Jan 4, 2013


Keep the Broom Handy

I'd sweep the floor in my office more often if the broom was more handy than where it is in the kitchen closet which is buried behind boxes and plastic bags. I have to move all the junk and then open the door and hope the vacuum doesn't fall out while I try to dislodge the broom and then find the dustpan which always falls down behind the vacuum. By this time I've got a sore back and usually just close the door and go with using my sock feet to kick the broken potato chips on the floor around my chair under the couch.

I sweep the shop a lot more often since the broom is usually right next to the sawdust and the dustpan is hanging on the post over the dust bag.

In other words, make it easy to get a job started and you're much more likely to get it done. The same is true for your budo training.

I get a lot of questions about where to find Niten Ichiryu or some other specific koryu, always in the hope that there's a dojo next door but "never mind that, what's the nearest one, I'm willing to travel". Unfortunately I never get asked who the best, closest instructor is and where he lives.

The second one is much, much easier to answer than the first, even if I don't know. Just do some research on martial arts in general and then go visiting. Find the best instructor who is handy to you and practice whatever art he's teaching. Keep the broom handy, don't use the one that's a three hour drive away, it may actually be nicer looking and may even fit your hand a bit better, but the one that's handy is the one you're going to use regularly.

Looking for a specific budo to practice without having practiced it is not an efficient use of your time. The koryu aren't in competition with each other... not the arts at least. Of course individual instructors have as much ego as the next person and will extol the virtues of their art and the reasons for you to study at their feet, but at their core, the arts (and the instructors) really aren't that different. (Students are even worse for suggesting their art is the best but that's to be expected isn't it?)

Don't look to study Niten Ichiryu because Musashi was the baddest duelist ever, study it because it's across town. Don't look to study Katori Shinto Ryu because it's the oldest and it's famous, study it because you just met the local instructor who seems to be a solid, friendly guy who knows what he's talking about.

And who says you need to study a koryu anyway? Once you get past the history and a slightly different teaching method you are likely going to get as much out of a judo as a Tenshin Shinyo Ryu class.

Just start sweeping, do it well and often and if, after a few years you feel the need for a broom with a different shaped head or a special curve in the handle, then you can make a better decision about heading off to spend a tank of gas fetching it.

Of course one of the best brooms made is just down the road here in St. Jacobs. Look at the lush thickness of that head. Think of the dust you could shift with that baby.

Hamel Brooms
Hamel Brooms, in the Blacksmith Shop.

Jan 3, 2013